The Colombian Way: Top 5 Cultural Differences Between Barranquilla and the U.S.

Amber Craig is a student at Kansas State University. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Barranquilla, Colombia.

From the moment I arrived in Barranquilla, Colombia, it was apparent that the life I once knew was about to change drastically. As I existed the doors of the airport and took my first few steps upon Colombian turf, I was greeted by the Caribbean sea air, the scorching equatorial sun, and the Costeño tongue (Costeño refers to the conversational speed of those who live near the coast, which can be fast, very fast).

It’s no surprise that life in a new country will bring new customs, social norms, and values, but it’s definitely easier to adjust to your new surroundings if you have an idea of how your country of choice differs from your country of origin.

Below I have compiled a list of the top 5 of what I believe to be, the most significant differences in Barranquilla, Colombia compared to the United States.

1) Public Transportation 

Essentially there are two options for traveling throughout the city. The first option is the bus, which there are different ones, and the most popular being “Sobusa” and “Urba Playa”. Note that there are not bus stops, all you need to do is stand on the side of the busy street in the direction of your destination, and then flag down the bus. Once on, HOLD ON, because buses wait for no one. Once your foot leaves the ground, so does the bus. Buses are definitely the cheapest way to get around, costing around 1700 mil, no not dollars, mil pesos (Colombian currency). In U.S. dollars this would translate to about 50 cents, so it’s very affordable! If you like to be entertained, and have first class service, buses are also a great option. You’re bus ride is likely to come with the occasional performance by a Colombian local. This can range from a guitar accompanied by their personal lyrics, or an up and coming rapper dropping their latest mix tape for all to hear. You are not expected to pay them, but it’s good to do so once in a while. Also, you may find that your bus comes with refreshments, as many of the locals will hop on the bus and somehow stay upright while the bus flies down the streets, selling all sorts of snacks. .

Your other option. taxis, are slightly more expensive, depending on how many people you take with you. Prices can range anywhere from 8 mil to 25 mil, depending on how far your destination is. Always negotiate your price the moment you enter the taxi, because foreigners are often charged a higher rate. It’s nothing personal, just business! This option doesn’t come with snacks and entertainment, but it is the best option to take when you are unsure of where your destination, or if it’s late at night. Buses tend to stop running around 10 p.m. and start again around 4 a.m. So taxis are best if you plan to go check out the “Discotecas” (Colombian nightclubs).

Colombia, Barranquilla, Craig- Photo 1
ISA students taking the bus to school.

2) Pace of Life

Often in the United States, everyone always seems to be in a hurry, or late. Well, that is a foreign concept to Colombians, who take pride in each social interaction and enjoying each and every moment. Not to mention, people look extremely young here, even the grandparents! I accredit this to their lack of stress, due to their calm and slow paces life style. Now don’t get me wrong, when it comes to jobs and school, attendance and being on time is taken very seriously. However, in terms of social gatherings or plans, most people function on “Colombian time.” This is a common phrase you’ll hear daily and it essentially signifies the fact that Colombians move at a much slower pace. If you are told a party or gathering is happening at 9 p.m. you should not show up until at least 10. If you show up on time, you’re guaranteed to be the only one there. This is great for me because I hate being rushed, so having that extra hour is definitely a plus. If I can take anything back with me, it will be the value of time and how life should not be rushed. Colombians value making connections with others and enjoying the world around them, over rushing to their next task. The world is such a beautiful place if we take the time to slow down and appreciate it’s wonders.

Colombia, Barranquilla, Craig - Photo 2
This photo was taken from the cliffs near the Castillo De Salgar in Barranquilla.

3) The Food

I could spend this entire blog post raving about the food here, because its SO FREAKING GOOD. Seriously, I’m not kidding. The cuisine I have had here has been some of the freshest, most flavorful, and just down right perfect food. I have also been spoiled because I have a host mom who makes food into art each morning. Typical Colombian foods are things such as “Patacones” (Fried Plantains), “Plantains with cheese” (The cheese is also not the same as in the U.S. There’s no way to describe it, other than “way better”), “Deditos” (“Fingers” in Spanish, they look like mini-fingers and are dough-filled with Colombian cheese), “Brocolí Torta” (Mixture of broccoli, spinach, milk, Colombian cheese). Are you sensing a pattern yet? Colombians love their cheese, and they should! It’s so light and fresh, not anything like regular cheese. Fruit, such as mangoes, passion fruit, bananas, plantains, and apples are also a major staple here in Colombia. I have rarely eaten a meal where fruit was not incorporated. It’s interesting because I have always associated Latin America as a place that serves very large and heavy portions, but that’s just not the case here. Everything is evenly portioned, fresh, healthy, and leaves you satisfied without being uncomfortably full.

Colombia, Barranquilla, Craig-Photo 3
This breakfast, called “Desayuno Hecho Con Amor,” is one of the artsy breakfasts my host mom whipped up. This breakfast comes with eggs, caramelized plantains, papaya and banana slices and apples.
Colombia, Barranquilla, Craig - Photo 4
This is a dish called “Deditos” which translates to “Fingers” in English. They are dough-filled with the famous Colombian Cheese. Served with apples, strawberries, Colombian coffee, and fruit juice.
Colombia, Barranquilla, Craig - Photo 5
This is another breakfast my host mom made for me. It is baked plantains, yogurt, Colombian cheese, papaya, and oranges.

4) Discotecas 

A discoteca is similar to a nightclub, but the music and dancing make it that much more fun! Reggatón is very popular style of music and is commonly heard throughout the discotecas and bars here in Colombia. This style of music is upbeat and easy to move to. When it comes to dancing, all you need is a pair of hips, and to know how to shake them. Salsa is a very common style of dance that you’ll regularly see out on the dance floor. The beauty of discotecas is that unlike many American nightclubs, where people stick to the groups they came with or just stand around, a discoteca is the complete social experience. There are no exclusive groups, everyone dances with everyone, and they really dance!

5) Pre-Carnaval/Carnaval

You must have expected that Carnaval would show up somewhere in this blog. If you don’t know what it is, Carnaval in Barranquilla is the second largest Carnaval in the world, after Rio de Janeiro. Its essentially a 4 day long party filled with parades, music, dancing, costumes, entertainment and drinks. People come from all over the world every year to experience Carnaval first hand. Before the actual Carnaval, there is “Pre-Carnaval.” Pre-Carnaval is a preview for what is to come with Carnaval. Thousands of people flock the streets during this time. Soap guns and flour are also present, so don’t expect to leave this event clean. I made the smart decision of showering before attending this event and lets just say it was not my last shower that night. The energy during Pre-Carnaval is indescribable, almost magnetic. The moment you step into the area of Pre-Carnaval you can expect to be showered with flour and sprayed with soap by both your friends, as well as complete strangers. I met so many new people that night, making it the perfect opportunity to practice my Spanish. Madness is the best way to describe it, beautiful madness.

One thought

  1. Just wanted to comment on your blog. I was born in Barranquilla, Colombia but came to the U.S. at 4 years old. I have been back during my summer vacations three times and I am heading there this Saturday to experience my first carnaval. I loved this post because you really caught these 5 topics so perfectly, these are definitely the things I have noticed when I visit as well. I’m glad you were able to experience this lovely city!

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