Colombians are aware of their country’s bad reputation, and any indelicate remark about the history of violence may earn you a derogatory remark (probably about your country of origin) and an abrupt end to the conversation. However, Colombians are eventually willing to talk about these topics if they feel comfortable with someone.
Colombians are more formal than many other Latin Americans. Make a point of saying “please” (“por favor” or “hágame el favor”) and “thank you” (“muchas gracias”), no matter what and to whom. (“muchas gracias”), no matter what happens and to whomsoever. If you are addressed, the correct response is “¿Señora?” or “¿Señor? In some parts of the country (notably Boyacá), Colombians can be formal to the point of anachronism, addressing strangers as “Su merced” (your grace!) instead of “usted”. The only (much) more informal part of the country is along the Caribbean coast, where it is more common to simply call people “chico” – but follow the lead of those around you.
Race is not a hot topic in Colombia because whites, criollos and mestizos (mestizos) mix naturally with indigenous and Afro-Colombians in everyday life (education, housing, politics, marriage). The differences between white foreigners are not discussed: Expect to be called “gringo” even if you are, say, Russian. Unless the context involves anger, it’s not meant to be offensive. If you are black, you will probably be called “negro” or “moreno”, which is also not considered offensive at all. Asians are usually called “chino” (Chinese), regardless of their actual origin. Colombians in the interior also sometimes confusingly call children ‘chinos’ (‘children’); this usage comes from the indigenous Chibcha language. More confusingly, Colombians call blondes and redheads ‘monos’ (monkeys). This may sound insulting, but in fact it ranges from neutral to affectionate.
Colombians have a habit of pointing at objects with their chin or lips; pointing at a person or even an object may be considered impolite or less than discreet.
Avoid giving the height of a person with the palm facing downwards, as this is considered to be reserved for animals or inanimate objects. If you must, use your palm facing sideways, with the bottom of the hand expressing height.
Colombians dance a lot. Everyone will be happy to teach you to dance, and they won’t expect you to do it well because they have been practising every weekend for most of their lives. Colombian nightlife is mainly dance-oriented, and sit-down or stand-up bars are less common outside the big cities. Despite the sensual moves, dancing is not generally meant to be a means of flirting. It’s the same as in Brazil: an almost naked “garota” dancing the samba at carnival is not inviting you to have sex, but to have fun, to be happy, to join the party, to shed your inhibitions in an exuberant way.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Most Colombians are Catholic, but you will find that young people are quite relaxed about religion, especially when it comes to social issues. Public displays of affection are rare, however, and can provoke awkward looks. Verbal and physical homophobic violence is not necessarily unknown, and unfortunately less aggressive homophobia may be more prevalent than politeness masks. Overall, Colombian attitudes towards homosexuality are quite similar to those in the United States.
More liberal areas (at least as far as LGBT issues are concerned) can be found in Bogotá’s Chapinero neighbourhood. It is home to perhaps the largest LGBT community in Colombia and is the focal point of Bogotá’s (and indeed the country’s) community nightlife, with explicitly gay-friendly establishments such as Theatron (arguably one of the largest discos in South America) [www]. LGBT pride parades are held in some of the larger cities in late June and early July. [www]
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Colombia since April 2016.