Pablo Escobar…most people will have heard about Colombia because of the Narcos Netflix series about this infamous drug lord.
But Colombia is SOOOO much more than this!
Whilst the cocaine industry brought Colombia to a standstill in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s making it a no-go area, it has since undergone a HUGE transformation. It is now one of the safest places to visit in South America, particularly for LGBTQ travelers – much to our delight!
We spent 6 months traveling in Colombia during our big trip to Latin America and completely fell in love! We visited many places including Cartagena, Medellin, and the big capital, Bogota. We discovered a very diverse country that offers so much, from Caribbean beaches, adventures in the Andes, and tropical jungle experiences – with some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet. This is one ethnically diverse population that loves receiving visitors.
These are some of our favorite interesting facts about Colombia, which we hope inspires your own trip to the “gateway of South America”.
Colombians are the best dancers in South America!
We called it. You may disagree with us about this, but following our big trip across South America, the one big takeaway we got about Colombians is that these guys KNOW how to groove! Music and dancing is at the heart of everything they do, and they are really good at it! Even some of the most famous Latino singers in the world are Colombian – Shakira, Maluma, Juanes, Carlos Vives, J Balvin to name a few.
Whatever age, whatever sex, every Colombian we hung out with knew how to bust out a few salsa, champeta, and cumbia moves. Dancing is so ingrained in Colombian culture that each region of the country even has its own dance specialty usually with a large festival to celebrate it. The most famous and talked about is the salsa festivals of Cali, which kick off on Christmas day.
Other popular music and dance festivals that take place in Colombia, which are worth planning your visit around includes the big carnival in Barranquilla in February/March and the Flower Festival in Medellin in August. Watch our vlog about the Flower Festival to learn more about it:
1. The orchid is the national flower of Colombia
On the subject of flowers, Colombia's national flower is the orchid Cattleya trianae, also called the Orquídia Tricolor by Colombians. It is native species to Colombia and was chosen as the national flower in November 1936 because the lower part of its flower can appear yellow, blue, and red, which are conveniently the colors of the Colombian flag.
Another trivial orchid fact to note is that its scientific name, “Cattleya trianae”, is partly named after a 19th-century Colombian botanist and physician called, Jose Jeronimo Triana.
The Botanical Garden of Medellin is one of the best places we recommend heading to see. It has one of the most impressive collections of orchids we've ever seen, preserved in an architectural space called the “Orchideorama”. Medellin has the ideal climate for orchids, which thrive at around 1,500-2,000 meters (4,920-6560 feet) above sea level and in a cloud forest. We visited during the Flower Festival of Medellin when intricate orchid displays are proudly shown off across the entire city.
2. Look out for Botero's fat Mona Lisa!
Fernando Botero – one of the most famous Colombian artists has become famous around the world for his unusual portrayal of extravagant figures!
To give you an idea, in downtown Medellin, head over to Plaza Botero for the quirkiest outdoor museum you'll ever see – Botero's crazy pieces of art are brought to life as exaggerated bronze statues. They're quite hilarious and worth seeing: imagine a giant Muscle Mary-like Roman soldier with a tiny penis or a large fat woman eating grapes, sat atop a tiny donkey struggling to support her weight.
In the capital, Bogota, be sure to check out the Botero Museum where you can giggle at more of his unique artwork, which includes among other things, a fat Mona Lisa with a pretty enlarged head! The museum also includes a whole range of other eccentric Botero artwork, as well as pieces of Monet's and Picasso's artwork donated by him.
3. Theatron: the largest gay club in South America
We love the gay scene of Bogota because of Theatron!
Every Saturday evening, this huge building opens its doors and becomes a mega-club paradise land for the LGBTQ community, with a capacity for 5,000 people, spread over 13 mini clubs on 5 floors. Each mini club has its own theme, for example, one room is devoted to 1980s hits, another to salsa music, there’s one which is men only, another which is female only, and many many more. Entry costs 48,000 pesos ($16/£12) per person, which includes an open bar until 2 am, however, the party continues until the very early hours.
Theatron has a castle-like architecture with a pretty epic dance floor production on the main stage. It is housed in a former theatre hall, which was converted into a nightclub back in 2002. It truly is a remarkable clubbing experience we think everyone visiting Bogota should check out!
Whilst it may be the largest gay club in South America, Theatron certainly ranks as one of the best clubs we've ever been to!
Advice for LGBTQ travelers to Colombia
Colombia has swiftly evolved to become one of the safest and most gay-friendly places in Latin America. We certainly rank it as one of the most LGBTQ friendly countries in the world. As a gay couple, we loved traveling in Colombia and found Bogota and Medellin to be particularly welcoming towards us as LGBTQ travelers. However, the coastal regions are famous for being more conservative, so whilst touristy Cartagena is fine, when heading to more remote areas there, be cautious of PDAs and call ahead if you're unsure as to whether your hotel is gay friendly or not. Read more in our interview with Jesus from Barranquilla about gay life in Colombia.
4. The Colombian Valentine's Day of love and friendship in September
Traditionally across North America and Europe, we celebrate Valentine's Day on the 14th of February. The Colombians however have a far more charming take on this. Instead of the 14th of Feb, they celebrate the El Dia Del Amor y Amistad (the Day of Love and Friendship) on the 3rd Saturday of September.
