A Female Perspective on Colombia

Colombian woman by Flora Baker
Colombian woman
A Colombian woman in traditional dress (photo: Flora Baker)

People stare at you a lot if you’re a woman in Colombia. More so if you’re also a foreigner.

I’ve been traveling in South America for the last sixteen months – four of those months in Colombia – and it’s impossible not to notice the extra attention.

On occasion, there’s a level of flattery to it, but most of the time it’s simply whistles, catcalls and the bizarre feeling of a stranger’s eyes running up and down your body.

When an old man passes by me in the street, I’ll often hear a breathy voice whisper, “que rico…” and I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy with someone’s grandfather saying that I’m “delicious.”

Simply put, there’s a level of objectification in Colombia that doesn’t exist in a lot of other countries.

Colombian Women v. Foreign Women

I often think about whether there’d be less staring if I was actually Colombian. Judging on how the local women behave, at least, I’d presumably notice it less.

A lot of the time though, the foreigner-specific objectification really confuses me: why don’t I pass for Colombian?

I have dark hair and dark features, my Spanish is convincing enough – so what makes me so obviously foreign?

When I look to Colombian women, of course, I start to understand why. However much I think I should be able to fit in, there are a multitude of factors that I don’t tick the boxes for.


First, there’s a particular way Colombian women dress. There’s innate focus on clothing, highlighted hair, make-up and wearing impossibly high heels that makes women here more stereotypically attractive – particularly the Paisa women of Medellín.

Although, I’m never going to understand the penchant for getting butt implants.

Clothing itself is also a confusing one. As a foreign woman, dressing for the Colombian weather anywhere from Medellín to the northern coast requires restraint; even though the sun is shining and the air is humid, most Colombian women are in jeans.

The few wearing shorts receive the standard staring and catcalling, so the rules are clear: if you want less attention, cover up. Just deal with the fact that you’re dripping with sweat underneath all that denim.


Second, it’s the way Colombian women dance. A foreigner is never going to get their salsa moves as perfect as a Colombian, however much effort they put in.

Plus being a self-proclaimed bad dancer – and typically English, to boot – I find it very tricky to meet a Colombian man’s gaze when we salsa together. The look in his eyes is way too intense!

What I find very interesting though is that the respect levels in salsa are completely different to those on the street.

The same men who might whistle and ogle from afar are nothing but gentlemen on the dance floor; guiding their partners through the whirlwind of complex moves with nothing more than a strong hand on the small of the back.

It’s almost as if salsa is a secret code for “we’re going to behave ourselves now…”


The third difference between me and Colombian women is probably the most important, and it’s attitude.

As a woman traveling solo in South America, I have to be hyper aware of what kind of situations I put myself in.

It might be deciding not to walk through strange cities by myself at night, or avoiding the alleyway filled with dodgy looking guys, or even refusing to get in a taxi when something about the driver just doesn’t feel right.

But some occasions simply can’t be helped. Right outside my hostel in Santa Marta – a coastal city so humid that not wearing short shorts is akin to madness – were two lines of men, presumably waiting for foreigners because they had nothing else to do, who started whistling, staring and whispering as soon as I stepped out of the door.

It was like walking through a very uncomfortable gauntlet, but I forced myself to walk slowly enough that I wouldn’t give away how horrible it felt. Not to give them the satisfaction.

I wondered, after that incident, how often this type of thing happens to Colombian women; how they feel and how they cope.

I haven’t often seen a woman in Colombia reacting to overly flirtatious men the way I’d want to. It leads me to think that Colombian women have a different attitude to this kind of behavior than I do, and I wish I could learn what it was.

The level of appearances set by Colombian women can be something of a threat for a foreigner, especially someone who’s been living out of a backpack for the last year and has completely forgotten what it feels like to put on make-up.

But it’s not just to do with the outward appearance of the women in Colombia; there’s a level of inner confidence too, a complete disregard for those catcallers and muttering grandpas.

It’s a way of carrying oneself that I’d love to emulate further.

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Leave a Reply to David Lee Cancel reply


  1. In Colombia, those catcalls and comments are called “piropos” and they are generally received positively and even appreciated by Colombian women as flattering. They are meant as compliments, not sexual advances – “un complido, nada mas, nada menos”. Just one of the cultural differences here that foreigners have to adapt to.

    • I’m going to have to talk to some of my female Colombian friends, because I know the girl I dated last year did not like the attention she received on the streets.

      • Note that I said, “generally” – I’m sure there are women who don’t care for it. But the Colombianas I’ve asked about it tell me it boosts their self-esteem, as long as it’s nothing raunchy.

