The more I travel in Latin America, the more I realise how similar the countries and the people in this part of the world are. And even more I realise how different they are. After months in Central America, here are a few of my many random and maybe a bit funny first impressions about Colombia.
Nobody ever has change
Next to “a la orden” (at your service), “no tienes cambio?” is the most common thing I hear in Colombia. Uhm no, lady, I gave you a 10.000 bill for something that costs 8.000 pesos. Also, you are selling things, how don’t you have change? It’s is like paying with a 2 euro coin for your 1,5 eur coffee and the waitress going all bonkers.
Every day I encounter situations when people are not surprised, but shocked I don’t have the exact amount of money. But how am I supposed to break my money if nobody ever has change?
For example, the zipper on my shorts broke a while ago. After seriously decreasing the frequency of wearing those shorts (my favourite ones though, so sometimes I was just going around with my fly open), after two months I finally considered throwing them away in Santa Marta. But faith wanted it differently; literally next to the place I was staying, there was a tailor/clothes repair shop. The guy replaced my zipper in 20 minutes and it costed only 6.000 pesos (less than 2 euros). I didn’t have change, so I paid with a 10.000 bill. The outrage on the guy’s face was beyond me. He was all like: “Yeah, no cambio. What do we do now?” It made perfect sense in my head: you take 4.000 pesos from the register, hand them to me and we’re done. Not so easy for the zipper guy. After some serious sighing and walking up and down the shop, he lowered the price and gave me back 5.000 pesos.
Looks like Canada
I spent some of my time in Colombia in cities – in Bogotá and Medellín. I don’t know if it were all the recommendations I received from other people about where to stay in these two cities or it was just the fact that most hotels and airbnbs are in these neighbourhoods, but I ended up in clean and safe parts of towns. In Bogotá in Chapinero and in Medellín in El Poblado. And they are definitely not the Colombia I expected.
Wide streets with a bunch of trees, restaurants on every corner, a mix of calm residential areas with skyscrapers full of offices, shops, coffee places. I sometimes forget I’m walking around in Medellín, once the most dangerous city in the world, because it feels so much like downtown Vancouver.
Very close to that observation is the next one: you can buy just about everything here. Yes, it might sounds strange, and I would probably not be talking about this if I arrived to Colombia straight from Europe. But I came from countries with no hair conditioner, no shower gel or no international post service.
So for example, after weeks of looking for hand cream and flip flops that won’t cost me half of my monthly budget, I stocked up on all sorts of things in Colombia. The other day I went to the local Exito – and it was the biggest supermarket I’ve ever seen. They were even selling motorbikes. In Slovenian we would say you could find everything there, except a priest, but I’m not so sure they weren’t selling those too.
Back to the ’80s
I was sitting in a bus Bogotá one day, going downtown, looking out. It was sunny, the wide streets were full of people with take away coffee going around their business, there were trees in front of office buildings. In that moment Bogotá reminded me of Brussels. Four hours later I was walking on the main pedestrian street in La Candelaria. There were quite a few homeless people leaning on the walls of shops and restaurants; and there was garbage thrown around on the ground everywhere. Again, Bogotá reminded me so much of Brussels. It might be the mixture of these two experiences that created a homey feeling that made me think that I could easily live in this city for a while, or it might be something completely different: ’80s music.
Colombians apparently love ’80s music at least as much as us Balkans. Taxis, restaurants, bars, supermarkets – and most of all the metro – they play ‘80s songs all the time! Cindy Lauper, A-Ha, Lionel Richie, The Cure, Bonnie Tyler – I heard all of those and more on the streets of Colombia. Now say this isn’t a wonderful country!
Colombians pay for me!
While in Colombia – how cliché – I started re-watching Narcos, season one. In one of the episodes then still candidate for president, Gaviria, gives a speech and says that God made Colombia so beautiful it was unfair to the rest of the world. So to even the score, he populated the land with a race of evil men.
Now, I’ve had my experience with rude people, but Colombians definitely don’t fall in that category (not counting the annoying and intrusive street sellers).
If in Mexico I was a gringa who pays double the price, here people pay for me! When it turned out on the way to the airport that my bus card didn’t have enough credit, I found myself trapped between the first door of the bus and the metal rod next to the driver, letting people through after the pay. Not only my cheeks but even my backpack turned red, that’s how awkward the situation was. A random guy saw me, passed me his card so I could get through, and then refused to accept money for the ride!
Colombians also obviously understand the importance of having cambio. When we paid 110.000 pesos for 109.000 pesos entrance to Tayrona national park, the lady at the register of course didn’t have change. She wanted another 1.000 bill so she could give us one for 2.000 back. Again – a random guy in line next to us offered to help us out and pay 1.000 pesos for us.
All that haute cuisine
After tens of kilograms of grilled chicken and white rice I’ve eaten in the last months in Central America, my eyes, heart and stomach were singing when a short walk in Bogotá revealed Asian, American, Italian, Argentinian, you name it, restaurants. In Medellin, believe it or not, I even had currywurst – in a place called German Street Food.
What first seemed as a sign I’m in a better part of town, later turned out to be just a very common practice in Colombia: adding “gourmet” to the name of your restaurant. There’s a rib-steak place, but a gourmet one, there’s a gourmet wok, and a gourmet Indian restaurant. I even saw a gourmet pizzeria; and El Corral, one of the most successful Colombian chain-businesses, serving burgers, has a high-end edition called El Corral Gourmet. Of course I went there for dinner, their burger with blue cheese was amazing. Now, I don’t know exactly how the gourmet differs from the non-gourmet version of the restaurant, but in the fancy edition you get to eat your burger with…plastic gloves.