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One of the most frustrating things non-natives, especially Westerners, in Colombia (and other similar countries) have to put up with is the arbitrary ‘foreigner tax’. This is basically the additional cost put on to a host of goods and services simply because we’re outsiders. The mentality behind it is that we can afford it and/or won’t know that we’re being charged extra than those in the know.

A place to be avoided ...

Foreign face, charge more …

For many tourists, short-term visitors and some long-termers here, both of those beliefs hold true. If you think the price you have to pay is reasonable, cheap even, fair enough; ignorance being bliss and all that. Although, it must be said that this ‘clandestine overcharging’ is a betrayal to the oft-heard line that ‘Colombians are the friendliest in the world.’ When it comes to money, some — but not all thankfully — are a little two-faced.

Now after five years of having Colombia as my base — and earning a modest amount of Colombian pesos I hasten to add — I’ve learnt, slowly, to always ask the price of something before committing to buy. Yet, at times the guard is dropped.

One of the most frequent of times this erratic pricing happens is when you enter a bakery, or panadería as it’s called in these parts, for the first time. In your bog-standard panadería, the price of a perico — a small coffee with milk — generally ranges from $700 to $1,200 COP. So there have been occasions, even to this day, where I’ve not bothered to ask the price before ordering. This opens the door for a little inflation and very often the person at the till isn’t shy about seizing that opportunity.

Even worse, in recent weeks I started checking out panaderías in the barrios close to my new abode. For the four or five I ‘inspected’, I was charged a standard price on my first solo visit. In the following days I returned to most of them, this time with a friend, a fellow countryman, and in two of these we were charged more for the same products I’d had on my own.

Maria Mercedes, the lady from El Verbenal ...

When the price is the price … Thanks Maria 🙂

This isn’t exclusive to panaderías; it happens in other restaurants where prices aren’t displayed (or at times even if they are), tienda bars and also, unsurprisingly, with taxis; hence my general dislike for most of those yellow parasites. Needless to say it’s commonplace with tourism-related things, too.

This short-sightedness is understandable in some ways. For many who do it, they don’t see their future being a life on easy street, or ‘calle fácil’ as they might say, so it’s ‘extract what you can now, to heck with the future.’ Yet plenty of places have lost and will continue to lose business and potential loyal customers by engaging in such a strategy. ‘Short-term gain, long-term loss.’ (It’s worth noting here that in the much frowned upon, ‘disorganised’, neighbouring Venezuela, prices seem to be displayed in almost every café and restaurant, so you can make an informed decision before you commit.)

In further mitigation, Colombia’s working classes are more screwed against than screwing (um, in some contexts anyway). Indeed, in other areas ‘el extranjero’, the foreigner, is treated much better. Just one example of that is in the world of film/TV extras where a foreigner can up to eight times more for doing the same work.

This horrible inequality, however, is not our fault. What’s more, the foreigner who is willing to socialise in popular barrios is giving a greater endorsement of a now somewhat safer, less divided country than most more well-off Colombians.

Thus, to the ‘price inflators’, you would do well to remember that not all Westerners come heavily laden with euros, dollars, pounds or whatever. We’re here to contribute, hopefully in a positive way, so don’t push us out.
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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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  1. jaircortazar, usted es el tipico zafio, estulto, oligofrenico, ignorante y corrupto colombiano que como mote tiene “es que dio papaya”. El senhor Corrigan ha descrito nuestra realidad. Aun mas: a los colombianos tambien nos cobran mas, cuando vamos de turistas a regiones donde el acento es diferente al nuestro. A los colombianos tambien nos cobran mas cuando vamos a Cartagena, un robadero insufrible. Usted, jaircortazar, tiene mentalidad de malandrin; de hamponcete de octava, como todos los que se expresan como usted. Usted produce verguenza ajena; en lugar de apreciar lo que el senhor Corrigan describe, de aprender que es lo que un extranjero percibe de nuestro pais, de argumentar sus desacuerdos de manera respetuosa y con razones de peso, se limita a la salida barata de insultar y caer en el facilismo de la xenofobia. Que el senhor Corrigan escriba en su idioma natal podria deberse a que sus articulos tienen como destinatarios a los extranjeros que hablen ingles. Si; estos articulos de opinion estan publicados en un periodico colombiano, cuyos lectores son, en su mayoria, de habla hispana. Y es precisamente por eso que este periodico se torna un poquito mas global. Pero pues no creo que usted entienda de eso. Usted entiende es de ‘dar papaya” y de “aprovecharse de la gente por tener cara de idiotas”. De esas bajezas usted es un gran conocedor! No pues! Que orgullo!

