Ten Things I Learned Traveling in Colombia
To start my one-year journey around the world I visited Colombia for one week. It was not originally on the agenda for my round-the-world trip, but when a new friend warmly said` “you should come to Colombia!” I just couldn’t resist. I was warned about lack of safety, but that did not deter me. Colombia was all that I expected and more. It is so beautiful; I love the country and will definitely be back. Before my visit all I really knew about Colombia was cocaine (which is unfortunate), but it has so much more to offer than that. I mostly stayed in Bogotá, which is where this post focuses on. Here is what I learned during my trip:
1. The people in Colombia are amazing.
The people of Colombia are extremely friendly and welcoming. Everyone I talked to seemed pleased with my broken Spanish, and made an attempt to help me understand what they were saying and tell me the English translation if they knew. I was welcomed with smiles and friendly greetings everywhere I went, and people did not hesitate to give me directions and help me out.
2. There are more things in English than I expected, but not English speakers.
Of course I expected things like bathroom signs and signs in the airport to have Spanish and English, but I was not expecting much more than that. Lots of stores and restaurants had signs in English, and I saw posters and advertisements on the street in English here and there. A lot of the radio stations also played American music (in English), which I was surprised by. We even had several Uber drivers who didn’t really speak English listening to these stations. I know plenty of American artists are popular worldwide, but I never really thought about their music being played in English internationally.
On the other hand, I expected people to speak English more. Before you bring up that this statement contradicts my first point, hear me out. Almost everyone speaks a little bit of English, but not as much as we Americans like to think they will. I can’t count the number of times I have been told “everyone (everywhere) speaks English, you’ll be fine!”. Maybe it was because I was with Spanish speakers most of the time, I can’t be sure, but I heard and spoke English with store clerks, Uber drivers, and restaurant servers far less than I expected. This is not a complaint by any means. I was more than happy to practice my Spanish, which I had just started learning about six weeks before my trip.
3. The food is out of this world.
I can’t say enough good things about the food. I dream about the food. It is so amazing, in fact, that I have to break it up into two parts. First of all, I saw almost no processed food in Colombia. Everything is fresh and homemade. In the grocery stores you can find snack items such as chips and cakes, but other than that everything is fresh and high quality. They even have entire grocery stores just for fruits and vegetables! I think the only pre-made food I ate for a meal were arepas, which I would describe as a sort of flat bread; we toasted them and put ham (and sometimes cheese) on them for breakfast. The friend I was visiting even told me about how they will make their own spice mixes for cooking rather than buying pre-mixed spice packets at the store.
4. More on food…
The other great thing about the food in Colombia is how cheap it is. We would buy lunch specials, such as the meal pictured above, where you typically have a couple of options to choose from for $2.50-$3 USD. This included a choice of meat or fish, rice, potatoes, some kind of bean and/or vegetable, a large bowl of soup, and juice. Although they had healthy portion sizes, with so many different things it was enough for two people to split, which cut down on the cost even more! You could also get empanadas (see photo under number three), breads, fruits, etc. on the street for $0.50-$1.50 USD.
5. Traffic is crazy.
Bogotá is a huge city of nearly nine million people, and the traffic there is absolutely crazy! I’m not sure about the rest of Colombia, but here, things such as stop signs and lights, turn signals, and lanes are mere suggestions here. The streets are so congested at all times you have to give yourself at least an hour to reach your destination. Drivers are aggressive, and they have to be in order to get anywhere. By the end of my trip I would get annoyed if we had an Uber driver who wasn’t aggressive enough. People drive on the shoulder and compact cars squeeze between lanes to get by. Motorcycles and bikes zip past cars between the lanes and weave through traffic. This means that when you decide to safely cross the street in bumper-to-bumper traffic, you have to stop and look between lanes to avoid being smashed by a motorcyclist.
6. You can buy just about anything on the street.
Thirsty while sitting in traffic? No problem. One of the many vendors in the street will help you with that. Beverages, candy, bananas, phone chargers, toys, hats, you name it, they’ve got you covered. Men and women stand in the median or, more often, in the middle of busy streets, walking through traffic, peddling their goods. If your window is down, they will approach and make you an offer. I’m not sure that I ever saw anyone make a purchase, but people must because sellers are always out in full force.
I happened to be in Colombia during a very historical time for the country. While I was there the government signed a peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which, if ratified, would essentially give the members of the FARC amnesty. When I was there I saw signs exclaiming “Todos por la paz”, or “all for the peace,” and there was a peace rally in the small town we visited over the weekend, Villa de Leyva.
However, I also learned that this deal was dividing families, and many who had lost loved ones at the hands of the FARC years ago were not happy about letting the FARC members who had committed such atrocious crimes be pardoned. A few days after I left the people voted on whether or not they wanted to enact the treaty, and it turned out the people voted “no.”
I didn’t know about any of this before traveling to Colombia, and I asked my family if they had heard about it on the news and they said no. I have already noticed in my short time traveling abroad that we are not well informed in the US on world news, but the rest of the world is very informed on our news and politics.
8. Art is everywhere.
Bogotá is one of the top ten cities in the world for street art. There is literally street art and graffiti everywhere. Sometimes the city or business owners will commission artists to paint murals, which keeps the building beautiful and combats graffiti tags. I went on the two-and-a-half hour walking Graffiti Tour, which is free with a suggested donation of about $8-10 USD, and would highly recommend it.
9. There are certain places where it’s not safe to have your cell phone or camera out.
I learned that affordable technology is several years behind in Colombia, so current technology is a hot commodity. If you’re not careful with your gadgets, they could get swiped. That’s not to say you can never pull your phone out to take a photo or send a quick text, but it is advisable to do so quickly and put it back away. The Uber driver the first day from the airport asked us not to have our phones showing if the windows were down and I was warned not to have my phone out in the street, and to keep it in a safe place that is not easily accessible in my purse. Basically, don’t walk around with your tech out in the open and be aware of your surroundings.
Finally, what you have all been waiting for. Is Colombia safe? I would say absolutely, even despite point number nine. Would I walk around an unfamiliar or deserted area alone at night? No, but I don’t do that at home either. There are definitely areas it’s best to stay away from, as in any city or country. If you stay alert and aware of your surroundings and your belongings, and follow your gut instinct about people and places, you will be just fine.
I had an amazing whirlwind week in Colombia, and I can’t wait to go back and spend more time there! I would strongly urge you to visit. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask! If I don’t know the answer, I can certainly find out for you.