Haggling in Colombia is easy: they do it for you
It’s something of a privilege seeing a country start to flex its tourism muscles. Like a baby’s first steps, it’s at once endearing and clumsy, and it only happens once.
Years of robbery and kidnapping by paramilitary thugs made travelling within Colombia a fool’s venture, but improved security over the past few years has sparked a tourism renaissance. In many parts of the country (Cartagena excluded), there is no formal structure to receive visitors; rudimentary services are improvised by local entrepreneurs.
This makes travelling to Colombia off-limits to those without a functional level of Spanish, but the perfect destination for anyone seeking an uncontaminated experience in a fascinating country: most of the coast is blissfully free of all-inclusive monstrosities and sunburned gringos with ridiculous hats, over-sized cameras and Hawaiian shirts are nonexistent.
Plus, it’s cheap. Really cheap. And that’s partly because Colombians still haven’t learned how to haggle.
Observe Exhibit A:
Paipa is a town famous for its thermal baths and rustic scenery. Several hotel-spas line a lake, most of them predictably expensive. The first we looked at charged 320,000 Colombian pesos (about $160 USD). A second one we saw, the Casona Salitre, was majestic: Spanish colonial architecture, a stone thermal bath fed by four gargoyles, lots of potted plants and flowers. Plus, the liberator Simón Bolivar spent a few days there, which in this part of the world, turns any location into a national monument.
We expected to find the highest price. Said the concierge:
“Our rooms start at 250,000 pesos.”
We thought about this in silence for about two seconds, after which the concierge said:
“But we can give it to you for 190,000.”
Again, we said nothing for a bew beats and then declared, “We’re going to take a look around the hotel, all right?”
“Fine, 152,000,” he shot back.
And Exhibit B:
East of Santa Marta is a fishing village called Taganga, where several diving schools have been set up. The town is quickly primping itself for tourism; all day long workers slowly build a boardwalk where a scraggly dirt road met the sand. A 15-minute walk over a rock gets you to Playa Grande, a pleasant, secluded cove that is nowhere near grande but filled with ramshackle estaderos, essentially fish eateries under straw roofs.
Stroll near one and a lady eagerly ushers you to a table and brings out three freshly caught fish of different sizes on a tray: “This one is 15,000, this one 18,000, and this one 22,000,” she says.
I repeated the information, pointing to the smallest one. “This one is 15,000?”
Immediately she responded, “It’s ok, we’ll make it 12,000.”
This happened a few other times, which led to the inevitable conclusion: Colombians haggle for you.
Contrast this with Guatemala, a country with a long-established backpacker trail and multiple tourist destinations. Whether by mastery in haggling or unshakable pride in the work, Guatemalan merchants rarely ever lower their prices. Rather, they often look at you like you’re some kind of bathroom tile buildup. “This is the price,” they calmly respond, and hardly care if you walk away.
One could assume that Colombians are suckers or simply naive, but I ascribe this to their tender nature, where the fear of offending a friendly stranger takes precedence over profits. It’s as if they know that their original asking price is a rip-off and can’t bring themselves to actually charge it.
It’s too bad this won’t last.