I have not lived in Colombia, nor am I from there. (Did my ghost-white face, red hair and ridiculous surname give it away?) However, I did just spend two months travelling the length and breadth of the country. And I have thoughts on the place.
Therefore, this is a brief (kind of) collection of my stray observations and nuggets of wisdom that you need to know before you travel to, in and around Colombia.
However, I should mention, for those of you who don’t know, that I’ve lived in Mexico for the last two years or so though, and so many of the things other people (coming directly from the US or Europe, for example) might pick up on, such as the non-flushing of toilet paper, aren’t things I’ve mentioned here. Why? Because they basically just second nature to me now.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO COLOMBIA
It’s Colombia, not Columbia. Don’t be that guy (my dad, in his emails).
Dale! Need I say more? Dale is the buzzword of Colombia and is pretty much just a way of saying OK or go ahead.
Reggaeton is everywhere. ALL THE TIME. It’s distressing.
The currency is scaled up to the extreme, meaning everything is pretty much priced into the double or triple figure thousands. This will never get easier to reckon with and your mental maths skills will take a severe hit at first.
Don’t like plantain (platano macho)? Tough fucking luck, it’s everywhere and in everything.
On the food side of things, sweetcorn is actually sweet. Like, it could be from a tin of Green Giant. (For anyone confused by this, while maize is a Mexican staple, it’s pretty much never ‘sweet’ like us Brits are used to.)
However, Colombian food can definitely be…bland. Not always, but often. I honestly don’t want to eat boiled rice ever again. (For what it’s worth, people will argue to their back teeth that this isn’t the case, and there definitely is some great food in Colombia, but it’s not the stuff you eat every day. So, I stand by my assessment.) Oh, and don’t think that changua will be a thick and creamy, soupy treat. The one I tried was very thin and milky.
Related Post: Food and Drink You Need to Try in Colombia (COMING SOON)
People from Bogotá are known colloquially as rolos. Those from Medellín are paisas (hence, their signature dish bandeja paisa) and those from the birthplace of Gabriel García Marquéz, Aracataca, are known as cataqueros.
Colombian arequipe > Mexican cajeta. They’re both essentially the same thing, but arequipe is just so much better. I don’t know why.
-ico is the diminutive of choice for Colombians. I’m used to Mexican –itos or even –illos, but Colombia is all about the –ico.
You should visit all the pueblos. Colombian villages are some of the best I’ve seen, outstripping many of Mexico’s sometimes mediocre pueblos mágicos. I especially recommend Jardín and Santa Fé de Antioquia, as well as the obligatory Guatapé.
Try to find cash machines that let you take out as much money in one go as possible, to save on fees. Bancolombia has an upper limit of 600,000 which is pretty good and they’re generally all over the place. Although, I did find one random shopping centre cashpoint that let me withdraw 720,000 in one go.
Bags of milk. Eco-friendly (maybe?) but not v. convenient.
Buy tinto off the street vendors. Just do guzzle it down while you’re stood still instead of trying to walk and spilling it all over your hand (I wish I weren’t speaking from experience).
I expected more from arepas. Some people love them, some hate them and I wouldn’t say I fall under the former category. Try for yourself and decide.
Doing cocaine in Colombia is an activity reserved for arseholes. Entitled pricks who travel to Latin America to get fucked up are the worst. Stay in London and do your shitty cocaine cut with detergent there instead.
On that note, steer clear of Escobar chat. People in Medellin especially are working hard to shake off their drug lord reputation and you’re not helping if you keep banging on about the guy. Oh, and sorry to burst your bubble, but Narcos is a terribly inaccurate representation of Escobar too and the actor’s accent is horrible.
Skip Barranquilla, but don’t forget Bogotá. The capital is cool, but you won’t run into Sofia Vergara or Shakira in Barranquilla and that’s pretty much the only attraction of the place.
Colombians shout. Like, sure, Mexicans are loud too, but Colombians are louder. Whether it’s a taxi driver shouting across the road to his mate or a server in a comida corriente restaurant halfheartedly telling you what drinks they have while shouting into the kitchen, maybe pack earplugs?
Long distance buses are cold. Pack a woolly blanket and remember that not every part of the country is as hot and humid as the Colombian cost. Pack long sleeves, jackets and jeans, not just shorts and t-shirts.
Tipping is not expected as standard in Colombia, especially in bars or average, everyday restaurants. You should probably tip if you go somewhere fancy, but otherwise, it’s not the norm (according to a Colombian friend of mine). DO check the bill though, because sometimes the tip is added on, although you can ask to have it taken off if you like.
Music on Colombian buses is next level. You won’t be doing much sleeping, let’s put it that way.
If you get travel sick, invest in some Maresol or Pasedol travel sickness pills. They basically just knock you straight out, but I endured a 12-hour overnight bus from Cartagena to Medellín on just one pill and actually felt well-rested when I woke up.
