Colombia

crime

The crime rate in Colombia has been significantly reduced since its peak in the late '80s and '90s. However, major urban centers and the countryside Colombia still have very high violent crime rates, comparable to blighted cities in the United States, and crime has has been on the increase in recent prior to 2013 years. In the downtown areas of most cities which rarely coincides with the wealthy parts of town violent crime is not rare; poor sections of cities can be quite dangerous for someone unfamiliar with their surroundings. Taxi crime is a very serious danger in major cities, so always request taxis by phone, rather than hailing them off the street—it costs the same and your call will be answered rapidly. Official taxi ranks are safe as well airports, bus terminals, shopping malls.

Drink only bottled water outside the major cities. The water in major cities is safe. Most drinking water in people's homes is of the purified variety that comes in huge multi-gallon plastic bags which you can find at any little grocery store. The coffee's delicious, though, so why not just start that habit!

Tropical diseases are a concern in lowland parts of the country, and more so outside of major cities. Mosquitos carry malaria, Yellow fever, and Dengue, and infection rates are similar to other lowland parts of South America i.e., much lower than in sub-Saharan Africa. Yellow fever has a vaccine, so get it—it's required for entry to many national parks, anyway. Dengue is not preventable beyond avoiding mosquito bites, so using bug spray regularly in lowland rural areas is good sense.

Malaria is the one that can kill you within 24 hours of infection, so trips outside Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, and the Andean region warrant use of antimalarials, which can be bought very cheaply without a prescription from a droguería, which are everywhere in any city of any size throughout the country. Ask for Doxycicline tablets at a dosage of 100 mg, with the number being 30 days plus the number of days in a malarial area so you can start 1-2 days in advance, and take it daily continuing for 4 weeks past the end of your trip. The phrase you want is: doxiciclina, cien miligramos, [number] pastillas. Using some bug spray in the evening serves as a bit of extra protection.

by internet

Internet cafes are easy to find in any city or town. Expect rates to run about $1,250-2,500 around $US0.50-1 per hour, depending on how much competition there is i.e., cheap in Bogotá, expensive in the middle of nowhere. Quality of connection is directly related to the centrality of location, and hence inversely related to price.

gay and lesbian travelers

Most Colombians are Catholic, although you'll find that young people are increasingly quite relaxed about religion, especially with regards to social issues, atheism and agnosticism also is growing through younger colombians. Public displays of affection are rare, though, and may elicit uncomfortable stares. Verbal and physical homophobic violence is not necessarily unheard of, and unfortunately less aggressive homophobia may be more widespread than what politeness masks. Overall, Colombian attitudes to homosexuality are pretty similar to what you find in the United States.

You can find more liberally-minded areas at least about LGBT issues in Bogotá's Chapinero district. It is home to what may be the biggest LGBT community in Colombia, and is the focal point of the community's nightlife in Bogotá if not the whole country, with explicitly gay-friendly establishments such as Theatron arguably one of the biggest discos in South America (http://www.theatron.co/). LGBT pride parades also take place in some of the major cities sometime around late June and early July. (http://off2colombia.com/g...)

Colombia has approved same-sex civil unions, but efforts to legalize gay marriage have failed.

talk

The official language of Colombia is Spanish.

Besides the standard Spanish, 68 ethnic regional languages and dialects are recognised. English also official in the San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina Islands.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 Medellín and Cali, the dialect of Spanish is the voseo form. Meaning that instead of the second person familiar pronoun tú, vos is used instead. Though tú is also understood by everybody, vos is a more friendly voice while tú is reserved for intimate circles. The Spanish spoken along the Caribbean coast is similar to the dialects spoken in spoken in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic.

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.

Some 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.

respect

Colombians are acutely aware of their country's bad reputation, and tactless remarks about the history of violence might earn you a snide remark likely regarding your country of origin and an abrupt end to the conversation. However, Colombians eventually become willing to discuss these topics once they feel comfortable enough with someone.

