4 tips to understand Colombian culture

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Like most cultures from warm regions around the world, the Colombian culture puts sensations before ideas, people before work, and joy before melancholic inclinations. Perhaps Silvio, the Swiss owner of Hostal Capurgana, summed it up best when he said: “In Colombia, you will never know anyone to die of heart disease due to stress. In Switzerland and the West, life many times has the opposite ending.”

That’s not to say things don’t get done here in Colombia. The country has one of Latin America’s fastest growing economies, is rich in natural resource exportation, and is more forward-thinking today than ever-producing most of its electricity, around 70%, from renewable energy sources. Below is a compilation of travel tips to consider when travelling to Colombia that will help ensure smooth conversations and transactions, and stellar experiences that will linger for a lifetime.

smile2Take your time to get to know these warm and smiling people / Photo by Brannon Gerling

Take your time to understand individuals within their cultural ethos

Colombians are as diverse as their wildlife; the country boasts more plant and animal varieties per unit than any other country in the world. But when dealing with locals, you can generally expect abundant help, not mechanical precision. Try to learn from their flexible natures.

The generic Colombian disposition is warm and humane. It always helps to smile when meeting someone for the first time, greeting him or her according to the day’s time, maybe quickly asking them how they are, and then proceeding with inquiries. Patience is key when traveling in Colombia, or anywhere, and rushing in new places isn’t very practical, nor pleasant, especially when you’re on vacation.

Colombians seek daily fun and happiness. If you take your time to experience a moment with them, their doors will open up to you and your travel experiences will become much richer and more memorable.

crafts2Take a walk in Medellin’s market and enjoy the interaction with locals / Photo by Brannon Gerling

When asking for directions or market prices, ask twice

Colombians want to reward each other and don’t like saying no to anything. This includes offering good directions when they’re not entirely confident. So to be sure of your intended direction, ask at least two different people to confirm the proper way. Your Spanish might need some help from your old high school days, anyway.

It’s the same with market shopping. Traditional markets are as old as civil society itself; functionally, not much has changed for thousands of years. Like much of the items sold in traditional markets, prices are often determined organically. Thus, in order to learn the lowest prices possible, ask different sellers the price of the single item you are seeking to buy. Then try bargaining for it while closing in on a deal. Be light and have fun when bargaining: merchants are just trying to make a living, and respect can only help preserve your budget.

metromedellin2Don’t hesitate to speak Spanish with the locals – they will appreciate the initiative / Photo by Brannon Gerling

Try to speak the native Spanish tongue

Famous Colombian novelist and Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote: “No es cierto que la gente deje de perseguir sus sueños porque envejece, que envejecen porque dejan de perseguir sus sueños.” It means: It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.

Colombian’s employ a beautiful Spanish that includes many thoughtful and poetic expressions. They are very proud of their Spanish heritage, which explodes into bouquets of song, poetry, and dance at all times of the day and night. Although many Colombians are educationally advanced, English is something foreign to many Colombians. It’s thus best speaking Spanish first wherever you go, and perhaps picking up a pocket-sized Spanish language book to help you through simple yet important conversations. If that doesn’t work, ask around for English speakers.

market2Discover all the specialties of Colombia’s culture / Photo by Brannon Gerling

When in doubt, do what Colombians do

This means relaxing around the wonderful colonial squares, taking siestas after almuerzo (lunch), finding late night live music and dancing until your feet hurt.

But it also means eating how Colombians eat and going at a slower, more expressive pace. Colombians usually don’t fuss over breakfast but head to the bakeries for coffee and breads stuffed with fruit jams. Lunch is the pocket saver, where many restaurants offer set menus where you’ll receive soup, homemade flavored waters, and a choice of meat that compliments your plate of salad, plantains, rice, and beans.

Skipping siesta takes you right into happy hour, where you can find two-for-one drinks in major cities, like Medellin and Cali. But if you opt out of siesta, know that you’ll be waiting until 11:00pm or so for the nightlife to pick up, later for the discos. You can recharge in the ubiquitous parks and squares, buying cheap refreshments if you’re still full from lunch when dinner comes around.

For further information, tours and activities in Colombia, check out our website Colombia4u!

By: Brannon Gerling, contributing writer for Colombia4u