What to Know Before Volunteering in Colombia
Located at the tip of South America, Colombia is a diverse, sprawling nation encompassing all manner of natural landscapes, unified by breathtaking scale and undeniable beauty. From the tropical valleys of Medellin to the cool, capital vibe of Bogota. From the swinging, salsa hips of Cali to the sizzling beaches of Cartagena, there is something for everybody here.
If Colombia has entered your ‘maybe’ pile, there are a great deal of cultural considerations that should be taken into account before taking the plunge. It’s important to have access to this insight, as it could have a huge impact on whether it’s the right place for you! We will look at a variety of different customs that make up the day-to-day, and provide helpful tips for living in Colombia. Hopefully, it will help you make the decision to book your flight!
Do: Use the Local Language
One of the most challenging (and yet welcome) characteristics of Colombia is the fact that not many people speak English. This may be seen as a red flag to those without a grasp on Spanish, but why not view it as an opportunity? When language isn’t shared, people tend to meet in the middle. This means growth and effort from your side, which English speakers need to attempt more often!
Don’t: Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
Locals appreciate you attempting to speak to them in their native language. They are typically very patient in these circumstances, and will not leave you feeling embarrassed to open your mouth.
Do: Find Accommodations with a Fan/AC
Colombia’s hot climate can be hard to adjust to. We highly recommend that you invest in a fan if you wish to sleep well at night. Air conditioning will also do the trick, although is not often available.
Do: Make Sure to Wear Sun Cream
Because even when it feels relatively cool, those rays can still get you!
Do: Bring a Light Raincoat, and a Pragmatic Attitude
When it rains in certain parts of Colombia, the results can be spectacular. If you are caught outside, you will almost certainly have to take refuge somewhere. Some of the best unplanned adventures begin by taking shelter in the nearest tavern.
Do: Embrace the ‘Menu Del Dia’
Lunchtime is all about the famed ‘Menu del dia’; a uniform, affordable offering across most eateries which typically consists of a choice of meat with salad, rice, and plantain, with soup to start and guarapo (a sugary treat) to wash the meal down.
Do: Give your Body Time to Adjust
It’s inevitable that you will find yourself with an upset stomach at some point. This probably has as much to do with becoming accustomed to local bacteria as it does to any sanitary issues. Ensure that you drink plenty of water and keep hydrated.
Don’t: Expect to Eat Healthy Street Food
Colombians are keen exponents of street food, meaning grilled meat, empanadas and stuffed arepas (a circular, maize based carb), as well as classic hotdogs and palito de queso (cheese sticks). Fried food is hard to avoid from such stalls, so forget about your diet if you decide to opt for one!
Don’t: Wear Shorts (especially at night)
Quite simple really, if you want to fit in and respect social norms, this is a major no-no. Colombians prefer a smarter approach.
Don’t: Be Flashy
Expensive brands and visible jewellery will attract attention. When volunteering, you don’t want to potentially accentuate any financial disparity between yourself and the locals that you work with.
Don’t: Waste Suitcase Space on Winter Clothing
Because even when it pours with rain, it’s still typically very warm! You simply won’t need anything heavier than a light jacket/raincoat. Chilly Bogota may be the only exception to this rule.
As with many South American countries, the traffic in Colombia is tough to negotiate. Rush hour can result in utter gridlock… especially in Bogota!
Do: Be Careful on the Roads
Driving can be rather forceful. People are less likely to give way, and impossible gaps will be squeezed through despite the inherent danger involved. There is also an abundance of motorcyclists whizzing through the lanes, that you should watch out for.
Do: Use Public Transport
Because the traffic can be downright insufferable! As an example, the Metro of Medellin is a real source of pride for the city. Clean, air-conditioned and treated with the utmost respect by its users. Many literally attribute the turnaround in the city to its development.
Don’t: Worry About an International Driver’s License
If you decide to brave the roads, you can use your valid driver’s license from your home country with your passport to drive in Colombia.
Do: Find Out Your Blood Type Before Arriving
To obtain the coveted ‘cedula’ (migrant’s permit), you must know your blood type.
Do: Find Out Whether Your Organization Provides Medical Care and With Whom
If they don’t, it’s something that you’ll have to arrange yourself. We always recommend purchasing travel medic
Don’t: Flush Your Toilet Paper!
This due to substandard sewer systems. It can be a tough one to get used to, but we promise it really isn’t that bad. You are provided with a sanitary bin to dispose of your paper.
Do: Arrange Your VISA Before Arrival
You are allowed six months as a tourist per year in Colombia, and many travel on this basis assuming they will sort things out once they arrive. While this may work for you, we would recommend arranging a TP-6 Volunteering Visa prior to arrival. You should lean on the expertise of the organization that you will be working with, as the intricacies of Colombian Migracion Law can be perplexing.
Don’t: Use Uber
Uber is illegal in Colombia, but operates via a series of loopholes. They basically refuse to pay a fee which the yellow cab drivers do pay, resulting in strikes, roadblocks etc. If you wish to do the right thing by the local community, use a yellow taxi.
So there we have it, Colombia in a nutshell! It’s worth mentioning that this post could only be subjective, based around our experiences as an organization. Facts are facts, but some things you may encounter could seem in complete contrast. One thing is for sure though; this is one hell of a place. It’s bright, beautiful, teeming with life, and resurging from a turbulent past. We couldn’t recommend it more to somebody wanting to settle somewhere new and make a difference.
DECIDING WHERE TO VOLUNTEER?
Colombia has a wide variety of organisations that you can donate your time, but the question is how to decide?
Nomads Giving Back! is a social enterprise and online/offline community that serves as a bridge between foreigners and locals to create positive social change through cultural exchanges, ideas, and skill sharing, education, support, activism and more. They partner with local organizations to develop programs and events that educate, inspire and empower socially-conscious nomads, travelers and expats to give back to their “home away from home” in a collaborative way, working side-by-side with local communities. NGB! has led several impact initiatives in Colombia and works in additional locations around the globe.
We consider ourselves a great resource for those looking to volunteer in Colombia (amongst other nations), as we utilize our team’s array of expertise to create a warm, safe and rewarding environment. This is achieved by taking utmost care in vetting appropriate organizations to partner with, whilst utilising trusted local contacts and organizing events accordingly.
If you would like to get involved with Nomads Giving Back!, visit nomadsgivingback.com for more details!