Colombians are more formal than much of Latin America. Make a point to say "please" "Por favor" or "Hágame el favor" and "thank you" "muchas gracias" for anything, to anyone. When addressed, the proper response is "¿Señora?" or "¿Señor?" In parts of the country especially Boyacá Colombians can be formal to the point of anachronism, calling strangers "Su merced" your Mercy! in place of usted. The one much more informal part of the country is along the Caribbean coast, where referring to people just as "chico" can be more the norm—but take your cues from those around you.

Race is not a hot issue in Colombia, since whites, criollos, and mestizos mixed race blend naturally with natives and Afro-Colombians in everyday life education, living, politics, marriage. Differences between white foreigners are not dwelled upon: expect to be called "gringo" even if you are, say, Russian. Unless context includes anger, it's not meant to be offensive. If you are black, you will probably be referred to as "negro" or "moreno," which also are not considered at all offensive. Asians are usually called "chino" Chinese, regardless of actual background. Confusingly, Colombians also occasionally refer to children as chinos "kids"; this use comes from Chibcha, an indigenous language. Even more confusingly, Colombians refer to blondes and redheads as "monos" monkeys. It sounds offensive, but actually ranges from neutral to affectionate.

Colombians have the mannerism of pointing to objects with their chins; 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.

Colombians dance a lot. 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 outside major cities.

Despite the sensual movements, dancing is normally not intended as flirtation. Here you could find salsa being danced at a children's "piñata" 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 it´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, and you may even find a lot of them who may consider themselves as lapsed, non-practicing Catholics or even non-religious.

Citizens of most western countries, including most European countries, all South American nations, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Bhutan, Japan, Russia, Malaysia and Singapore don't need a visa, unless they are staying for more than 90 days. Irish citizens no longer need to apply for a visa at a Colombian embassy, and should have the same treatment at immigration as any other visa-free travelers. Canadian citizens are now required to pay a reciprocity fee of 160000COP at arrival, except for those staying in San Andrés Island and Santa Catalina, as well as those arriving via charter flight into Cartagena. (http://www.migracioncolom...)

Colombian authorities will stamp passports from the above countries giving permission to stay for a maximum of 30 to 90 days. Immigration officials at any of the international airports of the country will usually ask you the intended length of your trip, giving you a determinate number of days that will cover it, which you can extend to 90 by going to any immigration services office.

landmines

Colombia is currently one of the most mine-affected countries in the world. So don't walk around blithely through the countryside without consulting locals. Land mines are found in 31 out of Colombia's 32 departments, and new ones are planted every day by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers.

drugs

Local consumption is low, and penalties are draconian, owing to the nation's well-known largely successful fight against some of history's most powerful and dangerous traffickers. Cocaine manufactured in Colombia was historically mostly consumed in the US and the EU, and the United States of America is still the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs. Remember that the drug trade in Colombia has ruined many innocent citizens' lives and dragged the country's reputation through the mud.

The Colombian government has a strong commitment to fight drug production and trade. A previous president, Alvaro Uribe, with significant aid from the US government, led a policy of massively destroying drug plantations using chemical defoliants, achieving a great decrease in cocaine production. Thanks to this, White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske announced that Colombia is no longer the world's biggest producer of cocaine.

Marijuana is illegal. Police will tolerate you having a few grams of this particular drug on your person, but you are flirting with danger if you carry much more. Especially in small towns, it is not always the police you have to deal with, but vigilantes. They often keep the peace in towns, and they have a very severe way of dealing with problems. 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.

