What I learned traveling to Colombia

Playa Cristal in Tayrona National Natural Park, Colombia
Playa Cristal in Tayrona National Natural Park, Colombia

Planning the trip

I decided to take a last-minute backpacking trip to Colombia. I was looking forward to the warm weather, pristine beaches, outdoor adventures, and, of course, the charming and colorful cities! 

I wanted to get a feel for Colombian culture, a taste of Colombian food, and explore the beautiful landscapes that the country has to offer. 

My trouble

However, when I landed in the coastal city of Cartagena, I quickly realized that my rushed efforts to learn the basics of Spanish would not be enough. Very few people spoke English, even in high-traffic areas like the airport, bus stations, or popular restaurants. And, as I left the city, it only got harder.

Although I expected there to be a language barrier, I still felt frustrated and uneasy in my environment. I was also disappointed that I would not be able to make the most of my connections with locals due to my inability to communicate.

At one point during my trip, I took a boat to a beach in Colombia’s Tayrona National Natural Park. My friend and I negotiated the price of the boat ticket in Spanish, but that was the extent of our conversation with the tour company. The boat ride started off smooth; however, as we turned the corner of some jagged rocks, we were quickly faced with the rough dark waters of the Caribbean Sea. The waves were huge! I’ve been on bumpy boat rides before, but these waves seemed massive compared to our tiny boat. Our boat had nothing for safety—no handrails or straps to keep on the seat bench, so with every new wave, the entire boat flew into the air.

All the passengers were shocked by the intensity of the ride. The most surprised passengers were two parents tightly gripping their 3-month-old baby! Thankfully, after 30 minutes of a rollercoaster journey, we all arrived safely at the beach, though it was safe to say that we found it difficult to enjoy our day knowing that we had to do the same trip in order to return home.

Lesson learned 

This experience reminded me, once again, of why it's important to learn a foreign language. If I had been more prepared in Spanish, I would have been able to ask the crucial questions: "Is this safe?" and, “How rough will the boat ride be?” In addition, I would have been able to cry out in fear in Spanish, instead of English, alongside the Spanish-speaking passengers. Lastly, I would have been able to laugh and bond over the experience with my fellow South American travelers who were, quite literally, “in the same boat” as me.

In this case, being better in Spanish would have served a functional, social, and therapeutic purpose. But, what can I say? I wanted an exciting trip, and Colombia didn't disappoint!

How about you? Have you recently lived through a life experience that motivated you to keep improving your English skills? If so, feel free to share them with your TEF teachers—we’d love to hear!

get a feel for something [set phrase]—to begin to develop knowledge or understanding about something.

make the most of something [set phrase]—to use or enjoy something as much as possible, to enjoy something to the fullest potential.

the extent of something [set phrase]—to talk about the size, scope, or limitations of something.

safe to say [set phrase]—when you are confident that what you are saying is correct or likely to be true.

bond [verb]—to develop a close connection or strong relationship with someone, usually over a shared experience or common interest.

in the same boat [as someone] [idiom]—an expression used to say you are in the same situation as someone else, to talk about a shared experience or circumstance.