I’ve been spending time and investing money in Colombia and reporting on those adventures for almost 10 years.
Still, people tell me I’m crazy.
You could find things to complain about in Colombia… as you could anywhere. However, safety and security—both personal and financial—aren’t among them.
What might you want to complain about in Colombia?
A few years ago, one guy who moved to the country wrote to me for months to complain about the toll roads he had to drive to get to wherever it was he liked to spend his weekends. At the exchange rate at the time, it was costing him something like US$10 each way to make the trip.
I responded to suggest he find another place to hang out on the weekends. Either that or accept the tolls as part of his cost of living and stop complaining about them… or move back home.
He wasn’t happy with any of those options.
The “Complaining Expat” is something to watch out for everywhere, but, honestly, I haven’t encountered many beyond this one guy in Colombia… especially in Medellín. The truth is there just isn’t much to complain about in this city.
Despite the ongoing negative impression much of the world has about Colombia in general and Medellín in particular, I’ve never been anything but impressed. Colombia’s economy is growing at a nice clip, the government has come to an agreement with the guerilla groups, and the infrastructure and services in Medellín compare well with (or could be considered even better than) those in any major North American city.
Two things that have most impressed me every time I’ve spent time anywhere in Colombia are the standard of service and the manners of the people. It’s not that “the people are friendly,” as you too often hear people in other countries described.
It’s that they understand the importance of the basic niceties that make day-to-day living so much more pleasant. Things like saying hello and good morning, please and thank you to people you encounter on the street and in the shops… waiting your turn in line… giving up your seat on the metro to the lady with the cane… and generally respecting the time and space of those around you as you move through the world each day.
Medellín is a city of more than 3 million people. In a city this size, you might expect the inhabitants to be gruff and rushed, but, in the decade I’ve spent time here, that has never been my experience.
A Complaining Expat might tell you that the locals are friendly because they see you as an ATM. I’ve thought that myself in some parts of the world… and I’d say it could be true in Colombia’s most touristed spots—including Cartagena, for example, where both Colombians and foreigners are harassed by ever-present touts peddling their tourist trinkets. This is not an issue in Medellín.
So the people are friendly, the infrastructure and amenities are First World, and the city and country are safe…
What are the downsides to Medellín?
A growing middle class that owns more cars every month and is generating more pollution all the time. Both the cars on the roads and their exhaust in the air are creating strains in this city at times. Medellín sits in a valley, where traffic pollution can get trapped.
Rain falls throughout the year in Medellín, which helps to clear the air, but some days the pollution can be tough to handle.
It’s a growing pain of every large city in the world, and the mayor is working on initiatives to address the problem.
When we’re in Medellín, Kathleen and I do our part to help by walking everywhere we can. While the city is large and spread out, we spend 99% of our time in the zone around our neighborhood… along the Golden Mile. Shopping, restaurants, movie theaters, and parks are all within a 5- to 30-minute walk. It’s one of the things we like most about our El Poblado location.
Some people might complain that nobody in Medellín speaks English. You can find more English-speaking service providers—attorneys, bankers, doctors, etc.—than 10 years ago when Kathleen and I first began focusing our attention here. But you won’t find a large English-speaking local population like you can in Panama City or even Paris.
That’s a good thing for anyone wanting to learn Spanish.
This will change over time, as many locals are taking English classes and English is being taught in schools. One language school we know that offers both Spanish and English instruction has more locals signed up for English than foreigners signed up for Spanish.
Some who visit Medellín complain that it’s too hot. For me, these folks fall into the category of the guy upset about the toll roads. Go home or stop talking about it.
One of the benefits of it being in the mountains near the equator is that the temperature in Medellín varies only a few degrees year-round. This city’s climate is one of the most predictable you’ll find.
Highs range from the high 70s to the low 80s every day, and the lows rarely fall below 59 degrees. If you think that’s too hot, you should take the city off your list. Don’t move here knowing what the temperature is going to be every day and then complain about what the temperature is every day.
One colleague likes to say that Medellín doesn’t have any bugs… and that he’s seen just 1 mosquito in his almost 15 years living there. While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, it is true that you won’t find many bugs in Medellín. The absence of pests and the cool evenings mean that many people simply leave their windows open 24 hours a day. No need for air conditioning.
No air conditioning means a low electric bill, which helps to make Medellín a very affordable place to live. The peso remains relatively weak against the U.S. and Canadian dollars, compared with my first visit almost 10 years ago. That means prices for eating out and groceries are a bargain in dollar terms.
Still, you’ll hear some expats complain about the high taxes on alcohol, which makes the price of a bottle of rum or wine as much as and sometimes more than you’d pay back home. Give up drinking or bite the bullet and be happy that most everything else in this town is a bargain.
No place is perfect and certainly Colombia and Medellín aren’t for everyone, but when you clear away the decades of negative propaganda about the narcos and Escobar (who has been dead for more than two decades), you see that Medellín is one of the best cities in the world to spend time in as a foreigner right now.