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Reporter's Notebook: Doing Business in Colombia

Colombia is a much safer place than it was just a decade ago, when crime and social disorder were still rampant. But Colombians haven’t forgotten the recent past — and take security very seriously.

During my trip to report this story, for example, I was driven to the Club El Nogal in Bogotá for lunch with the president of the Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce. As we pulled into the underground parking lot of the building that housed the club, a security guard with a dog on a leash checked our vehicle along with all others. We also had to provide security officers at the front desk with identification and inform them where we were going.

The media relations employee who accompanied me explained that many high-level business and government personnel came to the club. They had reason to be cautious. The building had been bombed about 10 years ago, killing 36 people.

Elsewhere, visitors usually have to provide their passports at the front desk of office buildings so security workers can enter the names of visitors into a computer. Metal detectors and X-ray machines are in most large office buildings.

Hailing taxis is another adventure. The taxis in Bogotá are, by and large, safe to hail off the street. But many Bogotáns take extra precautions. Hotels and businesses, for example, only use taxi services they’re familiar with or call for a taxi instead of flagging one.

After one business meeting with an attorney, I was discouraged from leaving until his firm had called a taxi for me. No doubt some of this concern stemmed from my being an American woman  traveling alone. When the car from the taxi service didn’t appear, I was reluctantly permitted to hail a taxi off the street — but encouraged to write down the license plate and name of the driver and email it to an attorney at that office. He also requested that I inform him when I got to my destination safely.

A few other things I learned in Bogotá:

  • If you don’t speak Spanish, hire a translator. Many of my business meetings were conducted in English, but it was helpful to have someone who could help me deal with receptionists who only spoke Spanish — and guide me through the grittier parts of Bogotá.
  • Use an intermediary. I called and emailed several businesses before I left and got either a slow response or none at all. Don’t take offense — this is fairly typical. It helps to have a Colombian intermediary — such as the Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce — that can make introductions on your behalf. Colombians can be distrustful of foreigners and each other.
  • > Do business face to face. One company that wanted to meet with me refused to do a phone interview when my schedule got too full to allow a face-to-face meeting. Colombians value person-to-person contact and appreciated the effort I made to travel to Bogotá.