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Retiring To Colombia

Cobblestones And Courtyards—The Best Of Spanish-Colonial Retirement

I appreciate few things more than the charm and splendor of a well-kept Spanish-colonial city. The plazas, the cobblestone streets, the courtyard homes, and the flowered balconies take you back to Spain’s grand colonial era in a way that just doesn’t happen with other countries’ colonies and architecture. And, fortunately, as a long-time expat and writer, I’ve had the chance to visit dozens of the best colonial cities in the Americas.

Among Spain’s grandest cities on our side of the ocean, I think Cartagena, Colombia, is the most beautiful, with a lot to offer the potential expat or retiree, including a unique cultural blend that combines the best of old Spanish America with the richness of the Caribbean. The courtyards and narrow streets are old Spain, while the bright colors of the houses add a Caribbean flair. The traditional Colombian cuisine on offer in places like Cafetería Bocaditos may be reminiscent of Madrid, but the women walking about with giant trays of fresh fruit balanced on their heads remind you that you’re on the shores of the Caribbean.

Cartagena is not only an example of Spanish colonial splendor, it’s also one of the world’s few remaining walled cities, surrounded by almost 7 miles of massive stone wall.

Plus, Cartagena offers a number of attractive beach areas that attract large numbers of expats. These beach areas are not in the historic center, but a few minutes away by cab.

Take a look at a map of the area to orient yourself with the layout.

Thinking more practically, the infrastructure in this area is great, with drinkable water, well-maintained streets, cable TV, high-speed internet, and a convenient international airport just minutes away. The city is located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, at the north of the country, a 2 ½-hour nonstop flight from Miami.

The weather in Cartagena is either warm and dry or warm and humid, depending on when you go. (May through November tend to be humid.) Average high temperatures are in the high 80s (31°C), with lows in the mid-to low 70s (24°C).

The neighborhoods of Cartagena offer the potential expat diverse choices, with something for most any budget. The first thing you’ll need to decide is whether you want to live in the historic city or the beach areas.

If you prefer the colonial city, then your choice is whether to live inside or outside the wall. Within the wall, you’ll find Centro and San Diego, the colonial sectors that are almost 100% restored and the heart of Cartagena’s tourist industry. The area is safe and attractive and also the Cartagena market’s most expensive sector. I saw a decent 1,200-square-foot apartment with nice city views selling for US$275,000 at today’s exchange rate, and I think this is about the bottom of the market for places I’d want to live. Prices go into the millions very quickly in this area.

Once you enter the sector known as Getsemaní (outside the wall but still in the historic area) properties become less expensive. When I first traveled to Getsemaní in 2006, it was run-down and dangerous. You had to be careful during the day, and no one with any sense went there at night.

Nonetheless, at the time, I reported this as a potential upcoming area, where a person with US$200k to spend could make a gamble on its future restoration…and turn a nice profit.

Today, even the New York Times Travel section is talking about Getsemaní, so its days as an undiscovered bargain are over. It’s become trendy, with attractive bars, boutique hotels, and popular night spots. It’s also become relatively safe. Of course it’s now more expensive, although a single home still can be had for about half the price of a property inside the wall.

The most popular beach areas are El Laguito, Bocagrande, and Castillogrande, all within walking distance of each other.

El Laguito is the most bustling beachside tourist destination, with an attractive area of cafes and restaurants. It’s quite popular with expats. The beaches are busy with vendors selling everything imaginable, from tablecloths to cold drinks and cigars. Women prowl the beach with bottles of lotion offering massages to both male and female beachgoers, while the occasional call girl strolls the sands looking for clients.

For a part-time beach home in the Cartagena area, the best buys are in El Laguito…where a 1,400-square-foot, four-bedroom apartment with a nice lake view might go for just US$125k…and an oceanfront, two-bedroom unit can be had in the region of US$150k.

Castillogrande is a high-end residential area with quiet, peaceful beaches and few tourists. The tranquil, shady streets are well-kept and lined with attractive homes and high-end apartments. Unlike in El Laguito, apartments here tend to be large (more than 2,500 square feet) and more appropriate for year-round living.

Bocagrande’s character varies between that of El Laguito and Castillogrande, depending on where you are. Although the distance between the two is short, the ocean side reminds me of a quieter version of El Laguito, while the bay side looks like Castillogrande.

One thing I don’t like about Cartagena is the tourist annoyances—the ever-present vendors trying to sell you something, the scamming moneychangers, and, at times, the numbers of tourists themselves. (Early-risers can avoid this by doing your exploring before 9 a.m.) In my experience, these annoyances are worse in Centro and the beach at El Laguito…better in San Diego, Getsemaní, the off-beach areas of El Laguito, and the ocean side of Bocagrande…and almost non-existent on the bayside of Bocagrande and Castillogrande.

Also, if you don’t like typically hot Caribbean weather, then Cartagena wouldn’t be a good choice for you.

But these things aside, as an expat in Cartagena, you’d have a super selection of lifestyle choices at different price points. You could be a part of living history in Centro or San Diego, immersed in the character of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You could start up a business or restore a home in the upcoming Getsemaní. Or you could settle on the nearby beaches, enjoying exciting, partying El Laguito…or the quiet elegance of Castillogrande…or somewhere in between.

Lee Harrison

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