Know Before You Go: Cultural Norms in Colombia

6.17.2011

by temo

When preparing for your next ecotourism vacation it’s good to consider the country’s cultural norms and social etiquette. This is important so we can maintain a good, positive and sustainable tourist-host relationship. As we have mentioned in our previous Know Before You Go blogs, a great way to do this is by taking just a little time before your travels to read up on your host country’s culture, social norms, and codes of conduct. A little effort goes a long way! Locals will recognize your efforts, because that shows them respect and tells them that you care to learn about their country and culture.

Colombia Flag

The cultural norms of Colombia are bits of info and social tips for visitors from all over the world that will help you further enjoy the vacation.

Language in Colombia

The official language is Spanish, spoken by around 43 million people. In addition there are approximately 500,000 speakers of different American Indian languages. Colombians are very polite and are proud to speak in proper Castilian (Spanish). Even though Spanish is spoken all over South America, each country has its own set of local Spanish slang terms.

“A LA ORDEN” : This is probably the single most heard and used phrase in Colombia. It literally means “at your order”. You will encounter numerous different situations where they use the phrase.

  • You can use it to substitute “thank you” (gracias)
  • It is used to ask “may I help you?” (a la orden?)
  • Colombians may use it in response to a compliment you might say about a material possession they have (like a new car). They would say, "a la orden!" Stating in a polite manner that their possession is at your disposal.
Villa de Leyva, Colombia

The People and Culture

Colombia’s people are as varied as its landscape. Most citizens are descended from three ethnic groups: Indians, African people brought to Colombia to work as slaves and European settlers. This rich cultural mix makes the country’s foods music, dance and art diverse and unique.

Soccer (futbol) is the most popular sport in the country, but baseball is quickly growing in popularity. So try and remember the team name of the city you visit as a quick conversation starter.

Colombian music is a mixture of African, native indigenous and European (Spanish) influences, as well as more modern American and Caribbean musical forms. The national music of Colombia is said to be vallenato, popular folk music, and cumbia, a mixture of Spanish and African music. One of the most famous Colombian singers is pop star Shakira.

Colombian cuisine

Colombian cuisine is delicious and fresh, consisting largely of local meats, potatoes, rice, beans, soups rich in herbs, and an astounding variety of vegetables and fruit. The fruit juices and coffee are unbelievable, and the local beers are quite good. Some interesting regional dishes include:

  • Ajiaco: soup made with chicken and potato which is a Bogotano specialty
  • Hormiga culona: a sophisticated dish, unique to Santander, consisting largely of fried ants
  • Lechona: whole suckling pig, spit-roasted and stuffed with rice and dried peas, which is a specialty of Tolima
  • Sancocho: a traditional soup (stew) consisting of meat and vegetables served in a broth. It is made with almost any kind of meat, along with large pieces of plantain, potato, yuca (cassava) and/or other vegetables depending on the region.

Dining Etiquette

Dining etiquette is quite formal in Colombia as they tend to give importance to decorum and presentation. Here are a few tips:

Santa Marta Bay
  • Wait to be seated by the host.
  • Hands should be kept visible when eating.
  • Do not rest elbows on the table.
  • The host will say "buen provecho" (enjoy or have a good meal) as an invitation to start eating.
  • The oldest person in the group will be served their food and drinks first.
  • It is polite to try everything you are given.
  • Usually all food is eaten with utensils.
  • If dinning out, usually the one who does the inviting pays the bill, although the guest is expected to make an effort to pay. Sometimes other circumstances determine who pays (such as rank).
  • It is considered polite to leave a small amount of food on your plate when you have finished eating.
  • Do not use a toothpick at the table.

Taboo Subjects

Next are some tips on touchy issues that are seldom included in the guidebooks and talked about very little, but that will help you stay out of trouble and be more respectful.

  • Avoid making jokes about drugs, or drug consumption as they will not be taken likely. For Colombians it’s not a taboo to talk about this issue, but be sure to approach it as a serious conversation, not as a stereotyped joke.
  • Whistling as an attention getting device is considered rude.
  • Using your two fingers to indicate length of something is an obscene gesture. Instead, extend your right arm and use your left hand to mark off distance.
  • Being in possession of small quantities of drugs is highly illegal and usually results in serious jail time for foreigners. If you are caught trying to take drugs in or out of the country, it is an automatic lengthy jail sentence.
  • When going to a Colombian's home, bring fruit, a potted plant, or quality chocolates for the hostess.
  • When giving flowers, do not give lilies or marigolds as they are used at funerals.
  • Wrapped gifts are usually not opened when received.
Bogota

Older people are naturally perceived as being wise and are afforded great respect. Generally the most senior person, both at work and at home, is expected to make decisions.

Colombians don’t follow strict time frames like in the U.S. Being on time for dinner parties and casual meetings is not imperative for Colombians. Meetings do not always follow a linear pattern, although there may be an agenda. Further, meetings will last as long as they need to, time is not an issue, so do not try to rush.

The Second Happiest Country in the World

According to the new Economic Foundation Happy Planet Index, Colombia has the second happiest population of the World! Vanuatu Island is at number one in this ranking.

Colombia is a beautiful country, with a great deal of biodiversity. It has coastal mountains, plains, jungles and the Andes. Colombia is the only country in South America that has coasts and beaches on both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The above tips are meant to help you interact and get along better with the host culture, so you can take away a positive experience and gain a better understanding of the culture on your next Colombia eco tour. To start planning your next Colombia travel adventure please fill out our custom tours form online or give us a call at (866) 577-2462!

Filed Under: GBC Philosophy, Travel Tips, Responsible Travel, Know Before You Go, Destination Marketing, Colombia

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