10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

Taylor made trip to Colombia

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In this post, we tell you about the 10 useful things you need to know before leaving for Colombia. Useful or not? That remains to be seen! But some of them will really prepare you for your trip to Colombia!

Colombia will surprise you, and we’re sure you’ll fall in love with it! But Colombia will also surprise you!

So here’s a slightly different post, where we give you some information to take more or less lightly… some details are good to know, others we’d rather not think about, and some really important ones to take into account before you consider visiting this wonderful country called Colombia.

Disclaimer: we apologize in advance for any grammatical or syntactic errors, as our native language is not English (we're a Colombian-French couple), so we hope you'll forgive us and still enjoy the information we share with you! Please note that all the information on our blog is based on our own experience, and is checked and updated regularly.

Throw your toilet paper in the garbage can

Oops! I did it again… Useful information or not?

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

Let’s start by putting both feet in the dish (sorry for the analogy…): here’s probably one of the things that will surprise you the most when you arrive in Colombia, right from your arrival at the airport if you ever have to go to the toilet!

In Colombia, you don’t throw your toilet paper down the toilet! And you’ll find signs everywhere pointing this out… In fact, the drainage systems are not as efficient as it should be, and the pipes quickly become blocked. So, next to the toilets, you’ll find garbage cans for disposing of used toilet paper… You’ll be surprised to see that, despite this, there’s no problem of odour nuisance! You’ll find that your predecessors’ used paper will be particularly well “folded”, so do the same!

It may surprise you at first, but you’ll have to get used to it, and we imagine you won’t want to have to go and see your accommodation manager to report a little clogging problem after you’ve been to the toilet… we’ll spare you the details.

And now you won’t be able to say you didn’t know!

You’ll taste the pleasure of a cold shower

DON’T WORRY, IT’S NOT EVERYWHERE EITHER..

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

You arrive at your hostal’s shower, towel over your shoulder, smile on your face in anticipation of a moment of relaxation and bliss to wake you up in style! You turn on the tap and wait for the water to warm up… … … Don’t wait any longer!

That’s right, in most Colombian accommodation in “hot climate ” regions, there’s no hot water for showers. This is due to practical reasons, financial costs, lack of infrastructure, whatever… Don’t be surprised, take it as a travel experience! And they say it’s great for the circulation!

Of course, in cities like Bogotá or in mountainous regions, most accommodations offer hot showers.

Ah! And we forgot: don’t be surprised if, when you go to wash up, you don’t see any actual shower heads. Sometimes the water for the shower comes out of a simple pipe running through a hole in the wall. Simple, but effective! This is common in villages or small towns on the coast or in hot climates. System D!

What’s up? Useful information or not?

People will say “mi amor” to you in the street

AND NO, YOU WON’T BE HIT ON

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

Colombians are naturally friendly and affectionate. It’s very common to be called “mi amor” or “mi vida” (my love, my life) by sales clerks, people offering services in the streets, waiters in popular restaurants, etc., regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. Mind you, gentlemen, this doesn’t mean you’re being hit on! Ladies, same battle. Although perhaps a little differently.

We could simply say that it’s just a way of talking in Colombia, where everyone calls each other love names. It’s a way of generating familiarity in conversation, and for shopkeepers, it’s a way of getting closer to customers. And with tourists, it works every time.

Other typically Colombian (maybe more tipically Bogotan) expressions may jump out at you (we should write an post on this): for example, the use of “Veci”, short for “Vecino”, which means neighbor… but Colombians use it for everyone, neighbor or not! So if you want to sound like a local, you can try using it to ask for information, a service in the street, or a small discount from the driver, etc. In any case, you’ll know how to use it. In any case, you’ll now know what it means if you ever hear it.

You’ll have a heart attack on the bus

BUT IN THE END IT ALWAYS GOES AWAY (or almost)

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

Fasten your seatbelt! Aren’t Colombian drivers the worst drivers in the world? You might ask. Is it the roads in Colombia that lead them to drive like this? The mystery remains. In any case, to spare you a heart attack on public transport, we just wanted to let you know that everything is normal and under control.