Usually, Colombians celebrate El Dia Del Amor y Amistad with both loved ones and, with friends. The tradition is to have a secret friend (amigo secreto) game with your group of friends, family, or co-workers, similar to a Secret Santa. At the beginning of the month, they each pick a name and anonymously give a present to that person. Then on the actual amor y amistad day later in the month, they reveal their identity to that person. We found this to be such a beautiful way to celebrate Valentine's Day – yes you get to celebrate it with your loved one, but the fact that it also celebrates friendship is brilliant!
5. A different nickname depending where you're from
Colombians have a different nickname for each other, depending on where they're from. The most common are rolos, costeños, and paisas.
People from the coast, like Cartagena and Barranquilla, are referred to as “costeños”, which literally translates to a ‘person from the coast'. Those who originate from the capital region of Bogota are nicknamed, “rolos”, a word that refers to the dialect of Spanish spoken by the people of Bogota. Paisas are the people who emanate from the Antioquia coffee region of Colombia which is based in and around Medellin. The word paisa derives from the Spanish word “paisano” – which means, “countryman”. One of the most famous traditional foods of Colombia is called Bandeja Paisa, a dish which is very popular in Medellin.
Other nicknames for people we came across in Colombia relate to your skin color. For example, someone who is fair-skinned is referred to as a blanco / blanca. Someone who is more dark-skinned (such as Mediterranean/Middle Eastern-looking) is called a moreno / morena. Someone who has a mix of white and dark features is called a monito / monita.
6. No Dar Papaya: don't show off your Papaya…!
No Dar Papaya is a common Colombian phrase which literally translates to: don't show off your papaya! In other words, “keep your valuables out of sight to prevent them from being stolen”!
As well as being a fun graffiti to see in downtown Medellin or Bogota, it's also a popular phrase to use as we found out…
…one time in a cafe in the pretty downtown Candelaria district of Bogota, Stefan left his bag in the nearby seat and popped to the toilet. Upon returning, the bag had disappeared…after an afternoon spent running around with policemen and looking at the CCTV footage in the cafe, we spotted a young girl snatching it. The bag was gone, but successful travel insurance was thankfully made later on…but once the friendly policemen finished writing up the report for our insurance claim, he looked Stefan in the eye, and gave him this sound advice:
No Dar Papaya!
7. Careful not to ask your waiter for a wank!
Careful when you're using Google translate to order a straw in a restaurant here: in one bar in Bogota, Stefan wanted a straw for his mojito. He'd forgotten the Spanish word for it, so he checked on Google translate, which suggested: “paja” (see screenshot below). For the record, paja is the correct Spanish word for straw assuming you're using said Spanish word in Spain…
…so Stefan proudly turned to the young pretty waiter boy and asked him for a paja. The waiter suddenly blushed, then went silent and ran to the more senior waitress in a state of shy giggles and sent her over to speak to us. Thankfully she spoke English and explained to us that in Colombia, a paja is the word for a wank…!
So, if you want to order a straw in Colombia, the correct word to use is a pitillo. If you're heading to Puerto Rico however, you need to change that to a sorbeto because over there, a pilillo is a marijuana cigarette…
8. Some Colombians love donkeys A BIT TOO MUCH!
We were having drinks with our paisa friends in Medellin, comparing all the different cultural facets of Colombian life. Suddenly one of them told us to watch out for the costeño boys when heading up to Cartagena.
Why? we asked.
“Cause they screw donkeys!”
Shocked that they could be so rude about their fellow countrymen, we Googled this and discovered that in small coastal towns and villages around Barranquilla and Cartagena, this is actually a thing!
Little boys in these small communities are taught that women are extremely sacred and untouchable until they're married. But with a donkey, no wooing is required, they don't talk back to you and it also alleged that it will make your penis bigger!! In these small communities, having sex with a donkey is even considered a rite of passage – an important tradition to prepare young boys for sexual maturity!
Don't believe us? Watch this fascinating and quite disturbing documentary about it by The Vice Guide:
9. One of the most biodiverse countries in the world
Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, after Brazil, which is 10 times larger. Colombia is also one of only 17 megadiverse countries in the world – defined as a country with at least 5,000 species of endemic plants and marine ecosystems.
Colombia is also a very gay friendly country – a trailblazer, leading the way as one of four countries in South America with equal marriage laws in place, along with Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.
When we asked our Colombian friends what makes Colombia so gay friendly, the one answer we always got is because of the immense diversity here. Colombians are so mixed that there isn't really a type of Colombian facial feature nor a type of Colombian skin colour. As such, there is very little racism in Colombian society, which has helped create an air of tolerance and acceptance. We definitely felt this, particularly in Medellin and Bogota.
For more inspiration:
- Check out our gay city guide to Cartagena
- Learn more about famous Colombian foods
- Read what it's like growing up gay in Colombia
- Try our recipe for Colombian Coco Loco
- Or the delicious Colombian ajiaco soup recipe
- As well as Theatron, don't miss these great gay bars in Bogota
- If you're travelling with your lover these are our favourite romantic things to do in Bogota
- As well as some romantic activities for couples in Cartagena
- Don't miss our full gay country guide to Colombia as well
- If you're travelling at the right time, these are the best gay Pride events in Latin America
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Happy travels are safe travels