What it's like living in Colombia

It was about 5 months into my stay in Bogota that I realised living in Colombia and travelling through Colombia are two very different things. Travelling through Colombia means you generally see most of the best bits. You pass from city to city, beach to beach, with an account full of cash, ready to invest into the South American journey of your dreams, which is awesome.

But living in Colombia is a very different story; it is also awesome, fulfilling, magical and dream-worthy, but in very different ways.

Living in Colombia means you see how people really live; it means waiting in line at the bank for hours; it means rubbing shoulders with the country’s elite in the morning, then sharing the bus home with the blind woman who busks in front of Exito at night; it means feeling frustrated at the local supermarket when someone cuts in line, then feeling grateful when another runs out to return the change you forgot at the counter. “You’re lucky,” the woman from the check-out says with a smile, after chasing me down to return my forgotten Colombian pesos. “Not everyone in Colombia is as honest as I am.”

Not everyone is as honest as that friendly woman from the supermarket, but my forgetfulness gave me a chance to experience Colombian kindness. “Not everyone is as honest as I am,” I was reminded each of the three times I forgot my change.

Living in Colombia means never leaving your meal unfinished. Instead you pack it up and give it to someone who needs it. You think about the people around you, you care about them, you worry about them, you become annoyed and impressed by them all at once.

What’s it like living in Colombia?

Living in Colombia means very different things for different people. For some it’s an escape, an adventure, a calling, a yearning; for others it’s a need to do something in the world, for the world, an offering, of sorts.

Along with the What’s it like living in Colombia? question, there’s also a list of other questions that come with it.

Is it hot? Are you always at the beach? Is it hard? What’s the culture like? How did you learn the language? Were you scared? Did you feel safe? Do people speak English? Should I learn Spanish? Is it easy to find a job? What should I do?

Should I go?

I can’t really tell you what it’s like living in Colombia, it varies completely from region to region. Every city and town is different. The people, the lifestyles, the music, the food, they all vary depending on what part of the country you live in; but here are some helpful little bits of advice about what it was like living in Bogota.

The weather

Have a jumper ready for the early morning and a t-shirt underneath for the afternoon, because the weather in Bogota can be charming at its best, but damn temperamental at its worst. The equatorial world line runs straight through Colombia which make for some pretty interesting weather patterns. In Bogota the weather doesn’t vary too much throughout most of the year. While it can be cool and rain often, there are also days full of sunshine and blue skies. And the capital doesn’t have the traditional four seasons either because of its position high up in the Andes; it’s around 8,600 ft above sea level. The warmest period in Bogota generally goes from the end of December until late March, but by warm I mean it probably won’t go much higher than 22 degrees Celsius. Some areas of Colombia, though, are blessed with hot summers, while others are locked in to a crisp winter all year round.

The culture

There are so many cultural nuances that define Colombia and there are parts of the culture that you can’t fully understand until you live there. And even then, you might still not really understand them. For me, the culture in Colombia is warm and welcoming yet, at times, contradictory. And while not everyone dances salsa in the street and not all people are devout Catholics, the country’s culture is built on religion, family values and a deep yearning to party into the wee hours.

The food

Have I not already spoken of the magical combination that is hot chocolate and cheese? Or the addiction that I experienced due to the humble arepa? For me, the food in Colombia is a real treat. Sure, it can be simple, but it’s fresh and as long as you don’t ask for a side of three types of carbohydrates (pasta, chips and arepa) with your meal, then it’s pretty healthy, too.

The people

I know, I know, people constantly harp on about how wonderfully friendly the people are in Colombia. But it’s true and the country is largely becoming more well-known for its friendly people and great hospitality than anything else. I have been invited into enough homes, and have become the honorary member of any number of different families enough times for me to realise that Colombians really just want foreigners to enjoy their country, to see them have a good and lasting impression of their nation and to encourage others foreigners to visit. Enjoy meeting and befriending the wonderful locals, just don’t take hospitality for granted.

Safety in Colombia

You know what’s dangerous about living in Colombia? Letting your guard down and being complacent. I lived in Colombia for about two years from 2006-2013 and I never had any problems. Not once. I never had anything stolen from me, I never had any trouble with anyone, I never found myself in an overly dangerous situation. But it’s only because I was aware of my surroundings. I often advise people that, just like in any big city, they’ll be fine as long as they don’t invite anything to happen. If you are cautious and  aware of your surroundings you will be fine.

Some general tips for you while you’re in Bogota:

  • Don’t catch a taxi from the street, always call first
  • Don’t show your phone in public. Keep it in your bag, if other people see it, it’s just an invitation for someone to take it. It’s best to keep it on silent while you’re out and about, too
  • If you’re catching a bus, always make sure you’ve got your hands on your bag or personal belongings
  • Don’t walk alone at night in low-traffic areas, no matter how comfortable you feel

Travelling through Colombia is extremely rewarding and beautiful, the people are welcoming and really do their utmost for foreigners to give them a good impression of their country. So, go! Enjoy and then come back and tell us all about it.

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Do you have any other advice for people thinking about living in Colombia? Share them in the comments below.