10 things you didn’t know about Colombia

I was so ignorant. I was underestimating Colombia. But it wasn’t entirely my fault; here in Europe, Colombia is well known for its top quality cocaine, highly skilled criminals and soap operas full of passion, complicated romance, and big boobed actresses. My recent trip branded my mind and let me learn more true things about the country. Here they are:

1. Drivers’ language. The Colombian drivers developed a curious way to talk to each other while driving – they beep. Now, not every beep means the same. A short beep stands for Hi dude, what’s up. A short but more intensive beep means Need to talk to you. Will call you later. A long, loud beep is for Get from my way I’m in hurry. And a double beep is for What the fu**. Get a move on or I’ll hit your car. I’m not fluent in beeping, so all I could hear was a piercing bbbbbeeeeeepppp. Sick of the buzz I told a taxi driver he could get a ticket for beeping without a reason in Germany or Poland and he laughed his head off…

2. Colombians are resourceful people. Whatever you need, they’ll sell it to you. The hawkers are everywhere selling everything: hot deep fried food, salt or sweet snacks, cigarettes, alcohol drinks, soft beverages, ice-creams, cloths, shoes, hats, scarves, fake jewelry, candles, puppies, cafe, tea, freshly squeezed juices, books. You need anything else? Be sure they’ll get it for you if you pay them.

Llamas in Bogota, Colombia
Need a llama? No probs bro!

3. Man-portable call shops. It usually is a one man business. They stay close to a fence or a bench with 3 or 5 mobile-phones tied up to it. The phones are tied up with a rope or a chain. You are not allowed to dial the number on your own, “the boss” does it for you. You are charged on a time basis. The most curious thing is that there are actually people who use this invention. It should be patented.

Colombian version of telephone box
Telephone tree (source)

4. No cycling on roads. It is not forbidden but inhumanly unsafe. Nobody cares about the cyclists. If they knock you down, they won’t even stop to check if you’re dead. And the incomprehensible beeping; I really couldn’t guess what they were trying to tell me (probably move your fat ass faster) I was frightened to death while cycling and thought that was the last time I was on a bike. Do not recommend it.

Typical Colombian delivery bicycle
Mustn’t cycle unless you’re a food cyclist.

5. Great food. Not only are the strange fruits (I have never heard of them before) are delicious, but also the typical Colombian snacks such as buñuelos or empanadas are appetizing. I even convinced myself to try ceviche which is made of raw fish and veggies, and I loved it. Somehow I became addicted to patacón – fried plantain slices sprinkled with salt (it is usually served with fresh fried fishes). I was constantly stealing them from my boyfriend’s plate while having a meal. The best part is…the food is extremely cheap. We were stuffing ourselves constantly for a few euros.

Fried Colombian fish with coco rise and salad.
Looks normal but tastes divine

6. Overpriced hotels. Despite cheap food, the hotels are pretty expensive. Generally speaking, Colombia is a cheap country, however all hotels cost almost a fortune. A normal price for a basic 2 bedroom hotel room is approx. 60-70 € in Bogotá. The prices get higher in touristy places. And being honest, there is a negative relation between price and hotel quality. We paid 45€ for a tiny and dark room with no windows in Cartagena de Indias (let’s be honest, it was a basement. I was starting to behave like a mole). And it was one of the cheapest we found. Well, actually we found a cheaper one but situated in a pretty dangerous neighborhood. As we didn’t want to be kidnapped or robbed, we went with the more expensive one.

7. Whispering is the new talking. Or at least people to whom I talked to think so. OK, it is not that I spoke to thousands of people. I basically had conversations with hotel staff, taxi drivers, waitresses, hawkers, some random people on the beach or in a restaurant. It was pretty difficult to hear what they were saying. It was so frustrating. Not only did I have to deal with the Colombian accent (which differs a lot from the Spanish) but apparently I had to stick my ear to their mouth. Fun fact, after a few days I found myself lowering my voice while talking

8. Clean and fancy McDonald’s. All McDonald’s I was in were very neat. You could see somebody cleaning the tables and floor all the time. In their McDonald’s there’s a sauce&extras station – an open space where you can get yourself extra pickles, tomatoes, onions, sauces. Whatever you need to make your cheap burger more toothsome. Why was it so shocking for me, you may ask? Well, you can’t tell the Spanish McDonald’s are precisely neat – always full of people messing around, throwing everything on the floor, and without staff to clean up. I took for granted it’s the same all over the world.

9. Safe & good public transport in Bogotá. I know, it is hard to believe but it’s true. Bogota has a great bus rapid transit system (opened to public in 2000). It’s called TransMilenio and consists of 12 interconnecting bus lines. It covers almost all of the city’s zones and costs a penny. It’s also the best way to get to an airport – cheaper than cab and you won’t get stacked in a traffic jam as TransMilenio uses a separate bus lane.

10. Tips. I am not used to tipping. In Spain (and most European countries) you don’t have to tip anywhere. Colombia adapted the American way of tipping. The normal thing is to add at least 10% to the basic price (you can tip more if you want to). It just hurt my wallet a little bit…

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