  2. First of all gringo… Fix the title of your article. Second, avispese papá. Se la montan por-pendejo. Third, if you want to share something it will be best to stop being so condescending. The voice of your article is not appropriate for a foreigner in a foreign country. Forth, is not a “tax” is being stupid. People see your stupid face; therefore, they take advantage of you. Use the proper word instead of tax. Last but not least, stop showing off! Is Colombia, gringoPendejo! Use Castellano! In the US, you people, get on our case if we speak Spanish. It burns eh?! Suffer!!!

    • beforechrist

      Gracias por su comentario Jair. Unos puntos. Número uno, no soy de Estados Unidos, pero yo sé que allá existe columnas en español en periódicos como The New York Times entre otros. Es por un accidente de historia que los Colombianos hablan español, entonces tal vez en el futuro el idioma podría cambiar (ver http://bit.ly/1TiFOb2).
      Sobre la palabra ‘tax’, estamos hablando de definiciones. Pero en cualquier manera, de vez en cuando unos Colombianos cobran nos extranjeros más, sólo porque somos del exterior.
      Y no puedo ver tu cara, tu puedes ver la mía. Quizás tu cara es tan “estúpida” como la mía.
      Feliz día Señor.

  3. juanitatoroo0525

    You’re almost right, perhaps I focused in the title -Colombia’s gringo tax- but same thing happens even in same North America (don’t say anything) I’m both Canadian-Colombian with a very Colombian face and one day the waiter told us: are you from here or visitors? because percentage applies different! So… racial profiling is everywhere as all kinds taxes are. I’m crying with you 🙁

    • beforechrist

      Not sure if you get the point Juanita. We’re not talking about official taxes, we’re talking about charging some people more for certain items just because there is a belief that those people, mostly foreigners, have more money and thus won’t mind paying more.

  4. filipus396919

    Curioso que se sorpenda por algo tan estupido, por ejemplo, cabe recordarle a este gringo que en su pais de origen, los extranjeros nacidos alli no tienen nacionalidad hasta sus 21 anios y que por ende deben pagar mas de 20mil euros por la educacion UNIVERSITARIA, mientras que los “irlandeses” blancos no pagan nada… manda huevo gringo

  5. Maybe you’d get a difference response and avoid being ripped off if you show them you’re trying to be a part of Colombia, as a Colombian; that from the top of my head would involve learning Colombian Spanish, get to know the people, Colombians appreciate and live on friendships, on laugh, on jokes.
    This behaviour towards foreigners is not a Colombian thing, nor it happens soly in touristically unexploited countries, it happens absolutely everywhere, from the richest nations of our planets to the poorest. The trick is how to deal with it; so will you whine and create a bad generalisation of your new home country or will you learn how to handle the situation?. Stay positive.

    • beforechrist

      I speak ‘Colombian’ Spanish and once people get to know me here, they generally like me and treat me with respect (I socialise regularly in La Perseverancia for example, and I’ve no problems there). Unfortunately for some, once they see a foreign face they feel the need to charge more. They just can’t help themselves …

  6. I am Colombian and I always ask for the price before committing. This is a golden rule, specially if dealing with a shoe polisher, they may charge you more than the market price for brand new shoes.

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