Colombia is a stunningly beautiful country and a must-visit on your travel bucket list. It is finally shedding its unsafe history and tourists are getting to see all this country has to offer from the cool mountains in the country’s capital, Bogotá, to the sunny Caribbean coast of Cartagena. No matter where you land in Colombia, you will be immediately captivated by natural beauty, but as with any new place there are some things you will need to adjust to. Here are five things you should know before you land:
- The language. Spanish is such a beautiful language. If there was ever a time to learn Spanish, it is before you arrive in Colombia. However, do not let limited Spanish skills stop you from planning a trip. The people are friendly and you can usually find someone who can speak at least a few words of English. Being prepared with a few basic Spanish phrases can make getting around a little easier.
- Do not flush your toilet paper. Yes, you read that correctly. You cannot flush toilet paper anywhere in Colombia. You will find waste baskets beside every toilet in airports, houses, and hotels. It does not matter what time of the month it is or if you have eaten a lot of fibre, all toilet paper must be thrown in these waste baskets. To the regular toilet paper flusher this may sound gross, but it eventually becomes second nature and there is very little odour in Colombian restrooms. Griff learned the hard way what happens when you forget. Our very first morning in Colombia he came out of the bathroom embarrassed stating, “I plugged the toilet.” After having to scoop his used toilet paper back out of the toilet, he never forgot again.
- Eat everything on your plate. Colombians are very generous and proud of the food they cook. They are also easily offended if you do not finish what they give you. This is especially important when staying with locals or visiting the farms outside Bogota. They like big portions, so if you’re not a big eater or if you are picky make sure to ask for a small portion before they serve you.
- Yes, can sometimes mean no. Colombia has a very polite culture. When learning Spanish, stick to the polite forms of words and phrases (e.g. use usted tu for the word you). Colombians consider it very impolite to say no to a guest. This is something we learned on the Coffee Farm Homestay tour with Andes EcoTours. After spending the morning hiking, we stopped at a farm for lunch. We really wanted agua (that means water, you’re welcome) because we had finished our bottles on the hike. We asked several times and received nods indicating yes, but we were never brought water. We later learned that due to a power outage they were conserving their bottled water supply. As their guests, they would have felt rude telling us no. This aspect of Colombian culture can be confusing and even a little bit frustrating, but it is easier to appreciate when we understand that Colombians do what they believe is the most polite.
- Periods replace commas when it comes to money. Currency in the country is referred to as the Colombian peso (COP), which is represented by the $ symbol. Instead of using commas for numbers like $10,000, it would be written as $10.000. This subtle difference takes some getting used to on top of grappling with the fact that holding a bill with the number ten thousand on it does not make you rich (this amount in Columbian pesos represents less than five Canadian dollars).