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How I Traveled Through Colombia With Zero Spanish Speaking Skills

If I can do It, so can you.

Before flying to Colombia, most of my Spanish skills came from popular songs: Mi Chico Latino (translation: “My Latin Boy,” a song by Spice Girl Geri Halliwell), La Vida Loca (“The Crazy Life” from the bon-bons of steel, Ricky Martin), and Despacito (“Slowly” by Justin Bieber). These phrases may be useful on a tequila-fueled bachelorette in Cancun, but otherwise, wouldn’t get me far in a Spanish-speaking country. No problem, right? In Colombia, I expected to meet locals sounding like Sofía Vergara. We’d totally hit it off, buy matching ponchos (“ruanas“) from Bogotá’s Centro Mayor mall, and go viral using #OOTD. The reality, I discovered, was translation tumbleweed upon landing in El Dorado. From Colombia’s multicultural capital of Bogotá to the rolling coffee hills of Armenia, this is how I got by on my limited Spanish.

Cocora Valley, now best known as the inspiration behind Disney’s Encanto.courtesy of ProColombia

I Harnessed the Kindness of Locals

Being the warmest and most welcoming folk south of the border, I jumped at the chance to meet a pal’s Colombian acquaintances, Maria and Claudia…and the feeling was mutual. “You’ll find here everyone’s patient and appreciates you even trying to speak Spanish,” they assured me before ordering at funky hangout Andrés Carne de Res D.C. However, my heart pretzelled, and I feared the dreaded Adele-twang surface when the server came over. “Agua por favor,” I mumbled. To my amazement, she conversed back. Was she complimenting my fabulous accent? Did I remind her of Selena Gomez? I knew I should have worn a flower crown. “Um, she’s asking if you want still or sparkling?” Maria translated. My bubble burst, I opted for still.

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I Mastered the Absolute Essentials

Since my bladder is a paper bag, the bathroom is an hourly need. “Dónde está el baño,” became my mantra, followed closely by deliciosa(o), excelente, and gracias (delicious/excellent/thanks). I used them religiously, particularly in the rural handicraft town of Ráquira, thirty minutes south of Villa de Leyva. It was where a couple invited us to the wheel at their ceramics workshop, Arte Raquireno Maravillas De Boyaca. “Excelente,” I exclaimed before using my clay hands as an excuse to take advantage of their facilities.

Likewise, in La Finca Del Café—a magical coffee plantation with a hotel, bar and café—more liquid meant more bathroom needs. Once more, I squealed, “Delicioso!” before running to the restroom. Tried and tested, gracias.

To this day a Demi Moore haircut grants you VIP access at Ráquira’s pottery workshops.courtesy of ProColombia

I Took Full Advantage of All the Free Wi-Fi

There’s Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere in Colombia, even when I was at Santa Clara Hotel Hacienda in Armenia’s coffee triangle (albeit patchy during rain showers). Heck, some even go all-out to stay connected on the Encanto-inspired Valle del Cocora (think: wax palm trees, misty clouds, and hummingbirds zipping about) via cheap local SIM card. My biggest mistake was not using it at Cartagena (chill Caribbean vibes and vigilance do not mix). My flight was delayed, and I had no idea since airport announcements were solely in Spanish. If I’d logged on hours earlier, I could have booked one of the multiple alternative budget carriers heading to the same place at the same time. My bad.

I Signed up for Scrumptious Food Tours

Do you speak Spanish like a newborn? Have you consumed more Tootsie Rolls than plantains in your lifetime? Join the club. That’s why I enrolled in a bunch of food tours. In Armenia, the hotel chef’s son ran a half-day cookery class for just 20 bucks (seriously, just 20 bucks!). That price included transportation, a market tour, a tasting of pretty fruits I’d never seen, a cooking session, and the meal itself.

Colombian food dramatically varies across each diverse region, so I enlisted local experts to teach me more. courtesy of ProColombia

In Cartagena, I joined Foodies, guided by an English-speaking darling, to sample exciting coastal dishes at the best restaurants in town. And in Villa de Leyva, a handsome chap named Awad took our group through cobbled streets and colonial architecture in search of delectable dishes. Now I’m completely obsessed with: Ajiaco (a hearty chicken soup with veg and potatoes), Lulo fruit juice (a jelly-like citrus smoothie), and fried mojarra fish. Let the experts guide your tongues to exciting new pastures; you won’t regret it.

I Wasn’t Afraid to Engage in Body Language

When Shakira tells you that hips don’t lie, you best believe her. Body language is universal and free (well, most of the time), so I improvised throughout the week. Whether that was pointing at photos at Hotel Campanario de la Villa, faking tiredness to slow the hiking group down on San Alberto’s Terrace coffee farm, or flexing a little bicep to state I needed extra-strong Colombian coffee at The Artisan D.C in Bogata—my body signage worked like a charm.

The best way to slow down the hiking group is to um, stop at the back. Genius.courtesy of ProColombia

Okay, there was an incident where we ordered beers and got a plate of cherries, but perhaps that was the waiter signaling it was time to put a cap on it. Be not afraid, fair travelers. Colombia is ready to welcome you no matter how terrible your Spanish is. Salud to that.

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