Unexpected Travel Challenges In Colombia

Jardin, Colombia

When we started our around the world trip one month ago, we knew that traveling long term would come with challenges. We thought about the difficulty of constantly saying goodbye and the stress of balancing traveling, research, work, and enjoying ourselves.

And they were all true to a certain degree, but there have also been some unexpected challenges we’ve encountered here in the first country in our trip.

Things such as:

Missing food from home

It might seem silly to be missing food from home when we’ve only been away for such as short period of time. You can either see it as how spoiled we have become from having access to best food the world has to offer by having lived in the Bay Area, or as how uninspired the food here in Colombia.

Either way, we can’t deny what we feel.

We miss that thousands of sensations from each bite of Thai or Indian curry – the satisfying taste of a bite from a strong cheese. We miss oven baked pizzas topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

We miss spices. We miss varieties.

We’re tired of fried food and salt. And unexpected mysterious pieces of meat floating in our supposedly vegetarian soup.

One of the many surprises we've got during our early travel days

Thankfully, not all is lost.

Yummy maracuyas

The fruit here is AMAZING. We drink freshly squeezed juice every day. My favorite is guanabana (although maracuya is a pretty close second). Jack goes for his usual pineapple, orange, and banana combo.

But I can safely say that we’d be more than okay not seeing a ‘comida tipica’ menu ever again.

Not speaking the language

Not being fluent in Spanish has affected our experience much more than expected.

I have never felt more like an outsider and more detached from the country I’m visiting than now. We know enough Spanish to ask for information and how to get around. But to understand enough to be involved in conversations? Far from it.

It’s frustrating.

What makes it worse is the fact that Colombians are so curious and so friendly. And here we are, two gringos, butchering their beautiful language and making a fool of ourselves.

Chess - transcending the language barrier

The feeling of disconnect, of not understanding – not just the language but what makes a country tick.

It’s really frustrating.

We’re doing things to improve our Spanish – listening to podcasts, talking to people, etc, etc. But it seems that we don’t do enough and are not learning fast enough.

Traveling can be so rewarding but it’s definitely not without its challenges. Or maybe it is rewarding because of the challenges that one overcomes?

Anyway, don’t worry…

Despite the challenges, we did manage to have fun too. Too many stories to tell, but here are some of them:
Cueva de La Vaca – A caving adventure
Vulcan del Totumo – Playing in a bottomless mud pit

And we’re eating more fruit than we’ve ever had.


Tell us:

How you deal with food and language challenges on the road?

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46 Replies to “Unexpected Travel Challenges In Colombia”

  1. Having just returned from Colombia I can appreciate some of the challenges you faced. However, I wasn't concerned with the food and I found that the seafood was wonderful (I'm a former CA gal and now live on the East Coast where seafood is plentiful) but I did have issues with the altitude. Nonetheless, I absolutely loved my time in the country and I'm actually going on television today to discuss my experience. As you may/may not know, the Smithsonian has selected Colombia as its featured country during this year's Folklife Festival. Now that I've been there I can understand why Colombia was chosen.

    Enjoy your time in Ecuador. Looking forward to more of your stories.

    Tonya Fitzpatrick, World Footprints radio

    p.s. write to me offline to chat about a radio interview in the coming weeks.

  2. i can assure you that speaking spanish doesnt always help with the food. on one occasion in mexico we explained over and over again that we wanted a quesadilla with only cheese, no meat or anything else. it came with ham. so we asked fora a take-away sandwich with only cheese and salad, no meat, and definitely no ham. it came with ham.
    but good luck with the spanish anyway, it makes for a much deeper experience!

    1. because sometimes people think 'carne' refers specifically to beef – so you'd have to ask with it without carne or jamon just to be certain…confusing, makes no sense, but it does happen!

  3. It's well worth stopping in a place and learning Spanish for a couple of weeks, even if it eats into travelling time – the two weeks of intensive Spanish I did in Guatemala near the beginning of the 7 months I spent in Latin America turned out to be one the best decisions I made in my whole travels. My Spanish improved far more quickly than I thought it would, and it meant I got to chat to far more locals, to the extent that by the time I arrived in Chile five months later and found myself in a hostel with only spanish speakers I was able to have a night out with them and have a great time.

    As for the food – I too found Colombia one of the more disappointing Latin American countries. Hurry up and get to Peru, it has to be one the most underrated cuisines of the world, with a huge variety of interesting dishes, and certainly not bland at all!

