The official language of Colombia is Spanish. Some indigenous tribes in rural areas continue to speak their own languages, though almost all people from those tribes will be bilingual in their indigenous language and Spanish.
If you've recently learned Spanish, its a relief to know that the Bogota dialect is clear and easy to understand. The Spanish does vary, however, from Cartagena to Bogota to Cali. Generally the Spanish on the coasts is spoken more rapidly, and Spanish from Medellin has its own idiosyncrasies. Note that in cities like MedellÃn and Cali, the dialect of Spanish is the voseo form. Meaning that instead of the second person familiar pronoun tÃº, vos is used instead. Though tÃº is also understood by everybody, vos is a more friendly voice while tÃº is reserved for intimate circles. The Spanish spoken along the Caribbean coast is similar to the dialects spoken in Puerto Rico and Cuba.
English is taught in school, and Colombians are often exposed to subtitled Hollywood films, so while shy, many younger Colombians in the largest cities know at least a few basic phrases in English. Expect to meet teenage Colombians who may want to practice their English skills with you.
Colombians from more affluent backgrounds will have lived and worked in the U.S., Canada, England and possibly Australia in order to learn English. Many university text books are in English, and the majority of high ranking professionals, executives and government workers in Colombia speak an acceptable level of English.
French, German and Portuguese are also spoken, but to a lesser extent.
Generally avoid discussing politics or the present armed conflict in public, except with well-known acquaintances or relatives that have your trust and confidence. In general, nobody will react with violence to different opinions, but the hearts of Colombians suffer deeply remembering all the victims of the political and narcotics wars of past and current conflicts.
Accordingly, do not approach the subjects of drug wars or political turmoil in your first conversation with a Colombian; this can really grate on their nerves, since they are clearly aware of their country's bad reputation and the government has been persistently working to improve the country's condition. When approached with these topics, it is not uncommon for them to utter a snide remark likely regarding your country of origin and walk away. However, Colombians eventually become willing to discuss these topics once they feel comfortable enough with someone.
Always say "please" "Por favor" or "HÃ¡game el favor" and "thank you" "muchas gracias" for anything, to anyone. Colombians tend to be very polite and formal, and explicitly good manners win the approval of those around you. Sometimes it can sound rude to Colombians if somebody calls you and you answer with just an "Ehhh?"--the proper response being "Â¿SeÃ±ora?" or "Â¿SeÃ±or?", depending on the gender of the person calling you.
Despite being a formal people, Colombians tend to speak their minds and opinions quite freely. However, asking Colombians questions about certain topics i.e. questions that may be seen as judgmental of religion, class, or economic status may be considered a private or only-for-close-friends matter.
Like many other Americans, Colombians dislike arguing. So if you get involved in an argument with a Colombian person, it is likely that most Colombians will try to diffuse the situation and avoid prolonging the discussion, so while discussing certain issues, keep yourself cool and express yourself with calm and reason. Colombians admire people with such natures.
Most Colombians are laid back regarding race issues which have never been the cause of conflict in the country, since white, criollo and mestizo mixed race people blend naturally with natives and Afro-Colombians in everyday life education, living, politics, marriage. So the word "negro" can be used regardless of who's saying it, or who is being referred to in this way. You can hear expressions like "negrito" or "mi negro" in a restaurant or on the street. You could hear someone calling "negra" to a woman, regardless of the race of the person. And in general, Afro-Colombians don't find it offensive, as they are simply variations on the Spanish word for "black". When you use the word "negro" pronounced "NEH-gro", whether the intent of the speaker is to be racist or not is inferred from tone of voice and context, so be careful to avoid any confusion.
Differences among white British persons, white U.S. citizens or Europeans are not perceived by most people. Hence, you might be called "gringo" even if you are, say, Russian. Don't let this offend you as a tourist or visitor. Should you feel like it, just mention where you're from; most people will remember your nationality. The same term without offensive connotations could also potentially apply to any foreign-language especially English speaker of any race.
It is also quite common for Colombians to refer to all white people with light hair as "monos" or "rubios" blonds. Even white people with clearly red or brown hair may be called these terms. Just as with "negro", these terms are not intended to be offensive.
The same statement could be issued regarding Asian visitors: differences among east Asians, southeast Asians, and Asian U.S. citizens are not perceived by most people. Hence, you might be called "chino" or "china" Chinese in either case even if you are, for example, Indonesian. As with the case for European and white visitors, don't let this offend you as a visitor; a simple explanation of your ethnicity or where you're from is usually well accepted.
Sometimes Colombians also refer to children as chinos "kids"; this use comes from Chibcha, a language spoken by indigenous Colombians, and is not a reference to the people of the Asian country.
Colombians have the mannerism of pointing to objects with their mouths. This is because pointing to a person or even an object with your finger can be considered rude.
Avoid indicating a person's height using your hand palm down, as this is considered reserved for animals or inanimate objects. If you must, use your palm facing sidewards with the bottom of the hand expressing the height.
Regarding table manners, a lot of the more traditional elder Colombians hate when the guest leaves some of the food uneaten on the plate. This sometimes can be uncomfortable to visitors due to the "exotic" food that can be served, like tamales wrapped in wet green palm leaves. However, you can explain your fears regarding certain foods--they'll understand. When you are eating with young people, you can negotiate and even ask what is going to be eaten in the first place, as Colombians are generally very accommodating to foreigners.
