Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | November 7, 2012

Colombian Culture Lessons

N 11° 14.56′   W 74° 13.08′

Santa Marta, Colombia.

Weather associated with Hurricane Sandy created a week of unbelievable surge in the marina from strong westerlies. Waves crashed over the jetty for several days, demonstrating the power of Mother Nature. The storm was about 1000 miles away when this picture was taken.

The last few weeks have provided more opportunities to learn about life in Colombia.  Spanish classes have included an overview of the diverse cultures found in the five major regions of the country, an explanation of the social class system and a chance to ask as many questions as I can figure out how to pose in Spanish.

There are 6 well-defined social classes, or “estradas”, in Colombia and where you live determines your class number. Classes pay different rates for utilities, health services and public education. The 91% of the population who fall in the lower three classes (1, 2 & 3) are subsidized to some degree by the 3% of the population that falls within the upper classes (5 & 6). Class 4, a very small “middle class” is about 6% of the population and does not receive subsidies nor is subsidized. There is nothing secret about class status. It is clearly marked on one’s utility bills and the status of a neighborhood is public information. Apparently moving up to a higher class is not easy, and comes with financial burdens. The huge disparity between the classes in terms of size and distribution of wealth is one of the most striking contrasts between life here and at home.

If you were one of the few Class 4 “middle class” citizens, you would likely live in the city, which is considered much more desirable than the suburbs.  You might work as a teacher or professional. You probably would not be able to afford air conditioning, even in a hot climate like Santa Marta. You would get around via public transportation and would not have your own car. You would pay about 75,000 pesos a month, or about $42 for health insurance for a family of three, and would make co-pays of 2,000 pesos, about $1.10 US, for physician and prescription drug co-pays. Your children would likely attend public schools and university, although you would have the option to seek  loans to help pay for private institutions.  You might be able to travel some, mostly by bus, and a rare vacation abroad would be possible. You would shop in the “nicer” markets and probably wouldn’t frequent the street vendors and the city mercado.

A wealthy or super-rich person in class 5 or 6 would live in the nicest places in the city and would probably have a beautiful “finca”, or weekend get-away home in the country.  One would have an array of domestic help, from cooks and nannies to chauffeurs and gardeners.  Children would go to private schools and universities.  Shopping would be handled by the domestic help.  Frequent travel, including foreign vacations or weekends in places like Miami would be possible.  Your family might be part of one of the mega-enterprises that dominate Colombian business.  Successful narcotraffikers might technically fit into the upper class from a financial perspective but we are told they are shunned socially.

The typical Colombian is part of one of the lower classes.  It was amazing to learn that half of the population survives on the average minimum wage of 500,000 pesos per month. That equates to about $275 US, and even in a place where utilities are subsidized and locally-produced food is available at 30 – 40% less than US prices, the monthly pay would not go far.  Many of the very poor live in shanty towns in the suburbs, citizens displaced because of the violence in other regions of the country.  They live as “squatters” and are considered class “0”, below the lowest class.    Even at the grade school level, families are expected to purchase certain books and supplies which can be very difficult for the lower classes.  Access to higher education is limited and financing options are few.  A lower class person would not typically be able to travel within the country, much less see the rest of the world.  We met people here who were born and raised in Santa Marta and had never been to other regions of the country.

Higher levels of security in many places are another difference and bars on doors and windows are commonplace, as is the presence of private guards and well armed police and military personnel.  One can expect to be searched when entering and exiting the larger stores.  What we would call racial profiling at home is actively and openly practiced here. As a light-skinned foreigner I can zip through security stations without being stopped while the local men are almost always checked, especially as many of them carry a purse-like bag called a “carriel”.  Local non-marina clients who find themselves on marina grounds are routinely asked to leave.  However, we come and go as we please and no identification or boat name required. If we are passengers in a car driven by locals, they glance inside and wave us in.

While we have felt relatively safe, the highly visible security reminds us that crime is an issue.  A boating neighbor was robbed and beaten while at anchor in nearby Taganga harbor.  Three people died and dozens were injured recently when a grenade was thrown into a local supermarket during the busy morning hours.  This was allegedly the result of extortion, a practice which has been said to have grown to create new sources of revenue for gangs and narcotraffikers as the drug trade is being stemmed.  We can’t say that crime here is any worse than at home, but it would be interesting to have good data to compare.   Shopping days are a little eerie, though, and we have to wonder if our chosen market of the day has paid all their “fees”.

