The Things I Have Learned Living in Colombia is meant to help you take the shortcut I wish I had when I first moved here. These are things which will help you survive and thrive in the turbulent years to come. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and Life Abroad in South America is no exception.
Life Abroad isn’t for the weak of heart or body. It will awaken your senses even as you feel yourself contract from the blatant savagery that is South America. It is a continent of sharp contrasts, intense cultures and some of the most beautiful natural surroundings in the world.
The Things I Learned Living in Colombia
This is by no means a comprehensive list, more like the starter package. Feel free to comment below about what you learned. How did it impact your experience? Were you able to make a long term life, or did you go home to re-group? I want to know about your experiences too! I included a few #AffiliateLinks to products that I like.
#1 | Buy Nice Wool Socks
Whether you are in an extremely humid and hot, or a cold and wet environment – of which Living in Colombia has both, bring wool socks. For me, it has been a part of my survival. I don’t sleep well if my feet are cold. I also need to be able to walk long distances over varying terrain. Wool socks will do the job. Have a thick pair for the cold, and a thin pair for the heat.
#2 | Bring NEW Electronics
Not to sound retarded, but this one should be obvious. If you are planning to become a part of the local economy, you will quickly discover that your money will be worthless later. Buy the tools of your future profession BEFORE you move abroad. I did the opposite, but was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel and bring back some much needed gear. It got me through some thin times.
Specific recommendations include: Quality charger cables and remote cell phone chargers or external batteries. These can help you juice up on the go or travel to small towns and places which may have limited access to wall outlets. New unlocked cell phones with quality case to protect against life.
#3 | Don’t Fall In Love With The First Person Who Looks at You
Again, so obvious! Yet, so may people move down here and marry into a culture they have no clue about. When it’s over, you will stumble upon this blog and smack your head on the truth of my words. You have to be very patient and understand the context of the culture you are trying to mix with.
You really have to play keep away for as long as humanely possible. Otherwise that guy will get you knocked up, or that girl will get you on the hook, and you will have no clue what hit you. Until later when he/she is leaving with half of your stuff or raising children which you both created. Read: Machista.
#4 | Learn to Dress Like The Natives
This is the one piece of advice that everyone rolls their eyes at. But I can’t repeat it enough. IF, and only IF you are serious about Owning a Business or Working with Colombians.
But, if you think you want to create real and meaningful interactions with Colombians, you need to observe their fashion traditions and err on the conservative side. You will be taken much more seriously, respected and they will feel like you understand their needs. Sales/Marketing 101, Connect with your target audience.
#5 | Stop Talking About the USA
I say this mostly to my own countrymen. You are not in the US. Try to put yourself in their shoes. They have been comparing themselves to your popular culture since infancy and more often than not, been found wanting. We have experienced some incredible technological and lifestyle advantages.
Colombia in contrast has technology and systems which are still very retro, manual, 10 years behind and generally still stuck in the stone age. On the flip side, Colombians have incredible talent and creativity.
Stop talking about the USA, start listening actively to what Colombians are trying to tell you. This is a country which is seeking to pull themselves up by their broken boot straps from a conflict which has left them traumatized and to some extent – stuck in the past. The red tape and bureaucracy is a part of their biology, but I think they are really working past that. Particularly in the art, culture and creative industry sector.
#6 | You Have to Understand The Past to Appreciate The Present
Take some time to study the history and culture of whatever city you plan to visit, or move to. Especially if you don’t plan to stay very long it will help you have more cultural context upon arrival. Much of their culture has been influenced by political history, abundant biodiversity, immigration, narco culture, war brutality and Spanish exploitation during the colonial Conquista. Indigenous roots and influences are also woven into the rich culture.
One visit probably won’t be enough, and if you are coming here to live, you will be shocked at how hard it is to leave the exotic allure of Colombia. There is nothing in the world like it. But, you must understand their past to appreciate the present. This is an exciting time in history where, if they can pull themselves out of war and create a lasting peace, they could quickly transform into a developed country. But you must understand their past.
#7 | Bring High Quality Shoes
The pretty shoes, like heels, sandals and boots – can be found everywhere in Colombia. What you will struggle with, is finding comfortable, functional, well-made shoes. Oh, and if you have wide feet – don’t bring them. Or ensure you have quality shoes to fit them – because Colombians, in general have smaller and narrower feet than the average American.
Especially brands like Keen, Merrill, Converse, Ariat, Asics…anything and everything related to hiking, running, walking and foot comfort. Colombia has a very limited availability. The best solution is to have shoes custom-made, order online or plan to have small feet.
#8 | Buy High Quality Jeans – both men and women!
Obviously in my case, it is trying to find women’s jeans. But the same applies for men. I have tried to go jean shopping over the years. And the best jeans I have, are still the ones we brought from the US. My biggest problem, they are getting too loose! In Colombia, a nice-fitting pair of thin skinned jeans will run you 250,000+ COP. And, if you are tall, hippy, waisted and preferring something relatively loose? Nope. Probably won’t find it.
