Driving in Colombia: Avoid Fines and Bribes

in How-to guides/Plan to stay/Plan to visit/Safety

I have a Colombian friend who had her car taken by the Transito in Cali. She was with her daughter when she got pulled over. Her car insurance was expired by 2 days. She begged the officer permission to go around the block to renew her insurance. When she came back her car was gone and never recovered again. El Transito denied having ever been at the scene.

Central and South America are notorious for their corruption. When I was riding my motorcycle from the United States to Brazil, I remember that few things were more intimidating than running into a corrupt officer from the police, border patrol, customs or military. On a trip like that it is impossible not to stumble upon corruption, but with time you get better at managing the situation and leaving it without paying. Honduras is no-doubt the most corrupt country I have encountered in Latin America and as a rule of thumb, it gets easier the further south you go from there. That being said, Colombia also has plenty of corruption and the one you are most likely to be confronted with is related to traffic offences.

Check-points or retenes as they are called here, are scattered all over the country. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that Colombia is still in the middle of a civil war and even though it does not affect most people or tourism here, I think it is worth knowing that Colombia has more than six millions internally displaced persons, the second-highest number in the world, only surpassed by Syria. Other reasons which include trafficking of drugs and weapons are interrelated to the civil war. Final reason is that many Colombians are not very good at following protocol, which gives the government a chance to fill their treasure chest with money from fines.

Be aware that every time you get pulled over in Colombia, the authorities are looking for mistakes in your paperwork. Most officers, whether from the police, transito or military earn minimum wage here. Imagine supporting a family with several kids on a Colombian minimum wage and you’ll quickly realize that the officer may not even be interested in giving you a ticket – he’d prefer to make you give him a “tip” to let you go instead.

I’m no fan of paying bribes but at the same time I’ve done it several times. In certain situations it makes more sense to pay the unethical bribe, than letting an officer confiscate your car, which they will do if for instance your insurance has expired. Good luck getting it back.

Before getting to the list of things you’ll need to stay out of most trouble, you must understand that in Colombia there is a hierarchy of corruption starting with the police, who are by far are the most corrupt, then El Transito who are somewhere in between, and finally the military who are usually pretty good guys.

Stereotypes exist and depending on what box they put you in, you’ll either be waved off with a smile or get a physical pat-down and your entire car searched. If you ever get pulled over by any officer in Colombia, the best thing you can do is be polite and never give them a reason to mess with you. I always roll my windows down, smile, greet them (¿Buenas tardes señor, cómo le ha ido?) and have all my paperwork ready. The documents that you need for driving a car in Colombia are the following:

Cedula or passport

By law you always need to carry an ID in Colombia. If you are a tourist then your passport or a copy of it is fine. If you’re a foreign resident, you’ll need to show your local ID, the cedula de extranjería. 

Drivers license

Again if you are tourist the drivers license from your home country will be fine for the duration of your stay. If you are a resident in Colombia with a cedula de extranjería, you will need to show a Colombian drivers license. To learn how to get one, click here.

Some might argue that you can always negotiate your way out of not having a Colombia license, but according to insurance giant Sura and article 25 in the Colombian traffic code you will need a local license if you are not a tourist nor in transit. So why give them a chance to bother you?

Matricula

Is the cars title, stating what brand your car is, year, model, license plate, chassis number, color and who is the owner. It also tells you if the car has any liens against it. It does not matter if you are the owner or not – what matters is that the driver has the matricula with him/her while driving.

SOAT

Is short for Seguro Obligatorio de Accidentes de Transito or and means mandatory insurance for traffic accidents. This insurance covers ONLY human corporal injuries and NOT material damage. Consider it your health insurance for the road but nothing else. If you bump into someone on the road and none of the involved parties have any additional coverage, you or they will be personally liable for any damage caused. Please note that most Colombian vehicles do not have any additional insurance, which often leads to very heated arguments in the middle of traffic.

The SOAT is sold on almost every corner in the bigger cities and it’s cheap so there is no excuse not to get one. It is valid for one year at s time and does not renew automatically, so set your calendar with a reminder the week before it expires. Please note that this insurance is also required for tourists traveling in vehicles with foreign plates on temporary import permits.

