Learning about new cultures often means discovering subtle but important differences in everyday behavior. If you’re recently arrived to Medellín, you’ll not only have to get your head around the language, but also the culture, the norms and customs that you encounter every day in the streets. Below, we have assembled a number of tips and tricks to help you cope with the most important cultural tips that’ll keep you savvy as you get used to life in the Aburrá valley. Coming to grips with these will have you feeling settled and on the path to full immersion.
1. Greet with a Kiss
Colombians are incredibly friendly and will introduce themselves if given the chance. Knowing the correct greeting is important when getting started to get you off on the right foot. Men shake hands and,if they are closer, may venture to an abrazo- a “man-pat” on the back. Women typically grasp each other’s forearms and use un beso (“kiss”) on the right check for more affectionate encounters. Men and women similarly employ un beso for greetings. When shaking hands people usually make reference to the time of day e.g. buenas tarde (good afternoon), buenas noche (good evening/night).
2. Pants, not Shorts
Getting your dress wrong is a sure way to stand out as a gringo. Despite an average annual temperature of 75°F (24°C) most paisas wear jeans or long pants year-round. This fashion has changed somewhat for women in recent years for whom skirts, shorts, and dresses are more than acceptable, but the local men still opt for jeans. If the weather is too much for you, by all means stick to the Bermuda shorts and sandals, but don’t expect to blend in.
3. Flag ‘em Down
Medellin offers an impressive transport network at just the right price. With a competent metro system, an army of small yellow taxis, and an ever-expanding cable-car network, you won’t be short of options. Then there is the bus service: in Medellín, busses runs regularly and use a flagging system with no fixed bus stops. To use the service, simply stick out your arm on any corner when the bus approaches. What’s more, you can usually pay after having a seat, so no more scrambling for change after chasing the bus. Using the metro is also quite easy: you can pay cash or buy a rechargeable card, and can even purchase integrado tickets which give you a bus-metro combined ticket for only 2500COP.
4. Yes, drink the tap water
“Don’t drink the tap water” is one of the biggest tropes on the tourist trail in Latin America. However, when it comes to Medellin there is no need to fret: the Aburrá Valley provides Medellin with a constant supply of fresh drinking water on tap. Arming yourself with a reusable plastic or aluminium bottle will enable you to refill on the go, saving you time and money. For those who insist on it, bottled water comes cheap too (~2000/3500 COP from a shop or restaurant). Despite the plentiful tap water, local authorities may ask at certain times that you limit your water consumption due to drought impacting the reservoir.
5. Ask; Don’t Tell
Chances are if you are visiting Medellin, you will be aware of the history of this city and its resilient people. The question remains: are these topics are acceptable parlance and, if so, how they should be approached? Well, Colombians are of willing to give their opinion on their country’s chequered past to those with whom they have a good rapport. The best advice is to proceed with sensitivity and be conscious that many paisas have been directly impacted by the violence. Don’t forget that locals prefer to focus on the progress the city has made in recent years. Though many outsiders associate Colombia with cocaine, in truth, it is so much more.
6. “Aguardiente, Por Favor!”
When it comes to drinking alcohol in Colombia, aguardiente is your guy. Aguardiente is an aniseed-flavoured liqueur with an alcohol content in the region of 30%. There is no doubt that aguardiente is the national drink of Colombia, as it can cost about half as much as unpopular international brands. A typical 75cc bottle will cost about 30.000 COP ($10) in a liquor store, compared to circa 50.000 COP ($17) for vodka and whiskey. For those with a dislike for anise-tasting liquors, rum is another national favourite, particularly along the Caribbean coast. Alcohol is generally cheap here, but to get tipsy cheaply and effectively stick to the aguardiente.
7. Battle at checkout
While not affecting many people, travelers from the United Kingdom may need to take a deep breath before reading on. This is not a country that enjoys queueing, and “survival of the fittest” is a phrase more suitable to describing the distribution of services in Medellin. Don’t be surprised when ordering an empanada if another customer behind you sees your hesitation and nips the attention of the shop attendant away from you. There are the group-level tactics employed by shoppers at the supermarket checkout, and you may find a frenzy of shopping carts descending upon you as you realize that group shoppers have hedged their bets and split up into multiple lines.
And Finally… Don’t forget
For more information on immersing yourself in Colombia and taking Spanish classes in Medellin please check out our classes.