16 June 2013

A Few Tips for Traveling in Colombia

Posted in Blog

In this post, I am going to share with you a few tips and recommendations I think you should keep in mind when traveling in Colombia. Hopefully, these tips will help make your trip a little easier.

1. Learn some Spanish!

This recommendation may seem a bit obvious to some of you, but I have come across my fair number of tourists in Colombia who have no knowledge of Spanish, not even basic, “survival Spanish.” Colombia’s national language is Spanish and while there are many Colombians who speak some English, it is wrong to assume that all Colombians will understand English. It’s possible to “get by” in Colombia with no Spanish, but even just a little Spanish will go a long way. So, do whatever you need to do to brush up on some Spanish—hire a private tutor, take a class at a local university, download some podcasts, or buy a teach yourself book at your local bookstore!

Graffiti in Medellin

2. Read about Colombia—it’s not Mexico!

Again, this recommendation may seem obvious to some, but it’s worth mentioning, because of the popular assumption that all of Latin America is “like Mexico.” Colombia is not Mexico, and even though both countries were conquered by Spain and have Spanish influences in their cultures, they both have very unique and distinct customs and cultures. To better understand Colombian culture and to make sure and avoid any embarrassing cultural misunderstandings, it’s advisable to grab a book about Colombia or read up online about Colombia’s history and culture. It will make your interactions with Colombians less stressful and you’ll better clue in on how to act within the bounds of Colombian politeness!

3. Always have cash, and make sure to have some small bills and coins.

While most major chain stores and restaurants in Colombia will accept debit and credit cards, many small and neighborhood stores will only take cash. You’ll also need cash for taxis, buses, and anything you decide to buy from street vendors (amazing street food, trinkets, souvenirs, or sweets). It’s also advisable to make sure and carry small bills and coins on you as sometimes getting change for large bills (50.000 peso bills, in particular) can be complicated, especially from taxi drivers, buses, and street vendors. If you get cash from an ATM machine, know that it will likely give you 50.000 and 20.000 peso bills. If you need small bills and coins, try to break your larger bills in chain grocery stores like Exito and Carrulla who will always have change.

4. Know how to call a cell phone versus a landline number.

While most cellphone numbers differ in length and or number combinations from landlines, in Colombia the distinction between landlines and cellphones is very marked. As a tourist, you may be unaware of this. In most cases, you probably won’t need to know how this system works, but if you need to make a phone call during your travel it would be good to know the following:

-All cellphone numbers starts with the number “3” and are 10 digits long.

-Landline numbers can start with a variety of numbers and are only 7 digits long.

-Calling a landline number from a cellphone is more expensive and you must dial 3+the area code of the city you’re dialing + the landline number. For instance to call a landline number in Barranquilla from a cellphone you’d need to dial 35 + XXX-XXXX.

-Calling a cellphone from a landline can also be expensive and many hotels will have their phones blocked so guests can only dial local landline numbers. To do so, though, you’ll have to dial “03” + the cell phone number

5. Be open for adventure & trying new things and leave your stereotypes at home!

Many of you will be tempted to create an image of Colombia in your head before you arrive there. As hard as it might be, try and leave all the stereotypes and preconceived notions you may have of Colombia at home. Try to arrive to Colombia with an open mind and a soul ready for adventure. Colombia is a beautiful country that will amaze you and open you up to so many incredible and unique experiences, if you open yourself up. So, don’t let stereotypes keep you from enjoying this remarkable Andean nation.



View from the “Walled City” in Cartagena

Paige M. Pole

About the author:

“Paige M. Poole is an Alabamian and traveler at heart who has settled, for now, in Barranquilla, Colombia, and earns her living as an English professor at the Instituto de Idiomas (Language Institute) at la Universidad del Norte (University of the North). When not teaching English, she enjoys blogging, traveling, relaxing on the beach, and spending time with her partner and two cats, Milo and Sophie.  You can see more of Paige’s traveling experiences in her personal blog www.trotamunda.wordpress.com