It’s hard to imagine that I’ll be leaving Korea on Monday, traveling through Mongolia for a couple weeks, traipsing around the States for a month and a half, and at the end of August, moving to Colombia and beginning my Peace Corps service. Time flies, or as I’ve recently learned, 세월이 참 빠른 것 같아요.
Lately, in preparation for my move, I’ve started to research Colombian culture, history, and ways to deal with two years and three months of profuse sweating. Luckily, one of my readers, Jason from This Gringo Travels, is currently an expat in Colombia, and he kindly offered to give me some tips and advice about life in the land of coffee, Shakira, and breast implants. I drafted a list of questions, and Jason has provided his knowledge and an array of imagery below. Without further ado…
SS: What are your favorite places in Colombia and why? What are the best events to see?
JC: Every place that I’ve been to in Colombia has its own charm. Medellin is my favorite city in the world, but there are tons of small town pueblos that are steeped in culture and beautiful scenery.
I’ve only been in Colombia since January, so I can’t speak for all of the events. The Carnival in Barranquilla is one of the largest in Latin America (considered second largest behind Brazil). Aside from that, the Flower Festival in Medellin is a remarkably famous event that I can’t wait to see in the first week in August, and Medellin is also known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world for Christmas decorations.
SS: How much money do you spend a day on average? What’s the cost of an average meal? Transportation? Are you usually charged “foreign” prices?
JC: As with anyplace, costs are going to depend on your lifestyle. You can get the menu del dia, what we would consider a daily lunch special, for about $3-4. It’s usually a bowl of soup followed by a plate with some sort of meat, rice, salad, arepa (a type of corn bread) and sometimes a little more. I’ve never walked away hungry from one. A normal meal will cost a couple of dollars more depending on your appetite. I love to cook, so this is not where the bulk of my money goes. Most of my money goes towards beer and rum, both of which have good local varieties.
Busses are pretty cheap. The last one I was on was around $8 for a four hour bus ride into a small town. The airline Viva Colombia is currently running an air special for about $20 round trip to most cities within Colombia.
That all being said, I live a higher than average lifestyle here. I have a tenth floor fully furnished 1 bedroom in a very nice part of town. All utilities included for about $675 US per month. I eat regularly at both the local cheap places and at the “high end” places that would have costs comparable to cheap places in the US. Also, Medellin is a bit more expensive than most of the Atlantic coast but probably comparable to the touristy area in Cartagena.
“Foreign prices” are affectionately known as the Gringo Tax here. For the most part I don’t really experience it. Cartagena is notorious for it and I did experience some in Barranquilla, but not much. The only problems I’ve had with it here are from the occasional street vendor.
SS:What are the most essential items to bring to Colombia? What do you wish you’d brought that you didn’t?
JC: You can get just about anything here that you would want. Unlike most other countries in the area, Colombia doesn’t tax American imports. Electronics are similarly priced to the U.S.
SS: How accessible are wi-fi hotspots and internet cafes?
JC: I’m yet to experience a hotel or hostel in Colombia that doesn’t have wi-fi. The internet infrastructure in Colombia is better than many places in the U.S. with reliable 3G networks throughout most of the country. Finding a wi-fi hotspot should not be a problem in even most remote towns. Of course, there are some very small farming towns where there is no internet but there should be no problem anywhere near a city.
SS: What safety precautions would you recommend? In terms of theft, how do you prevent your stuff from getting stolen? Has anyone stolen your stuff in the past?
JC: Safety precautions will really depend on you and your area. In general, I recommend getting to know which areas are safe and which are to be avoided. Until you’re comfortable with the area, try to remain in groups with people who do know a given area. It’s also best not to carry valuables with you if you don’t need to. I generally keep valuables in my front pockets rather than my rear ones when I’m in large crowds or any area I deem possibly shady. Keep purses with zippers and don’t leave anything in outside pockets.
A few people tried to rob me one day, but they were unsuccessful.
SS: How do you dress on a daily basis? What’s appropriate for both men and women? I’ve read that, despite the heat, women frequently wear skin tight jeans and high heels.
JC: This is very regionally dependent, but along the coast it’s not uncommon to find sundresses and shorts. Here in the mountains, this might be a sign of an outsider if you went out to lunch like that, but there aren’t any cultural sensitivity issues to worry about. This is really more applicable to men; nobody wants to see a men’s legs around here, and men will be laughed at if wearing shorts when they’re not playing soccer.
High heels are the typical footwear for women. Colombian women take great pride in their appearance and like to show off a bit. Tight jeans are the norm but you won’t have a problem wearing anything else as long as you don’t dress like a dirt-bag.
SS: Do you study Spanish? What are some good methods for learning Spanish in Colombia?
JC: I tried studying Spanish but the tutor I hired confused me more than helped me. What’s worked best for me is to just get out and talk to people. I’m still a long way from fluent, but I can hold a basic conversation depending on the accent of the person I’m speaking with. The accents along the Atlantic coast can be rather thick… so good luck!
The best thing I’ve tried is a program on iTunes from Michel Thomas. It’s about $80 but I’ve tried everything from Rosetta Stone to private tutors, and this is what’s helped me the most.
SS: Do you feel isolated as a foreigner in Colombia? How open are Colombians to accepting foreigners in their social circles?
JC: Absolutely not! In fact, throughout most of Colombia, foreigners are appreciated and treated especially well. Along the coast you are going to stand out a bit, but if your Spanish is good enough you could pass as Colombian in the Bogota or Medellin areas. I would say about 5% of the population around here is as “White” as you and I. I can’t tell you how often I’m asked for directions only to get an astonished look when I explain that I don’t speak Spanish well enough to help them.
Colombians aren’t always open with strangers, but it doesn’t take long to make friends. Anytime I’m sitting by myself, it’s almost guaranteed that someone will strike up a conversation. Especially along the coast, people are eager to meet foreigners and will quickly introduce you to everyone they know.
SS: What’s the expat community like?
JC: The expat community varies a lot. I’ve never met another expat along the coast, and I’ve only met one other American, but he had been born in Colombia and was just visiting for the week. Here in Medellin, we have a strong expat community of entrepreneurs. It’s relatively small, but it’s fascinating how everyone works together to accomplish things. There is not a large retired community like in other countries.
SS: Do you have any other advice you’d give to a Westerner moving to Colombia?
JC: If I were talking to someone who had no travel experience, I would say keep an open mind and try to learn about the culture rather than fight it.
Have you lived in Colombia? What other tips would you add?
And to see more of Jason’s South America-based writing and photography, check out his blog, This Gringo Travels.
-Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.