What you need to know about South America! Each part of South America is a world of its own. It sounds obvious, but if you're from a country like New Zealand, things don't really change that much city to city.
In South America, each city has its own life, soul and personality. Places like Columbia are heavily populated cities. The people there are residents, going about their daily life, going to and from work, and trying to get their grocery shopping done.
Columbia specifically was an interesting beast. It is not a large tourist destination, so any travellers stick out like a sore thumb. The cities aren’t made to delight tourists with knick knack shops, nor are there cafes galore for experimenting. It is a city made for living.
The beauty in the city of Columbia comes from experiencing a new culture. Seeing how “the other half” lives, exploring new scenery, and stepping out of your comfort zone.
Tourist towns, however, like Peru – are a whole different story!
Pablo Escobar is a sensitive subject
Be culturally sensitive.
You may be there to travel and learn and experience new things, but have an awareness that what you are interested in, is not always relatable. Some of the biggest tourist attractions in South America feature Pablo Escobar, the notorious narcotics dealer. Doing a bit of “site seeing” may seem harmless, but when you start trying to arrange transport and accommodation when speaking with the locals, you might find they have a very different view. For many years South America has been in turmoil, plagued by wars fuelled by drug cartels. Not everyone is as keen to learn about that as you might be.
(Personal experience: We could not find ANY driver who was comfortable taking us on a Pablo Escobar tour).
Hablas Espanol? 95% of Columbians speak very little English
If you’ve decided to go to tourist destinations, you can get by with English and some Spanglish. Most people here have been brought up around the English language because tourists are a huge source of revenue.
If you go to cities that aren’t tourist destinations (Columbia), you need to speak Spanish! English as a language is not a huge part of their culture, and at best they can say hello and goodbye. Given it’s you visiting their country, you’ll have to come to the party a bit prepared.
If you can, set yourself up with some basic Spanish lessons – I cannot stress this enough. Learn some key phrases – practice them.
If you can, invest in a translator. You will find very simple tasks become incredibly daunting when you can't communicate past "hello".
To get you started, try “Hablas Espanol”! (do you speak Spanish).
Beware of the PoPo
In New Zealand, I’ve become very accustomed to the fact that the Police as here to help us. They are the people we call when something goes wrong. Quite naively, I didn’t realise this wasn’t the case everywhere in the world.
In most parts of South America, the locals had a very low opinion of their police force. They weren’t an organization that endowed trust and respect, but rather one of hesitance and fear. Although we could discuss the theories behind it all day, the take away should be an awareness that YOU need to make YOURSELF safe. Don’t rely on others. Don’t assume someone will come to your rescue - especially when you don’t speak their language.