What it’s Like to Live in Colombia
This post will show you what living in Colombia is like.
- Living conditions
- and more!
Let’s check out Colombia!
My first attempt at living in Latin America was a trip to Costa Rica in 2016. Long story short, the nature in Costa Rica is pristine, wild and stunning. That’s because outside of the tourist areas that are more expensive than parts of North America, the country isn’t that developed. I had to drive into the jungle at night to get a WiFi signal so I could work only to be chased by a pack of wild dogs. Great for a story, not great for maintaining my business.
Fortunately, a friend of mine was happily living in Medellín, Colombia and encouraged me to check it out.
I did, and it was one of the better places I’ve lived.
Colombia has a burgeoning finance sector and a large group of highly-educated people. It also has a lot of poverty and crime, which weren’t much of a problem for me. On the whole, Colombians are some of the most inclusive and welcoming people I’ve encountered.
I had multiple conversations with friends abroad while I lived there that went like this:
- Friend: “Are you in Colombia?”
- Me: “Yes”
- Friend: “Are you OK?”
- Me: “Yes”
- Friend: “OK, I’m going to visit”
I spent nearly 5 months in Medellín and had an unforgettable time exploring the beautiful country and taking shorter trips to Peru.
Colombia has a turbulent yet fascinating history. To understand the country, it helps to know a bit about their past.
It was known as the “Gateway to South America” and rumored to hide El Dorado by the Spanish who were astonished by the wealth of the people.
Colombian geography is as diverse as its people. The country is dominated in the center with volcanic mountains and the Andes covered with snow, tropical beaches to the north and east, desert in the north and grasslands in the east.
Since Colombia is the gateway to South America, it’s believed to be the route humans first traveled through to populate the continent. While the Incans to the South built a massive empire, Colombia was inhabited by many independent indigenous groups. This might be explained by the extreme climates and mountains that make governing difficult.
Although Colombia was named after Christopher Columbus, he never actually made it there. One of his men, Alonso de Ojedo was the first to explore the territory. Colombia became one of the most frequently explored regions by the Spanish thanks to its vast riches and rumors that it hid “El Dorado”. This led to the area being rapidly mapped and colonized. Fighting even broke out between the various factions of explorers over control of the area.
In 1564, the Spanish crown established the Presidencia del Nuevo Reino de Granada which was the first formal colony. This system of government evolved and grew to control Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela in 1717. In the meantime, Cartagena was given the privelage of being the only slave port in the country. So many Africans were brought into Colombia that they outnumbered the indigenous people after a few hundred years. The Spanish mixed with both Blacks and Natives giving rise to numerous ethnic groups.
Like with the United States, the people became tired of being taxed by a monarchy and had numerous revolutions until Simon Bolivar eventually won their independence forming a country with Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. (there’s a fascinating part about Napoleon’s brother being made king of Spain which fueled the revolt) Unlike the United States, slaves were emancipated in 1851, a few decades after independence was won.
Two main political factions formed, federalists and centralists which evolved into liberals and conservatives. There were 8 civil wars in the next hundred years and a lot of violence. Over time, it became clear that governing vast territory with difficult terrain was not realistic. Venezuela and Ecuador broke off while the U.S.A., seeing the political turmoil, instigated a succession in Panama and built a canal. They paid reparations to the Colombian government later.
Things only got more complicated with the production of cocaine accelerating the rise of drug cartels that still have a hand in the government today. Even now, Liberals and Conservatives are raised partisan from birth and taught to be distrustful of each other.
This post is based on my experiences as an off-white westerner who has been living abroad since 2006. How you’re treated depends on who you are, how you behave and which street you’re on. Experiences may vary.
Living conditions in Colombia
- Weather is fantastic most of the year in Medellín, even though it’s close to the equator. This is because it sits at 1,495 m (5,000 ft in freedom units) elevation. You’ll need a few days to get used to this but eventually I was hiking up mountains like I was born there. Things get a bit hotter on the coast and throughout the country.
- Internet is fast enough in Medellín but can get a bit spotty. It took a few phone calls to get things up and running and then it wasn’t much of a problem.
- Transportation in Colombia is pretty good. They have cable cars to help people in the hills get to work in the city. You can also call taxis and Ubers, but they don’t always come.
- Safety can get be a concern in some areas. Poorer neighborhoods are generally in hills surrounding Medellín. Street crime does happen, but I didn’t personally experience it. There are armed guards patrolling some areas. Always be aware of your surroundings and you’ll be fine.
- Water is rumored to be cleaner than the tap in L.A. I still boiled it just to be sure, but I didn’t have problems.
- Sanitation is not as bad as it is in parts of Southeast Asia. Expect some air pollution in larger cities, but nothing close to the levels of Bangkok.
- Groceries aren’t of the best quality outside of local markets. Even though there is online shopping, it can be inefficient, even if you are fluent in Spanish. It took me an hour to set up an account.
Like in all countries with great wealth disparity, living conditions will vary. I stayed in Poblado and Envigado which are very much in the expat/professional bubble. I found housing to be nice once you avoided the expat dude bro complexes.
The gym I went to was in the Oviedo Building, which Pablo Escobar built to spite the mall owners across the street, who rejected his investments. (there are many stories like this than only locals can tell you.) It had the most attractive women I’ve ever seen in my life working out in spandex and full makeup. I had to go early in the morning when there were less attractive women, so I could concentrate. It was definitely an unexpected turn of events.
