Category Archives: Colombia

Coffee culture Colombia

For some, Colombia is synonymous with its two main agricultural exports: cocaine and coffee. While the former was only offered to us discretely in classic tourist haunts like Taganga and Cartagena, coffee is available on every street corner. The best coffee is exported to the west. That’s probably true for cocaine too.

Tinto – the traditional brew – is sold by hawkers with small trolleys of thermoses and plastic cups. It goes for around 0.20 – 0.30NZD a cup. Made from instant or second grade filtered coffee, tinto is basically tinted and excessively sweetened water, with barely a caffeine hit. If that sounds unappetizing, it is. At least at first. Give a coffee addict time though and you’ll find yourself gratefully accepting it from the local teacher at school and buying it at the least expected moments.


Tinto makes up the vast majority of coffee drunk in Colombia. You have to be wealthy to consider anything else. But there is a small, and growing, upper crust coffee culture where export quality coffee beans and espresso machines are found. City centres, malls and airports boast Juan Valdez Café outlets, a sort of Colombian Starbucks – with prices to match – complete with vanilla lattes and frappucinos. Created by Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers it’s named after Juan Valdez, a Colombian advertising icon who is almost like a coffee Santa Claus. He appears on his mule with harvested sacks of Colombian coffee. Juan Valdez sells 100% Colombian coffee produced by a collective of small farmers across the country.

Still more elite is a small collection of independent cafes serving specifically prepared coffee beans using a variety of old and new methods. Most commonly found in the coffee  axis these cafes generate a small but dedicated following similar to that of independent cafes at home. It’s delicious. And cheap. About $1.60 NZD for a good latte.


Off to Ecuador

For the first time in our trip, and on our last day in Colombia, we were victims of its ongoing conflict. Well, more specifically, our travel plans were victims

The border area between Colombia and Ecuador is widely considered to be unsafe to travel at night, so we had to ditch our plan to take an overnight bus. Still wanting to compress a debilitating long bus trip into a single day we set off from Cali at 3am. That way the sun would be up by the time we reached the dodgy area. The only bright news was the kitten that was joining its owner, and us, on the journey south.


Twelve hours later we reached the border with Ecuador. In the meantime we’d made friends with an Ecuadorian man who was returning home. In Quito he runs physical education classes for the disabled. In shades of our experience with Venezuela, he was determined to shepherd us across the border. His version of shepherding included kicking people off the front seat of the mini van so we’d have a better view and helpfully negotiating us a good rate to change our last Colombian pesos into the US dollars used in Ecuador.

Fiona changes money at the border. Sadly using USD makes spending feel more real than in Colombia, even though prices are low.
Fiona changes money at the border. Sadly using USD makes spending feel more real than in Colombia, even though prices are low.

It was very kind of him to wait with us in the various border queues, especially as he himself could pass freely between Colombia and Ecuador without so much as a passport. It turns out there is freedom of movement throughout the Andean Community of Nations. You can even work in another community country for up to six months.

What makes this especially remarkable is that, actually, diplomatic relations between Ecuador and Colombia aren’t too friendly at all. Colombia accuses Ecuador of harbouring FARC guerrillas. Ecuador accuses Colombia of violating its territory in military missions against FARC. Both are almost certainly correct. Diplomatic relations are formally severed. It’s hard to imagine that being sustainable between two states in, for example, the EU.

After three more buses we finally arrived at our Ecuador destination. So far our only complaint is that the so called Republic of the Equator, Republica del Equador actually seems pretty cold.

What we’ll tell people about Colombia

We spent almost three and a half months in Colombia. It was excellent. As the (somewhat contrived) tag line says: the only risk is that you won't want to leave.
We spent almost three and a half months in Colombia. It was excellent. As the (somewhat contrived) tag line says: the only risk is that you won’t want to leave.

