No Habla Español?
The most important thing I learned on my first trip to Colombia (and this seems so obvious but I never thought of it): if you don´t know how to speak Spanish be prepared for a lot of missed opportunities to communicate with the people you meet on your trip. Not many Colombians speak English, and I can attest to this being 100% true. While the people are very friendly, I found many of them shaking their heads and walking away shrugging. If it´s your first trip and you do not speak Spanish, I highly recommend hiring a tour guide! My husband and I continue to find places that should have English speakers, like Migración Colombia, who advertise and assure us that they have English speakers only to find nobody and a bit of frustration on both sides. Just a note, if you do find someone who speaks English, be prepared as they will want to practice with you. They will be very curious and full of excitement especially if they are children. I find myself swarmed on many occasions with 10+ children asking many questions they learned while in school. Make sure to tell them you support Colombia in soccer matches lol.
On a side note, getting by with your phone translating can help, but there are words that don`t exist in either language. The translation of the ones that do exist can be tedious at times. The difference in cultures can affect your communication as well. You want to come off as being respectful and getting a good price on something you want to take home, so trust me when I say a tour guide is your key to getting the most out of your trip.
This little bit of information would have been very helpful for me if I had found it beforehand. Before I left Canada, I scoured the internet trying to find the best way to do monetary transactions during my trip. I never really found anything other than if your card has certain symbols you should be fine. Wrong. I found myself bouncing between different machines trying to find one that worked. I called my bank and they were baffled. They said the best they could figure was that something was wrong communication wise on the Colombian end. Now, you may not have this issue, but I did, and it took my second trip to find that the only ATM that worked for me was Davivienda. The plus about using them is that they don´t charge a fee to use their machines, however your bank probably will. FYI I also had no luck using my credit card at ATM´s for cash advances as I tried that as a last option, but my card worked at every store that had a card reader for purchases – credit not debit. Another useful tip I picked up was when the card reader asks you the option of which currency to be charged in, choose the COP every time. Apparently, it`s cheaper because of conversion rate rules.
USD Not Accepted
I can´t tell you how many forums I found before traveling to Colombia that said that they accepted US currency. My family and friends even told me this. I even brought US currency to Migración Colombia upon entry to pay the reciprocal fee they used to charge Canadians only to be informed that they do not accept it. Luckily the officer was super nice (again, everyone here is very friendly) and took me to the currency exchange place on the other side of the airport. So, if you are going to exchange your currency get the Colombian Peso (COP) at a currency exchange beforehand, use your debit at an ATM which is my personal favorite or use your credit card. I swear the USD thing is probably from Mexico or even Ecuador who uses US currency. Colombia overall is very different in terms of culture from Mexico as it is different from Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Argentina etc. Each Latin country is very different from the other in dialect, food, customs, currency and even their own interpretation of the Spanish language.
A question I get asked a lot by everyone, “Is Colombia safe?” can be a yes or no answer depending on one’s own actions as can be true of their own homeland or anywhere for that matter. Colombians have a saying: “Dar papaya” which in terms of security, means to not leave a piece of papaya in the open for anyone to take freely. If you have an expensive cellphone, do not use it in the open or even walk around with it in your hand. Put it away. Do not use the phone in a car with the windows rolled down or the door unlocked. Do not take money out in the open, wear fancy jewelry etc. The best piece of advice I can give you about safety is to get a tour guide who can keep an eye on you and direct you on how to conduct yourself in certain situations. There are many things I found that were culturally awkward for me, like locking my door in front of someone would be offensive or laughable in Canada but is very smart in Colombia. If you´re not familiar with the neighborhoods, I can`t stress enough to get a tour guide. I have never seen or had anything happen to myself or any tourists, but this is probably due to me meeting my husband on my first trip who guarded me heavily. So, remember, NO PAPAYA!
That Infamous Colombian Guy – What`s His Name?
My very first tour as a tourist was to a coffee plantation. At some point in the tour I merged with another group of people. One of them was a very young guy who found the coca plant a little too interesting for my liking. He started to giggle and get very loud, asking the plantation owner a lot of questions about coca. I immediately moved away from him and went somewhere else. Why? Because the coca plant and it´s byproduct have wreaked havoc on Colombia for decades, specifically in the late eighties and nineties. I knew I would never be that tourist and ask those questions of anyone on my trip. One of the reasons why is because you don´t know how each person was affected by the narco-trafficking industry. They could be pro Escobar or as one of my tour guides showed me, have shrapnel still lodged inside his body from a bomb allegedly planted by the Medellin Cartel. My best advice to give anyone traveling to Colombia is to let her people tell you their story without asking. This is a great time for the country as more and more tourists flock to see it´s beauty every year. There is an industry right now specifically promoting lands and towns never visited by a foreigner, so imagine how exciting this is to Colombians as well as tourists. They would like nothing more than to promote their country for the many things they do well – coffee, dancing, fruit, cuisine. Take the time to learn something new about this beautiful country and try to stay impartial and diplomatic. But, if you´re into that kind of thing, there is an industry promoting those types of tours and experiences, but I would still advise you to be careful of asking too much.
Colombia is a beautiful country full of diverse landscapes, bright and exotic culture, great food, friendly people and the list goes on. Be safe, find something new and enjoy! If you have any questions, feel free to ask me firstname.lastname@example.org