Colombia might be the world’s highest producer of cocaine, but contrary to popular belief, usage among Colombians is relatively low compared to the rest of the world. Of course, it’s possible to buy drugs in Colombia (which doesn’t mean you should), but the vast majority of Colombians are opposed to cocaine – they have seen all too clearly the damage it has caused their country – and will be offended if you ask them for some. Tour guides, hostel staff, bartenders: these people aren’t drug dealers. So don’t treat them as if they are, and don’t ask for cocaine.
Not all Colombians hated Netflix’s series on the rise and fall of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, but most did: a lot of people in Colombia are fed up of seeing their country’s pain and suffering trivialised and turned into entertainment. Narcos might not have done any serious damage to Colombia directly, but it served to reinforce positive stereotypes about a man who, for most Colombians, was a murderous figure. By all means, ask a Colombian their opinion on the controversial show, just don’t act as if they should be happy that your view of their country was shaped by a TV show about a drug dealer.
Colombian people are very proud and somewhat protective when it comes to their food. The humble arepa, a staple of Colombian meals everywhere, often comes under fire from discerning gourmand travellers (quite unfairly really). There are multiple types of arepa, some better than others (what’s with those little white ones in a bandeja paisa?), but when a Colombian asks if you like arepas, do yourself a favour and just say yes. The same rule applies to almost all Colombian dishes.
Obviously, this one is relative: if your friend arrives two hours late for your night out then you can probably call them out on it. However, in Colombia, it’s pretty normal to arrive a little bit late for an appointment without intending or causing any offence. People from more punctual cultures might struggle to adjust at first, but it’s best to just accept that people will often be a bit late, and always bring a book with you.
When it comes to dancing, this statement simply won’t register for many Colombians. Not everyone in Colombia can dance of course, but sometimes it seems as if they can. They also love dancing here, at least compared to many other countries, and an invitation to dance isn’t lightly turned down. If someone invites you to dance with them, even if it’s the last thing you fancy doing, just suck it up and get on the dance floor!
Turning down another shot of Colombia’s ‘delicious’ national spirit just isn’t done. You can always quietly deposit the contents of the glass under the table if you can’t manage another drink, but don’t refuse the offer: politeness is very important to Colombians, and turning down the kind offer of a shot of aguardiente, however politely, is rare here.
Colombians have limited sympathy for people arriving in the capital city with nothing but a pair of flip-flops, some shorts, and singlets, who then go on to complain about how cold it can get there. Bogota can get pretty chilly, especially at night. Many travellers wrongly assume that Colombia is a universally tropical and hot country and that their beachwear will suffice. Complaining about the cold might not really offend Colombians, but it might well prompt an eye-roll or two, and the sight of a traveller visiting a restaurant or club in flip-flops can definitely annoy the quite formal bogotanos.
Admittedly, this one doesn’t really apply to verbal communication (unless you tend to really over-pronounce the letter U), but nothing irks Colombians more than people spelling their country ‘Columbia.’ It’s seen here as a sign of ignorance and lack of respect, and after years of Colombia being shorthand for violence and danger around the world, the country’s image is understandably important here. So when you’re messaging all your new Colombian friends on Facebook or Whatsapp, be careful to use two Os and zero Us.
Another slightly outdated stereotype is that Colombia is practically a war zone, and you’ll be lucky to get out alive. While there are parts of the country that still suffer from violence, and Colombia isn’t quite at Icelandic levels of safety, the country has worked hard to reach the point they are at now. Colombia is as safe as it’s ever been for visitors, and Colombians don’t enjoy being constantly reminded of their dangerous reputation.
El Tigre is a legend in his homeland and, despite the Monaco striker arguably being a few years past his prime – around 2012, when he was perhaps the best No. 9 in the world – he is regaining form in France and Colombians will not hear a bad word said about him or his ability. In spite of his World Cup dream-destroying injury in 2014, and his travails at Manchester United and Chelsea, Colombian football fans never lost faith in their talisman, and refused to accept that his best years were behind him. Don’t even dare to suggest that the French league is a little bit easier! And the same rules apply to criticising new golden-boy James Rodriguez.
Let’s make one thing clear: you can definitely tell a Colombian that you love Shakira. They won’t get offended, they won’t get angry, and they might even smile. One thing they might not do is react with the enthusiasm you expected. The global superstar isn’t as loved in Colombia as people think: she doesn’t live in Colombia, some say she’s lost her accent, and she once got the words of the national anthem wrong. She’s far from hated here, but if you want to praise a Colombian singer and have people fall over themselves to agree with you, stick to Carlos Vives or Juanes.
For three years now, ‘Era gol de Yepes’ has been a rallying cry for Colombian football fans: ‘It was a goal by Yepes.’ This refers to the disallowed goal scored by central defender Mario Yepes in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup against Brazil. The ‘goal’ would have narrowed Brazil’s lead to 2–1 in a period of the match when Colombia was in the ascendency. They went on to lose the game 2–1, and the grievance about the apparently offside goal has never really diminished. There have been memes, T-shirts, and national campaigns all declaring it a goal. Watching it back, it still looks like a tight call but, as football fans are wont to say, ‘You’ve seen ’em given.’ Just don’t say that to a Colombian.
Colombians don’t love it when visitors – particularly ones who might have been in the country for all of two weeks – make constant unfavourable comparisons to their own country, such as, ‘In my country, the service is so much better than this.’ Certain things might well be true, and Colombia doesn’t always hold up well when compared to some other countries in categories such as organisation or service. However, Colombians are very proud people, and hearing newly arrived visitors putting their country down never goes down well. Keep it to yourself!
It can be weird the first time a Colombian refers to you as a Gringo to your face, especially when you are aware that, traditionally speaking, the term refers to someone from the United States. However, in Colombia the word ‘gringo’ has become a common catch-all term for foreigners, particularly those of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired persuasion. It’s not meant to be insulting – unless of course, the tone is clearly aggressive or rude, in which case, take as much offence as you like – merely a generalised way of referring to foreign visitors. Even if you don’t love being referred to by a stereotypical expression, it’s best not to make a big deal of it at the risk of – perverse as it may seem – offending the person saying it: most Colombians don’t understand any offence caused, and you are more likely to end up causing someone embarrassment.
When it comes to doing business in Colombia, patience is necessary. During early meetings with new business partners or your Colombian counterparts, it can seemingly take forever for the topic of business to even come up. Don’t be irritable or in too much of a hurry to get things moving. Meetings can be slow and deliberate here, with people making a lot of smalltalk before they move the topic of conversation onto whatever you are there to discuss. Simply be patient, and engage in the chit-chat, and don’t be too quick to press the issue, or you may cause offence.