Is it really possible that we’ve been here for a year?
On Nov. 22, 2018, we moved to Medellín, Colombia after living in Boquete, Panama for 3.5 years. Our one-year milestone seems like a good time to pause and reflect on what we’ve learned, what we love/don’t love about our adopted home, and what advice we’d give anyone thinking about the expat life in Colombia’s second-largest city. And it’s also fun to see how far we’ve come since we posted our three-month check-in last February.
Here are the things we love the most after one year in this colorful, modern city on the go.
1. Medellín has the friendliest people on the planet.
With just a few exceptions, each encounter we’ve had with a Colombiano has been warm and helpful. Get on a crowded elevator, and just about everyone will say “Buenos días.” Same goes for folks sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. People are unerringly patient as we struggle to communicate using our baby Spanish. Taxi drivers are patient as we explain where we’re going, and many strike up a conversation. Our landlady has taken us under her wing, and we’ve made Paisa friends who have shown us a side to the city we’d never see on our own. It’s safe to say we’ve never lived in any other place with people this welcoming or gracious.
Take our typical morning dog walk. We ride the elevator to our lobby, and Luis the doorman (Tio Luis) showers our dogs with attention. “Cómo están, Señor Juan y Señora Susana! Rosita! Tango!” (Followed by lots of petting, rapid-fire Spanish doggy endearments, and sloppy kisses.) We walk down the street and we’re greeted by numerous doormen in other buildings, who know us and our dogs well. We pass plenty of other people, either with or without their own dogs, and it’s very rare that we’re not greeted with a “Buenos días – cómo están!” And quite often, someone will stop to pet Rosie and Tango and shower them with more love.
2. It’s always spring in Medellín.
They don’t call this the City of Eternal Spring for nothing. Just like the rest of the world, Medellín is getting warmer. It means the temperature rarely dips below 60° at night or rises over 80° during the day. Except for two rainy seasons, May/June and September/November, it’s consistently warm and sunny. This time of year, when our friends are up north shoveling snow, we like to say we’re shoveling sunshine!
3. Medellín y Colombia son muy económico.
The basic cost of living here is 30 to 40 percent lower than Boquete, Panama, which, of course, is significantly lower than the hyper-inflated economy of Southern California where we came from. There are a few exceptions of course – wine and liquor are more costly here due to higher taxes. This website has a detailed breakdown of the cost-of-living differences between Medellín and Boquete. Here are a few of our own examples:
- Our mobile phone service, internet service, and basic utilities are 25 percent less than what we were paying in Panama.
- The two of us can have a nice dinner out, sharing a bottle of wine, for about $35.
- A taxi ride is seldom more than $6, and that’s to go way across the city. For most of our destinations, it’s $2-$3 dollars.
4. Healthcare is extremely high-quality and affordable.
As legal residents of Colombia, we are required to participate in the public healthcare system at a cost of about $30 TOTAL for both of us. For just a few dollars more than that, we’ve been able to get all of our health checkups and tests done this year including dental exams and cleanings, routine cardiological testing, dermatology visits, and “lady stuff.” The only drawback is that the system is serving a lot of people, so there’s sometimes quite a long wait to get an appointment with a specialist.
Here are a few examples:
- Susan had an extremely thorough mammogram (yeah, ouch!) with ultra-modern digital equipment that rivals anything in the U.S. Cost: $5
- We both had dental exams and cleanings, and Susan had dental sealant applied to some of her teeth. Cost: $3 apiece, total.
- Because of his history with arrhythmia, John opted not to wait to see a cardiologist through the public system. Instead, he visited a private cardiologist. Cost, for initial consult and follow-up visit: $60. That’s sixty-freaking-dollars, for two appointments!
- At the cardiologist’s request, John had an echocardiogram and Holter monitor study done through the public system (he’s fine!). Cost: $0. Yup, you read that right.
5. Medellín is a clean, progressive, forward-thinking city.
Here are a few things that might surprise you, if you have some preconceived ideas about Medellín and large Latin American cities in general:
- The water is safe to drink. Medellín has a world-class water and wastewater treatment system that puts many in more developed countries to shame.