    1. Hi Geoff, thanks for stopping by.
      We are volunteering for 3 weeks in Ecuador and are really hoping that it will help improve our Spanish since we'll be interacting mostly with spanish speakers. And if that doesn't work – private lesson is also something we've been thinking about. Glad to hear that your 2 weeks of intensive spanish was super helpful in your travel. Hopefully soon we'll reach that level fluency.

    1. I believe it was 2-1 for Andres – our Couchsurfing host in San Gil. Home advantage as Jack would say, lol.

  4. That soup does look dubious. I'm not really a vegetarian but often pretend to be one when travelling, especially in Africa. Makes it easier to turn down offers of things like… goat.

  5. I hear you about the language thing. I'm pretty used to not being understood or being able to understand much (and I've pretty much mastered the art of pointing & grunting), but it does get to you after a while… especially when you feel like it's preventing you from making deep connections with people. At least Spanish isn't so hard to pick up. Good luck!

  6. You're living my fear, guys. I have very limited Spanish as well, and while my trip to Nicaragua isn't what you call "long-term" (I'm going for a month), I'm really worried that my lack of Spanish is going to cause me more frustrations than I can handle on my own.

  7. Learning Spanish is not a bad idea. Such a beautiful language! And it will help you a great deal getting around in Miami.

  8. Missing Food is on the top of my list as well! I've already started a list of all the the places I am going to eat when I'm back in the states for a brief week before Africa. India and Thai are on top of my list!

  9. What exactly did you think when traveling to a foreign country with a foreign language and different food culture? Of course you're going to be a but confused with the language. That tends to happen when leaving English-speaking countries. And what did you expect the food to be like– an exact replica of a U.S. city with lots of different cuisines? Colombia has some of the best– if not the best– food I've ever had in my life, and that's a lot to say considering I'm from NYC where you can find 10 different cuisines in a one block radius. It seems a bit naive and ridiculous to complain about things that are to be expected when visiting such a different place. Let loose and enjoy your trip, nothing is going to be exactly like your home city. Isn't that the point of traveling? Experiencing new cultures?

  10. Maybe you need a few nights out in a big city where they have more international restaurants? Or does that not really exist in Colombia?

    I hear you on the language. My Italian is barely there. I understand a lot, but speak very little. It's frustrating when we visit my boyfriend's family and friends in Rome and I just can't keep up. It's also pretty exhausting just trying to understand a language you're not really good at, isn't it? Makes me tired πŸ˜‰ Anyways, I'm sure you'll speak it well soon considering how much time you're spending in South America. Hang in there!

  11. Not knowing the language is frustrating. It happens to me too (and I LIVE here!). I'm glad that I don't really have any food issues – I can find spanish ham in every supermarket and prepare my own sangria if I wanted. Not only that – but I also think I'm eating healthier than back home!
    However, when I'm literally on the road… food is an issue, specially when you're on a tight budget. When road tripping in Mexico, I also ate as much fruits as I could and never got sick!

  12. I was just thinking that travel is rewarding because of the challenges and then you said it too! I really believe that it is these types of challenges that help us learn from our travels.

    I can relate to the food issue. Sometimes, especially if we are feeling lonely, we need comfort food from home! Another things is even the "grocery" stores don't carry the same products sometimes.

    Keep going. . . this too shall pass πŸ™‚

  13. One way I deal with food challenges is just eat/drink what's most familiar to me – usually it means have some Starbucks if it's available, lots of hot chocolate or tea – basically my comfort drinks from home. I used to feel guilty for doing this because it's so "untravel", but then I realized that long-term travel becomes just living life, so anything that makes me happy goes πŸ™‚

    – Lily

    1. Exactly! This is also the reasoning I use when I absolutely MUST have a burger and I go to McDonalds. Sometimes I just can't help it πŸ˜‰

  14. The language disconnect is one of the biggest challenges I face as a nomad. I find myself feeling dismayed about it in Spanish speaking countries especially (I have really GOT to learn more than how to ask for beer!), but it also can be fun. The feeling of being in a totally foreign place is heightened when you can't understand what the hell is going on, which adds to the fun of travel as well as the stress. And even though we should all learn Spanish (and maybe a little Arabic or Chinese) we can't possibly learn all the languages we'll ever encounter. So I guess my point is don't worry too much about it, it's just part of travel, and on the plus side your non-verbal communication skills are going to be GREAT!! πŸ™‚

  15. Excellent post. Food and language barriers are always my biggest hurdles when it comes to international travel. No matter where I'm at and how good the food is, I'm always going to miss a few things from home that I won't be able to get on the road. As far as language, yes, we felt the exact same during the first few months of our RTW while we were in S. America. It was definitely frustrating. You're doing it right though. Have you thought about taking language classes somewhere? We did in Buenos Aires and it helped tremendously. We had a basic grasp of the language and could get around, but like you, there was no way we were having conversations. It will get better as time goes on. It's a slow process though, unfortunately.

