In a world where the knowledge of different cultures is proliferating, there are still some small tics in each place you go that will catch you by surprise. Did you know, for example, that in Tibet it’s considered polite to stick out your tongue at a guest? Or that in Albania nodding your head means no and shaking it means yes?
These are the sorts of things that make travel so frustrating, eye-opening and ultimately rewarding. They can lead to anything from embarrassment to offense to hilarity. Still, always best to err on the side of caution and risk offending people by remaining ahead of the game, and with that said we’re going to give you 10 useful tips you should keep in mind when you travel to Colombia, from the cultural to the downright practical.
When a person enters the room, it is normal in Colombia for everyone to stand up and greet them. Men will always shake hands with each other, while women and men or women and women will give one kiss on the cheek if they’re already acquainted, and a simple handshake if they’re not. Things get confusing if they´re a good friend of a friend, since that kind of counts as already being acquainted and you´ll be expected to kiss them on the cheek… Still, wait to see what they do and memorize two simple words to say after your name: ¨mucho gusto¨.
2. Small talk
After introducing yourself, conversation inevitably, in any country, turns to small talk. Being a Brit, my go-to topic is the weather or football (or a long swig of my beer while I navigate what type of thing the person seems to enjoy talking about). Nothing so complicated here in Colombia, just try and learn as many ways of saying ‘how are you?’ as possible and repeat them all.
As you may have gathered by now, Colombia is an extremely formal country in terms of personal relations. Whereas in Argentina or Spain you can expect to get away with the ‘tu’ form of address unless you’re in a business situation, here in Colombia even good friends will refer to each other in the ‘usted’ form. Even dogs are addressed as ‘usted’. Learn it, use it.
Tipping in Colombia is considered good cultural practise and although a service charge is usually included, you should check to make sure and aim for a 10% tip each time. Tips are mainly only expected by restaurants and people at hotels, so don’t worry about heading up to the bar too often.
5. Never assume there will be toilet paper
Unfortunately for the squeamish among us, toilet paper can at times be somewhat of a luxury. Obviously in most decent restaurants and bars you’ll be in luck (and often elsewhere) but even in malls you may find that, despite having toilet paper dispensers, you will find paper itself conspicuous by its absence. Although not always necessary, best to take a few sheets in the back pocket, just in case.
6. Cash machines expect you to be fast
We posted an entire guide to using your credit card in Colombia, but you should also know that the ATMs in Colombia are ruthless. They don’t wait for you to dilly dally, wondering how much you’ll get out. They don’t let you stand there and count all those zeros just to check you’re not about to bankrupt yourself. They have no patience for your inability to comprehend the difference between ‘savings’ and ‘checkings’. You snooze, you lose. Transaction over, thanks for your visit, come again soon. Insert your card and be quicker this time!
Taxis deserve a post unto themselves, and indeed we did post about taxis in Colombia before. You should know that they could be a defining experience of your time here. Fast, furious and quite frightening, a taxi ride might lead to a few more grey hairs but fear not, these guys are like ninjas of the highway. And you can always ask them to slow down.
8. Bus Etiquette
Try to have change smaller than a $20,000, first of all, otherwise the bus driver can take longer than your entire bus ride to give you the chance. Secondly, people don’t get up nor move along to the inside seat to let you sit down, they merely swivel their legs round, forcing you to skillfully avoid pushing your bottom squarely into their face. Finally, many Colombians resent the warmth of a just-used bus seat, so don’t feel offended when they hover for 5 minutes before sitting down. It’s not your cooties especially.
9. Vegetarians, be warned
Colombians love meat and it’s real high quality stuff, which is great for many of us. Not the veggies, though. There is a relatively small vegetarian community, but they’re not exactly catered for in a way that would rival London, for example. In a city like Bogota you can find a decent amount of vegetarian options, but unfortunately as a culture vegetarianism just isn’t really understood. Often if you ask for a meal without meat, you’ll get offered chicken. When you explain you’re vegetarian, you’ll get a suspicious look, and might ultimately have to settle for plain eggs. Make sure you’re explicit about the real seriousness of how you want your meal completely, absolutely bereft of meat.
10. Learn to dance
If you want to get into the culture like a boss, you have to figure out how to dance well. Or at least, how to dance badly well. Take a salsa class or two, get the basics, then get involved.
Any other advice for budding travellers? Leave your suggestions in the comments please.