Revisión Técnico Mecánica

Vehicles 6 years and older need an annual inspection called Revisión Técnico Mecánica, where brakes, lights, emissions etc. are checked. The places that perform these inspections can be a little harder to find, so do your research online before heading out.
If your vehicle is a commercial vehicle like a bus or taxi, this inspection is mandatory when the vehicle is more than two years old.

Like the SOAT, this certificate is valid for a year at a time but does not renew automatically, so set your calendar with a reminder the week before it expires. This permit is not required for vehicles on temporary import permits.

Pico y Placa

Because the infrastructure does not support the overwhelming amount of cars on the roads, all larger cities in Colombia have imposed a system known as pico y placa to regulate the busy rush hours. According to the last digit in your license plate, there will be between 1 and 3 days per week where you can’t use our vehicle during rush hour in the inner city. You’ll have to verify what rules apply in your city. For Cali pico y placa applies once a week for all private cars, from 7-10 a.m. and again from 5-8 p.m. They switch the digits around every 6 month, so make sure to stay updated. Also, ignorance of the law is no excuse, so make sure to check up on digits, city limit and hours of application before make cross country trips and arriving in a new city with your car.

As of January 2015, failure to comply with pico y placa in Cali is fined with $322.170 pesos – the equivalent of 2 weeks work for people earning minimum wage.

Pico y placa does not apply to cars with foreign license plates and local motorcycles are also exempt to this rule.

My estimate is that if you have the above 5 documents in order and with you, obey traffic regulations and remember your pico y placa you will have eliminated 98% of all potential problems when dealing with the authorities. If an officer is giving you an unreasonable hard time, ask to see his capitán. Offer to follow them to the station if necessary. I’ve met very friendly and understanding superiors who were happy to let me go with a warning. Worst case tell them to call the embassy. That usually calms them down.

PS. If you are passing through on a temporary import permit, it is important that you also bring that with you at all times.

Godspeed!

Passed through Cali for the first time in 2011, on his way from the US to Brazil on a motorcycle. Ended up kissing a caleña on his last night and the rest is history. Has been a resident of Cali, Colombia since 2013 and currently living in Barrio Bellavista with his girlfriend and 2 daughters.

4 Comments

  1. This isn’t entirely true. I am here on a work visa for 2 years and my Washington State license is good enough, even with motorcycle endorsement. According to Article 25 of the Colombian Transit laws (look it up) your US license will suffice until your CE expires. I get stopped all the time on my motorcycle AND in my car and have never had an issue. I keep a copy of Article 25 in my wallet in case of a shakedown, but have never had to pull that card.
    This might be different if one is here on a marriage/resident visa, but I have a US friend here on a resident visa, drives his mini-cooper all over the place and again, never a problem.

    • Hi Adam,
      Thanks for reading and for taking your time to comment.
      I’ve had lots of bump-ins with the Transito in Cali for not having a Colombian license and since I live here permanently I finally decided to get one. Since getting a Colombian license I have not had any trouble whatsoever. But to clarify, here is the writing from Article 25 in the Colombian Transit law: “Licencias extranjeras: Las licencias de conducción, expedidas en otro país, que se encuentren vigentes y que sean utilizadas por turistas o personas en tránsito en el territorio nacional, serán válidas y admitidas para conducir en Colombia durante la permanencia autorizada a su titular, conforme a las disposiciones internacionales sobre la materia.” – Translated to: Foreign drivers licenses, that have not expired, are valid and admitted for tourists and persons in transit, for the entire duration of their stay.

      So please read again and note that “en tránsito” does not mean in traffic, but refers to people “in transit” or traveling through.

      If not, then I’ll have to get the money back from my Spanish classes 🙂

      Best, Patrick

  2. If you are not white then there are a lot more problems. Many Latin Americans discriminate against my in-laws because they are Asian. They understand Spanish but have strong accents. It leaves many officials with the idea they can easily take advantage of them in Columbia. They didn’t let my wife through customs even though she had all the proper paperwork. As much as I enjoy Latin culture and cuisine, their intolerance, and machismo is deterring. It makes me Thankful I am a US citizen.

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