Colombia is quickly rising as one of the world’s top vacation destinations. From the jungles of the Amazon to the beaches of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, to the coffee farms in vibrant towns, and the innovative cities in between, Colombia is a dream destination for nature lovers and adventure travelers.
Before you head off, here are some tips you should follow to fit in and understand the rich culture of Colombia.
From hip hop beats to tropical sounds, Colombians love a good time, which almost always means playing music. The music doesn’t just come blaring at night from bars, but during the day from the restaurants, cabs, and stores. There are some genres Colombia is most fond of. If you’re in Medellin, don’t be surprised if you hear tons of reggaeton, with the city being home to many rising stars. Vallenato may come from the coastal city Valledupar, but it’s popular nationwide, combining an upbeat sound with traditional elements with lyrics about love or heartbreak. Elsewhere, Cali is known as the “salsa capital.” Salsa music can be heard from every corner and the locals really know how to move. Be sure to try out salsa choke, a local twist combining the classic tropical beats with urban beats.
When in Colombia, there are some dishes you absolutely need to try. Of course the classics, like a freshly fried empanada, a hot bowl of sancocho, or an arepa right off the grill with cheese need to be sampled. But then there are the regional dishes. A typical lunch on the coast will usually include fresh (cooked) fish, coconut rice, and patacon, a mashed up fried plantain. If you’re in the Narino department, the local delicacy is cuy, or guinea pig. In Bogota, ajiaco, a soup with chicken and three types of potatoes, is a popular way to fight the cold. And in central parts of the country, like Medellin, hot chocolate isn’t just a kid’s drink, despite the delightfully warm climate. A typical breakfast will usually come with a mug of hot cocoa and a slice of cheese to dunk in.
Colombians pride themselves on how they look. Women love to dress up and men will have a neatly pressed outfit on. Colombians can often spot a gringo from miles away with the signature cargo shorts, baggy t-shirt, and flip flop combo. While this may be a fine outfit for the beach, in a city like Medellin or Bogota, you’ll appear underdressed. Not to mention, in Bogota you’ll be freezing in shorts. Make sure the clothes are clean and neat when you go out.
Colombians are very conscious about hygiene as well. In fact, don’t be surprised if you see Colombians bring an extra toothbrush to work. As a backpacker, try to throw on some extra cologne or perfume during the day, brush your teeth a few times if you need to, or do what’s necessary to keep yourself fresh.
4. Practice Spanish
It’s a must, even if it’s just a few phrases. In big cities like Bogota and Medellin, you might be able to get away with not speaking Spanish, but in small towns or more local neighborhoods, you won’t get very far. Be sure to learn some key phrases — “Donde queda…?” “La cuenta, por favor“ “Una cerveza, por favor” — and many other useful words that can help you out on your day to day adventures.
If you already know Spanish, keep at it! Speaking with native speakers is truly one of the best ways to improve and Colombians generally like hearing foreigners practicing their language.
Wherever you go, check out a language school. Medellin’s Colombia Immersion in Envigado and Laureles, hosts language exchange nights and classes at various levels during the week. Their emphasis is on being outside the tourist bubble, giving you more opportunities for complete immersion and an authentic taste of Colombian life.
5. Perception of Time
Welcome to Colombia, you’re running on Colombian time now. Like people in much of Latin America, Colombians tend to have a very relaxed view of time. If you’re from a Western country that’s more rushed, this can be a huge change. If you make plans with a Colombian, and they show up a little late, don’t worry about it Though generally speaking somewhere after 30 minutes is considered late even by Colombian standards. There are three words you need to learn. Ahora or ahorita translate literally to ‘now’, but they’re more like “nowish” as in, in a few hours or later in the day. If something is happening right this moment, then it’s “ya mismo.”
Colombians live for soccer or futbol. Any game, no matter how big or what team, every bar will be decorated, everyone will have their shirts, and you’ll hear the cheers and air horns from every corner. The cities have major teams playing in various leagues, meaning you’ll have plenty of chances to head to a stadium and check out a game. Barranquilla is not only a destination for the carnival, if you are there you may even get a chance to see the Colombian National Team play.
7. No Dar Papaya
There is a saying in Colombia that goes “No dar papaya”, literally translating to “don’t give papaya”, but means something along the lines of “don’t give the opportunity” for a crime to happen. Just because Colombia has transformed doesn’t mean there is no danger. Parts of the country are still affected by the conflicts, and parts of major cities are still run by dangerous gangs — but not much more than many other parts of the world. If it’s something you’d be too afraid to do at home, why do it in Colombia? If an area looks unsafe, it probably is, and you shouldn’t go. Don’t flash around expensive phones or wallets, use common sense, and you shouldn’t find trouble.
If there’s one topic you should be sensitive with, it’s Narcotrafficking. Yes, the country has a reputation, but Colombia is not what it was in the 1980s, and the people do not want tourists arriving to try drugs or glorify Escobar. It’s important to remember Colombia has made an incredible transformation.
Rather than do the Pablo Escobar tour or try the drugs, take the time to really visit the country. Colombians are proud to show off their home and what’s more, you’re not funding groups that can be extremely violent.
That said, by avoiding the topic entirely, you won’t fully understand how far Colombia has come and what the people have been through. If you’re in Medellin, head to the Casa de la Memoria, dedicated to sharing the voices of the victims. Bogota’s similar Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica houses archives and documents to preserve the memories of victims.
Rebecca is a recent DC college grad who left the city of eternal brunch for the city of eternal spring to become a content writer at AllTheRooms in Medellin, Colombia. Likes include puppies, hiking, books, and fighting injustice. Dislikes include spiders.