What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Colombia?
I’ll be honest. Up until recently, the first thing I thought of was drug cartels – cartels so prominent that they were named after major cities such as Medellin and Cali. Just two decades ago, Colombia was a dangerous, lawless country overrun by crime.
That has changed. While there is still a drug industry in Colombia (there’s a drug industry in the United States too, if you hadn’t noticed), the government has made great strides with keeping it in check, and the decades-long civil conflict between the government and leftist and right-wing rebel groups appears to be coming to an end. (More on this later.)
In recent years, Colombia has appeared high on many “best international places to retire” lists, so in this article I will take a closer look. Fortunately, I have three friends who have first-hand experience with staying in Colombia, and they have graciously provided me with thorough, thoughtful inputs about their experience. One friend lives in Medellin permanently now, one spent a month last summer visiting Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena for an architecture Masters degree project, and one is currently spending a month in Bogota and will spend next month in Medellin.
All three friends report very favorable impressions of Colombia.
Let’s look at three of the largest cities.
Bogota is the nation’s capital and the business, cultural, and entertainment center as well. It has 114 higher education institutions. Bogota has many cultural venues including 58 museums, 62 art galleries, 33 library networks, 45 stage theatres, 75 sports and attraction parks, and over 150 national monuments.
It is located at a high elevation (over 8600 feet above sea level), so it’s cool even in the summer and it rains frequently. Since Bogota is near the equator, temperatures remain consistent throughout the year, with an average high of 67oF and an average low of 48oF. Humidity remains constant at around 76%. Rainfall peaks in the spring and fall, with an annual precipitation of 40” and 181 rainy days a year.
Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, is located in the Aburra Valley, a central region of the Andes Mountains. Medellin is important to the region for its universities, academies, commerce, industry, science, health services, flower-growing, festivals and nightlife. In a stunning turnaround as a result of improvements in recent years, Medellin is now recognized as one of the best cities in which to live in South America.
Like Bogota, Medellin enjoys consistent weather year-round, but due to its lower elevation, it is warmer. Daily highs average 82oF and lows average 62oF. Medellin is rainier than Bogota, with annual rainfall of 66” (also peaking in spring and fall), average humidity of 68%, and 224 rainy days a year. Because of its pleasant climate all year, Medellin is known as the "City of the Eternal Spring."
My friend who lives in Medellin loves it for its positive vibe. “Medellin is a beautiful city with wonderful people. It's modern and traditional at the same time. It's urban and very green at the same time. The people value time with one another and with family - this takes priority and it's wonderful. ”
Cartagena is a beach city on the Atlantic coast. Temperatures are consistently hot year-round, with an average high of 89oF and average low of 76oF, with 90% humidity, yet it is still a popular vacation spot. It rains less here, with almost no rainfall December through April. One of my friends remarked that the high-rise beachfront condos reminded him of Miami or South Beach. The main industries in Cartagena are tourism and shipping.
Air travel between these cities is inexpensive ($30-50), and it’s a 30- to 60-minute flight between any two cities.
Is it really cheaper to live in Colombia?
To find out, I turned to my favorite cost-of-living comparison tool, numbeo.com. I use Phoenix, AZ as a comparison point, because the cost of living in Phoenix is close to the mid-point for U.S. cities. Numbeo also offers comparisons for crime, health care, pollution, traffic, and overall quality of life.
Bogota is about 60-70% cheaper than Phoenix across most categories. Gasoline is 11% higher, but taxis are plentiful and cheap, so you may not need a car. One of my friends reported getting a haircut for less than $5 and enjoying full meals in mid-range restaurants for $6-8. Rent about 60% cheaper than Phoenix, but if you are thinking about buying a home, be prepared for a 12.5% interest rate.
Medellin is slightly cheaper than Bogota, with most prices ranging 60-80% lower than Phoenix. Rent, in particular, is anywhere from 16% to 60% lower in Medellin compared to Bogota. An interesting anomaly is that in Bogota (as in most cities) rents are highest in the city center and get lower as you move into the suburbs. In Medellin, it’s the opposite.
As a tourism destination, the coastal city of Cartagena is the most expensive of the three, with rent and gasoline being noticeably higher than Bogota and Medellin, yet still cheaper than Phoenix.
The quality of health care is on par with that in the U.S. Predictably, it costs much less. Average wait times for medical care are shorter, too.
My friend who now lives in Colombia confirms this. “I've been very impressed with the high-quality very affordable healthcare I've received at the private clinics here. I've received care in the emergency room/urgent care and the cost has always been below $100; usually it's less than $50. And the service and care are excellent and immediate. ”
An important factor to keep in mind when you consider whether it is cheaper to live in a foreign country is how often you will travel back to the U.S. (or whatever your home country is). Several round-trip flights a year will eat into the money you are saving.
What about crime?