  • Go. And go now. There’s plenty of tourist infrastructure and plenty to see – jungles, beaches, ancient ruins, deserts, sparkling cities, mountains to climb. But there aren’t that many tourists yet. It’s still recovering from a reputation for drugs and violence. Plus, few Colombians seem to have figured out that tourists can be cheated and exploited.
  • Go to the coast and the highlands because they’re different countries. On the coast life is slower, but more chaotic. And the people have a lot less. The highlands feel much more developed to western eyes, because they feel a lot more like home.
  • It’s safe, by and large, though many human rights were sacrificed to create the ‘security platform’. But don’t think that everywhere is safe, and don’t think that the war is over.
  • The people look different: African, indigenous, European, mixed. Charmingly, ethnic look seems to be treated like eye or hair colour in New Zealand. Just a physical feature, not an issue of identity. Actually, they think similarly about fat and thin too.
  • Travel is pretty cheap, though further South in South America is cheaper. We’ve been spending about $45NZD per person. Even splashing out on a Western luxury should be at least a third cheaper than at home.
  • A little Spanish goes a long way. It doesn’t take much before your Spanish is better than the English of most people you talk to. And Spanish is refreshingly easy to learn. It makes you feel sorry for hispanohablantes learning English.
  • There is no country on earth with such abundance of fruits and juices. Some, like lulo, are only found in Colombia.
  • The fruits are the highlight of the cuisine. Otherwise prepare to carb up.
  • Colombian people are some of the friendliest, and happiest that you will ever meet. And we’re not just saying that, Colombia consistently performs highly in surveys of subjective well being. It’s much happier than its level of wealth and its violent history imply.

Taking change for granted

At home you really never have to worry whether the shop is going to have the change you are owed from your purchase. You just pull whatever you have in your wallet, and often that’ll be a debit card. It’s not so simple in Colombia.

Fiona and I spend from the same pot, but we split our money between our wallets for safety. When we go to buy something we’re less likely to ask the other whether they have cash, and more likely to ask whether they have ‘small’. There’s a big gap between the notes the ATMs spit out – about $30NZD – and the things we buy – often no more than $1.

Getting $29 worth of change from a street vendor or a bus driver can be a challenge. You often need to ask whether they have change before you buy. They’re reluctant to dole out all their change so you can break a big note. If they sense you might be hiding smaller notes in your wallet they’ll call you on it: tiene sencillo? Do you have simple? Even supermarket check out operators do that.

Fiona once bargained down a headband from 5 thousand pesos to 4, only to wind the hawker couldn’t get her change for a 5 thousand peso note. She ended up paying 5 anyway.

When there's not much in the shop there's not likely to be much change either.
When there’s not much in the shop there’s not likely to be much change either.

Of course there are good economic reasons for vendors to limit the amount of cash they carry. For one thing they don’t have a lot of wealth to start with, and they’re likely to invest a lot of it in whatever they’re selling that day. For another, in a country where we’ve seen a daylight robbery, the more cash the more you risk losing to crime.

We’ve noted that getting change is less of an issue in the highlands. That makes sense given they’ve more wealth, and the shops seem to be more established with better security, so the risk of crime is lower.

The widespread use of credit / debit cards would be a game changer. No one would need change. And, as per a paper sent in by one reader of this blog, opportunistic crimes for cash drop as well. The problem is, the same sorts of stores that are struggling to give you change will be the ones with the least ability to invest in the infrastructure needed for electronic transactions. In the meantime, they’d just prefer you had simple, thanks.

A little family reunification

The Garcias* were part of our inspiration for coming to Colombia. The Garcias are a family of Colombian refugees who were resettled in Wellington. As a refugee services support volunteer, Fiona worked with the family when they first arrived in New Zealand. They’re a charming bunch and have grown to be our friends.

The Garcias have made massive strides in four years in New Zealand. When Fiona first met them at the airport the mum timidly asked “espanish?” hoping she might have chanced upon someone who sounded like home. If you go and visit them now, you’re just as likely to be offered cheese scones and pavlova as Colombian cuisine and the fluent English of the kids is peppered with “mates” and “ehs”. One of our last conversations with the parents before we left was about abatement of the unemployment benefit: the father wants to work more in his cleaning job to better provide for his family.

Garcias on two continents, connected on skype.
Garcias on two continents (and Fiona), connected on skype.

The Colombian branch of the Garcia family

Today we went to visit some of the family that the New Zealand Garcias left behind. When we raised this possibility with them on a visit they weren’t sure it was a goer. They told us that some of their family lives in parts of Cali that are too dangerous. The danger they identified actually translated as “hit men schools”. Instead, a bunch of relatives congregated in a home of a Perea sister in a quiet Cali neighbourhood. They served us a typical Colombian lunch and arroz con leche, a kind of very sweet rice pudding.

It was a real privilege to meet with the Garcias of Colombia and to recognise in them so much of our friends in New Zealand. Even their house was decorated in a similar way. It was also confronting to realise that this privilege isn’t readily available to the New Zealand Garcias.

More on the way

Two sons of the New Zealand Garcia father have recently been accepted as refugees to New Zealand on the grounds of family reunification. They will be heading south in a few months. One of them lunched with us today. He’s in his late teens. It’s hard to overestimate what an utterly confounding change the move is going to be for him, save to say it would be even bigger if he were a refugee with no family to be reunited with. He knew little of New Zealand and was eager for everything we could share and every photo we could show.

