[nb. I've put everything under general headings but it's possible all this info might start to get a tad unwieldy as amendments and other things get added/changed, so I recommend using ctrl+f to search for any particular word/phrase for the time being.]
|If you're headed to Colombia, get used to views like this. What a life!|
I absolutely cannot stress enough how important this mindset is (hence why it's top of the list). Colombians have their own way of doing things and if you're not prepared for things to change at a moment's notice (or with no notice at all), you're stuffed.
Example: more than a few weeks won't go by without my school schedule changing. In fact, something about the schedule has changed every single day I've been teaching here. Sometimes, a teacher won't turn up to class (without any notification); sometimes students won't turn up; sometimes the class changes room.
2. COLOMBIA TIME
Related to the first point is 'Colombia Time', something I was warned about before coming here. Basically, Colombians will get something done, but don't count on it being done ASAP or when they initially say so. They are almost never in any kind of rush, whether it's serving you in a cafe or organising a hike. If you're looking for a more relaxed pace of life, you will love it here. If you're used to things being done your way or when you want it doing, then you'll struggle.
3. COMMON SENSE SAFETY
Colombia really isn't anywhere near as dangerous as it used to be, and the key to your safety here is the same as pretty much anywhere in the world (don't walk around at night on your own with your phone out/earphones in, keep your bag in front of you or otherwise held so that it can't be tugged free, etc) - just be careful and don't make yourself a target. Ask which areas should be avoided or are best visited with others.
I hope you like rice and beans! The variety of food here isn't anywhere near as mind-boggling as parts of the Western world, and don't be surprised to find entire fish crammed in freezers without any kind of packaging (or, as is the case here, cut and descaled out in the open beside busy streets teeming with traffic). Health and safety regulations either don't exist or simply aren't enforced, which means you'll find tons of vendors selling anything from fresh fruit juice to arepas everywhere you go. If you don't have delicate sensibilities/guts, you'll find almost all such stalls are cheap and delicious!
A quick note on menu del dia - loads of places sell this, which is a set menu comprised of a soup, main course (eg. fried chicken), accompaniment (eg. beans) and fruit juice, that can cost anything from 6,000 to 9,000 COP and is always a decent, cheap way of making sure you feel full!
Booze: this is ridiculously cheap here. If you like going out to the pub, you'll spend around 4000 COP for a bottle of local beer (Poker/Club Colombia), though you can often buy a six pack of these for around 10,000 COP! If you like wine, ARA supermarkets sell decent stuff for around 10,000 COP.
5. MOBILE/INTERNET COVERAGE
Three of the biggest providers in Colombia are Tigo, Claro and Moviestar. Depends entirely on where you go as to its reliability - we have Moviestar wifi in the Bamboo House and it's exceptional. Most people I know here (including myself) use Claro for our phones and, to be honest, there have been a lot of problems. A lot of people, using either their American phone and a Colombian sim, or even with a Colombian sim/phone combo, have ended up locked out of using them for reasons still unknown. When mine was activated, I had to wait for a phone call (to the hostel) telling me the phone was activated and, oh, here's your actual phone number. This was supposed to be done within a couple of hours of buying the phone/sim, but actually happened quite a few hours later.
Otherwise, adding to your credit is as simple as popping into pretty much any convenience store. The cost of getting a phone/sim combo for me was cheap, too - around 130,000 COP altogether (at the time of writing, the Colombian Peso is worth basically double the Australian Dollar eg. 2,000 COP = $1 AUD). Also: thousand = mil, so 2 mil is 2000 COP.
|Parque de Vida in Armenia, a sort-of self-contained rainforest tourist attraction.|
6. COST OF LIVING
Now, this one really does depend on where you live - Bogota in particular is very expensive. Armenia, though, is cheap as chips.
The average cost of rent is 400,000 COP, and if you're lucky like myself and my fellow Bambooers you'll find a place with all bills included (we also have a twice-weekly housekeeper, which is quite the novelty I can tell you). However, be prepared for: cold water showers and no oven in the kitchen in most places. Cutlery and crockery may or may not be provided, but if it's not, chances are there'll be somewhere to get cheap stuff from (in Armenia, you can pick up cheap everything from centro in the south).