In practice, there are no rules. People double back and forth, and whether they’re in front of a car or not, they’re used to it. So you can find yourself in a bus, on a dirt track, in the middle of a mountain, overtaking a truck on a blind bend, which in turn is overtaking a horse-drawn cart, and of course with a car coming in front… and it still goes by!!!! They’re used to it!
It can be scary, but you eventually get used to it, and you can doze off under the jolts of the car.

You’ll drink a “tinto”

COLOMBIA HAS THE BEST COFFEE IN THE WORLD, YES, BUT….

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

In Colombia, coffee isn’t called café– get used to it, ask for a tinto!

There are 3 popular styles of drinking coffee in Colombia:

  • Tinto: a small, light, black “americano”-style coffee… This is the most common coffee in Colombia, and everyone drinks tinto!
  • Perico o pintao: This is tinto with a little milk..
  • Carajillo: This is tinto with a drop of aguardiente or rum added. It’s typical of cold-climate villages and mountainous regions, and useful for warming up.

Colombian coffee is known and recognized as one of the best in the world, yet it’s sometimes hard to find good coffee… Let me explain: the best coffee produced in Colombia is exported, so the coffee consumed internally by Colombians is not necessarily the best quality. This is gradually beginning to change, but it’s not yet the general rule.

Secondly, Colombians are accustomed to drinking very sweet coffee, so don’t hesitate to ask when you order a coffee in the villages or on the street to serve it without sugar if possible, as it is often even prepared in advance and sweetened automatically. At least it’s often made with panela, which is more natural… 🙂

That said, don’t worry, it’s perfectly possible to drink good coffee in Colombia. Obviously, in the coffee region, around Medellín, San Agustin or Minca, visit a coffee-producing finca and taste the coffee straight from the source. You can also visit one of the cafés or specialty stores that are springing up more and more in big cities, where a coffee “culture” is beginning to develop and change consumer habits. Another option is to visit the “Juan Valdez” tiendas, with a concept similar to Starbucks, but with a Colombian twist and only coffee from the Colombian producers’ cooperative.

Drop your stereotypes before you go

YA NO MÁS! Useful information (Very!)

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

If it makes you laugh to make jokes about Pablo Escobar, if Narcos is your favorite series, and if you still associate Colombia with cocaine trafficking, get over it dammit! And keep your tongue in your pocket, because you’re not likely to make many friends with these topics. Keep associating Colombia with cocaine trafficking and you’ll be seen as ignorant and offensive.

Colombia is no longer a drug cartel paradise. Colombians, and in particular the inhabitants of Medellín, have long suffered from the latent violence that plagued their daily lives. Today, Medellín is one of the most modern cities on the planet, and the days when Pablo Escobar reigned supreme are long gone. Ya Basta!

And if you think of Colombia as Ingrid Betancour, the Farcs, violence and war, change your software! For several years now, an effort has been made to make the country increasingly secure, and the recent peace agreements have accelerated the process even further. It’s safe to travel in Colombia, and there’s no risk of being kidnapped at every street corner. Of course, you should take the usual precautions when traveling, but don’t worry too much and leave with peace of mind!

You can taste the arepas

AND NO, YOU DON’T HAVE A CHOICE.

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

Arepa is one of Colombia’s signature dishes, and you won’t be able to escape it, because it’s a national treasure! Simply put, arepa is a corn cake. Each region has its own arepa, sometimes made with different varieties of corn, so during your trip you’ll have the opportunity to taste many different kinds of arepa, depending on the places you visit.

There are, for example:

  • the Paisa arepa (typical of Medellín and the coffee region), a little flat and not very tasty
  • arepa de Chocolo or Cholo, made with sweet corn, which I really like
  • arepa de Boyaca, my favorite! with a slightly sweet taste, but not too much, and filled with cheese
  • arepa de maïs pelao
  • santander arepa
  • the arepa e’ huevo (egg arepa) typical of the Caribbean coast..
  • And I imagine there are others I don’t even know about.