We talked about everything we could think of: the weather, the landscape, the cities, the food, and the government. He was utterly charmed by the idea that a government on the other side of the world might ensure he had enough money to live on and provide basic housing for him when he arrived. Though he was saddened to hear that his favourite meat, guinea pig, was unlikely to be available.

He turned on some salsa and asked his reluctant cousins to dance. Undeterred by their rejection, he asked their aunt, and then Fi. It’s hard to imagine a less New Zealand thing for a teenage boy to do. It remains to be seen how his dancing prowess is going to work out for him on the mean streets of the Hutt Valley.

A little mid afternoon salsa.
A little mid afternoon salsa.

Colombian refugees and New Zealand

The UN estimates there’s about half a million Colombian refugees living in Ecuador, and about 150 of them a year are being resettled in New Zealand. For all we talk about the safer Colombia we’ve traveled in, a UN process has determined that every refugee sent for resettlement in Wellington and the Waikato have a well founded fear of persecution if they returned to their homeland.

New Zealand takes about 750 ‘quota’ refugees from the UN system each year. That’s a number that hasn’t gone up since 1987. When you include asylum seekers, we perform very poorly against other countries. We rightly chastise Australia for their treatment of ‘boat people’ by they do take five times as many refugees as we do, per head of population (and Sweden takes twenty times).

As per a policy change under this government we’ve become more choosy about the refugees we take and less reliant on the UN’s own prioritisation. 40% must come from the Asia Pacific, and 10% more come via Australia’s off shore settlement programme. Put it another way, our policy is to look at one of the neediest communities in the world and say, “Look, we get that you have needs, but we do to. Like improving our trade and cultural ties with the Asia Pacific.” To add insult to injury it turns out we can’t easily fill our Asia Pacific quota, so officials have been petitioning the government to change its definition of ‘Asia’ to let refugees in out of Pakistan.

The refugees that aren’t from the Asia Pacific come from family reunification from Africa and the Middle East, and from the Americas. Colombian refugees in Ecuador are by far the largest refugee group in the Americas, so we can expect more coming our way. We just wish it could be many, many more.

*To protect privacy we changed the family name used in this post.

Preferred salsa probably still aioli


Two important pieces of salsa news to report. First and foremost, we’re staying at a French run hostel in Cali that makes exceptional burgers which have homemade tomato and garlic sauces. Second, since Cali is the world capital of salsa dancing, we visited a salsa club. It was not as delicious as our burgers, but still very entertaining.

Caleños don’t go to salsa clubs to meet people. They go to dance. Almost everyone arrived in couples and stayed that way on the dance floor. Although occasionally everyone knew to break partners and slide perfectly into a kind of salsa / line dancing thing. Single guys were not allowed to enter the club and then, nonsensically, the entry was cheaper for women. The cover charge bought you credit for drinks served by men who patrolled the many tables in hi-vis vests and signaled to each other with torches and laser pointers. The tables were organised like desks in a classroom so everyone could watch the action on the dance floor.

Best as I can tell, salsa is about shuffling your feet less than you move your hips in a quick pattern counted in eights. Depending on your heritage it is either completely bewildering, or utterly effortless. The only people who seemed to be looking at their feet or thinking consciously about what they were doing on the dance floor were gringos.

There was a broad demographic at the club: plenty of younguns’, and also a large crowd who looked like they’d left small children and babysitters at home. We were invited to join a couple of groups of younger Colombians, all of whom turned out to be young professionals of varying sorts. Conversation included:

  • determining whether, as stated, Fiona really did speak Spanish
  • discussing whether it would be more dangerous for us to hail a cab on the street, or drive home with a couple who’d consumed a bottle of vodka (we called a cab in the end)
  • me trying, and ultimately failing, to find a way to avoid invitations to dance. My terror in this experience is well documented.

We also sought to explore the mystery of how Colombians get so darn good at dancing…

  • Us: How did you learn to salsa dance? Her: I didn’t, it just comes naturally.
  • Us: How did you learn to dance salsa? Him: When you grow up in Cali everyone wants to teach you: your parents, your cousins, your friends…
  • Us: Does everyone in Cali dance salsa? Her: *pauses to think* No… I know a black guy who doesn’t dance salsa.
  • Joe: Do you always dance salsa when you go out? Her: Oh, you want to dance salsa? Joe: No.



