I stepped onto the tarmac sleepy-eyed and enthused. I was here. South America! Colombia! Bogotá! My year away from the US of A was happening now. Like, right now. Fast forward several weeks and I'd like to think I can step back and gaze upon the good and the not-so-good of Bogotá with a bit more savvy. I might have been excited back then, but I definitely had no idea what I was doing.

  1. Listen to the travel warnings- but not too much
    Absolutely everyone who I told that I'd be going to Colombia had an opinion, and many of them did not think of the country in a positive light. There's definitely some validity to people's concerns (i.e., don't walk around while talking or texting on your phone, take extra care to avoid pickpockets on public transportation), but many well-meaning Americans don't know anything about present-day Colombia. So take their precautions with a grain of salt and listen to what the Colombians who actually live and work here have to say. You don't want to miss out on something that's a must-see for locals because you've heard to fear Bogotá by night by a relative who hasn't checked up on Colombian news since the 80s.  

  2. Be prepared for some chit-chat
    Colombians love a good talk-- especially with a foreigner! And here, as in most of South America, people would rather be late to their next meeting than cut short a current conversation. Sometimes it feels a bit cumbersome, but it can also be incredibly sweet. A few friends and I had a woman drop her afternoon plans so she could accompany us to the passport office. Chatting with and helping this group of strangers was so important to her that she did this without us ever asking. So don't worry about showing up 15 minutes late to see a friend for a cerveza because the lady next door wants to hear about your health in detail, because chances are your friend will be 30 minutes late because her lady next door just had to know when she would finally meet a nice boy. 

  3. Get comfy against strangers
    Bogotá traffic is no joke. Car traffic and people traffic. During rush hour, picture the most crowded bus you've ever been on plus 30 people and that's the Transmilenio, Bogotá's public bus system. One time, my body was pressed so hard against a rando that my arm fell asleep. (I repeat for emphasis: My arm fell asleep!!). Words to the wise: either get used to being smushed against people you don't know, or avoid public transit during rush hour altogether. 

  4. Don’t turn down the juice
    In Colombia, a little bit of USDs can go a long way with food purchases. This is especially true if you take advantage of a menú del día, the daily lunch special in traditional restaurants that includes the likes of meat, rice, salad, plantains, fruit, potatoes, dessert, and a drink for around $3 or $4USD. And one thing Bogotanos do not skimp on is their juice. With so many fresh, tropical fruits here that literally don't exist in other parts of the world, juice is a staple with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I've seen other travelers from the US turn down juice around here and be met with a confused look and a "Qué extraño..." ("How strange...") from the waiter. It's even common to go to a bar and order a large juice without alcohol-- or, at least, I do it on the reg. I swear, unless you're at a Bogotá Beer Company, you're not missing anything special by choosing an only-made-in-Colombia juice.  

  5. Medical masks are the new Uggs
    As much as I'm loving the Bog, I am not loving the pollution. At first I didn't understand why so many seemingly healthy people were wearing medical masks on the street, until I took a long walk along a major road, La Séptima, and my throat was hurting by the end of it! I thought I was getting sick until a friend explained that it was the physical effects of the pollution. Woof. I'm now thinking the masked people are onto something after all. 

  6. See that huge gun? Try to breathe.
    Given how gun-crazed the US is pictured worldwide, I was definitely surprised at the number of guns that I saw on the streets during my first few weeks here. However, the difference here is that the guns aren't being flaunted by ordinary citizens, but by the police or military. Expect there to be armed police officers on certain hiking paths, at street corners, and accompanied by golden retriever police dogs (the fact that golden retrievers are used as guard dogs here is another mystery for a different day,). And, when a bank is changing money in the ATM, be prepared to see even larger weapons guarding the exchange of cash. 

  7. Focus here. In Colombia.
    Bogotá and Colombia as a whole have so, so much to offer. Definitely don't feel pressured to move onto the next city or country until you've seen as much as you can of where you are right now. Colombia doesn't have something like the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum that you can show off in Instagram posts; instead, it's a compilation of experiences that vary whether you're in a big city or coffee region, along the Caribbean coast or whale-watching in the Pacific, salsa dancing in the heart of Cali or kayaking along the Amazon River. Wherever you might end up, enjoy it.