Gone are the days when drug cartels and guerrilla ran rampant across Colombia and when only a few wanted to visit. You probably know that already and that’s why you want to come. Trust us, there has not been a better time to visit our country than today. Yet, we totally understand that you may want to know how the place you are planning to go is like. That’s why we’ve made this useful list with some great local tips, spanning from safety and transportation to partying like a purebred Colombian.
On Being Colombian:
- We know it, you hear South America and you think of sun, shorts and flip-flops. And, yes, a vast area of our country fits that image. However, if visiting Bogotá, you should know that it is 8,700 ft. above sea level, so it will get cold. Plus, it rains a lot and the weather can change in a matter of minutes. So, leave the tropical outfit for the rest of the trip and bring a pair of jeans or chinos, comfortable shoes and a good jacket or two for your stay in the capital.
- You probably already know that drug trafficking has taken its toll on Colombians big time, so avoid making jokes about it. We won’t laugh. Yes, you might have seen Pablo Escobar on Netflix or a t-shirt with his face on it here and there, just keep in mind that making jokes about it to Colombians is not cool.
- Please, never say or write Columbia. In English, Colombia keeps its Spanish spelling and shall always be Colombia. Nobody will get mad at you if you say it, but you may get some rolling eyes.
- We’re Latin, so we totally fit the happy, music-loving people cliché, and we always want foreigners to feel at home, and as one of us. So, don’t be surprised if you’re partying and someone, out of the blue, takes you to the dancefloor without even asking. Most of the times, there’ll be nothing you can do about it, so accept it and just dance and have a good time.
- Our Latinhood, and especially, our Colombianhood, makes us really nice people. So, you’ll certainly win our hearts by saying ‘Hola’ or ‘Buenos días/tardes/noches’ whenever you get to a place. It’s very likely that everybody will reply with a smile.
- ‘¡Guaro, guaro, guaro!’. You’ll hear this at any party. Guaro or aguardiente (a rough translation could be ‘smoking water’) is our national drink and, in a way, our pride and joy because it’s always connected with partying. Colombians will rarely take ‘no’ for an answer if they’re offering you guaro. Shots is how it is usually served. Sometimes, however, the party animal is the one in charge of tossing it around, often by tipping the bottle over your mouth, and you won’t have that much control over consumption, so try to have a good meal before and keep yourself hydrated at all times.
On Spending your Money:
- Visitors are always happy to find that tips are always included in the check. Every time you ask for it, you’ll notice that a 10% service fee has been included. If the service was outstanding and you are feeling generous, you may leave a little more, but you’re not required to, and no one will give you a dirty look if you don’t. On the other hand, if the service was really awful, you may ask the waiter to take the 10% off your check.
- Street vendors in Colombia are among the most determined and thick-skinned when selling their services. In crowded or touristy areas, it’s very likely to be approached by vendors or street artists eager to display their goods and talents. You may be offered the best massage while on the beach in Cartagena or a serenade in the city’s historic center –they’ll probably chase you for a few seconds begging for your attention, but there’s nothing to fear. A kind but firm ‘no, gracias’ will do the trick.
- You may run into many informal shops when visiting Colombia, particularly when looking for an authentic souvenir to take home with you. These places won’t usually accept credit or debit cards. Therefore, if you are planning to do some shopping in a market place or a farmers’ market, try to take some cash with you and keep our safety tips in mind.
On Moving Around:
- Should you need to get yourself from one point to another really fast, avoid getting a cab on the street. You should opt for Uber or Cabify (available in major cities) or any of the local taxi apps to get a safe ride –Tappsi and SmartTaxi are the most common. If using your smartphone is not possible, ask someone (at the hotel, restaurant, store, etc.) to call a taxi for you. Usually, unless you have already stored a credit card in the app, you will need cash to pay for a cab. Oh, once the ride is finished, be careful not to slam the door behind you –you won’t like a bad star rating
- If biking is your thing, check and familiarize yourself with the available biking lanes before venturing into the city. Traffic in our cities is just as crazy as in any other Latin American city –cars change lanes without warning and motorcycles usually move at high speeds between car lanes. Therefore, always stick to the designated bike lane. Bogotá, for instance, has one of the longest and best cycling networks in the region.
On Taking Care of Yourself:
- Keep your belongings with you at all times and always keep an eye on them. Try to keep as few things as possible inside your pockets and, if you really need to take something with you, use a cross-body bag or a backpack.
- Leave valuables where you are staying. You don’t need to have your passport with you at all times. For your peace of mind, bring a photocopy of it with you and you are all set.
- Don’t take more cash than you really need. Leave a credit card in your room in case you lose your wallet.
- Keep a low profile. You don’t need jewels, expensive watches and flashy accessories if you are touring the city. Plus, you’ll be more comfortable.
- Pay special attention to your cell phone, particularly, if you are using public transportation or if attending crowded places. You’ll certainly see local people talking or texting on their phones while on the street, but never let down your guard and try to use it indoors instead.
- If you find yourself in any city center at night, get yourself to a well-lit and busy area. Just like many city centers around the world, these are financial and business districts that can get empty at the end of the day and become less safe.
As with any big city, you just need to use your common sense! Stay alert wherever you go and keep your stuff with you at all times.