“Don’t drink the water.”
This has to be one of the most commonly offered advice to a traveler going to Latin America.
Don’t drink the water?
THE water, in this sense, means that which comes freely from the tap.
This advice is not unfounded in many parts of Latin America is palatable only by those with the boldest of intestines — or those who have grown immune to the particular bacteria, parasites, and other little water borne nasties — but the reaction that many tourists pay towards THE water in this region is a touch out of proportion to the health risks that they actually take.
Yes, it is true, a travel can get sick drinking the water in Latin America, but not drinking it is pretty difficult to do. If you take showers, wash your dishes in the sink, use the silverware in restaurants, eat pre-prepped salads, etc . . . you are drinking THE water. It is my experience that consuming tap water should not be your biggest worry when traveling to Latin America: you are going to consume it in various doses no matter what. Good thing in most Colombian cities you don’t need to worry about this at all:
You can drink the water in the major Colombian cities.
Yes, pour yourself a fresh glass of water straight from the tap in Bogota, Cartagena, Cali, Medellin, and drink it down. It is perfectly safe.
When outside of the big cities in Colombia, check to see what the locals do: are they drinking the tap water or are they buying “purified” water in jugs, bottles, or bags?
When trying to find the answer to this question I aim my inquiries to people of the working class: those who could afford to purchase bottled water if they needed too but would not boot the additional cost if they didn’t. All too often, the middle and upper classes of Latin America will drink bottled water out of taste or perceived health preferences, and the lower classes will drink otherwise unfit tap water because they can’t afford the alternative. Going for the working class is your best bet to accurately gauge if the water in a particular place in Colombia is potable: if the workers in my hotel are drinking the tap water, I do this as well.
Another method that I use is simple observation: I know that if the majority of the people in a given place are consuming bottled water I will see it for sale everywhere in massive quantities and it will be cheap. In Bogota, bottled water is not overtly prevalent as most people are consuming tap water, and it is likewise a little expensive and does not tend to be immaculately displayed in supermarkets and corner stores. While on the coast of Colombia or in the small villages in the highlands big five liter bags of purified water are available everywhere for around $1. A simple walk into a corner store will tell you if the people in a particular location are drinking THE water, or if they are purchasing it in jugs, bottles, or bags. If you have any difficulty finding bottled water for sale for cheap in large quantities this is usually a good sign that you can stride up to a tap and pour yourself a drink.