- Download our Moving to Colombia Guide (PDF)
Many, though not all, expats are likely to experience some culture shock in Colombia. Although the culture and lifestyle may not appear completely alien, expats will notice many idiosyncrasies to which they will have to adjust.
The experience an expat has of the local culture in Colombia will vary depending on their personality, as well as their lifestyle and location within the country. Western-style shopping malls, grocery stores and restaurants can be found in all the major cities, whereas adapting to life in smaller towns and rural areas will be significantly more challenging.
While Colombia is becoming increasingly popular with tourists and expats, foreigners still generate a fair amount of fascination and curiosity from locals. Expats should be ready for stares and invasive questions, well-meaning though they may be.
Dancing and football are beloved throughout the country, and Colombians are generally family-oriented. Expats will undoubtedly be invited to their new Colombian friends' homes and family events.
Cultural differences across Colombia
Colombia's diverse geography and history have given rise to distinct regional cultures and customs, making the country a rich tapestry of varied traditions. In the Andean region, which includes cities such as Bogotá, Medellín and Cali, people are often perceived as more formal and reserved, influenced by Spanish colonial history. The vibrant Caribbean region, encompassing cities like Cartagena and Barranquilla, boasts a more relaxed, expressive atmosphere, blending African, European and indigenous influences.
The Amazon region, home to indigenous communities with unique customs and lifestyles, presents a fascinating contrast to the urban centres. The lesser-known Orinoquía region, with its vast plains and cattle-ranching culture, has its own distinct music, dance, and cuisine, reflecting the strong cowboy (llanero) heritage. Finally, the Pacific region, known for its lush rainforests and Afro-Colombian communities, features distinctive musical styles like currulao and a seafood-rich culinary tradition.
Time and punctuality in Colombia
Life tends to progress at a fairly slow pace in Colombia. The local approach to time and punctuality is highly flexible, both socially and in business. Enjoying more public holidays than most other countries, Colombians place great value on their family time, festivals and traditions. Queueing and waiting in long lines are commonplace. The practice of jumping these lines can also make visits to banks or shops tedious affairs.
Meeting and greeting in Colombia
Colombians are usually welcoming, lively and passionate. People from Bogotá, Medellín and other inland regions may be slightly more formal and reserved, while those from the coastal areas are often more laid-back and expressive. Expats should adjust their greetings accordingly to make sure they do not offend.
Appearances are important in Colombia. Personal care services such as hairstyling, manicures and pedicures, teeth whitening, and even plastic surgery are far more affordable than in many European and North American countries. Everyone is generally expected to be well-groomed and neat at all times.
Women and gender roles in Colombia
As a predominantly Catholic nation, people in Colombia are generally conservative, with men and women expected to conform to conventional gender roles. That being said, there is a growing number of women in business, and they tend to be respected by their male colleagues.
Like many countries in Latin America, chauvinism or machismo can be a problem. Female expats may have to deal with catcalling and harassment in the street, while men might be expected to pay for everything on a date or in a relationship.
Despite this, Colombia has made significant progress in promoting gender equality and empowering women in recent years. Expats should remain mindful of these improvements and contribute positively to ongoing change by respecting everyone, challenging stereotypes and fostering open-minded conversations around gender roles and expectations.
Language barrier in Colombia
Although the government prioritises bilingualism, the average Colombian does not speak much English. This is particularly apparent outside of the major urban centres. Learning Spanish will be essential for any expat hoping to integrate and fully adjust to life in Colombia.
The Spanish of the inland regions tends to be relatively easy to understand, but even expats who speak the language well may find it challenging to comprehend Colombians from the Caribbean coast, as there is a huge range of vocabulary and slang. Regional meanings can also vary widely.
To overcome language barriers in Colombia, expats should take advantage of language exchange programs and online courses or enrol in local language schools, which offer immersive experiences and cater to various skill levels.
Additionally, smartphone apps and language meet-ups can provide supplementary practice and opportunities to engage with native Spanish speakers, enhancing the language learning experience. There are numerous apps to develop vocabulary and grammar skills, while yet others can facilitate language exchanges and opportunities for real-life practice. Expats should select Colombian Spanish or South American Spanish to ensure that they're learning the correct language for the region.
Safety in Colombia
Eager to put past stereotypes behind them, Colombians do their best to make foreigners feel welcome in their country. They work to put forward an image which is warm, generous and friendly. Although people are generally friendly, they can also appear oblivious to those around them.
Safety in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, but street crimes like pickpocketing and armed robbery are still common. Expats should therefore take certain basic precautions and be aware of their personal safety. Expats should also stay vigilant around roads, as Colombians tend to drive aggressively and have little patience for pedestrians.
Even though Colombia signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, some groups have refused to demobilise. This means parts of Colombia still suffer from a war between guerillas, paramilitaries and government forces. Expats should avoid these areas.
Food and drink in Colombia
Lunch is the most important meal of the day in Colombia. In rural areas, everything comes to a halt for two hours each day as people go home to enjoy a hot meal with their families. The Colombian diet is very carbohydrate-heavy and includes a lot of sugar, with countless soft drinks, fruit salad drizzled with condensed milk and tubs of dulce de leche sold on street corners.
Drinking in public spaces is legal in Colombia, and a beer costs the same as, or sometimes even less than, a soft drink in the ubiquitous corner store tiendas. Coffee, particularly the strong and bitter tinto, is everywhere, as is freshly squeezed fruit juice. Water and other soft drinks are often sold in plastic bags, which may be unusual for expats.
In the larger cities, expats should have no trouble finding restaurants serving cuisines of any type. Imported food items will be available in the larger grocery stores, but usually with a hefty price tag attached.
Transport in Colombia
As Colombia is a developing country, the standard of public transport may be inferior to what expats have come to expect at home. Traffic in Bogotá is notoriously bad. People on the street tend to walk slowly, and chaos rules the roads. Drivers in Colombia pay little attention to stop signs, traffic lanes or indicators. Omnipresent motorcycles also completely ignore road rules as they wind through traffic.
Local buses don't stick to timetables or advertised routes. People simply hail the bus as it goes past and hop off wherever they need to. Although the buses are often crowded, street vendors and performers frequently push through the crowds to sell their wares or serenade passengers. The major cities of Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla have rapid transit bus systems, and Medellín is the country's only city with a metro.
►Learn more about Colombian work culture in Doing Business in Colombia
"My experience was probably unique living in a rural town as a volunteer the first year. That year I learned how to do my laundry in a bucket and ride with three people on motorcycle taxis to get in and out of town. Eight years later, I do have a washing machine and mostly avoid motorcycle taxis.
"As far as more general culture shock, even after eight years, as somewhat of an introvert, the loudness of people here can still get to me. It’s one of those things that’s charming until it isn’t, like in a classroom of 25 ninth graders." Check out the rest of American expat Adam's interview with Expat Arrivals here.
"Moving here meant immersing ourselves completely in an unfamiliar sea of language and local customs." Read more about John and Susan's adjustments to life in Colombia.
Are you an expat living in Colombia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Colombia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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