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How to survive the Colombian markets – shopping tips

In Colombian markets, whether these be indoors, outdoors or  people selling on the street, mastering the art of negotiation is essential if you want to pay a fair (or perhaps less unfair) price for goods.


A typical market stall in Bogota

First things first: you either need to learn the numbers from 1 – 1000 in Spanish (not as difficult as it sounds) so that you can negotiate prices, or bring a calculator (or a phone which has a calculator app) with you to the market so that you can type in the amounts you want to offer.

A useful phrase you may find in your Spanish phrasebook is “Cuánto cuesta?” (“kwun-toe kwesta”) or “How much does it cost?”. A more Colombian way of asking is “Qué precio tiene?” (“kay presio tee-en-nay”) (“What’s the price?”). Note that the first price they give you is likely to be anywhere between 30% to 1000% (yes, 10 times!) higher than what they’d be willing to sell the product to you for if you negotiate hard, and in the markets they will usually say a price higher than what the product is worth, and then say that they will offer you a “discount” (un descuento).

For example, there was a guy on the street selling bracelets in Cartagena. The first price he gave me for a bracelet I liked was $25,000 pesos (£8.30/US$12.50). I knew this was far too high and I let him know. He lowered it to 20,000 (no), then 15,000. He grumpily accepted when I offered 12,000 before starting to walk away. A couple of days later I saw the same style bracelets being sold by another woman on the street for $2000 pesos each.. so even though I thought I’d bargained hard, I still ended up paying 6 times more than I should have!

Another example (also in Cartagena) was given to me by a friend; in Cartagena, you can pay for a horse and carriage ride around the historical centre for 30-45 minutes. You shouldn’t pay more than 25,000 pesos for this. My friend, who isn’t comfortable negotiating, got caught out – the driver quoted her 55,000 pesos for the same ride, and she offered 50,000 (£17/US$25)! I groaned when she told me this; to put it into context, you can get a half-day guided bus tour around Cartagena for 45,000 pesos!

How much to offer

A good guideline for bargaining in Bogotá is to start with an offer of 50% of the amount of the first offer that the seller makes to you; in Cartagena, offer 25% of the first offer! Shake your head a lot and look doubtful, and the sellers will drop their prices – use a calculator to help you haggle if you don’t speak Spanish. Obviously, some sellers are a lot cheekier than others, so if they’re really not shifting on a price, it may be that it’s a fair price they’re offering (it’s hard to tell if you’re not aware of how much things should cost).

Final Tips

Be cheeky, be confident and really push your acting skills to the limit! A good tactic, if there’s more than one of you, is to play “Good Guy, Bad Guy”; one of you will be really friendly and sweet, and engage in conversation, showing interest in the products, whereas the other will be quiet, serious, poker-faced and look offended when the seller makes their first offer. Keep a straight face and adopt a ‘no-sh*t’ attitude, while the “good guy” continues to smile and be friendly. Trust me, it works! Good luck!

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