Colombians like to dance a lot. It's part of their cultural ancestry. As in other Central and South American countries, it's very common to hear and feel rhythmic music such as salsa, son, merengue, cumbia or reggaeton. Anyone will be glad to teach you how to dance, and they will not expect you to do it correctly, since they have been practicing every weekend for most of their lives. Colombian night life centers mostly on dancing, and bars where people sit or stand are less common among young people.
When dancing, despite what you might think of all the sensual movements of men and women, people just enjoy music and dancing and are normally not intended as sexual encounters or as sexual signs. Here you could find salsa being danced at a children's "piÃ±ata" party, or even at parties for older people. North Americans and Europeans could find this odd or confusing because of the use of salsa and Latin rhythms in their countries. A Colombian dancing innocently could be misinterpreted, and in general, Colombian women or men are not "easy" just because of the way they dance. It is applied in the same way as in Brazil --an almost-naked "garota" dancing samba in the carnival is not inviting you to have sex with her but inviting you to enjoy, to be happy, to join in the celebration, to join the exuberant shedding of inhibitions.
Regarding religion, most Colombians are Catholic, and itÂ´s important to them to keep certain ceremonies and respect for all things related to religion. You could visit great architectural churches, even going inside, but taking pictures may be considered disrespectful during a mass celebration. Young people are more open to learning about other religions and debate on this subject.
Colombians are quite conservative about homosexual issues, so it's not that common to find a couple of men holding hands or kissing in the street. Young people are comparatively more open-minded, but it isn't that common yet. You should expect some people's comments about same sex couples they see, but they reserve those comments to themselves, so you shouldn't expect rude attitudes or harsh comments regarding your sexuality. Indeed, Colombia is one of the countries that aprove civil unions between same sex couples. In fact, the Constitutional Court of Colombia has exhorted Congress to approve laws regarding same-sex marriage before 2013. After that deadline, if the Senate doesn't outline specific laws regarding same-sex marriage, it will be automatically legalised by the Court. The opinions of Colombians on homosexuality are pretty much like those you'll find in the United States.
When writing the name of the country do not spell it "Columbia". Everyone will spot the misspelling right away, and though not necessarily offensive, Colombians are aware of this common mistake and find it rather annoying. The Spanish and English for that matter name of the country is "Colombia".
As of 2010 Colombia has the second highest amount of landmines in the world, only Afghanistan has more. Therefore it is not appropriate to walk around in the countryside without consulting locals first. Landmines are found in 31 out of Colombia's 32 departments, (http://www.laht.com/artic...) and new ones are planted every day by guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Due to this it is difficult, even for locals and police, to know where the landmines are, as areas free of landmines today can be full of them tomorrow. (http://www.latimes.com/ne...) Therefore it is important for travellers to observe extreme caution outside of urban centers.
Cocaine manufactured in Colombia was historically mostly consumed in the US. With US consumption on the decline more and more of it is going to the EU instead. Local consumption is low. However, it can be seen in certain areas.
Widespread drugs and cartels have created a negative image of the country. Although the police and armed forces fight to combat them, corruption and bribery have always won as high ranking officers are presumed to have 'agreements' with the drug dealers. The Colombian government has a strong commitment to fight drug production and trade. The last President Alvaro Uribe, with significant aid from the US government, led a policy of massively destroying drug plantations using chemical defoliants, but this has helped just a little against the organized drug dealership.
Be sensitive. Colombians are a proud people, and are proud of the progress they've made. Do not make jokes about the drug trade in Colombia, as it has ruined many innocent citizens' lives.
Given Colombia's increasing aggression toward combating the drug trade, drug offenses are not treated lightly. If you are caught by the authorities possessing a controlled substance, expect serious problems.
Marijuana is illegal. Police will tolerate you having a few grams of this drug on your person, but you are flirting with danger if you carry much more. The real danger is consuming drugs as a foreigner in Colombia. If you are caught smoking marijuana on the street in most towns in Colombia, you will be in serious trouble. It is not always the police you have to deal with, but a vigilante. Often the vigilantes keep the peace in towns and they have a very severe way of dealing with problems. The safest way to deal with them is having cash on you; it can help you get out of many situations, as you do not want to go to jail there. If you do not have cash on you, they may take anything valuable that you have, such as mobile phones or cameras - the best thing to do is to avoid placing yourself in such situations.
The guerrilla movements which includes FARC and ELN guerrillas are still operational, though they are greatly weakened compared to the 1990's as the Colombian army has killed most of their leaders. These guerrillas operate mainly in southern, southeastern and nortwestern Colombia, although they have a presence in 30 out of the country's 32 departments. Big cities rarely see guerrilla activity, excluding Cali where the FARC has urban militias. As long as you stay in the metropolitan areas or nearby, you should be safe. River police, highway police, newspapers, and fellow travelers can be a useful source of information. Note that the native pronunciation of guerrilla in Colombia is "gair-EE-ja" [or "gair-EE-ya" for Spanish natives], not the English expression "guh-RILL-a".
There was an agreement in 2005 with the government which resulted in the disarmament of some of the paramilitaries. Paramilitaries however are still active in drug business and as a political force. It is not expected that they will intentionally harm tourists, but especially in rural areas and in or around MedellÃn it is recommended to be careful.