Customs in Colombia

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Customs in Colombia

Traveling in Colombia is definitely worthwhile. From Bogota, with a temperate climate 2,600 m (8530 ft) above sea level and at a constant temperature of 19 degrees Celsius, a drive of one or two hours North, South, East or West can take you to landscapes which are as diverse as they are beautiful. To the East are the oriental plains which stretch out far beyond the horizon with little modulation. To the North are the more rugged contours of the higher Andean region. To the South the weather is sub-tropical and has flora and fauna concomitant with this, and to the West you can find the Magdalena River valley and its hot weather. Colombia is one of the equatorial countries of the world, but unique in its extreme topography and abundance of water.

It is really important to understand that Colombia is a country of civil conflict. Although the situation has improved in the years following 2002, there are still many areas of the country that are considered too dangerous for tourism. Heavy day-to-day fighting between guerrillas, narco-traffickers, paramilitaries and state forces takes place in most of southern, south-eastern and north-western Colombia as of 2010, including certain smaller urban centers. Rural areas bordering Venezuela are also to be avoided.

It is not considered appropriate to travel by bus across the country; instead domestic airlines like Avianca are to be preferred. Although many parts of the country are now considered relatively safe for tourism, it is also important to remember that millions of Colombians, predominantly from the poorer classes, suffer from the ongoing conflict every day.

Nevertheless, the most dangerous are provincial areas in the country. There are ongoing fights in the Cauca region in the southwest of the country, but not in the provincial capital. Major cities, like Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla, Cartagena, Bucaramanga, Cucuta, and generally speaking, province capitals are very safe, although you should avoid going out to certain areas of said cities in the night, as crime is often common, just like in any other city in the world. The FARC, the most important guerilla group, have their forces weakened by government actions and the political situation is stable, with a steady democratic system. Common sense must be used, as you should use it anywhere.


Generally avoid discussing politics or the present armed conflict in public, except with well-known acquaintances or relatives that have your trust and confidence. In general, nobody will react with violence to different opinions, but the hearts of Colombians suffer deeply remembering all the victims of the political and narcotics wars of past and current conflicts.

Accordingly, do not approach the subjects of drug wars or political turmoil in your first conversation with a Colombian; this can really grate on their nerves, since they are clearly aware of their country's bad reputation and the government has been persistently working to improve the country's condition. When approached with these topics, it is not uncommon for them to utter a snide remark (likely regarding your country of origin) and walk away. However, Colombians eventually become willing to discuss these topics once they feel comfortable enough with someone.

Always say "please" ("Por favor" or "Hágame el favor") and "thank you" ("muchas gracias") for anything, to anyone. Colombians tend to be very polite and formal, and explicitly good manners win the approval of those around you. Sometimes it can sound rude to Colombians if somebody calls you and you answer with just an "Ehhh?"--the proper response being "¿Señora?" or "¿Señor?", depending on the gender of the person calling you.

Despite being a formal people, Colombians tend to speak their minds and opinions quite freely. However, asking Colombians questions about certain topics (i.e. questions that may be seen as judgmental of religion, class, or economic status) may be considered a private or only-for-close-friends matter.

Like many other Americans, Colombians dislike arguing. So if you get involved in an argument with a Colombian person, it is likely that most Colombians will try to diffuse the situation and avoid prolonging the discussion, so while discussing certain issues, keep yourself cool and express yourself with calm and reason. Colombians admire people with such natures.

Most Colombians are laid back regarding race issues (which have never been the cause of conflict in the country), since white, criollo and mestizo (mixed race) people blend naturally with natives and Afro-Colombians in everyday life (education, living, politics, marriage). So the word "negro" can be used regardless of who's saying it, or who is being referred to in this way. You can hear expressions like "negrito" or "mi negro" in a restaurant or on the street. You could hear someone calling "negra" to a woman, regardless of the race of the person. And in general, Afro-Colombians don't find it offensive, as they are simply variations on the Spanish word for "black". When you use the word "negro" (pronounced "NEH-gro"), whether the intent of the speaker is to be racist or not is inferred from tone of voice and context, so be careful to avoid any confusion.

