Moving to Bogotá? Things you should know…

I‘ve lived in Bogotá for almost two-and-a-half years now and, although I frequently make mistakes and mess things up, I’ve learned a lot in that time. Mostly, I understand and respect that different cultures have different, often extremely subtle, ways of doing things and that Mr Darwin was entirely correct – those who adapt are those who will survive and thrive. With that in mind, here are some tips:

1) Cars

Bogotá drivers generally think they have a licence to hit anything in their path (if they have a licence at all) and that includes you. They may speed up if they see you crossing, just to remind you. Never use light-free zebra crossings – because the lines are obviously painted at the most dangerous parts of roads. Always wait until the cars have stopped completely for a green man and, even then, be aware of cars turning into your path. If you think I’m exaggerating, go to the cinema where they are currently running three-minute adverts to show drivers why it’s a good idea to stop at red lights.

2) Patience

Impatience and rudeness are highly frowned upon in this town and, equally, the Bogotá culture leans towards passive aggressive. Be abrupt with a shop assistant, for example and they will do everything they can to avoid serving you and, if forced, will just be deeply unhelpful. Don’t be fooled by the innocent if blank expression and assume the shop assistant is stupid or indifferent to the urgency of your request. They know exactly what they are doing – namely punishing you for your rudeness. And so they should, everyone knows impatience is just self-importance in a more confrontational form.

3) Your Spanish

Until recently there were huge swathes of Bogotá that had never set eyes on a foreigner and, even now, outside the traditional ‘foreigner zones’ we can be a bit of a novelty. If someone doesn’t understand you, it may be because they are struggling to hear you above the voice in their inner ear which is screaming: “WOW! This woman is really TALL! And she’s BLONDE! And she’s speaking to me IN SPANISH!” Be patient, give them a moment to recover, then try again.

4) Invitations

Being able to invite someone to something, that is to offer them an invitation and pay for them, is something to be proud of here. It means you are doing well and are able to share that with your friends and family. If you are invited and treated to something, accept the invite with good grace. Insisting on paying or, worse, hiding 100,000 pesos in the family teapot – as we may do in England – is offensive and casts doubt on someone’s ability to pay. Instead, be effusive in your thanks and think of another way to repay the generosity.

5) Service Staff

If a drink or food is missing from your bill or you are disappointed with the food/service, think very carefully before you cheat or refuse to pay. It’s entirely possible your waiter has travelled for hours on a cramped bus to work at what’s probably an over-priced tourists’ restaurant, for a lower wage than you could possibly imagine. And, of course, the bosses will have no qualms about deducting any shortfall from said minimal wage.

6) Smile

Thousands and thousands of Colombians have lived through terrifying and miserable times and somehow come out the other end with a positivity and pleasure in life’s ‘little gifts’ that is simply astounding (which is probably reason number 4,592 why we love living here so much) But that means you too have to throw away your cynicism, open up your heart and find a way to delight in everything – even if, at first glance, it does just look like a mound of chicken and rice with ketchup on top. Trust me, it’s good for your soul.

7) Look after yourself

Whatever previous safety nets you may have relied upon (legal rights, the ‘authorities’ generally, the world-famous British sense of justice) put that behind you. If you want to buy something in a shop, check it works first. If you want to cross the road on a green man, check the cars have stopped first. This country is fantastic in a million ways but if something does go wrong, such as pick-pocketry, the first question will be: ‘How did you let that happen?’ rather than any railment at the thief. But look on the bright side, looking after yourself is really what you should be doing in life, how do you think people survived before the compensation culture stripped us of any need to take care?

8) Relax about plans

Even if it’s someone else’s idea, a date and time has been set and impossible amounts of enthusiasm have been expressed – if more than a few hours have passed between a plan and its making, don’t expect it to happen. Unlike the rush hour traffic in Bogotá, plans are fluid. I’ve heard some of my closest friends make four Saturday night plans before turning to me and asking which one we should choose. Again, take responsibility. Check, check and check again that something is really happening. Or, even better, just chill out and you’ll see life is a lot more fun when it’s completely unpredictable.