In any case, don’t hesitate to taste them and compare varieties. It can be eaten plain or with a little butter for breakfast, it can be found as an accompaniment to a meal, a bit like bread, and it can also be eaten “rellena”, i.e. garnished with various things, meat, chicken, shrimps, etc. in which case it’s a “dish” to be eaten on the go, like a sandwich, when you’re in a hurry or looking for something to eat on the cheap. It’s just impossible to pass up an arepa in Colombia, so don’t hesitate to try them and decide which is your favorite! Each vendor has his or her own way of doing things, so it’s up to you to find the best cook!

Prepare for all climates before you leave

THERE’S NO MORE SEASON MY GOOD LADY! Here’s some useful information.

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

Assuming that Colombia encompasses virtually every possible landscape you’ll find in Latin America, that’s also the case for its climates! Colombia lies almost on the equator of the planet, but has no less than 10 different climates: equatorial, tropical, semi-arid, desert and mountain!

Read our post about the weather in Colombia.

Expect to be cold in Bogotá, and very hot on the Caribbean coast, expect lots of rain and heat on the Pacific coast and in Amazonia, more temperate temperatures in Medellín and in the coffee zone… If you go to the high mountains, you’ll be surprised to see cows grazing at over 4000 m altitude, but temperatures at the summit (5000 m) can drop below zero.

As you can see, Colombia has plenty of surprises in store for you, so be prepared, and pack accordingly! And don’t forget to read our post “When to go to Colombia “.

You’ll rethink your look before you leave

WELL… I’M GOING TO PACK AGAIN..

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

This message is mainly addressed to you, the man who’s going to Colombia (but your wife may also be concerned… it happens): do you have the ambition to melt into Colombian culture, try to make as much contact as possible with the local population, discover the ‘real’ life of the locals and make lots of Colombian friends? Then forget your shorts and Havaianas!

The shorts/tongues look, although very appropriate and pleasant to wear in many parts of Colombia, is THE best way for a Colombian to spot a tourist (well OK with the ‘hidden aspirin’ skin maybe…). It’s because Colombians don’t really wear shorts culturally. Even in the heat of the day, you’ll see some wearing pants and shoes. So if you want to go unnoticed, remember to pack a few pairs of pants – you’ll thank us!

PS: Hey pssssssss! (whispered) Whatever happens, you’ll look like a tourist, so do as you please.

You’ll travel “responsibly”

AND YOU WON’T BE YOUR USUAL STINGY SELF

10 useful things (or not) to know before travelling to Colombia

Colombia isn’t the most advanced country when it comes to protecting the environment, and there’s a lot of work to be done to change people’s mentalities, and you’ll find that there are many places where human pollution is present. But don’t let this stop us, the tourists, from traveling responsibly and preparing our trip to Colombia with a conscience.

What does responsible travel mean?

It can take many forms, and it’s up to you to find the actions that will enable you to take part:

  • Leave no trace behind – that’s the basic principle. Your passage should have a neutral impact on ecosystems, so take your garbage with you.
  • Use biodegradable products (soaps, shampoos, etc.) and, above all, find a sunscreen that respects the seabed and coral! Chemical sunscreens are an atrocity for the oceans.
  • Favor local initiatives with a responsible approach, agencies that work with and for local communities, and/or that work to protect the environment, or in any case that make a point of paying their service providers fairly and having a neutral ecological impact.
  • Find out about the activities you’ll be doing, the places you’ll be visiting, etc. Be active in your discovery process, so as not to encourage mass tourism that has a negative impact on populations and ecosystems.
  • Give preference to bus travel, even if this is sometimes complicated on a trip to Colombia due to the long distances and remote destinations.
  • Respect people, traditions and landscapes… once again, find out before you act: not everyone wants to be photographed in their daily life, some indigenous tribes find it offensive, a chat with someone will stay in your memory longer than a selfie, don’t walk off the beaten track to take THE photo – this could damage ecosystems, but it could also be dangerous for you, etc.
  • A responsible tourist is one who knows how to pay the right price to enable the locals to make a decent living from their work.

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Authors

Angélica & Samuel

We are Angélica and Samuel, a French-Colombian couple, professional photographers and web editors specializing in travel to Colombia. We created this blog to change the image of the country, help you prepare your trip and inspire you to discover Colombia in a different way!

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