Scopolamine is an extremely dangerous drug from an Andean flowering tree, which is almost exclusively used for crime. Essentially a mind control drug once experimented with as an interrogation device by the CIA, victims become extremely open to suggestion and are "talked into" ATM withdrawals, turning over belongings, letting criminals into their apartments, etc., all while maintaining an outward appearance of more or less sobriety. After affects include near total amnesia of what happened, as well as potential for serious medical problems. The most talked about method of getting drugged with scopolamine is that of powder blown off paper, e.g., someone walks up to you with cotton balls in their nose to prevent blowback and asks for help with a map, before blowing the drugs into your face. But by far the most common method is by drugging drinks at a bar. To be especially safe, abandon drinks if they've been left unattended. While a pretty rare problem, it's an awful scary one, and happens most often of all in strip clubs.

guerrillas

The guerrilla movements which includes FARC and ELN guerrillas are still operational, though they are greatly weakened compared to the 1990s as the Colombian army has killed most of their leaders. These guerrillas operate mainly in rural parts of southern, southeastern and nortwestern Colombia, although they have a presence in 30 out of the country's 32 departments. Big cities hardly ever see guerrilla activity these days. River police, highway police, newspapers, and fellow travelers can be a useful source of information off-the-beaten-path.

kidnappings

At the end of the 90s and in the early 2000s, kidnapping became one of the most cost-effective ways of financing for the guerrillas of the FARC and the ELN and other armed groups but, thanks to improvements in security and the progressive weakening of the guerrillas, criminal organizations, and other armed groups, the number of kidnappings in Colombia has been constantly declining. 3,000 Kidnappings took place in 2000 while 229 cases occurred in 2011. The number of kidnappings continues to decline. Kidnappings are still a problem in some southern departments like Cauca and Caquetá. Colombia happily no longer has the highest rate of kidnappings in the world.

paramilitaries

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, extortion rackets, and as a political force. They do not target tourists specifically, but running up against an illegal rural roadblock in more dangerous departments is possible.

Extending your stay

You can apply for a 90-day extension to your stay at an Asuntos Migratorios office in some of the major cities, which costs around 40.00 USD. You need two copies of your passport's main page, two copies of the page with the entrance stamp, two copies of a ticket en route out of the country, and four photographs. The procedure takes some time and includes taking your fingerprints. For visitors, the maximum length of stay can not exceed 6 months in 1 year.

By phone

by phone
 

It's simple enough to get a SIM card and even an unlocked phone at the international airport in Bogotá, although there is, of course, a price hike. They're not hard to find in any city either, just ask your hotel or hostel staff where to go. Topping up is also easy, and can be done pretty much on any street corner.

The carriers you'll most likely see are Claro, Tigo, and Movistar. Claro is the most expensive by a little bit, but it is said that it has the widest coverage in the country, if you expect to get off the beaten path; althougth the quality of service have been decreasing during the last years. Other carriers are Virgin Mobile, which uses the network of movistar, Exito Movil (cheaper rates, but harder for tourists to get, and Uff! Móvil, which uses the network of Tigo. You can get SIM cards for the latter two at Exito supermarkets.

by phone
 
# Departments
1 Bogotá and Cundinamarca
2 Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Nariño
3 Mobile phones
4 Antioquia, Chocó, Córdoba
5 Atlántico, Bolívar, Cesar, La Guajira, Magdalena, Sucre
6 Caldas, Risaralda, Quindío
7 Norte de Santander, Santander, Arauca
8 Boyacá, Tolima, Huila, San Andrés and Providencia, Meta, Caquetá, Amazonas, Casanare, Vichada, Guainía, Vaupés, Guaviare, Putumayo

Dialing Colombian numbers is complicated, with several systems.

From landlines:

To call from a landline to another local landline, dial the normal seven digits. To call from a landline to a mobile, dial twelve digits, always beginning with 03, followed by the ten digit number provided.

It's far more complex to make long-distance domestic calls or international calls. Ask whoever owns the phone to dial it for you. If that's not an option, buy a mobile phone. Seriously.

From mobiles:

To call from a mobile to a landline, you must dial 03 + area code + the seven digit number. To call a mobile from a mobile is easy—just dial the ten digits. Long distance is not an issue.

Calling internationally is much harder, and requires figuring out which long distance carrier to call. The formula is 00 + long distance carrier code + country code + number. But why on earth aren't you just Skyping from an Internet café?

From abroad:

To call a Colombian landline from another country, use the +57 country code then the eight digit number the first of which is the area code. To dial a mobile phone from abroad, dial +57 and then the ten digit number.