12 Things you Need to Know While in Colombia

by Carolina Ayerbe

If you think Colombia is what you see on international news, you’re sadly mistaken. Colombia, that country located in the top left corner of South America is a diverse, vibrant place with a rich history and interesting culture. Including a cultural trip to Colombia on your bucket list (or even better a study abroad trip!) is a fantastic idea!

Pueblito Paisa near Medellín, Colombia

Pueblito Paisa near Medellín. A small replica of the typical town in the region of Antioquia
Photo by Carolina Ayerbe

There’s so much to do and see in Colombia for every taste and every kind of traveler, but here are some facts you need to know before you go:

The Cultural History

Colombia used to be inhabited by indigenous civilizations that date back to 20,000 BC. Even the Incas had settlements in the southern part of the country. In the 1500s Spanish explorers came to South America (in part in search for El Dorado) and conquered the land with their mixture of violence and religion. During colonial times the Spanish brought black slaves from Africa. Later on Colombia gained its independence from Spain in 1819 with Simón Bolívar and his military campaigns. So today Colombia is mostly the amalgamation of both Spanish, African, and indigenous cultures. In general it's safe to say it’s a western civilization, there is democracy and a state of law where citizens enjoy freedom of cult and speech.

All of Colombia's historic past makes for one of the most diverse and culturally intriguing countries in South America.

The Importance of Race

The stereotype of the Latino in the U.S. does not occur in Colombia and the culture is not at all what you’d find in Mexico, for instance. In Colombia, Colombians are Colombian and people from other countries are foreign. People from other parts of Latin America are just as foreign as Germans or Americans (Now, beware, as a foreigner, you’re going to be stared at, a lot). People from all races have made families together creating what could be considered a mestizo race. Black people have never been treated differently if you ask a person born during the 20th century, because slavery was abolished around 1853. Since Colombia had an early abolition of slavery, the country has had time to embrace individuals in the black community as just more Colombians. Unfortunately, the protection and preservation of the few truly indigenous cultures that remain are something only recently being addressed.

Medellín, Colombia

The Local People

Foreigners are treated almost like royalty, because Colombians are fascinated with people from other parts of the world. They will walk the extra mile for you and they’re very friendly! You’ll find that the warmer the weather, the warmer the people, but everybody is very helpful and accommodating regardless! People in Colombia smile a lot and are generally happy; streets on weekends are full because everybody goes out, and the discos are always in full swing. A lot of Colombians struggle to make ends meet and you’ll see a lot of informal businesses on the streets. Colombians would say they’re descomplicados, which means that they go with the flow and they don’t tie themselves into a knot. You’ll see that attitude reflected everywhere. Now, beware that Colombians don’t appreciate narcotic trafficking related jokes, comments, or innuendos. The past of drug and violence is painful and something that they’re working hard to move past.

You Can Satisfy Any Craving

There are many affordable trips for international students in Colombia. The culture in Bogotá and Medellín is incredible, with a vast array of activities from opera, theater, museums, cultural activities, and lectures to incredible cuisine. Pristine beaches are located in the islands of San Andrés, Santa Marta, or Islad del Rosario, and many more. You can attend local festivals like the Carnaval de Barranquilla or the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros in Pasto. You can visit the Amazon jungle and see nature up close and personal.

With its vast biodiversity, Colombia is one of the top countries in the world to visit if you enjoy communing with nature.

You Can (And Should) Experience Every Facet of the Culture

You can visit charming little colonial towns in Boyacá, with an incredible offering of arts and crafts for all styles. You can have a salsa immersion and learn to dance like the pros in Cali; trust me, you’ll never be the same after that. You name it, Colombia has it!

Street food in Colombia

The Street Food is a MUST

The variety of food in Colombia is astonishing. Think about it: what could result from Spain's excellent cuisine, mixed with indigenous exotic ingredients, and an African heritage? A food offering like no other. If you go to Colombia you will be well fed, that’s for sure! Make sure to take advantage of the incredible variety of fruits and vegetables that you can’t easily find in America or Europe, at a fraction of the price and completely fresh, like they were just collected that morning. Fruit like uchuvas, maracuyás, curubas, pitahayas, kiwi, piñas (pineapple), blackberries, guanábanas, granadas, granadillas, anones, papayas, and more! Most food in Colombia is what you’d call “organic”, only because the food industry is not as advanced as in first world countries. Enjoy some tamales (not like Mexican tamales at all), lechona, bandeja paisa, ajiaco, cocido Boyacense, viudo de Capaz, cuy, arroz con coco, and more!

How to Quench Your Thirst

Tap water can be consumed in big cities like Bogotá or Medellín, but if you’re a bit apprehensive, go for bottled water. Colombians like their coffee black, watery, and sweet (it’s called tinto) which for some connoisseurs would be sacrilege; so If you like the strong coffee or Cuban coffee, you’re going to have to go to a specialty store.

What to Expect from the Climate

Cities tend to be high in the mountains, so you may experience some altitude sickness. And Colombians are in love with their mountains! Colombia doesn’t have seasons; the weather depends on the altitude of the place. The higher the city, the colder it is. Bogotá is 8530 feet high so it enjoys a cool spring-like weather all year round. Medellín is a bit warmer, Cali is warmer still (temperatures are usually in the 80s) and Cartagena is located on a sunny coast with temperatures in the 90s all year round. There are generally dry and rainy seasons, but that’s all.

The Streets are Chaotic

The traffic in big cities like Bogotá or Medellín in completely chaotic; the cities are suffering with the fast increase in the number of cars. Medellín is the only city in Colombia that offers a metro system. In Bogotá, you are going to need a local's help to get around. The main massive transportation system is called Transmilenio made up of red busses, but there are many other kinds of buses that only locals know how to navigate. It is not recommended that you hail a taxi on the street; it’s better to have a taxi called on the phone for you, or use the latest mobile device apps which are much safer.

Cartagena, Colombia

The Basics: Time, Banks, & Communication

Local time is -5 GMT. The currency is the Colombian peso and other currencies are not really accepted at local stores. There are ATMs in every city and they do accept international debit and credit cards. Small villages and towns may not provide ATMs.  Internet is accessible in some restaurants and some hotels (though big chain hotels will charge you extra for it). Cell phones use SIM cards , if you want you can buy a cheap pre-paid phone and SIM card while in Colombia. You can purchase minutos in any local store. 

Visa Requirements

Foreigners that don’t require a visa for entry can stay up to 90 days; after that, they do require a visa. Check with your consulate to see what the requirements are for you.

Safety Precautions

Safety has increased significantly in the past few years in Colombia and Colombians are making a great effort to leave their violent past behind. The country is safe for the most part and groups outside of the law tend to be located in remote areas. The first rule you need to follow is to not go where other Colombians wouldn’t go. If a Colombian is telling you not to take a certain route or not to visit a certain place, comply. They know their territory. Big cities like Bogotá, Medellín, or Cartagena are as safe as big cities anywhere, so use common sense and don’t become a target. Don’t use flashy jewelry, don’t flaunt your iPhone on the street, don’t carry wads of money, you know, the usual.

If you keep these 12 things in mind, you are sure to thoroughly enjoy any study abroad program in Colombia; it’ll be the experience of a lifetime!