Appropriate Attire: Many travelers to Colombia are dressed in either head-to-toe adventure gear or their beach clothes. This is perfectly acceptable attire for all but the fanciest restaurants, where “neat casual” would be a better solution. In churches and monasteries, err on the side of discretion (shorts, midriff shirts, and anything else that reveals a lot of skin is not usually acceptable).
Avoiding Offense: In Colombia, be particularly mindful when discussing politics and the civil war, as many wounds are far from healed. Discussion of drugs (and coca-plant cultivation) and religion should be handled with great tact. Many Colombians refer to foreigners as gringos (or gringas). It is not intended and should not be received as an insult.
On the streets of Cartagena and other tourist towns, shoeshine boys and little girls selling cigarettes or postcards can be very persistent and persuasive. Others just ask directly for money. If you don’t wish to be hassled, a polite but firm “No, gracias” is usually sufficient, but it’s important to treat these street kids with respect.
Queries about one’s marital status and children are considered polite; indeed, women traveling alone or with other women should expect such questions. Display of one’s relative wealth is unseemly, even though much of Colombia will seem inexpensive to many budget travelers.
Gestures: Colombians are more formal in social relations than most North Americans and Europeans. They shake hands frequently and tirelessly, and kissing on the cheek is a common greeting for acquaintances. Indigenous populations are more conservative and even shy. They don’t kiss to greet one another, nor do they shake hands as frequently as other Colombians; if they do, it is a light brush of the hand rather than a firm grip. Many indigenous people from small villages are reluctant to look a stranger in the eye.
Using your index finger to motion a person to approach you, as practiced in the United States and other places, is considered rude. A more polite way to beckon someone is to place the palm down and gently sweep your fingers toward you.
Greetings: When entering a shop or home, always use an appropriate oral greeting (buenos días, or good day; buenas tardes, or good afternoon; buenas noches, or good night). Similarly, upon leaving, it is polite to say goodbye (adios or hasta luego), even to shop owners with whom you’ve had minimal contact. Colombians often shake hands upon leaving as well as greeting.
Photography: In some heavily touristed areas, such as the colonial center of Cartagena, locals have learned to offer photo ops for a price at every turn. The ladies with the fruit or the cigars aren’t posing so spectacularly by coincidence. Some foreigners hand out money and candy indiscriminately, while others grapple with the unseemliness of paying for every photo. Often it’s more comfortable to photograph people you have made an effort to talk to, rather than responding to those who explicitly beg to be your subject. I usually give a small tip (COP$2,000–COP$5,000) if it appears that my camera has been an intrusion or nuisance, or especially if I’ve snapped several shots.
Photographing military, police, or airport installations is strictly forbidden. Many churches, convents, and museums also do not allow photography or video, or they may charge a fee to take photos.
Punctuality: Punctuality is not one of the trademarks of Colombia or Latin America as a whole. Colombians are customarily a little bit late to most personal appointments, particularly in rural areas, and it is not considered very bad form to leave someone hanging in a cafe for a half hour. It is expected; so if you have a meeting scheduled, be prepared to wait.
Shopping: Bargaining is considered acceptable in markets and with taxi drivers outside of major cities, and even hotels, but only up to a point—don’t overdo it. Also bear in mind that many shops in large and small towns close at midday, from 1 to 3pm or 2 to 4pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.