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Colombia has been shaped by a wide range of cultural influences. Although the culture and lifestyle may not appear completely alien, expats will notice many idiosyncrasies which they will have to adjust to. The experience of culture shock in Colombia will vary depending on an expat’s personality, lifestyle and location. Western-style shopping malls, grocery stores and restaurants can be found in all the major cities, whereas adapting to life in smaller towns and rural areas will be significantly more challenging.
While the country is becoming increasingly popular with tourists and expats, foreigners still generate a fair amount of fascination and curiosity from locals. Expats should be ready for stares and invasive questions, well-meaning though they may be.
Almost everyone in Colombia loves dancing and football. Colombians are generally family-oriented. Expats will undoubtedly be invited to the homes and family events of their new Colombian friends.
Time in Colombia
Life tends to progress at a much slower pace in Colombia. The local approach to time and punctuality is highly flexible, both socially and in business. Enjoying more public holidays than most other countries, Colombians place great value on their family time, festivals and traditions. Queueing and waiting in long lines are commonplace. The practice of jumping these lines can also make visits to banks or shops tedious affairs.
Meeting and greeting in Colombia
Colombians are usually welcoming, lively and passionate. People from Bogotá, Medellín and other inland regions may be slightly more formal and reserved, while those from the coastal regions are often more laid-back and expressive. Expats should adjust their greetings accordingly to make sure they do not offend local people.
Appearances are important in Colombia. Expats will find that personal care services such as hairstyling, manicures and pedicures, teeth whitening, and even plastic surgery are far more affordable than in many European and North American countries. Everyone is generally expected to be well groomed and neat at all times.
Women in Colombia
As a predominantly Catholic nation, people in Colombia are generally conservative, especially in terms of traditional gender roles. Sexual discrimination can be common, with men and women expected to conform to traditional gender roles. That being said, there is a growing number of women in business and they tend to be respected by their male colleagues.
Like many countries in Latin America, chauvinism or machismo can be a problem. Female expats will have to deal with catcalling and harassment in the street, while men will be expected to pay for everything on a date or in a relationship.
Language barrier in Colombia
Although the government has made bilingualism a priority, the average Colombian will not speak much English. This is particularly apparent outside of the major urban centres. Learning Spanish will be essential for any expat hoping to integrate and fully adjust to life in Colombia.
The Spanish of the inland regions tends to be relatively easy to understand, but even expats who speak the language well will find it difficult to understand Colombians from the Caribbean coast, as there is a huge range of vocabulary and slang. Regional meanings can also vary widely.
Safety in Colombia
Eager to put the stereotypes of drug cartels and kidnappings behind them, Colombians do their best to make foreigners feel welcome in their country. They work to put forward an image which is warm, generous and sociable. Expats may find that although people are generally friendly, they can also appear oblivious to those around them.
Safety in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, but street crimes like pickpocketing and armed robbery are still common. Expats should therefore take certain basic precautions and be vigilant about personal safety. Expats should also stay vigilant around roads, as Colombians tend to drive aggressively and have little patience for pedestrians.
Even though Colombia signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, some groups have refused to demobilise. This means there are parts of Colombia that are still suffering from a war between guerillas, paramilitaries and government forces. Expats should avoid these areas.
Food and drink in Colombia
Lunch is the most important meal of the day in Colombia. In rural areas, everything comes to a halt for two hours each day as people go home to enjoy a hot meal with their family. The Colombian diet is very carbohydrate-heavy and includes a lot of sugar – countless soft drinks, fruit salad drizzled with condensed milk and tubs of dulce de leche sold on street corners.
Drinking in public spaces is legal in Colombia and a beer costs the same as, or sometimes even less than, a soft drink in the ubiquitous corner store tiendas. Coffee, particularly the strong and bitter tinto, is everywhere, as is freshly squeezed fruit juice. Water and other soft drinks are often sold in plastic bags which may be unusual for expats.
In the larger cities, expats should have no trouble finding restaurants serving cuisine of any type. Imported food items will be available in the larger grocery stores, but usually with a hefty price tag attached.
Transport in Colombia
As Colombia is a developing country the standard of public transport may be inferior to what expats have come to expect at home. Traffic in Bogotá is notoriously bad. People on the street tend to walk slowly, and chaos rules the roads. Drivers in Colombia pay little attention to stop signs, traffic lanes or indicators. Omnipresent motorcycles also completely ignore road rules as they wind their way through traffic.
Local buses don’t stick to timetables or advertised routes. People simply hail the bus as it goes past and hop off wherever they need to. Although the buses are often crowded, street vendors and performers will frequently push their way through the throngs to sell their wares or serenade passengers. The major cities of Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla have rapid transit bus systems, and Medellín is the country's only city with a metro.
►Learn more about Colombian work culture in Doing Business in Colombia
"My experience was probably unique living in a rural town as a volunteer the first year. That year I learned how to do my laundry in a bucket and ride with three people on motorcycle taxis to get in and out of town. Eight years later, I do have a washing machine and mostly avoid motorcycle taxis.
"As far as more general culture shock, even after eight years, as somewhat of an introvert, the loudness of people here can still get to me. It’s one of those things that’s charming until it isn’t, like in a classroom of 25 ninth graders." Check out the rest of American expat Adam's interview with Expat Arrivals here.
"Moving here meant immersing ourselves completely in an unfamiliar sea of language and local customs." Read more about John and Susan's adjustments to life in Colombia.
Are you an expat living in Colombia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Colombia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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