Differences among white British persons, white U.S. citizens or Europeans are not perceived by most people. Hence, you might be called "gringo" even if you are, say, Russian. Don't let this offend you as a tourist or visitor. Should you feel like it, just mention where you're from; most people will remember your nationality. The same term (without offensive connotations) could also potentially apply to any foreign-language (especially English) speaker of any race.

It is also quite common for Colombians to refer to all white people with light hair as "monos" or "rubios" (blonds). Even white people with clearly red or brown hair may be called these terms. Just as with "negro", these terms are not intended to be offensive.

The same statement could be issued regarding Asian visitors: differences among east Asians, southeast Asians, and Asian U.S. citizens are not perceived by most people. Hence, you might be called "chino" or "china" (Chinese in either case) even if you are, for example, Indonesian. As with the case for European and white visitors, don't let this offend you as a visitor; a simple explanation of your ethnicity or where you're from is usually well accepted.

Sometimes Colombians also refer to children as chinos ("kids"); this use comes from Chibcha, a language spoken by indigenous Colombians, and is not a reference to the people of the Asian country.

Colombians have the mannerism of pointing to objects with their mouths. This is because pointing to a person or even an object with your finger can be considered rude.

Avoid indicating a person's height using your hand palm down, as this is considered reserved for animals or inanimate objects. If you must, use your palm facing sidewards with the bottom of the hand expressing the height.

Regarding table manners, a lot of the more traditional elder Colombians hate when the guest leaves some of the food uneaten on the plate. This sometimes can be uncomfortable to visitors due to the "exotic" food that can be served, like tamales (wrapped in wet green palm leaves). However, you can explain your fears regarding certain foods--they'll understand. When you are eating with young people, you can negotiate and even ask what is going to be eaten in the first place, as Colombians are generally very accommodating to foreigners.

Colombians like to dance a lot. It's part of their cultural ancestry. As in other Central and South American countries, it's very common to hear and feel rhythmic music such as salsa, son, merengue, cumbia or reggaeton. Anyone will be glad to teach you how to dance, and they will not expect you to do it correctly, since they have been practicing every weekend for most of their lives. Colombian night life centers mostly on dancing, and bars where people sit or stand are less common among young people.

When dancing, despite what you might think of all the sensual movements of men and women, people just enjoy music and dancing and are normally not intended as sexual encounters or as sexual signs. Here you could find salsa being danced at a children's "piñata" party, or even at parties for older people. North Americans and Europeans could find this odd or confusing because of the use of salsa and Latin rhythms in their countries. A Colombian dancing innocently could be misinterpreted, and in general, Colombian women or men are not "easy" just because of the way they dance. It is applied in the same way as in Brazil --an almost-naked "garota" dancing samba in the carnival is not inviting you to have sex with her but inviting you to enjoy, to be happy, to join in the celebration, to join the exuberant shedding of inhibitions.

Regarding religion, most Colombians are Catholic, and it´s important to them to keep certain ceremonies and respect for all things related to religion. You could visit great architectural churches, even going inside, but taking pictures may be considered disrespectful during a mass celebration. Young people are more open to learning about other religions and debate on this subject.

Colombians are quite conservative about homosexual issues, so it's not that common to find a couple of men holding hands or kissing in the street. Young people are comparatively more open-minded, but it isn't that common yet. You should expect some people's comments about same sex couples they see, but they reserve those comments to themselves, so you shouldn't expect rude attitudes or harsh comments regarding your sexuality. Indeed, Colombia is one of the countries that aprove civil unions between same sex couples. In fact, the Constitutional Court of Colombia has exhorted Congress to approve laws regarding same-sex marriage before 2013. After that deadline, if the Senate doesn't outline specific laws regarding same-sex marriage, it will be automatically legalised by the Court. The opinions of Colombians on homosexuality are pretty much like those you'll find in the United States.

When writing the name of the country do not spell it "Columbia". Everyone will spot the misspelling right away, and though not necessarily offensive, Colombians are aware of this common mistake and find it rather annoying. The Spanish (and English for that matter) name of the country is "Colombia".

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