I stayed in Medellín for over 10 months in 2020. While the vast majority of that time was spent in self-isolation, I still got to know the city, and culture, quite well. I have compiled this list of 10 things that surprised me about Medellín, and Colombia as a whole. Some are pleasant, others not so much…
1. The Food
Before I moved to Colombia, I had some big misconceptions about the food. Let’s just say, Colombian food is not Mexican food. Ok, so I didn’t think it’d be exactly like Mexican food but I definitely thought the spices and some of the dishes would be similar. Nope. Not at all. Colombian food is NOT spicy and (most) Colombians do not use hot sauce. But they do use other sauces.
I saw some interesting sauces in Colombia, including Piña Sauce – a pineapple flavored sauce that is unrealistically yellow and oh so sweet. Piña Sauce is squirted on many dishes including pizza and French fries.
Traditional Colombia dishes are meaty, cheesy and often topped with a fried egg. Hamburgers, hot dogs and fried chicken can be found just about anywhere in Medellín and the neighboring towns. I also noticed many people buying cow’s milk in bulk. As a vegan this was an unfortunate discovery.
Or was it?
To be honest, even before I was vegan, Colombian cuisine would not have been up my alley. So, instead of focusing on how vegan unfriendly most Colombian food is, I focused on how it wasn’t a temptation for me. Never once did I think “Oh, I could really go for some chicharrón (deep fried pig skin, meat attached) right now, if only I wasn’t vegan!”
While Colombian food may not have been vegan friendly, Medellín as a whole was! Living there I had access to everything a vegan could want including fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh juices (sin leche) and a wide variety of vegan restaurants. Some local restaurants were even willing to veganize traditional dishes for me. This often included beans (if they weren’t cooked with pork) rice, arepas (a corn cake tortilla), avocado, and fried plantain… Also, potatoes and French fries were available EVERYWHERE!
2. The Noise
Medellín is loud.
Colombia is loud.
I don’t actually think writing about the noise will do it justice, it is something you have to experience to fully understand, but I will try…
Colombians love loud speakers. I am talking huge, nightclub-grade speakers. I swear getting your first set of speakers must be a Colombian right of passage. A local guy I met in Santa Marta told me that if you are at a house party in Colombia, and you can hear each other talking over the music, to look around for the coffin because you must be at a funeral.
Speakers aren’t reserved for parties though. My neighbors, in every single place I stayed at in Medellín, played loud music at all hours of the day and night. One night I was awoken around midnight to reggaetón blasting. I went to my balcony to see where it was coming from. A woman, working at a small tienda across the street, had her giant speaker out on the sidewalk in front of her store, blasting it for just herself and the building security guard.
The traffic is a different kind of loud in Medellín. The only place I got a little reprieve from the roaring of engines and blaring of horns was when I lived in an 18th floor apartment in the San Diego neighborhood of Medellín. But even then I still heard it during rush hour and whenever a celebratory car parade came honking and roaring through (I still don’t know what these parades were all about).
I heard fireworks weekly, if not nightly, while living in Medellín- and quadruple the normal amount in December, because of Christmas. (Paisas celebrate Christmas all throughout December- which also surprised me, and probably should have been #11 on this list.)
The noise from my fan and/or the white noise app on my phone saved my sanity many nights!
3. The Language Barrier
Most people in Medellín don’t speak English. My foreign country experiences prior to Colombia included vacation Mexico and the backpacker trails in Southeast Asia and India. Despite Asia being much further away, and the languages and cultures seeming much more foreign, most people I came in contact with there spoke some English.
In Colombia, I had to rely on my very basic Spanish skills to accomplish almost anything. Which was great! It forced me to practice Spanish without being able use English as a crutch.
4. The Machismoness
At first I didn’t notice the male centric culture, stereotypical of Latin American, in Colombia.
Things changed when, after being in Medellín for nearly a month on my own, Michael came to visit me. I briefly introduced Michael to my landlord as a friend who was visiting temporarily. My (male) landlord no longer spoke to me when he came over, he directed all questions and instructions to Michael, as if I wasn’t even there. At first I thought this was because Michael spoke better Spanish than I did but (sorry Michael) his Spanish wasn’t that much better than mine AND that landlord was one of the few people I met in Medellín who actually spoke some English. The language barrier was not the issue.
If the landlord situation wasn’t enough to convince me of the machimoness, paying the bill at restaurants surely did. Michael and I went out for a nice dinner in Santa Marta one night. The waitress handed Michael the bill. I grabbed it from him and handed the waitress my card. She inserted it into the machine (they process credit cards right at the table) and handed the machine back to Michael. Michael slid it across the table so I could complete the transaction. I selected “una” when prompted with “cuantas cuotas” and handed it back to the waitress. She then asked Michael if he wanted the transaction processed in Colombian Pesos or US Dollars, he looked at me for my response. I looked at the waitress and said “Colombian Pesos,” but she wouldn’t select it until Michael repeated “Colombian Pesos.” She then printed out the receipt and handed it to Michael to sign! I was shook!
Another day, Michael and I went out to lunch with our neighbor Kal, a 30-something year old man from Chicago. I pulled out cash for our very inexpensive lunch. The waiter hesitated as he reached for the cash in my hand, looking at both Kal and Michael. It wasn’t until they nodded with approval that he accepted the cash from me! It was if he had to ask my male companions for their permission for me to buy them lunch. (And no, I didn’t always pay, these were just two incidences where I did.)
