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The good news is the locals are generally quite friendly, especially after a few hours of drinking rum and Aguardiente.
These tips are designed to break the ice for any first time partier or clubgoer in Colombia.
1. Girls dress sexy, guys dress clean and casual.
There's a lot of competition among women in Colombia, especially in cities like Medellin and Cali, to be beautiful. When it's time to hit parties and discotecas, the women put a lot of attention into their appearance: make-up, hair, nails, and what they wear.
The guys have it easier. A clean t-shirt (V-necks and large prints are popular), jeans, and a pair of Adidas will suffice for all but the most upscale (and expensive) discotecas.
2. Arrive before 11 PM to get a good table.
One of the biggest surprises awaiting most Western visitors is the complete lack of open space in the typical Colombian bar or discoteca. Most are full of tables and chairs, leaving patrons little room to move between them.
This is a reality of nightlife in Colombia, so the sooner you accept it, the better. While it might be harder to dance in these small spaces as a beginner (especially for salsa), you'll get use to it if you go out often enough.
Most discotecas don't fill up before midnight, so if you want to get a good table close to the bar or stage, then it's best to arrive before 11 PM, and for a few very popular discotecas, like Dulce Jesus Mio, before 10 PM.
If you're not good about arriving early to discotecas, call in advance to make a table reservation so they'll hold one for you. But, even when you do this, some discotecas will still require you to arrive early in the night, or you risk losing the table.
3. If you're a guy, bring girls.
Some of the more popular discotecas in bigger cities will not allow two or more guys to enter a discoteca without the company of at least one girl.
If you're meeting people inside for a party, chances are they reserved a table so you can check to see if their name is on a list. Otherwise, you can improve your odds by going solo, or arriving extra early, before the venue fills up.
4. Order by the bottle.
Colombia's nightlife is awesome for a lot of reasons, but the cheap bottle service is one of my favorites.
Most Colombians go out in pairs or groups of friends or family. Instead of ordering individual cocktails, they'll order bottles of rum or aguardiente. In Medellin and the whole state of Antioquia, the two most popular options are Rom Medellin Anejo and Aguardiente Antioqueno.
Splitting a bottle or two of these local spirits amongst friends or a date is a budget-friendly way to enjoy your night. Various sodas, such as Coke or 7-Up, are only a few dollars extra, and perfect for mixing.
It's worth noting, many Colombians believe mixing rum with soda is more likely to result in a hangover the next day. As a result, they often drink the rum straight, over ice, or with a little water.
Aguardiente is always taken as a shot, though don't be surprised to see people drinking it straight out of the bottle by the end of the night.
If you don't like rum or aguardiente, bottled beer is another inexpensive option.
5. Keep an eye on your drink.
For safety reasons, it's important that you always keep an eye on your drink, or if you need to use the bathroom, take it with you or leave it with trusted friends (ie. not the random woman who, curiously, just invited herself to your table).
Unfortunately, as can occur in any country, drugs can be used to spike an unsuspecting victim's drink. Once incapacitated, the person is then robbed. As long as you stay aware, are in the company of people you trust, and don't drink beyond your limits, you should be fine.
6. Get to know the popular music.
The typical bar or discoteca in Colombia plays "crossover" music, which means a variety of musical genres are rotated throughout the night. The DJ may start with twenty minutes of salsa, and then transition to a few merengue songs, bachata, and then some reggaeton.
You may already be familiar with some of these genres, or perhaps none at all. It takes time and exposure to the various songs before you'll be able to start distinguishing one genre from another. But once you do, being in the discotecas becomes a lot more enjoyable because you'll have a greater familiarity with the music being played.
7. Learn the basics of salsa dancing.
Colombia's nightlife, as with much of Latin America, is based on dancing. And not the kind of dancing alone you may be used to in the USA or Europe, but the kind that requires a partner, a man to lead, and the ability to know which music is playing so you can dance accordingly.
All the major cities in Colombia have dance schools where you can take group lessons, or hire a private instructor. Salsa can be learned and danced anywhere, but you'll find the most salsa-specific bars and clubs, as well as the country's best dancers, in Cali.