I was obviously there for the sex, at least according to the taxi driver who showed me around Medellín the first day of my first visit to this city back in early 2010.
That wasn’t the reality, but I understood the confusion.
Historically, Medellín has had a reputation as a sex destination. Prostitution is legal here, and Colombian women are beautiful. It’s these stereotypes that were, at the time, attracting a lot of guys my age to this city—the promise of a beautiful Colombian wife… or, well, sometimes, a shorter-term relationship with one of this city’s beautiful female inhabitants.
“If you were younger, it would be drugs,” the taxista went on to explain that first day I toured around. “The young ones want drugs… the older ones want women.”
He wasn’t the only person I heard this theory from. A female real estate agent told me the same thing, as did my attorney. But that was the “old” Medellín, of just a decade ago. A lot has changed since then. Let’s turn the clock ahead to today…
On my most recent flight from the States to Medellín, the makeup of Americans on the plane was noticeably different. Yes, there were some single guys, but there were also groups of young women coming down for vacation, families with young kids, and a number of “over 50” couples.
Medellín is very broadly appealing.
Every Sunday, the main avenue through Medellín’s El Poblado is closed to vehicular traffic and fills with people enjoying the brilliant weather, strolling along the avenue, biking, jogging, and walking their dogs. Among these Sunday strollers, you find both locals and foreigners from all walks of life, including more and more American couples with school-aged children.
You see more Americans everywhere you go in Medellín these days—in the wine shops, in the gyms, in the cafés, and just walking around town exploring.
Expat spots around the world go through a fairly predictable evolutionary cycle, morphing through a number of stages between their initial discovery and their maturity as mainstream destinations. The specifics of this evolution vary, but the general principles remain the same, as follows:
- Phase I, The Adventurer Phase: During this phase, the destination attracts people who will go anywhere, regardless of existing stereotypes or perceived danger. These include adventurers and backpackers, as well as sex travelers and those hiding from ex-spouses, pending lawsuits, etc.
- Phase II, The Early Investor Phase: During this phase, people with money to invest, who believe they see potential in the destination, begin to visit and to take positions. At this stage, there is little to indicate that the destination will boom, so these early investors are acting on their instincts and past experience. At the Early Investor stage, alternative publications are beginning to sound the alarm that a destination of note is emerging.
- Phase III, The Early Adopter Phase: During this stage, more investors come to get involved, as well as leading-edge second-home buyers, overseas retirees, and those who want to work from abroad or start businesses. At this point, the expats who show up are able and willing to adapt to the culture, learn to speak the language, and fit in.
Generally, real estate values continue to qualify as bargain during these first three phases.
- Phase IV, The Mainstream Buyer Phase: During this phase, the expat community is beginning to form a “critical mass” and to take on an identity of its own. By this point, some expats have blended into the local community, while others can begin to survive within the expat community alone.
Phase IV also brings opportunities for more entrepreneurs, who can count on a fair share of expat business for their survival.
Real estate prices during this stage move from bargain levels at the beginning to what I’d call “fairly priced” as the stage progresses. Early Investors from Phases I and II—at least those in it for the investment only—begin to think about moving on.
- Phase V, The Expat Saturation Phase: In this phase, the expat community can take on a life of its own and becomes a recognized cultural entity within the local environment.
This phase is also characterized by loads of opportunities for expat entrepreneurs catering to other expats.
Newcomers can begin to survive on their own, without learning the language or ever becoming part of the local community.
During this phase, property prices can reach premium levels. Early investors may sell at this point, and early adopters from Phase III probably begin to miss the adventure of those earlier times.
During Phases I through early Phase IV, most expats are adaptors and survivors, and most succeed in achieving the lifestyles they came looking for.
During late-Phase IV and Phase V, the expats moving in are increasingly what I would describe as just “along for the ride.”
They didn’t do much investigating or preparing and aren’t really willing to adapt. These folks can become resentful and unhappy.
Today in Medellín we’re working our way through Phase III and into Phase IV. Other emerging expat spots in Colombia, including Cartagena, Santa Marta, Bogotá, Popayán, and Cali, are all at different points along this scale.
To be honest, I’m surprised that Medellín is catching on so quickly with U.S. investors and expats. We Americans tend to cast our stereotypes in concrete and treat them as gospel for generations. And, in fact, I still get more questions about drug lords and Pablo Escobar than you’d believe.
Remember, Escobar has been dead for more than 25 years.
The fact that Medellín has taken on such broad appeal in such a relatively short time is a tribute to those many readers who have been able to discard an outdated stereotype in favor of a terrific lifestyle and a great value.
If you’re avoiding Colombia because you think that all it has to offer is women and drugs, then you’re missing out on what I believe to be one of the best lifestyle choices out there right now… at a time when the market offers great opportunity and your U.S. dollars go a long, long way.