Here’s our take on Colombian Culture and Lifestyle in the Coffee Axis. It is based on our experiences living here continuously since February of 2013. Our Colombia culture facts about the people, the life and even the conflicts.
As a full-time continuous resident (since 2013), we aren’t coming and going, or “taking a break.” Watch out for these flight by night expats who are here a few months a year then claim to be pros. People like Zach Morris and Dominic Wolf bailed at the first sign of lockdown and didn’t return until it was over – how can they really claim to understand life and culture – but we digress.
This is our perception. Feel free to comment below about your concepts and experiences!
Colombia Culture and Lifestyle in the Coffee Axis
You will hear Colombians often say “Oh, I don’t like the Rolos, the Costeños, the Paisas,” but they all still do a lot of the same things and have a lot of the same overall perceptions. So let’s take a step back and make some educated generalizations.
Our experience has been 90% Paisa culture which is a very agrarian, coffee production, aguardiente drinking, canny business tricks, type of world.
You Are Rich – But It Comes From Colombians Living Abroad
Colombia culture and lifestyle isn’t easy if you are foreign, light skinned, blue or green eyed, because you are therefore rich. No matter how much you dress up or down that perception will not change. In fact, the Colombians propagate it through their own need to “show off” prosperity from living abroad. We totally recommend dark glasses and simply dressing to blend in a bit.
When a Colombian family member comes home to visit, they often spend every dime they saved for the last 10 years to show everyone a good time. Big family dinners, traveling to the coast for some beach time, and buying extravagant things are only a few ways that they show off their prosperity. Is it any surprise they expect the same from foreign residents or visitors?
You Must Speak Spanish, But Many Understand English
Spanish is 100% essential. Many of the newer Millennial generations who are middle class and upward have gone to bilingual schools or studied English. Their success rate depended on how interested they or their parents were. Even so, most people won’t admit they can understand English, and most are mortified to speak if it isn’t “perfect,” whatever that means.
You must be VERY careful how you speak in public. Chances are that even as they claim ignorance, on some level they might understand you moderately and you don’t want to risk offending them by talking shit. Also, keep your voice low, if you are talking about how much money you have with you and whether to go to the cash machine – someone might be listening in and making plans.
Even so, there are still many services and businesses who do not have English as a skill, expect to pay a translator, or guide to help you find the things you need then set you loose to do it yourself. We do offer that service for people who want help getting set up – email us at email@example.com for more information.
They Love Their Own Food, and Italian or Fast Food
Colombians who live abroad will actually go out of their way to find a restaurant that serves the food they are accustomed to eating, OR they will cook at home, which is probably why they are able to save as much as they do.
Since most ingredients used in Colombian cuisine come from basic fruits and vegetables, along with rice and meat, they are definitely saving money by avoiding the processed foods.
For breakfast and Lunch a Colombian – even when traveling abroad will search out an “Almuerzo Ejecutivo” which is soup, plate with rice, meat and salad, plus a drink. This is usually a cheaper way to eat your meals when visiting this region, and a great way to learn about the food culture.
That being said, the more exotic foods like Italian (Pizza/Pasta), Burgers, and even Arabic or Chinese food is usually eaten for dinner on special occasions. Most people eat at home or a tipico restaurant for breakfast and lunch. Most Colombians don’t like spicy foods like Mexican or Thai – even when you find a place offering it, often it is “Colombianized” in some way.
The biggest complaint foreign residents have is the “plain” or tasteless nature of Colombian food. Part of that is the massive amounts of salt, sugar and condiments we are accustomed to using in our home countries, but also depends heavily on the quality of the kitchen.
Colombian Lifestyle Food Hack #1
The best tipico food is eaten in rural areas, hole-in-the-wall eateries, and especially when cooked over wood fires (leña). When you find someone who is very “casero” or homestyle, you will gain a much better insight. However, you won’t find this at big commercialized restaurants, but at the Food Distribution plazas, cheaper neighborhoods, and roadside eateries.
Colombia Culture and Lifestyle when DATING
This one is as dicey as you are able to imagine it is. In fact, as lonely as you might feel when arriving, you really need to take your time getting to know the people around you before diving into this pond. There are many unseen rocks and obstacles that affect cross cultural dating.
For every successful couple there are hundreds of nightmare scenarios. Even if someone does date you because of a genuine attraction, the people in their social circle are many times telling them to take advantage of your foreign passport. Even if they aren’t that interested, their family probably is.
