colombian spanish
El Poblado neighborhood, Medellin. Photo credit: Tim Wenger

Colombia is a country that captivates everyone who comes. It’s a place possessing an irresistible appeal that’s difficult to pinpoint.

For me, one of the reasons I came was the language. I studied Spanish for three years in high school, but never spent more time than that. By living in Colombia for five months, I hoped to improve.

When I arrived in Medellin, the city I chose to call home, I didn’t take language lessons the moment I arrived. But even without them, it didn’t take me long to pick up the basics.

Every taxi ride, restaurant order, and grocery visit put me in the thick of speaking Spanish. There’s no better way to learn a language than through immersion.

If you’re looking for somewhere to learn Spanish, Colombia is a great place to go. Here’s why.

Colombia Is Affordable

At the time of this writing, $1 US dollar is worth a little more than $3,000 Colombian pesos. A visit to Colombia won’t break the bank if you’re coming from the western world.

If you stay long term, you can rent a furnished room in a shared apartment or house for less than $400 a month. One of the places I stayed, found in the Stadium neighborhood of Medellin, cost only $300-330 USD a month. Amenities included my own private bathroom as well as a housekeeper.

Meals are cheap, too. Many restaurants serve lunch specials that won’t cost more than $4 USD.

The menu del día often consists of a soup, salad, and side of rice accompanied with a main dish like chicken, beef, or pork. Drinks also come included.

Colombia Is Diverse

You’d think a country with only 50 million people wouldn’t have much diversity. But in fact, it does.

Are you a fan of beaches and tropical weather? Then head to Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast. There you’ll discover strong influences of African culture.

Or, do you prefer a place with cooler climate? Then, head to Bogota. It has a burgeoning restaurant scene that draws foodies worldwide.

But if you want something just right, consider Medellin. Located close to the equator, the city of Eternal Spring has temperate climate all year round.

Because of the rich diversity, each region around Colombia speaks Spanish in its own way. There are phrases, expressions, and colloquialisms that are unique to each area.

The Regional Differences of Colombian Spanish

I spent most of my time in Medellin, but was fortunate to befriend a few people from Bogota. I also visited the Caribbean coast for an extended time. Since those are the areas I’m most familiar with, this section focuses on them.

But before diving into regional specifics, I’d like to fill you in on one universal expression. “No dar papaya” is a colloquialism translated in English that means “don’t give papaya”. But this phrase has nothing to do with the fruit. Instead, it’s a useful metaphor to know for anyone that visits.

Though Colombia has moved forward from its checkered past, petty crime still happens. This doesn’t mean that Colombia is unsafe. Rather, it means that visitors should be careful about what they carry.

Hide from plainview expensive things like smartphones and jewelry. As long as you’re aware and conduct yourself low-key, you won’t worry about giving away any papaya.

Now, onto the regional differences.

Rolo Spanish

This is the Spanish dialect of Bogota. When most people think of Colombian Spanish, the Rolo dialect is what comes to mind. Rolos speak more formal, and often place accents at the end of each word. As a result, phrases in Rolo Spanish can sound like questions.

Words and Expressions to Know

  • Bizcocho is a word that means dessert. But it’s also used in the context of describing someone that’s good looking.
  • Desgualetado describes someone that doesn’t dress well. If someone from Bogota calls you this, that person doesn’t consider you fashionable.
  • Chevere is like saying cool or nice in English. It’s usually preceded by the word “qué” to form a phrase.

Paisa Spanish

The Spanish spoken in the northwest region of Colombia falls under the Paisa dialect. In this part of Colombia, the manner of speech is melodic and singsongy. Paisas also pronounce double l’s like j’s instead of y’s. For example, the pronunciation of Medellin becomes Mede-jean in Paisa Spanish. It’s also one of the more understandable types of Spanish spoken in Colombian. Paisa Spanish is vanilla, which makes the region great  for learning and practicing.

Words and Expressions to Know

  • “¿Qué más?” is a phrase used as an informal greeting. In English, it’s like saying “what’s up?” or “how are you?”.
  • Parce is a nonchalant way of addressing another person. The English equal of parce are the words dude, bro, or buddy. Parcero or parcera are alternatives to the word used for addressing men or women.
  • Chimba is like the word chevere in meaning and usage. But the difference is that it’s used mostly by Paisas.

Costeño Spanish

Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta are popular places on the Caribbean coast. If you visit them, prepare to listen carefully. That’s because people from the Caribbean speak very fast. Their rapid speech makes them challenging to understand for many Spanish novices. Costeño Spanish has a choppy quality to it as well. Last parts of words aren’t often pronounced, which adds to the challenge of trying to learn.

Words and Expressions to Know

  • Pupi is word that describes someone who’s rich or comes from wealth. This word is like the English term “well-off”.
  • Friquimondi is the opposite of pupi. People who are friquimondi have no money. “Broke” is the English equal to this word.
  • Bacano is the Caribbean equal to chimba for Paisas and and chevere for Rolos.

For many travelers, Colombia is a country that flies under the radar. But with its affordability and diversity, Colombia won’t go unnoticed for much longer. If learning Spanish is your dream, then Colombia is a wonderful place to make it a reality.

Jonathan Santiago is a freelance writer. He covers a variety of topics including marketing, career, travel, lifestyle, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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