Visiting a foreign country is always interesting but some things in Colombia may be strange for foreigners accustomed to differences in their home country.
When I arrived in Medellín over eight years ago, some things stood out as strange or different than what I was accustomed to in the U.S.
Over the past several years I have talked to many foreigners that have shared what they thought were things in Colombia that they found were strange for foreigners visiting Colombia or moving to Colombia.
In this article we look at 14 things in Colombia that may be strange for foreigners or unusual or just different. The 14 strange or unusual things in this article are in no particular order.
1. Christmas is Not One Day – It’s a Month in Colombia
Unlike other countries where Christmas is strictly a religious (and consumerist) holiday that is essentially over within 24 hours, in Colombia the Christmas starts in early December and goes right through the month.
Colombians really celebrate Christmas in a huge way each year. And Christmas is about a month-long celebration in Colombia. It’s not just a single day or a weekend.
Medellín in particular celebrates Christmas with its world-class Medellín Christmas lights that are turned on starting in late November for over a month.
The Christmas season in Colombia unofficially tends to start on December 7, which is known as Día de las Velitas (Day of Candles). People place paper lanterns and candles, which placed on porches, balconies, streets, sidewalks, squares and parks in cities and pueblos throughout Colombia.
Also, after Christmas day, Colombia celebrates “The Day of the Innocent Saints” on December 28. This is a day dedicated to playing practical jokes on friends and family.
Also, keep in mind that Santa is rarely found in Colombia, as baby Jesus and the three wise men are the ones who bring the presents.
2. Cheese Seems to be On and In Everything
Colombians love cheese. Their love to cheese goes so far, that they put it nearly on and in almost everything.
You think you only ordered a fruit salad? There’s most probably gonna be some cheese on it. Oblea (like a flattened waffle cone) will be served with arequipe, jam and of course, cheese.
Hot chocolate with cheese is also a thing that Colombians like to drink. Colombian like putting pieces of cheese in hot chocolate. And it tastes as bizarre as it sounds. The first few sips are chocolatey enough, but once the cheese and chocolate have had time to mingle, a pungent flavor emerges.
The list of foods in Colombia with cheese seems to be endless. Also, the cheese here is not as salty and strong in taste. It’s fresh cheese. And it’s soft in texture and pretty neutral in taste.
3. Cheese is Popular but the Selection of Cheeses in Stores is Small
Above we said that cheese is found in many foods in Colombia. But in most grocery stores the cheese section is surprisingly small compared to grocery stores in the U.S.
At an Exito store in Sabaneta I found only 10 types of cheeses with a few brands for some of the types of cheeses. Also, there were only three cheeses that were imported.
If you are looking for a larger selection of cheeses, PriceSmart has a decent selection that has a wider variety of cheeses than are found in most grocery stores.
4. Colombia Uses Tankless Gas Water Heaters
Unlike the hot water tanks found in most homes in the U.S. Colombian apartments and casas (houses) typically use tankless water heaters. A few homes in Colombia may have storage water heaters with tanks but that is not very common.
The tankless water heaters used in Colombia take a little while for the water to heat up when taking a shower. But in my experience, they work well for a long, hot shower. But if you have more than one bathroom, you likely won’t be able to have two people taking hot showers simultaneously.
Tankless water heaters, also known as on-demand water heaters, use high-powered burners to rapidly heat water as it runs through a heat exchanger and deliver it directly to your faucets or shower without storing it in a tank.
Also, tankless water heaters are typically 22 percent more energy efficient on average than the gas-fired storage-tanks according to Consumer Reports.
Storage tank water heaters are commonly found in most homes in the U.S. Their components are an insulated tank, typically holding 30-50 gallons of water, to heat and store the water until it’s needed.
In addition, tankless water heaters typically last 20 to 30 years, double the forecasted useful life of a storage tank water heater.
5. Cash Payment Places are Everywhere
Many Colombians don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. So, many Colombians pay bills using small cash payment places.
You will find small cash payment places everywhere in Colombia. Two of the most popular are Gana and Efecty. You can pay most bills in these places and also recharge pre-paid cell phones with additional minutes.
6. Milk is Sold in Bags on the Shelves
Instead of rigid plastic (or glass) milk jugs found in refrigerators in grocery stores in the U.S., milk in Colombia is sold in bags (and cartons) on shelves in the store. I have never seen milk being sold in a jug in Colombia.
Milk bags contain less plastic than a milk jug, causing less environmental harm than milk jugs. Milk bags are considered more ideal from an environmental standpoint than paper milk cartons or glass milk bottles.
The milk bags are typically 1 liter and can be placed in a jug and a corner of the bag cut to pour. Since it is small, the milk goes bad less frequently than jug milk, which is usually larger.
7. Sauces are Sold in Bags on the Shelves
Many sauces including mayonnaise, ketchup, barbeque sauce and countless other sauces are sold in bags in Colombia.
The reasoning is similar to milk sold in bags. Bags contain less plastic than a container, causing less environmental harm.
But you can still find sauces in hard plastic containers in Colombia, which are usually imported.
8. It’s Difficult to Find Good Bananas
Colombia is a fruit lover’s paradise with many delicious and exotic tropical fruits that are difficult to find in North America or Europe.
In Colombia, you can find the typical fruits that are easy to find in North America and Europe like apples, pineapples and strawberries. One of the benefits of living in Colombia is the tropical fruits, which are delicious, inexpensive and plentiful.
Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world after Brazil. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Colombia has a tremendous number of tropical fruits available.
We previously looked at 30 exotic tropical fruits in Colombia. With all these fruits available in Colombia, one would think that good bananas are plentiful. But there are some grocery stores that typically don’t even have bananas. However, you can find bananas in some grocery stores and fruit markets.
