Truth is, people all over the globe are finally figuring out that Colombia is a really, really, really amazing country, and not visiting means missing out on an incredible experience.
It’s been an entire year since I moved back to Colombia, so to celebrate my return to the promised land, I’m giving you all advice on how to make the most on a trip to the greatest country in the world (I’m not biased at all!)
1. Leave behind dumb stereotypes:
No, you’re not gonna get kidnapped, you can reassure your mom about this. And no, not all Colombians are drug dealers/addicted to coke/whatever other stupid stereotypes people have.
Actually, if you really think all Colombians are coked-up drug dealers, leave your dumb ass at home.
2. Be on the lookout and pay attention:
while you’re not gonna get kidnapped, it’s still important to remember that there is a high crime rate in the country so be a little bit paranoid, especially in big cities. As Colombians say: Don’t give papaya! What is giving papaya, you ask? Taking your iphone 6 out in the middle of a street or a crowded bus and letting everyone around you know that you have something worth stealing is giving papaya. Basically, don’t draw attention to yourself, make sure you have nothing valuable in your pockets or within reach in your bag.
If you’re traveling around the country, it’s also important to remember that, while violence has decreased significantly, there is still an armed conflict happening. Make sure you know what the red zones are (red zones and zones controlled by armed groups, or zones where there is heavy confrontation), so that you avoid these places, or take the necessary precautions within them.
Beware of people trying to scam you, if something sounds too expensive, it probably is! Contact the local authorities to report any suspected abuse.
Bonus tip: If you don’t have a cellphone, go up to any street stand that advertises minutes. They will lend you a phone and charge you very little (100-200 COP) per minute. This way, you’re never stranded without communication!
3. Forget about the diet:
All bodies are beautiful, you’re beautiful, so forget the diet and enjoy all the absurdly wonderful food. Eat an empanada a day, try all kinds of arepas, if you’re not a vegetarian go all out with bandeja paisa. Try to eat at local food joints, which can be hard to find because they usually don’t have signs or names. Basically, if you pass a tiny place where there’s a lot of people eating at lunch, and there’s an advertised price outside, you’ve found a corrientazo. These beautiful places will give you soup, meat (which can be replaced with an egg), rice, veggies, and plantains, as well as fruit juice for a very economic price.
Also, you need to try aguardiente- Colombia’s national licor. Imma be honest with you here: It tastes awful. But you travel to experience cultures, and aguardiente (or guaro) is a huge part of the culture.
4. Stuff yourself silly with fruits:
Because Colombia has extremely varied climates, and climates that only few other countries in the world have, there are a lot of unique fruits that you won’t find anywhere else. Go to a local market and you’ll find such a wide variety of delicious fruits, you’ll have a hard time choosing! Colombians love fruits, so you’ll also be able to find street vendors selling fruit salads, fruit juice, cut up fruit (make sure you try the green mangoes with salt!), and a kind of fruit salad with food called salpicón. If you don’t enter a fruit comma at some point, you aren’t doing it right.
5. Understand how the weather works:
So you know how most places have seasons? Yeah, that doesn’t exist in Colombia. We do have the wet season and the dry season in which the amount of rainfall varies, but because we’re so close to the Equator, the temperature of a place is determined by how far above sea level it is. This is why instead of talking about winter or summer, we talk about cold lands and hot lands (tierra caliente y tierra fría).
This can be difficult if you’re trying to stuff clothes for all kinds of weather in one bag, but it is also one of the coolest, and most special things about Colombia! I mean, you could be in Bogotá at 16 degrees one day, and be in a dessert the next, and on top of a snow peak the next, and on a sizzling beach the next, and in a jungle the next! It also means that if you live here and get tired of your city’s weather, you can just go to a place nearby that has a different kind of weather (this is why I go to Apulo to escape Bogota’s cold weather every time I can!).
6. Learn basic Spanish:
Most people in Colombia only speak Spanish, so learning at least the basics will help you have a better trip. Being able to speak a little bit to the people will also enhance your experience, and will help you blend in better. Of course not everyone has the time to take up another language, but memorizing a few lines may come in handy when you’re in dire need of a bathroom.
7. If possible, travel to several places:
Because of the uniquely diverse climate, there are countless things to see in Colombia. Not only is Colombia the second most biodiverse country in the world (and the #1 in biodiversity per square inch), but it is also very rich in cultural diversity, so staying in one place is missing out on a whole lot.
Visit beautiful Cartagena, move over to colonial towns like San Agustin and Villa de Leyba, see Botero’s sculptures in Medellín, enjoy the mountain in Bogotá, go to national parks like El Cocuy, el Tayrona, la cueva de los guacharos; visit the coffee-making region, ride along the amazon river in the jungle, climb up the Andes, and visit the plains, see the river of five colors (caño cristales), and the sea of seven colors in the Caribbean (San Andrés and Providencia), dance salsa in Cali, see the white city of Popayán, and get lost in small towns that don’t even appear in maps. So much to see, so little time!
8. Understand transportation:
It can be difficult for a foreigner to understand the inter-city public transit systems because they’re more informal than in other countries. Ask the people in your accomodation, or locals on how to get to the bus terminals, which buses to catch, and where. Keep in mind that if you’re in small towns, you might have to catch the buses on the road itself. The good thing about this is that they’re usually a lot more flexible and, if you need to, you can ask the drivers to drop you off before you reach the terminal. You can also negotiate prices, especially for the smaller buses (flotas), if you’re getting off earlier, or if there’s no seats left and you have to stand up. If you’re looking for a more “organized” experience, I recommend you take the Expreso Bolivariano. Seriously, my bus ride from Cali to Bogotá was more luxurious than most airplane rides I’ve taken, I didn’t even know what to do with the amount of leg room I had!
If you’re planning on flying, research different airlines. Budget travelers love VivaColombia because of its ridiculously low fares. Since this is the Spirit Airlines/RyanAir of Colombia, so you’re just allowed a personal item for free.
Pro tip: If possible, avoid the transmilenio in Bogotá during rush hour…unless you’re into weird adrenaline.
9. Learn to love cheese on everything:
Cheese, cheese everywhere! On fruit salads, on hot chocolate, on agua panela-you name it, we can put cheese on it. People find it strange that we compliment such things with cheese, but that is because we’re the only country who has discovered the secret of these amazing combinations. Don’t be afraid to join the dark side!!
10. Forget your dancing inhibitions:
I lived for several years in the US and a year in France and, boy had I forgotten how awesome it is to always have a dance partner! Dancing is a very important part of Colombian culture, and missing out on it is missing out on Colombia! It might be scary to dance to things like merengue, salsa, and vallenato if you’ve never done it, but what matters is your openness and willingness to try it. Let the music fill your soul!!