We can predict city size, but we can’t explain it

In 1949 a linguist called George Zipf found an interesting pattern when he ranked words in English by usage. The most used word was used about twice as often as the second most used. And about three times as often as the third most used. Four times as often as the fourth most, and so on. This kind of pattern, which he called the rank versus frequency rule has been observed all over the place since, in: the distribution of wealth, length of rivers, size of businesses, even size of sand particles. Though interestingly it doesn’t work for frequency of word use in Spanish.

One of the classic applications is city size. If you know the population of the largest city in a country* you can use the rule to guess how big other cities will be. This works pretty well for the US. And, as it turns out it works pretty well for Colombia too.

Colombian cities

Cities Medellin’s a little bigger than you’d expect (and a little more awesome), and there’s a lack of mid-sized cities after Barranquilla, but the overall distribution is startlingly similar to the prediction.

There’s something immensely satisfying about something that is so mathematically simple, and yet so accurate. But what I like most about the rule is that, while geographers and economists have tested it all over the world, and by and large found it to be a pretty excellent predictor, no one has a compelling explanation for why.

We’ve been to seven of Colombia’s ten biggest cities and there’s nothing observable that explains why the population is distributed as it is. Overall Medellin seems to be the wealthiest, but isn’t the biggest. Cali seems to be amongst the poorest, but is still in third place. Neither hot nor cold nor rainy nor dry cities seem to have and advantage. The cities of the coast – Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta – were the first picks of the Spanish for settlement, but have since paled compared to their highland rivals. You could try and bundle all these factors together in an algorithm, but no one has managed to do so successfully, yet.

It’s all just a bit of a mystery.

*When you do this assessment it’s important to try and avoid using political definitions of cities (e.g. defined by one local government border or another) and instead use more natural definitions like urban areas.

Don’t write off Cali


As I was mostly still focused on adoring Medellin, Fiona decided to appoint herself to Team Cali. “Look,” she said “Cali has nice public spaces just like Medellin”. And it does. The area by the river is very nice and comes complete with free wifi. There’s also a bus rapid transit system, which, despite not having as appealing a route map as Medellin’s metro is probably about as functional.


“And,” said Fiona, “Cali has more churches than Medellin”. This much is true: Cali has nicer old colonial buildings than Medellin. We’re staying in the old section of the city and it’s very nice. And there are a lot of churches, some of which come complete with troops of nuns.

Cali also has probably the most ethnically diverse population we’ve seen in Colombia. There’s the lighter skinned European looking folks who we’ve mostly seen in the highlands. There’s also a large population who are descended from  African slaves the Spanish bought to tend their plantations. There’s also a visible indigenous population although sadly most of them seem to be begging, something that’s reasonably unusual in Colombia.


“Cali has public water fountains,” cried Fiona. “You don’t see that in Medellin!”

“True,” I replied, “but they don’t have any water in them.”



We were given a free Colombian travel guide when we checked into our new hostel. We thought that was good. Until we read it. Beyond the unforgivable abuse of the term unique above it contains:

  • This suggestion: “You want to order an Aguila beer? Just spread your arms & fly like a bird. Aguila’s logo is an eagle, that’s why. Give it a shot… what’s the worst that could happen to you?… perhaps they might call the men in white coats?… Life’s an adventure… Live it to the fullest!”
  • A suggested pickup line (translated from Spanish): “Mummy, if you cook like you walk I will eat up to the burnt rice”.
  • A frequent refrain that: “Colombia is THE home of the world’s most beautiful women.”
  • Rampant overuse of the @ sign. Every time they could say “at” they say @.

If Lonely Planet can be so influential, I hate to think what this new Colombia Facil could do.

The Lonely Planet effect

Like most travelers we meet we travel with a Lonely Planet guidebook most places we go. They have valuable information including about accommodation. But we’ve noticed two consequences of LP reviews that we call the Lonely Planet Effect(s).

A self fulfilling prophecy

If LP says a hostel is a good place to meet other travelers who want to party, then travelers who are so inclined will go there. This is actually pretty useful. It allows you to select your peers. It’s less clear, but certainly very possible, that LP reviews also influence how the hostels organise themselves. LP says the staff are surly? License to surl…

A competitive advantage

Places that get good reviews can become complacent and / or put their prices up. This was probably clearest when we went to Cabo de la Vela. The LP had said there were many similar places to stay – after all they’re all huts made of cactus with hammocks – but still recommended one. We’d had a long day of travel and weren’t especially interested in shopping around so we stayed as recommended.

After we came back from Punta Gallina we stayed somewhere almost identical, but maybe 50% cheaper. Later we asked the first place why they charged more. At least they were honest enough to say it was because they had an LP recommendation.