  16. Food and language differences are just part of the transitions in traveling. For me, I will try new foods but I am not a big food person. As a matter of fact, I could eat the same thing every day for months and never get tired of it.

    As for the language, it can be frustrating. However, you do the best you can in trying to communicate with others. It's amazing how far hand gestures and body language can go in communicating. In studies of communication, I've read that our words are only about 30% of our communication (or something like that) so just don't let the lack of language keep you from trying to connect.

  17. I'm surprised you guys are missing food back home already. Get used to not having spices though because I have yet to encounter a country other than Mexico that has much going on with spices. Don't get me wrong. There is some fantastic food, but it seems to be mainly due to excellent methods for cooking meat and the fact that they cook everything in lard.

    Enjoy the cheap and delicious fruit. I am in Buenos Aires now, and I miss being able to buy cheap fruit at the markets. Prices are about the same as in the US.

  18. I always write about food in a country and barely wrote anything about Colombia, I was so tired of fried food it was hard to find enthusiasm for it and I cooked in my hostel a lot.

    When you go to Cali there are some great places with set menus for lunch and they serve broccoli!!!

  19. Spot on! Traveling may be fun but it does come with its challenges nonethless; and that includes languages, food and also the climate. I try to learn the languages before I travel to the countries (I do love languages), but sometimes I just feel so out of place and it's just not the same (even if you aced that language ) as we are not practising or native speakers. What's worse if when you meet unfriendly locals (if you are really unlucky) who just ignore you despite your desperate attempts to ask for directions (I encountered one before), that it's just so frustrating. Of course, taking away all these, there are still really friendly and helpful locals who are always ready with a smile and that is when all those sign/body languages or even facial expressions (these are universal anyway) come in handy and it could be fun and hilarious too:)
    Food is another thing; I have to admit, I do miss food from home sometimes when all you see is fried food, fried food, and fried food. It's like nothing else is cooked any other way except fried, and you feel like you are about to get sick. But still, the local cuisines could be interesting and I love the fruits too! I have enjoyed fruits from different places I have travelled to:) I come from a country which enjoys tropical climate and snow, storms, and chilly weather are all new and yet exciting to me.
    There are lots of ups and downs with travel, but I think the ups outweigh the downs definitely:) Good post, and you spoke our minds!
    Have a great journey, and am waiting to read all about your adventures and stories:)

  20. Interesting post. I am from South Africa but live in Germany and my German is quite limited so I get the language discomfort. In my experience you get familiar somehow with that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing enough and having to learn very quickly on the fly. I liken it to taking a new course in college or starting a new job. In the beginning of those activities it is uncomfortable but the discomfort is actually very productive for the growth of your brain cells : ) You might like Cal Newport's blog. He talks a lot about constant learning and the hard work that that takes. Once you categorise language learning or language struggles in this way, it becomes acceptable. You might say that you are not learning, but I am sure that you are learning a bit more than you expect.

    My wife is Colombian so travel in Colombia is wonderful for us.

    For food. I find that to be a hassle wherever. We spent a month in Asia this year and as newly converted paleo eaters, we just were not happy with all the rice and not knowing the source of the meat. Travel is hard work regarding food whatever your food religion.

    This article might inspire you around the topic of travel.
    http://travel.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/travel/03Cov

  21. Like everyone else is saying – hang in there, you'll get used to it soon enough πŸ™‚ I felt very similarly when I first travelled through China, especially with the language thing. By the end of my time there although I could still only say "hello" "thank you" and "is there a bathroom" in Mandarin, I couldn't remember why I felt so challenged, it just felt second nature to be confused!

    Interested to hear how the spanish thing changes (or doesn't change) as you move through to other countries. I don't speak a lick of spanish and although I'm going to take some classes in Guatemala, I'm quite nervous!

  22. Ooh, I love Korean food, but I definitely miss variety. You're right… I think we are spoiled coming from the bay area! Starting off in Australia was a good ease into RTW travel for us since they speak English there. Now in Seoul… it's more challenging, but also rewarding at the same time like you mentioned!