    • Well, as a colombian woman I can tell you vincent robson that those “piropos” are not generally well received. That kind of attention is not welcome, most of the women I know don’t like to be “attacked” by men they don’t know, with a kind of language that is violent and misogynistic. What you as a women usually do is keep walking and say nothing, out of fear that anything bad could happen, but fortunately now there are moments like Ihollaback, who are reclaiming the women’s right of not being harassed in the streets.

        • I certainly understand why it makes women uncomfortable and of course I don’t condone the behavior. It’s considered crass, immature and low-class where I’m from and depending on the language could even be considered a verbal assault. I was simply reporting the feedback I’ve received from my female Colombian friends.

          • It’s certainly interesting that your friends have said they find it a boost to their self-esteem, Vincent – I assumed some Colombian women aren’t as affected by it as others, but never encountered anyone who was actively buoyed by it.

            Sadly, even if piropos really are ‘meant’ as compliments by the men who utter them, it doesn’t change them being interpreted as sexual advances. And I definitely don’t think they need to be adapted to as a foreigner.

          • To quote one Colombian woman I’m close to, “would these women prefer that men tell them that they’re ugly and don’t know how to dress themselves?”

            And I disagree with you regarding adaptation. There are always things about the local culture that foreigners have to adapt to. The society you’ve injected yourself into is not going to evolve rapidly to suit you. There will be things you don’t like that you have to either deal with or move elsewhere. For me it’s noise pollution. If you live in Colombia, unless you live in a finca or a penthouse, you will have to deal with lots of noise. I don’t like it but I have to deal with it or move elsewhere.

            I understand women not wanting to feel objectified. But this is not your kingdom and Colombian men are not going to change overnight. Not invalidating your feelings or opinions on the matter, just giving a reality check.

      • one of the factors that make westerners so interested in travel to d
        other countries is that the culture is still in tact. where men behave like men and women like women you have a rich culture and tradition. try salsa dancing without roles. free speech is define right even if unwelcomed. if someone is overtly threatening that is different. cat calls welcome or not are party of life. at a certain age there are no concerns for that…

        • Where in Colombia cities do “men behave like men?” Most Colombian males that live in the cities (especially in the upper estratos) certainly aren’t “manly” by anyone’s definition. Yelling at girls on the street and having a pseudo sense of machismo doesn’t make you a man.

  2. Another thing, although you may have dark hair and dark eyes, even if you are Latina of heritage, if you dress like a foreigner, especially a backpacker, that will stand out here. Colombians are very beauty-conscious and generally dress as well as they can afford to, regardless of the occasion. They generally don’t leave the house or have visitors unless they are put together and made up.

    Staying at a hostel, when you come and go anyone around notices that as well, and you’d be shocked how observant Colombians are as to who is in the neighborhood.

    And though you say your Spanish is convincing, if you don’t speak with the local accent and dialect, that stands out too. Just as your English accent would stick out like a big neon sign in Texas, if you’re in Santa Marta and your Spanish isn’t Costeño, the locals will know you’re not from there in a heartbeat. I live in Medellín and a Paisa will notice a Costeño, Rolo or Choco accent immediately and vice versa, and those are all Colombian.

    I enjoyed reading the article, it’s interesting (and unfortunately rare) to get a foreign woman’s take on Colombian culture.

    • I am from Colombia and i am outraged by this, i myself have also been in Colombia traveling as a backpacker, i have brown hair and green eyes, and i dress the way i want, i’m not concerned about make up or having a big ass and wearing fitted clothes… i can”t believe even Colombian men portray Colombian women in this way… it’s a stereotype and rather a negative and unnatural one.
      The Colombian Women is portrayed with an Attitude Towards Sex and Sexual High-Risk Behaviors.
      I speak for all the women i know and i, not all Colombian women are like this.

  3. As a Colombian woman I have to say I find the catcalls, staring and all the other things you describe on your article uncomfortable, intimidating and sometimes even disgusting, so it’s not only you who feels that way.

    It has nothing to do with how you dress or how you act, I’ve been out on the most unflattering clothes you can think of and would still get them. Sadly, I think it’s just a cultural thing for the men in Colombia and Latin America. I usually just ignore it and try to be as serious as possible, even if wish I could just slap them or something.

    Sidenote, it’s nice to see a women perspective on the blog.

    • Of course I’m not glad to hear you feel intimidated as a Colombian woman in your own country, but it’s good to know it’s not just me who feels this way. It does seem to be a deeply engrained cultural affectation in Latin America.