At this point in my life, I’ve traveled enough around Latin America that the culture shock doesn’t hit so hard when I visit a new country in the region. And I don’t mean to say that all countries in Latin America are alike. Quite to the contrary, they are all wonderfully unique. But there are some common characteristics that make it easier to settle in once you get a few of the countries under your belt. For example: the common language, greeting with kisses on the cheek, strong family values, semi-optional 10% tips, and an extreme passion for fútbol, to name a few.
That said, the latest destination on my tour around South America has been a pitstop to visit family in Bogotá, Colombia, and it’s been fun absorbing the quirks of this Andean mountain metropolis.
I’ve been in the country for a week, so now is an appropriate time to give six of my first impressions.
1. The Colombian way to ask for things
Colombians are overly polite in how they ask for things, such as making a purchase in a store or ordering food.
They say “Me regalas…,” which literally translates to, “will you gift me…?”
It’s a funny way to ask for something that you are exchanging for money. Most Spanish-speaking countries that I’ve been to simply say “Can you give me…?”
This could definitely be misinterpreted in the Spanish-speaking world if used outside of Colombia.
2. Colombians love to cycle
During a national holiday, we decided to escape the city for a bit via a popular mountain road east of the city, and I had never seen so many people riding bikes in my life. It was impressive. We were forced to ascend the mountain at a snail’s pace due to the nearly endless stream of cyclists that continued for miles up the road.
The temperate climate of the mountain region and challenging inclines seem to draw the Bogotá locals to cycling for sport and exercise.
3. The weather can never make up its mind
I’ve never been so indecisive about what to wear as this week in Bogotá. Going out for the day requires a constant dance of taking off and putting back on your jacket. (And if you are as cool as me, your zip-off pants.)
The city sits high in the Andes, nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. As a result, you get crisp mountain weather and thick, wet clouds that speed over the surrounding peaks into the city’s basin. It rains nearly every day, but it’s usually fairly light and in small spurts.
But at the same time, the city sits just a stone’s throw north of the equator, so when there is a break in the clouds, the powerful equatorial sun blasts through and makes you wish you had dressed for the beach.
Similar to my home of northern California, you have to dress like an onion with multiple layers and be prepared for anything. The only difference is the changes in Bogotá are constant.
4. If you want to get drunk and vote, think again
My time in Colombia’s capital coincided with the first round of presidential elections. While the elections are historic in their own right, what caught my eye was the prohibition of alcohol during this period.
Starting the day before the elections at 6pm, and ending the day after at noon, there was a 40-hour window or so where alcohol sales were banned. The idea is to prevent any rowdy alcohol-induced riots.
So if you are looking to get tipsy on election day in Colombia, make sure you are well-provisioned beforehand.
5. Buy weed with your groceries
I was a bit surprised to see a marijuana plant for sale at the local market where you go to get your fruits and veggies.
Possession of weed in Colombia is decriminalized for up to 20 grams. So if you feel so inclined, while you are checking out at the market you can make the impulsive purchase of throwing a ganja plant into your basket.
It’s definitely the most open-minded I have seen a society towards the production and consumption of weed in Latin America (maybe other than Uruguay).
6. You can drink the tap water
In Latin America there are few places where you can drink tap water. And oh how does potable tap water make life so much easier, and less wasteful.
In Bogotá not only can you drink from the tap, but the water tastes great.
The city is surrounded by lush, pristine mountains that drain fresh streams into the city below. Extra points for Bogotá on this one.
Next stop: The Colombia Caribbean
Exploring the capital of Bogotá has been a nice introduction to the country. As with most cities in the world with 7 million+ residents, it can be a bit rough around the edges, but I have really enjoyed the vibrance and life found within. My cousin and I are constantly getting approached by friendly locals who want to learn English.
However, at the end of this week I am going to explore the opposite end of the country. We are leaving the big city life behind and heading to Santa Marta on the country’s more rustic Caribbean coast. I am expecting a totally different, humid and tropical experience. But at the end of the day, it’s still Colombia and I am sure there will be plenty of cultural overlap between the two regions — Andes vs Caribbean. We shall see.