Tips for Traveling In Colombia

Traveling to a foreign country can be intimidating at first. Here are a few tips to help you navigate through Colombia safely and save you the hassle of figuring out things the hard way.

"A la Orden"

You will hear this constantly while you're in Colombia. This pretty much translates to "At your service" and is used by shopkeepers, restaurant waiters, guides, pretty much anyone offering you anything. It might catch you off guard at first if you're not familiar with that term.

Tipping in restaurants is not mandatory in Colombia but 10% is suggested and I recommend always leaving at least 10%. Some restaurants automatically add 10% so be weary of this and make sure not to double tip. Always leave a couple thousand pesos ($1) for anyone who helps you carry your bags or performs a similar service. I also tipped tour guides a few thousand pesos depending on how long the tour was. It is not customary to tip taxi drivers.

Carry Small Bills
Always use small bills in Colombia. Many places have trouble changing large bills and this can be a huge hassle when you are in the streets. Try and use large bills for places like supermarkets, hotels, and higher end restaurants and keep your smaller bills for shopping, taxis, and cheaper restaurants.

Get the Price First
Whenever you are about to purchase a product or service, make sure that you get the price before you consume the product. A perfect example is Taxi's in Cartagena where they do not use meters but instead rely on published rates which tourists are usually not aware of. If you don't ask the price to your destination beforehand, they will definitely charge you as much as they can when you reach the destination. This also goes for food items and souveniers. Make sure the prices are on the menu and don't fall for any bait and switch tactics. If in doubt, ALWAYS ASK FIRST. Don't feel rude requesting a price up front.

Always try and negotiate tour prices, guides, and street vendors. This doesn't apply to museums and restaurants where prices are set but definitely try and get a better price on independent tours and souveniers. I paid for a few tours and found out that other people on the tour paid less. Always try to negotiate, it doesn't hurt. Street vendors will most likely add a few pesos to the actual price if you look like a tourist. Offer a little less but don't insult them. They're working hard.

Dealing with Street Vendors
This especially applies to Cartagena where the street vendors are ruthless. They come at you one after another all selling similar things. Unless you are thoroughly interested in what they are selling, give them a "no gracias" and keep walking. You might have to give them a few "No Gracias" before they leave you alone. Don't feel rude ignoring them or they won't leave you alone and don't take or hold anything they try and give you.

Catching a Taxi
I read a lot of blogs about the dangers of hailing taxis in Colombia. The only trouble I ever had was that they drove like maniacs. I always got to my destination safely and I think they're safe for the most part. Regardless, it is best to have your hotel call one for you so there is a record and don't sit on your iphone or flash money around while your sitting there.

Don't Change Money on the Street
In some places, a man will walk up to you and offer you an amazing conversion rate on your dollars. It sounds great. Avoid them at all costs. This is a scam and they will secretly slip away a few dollars after they count the money. STAY AWAY.

Be Careful When Crossing the Street
They don't have the same pedestrian right-of-way rules in Colombia as they do in the states. They will not slow down if they see you. Be very careful when crossing and try to use crosswalks.

Keep the Pablo Escobar Talk to a Minimum
Although it might be interesting to you, the Colombians (especially in Medellin) are trying to get away from the Escobar/Drug Years stigma. Avoid bringing it up in casual conversation.

Don't be a Target
Although Colombia is MUCH safer now than in the past, there is still  crime. Don't wear expensive jewelry or clothes, don't flash money or walk down the street at night on you iPhone. Always be aware of your surroundings, stay on the beaten path, and try and travel in groups.