5. The Police
I plan to write a whole post about the three times I was stopped by police in Colombia. But for this post I will simply say- Colombians know to just pay off the police and move on with their day.
One of the times I was stopped by police was at a checkpoint, on the road between Taganga and Santa Marta, after a Scuba diving trip. I was in a red, four door sedan with Michael, two guys from Bogota, and the local dive instructor was driving.
I couldn’t catch everything the police said to the dive instructor through his open window. Later I learned that we were originally pulled over for violating a Covid regulation about the number of people allowed in a car (I had never heard this rule before). I did hear the police say something about “the foreigners” (Michael and I) not having our passports and needing to “go to the station.” I frantically tried to explain to the guys from Bogota that we didn’t want to bring our passports on the boat but that I had pictures of both of our passports on my phone (we had just filled out visa applications the day before). The guy that was in the back seat with Michael and I told me that the police just wanted lunch, he didn’t sound worried at all.
The dive instructor had gotten out of the car and was standing in a shady spot under a tree on the side of the road, talking to the police. They were smiling and chatting like old friends. When the dive instructor came back to the car he nonchalantly said that they wanted fifty thousand pesos. The three Colombian guys immediately pooled together their money, no questions asked, while Michael and I watched, stunned. The dive instructor got back out, handed the police the money, had a few more laughs, and got back in the car.
I was shocked that they didn’t even seem to be shaken up by the ordeal. After a few minutes I asked them if this was common and they said “tristemente sí” (sadley yes). Still curious I asked what would have happened if they had said no. They answered as if that wouldn’t have ever crossed their minds, simply saying it wouldn’t have been worth it.
6. The Time Management
Time is treated much differently in Colombia than it is in America. When my landlord said he’d come by in an hour to fix something, I quickly learned that what he actually meant was that he would try to come by sometime that day. When I first started teaching Colombian students online, I had to get used to last minute cancellations. Standing appointments dodn’t seem to be a thing because they get rescheduled, often last minute, all of the time. At first I was confused and frustrated by this but once I learned to accept it, it became easier to navigate. It’s actually kind of nice to not be held to such a rigid schedule sometimes!
Businesses that cater to Americans and other expats seem to be more punctual. I visited an English speaking dentist twice and an English speaking Gynecologist once while living in Medellín and all the appointments went according to schedule.
7. The Hot Water Situation
The first place I stayed in Colombia was a Vipassana Meditation center on the outskirts of Medellín. There was no hot water. Even though meditation centers are known for their limited modern conveniences, I was still surprised by this because the Vipassana Meditation center in Illinois, where I’d taken my 10 day course, was like the Ritz in comparison.
The first thing I wanted to do when I left the meditation center was take a hot shower! To my dismay, the hostel bathroom had a sign on the door about limiting showers to 5 minutes to conserve hot water. My first “hot” shower in weeks was lukewarm for one minute before turning ice cold.
Thankfully all of my apartments had hot water but it was still much different than I was used to. The water was either heated electrically, with wires hooked right up to the shower head, or with a tiny, flame lit water heater.
Out of the 8-10 places I stayed in Colombia, only one had hot water in the sink (and only in the kitchen). In the other places the hot water knob on the sink either didn’t turn at all or functioned a second cold water knob.
8. The “Propina?” Question
Tipping isn’t a big part of Colombian culture. It has become the norm in some places because of the North American tourist and expat influence but typically, tipping is not a common practice. So, when you are somewhere, like a nice restaurant in a expat neighborhood, where tipping is more common, they straight up ask you, would you like to leave a “propina” or “servicio” when you pay with a card. If you say yes then they add a set amount, something like 10%, to your bill. It’s not like in America where you can discretely leave a big tip, a small tip or no tip at all by simply, and silently, writing it down.
9. The Dog Obsession
People in Medellín, and everywhere else I went in Colombia, are obsessed with their dogs. People treat their dogs like royalty. I saw people with little dogs in their purses and people running with big, well groomed, dogs in the park. Many restaurants and shops in Medellín are dog friendly. There is even a dog vending machine at the mall!
There were at least 5 pet stores on my block when I lived near Parque Boston, the air smelled like dog food! When I first moved in I didn’t know the exact address of my apartment. #12 on this list should have been addresses! There are no street names, only numbers, a lot of numbers, but no zip codes! They are confusing! Anyway, for DiDi I used the address of the pet store nearby, it was clearly labeled on the map. It was quite comical to get in a DiDi late at night, requesting to be brought to a pet store. When they looked confused I used my very basic Spanish skills to explain myself … “No, no necesito algo para mi mascota ahora … esta dirección está cerca de mi casa … quiero ir a casa … la dirección está bien.”
10. The Birds
There are soooo many different types of beautiful, colorful, birds in Colombia! One day, in the thick of quarantine, I was sitting on my balcony talking to my mom on the phone. Despite my gorgeous view of downtown Medellín, green mountains and sunny skies, I wasn’t thinking much about where I lived. It was just another day in isolation at that point… until this pair of brightly colored parrot like birds glided across the sky in front me. I was speechless. The birds snapped me back to reality- I lived in a tropical paradise! The birds weren’t parrots but I thought they were at the time. Someone once told me their name but I can’t remember it at the moment. If you know about these birds in Medellín, please remind me of their name! (Thank you Helena for your comment! The birds are called guacamays (macaws)!)
Have you been to Medellín? What surprised you?