Colombians follow US politics with much more interest than we follow theirs.   On election day I shopped at the mercado, the market composed of numerous small vendors that cater to the lower classes. When identified as an American, the topic of the election came up along with queries of who I supported. The market crowd here, like the world opinion polls, favored Obama.   We have heard similar  feedback first-hand from our foreign friends, including Europeans who express the greatest respect for our current president.  The Colombian press seems more neutral in their coverage.  One newspaper editorial expressed the opinion that the main Colombian hope for the election outcome is that the US economy will improve and that trade opportunities – meaning more Colombian goods being sold in the US – will be enhanced.  The local press finds the US Electoral College extremely archaic, and can’t quite fathom a system where the popular vote does not necessarily make the final determination. An interesting difference in Colombian elections is that military and police officers do not have the right to vote – a conflict of interest concern- although there is a growing movement to change that law.

Eating ceviche from a street-side cevicheria is not really recommended, but we had to try this one just outside the marina. It has been here for many years and had good internet reviews. A large cup (13 oz) of mixed goodies – shrimp, snails, oyster, octopus & sting-ray was 11,000 pesos, about $6 US. It was delicious and we had no tummy aches.

Sidewalk vendors along the main streets sell everything from fresh fruit to sunglasses to cell phone minutes

Visiting the city mercado was better the second time around and I was more comfortable communicating with the vendors. Being accompanied by three other cruising women, one who speaks good Spanish, was a confidence booster too. We found the vendors to be friendly, not aggressive, inquisitive and helpful. The mercado doesn’t get many tourists.

I am going to try to patronize the local produce vendors more. For meat and fish, the supermarkets win hands down. Meat – including these most interesting cows eyes – and fish are totally un-refrigerated, and the aroma likewise indicated that a purchase was unwise.

The number of licuadoras per capita here is incredible. Jugos naturales are a favorite drink, particularly with breakfast and lunch. They consist of blended fresh fruit and ices, like smoothies, and some are made with milk. There is a wonderful variety of new fruits to try, and my favorite so far is the lulo, a sort of tart, grapefruit-like orange. So delicious. We might have to upgrade the boat’s small hand blender.

Another different image from home: a nation-wide strike of the judicial branch of government. In a wage dispute, 42,000 judges, prosecutors and judicial workers have been on strike for over a month, and over 100,000 court cases have come to a halt. It is a scary prospect for a country with so many legal issues to address.

During one of my Spanish classes I had the opportunity to spend several hours practicing conversation with Elsa’s daughter Alejandra who was visiting during a college break. It was fabulous to be able to learn from her about life in Colombia, and I was thrilled that we could communicate on a basic level.



  1. Wow…very interesting Elaine! Lets hope our middle class never shrinks to 6%! I can’t believe you passed on the cow eyes…they look delicious! I will definitely miss reading about the latest Mar Azul Adventures, when you guys find your way back to Florida.

    • Doug, the class situation here is eye-opening and an example of what happens when you have such extremes in the wealth distribution. Wish I could have better conveyed the market aroma in the meat section. I wouldn’t consider that stuff for my dogs, much less human consumption. Glad you are enjoying the blog. Hope we can keep it up through the upcoming San Blas islands, but are hearing that internet connectivity there is almost nil. Maybe I can persuade Bob to let me use some precious sat phone minutes to e-post!

  2. Great that you’re digging into the culture and language of the country. Very interesting post. I’m still trying to figure out what they do with the cow eyes!

    • Izzy, I should inquire more about the cows eyes. I believe in some cultures they are considered a delicacy, but have never seen them served here. Haven’t tried much from the street vendors (just the ceviche) and we usually stick to the moderate to nice cafes and mall food courts when we dine out. I had been told by other cruisers that we would not like dining out in Colombia, but we have found the food to be very good. Beef in the supermarkets isn’t as high quality as back home, but Bob has still managed to get some good beef in the restaurants.

  3. Elaine, great article. Will you visit any of the islands off the mainland?Thanks.

    • Mo, we are still figuring out our precise route to Panama. We might try to stop at the Rosarios on the way to Panama if that is feasible. Cruising in Colombia is pretty regimented and requires checking in and out with the different port captains when you take the boat to a different area. Even to go out of the harbor for an hour to test the stabilizers we had to coordinate with the Coast Guard. We plan to visit Cartagena from here, although that is getting more complicated because there is little marina availability there and I haven’t been able to get a reservation yet. Apparently the harbor is filthy and not someplace you would want to stay at anchor for long. Most of the cruisers we have met here in Santa Marta are visiting Cartegena by land, and then just going direct to San Blas. We would probably do that too except that we don’t want to leave the dogs while we do overnight travel. Lady would be a most challenging charge for a pet sitter to handle 🙂 After Panama, we plan to stop at San Andreas and Providencia, small Colombian islands off the coast of Nicaragua, on our way back north.

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