December 29, 2010

So You're Coming to Colombia? [Colombia Travel Tips]

As a follow-up to my international travel tips, here are some specific Colombia travel tips. Most of these are just things that make Colombia a unique country and an awareness of them will help you have a more enjoyable trip!

{Photo: Kelsi with the Colombian flag at Parque Nacional del Chicamocha outside of Bucaramanga, Colombia}

Kristin's Colombian Travel Essentials
  1. Learn some Spanish! As the national language, everyone in Colombia speaks Spanish and outside of Bogota, few speak proficient English so the more you know, the better! Even a few short phrases will improve your trip dramatically.
  2. Colombia is spelled with exactly zero u's. If you travel the country and continue to spell the name the same way you do the U.S. company, Columbia, you will be embarrassing yourself.
  3. Yes, Colombia is safe for tourist travel. However, as with many Latin American countries, there is still a strong military presence in public places like bus stations, public transportation stations, malls, and airports. It is 100% normal to see a young man (most of them appear about 16-18 years old) in full camouflage gear carrying a gun. While this may appear strange at first, it really is normal and actually is helping to keep you safe.
  4. "Rules of the road" is a loose term in Colombia that basically means your taxi driver does whatever he feels like. This means speeding down roads, swerving around potholes, whipping around corners and coming to a screeching halt just after your destination. The most important thing to remember is your taxi driver is someone's son, father, husband, grandfather, etc. so he wants to get there just as safely as you do. Whether it appears obvious or not, he is just abiding by a very different set of road rules than those we are accustomed to in the United States. As a side note, there are no seat belts in the back seats of most taxis in Colombia.
  5. The kiss thing. When greeting Colombians they will do the kiss thing. This means you lean in, put your head to the left of their head and put your right cheeks together. They don't actually kiss but instead make a quick kissing noise, sort of like if you gave someone a peck on the cheek. This in done all the time except between men, who typically just shake hands or do the guy hug thing. The only time the person might actually kiss your cheek is if they know you quite well. When a Colombian enters a gathering, he or she will literally greet every person this way before sitting down or chatting with anyone in particular.
  6. Colombians are some of the nicest, friendliest people I have ever met. Except on public transportation. The public transit system in Cali is called the Mio. When the bus approaches for the Mio, every single person waiting for ANY bus will stand directly in front of the door, whether they actually want THAT bus or not. This basically means they are in the way of everyone trying to get on or off the bus. Additionally once on the bus, if someone from the inside seat gets off, the person on the outside will NOT move over for you. They fully expect you to climb over them on the moving bus if you want the inside seat. They don't really mean to be rude, but this is literally the way of life for everyone. In fact, if you are on the outside and move over for someone they will be grateful, but very confused at your gesture.
  7. Want to small talk? Suppose you have improved your Spanish or you meet a fellow English speaker. As a general rule, Colombians do not really discuss politics and religion openly. While they are very aware of the image their country has in the world, they do not necessarily want to discuss it all the time. And they definitely do not want to discuss the country's somewhat tense relationship with neighboring Venezuela. However, if you are looking to score points start talking soccer (futbol). Colombians love soccer and the more you know about last summer's World Cup, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, the better.
  8. Tax and tip are included. In most places where tax and tip are expected they have already been included in your final bill. The tax (impuesto) and tip (propina) do not need to be calculated separately so long as you pay the final amount listed on your bill.
  9. Money conversion in foreign countries can be a little complicated. Just remember that $2,000 Colombian Pesos, COP, is about $1 US.
  10. The equatorial sun is not playing around. Assuming you are not from a tropical place bring sunscreen and a hat. There is nothing worse than getting burnt the first day of vacation...I learned that the hard way!
  11. Yes, you can drink the water. The water in all major cities is just fine to drink out of the tap in Colombia. This being said, the water will contain different things than the water in the US...tap water just varies from place to place. So if you are just coming for a short time, it may not be a bad idea to just stick with bottled water to avoid the possibility of getting sick. To save money buy a large 5 liter bag or jug of water and just keep it at your hostel/hotel to refill your water bottle as needed.
  12. The beer is terrible. The four and ONLY four varieties of national beer (Aguila, Club Colombia, Poker and Costena) all taste equally like flavored water so if you are a beer drinker order yours "Michelada" which means with lime juice and salt. Otherwise stick with reasonably priced glass of wine imported regularly from Argentina and Chile.
This is a brief list that I assembled based on my experience, however I am sure other travelers of Colombian have more to add so please use the comments for your thoughts! Colombia really and truly is a gorgeously unique country of landscapes, people and experiences so come visit me :)

"Its amazing to me that this place [Colombia] exists, and not everybody wants to live here."
Anthony Bourdain

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