Coffee quality is out of control, since they grow amazing varieties in the country. Local style cafes didn’t do much with the coffee other than add sugar, because Colombians export most of what they grow. In trendy areas, you can get third-wave style coffees. Cafes are super nice with all types of drinks and interiors.
Nightlife was among the best I’ve experienced in terms of the energy and positivity of the people. I went to a few clubs and bars and people were dancing, singing and generally enjoying life. Even though dancing may look a bit provocative to outsiders, it doesn’t have the same sexual connotation as it does in more conservative countries. People can dance with each other and it doesn’t always escalate from that.
You will be approached a few times a day to buy Medellín style hats called Paísas, “gum” and random men asking for money. Drugs are decriminalized and can found pretty easily. There are also many indigenous women with children on the street selling beads.
Expect to walk up steep hills if you live in Medellín .
There’s a large homeless area near the central district that’s quite intimidating, even in a taxi. Drugs and poverty are very much on display.
Laureles is also a decent place to live with much lower rents and a more authentic experience.
Housing is not so bad in Medellin. Condos are spacious and new on average. Most places come with a balcony with incredible views. I tried to get a real estate agent to do a long-term rental, but it’s hard for expats to do this without a local to vouch for them.
Colombian food itself is not the height of culinary innovation. It is cheap, healthy and filling. Perfect to give you the energy to work in the fields all day or on a laptop in my case.
They serve cilantro, massive avocados, limes, and chilis separately. All you need to do is combine them to make guacamole. I did this a few times much to the chagrin of the locals.
Colombian people eat massive meals and smaller snacks multiple times a day. My theory is that since they’re very active and the food isn’t processed and contains high fiber, so obesity isn’t that big of a problem.
Meat quality fluctuated a lot in restaurants and high end supermarkets. I recommend going vegetarian or finding a nice independent butcher. When you call a restaurant or any business, it’s not a sure thing that someone will answer. If you can laugh this off, you’ll be fine.
There’s a saying that goes, “you get three Colombians in a room, you’ve got a party. The hardest part is getting them there at the same time”. This speaks volumes about the people and what to expect.
There are all types of course. I had the privilege to meet IT specialists and financiers. They might be considered introverted in their country, but they would be the life of the party elsewhere.
I got more people warning me on the subway not to take out my phone, than people trying to rob me. They’re that eager to help.
Crime does happen. On the street I walked to the gym every morning, someone was gunned down in a taxi. The media says it was drug-related, but you never know. One thing I never did is fight with taxi drivers and the kids selling “gum” on the street. Other than avoiding those and trying to become a drug kingpin, you’re all good.
Men will flirt with any girl you’re with. This is socially acceptable, and not considered rude. Women will also hold onto their man tighter when they come across an attractive woman. It’s all very fun and charming.
Paísas in Medellín have funny expressions and hand gestures to denote different situations. Even though I speak Spanish well enough, it took me some time to understand their dialect, since it tends to be fast and somewhat muffled.
The first night I moved into my building, I had a housewarming party on the roof. An adjacent group of locals and Venezuelans were having their own party. They actually invited us to join and fed us empanadas and Ron (rum). We had a great time eating, drinking and dancing the night away. Long story short, people can be really great in Colombia.
Personal hygiene is a big deal in Colombia and pretty much everyone wears clean clothes, showers in the morning and smells amazing, even when it’s hot and humid. A Colombian I met chided me for not showering before I went to the gym in the morning. I felt bad in some of the trendy cafes where unwashed backpackers mixed with well-groomed locals, some of which had to switch tables to avoid the smell.
Cost of living
Things are not that cheap in the expat bubble. I lived in some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country. You can get away with cheaper, but your quality of living will change.
Decent housing can be found for $1,000 USD a month. You can have amazing authentic local meals for under $4 USD though.
$1,000 USD to $2,000 USD a month depending on where you live.
The countryside has every type of biome you could hope for.
Medellín has tall apartment building flanked by hills.
Bright and diverse colors adorn the sides of buildings all over the country. This can be traced back to the indigenous people and their use of different colors.
You can be at a 5-star restaurant and sometimes see a homeless man relieving himself across the street.
You’ll see men with shotguns practicing poor muzzle control in front of banks and nicer condos.
Expect to see a lot of Botero sculptures all over the place.
You’ll hear the lively celebrations of the many soccer league matches (I gave up trying to figure out which match in which league was one each night, but it seemed to be a lot). People enjoy a night out.
Music is heard all throughout the city and it will make you dance. It’ll be hard to find quiet in some areas, but the people are having so much fun, it’s hard to stay mad.
There were massive developments while I was there, so expect to hear some construction noise in most places.
Cafes can be quiet if you need a place to work.
Lots of fresh laundry, tropical fruits, diesel and grilled meat.
Things to do
Learn salsa dancing the right way.
Go watch a soccer match live, even if you’re not a fan. The energy is great.
Ride a Metrocable car up into the hills and check out the views.
Check out Guatapé and hike up Peñol.
Go to the Salsa capital of the world in Cali.
Experience one of the many nightclubs.
Shop at a farmer’s market for some great deals on fresh produce.
Try one of the many exotic fruits. They have types you’ve never heard of.
Difficulty: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)
It helps to have some Spanish skills and some experience in dicey places.
Live: ★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)
Lots of value for what you pay in terms of housing and food. It’s great for single people and solo travelers who want to meet someone. You will have a blast but have some frustration.
Visit: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)
Not as exciting and exotic as some surrounding countries, but you’ll find a lot of fun things to do.
Did we miss anything?
Colombia is great place to live or visit.
Let us know your Colombia tips below!