But finding good bananas can be a challenge. In stores that have bananas, the bananas are typically green or overripe. So, it can be difficult to find good bananas. Some foreigners I talked to recently complained about the difficulty in finding good bananas. This may be due to the best bananas being exported.
9. Some Public Restrooms You Have to Pay to Use
One thing surprising for some foreigners visiting Colombia is that many of the public restrooms and even some restrooms in individual restaurants and stores you will have to pay a small fee to use. This is rarely seen in the U.S.
Also, you in some restrooms in Colombia, you may have to pay extra for toilet paper and some toilets may not even have toilet seats.
In addition, next to a toilet you will typically see a small trash can where they will want you to put the toilet paper instead of flushing toilet paper. This is due to plumbing not being very strong.
10. Colombians Actually Eat Ants
Hormigas Culonas are considered a delicacy in the Santander region of Colombia and can be found in other parts of Colombia. Hormigas Culonas translated literally means “big bottom ants”.
They ants are roasted with salt and you eat the backside of the ants, not the heads. And they taste kind of like popcorn.
Also, if you happen to go during the dry season, keep in mind the ants aren’t the freshest. The ants are harvested during the rainy season.
11. Colombians Drink Coffee All Day Long
Colombians tend to drink coffee all day long. A Colombian may have a cup of tinto in the morning with breakfast, with lunch, with an evening snack, as dessert with dinner. And finally, may even have a small cup before going to bed.
In the U.S., it is common only to drink a single cup of coffee in the morning. And coffee shops in the U.S. do most of their business before 10 am.
But in Colombia, coffee shops don’t rely only on a morning rush. At coffee shops in Colombia, 3 pm and 7 pm tend to be busier than the early morning.
Also, in Colombia, your average Colombian usually makes a distinction between tinto and cafe (coffee). Tinto is a thicker more concentrated version that is made with commodity beans and sold in small cups. You can find many people selling tinto from thermoses on the street.
It’s only over the past few years in Colombia that coffee shops selling quality coffee have really started taking off. And on the Medellin Guru website we previous looked at the top 5 coffee shops in El Poblado and the top 8 coffee shops in Laureles.
12. Fast Food Can be More Expensive Than in the U.S.
Fast food places can be more expensive in Medellín and other cities in Colombia than in the U.S.
This doesn’t make sense though, as labor costs in Colombia are much lower than in the U.S. Many foreigners I have talked to find it strange that fast food can be more expensive in Colombia than in the U.S.
But instead of eating at the fast food places in Medellín, there are many small neighborhood restaurants in Medellín as an alternative. It is possible to find many small local restaurants in Medellín, which have inexpensive “menú del día” lunch specials.
These lunch specials normally range in price from 8,000 to 12,000 pesos. Furthermore, the menú del día normally includes a soup or salad, a main course of meat, chicken or fish plus sides of rice and/or potatoes and a drink.
13. Pharmacies are Everywhere and Drugs are Cheap
In Medellín and in the rest of Colombia, medication is typically purchased at pharmacies (farmacias), which are easy to find. And it seems like they can be found every few blocks in some neighborhoods. In addition, pharmacies can be found in many shopping malls as well as many of the large supermarkets like Exito and Jumbo.
The staff in Colombian pharmacies generally seems knowledgeable, in my experience. They will normally will have something to suggest if you tell them your symptoms. However, we recommend exercising caution when taking advice from anyone other than a doctor.
I have experienced no problems getting many drugs at pharmacies in Medellín without a prescription that would require a prescription in the U.S. Technically the pharmacies in Colombia are supposed to require a prescription for many types of drugs. Regulation was passed years ago in Colombia to halt unrestricted sales of antibiotics. But there still appears to be minimal compliance.
In over eight years living in Medellín, I have never been asked for a prescription. You can get all types of drugs like antibiotics, birth control pills and anti-depressants without a prescription.
The generic drugs in Colombia can be very inexpensive. For example,the antibiotic Amoxicilina (Amoxicillin) can cost only 8,000 pesos for a 30-pack of 500 mg generic capsules. And Sildenafil (generic Viagra) can cost only 4,500 pesos for a 2-pack of 50 mg pills.
Many foreigners I have talked to find it strange that you can obtain so many drugs without a prescription and for such low costs in Colombia compared to their home country.
14. You Can Get Delivery (Domicilio) Service for Almost Anything
Getting things delivered (domicilio) can be very inexpensive in Medellín. It typically costs only 1,000 to 3,000 pesos ($1 or less) and sometimes is even free. We have a fruit and vegetable tienda and several pharmacies near us that deliver for free.
Most restaurants and drug stores in Medellín offer home delivery services. You can also find many other types of places that offer delivery services including some grocery stores, small locate tiendas (stores), laundry and dry cleaners, butchers, veterinarian services, doctors and many others.
We use delivery services frequently to avoid the need to run to stores, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. I am now spoiled by the availability of inexpensive delivery service.
The Bottom Line: Things in Colombia That May Be Strange for Foreigners
Colombia is a different country with different habits and some things in Colombia may be strange for foreigners accustomed to differences in their home country.
The bottom line is that the things in Colombia that may be strange or unusual for foreigners are from our point of view. But they are normal for Colombians.
Also, keep in mind a Colombian visiting the U.S. or a country in Europe would find many things strange or different in the U.S. or in countries in Europe compared to in Colombia.
Wouldn’t it be boring if you know everything already and everything was the same, right? You get to experience different cultures and habits and ways to do things when visiting or living in another country.
What other strange things in Colombia have expat readers experienced?
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