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5 Surprising Ways Not to Look Like a Gringo in Bogotá (Or: A Few Cultural Differences in Colombia)

Posted by on in Bogotá and Around
By now most people know the basic rules, even if they don’t always follow them. In order to not stand out as a gringo you know not to wear sandals with socks, right? You know you shouldn’t really be wearing shorts, and that you should really cover your Lonely Planet with a copy of Alvaro Mutis’s latest slice of Colombian literature before pulling it out. And since when were bum-bags (or fanny packs) good, attractive or useful in any way and in any country? (Hint: never, nowhere)

So you come to Bogotá with all that sorted and you’re golden, right? Wrong. There’s far more ways you stand out than your shining beacon of foreignness you call blonde hair or your clumsy, rigid hip movements. Here’s 5 ways you can blend into the crowd in Bogotá and minimize your chances of being stared at on the bus.

1. Saying ‘hello, how are you’ isn’t enough, and neither is ‘see you later’. In Bogotá prepare for a torrent of well-wishes and questions before you even manage to open your mouth and mumble the ‘¿como estas?’ you picked up from two weeks of learning Spanish in Colombia. Here’s a typical greeting:
¡Hola! ¿Cómo vas, cómo estas, que mas, que has hecho? ¿Todo bien?
(Hello, how’s it going, how are you, what’s up, what have you been doing? Everything good?)

Luckily the ‘Bien, gracias’ you learnt still suffices. As for farewells?
¡Hasta luego, que estés bien, te cuidas, saludes, chao!
See you later, be well, take care of yourself, cheers, bye!

Uhhh… Yeh. Bye.

2. You might think it’s better sometimes to just admit defeat and say no to people. Not so here. One of the most valuable lessons you can learn is that if a foreigner comes up to you and asks for directions and you don’t know them, say you do. You’re not being mean, you just don’t want to disappoint them and, anyway, you’re sure it’s about 2 blocks away, next left and then always, always on the corner. Extra points are awarded if you've noticed the foreigner come from another person that's directed them, and you direct them straight back to the same place they just came from.

3. Living in the city can be rough. You need to get places but traffic chugs along at book-pace when you need it to be the speed of a Jason Statham film. To make up for time, you stick your head down, you get to the right hand side of the path and you power walk like it’s gone out of fashion (it has gone out of fashion, fyi). Well, at least that’s what you’d think. In Bogotá be sure to walk slow, in the middle of the path (if someone is coming the other way don’t move) and in the throes of a wonderful daydream. Great when you’re taking in the city, not so great when you have somewhere to be.

Living in the city can be demanding

4. My version of a MAN-icure is biting my nails, which I do until my fingers bleed slightly and my raw skin is exposed. It hurts, yeah, but it also raises my testosterone levels through the roof (maybe that’s why I’m going bald…). In Bogotá, however, my modestly-sized and humorously self-deprecating nails are considered, well, grubby and wholly unattractive. Can you believe that? Men here, rather than settling for the au natural look favoured back home in the UK, are quite happy to get their metrosexual fix via a good manicure. So if you’re coming to Bogotá, make sure your fingernails are shiny.

These are actually the hands of my friend Jairo

5. You’re on a bus or the Transmilenio, squashed like a claustrophobic penguin in the centre of a huddle. The vehicle lurches forward, throwing every standing person forward before it grinds to a halt. There’s a pause and tension mounts before the wheezing sound of the doors opening. You look around. People start getting off. You suddenly feel movement in your arms. You can bend your knees. You prize your hand from the railing you were clutching for dear life and wiggle your fingers as blood returns to them. Before you know it the hand that was wedged firmly between your buttocks has been removed. Air rushes back into your lungs and you realize, there’s space again! Not only that but there’s a seat free! In your eagerness, you do what you assume is the sensible thing and sit yourself down.

You, my friend, are a dirty, horrible, unhygienic and overzealous human being.

Everyone is looking at you. All Bogotanos know that once a seat becomes free, you have to hover over it for 5 minutes before sitting. It’s as good as law in this town and if you don’t abide by it, you’ll be wearing that gringo badge proudly around your neck your entire time here. And you’ll have bum cooties.

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