I was surprised to see that crime in Bogota is now comparable to that of Phoenix. I live in a Phoenix suburb and travel to central Phoenix and other parts of town regularly, and I don’t consider Phoenix to be an unsafe place – any more so than most other larger cities.
As usual, many areas in any city are safe, while there are certain areas you should avoid, especially at night.
Crime statistics in Medellin are comparable to Bogota, which is remarkable considering that just two decades ago, Medellin was considered the most violent city in the world.
A big factor contributing to general safety in Colombia is the noticeable presence of armed police. As one of my friends states, “there are men in uniform with large guns everywhere, especially in Bogota since it is the capital with lots of important people there. It is very unnerving at first, but you kind of get used to it after a while. Colombia has worked very hard to stem the flow of drugs through the country – which still happens, but not as much as it used to – so security is very widespread and visible.”
All three of my friends reported feeling safe in Colombia.
A noticeable difference between the U.S. and Colombia is corruption and bribery – that’s higher in Colombia, although not nearly as bad as a couple decades ago. Most locals are used to it and just accept it as a fact of life.
Colombia’s Past and Present Struggles
Colombia has suffered decades of civil conflict and has long been a major producer and exporter of illegal drugs, especially cocaine.
The government, once considered weak, was opposed by leftist insurgent groups, most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as right-wing paramilitary groups, most notably the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which were set up by landowners for protection against rebels.
Thankfully, the government has become much stronger and the rebel groups are weaker. However, the rebels still operate in some rural areas where the presence of the state is still weak.
Representatives of the government and FARC have been in negotiations for three years, and are close to a final agreement to end their conflict.
The drug trade has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the illegal armed groups.
Many political leaders and activists have been killed during the years of conflict.
Common citizens, particularly those in rural parts of the country, have also been caught in the crossfire. An estimated 220,000 citizens have been killed during these conflicts, although that number is widely believed to be low.
Over the decades, an estimated three million people have been displaced by the fighting. They now live in “informal settlements” (a polite euphemism for slums) in the cities, where they have little access to services and education, and no job skills other than farming.
The contrast between the wealthy and the extremely impoverished (which is evident throughout much of Latin America) is particularly notable in Colombia.
Colombia has made great strides in the past two decades. Cities are much safer, construction is booming, and more international business is coming to Colombia. Younger adults are better educated, more connected to the outside world, and less bruised by years of violence.
It’s important to study the history of any country you are considering living in, in order to better understand its cultural dynamics and assess how safe and desirable it will be in the foreseeable future.
What’s it like for LGBT people?
Overall, lesbian and gay people are pretty well accepted in the larger cities. The country still has a way to go towards acceptance of transgender people.
Bogota has a developing “gayborhood” in the Chapinero area, including the only LGBT community center in the country. Bogota is also home to Theatron, a six-story club with multiple dance floors blaring music from pop to salsa to reggae to house. It’s all-you-can-drink and it can accommodate 10,000 people on weekends.
Medellin has a youthful population and is home to many university students, artists, and musicians. The atmosphere is pretty liberal, so it follows that it is gay-friendly as well.
Legally, LGBT people have gained nearly equal rights over the past decade. Constitutional Court rulings in 2007-2008 provided for equal rights for registered same-sex couples with regard to inheritance, health care benefits, and pension benefits. As of November 5, 2015, same-sex couples can adopt children.
In 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex couples should be entitled to equal marriage rights, and asked the National Congress to pass legislation before June 20, 2013, but the Congress has yet to do so. Until they do, same-sex couples may go to judges and notaries to register their union with the solemnity of marriage.
To illustrate the contrast between attitudes between the major cities and the nation as a whole, in a recent poll, 62% of those polled in Bogota favor marriage equality, while only 26% of the people in the country do.
How to immigrate to Colombia
Immigration laws have changed, and now immigrating to Colombia is pretty easy. If you can demonstrate monthly income of at least $950, you can qualify for a retirement visa. Processing your visa paperwork with the assistance of a law firm will take about three months and cost approximately $1,090. You don’t need a visa to travel to Colombia short-term.
Here's a PDF that helps explain all the different types of visas available.
Visa information on the Embassy of Colombia website
Visa information on the Colombian government website
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© 2016 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.
Very special thanks to Aaron Dewey, Don Hamill, and Sam Holdren for sharing their inputs about Colombia! This article would not be nearly as informative without them.
Photo credits (Some rights reserved):
Catedral de Gacheta: www.ipernity.com
Bogota skyline: Marcelo Trasel
Medellin skyline: Ivan Erre Jota
Cartagena waterfront: McKay Savage
Bogota street level: Robert
Medellin fruit market: CucombreLibre
Cartagena at night: Luz Adriana Villa
Two men: Ivan Erre Jota
“Informal Settlement”: Ivan Erre Jota
Medellin bridge: Ivan Erre Jota