AMENDMENT: thanks to Isobel Rose for reminding me that some apartments come unfurnished. As she notes: "There tend to be junkyard type places with cheap furniture (I bought a bed frame and slats for 70 mil including delivery in Neiva)"
[We're super lucky in the Bamboo House as we have everything we need, including a washer/dryer - launderettes in bigger cities tend to be quite pricey, but they're plentiful and reasonably-priced in Armenia if you ever need to use one]. There really are places for rent ("Se Arrienda") everywhere you go, so keep an eye out for "amoblado", as this means 'furnished'.
Travel within Colombia is cheap. For example, most buses to neighbouring towns cost just under 2000 COP each way, and you can make a trip to somewhere like Medellin (6 hours from Armenia) for 40,000 COP each way.
Groceries are cheap. A decent weekly shop really shouldn't set you back more than around 70,000 COP, though it's possible to spend much, much less if you're frugal and can't get enough of rice/beans/pasta.
Some stuff costs silly money. It surprised me that towels cost more than food, for instance. If you're after 'luxury/home comfort' items (eg. peanut butter, proper gin) these will cost a bit, too, because they're typically imported.
Travel by taxi/bus within a city is also cheap (buses in Armenia cost 1700 COP each trip, but that trip could cover the entire city if you want) but be careful of taxi drivers looking to overcharge. Generally speaking, you'll pay a minimum of 4000 COP for a taxi - if they have a meter, ask them to make sure it's turned on. It's also possible to sort out a cost before you set off for somewhere, if you're lucky. If a taxi driver hears you speaking English, and you ask the cost of getting somewhere, chances are it's too high and you can haggle (eg. when my friends and I were in Medellin, a taxi cost us 10,000 COP for what amounted to a five minute trip!).
Also, be aware that homeless people will often hang around taxi ranks to flag one down/open the door for you, and they'll expect money for doing so. You can try ignoring them (or give them money if you really want to, but I strongly advise against it as chances are they'll then single you out whenever they next see you - this has happened to people I know), but often you'll find it's easier to just wait a little further down the road for a taxi and grab it as it passes. I've seen this in a few places here but Bogota was the worst for it.
7. THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
I strongly recommend trying to learn Spanish before you come here, if you don't know it already. I took eight months of free lessons beforehand so felt confident in general activities, such as ordering in restaurants/going shopping (I suppose you could call this 'tourist level Spanish'), though I've learnt a lot more simply by being immersed in the culture. Lots of cities run some form of 'conversation club', too (these are typically called things like 'Gringo Tuesdays') where you can practice your Spanish with native speakers and help them with their English.
As long as you're patient with yourself, it shouldn't prove too frustrating trying to communicate here - most Colombians are very supportive and gracious if they hear you're making an effort. Also, I've found that most Colombians who do speak English really relish the chance to use it, so don't be surprised if you try ordering food at your local KFC in Spanish, only for the server to respond in English haha
8. THE CLIMATE
Although there aren't typical seasons in Colombia, due to the proximity to the equator, there are distinct differences in each region. Basically, the coast is extremely hot, mountain cities like Bogota can be as mild as an English Spring, and interior places like Armenia are pretty warm, though it's rarely unbearable (coming from Brisbane, the heat here is easy to take, though those from cooler countries/states may feel like they're melting). There are a LOT of thunderstorms here, too, which makes for some pretty cool light shows at night.
This is pretty simple: due to the extremely raw and recent history involving FARC and Pablo Escobar, I quickly realised Colombians don't like to actively talk about these things. Some will, but most don't like it to be brought up. So if you're curious, read about it rather than ask, unless it naturally comes up in conversation.
|A sphinx month - a recent visitor to the Bamboo House. It's the size of a small car.|
Though the culture here is very different to the Western world, there are parallels (Colombians can be as laidback as Australians, for instance) and ways to find or do the things you're used to, whether it's dine in a fancy restaurant or go rock-climbing. Colombia is excellent for an active/outdoor lifestyle and is full of friendly, helpful people. As long as you come with an open mind and healthy attitude towards changing the way you expect to do things, you'll do absolutely fine here.
Any questions? Leave a comment and I'll amend this guide accordingly!