Three Ways to Thrive as an American in Colombia


Brittany Mettrick is a student at the College of St. Rose and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Barranquilla, Colombia.

For most Americans who’ve recently started living in Colombia, life is full of adjustments. During my time here, I’ve discovered ways to be successful and get the most out of each day despite the differences in environment. 

Based on my experiences,  here are three of the most significant ways to thrive as an American in Colombia:

1) Speak Spanish

Whether you’re a seasoned Spanish speaker or you just finished Spanish 100, make an effort to speak Spanish whenever possible. This is especially important if you’re with a mixed group of Colombians and Americans. Back at my home university, I knew a couple French exchange students who would speak English with each other when around me and my American friends. I always found this to be considerate, and I know many Colombians feel the same way when we Americans speak Spanish with each other.

Another important opportunity to use Spanish is while conversing with other international students. While studying at Uninorte, I have met some awesome students from France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, with whom I speak Spanish almost exclusively. While watching a fútbol game with some of these European students, a Colombian friend mentioned how impressive it was that we international students, most likely more comfortable speaking English, all converse in Spanish.

The Mexican Independence Day celebration was a great way to get to know other international students and speak Spanish!
The Mexican Independence Day celebration was a great way to get to know other international students and speak Spanish!

Barranquilleros also love it when Americans throw around local lingo while speaking Spanish. Here are a few of my favorite costeñol (coastal Colombian Spanish) words:

-”Chevere”/ “bacano,” which translate to “cool”

-”Full,” meaning “very” or “so”

-”Pa’,” short for the Spanish word “para,” which translates to “for” or “to”

-”Vaina,” meaning “thing,” “thingy,” or “thingamabob”

It’s really fun to pepper costeñol words and phrases such as these into my daily speech, and locals love it!

Regardless of your skill level, when you make efforts to speak Spanish while in Colombia, locals will be appreciative. Not to mention you will become more experienced and fluent in the language! 

2) Do as the Locals Do

While in Colombia, it is important to be in tune with the locals; it will make your life a lot easier!

Shortly after arriving in Barranquilla, I noticed that many locals use umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. Being from New York, I was not familiar with this practice, but quickly saw why it was so popular; the Barranquilla sun is “muy fuerte!”  I bought myself an umbrella, and it is one of my best investments I’ve made here in Colombia. I use it multiple times a week, mostly for sun protection, but also for that occasional rainy day. When it rains in Barranquilla, it’s typically pretty heavy, so it’s good to be prepared. 

Upon arriving in Colombia, I had a somewhat disappointing realization; people here don’t wear yoga pants in their daily attire. Jean wearing is the day to day norm, and yoga pants are reserved exclusively for the gym. Unfortunately, I came unprepared for this, packing several pairs of my comfy yoga pant capris and, contrary to my father’s advice, not a single pair of jeans. My logic was that the climate in Barranquilla is hot and humid, so there would be no need for me to bring jeans. I was pretty off with that assumption.

I ended up buying jeans a few days after getting here, as it was kind of a necessity. One amazing thing about Barranquilleros is that they’re able to endure the strong Caribbean heat while looking fabulous at the same time, something that I struggle to do but actively aspire towards.

A vibrant awning over one of the gates at Uninorte
A vibrant awning over one of the gates at Uninorte

Being in tune with what the locals do is important; it will make your experience more comfortable and authentic!

3) When in Doubt, Ask a Local

As a foreigner who is getting accustomed to the area, it is common to have doubts that need clarification. Asking locals for advice is a great way to clear up uncertainties, and you’ll almost always find your answer. After living in Colombia for about a month, my roommate Ariel and I were able to use the regional bus system to get to Santa Veronica, a tranquil beach town about an hour outside of Barranquilla, all thanks to the help of locals.

One of the buses that head towards Santa Veronica.
One of the buses that head towards Santa Veronica.

We began by asking for advice from our host father, who told us which bus to start the first leg of our journey on. Once on the designated bus, we asked the bus driver and other passengers for further direction. The driver let us off at a midpoint to transfer buses. Once we got off, we asked a nearby security guard where to wait for the next bus, and he showed us right to the bus stop. We hopped onto the second bus once it arrived, confirming with the driver that it was indeed headed to Santa Veronica. I began to see road signs for Santa Veronica after about twenty minutes of riding, so I asked the man sitting next to me where to get off for the beach; he was happy to let me know!

Santa Veronica landscape.
Santa Veronica landscape.

We felt accomplished and successful when we finally arrived; all in all, we got where we needed to go by asking locals along the way. We were able to ride through the gorgeous green hills of Caribbean Colombia, talk to some interesting folks, and spend some time at a peaceful beach; it was a great retreat from the city life of Barranquilla.

The beach of Santa Veronica an hour before sunset.
The beach of Santa Veronica an hour before sunset.

Though it may seem uncomfortable to ask for directions and advice in Spanish, doing so will help you experience extraordinary places in Colombia and learn things about the culture. The people of the Caribbean coast are known for their friendly and helpful nature, which makes it the perfect place to ask for direction and advice!

The world awaits…discover it.

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