You cannot be outside and be left alone for more than ten minutes. You will be accosted and sold to. As far as I’ve yet seen, they’re merely annoying (sometimes very), but never outright dangerous or angry when you won’t buy anything.
Several Colombians have, when I brought this up, explained to me that this is due to the currently high unemployment in Colombia (11.8% in January of this year, 2018, up from a 12-month average in 2017 of 9.4%, and that’s if you trust the government numbers which a lot of people here don’t) and consequent inability of these people to find any other work. This jives with what I’ve seen in that it’s almost always someone selling, almost never someone begging. Now, what they’re selling may be some minor trinket like a pencil or cheap laser pointer that, of course, almost none of the people they offer it to actually want, and yet they still (apparently) make enough doing it to be worth the trouble to continue doing it, meaning that a lot of people are buying things they don’t need out of sympathy for the plight of the person selling it, making it (to me) thinly disguised begging. This is not a criticism.
I generally feel that the majority of these people really are forced to do what they’re doing in order to survive. Most of the ones I saw in Bogota (Cartagena is a whole different story I’ll get to in a moment) were elderly, children, disabled, or single mothers with children. It’s not like in the U.S. where people like that are somewhere between a tiny minority and none of those who are begging (there it’s people who want money for drugs or are doing it as a side or even full-time job because it’s easier and/or more profitable than anything else they could do). Stories abound of people (in the U.S.) being seen, after a day or even just a few hours of begging, going to their new model Mercedes or BMW, throwing the sign with their sob story on it in the trunk, pulling out nice, clean clothes, changing out of their rags into those, and then driving off.
More specifically, what you see in Bogota when walking down the sidewalk is street vendors selling cigarettes, soda, water, chips (crisps), that sort of thing, who will approach you and ask if you want anything. At night you’ll often be approached by men with business cards to clubs where one may allegedly find attractive members of the opposite sex (“chicas, chicas, señor, ven acá”). When you’re sitting at an outdoor cafe (like Illy in Zona T which I patronized nearly every day I was in Bogota) is when you’ll be approached by the sort of street vendors I mentioned previously who sell all manner of trinkets and candy or offer to shine your shoes (suede doesn’t deter them, I noticed, they offer anyway). Illy is especially bad because of the sheer number and consequent frequency of this harrassment (I’m sorry, I do consider it that, it’s terribly annoying): you’re going to be hit up for money literally every 5-15 minutes the whole time you’re seated out there. It just doesn’t stop.
What surprised me was that all these cafes, bars, and restaurants tolerate this behavior and don’t remove them. They’re sometimes allowed even to enter inside (this would never be allowed in the U.S. or most other developed countries) establishments in order to sell things to the customers. I strongly suspect this is out of (understandable) sympathy for them because everyone who lives here knows how hard it can be to get a job and how sparse the government benefits are if you don’t have one (I don’t know what they are but they’re obviously somewhere between very little and nonexistent).
I don’t know how much of this is desperation and how much of it is just people trying to make as much money as they can by taking advantage of tourists, but the street vending here is much more common and they’re much more aggressive. You can’t go a single block without being approached to buy: a hat, cigars, a soda, cocaine (within 30 seconds of stepping out of my hostel for the first time), a meal at a restaurant (they all have people standing outside whose job it is to entice people off the street to enter), and on and on and on.
The situation with eating or drinking outside in a restaurant or bar’s patio area is even worse: you’re not just asked to buy things but people with portable karaoke equipment will approach you unsolicited and sing a short rap song based on your appearance (they complimented the shoes I was wearing and beer I was drinking, if you look American they call you Rocky Balboa or Tony Montana and say you’re from New York), then ask you for money. I’ll note, again, this is without any signal at any point by you that you want them to do this or that you consent to it. This is really irritating.
I’m to the point where I simply won’t sit outside here in Cartagena if the area is open to people on the street. I understand why they do it, I don’t (usually) blame them or hold them in any kind of contempt, but none of that makes it all any less annoying.
Photos and videos incoming.