  23. Hang in there guys! There's bound to be a few tough things but it still sounds like you're having a blast. Have you thought about taking language classes? Perhaps that would help you learn the language faster?

  24. Hang in there guys. I totally remember being in the same boat in Bolivia, truggling with the language and sometimes clueless in conversation. But it comes. And yeah, private lessons are probably a good thing. I know for certain in Baños there are LOTS of places you can take lessons and actually at La Bib one night a week they do an inter-cambio where you get to teach locals English and in return you learn some English. Just be patient, it gets better. Cuidese!

    1. Hahaha! I think it'd be funny if the locals did teach you some English!

      I'm always curious about those "speed-language" events. They seem like so much fun.

  25. I had no idea the food in Colombia was so uninspiring! When we backpacked in Europe (mostly Italy and France) we actually got really tired of the food there. The problem was mostly that we were vegetarian at the time and our options were limited, but I also felt like we never ate fruit or vegetables! Everything was pasta, bread, pasta, and sweet rolls. And did I mention pasta?

    1. I love, love, love eating out in Italy and don't get tired of pizza and pasta, but I can imagine that it's tough traveling Italy as a vegetarian. Almost everything has meat in it somehow. The fruits and veggies are a problem for me too. I usually eat a lot of those and home and start missing them when I travel. Italians really are not very creative in incorporating vegetables in regular meals. Don't let my (Italian) boyfriend hear I said that πŸ™‚ The only option so many times is a side salad – and that gets old for me quickly.

  26. I hear you on the food! Especially as vegetarians we didn't enjoy the food in Colombia (or anywhere in South America really) very much. But now we are in the US we really miss the amazing fruit and cheap juices.

    Maybe you should stop for a week or so and take some private Spanish classes. I found it really helped and you progress a lot more quickly than in group classes.

    1. We're thinking of doing that – maybe in Salento where we're planning to be for a week anyway? Or in Ecuador. Where did you guys take yours?

  27. I am super worried about this whole lack of Spanish thing…it's funny, at first I thought we would be okay for awhile as we are going to Europe first, and not making it to Latin America until the tail end of our trip….however Shawna pointed out to me that we probably speak Spanish in Spain, and we are going to be there for at least a month…doh!

    Sorry to hear about the elements of homesickness (if that is what you would call it??)…but I suppose it is always better to miss home than not miss it at all…at least you know it is worth coming back to.

    Keep Smiling (and go find some meat-free soup!)

  28. One good thing about being outside my language comfort zone is that I've become much better at charades! It's frustrating, even after two years of immersion, I'm still trying the futile "I'll talk slower, louder, and repeat it five times in English in the hopes that you'll suddenly understand" before breaking down and playing pantomime. Learning a language, especially one with a non-Phoenician alphabet, is just not that easy for me. I've at least learned enough taxicab Chinese to get around town easily.

    Food, on the other hand, is something we've really kinda embraced on the road. At first, it was kinda daunting to get a dish and never know exactly what was just placed in front of us, but try, try and try again, and we know what we like, we know what we don't like, and often enough, there are enough visual cues or we have enough smattering of words to get through it all. Of course, there are foods we miss — (affordable) good cheese is especially hard to find over here — but to agree on one constant…nothing beats the fruit from a tropical locale!

  29. I totally hear you on wanting variety in your food and missing foods from home. We've been in Argentina for what feels like forever now and the cuisine here is not varied at all. As for the language, I find I get by for basic needs but never have a meaningful conversation unless the other person speaks some English. That is probably the most frustrating! I really don't have any tips for you (other than cooking your own food) but just wanted to let you know that John and I feel your pain.

  30. When traveling in Colombia in the 90's, there was very little English being spoken but luckily I was with a Colombian friend. I did, however, spend time in a language immersion program in Guatemala twice and absolutely loved both experiences. Maybe you can do that too–I hear they have them in other S. American countries. They are super cheap and super fun. A wonderful cultural experience.

    We spent 6 months in SE Asia, each little country having it's own language so we couldn't learn them all. We made sure to learn a few crucial words but were pleasantly surprised at how many people actually spoke English. Hopefully you will be visiting that region. It was spectacular and easy to travel.

    1. We are volunteering in Ecuador for 3 weeks – even though it's not quite an immersion program we're hoping that it'll give us a chance to practise our conversational spanish with the locals. We'll see how that goes.

      We've traveled a bit in SE Asia and do find that English is widely spoken. It irks Jack a bit when he wants to practise his Indonesian and the other person would reply in English, lol.

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