Colombia is one of South America’s hottest and most enticing destinations right now and the country is becoming more and more popular among tourists and expats alike. While some people arrive appropriately prepared, many foreigners make avoidable mistakes when visiting Colombia and often pay the price. No need to worry though, we’ve got you covered, here are 12 of the most essential and most indispensable things to know before going to Colombia, de nada.
- Learn at least basic Spanish
This is the first and one of the most crucial things to do before heading to Colombia. On par with many other South American countries, the vast majority of Colombians do not speak English. In touristy places like Cartagena or Medellín, most people will know a few basic phrases in English but this will in no way suffice to have a conversation. The only places where you will find decent English levels are the upscale business districts, frequented by the upper 10% of Colombian society.
On that basis, if you want to meet locals and experience the unparalleled warmth and outgoing nature of the Colombian population, you need to learn a bit of the language. Being a foreigner, no one will expect you to be fluent or to have a perfect command of Cervantes Spanish, but a reasonable level will be required.
In an era of hundreds of language apps, online courses and skype teaching, there is simply no excuse for turning up in Colombia without knowing at least the basics.
The rewards will be profound. You will be treated less like a tourist, you won’t be stuck with other foreigners 24/7 and you won’t be ripped off as much. Another upside is that you will be able to talk your way through difficult situations, for example finding a bus (not easy in Colombian terminals) or haggling with a street vendor.
- Be aware of the regional differences and specificities
When travelling across Colombia, you will swiftly notice that the regions are very different. Colombia in fact feels more like a sub-continent than like a country and the regional specificities are ubiquitous. The regional varieties extend to food, dance culture, art, landscapes, architecture, indigenous heritage and most of all people. The people from the Caribbean are called costeños, the people from Medellín are called paísas, the people from Bogotá are called rolos and so on. Although all of the regions coexist peacefully under the umbrella of the proud Colombian nation, the regional spirits are extremely alive and most Colombians identify with regional pride and customs.
- Don’t associate Colombia with Narcos, Escobar or drug trafficking in general
If you want to befriend some locals and not be seen as a disrespectful, unrefined tourist, do not even mention the name Escobar or the series Narcos.
Colombia has a dark past and the vast majority of people are certainly not proud of it. The country is desperately and painstakingly trying to get rid of their former reputation and their efforts have blossomed. Although there is still a long way to go, Colombia has made tremendous progress in terms of safety and economic prosperity. Colombians, especially the younger generations, are looking forward, never back.
This is why talking about how North American media (who have absolutely no idea about the reality on the ground) portray Colombia will get you nothing more than antipathy and disregard from the locals.
Always keep in mind that Narcos is a mostly fictional show that has nothing to do with the reality of Colombia in 2018. On this basis, enjoy the country and leave past events and personalities where they belong, in the past.
- Do not go into an area without knowing whether it is safe or not
The first thing everybody will ask you when you get back from Colombia is: how dangerous is it? Are there a lot of muggings? Don’t they shoot each other at every corner? The response is obviously no (for the last question at least) but there is still a long way to go for Colombia to achieve safety levels which could be considered comparable to Europe or North America.
So how safe or dangerous is Colombia? Well, it is actually quite hard to answer that question.
The first thing you should know is that safety in Colombia is extremely dependent on where you are at which time of the day. The best course of action is to always ask a local whether an area you want to explore is safe for foreigners or not. Especially the larger cities like Bogotá and Medellín are extremely gentrified which means that the upscale areas are very safe during the day and benefit from accrued police presence.
The general rule is that the wealthy business, nightlife and tourist districts (El Poblado in Medellín, Chico and Zona T in Bogotá, Bocagrande and the Walled City in Cartagena, Rodadero in Santa Marta and so on) are safe at all times but a moderately high degree of caution is still advised. After that, the historical centres in the larger cities are usually safe during the day but not at night.
Everything outside of the main areas can range from completely safe to very dangerous. DO NOT ENTER a comuna (except comuna 13 in Medellín which is hyper-touristy) as a foreigner unless someone who lives there accompanies you. For every other area which isn’t a comuna but which isn’t a teeming high-end district either, you should always ask a local about how safe that particular area is.
- Don’t be afraid of physical contact
Colombians, like most Latin American nations, are very physical and affectionate. If you are from Europe or North America, you might find this physicality weird at first but after a while you will start to like it because you will realise how genuine and endearing the Colombian warmth is. The physicality is nothing special for Colombians and PDA is accepted next to everywhere. This also means that physical contact isn’t as revealing in terms of interest in a person as in other countries. Just because someone touches you, it doesn’t mean they are interested in dating or intimate contact, it’s just the Colombian culture.
- Always be alert and use common sense
After having discussed safety in Colombia at length in point 4, this point will sum it up in a concise way: use common sense and be alert.