Colombia is super racially diverse. Remember I’m writing this from a perspective of having lived in Mexico for the last few years, where, while there are white Mexicans and Afro-Mexicans, they’re just not as prevalent as in Colombia.
I’m like 99% sure I saw the singer from Bomba Estéreo in Santa Marta and on our flight from Bogotá. This is not something you need to know, but I just needed to tell someone.
Related Post: Playlist | Bomba Estéreo
Crocs. I thought these had been condemned to the third circle of hell already, but Crocs are a big deal in Colombia. I can’t even tell you how many otherwise pretty normally (even fashionably) dressed people we saw wearing Crocs. I get that they’re comfy, but really?
Cafes have some super weird opening times. Sure, I found plenty that opened in the morning (i.e. when you need a coffee) and then a good chunk that didn’t start their day ‘til the mid-afternoon, before closing late into the night.
Learn how to control your sweating now, because deodorant is extortionately priced. For reference, a single Rexona (Sure) spray was priced at roughly 90 pesos (around 3.70 GBP) in one of the most popular supermarket chains. Alternatively, hunt down an Ara store for cheaper toiletries.
Bogotá is high up, guys, and Cartagena is hot. Sounds like obvious information, but I literally never twigged just how high and hot both places would be. (And, again, bear in mind that I’m writing this from a having-lived-in-Mexico-City for a while perspective and that should give you some indication of just how high Bogotá is.)
Motos (or, motorbikes) are everywhere. Be careful when crossing the street in traffic, because they weave through cars like nobody’s business.
If you’re going to be in Colombia for a while, it’s remarkably easy and affordable to get your normal SIM card swapped to a Colombian chip. We just rocked up to the first shopping centre we found, and bought an ETB chip for 5000 COP (1.25 GBP) and then topped it up by 20,000 COP (5 GBP) for a month of calls, texts and data. Not unlimited though, obviously. Either way, it makes for a good investment if you’ll be spending at least four weeks in the country. (Editor’s note: This SIM only worked for a month because nobody told us it had to be activated. Even so, buy a SIM card if you’ll be in Colombia for a while. Just make sure the people selling it to you aren’t incompetent.)
If you thought Mexicans were polite, then Colombians take it up a notch. Almost everyone is spoken to in the polite usted form of the verb, including even friends and family.
On that note, get used to being called señora or señor. Don’t fight it.
However, for all their grammatical politeness, Colombians aren’t about that talking to strangers’ life. So, you won’t hear saluds when you sneeze, nor provecho when you’re eating.
Uber is illegal. If you are going to use it, bear in mind that you shouldn’t be obviously glancing at your phone while you approach the car and the driver may want you to sit in the front seat. Also, the service was pretty shitty with most of our Uber experiences. Think speeding, talking on the phone while driving and obnoxiously loud reggaetón.
Antioqueño aguardiente is the nation’s drink of choice. A not-unlike-Sambuca spirit, shotting seems like the way to go. I first tried the sugar-free iteration of aguardiente and it was…nice? Kind of like sambuca but not as I-want-to-kill-myself inducing. However, I then graduated to the sugary version of aguardiente, which was basically sambuca but worse. You have been warned.
Milo nuggets are the best (as is Milo, how had I not heard of this magical drink before?!) Admittedly, this is one for the Brits, but 1) Milo Nuggets are fucking delicious and 2) they kiiind of taste like Crunchies.
Colombiana (a fizzy, bright orange drink) is vaguely addictive. On a Brit themed note, it also kiiind of has a taste of Irn Bru about it. However, Pony Malta was my fizzy drink vice of choice in Colombia.
You don’t have to go to Parque Tayrona just because you’re in Colombia. Especially if, like me, you don’t like beaches. (In fact, we flew to Santa Marta with plans to visit a few places around the area, and pretty much did nothing along the Caribbean coast. No Tayrona, no beaches, no Punto Gallina.) Fight the FOMO.
Onces is a quaint tradition among rolos, which basically means to go for a quick snack between lunch and dinner, at roughly what us Brits would know as ‘teatime’. Neither supper nor brunch, onces seems to be a distinctly Bogota tradition. For what it’s worth, if you want to indulge in a truly traditional onces when in Bogota, head to the centre of the city to Pastelería Florida and order the Chocolate Santafereño, which comes with a choice of hot chocolate, agua de panela or coffee, plus a bite-sized portion of bread, pan de yuca and an almojabána, plus slices of cheese, butter and jam. The real way to enjoy this? Drop chunks of cheese into your hot chocolate and eat them at the end, when they’ve had chance to go gooey.
Do you agree? What did I miss? What do you wish you’d known before visiting Colombia? Tell me in the comments!