In the past ten years, Colombia has become a popular tourist destination. The country is leaving behind it’s reputation of drugs and violence, and is now part of the well-trodden backpackers path in South America. Colombia has become so popular because it has so much to offer; if you’re looking for culture, impressive architecture and night life, visit Colombia’s two biggest cities, Bogota and Medellin respectively; if you’ve come for beautiful beaches and clear Caribbean ocean, explore Parque Tayrona or go open-water diving in Taganga; if history and the heat is your thing, don’t miss Cartagena’s old town. And if you are a coffee-drinker (or addict…), head to Salento and Minca to visit coffee farms and learn about the growing process from bean to cup.
Another experience you might want to try during your stay in Colombia is stepping away from the typical tourist destinations to explore one of Colombia’s many small, non-touristic towns. Last year I spent a month living with a Colombian family in the small town of Apartadó, volunteering as a teacher assistant at their English language school. Here are 8 things I learnt about small-town Colombia during my time there.
1. Monkeys stealing bananas is an actual problem here
Apartadó and the surrounding area of Urabá Antioquia is a massive banana producing region. On two separate occasions I had students tell me they had seen monkeys on banana fincas (farms) who had obviously shown up to snack on some of the produce. One student found a large, aggressive monkey in the back of a banana truck which couldn’t be approached until he had eaten his full!
2. Barber-shop culture
Small-town Colombia is a great place to get your hair or nails done. Because these activities are popular with the locals, there are a lot of Salons and barbershops, and it’s cheap! A fellow volunteer got a beautician to visit the house and do her nails for the equivalent of $5USD. Apartadó particularly has a real barber-shop culture. Each day I would pass at least 6 barber-shops on my short walk to the English language school. And they always seem to be full, especially in the evenings. The demand for such a prevalence of barber-shops seems to be the fashion for guys to get the edge of their hair line shaved straight across the top (reminiscent of Spock from Star-trek) with some groovy patterns shaved around the side and backs; these styles obviously need a lot of maintenance. If you’re in Apartadó, and you’re after a local haircut, visit “Nigga’s Barber-shop”. While the name of their shop is incredibly politically incorrect, it looked like the hip place to hang out, and get a fresh, slick cut.
3. The unofficial uniform of blue jeans
Despite every day reaching temperatures in the mid-thirties (celsius), and humidity ranging anywhere from 80-100%, everyone wears jeans ALL the time. Blue jeans to be exact. Colombia has really educated me on the full variety of styles, shades and sizes possible with blue jeans. Double denim is also a big thing here. Why not wear that blue denim boob-tube with your blue jeans? Or better yet, put on your denim jean overall/one-piece on to go out for lunch in the heat of the day! It was mandatory for me to wear jeans while teaching. I think the intention was for me to look professional and blend in a little, but it only resulted in me looking like a red, sweaty mammal out of its natural habitat.
4. Standing out, the friendly locals and the “friendly” locals
From the first day I arrived in this small Colombian town, it became apparent that blending in here was going to be impossible for me. I have fair skin and blonde hair – your typical “gringa-looking” foreigner. And apart from a fellow foreign volunteer, I did not see another fair-haired person in this town for the duration of my stay. This meant I attracted a LOT of attention. Luckily, Colombian’s on a whole are incredibly friendly people, so 70% of the time, their friendliness was harmless curiosity which often led to nice conversations with locals in Spanish, English or Spanglish. One day in the local supermarket a group of teenagers even asked if they could take a photo with me!
Unfortunately this street banter also included some men practicing a hand-full of unwelcome English sentences like “oh my god” and “baby, I love you”. This is an unfortunate side of Colombian culture, and being such a foreign-looking solo female traveler, something I experienced far too much of during my time here. It was something I never got use to, never knew how to respond to, and made me feel uncomfortable, and at times unsafe. Unfortunately my parting memory of Apartadó is the taxi-driver who drove me to the bus station asking me to marry him so I could teach him English. Sadly however this sort of behavior is not only restricted to small-towns in Colombia, unfortunately it stretches throughout cities in Latin America (and the world), so it can be difficult to avoid no matter where you go.
5. Colombia’s exercise addiction
Colombia was full of surprises for me. While some areas of basic infrastructure are still developing, others are advanced and modern. While you can’t drink the tap water in most small towns, and “streets” are sometimes just dirt roads, Apartadó has a massive modern sports centre complete with a large astroturf football stadium, outdoor basketball court and indoor gymnasium. This sports centre is free for anyone to use at any time. And it is constantly in use! For example, three days a week at 5am in the morning, a truck trailer equipped with large speakers and blaring music is parked on the basketball court while an enthused exercise instructor bounces around on it, motivating at least 30 people to start their day the active way. I know this, not because I was one of those active people, but because the family I stayed with lived right opposite the sports centre, and I got to wake up to this chorus of activity every other day. The heat will be your only excuse not to keep fit in a small town Colombia.
6. Horse and carts
Horse and carts are popular in small town Colombia, but not for tourist site-seeing like you see in other parts of the world. Instead for getting anything from a pile of rocks to a bunch of bananas from A to B. And they’re even better than a car or motorbike, because no license is required! I saw a kid as young as 5 driving one in convoy with his dad.
7. Rice, rice and more rice
If you ever find yourself living and eating with a Colombian family, prepare yourself for rice. Not just rice: arepas, yuka, patacones, chicken, pork and sometimes seafood. But mostly rice. A warning to vegetarians and people who love vegetables: five plus a day fruit or vegetables is not something which a typical day of Colombian food will necessarily contain. The day might start with scrabbled eggs cooked with rice. For lunch; chicken, yuka and rice, and for dinner, a similar meal of meat, rice, and maybe a small side salad if you’re lucky. But while you’re there, just embrace it! And snack on the abundant tropical fruit between meals. Chopped Mango served with lime and salt is a popular street food snack here and it’s surprisingly delicious!
8. The coffee situation
Yes, this is Colombia, the home of great coffee beans, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a well-made coffee. In the homes and cafes of small towns, the word coffee is synonymous with instant Nescafe. And it often comes with sugar, sometimes so much you have to strain your taste buds to recognise that what you’re drinking is actually coffee. The great thing about drinking poorly made instant coffee for a month is it has made me appreciate a good cup of coffee even more than before (which I didn’t think was possible). Now for me, a well-made flat white is like a cup of liquid gold.
While I really enjoyed my time in Apartadó, I don’t think visiting or volunteering in a small, non-touristic Colombian town is for everyone. If you have limited time and knowledge of Spanish, or you can’t tolerate being the only gringo/gringa in town, let this article be your education in small town Colombia, and spend your time in this beautiful country exploring the more popular and accessible tourist destinations (for more tourist-friendly small towns, check out Guatape or Minca!)
However if you want to leave the gringo trail behind for a few days/weeks/months to practice your Spanish, and really absorb Colombian life first-hand, start researching a productive way you can spend your time in a small Colombian town you’ve never heard of. It will be an experience you never forget! Here’s a great place to start: workaway.info