People don’t get rich by being honest good people. In fact, the best people we have met and or dated were all more middle class. Lower classes are looking for any opportunity they can grasp to rise out of poverty, middle classes are trying to stay afloat and start their own successful business or move up socially. Not so different from our own respective cultures.
Most women expect you to support them financially on one level or another if you are dating in any way that is even remotely serious.
Especially if she is a single mom, she probably needs all the extra support she can get, and if you aren’t willing she will often dump you for someone who is. Obviously there are always exceptions, but especially out in the pueblos the expectation is there due to limited opportunities. Even most men will jump at the chance to be supported on some level or economize their life by a foreign woman.
Take it slow, and the more traditional you can approach it, the better it will probably go for you.
Working in Colombia
This is what will ultimately determine if you stay or go. To run a business or work independently in this country you have to have a lot of smarts about everything. Employees will ask for raises thinking you can afford more, even if their work isn’t worth more. Outside of teaching English it can be really tough.
The ideal situation is to have some type of digital income or retirement when you arrive. People like us who have to work for a living will always struggle because of the lack of value this culture places on the labor of others. You will either be underpaid as an employee or overtaxed as a business owner.
The best option is to offer services. You will work like a slave if you open a restaurant or cafe because you MUST be there constantly to ensure that your employees actually do what you told them to. In many cases it will be better to simply do it yourself.
Even if you do offer services, Colombians aren’t easy to work with because they will do anything for a discount or to find a more competitive price. Quality and Value are not as important to Colombians as they are to you.
Here’s some more resources for owning or doing business in Colombia: https://coffeeaxistravel.com/business-in-colombia-is-tricky/
Real Estate in Colombia
Another tough topic because the way a Colombian builds a house or structure is very different than we imagine it to be.
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Countertops are lower as the average height more around 5 feet, not so much in the 6 feet range. Bathrooms are smaller, you might even find your knees knocking against a wall. Don’t expect a bathtub except in really old upper class apartments. Hot water comes from a gas/electric run-through heater, or an electric shower head.
The way Colombians wash clothing is quite different. They prefer to hand-wash bras, underwear, socks and briefs. Dryers are not a common or even expected item – even in the higher stratas. Houses and apartments come with a wash rack and water holding tank due to shut offs and hand washing of clothes.
Garage’s and yards are uncommon in most major cities and bigger towns. You can definitely find houses with yards but it will cost you a lot of time and effort, and much more money per month. Space is a luxury.
This is not a culture that stores away food so don’t expect large pantries. Even most refrigerators are smaller and often not ice-producing. Most kitchens won’t come with a functioning oven or extra counter space. Even the sinks are smaller.
Find Your Big Shade
In Colombian culture, they have a term that goes something like “sombra grande” or Big Shade to talk about support systems in a society where WHO you know trumps what you know. Especially if this country becomes more dangerous again, you will need to have friends and relatives who can help guide you and keep you out of trouble.
This is especially true in smaller towns where everyone knows everyone. Friendships and associations will keep you safe and out of harms way even if you inadvertently find yourself in a disagreement or situation with a druggie, a mafioso, or even a crazy street guy who won’t leave you alone.
As a single mother I have had situations where the people I hang around with protected me in an unconventional ways from people or crazies that the police and/or society otherwise can’t touch. Over time you will come to understand what this may mean in a given situation where you are being bothered.
Wherever you go finding a tribe or support system will always be important and in some cases life saving when it comes to Colombia culture and lifestyle.
This is a rather brief overview of Colombia Culture and Lifestyle. Obviously there are so many other facets to take into account. It is important to really understand their ideas about life and towards foreign residents. Traditionally expats were always people of means who had their second home abroad or a foreign wife who keeps her roots alive and watered.
New wave expats are coming here more as economic refugees but still being treated like the former category of residents. This can and will cause a lot of cultural conflicts. You can avoid a lot of problems by learning to live like a Colombian and complaining less, but ultimately you will always be the odd one out to some extent even if you do marry into the culture.
There are so many places to visit in the Coffee Axis – definitely Pereira and Manizales, but ask us about some of the special towns that we feel have a unique potential too!
We do offer a VIP Lifestyle Tour which is designed to help you find everything you need while avoiding the pitfalls along the way. Feel free to reach out to us via email firstname.lastname@example.org or via WhatsApp +57 312 794 8245 to schedule your personalized approach to life in Colombia.
Be sure to follow us on social media to learn more about Colombia culture and lifestyle: https://www.facebook.com/coffeeaxistravel