The most indispensable prerequisites to stay safe in Colombia include being alert, being cautious and using common sense (example: you make it extremely easy for pickpockets to steal from you if you wear a backpack in a crowded city centre). You have to be more aware of your surroundings than in other countries and you can never let your guard down.
That being said, you shouldn’t become paranoid either. If you apply the general safety tips from our city guides, you should be fine, Colombia may be more dangerous than most countries but the vast majority of dangers can be avoided if you are reasonably smart.
If you have never been to South America, you might feel uncomfortable with this higher level of required caution which could impair the quality and enjoyment of your visit. This is why we would recommend testing the waters first in easier and safer countries like Uruguay, Chile or Argentina.
- Experience the real Colombia and don’t fall into tourist traps
Colombia’s allure resides most of all in its authenticity, but the country is also starting to become quite touristy and places like Cartagena and Guatape are already littered with tourist traps and scammers. The best thing to do in Colombia is, as in many countries, to ask the locals how to avoid the tourist traps.
Another very effective method is not to follow the usual backpacker trail during high season or in general to visit in low season. If you visit Cartagena in the dry season (December to March), you will quickly realise that the city is already way beyond its tourism capacity and that a lot of places are not very enjoyable in high season. You can also consider visiting some more off-the-beaten-path cities like Cali, Bucaramanga or Pereira. Colombia’s diverse regions all have a fantastic amount of enticing sights to offer to travellers and you don’t have to limit your visit to the classic backpacker trail (Santa Marta, Tayrona, Cartagena, Medellín, Guatape).
- Be aware of the stark wealth disparities in society
Colombia has mostly recovered from its dark days, but a large variety of grave problems still remain. Half of the Colombian population lives in poverty and the wealth of the country is very unequally distributed. These contrasts are mostly visible in large cities like Bogotá, where the top 10 % lives in luxurious gated communities protected by armed guards 24/7 while half of the city’s residents live in shanty towns on the edge of the city. These stark wealth disparities are the main reason for the high amount of crime in large Colombian cities as a large proportion of the population is simply without perspectives and therefore resorts to crime. This in no way justifies violent robberies or theft but it does give us an explanation on why theft is so common in Colombia.
Another important tip is not to tell Colombians how cheap their country is because guess what, it really isn’t to them. Just remember that the minimum salary in Colombia hovers around the $300/month mark, which means that 3$ for a meal might seem very cheap to you, but probably not to a large part of the population.
- Be sociable and outgoing
Socialising and going out is a cultural norm in Colombia and Colombians love nothing more than having a good time with their family and friends in a food/nightlife setting. Stoicism and introversion aren’t really considered qualities in Colombia which means that if you want to meet the locals (and you definitely should), you should definitely express a positive and sociable vibe and an open-minded attitude towards strangers.
- Immerse yourself into nature
Colombia has some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the Americas and the diversity is simply uncanny. There is no better way to experience the beauty of Colombia than by delving into the wilderness and soaking up Colombia’s gorgeous landscapes. As always in Colombia, you have to be appropriately prepared and do your homework before entering an unknown natural site. Most of the country’s jungles and other natural delights are safe and can be visited but some are still under the control of paramilitary groups or other violent gangs.
A great region to start with is Antioquia which is the heart of the Colombian coffee industry and if you know a thing or two about coffee, you will have heard or tasted how great Colombian coffee is.
- Colombian nightlife is incredible but caution is advised
Hands-down, Colombia has some of the best nightlife on the planet and it would be a fatal sin not to experience Colombia’s varied and buzzing nightlife scene. In small cities and towns, the local dance clubs will dominate but in larger cities, notably Medellín and Bogotá, you will be able to find everything from Latino clubs to British pubs, electro clubs and crossover discos. You will know by now that caution is always required in Colombia and the nightlife is no exception.
A few things you should know before partying in Colombia: Firstly, the inside of clubs and bars is generally safe because of the high amount of competent and reliable security staff but the outside areas are often a hotspot for thieves and scammers. This is why you should, as a general rule, always take a taxi at night (except for very short distances). Another important thing to know is that prostitution (exists in several forms and types of girls in Colombia) is a considerable issue and you will see a lot of it in touristy areas. Always be careful when someone is too friendly or engaging. As mentioned in point 5, Colombians are very physical and affectionate, but you will quickly be able to spot the difference between the genuine Colombian warmth and outright tricking if someone exaggerates from the beginning. Other than that, Colombian nightlife is utterly incredible and second to none in South America.
- Experience the mouthwatering regional cuisines, drinks and coffee
As mentioned in point 2, Colombian regions are utterly incomparable in terms of food and drinks and every region has its own specialities and delicacies. Explaining all the regional dishes would transcend the scope of this article so we will give you the simple tip to always ask for a local dish/drink in every region (un plato/una bebida local por favor). After travelling through Colombia, you will realise that even a few months won’t suffice to try all the magnificent dishes and drinks that can be encountered in Colombia’s disparate regions. For more info about Colombian cuisines, check this article by CultureTrip.