This is definitely the number one rule for tourists in Colombia. Illegality aside, cocaine has caused nothing but hurt and suffering for most Colombians and it’s generally a taboo topic. If you want to have a serious discussion about the subject, go right ahead, but avoid taking it or asking Colombians for it, you’ll just offend people. And no ‘hilarious’ coke jokes…
This one isn’t really about offending anyone – although some Colombians are baffled and even annoyed by seeing travellers wandering around the chilly capital dressed for Cartagena – it’s more for your own comfort! People often wrongly assume that Colombia is a Caribbean nation and that it’s nothing but hot, hot, hot! Wrong: Bogota sits at 2,600 m.a.s.l. and get can very cold at night, so pack with that in mind.
When a friendly Colombian offers you shot of the local spirit, just say yes! It’s really not seen as a drinking thing in Colombia, it’s more like an offer of friendship and unity! Naturally if you’re a teetotal recovering alcoholic then move along, but otherwise get that shot down your neck.
There are so many tourists in Colombia who inexplicably think that jokes about the most painful chapters of Colombia’s history are hilarious and are bound to amuse the locals. They won’t, they will just make people dislike you, so avoid them at all costs.
This Colombian expression dar papaya roughly translates as ‘give an opportunity.’ Basically, it means that you shouldn’t make it easier for someone to take advantage of you or rob you: don’t wander around flashing cash or your expensive cellphone at every opportunity. Show a little tact and use a bit of common sense and you’ll be fine.
Haggling is definitely normal in Colombian markets (although not, as many travelers seem to think, at regular shops or the bus station!), but Colombians really don’t appreciate an aggressive haggling style. People can be very sensitive to perceived criticism or aggressive behavior, so keep the haggling light-hearted and fun and you stand a much better chance of getting that discount and making a friend!
Colombia is still very much a cash economy and it can be really tricky to pay on credit card, especially away from the big cities. So make sure you always have at least enough cash for the day on you when you’re traveling.
Colombia is a surprisingly formal culture when it comes to dress, and it’s considered quite rude to turn up to a restaurant or club in shorts and flip-flops. Even on the coast, where it’s amazingly hot, people go out in jeans and shirts, so make sure to pack at least one decent outfit if you’re planning on eating out or going clubbing.
It’s not like it’s a death sentence to hail a taxi at night, but it’s much safer and more sensible to order one from a taxi app or to ask the hotel, bar, or restaurant to order one for you, especially if you’re by yourself.
OK, not all Colombians can dance, but loads can, and people really love to dance here! It’s just not the done thing to turn down a polite invitation to dance (although, if it’s an impolite one, then respond in kind!), so forget all those nerves and embarrassment and shake a leg!
Sadly, although Colombia produces some of the best coffee in the world, most of it is exported outside of the country. The vast majority of coffee served in Colombia is pretty poor quality, which often surprises tourists and even annoys some people. You can find amazing Colombian coffee in big cities or the Coffee Region, but don’t expect great coffee all over the place.
It’s taken a long time for people to feel comfortable traveling to Colombia, and most of the guidebooks tend to focus on the already popular and well-known spots, without making much room for the off-the-beaten-track treasures that Colombia also has to offer. Sure, use the guidebook for some inspiration, but get online and ask locals for tips as well: you won’t regret exploring Guainia, Vichada, Casanare, Caqueta, or Putumayo…
Colombia is, with the greatest will in the world, not the most punctual of countries! ‘Colombian time’ can be a little more flexible than what many tourists are used to, so approach the topic with a pinch of salt and don’t be surprised if your 8 a.m. pickup arrives closer to 8:30! It can be frustrating, but the sooner you relax and worry about time a little less the more fun you’ll have.