If you are coming to Colombia for any period of time, and your destination is cold, then bring nice jeans. The hotter climates – are mostly too hot for jeans. I have found that the Eddie Bauer Guide Pants are WONDERFUL for traveling warm climates where you need to go to meetings or formal occasions where shorts won’t fly. And they look amazing!
#9 | Have an Escape Plan
Not every situation is for every person, or every personality type. If you generally thrive off of anxiety and stress, then Colombia could be your next major breakdown. It takes a super human amount of patience, lots of passion and a will to overcome struggles. At this point I am talking to people who are not retired who are coming here to work, or worse – start your own business.
Have an escape plan. If nothing else it will give you the psychological pacifier that you can pull the rip cord and go home. And if you do, that’s ok. It means you are human and it’s time to regroup. If you don’t then you have leveled up and can now put the training wheels onto your Colombian Lifestyle Experience.
#10 | Bring Good Quality Pens – Lots of Them
If I had a penny for every time I tried to find a good pen, I would be walking in high cotton. As it is, unless you are willing to spend atrocious amounts of money on super special amazing looking German pens that come in cases, you might be disappointed. Everything writes like a car that has an oil leak, it either explodes easily or refuses to write with the thin and flimsy papered notebooks they tend to sell cheaply here.
Bring good quality pens, even the free ones. I had a freebie bank pen that lasted a few years, it wrote miles of smooth ink lines without fail, until it ran out.
#11 | Learn to Eat the Local Cuisine
Because sometimes you won’t be able to afford the food you used to eat back home. On the other hand, there are some tipico Colombian meals that I can’t get enough of like Sancocho, Beans, Huevos con Calentado and Pollo Sudado. Come to Colombia and find out what I am saying – not worth explaining.
Point is, if you Learn to Eat the Local Cuisine, you can save a ton of money eating out while making nutritious gluten-free meals that will actually help you stay healthy. Not bad.
#12 | Don’t Drink Straight Aguardiente/Rum
Colombians in times of retrospection and even rarer moments of truth, will admit that Aguardiente is fire water. There are some wonderful cocktail preparations that you can try which may contain either of these, but don’t sit down and go toe to toe with the Colombians.
They say that Aguardiente is a “Traicionero,” or Betraying. In other words, you feel good until suddenly it goes bad on you when you hit your limit. Then things get dicey ranging from extreme mood/emotional changes to blackouts and forgetting where you were and what you were doing. Know your limit and avoid over drinking. Do not encourage underage drinking. No drinking and driving.
#13 | Carry Activated Charcoal
One of the most useful food-sensitivity, food-poisoning and hang-over remedies I have ever found, is Activated Charcoal. What I consider to be the single most important health item to pack, has saved my life at least a million times. Also, use extreme caution around street food and always check to see that your meat has been properly prepared.
I haven’t experienced any side effects from taking it, but I have noticed that it stopped food sickness in its tracks, although it can cause you to upchuck, or have diarrhea if what you ate was toxic. Never leave home without it.
#14 | Learn How to Dance
In the US, there’s plenty of dance talent. In South America, it is a built in sense of rhythm. But, Don’t let it get you down. There are many dancers professionals who have learned how to teach outsiders how to get into the flow. Definitely take the time to learn how to dance. There are so many dance traditions here, finding something for you is inevitable. Salsa, Tango, Paso Doble, Pasillo, Joropo and so many more!
Dance has even been found to prevent alzheimers, dementia and slow mental deterioration. Life is too short to wait any longer! Go find the dance that suits you and learn it!
#15 | Laugh and Move On With Life
My last and most important tip, is to not lose your sense of perspective. Sometimes we have to laugh, brush off the dust and move on with life. Don’t let a person or a place ruin your experience, but be willing to simply let it go. Letting go is different for every type of expat or nomad.
Sometimes letting go means allowing the tension from long lines or dishonest taxi drivers to leave you as you shake it off. Other times it means packing your bags. Whatever it is, you will know it when the time comes. It is up to you to simply be willing to laugh and move on with life.
On a more personal note…
So many life changes have happened to me over the last couple years after I began Living in Colombia. I originally started this blog in 2012, as a fun experiment. It slowly evolved into a burning passion. One day I woke up and decided to make my passion an integral part of my actual career path. That is when PereiraCityGuide.com was born.
After a few bumpy beginnings PereiraCityGuide.com turned into an authority, from an expat perspective, on Pereira and the Coffee Region of Colombia – more commonly known as the Eje Cafetero, or Coffee Axis. Along the way, I fell in love, had a baby, fell out of love and discovered Tango. Out of tango, the Feria de Manizales, Love and moving to a new city, CoffeeAxisTravel.com was born. This is my final all-encompassing website tier which I am using to extend my reach to places like Manizales and even Medellin.
Open Minded Traveler endures as my constant and patient companion. This is where I come to talk about the uncomfortable, unprofessional and uncouth topics. Topics which people whisper about in private, and when they think no one else is hearing. It is also a place to explore my boundaries and continue to develop my skills as a writer. It is my place to dream, imagine and reinvent myself.
The things I have learned in Colombia are many. No doubt my readers can think of many more. Sound off in the comments with things you absolutely won’t leave home without. I want to know more about your experience and what you Learned Living in Colombia!