9) Tea

Yes dear ones, this beautiful city is 2,600m closer to the stars (that’s a reference to the altitude if you missed my point about relentless positivity) That means water boils at 91°C rather than the 100°C most of us expect. Your tea will never taste the same again so just get over it and start drinking coffee.

10) It’s okay to be smug

Let’s be honest. Fate has dealt you a spectacular hand here. It’s somehow conspired to send you to the randomest, most irreverently beautiful, extraordinarily contrary, changeable, interesting, opportunity-rich, humbling, inspiring, chaos-filled, utterly absorbing city on the planet. And luckily for you, fortune really does favour the bold. Good luck!

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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19 Comments

  1. Giles

    It’s a real paradox that people in Bogotá are so nice, face to face, and behind the wheel they are the biggest arses ever. The power people seem to get out of being in charge of an accelerator. I have tried to educate them on zebra crossings by forcing them to stop…I have also quickly learnt this is a silly game to attempt to play. This item rings true through most of South America BTW.

    1. Kevin Getz

      seems to be common in other countries too..Costa Ricans seem to hate face to face conflict but maybe get a bounty for each pedestrian wounded or killed? it seems so anyway.but in every country some people are more aggressive with 4,000 pounds of steel , plasticand glass backing them up

  2. Yoolie

    Thanks for sharing this! I will be living in Bogotá for four months from next January, and your blog makes me feel like I already know the place a little bit! Keep it up, pls!! 🙂

  3. Mr M

    Interesting comments as a Brit I lived in Bogota for 4 years. I now live in Barranquilla and trust me all of the above is true. I would add that unless you also favor losing all your money best to pass on the idea of making money in Colombia.

  4. Daniel Paisa

    Congratulations on this thoughtful, funny and positive post. I’ve been living in Colombia for three years now and love it as much as the author of this article does. Not many foreigners though learn to adapt to the local culture that well and stay so positive as expressed in this article. Again: congratulations to a great post!

  5. Ryan

    Thanks for sharing ! We are planing to move to Colombia but we are not sure what city yet.We visit last year at the end of January state a month visit Cartagena ,Medellin ,Bogota and we love it; we are going back next year in june.Looking for a small ranch maybe in the cafe area? Out side of the big cities. Looking for rules and regulation building house , taxes in properties,transfer money to Colombia things like that, if you have any info it will be greatly appreciated.

  6. Bungle Pups

    How I miss tea … but I’m not going to drink the coffee! One of the biggest disappointments I had after moving here was that it’s hard to find a decent cup of coffee. 😦

  7. Ceri

    I’ve been seriously considering Bogota as an option for when I return to LatAm. 🙂 I do like your points and, don’t worry, duendecitoboxea – We know these are generalised and not everyone’s the same.

  8. Car

    Estoy de acuerdo en buena parte de lo que se dice acá, soy bogotano y casi toda mi vida he vivido acá. Pero debo decir que a muchos de los bogotanos también nos molesta que los autos no paren en las esquinas, nos molesta el estar reconfirmando citas para verse, en cuanto a las invitaciones, si, eso ocurre, pero no siempre, no siempre resulta un ofensa. Hay un colombiano estándar que si pertenece a este tipo de comentarios. Y bueno, en cuanto al té nos importa 5 que sepa diferente, pues para nosotros así ha sabido siempre y quizás el de 100 grados, nos sepa mal.

  9. luisosoriosp

    Even though many of the things said here are kind of negative, as a Colombian I can say they’re mostly true, but it isn’t beacuse of the people living in this place, it is because of the daily routines, the heavy traffic, the amount of people crowded in the same place, those things are the ones that make people behave this way, I am currently living in Bogota, but I am from Cali and I can say that, the bigger the city, the meaner the people. Don’t get me wrong, I love living in a big city, that’s why I moved here, and it’s just about adapting to the life style, and understanding that a person’s behavior will be (most of the times) defined by the place they live in.

    spanishadviser.wordpress.com

  10. Mike

    One of the best reads I have read! Headed your way my friend! After 48 trips I think it is time to go! But you absolutely nailed it! One minor detail. Learn money and the exchange or you will be ripped off! Mainly by street vendors and cab drivers! Great Read! Thanks for sharing!

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