- The public transit system is second to none in Colombia, and perhaps in all of South America. We’ve written before about how the system of cable cars, escalators, street cars, and the Metro light rail system have transformed many of Medellín’s roughest neighborhoods. Every time we ride Metro, we’re amazed once again by how efficient and clean it is. The people are so proud of their system that you will never find a smidge of graffiti anywhere on a Metro car.
- Medellín has a very unique and highly effective recycling system. Monday and Thursday are trash pickup days in Laureles, and on those mornings an army of “waste pickers” descends on the trash barrels in our neighborhood. These people make their living sorting through the trash and pulling out the recyclables – plastic bottles, cans, paper, cardboard – and also cast-off items that they might be able to sell in the city’s flea markets.
The waste pickers really are unsung heroes. In fact, they are responsible for reducing the burden on Medellin landfills and making sure that plastic bottles and bags, two scourges of the planet, are sent to recycling facilities. Here’s a great article with a lot more about how the waste pickers are struggling for more legitimacy and inclusion.
- Medellin is a city on the go. Over the last decade, Medellín has piled up an impressive collection of international awards and designations for its innovation, forward-thinking approaches, and adoptions of new technologies to improve the lives of citizens. One of the very latest is a Newsweek Momentum Award as the World’s Smartest City. The video below has quite a bit more detail – to get to the meat of things, skip to about 5:15. Yay, Medellín – we couldn’t be prouder!!
6. The cultural opportunities are unrivaled.
Medellin is beginning to attract world-class cultural events and performance (exhibit A – the London Symphony and Yo Yo Ma, who both performed in the Teatro Metropolitano earlier this year). We savor those, but it’s the smaller, more local and more intimate theatres and shows that we’ve really enjoyed.
On one recent occasion, we bought tickets to see a performance of the Ballet Folklorico de Antioquia at the Teatro Pablo Tobón Uribe. Not knowing much about the performance, we were delighted to find out that it was the end-of-year recital for the ballet’s dance school. There were kids of all ages performing virtually every dance style you can imagine, with an audience full of proud family members dressed to the nines and bringing flowers for their young performers. It was a real kick, and we loved every minute!
7. Medellín is a great base for exploring the rest of Colombia and South America.
Over our first year, we’ve made trips to Guatapé, Santa Elena, and La Ceja – all towns within a couple-hour drive from Medellin. We’ve also ventured further away to Santa Elena/Tayrona National Park (blog post coming!) and the picturesque mountain town of Jardín. Even so, we’ve just barely scratched the surface of what Colombia has to offer. Medellín’s location is ideally suited for extended travel by car or local air connections.
Two travel blogs that we admire greatly (in fact, we’ve recently gotten to know the authors, who have all become fast friends) have recently covered their own trips through the hinterlands of Colombia. They are now our role models, and we’re looking forward to following in their wake. If you’re planning your own trip to Colombia, both of these blogs are great resources:
- Above Us Only Skies. Our great friends Nicky and Ian have done some fabulous blogging about their trip through Colombia. Here’s a listing of their Colombian posts.
- Lisa Dorenfest. Lovely Lisa and her partner Fabio have just completed a circumnavigation aboard their sailboat, Amandla. They recently made a stopover in Colombia, and Lisa covered their in-country journeys with lyrical writing and stunning photography here and here.
The Cons – and how we deal with them.
No place is perfect, of course. Here are our negatives about life in this bustling metropolis of over three million people.
- The language barrier. Unlike Boquete, where it’s possible to get by without ever learning a word of Spanish, a basic level of español is really essential here. Moving to Medellín meant immersing ourselves completely in an unfamiliar sea of language, customs, and local idiosyncrasies. The immersion has paid off so far, and we both feel we’ve made huge strides with our Spanish in just a year through our private tutor, various online resources, and just putting ourselves out there trying to converse with folks. We have a long way to go, but as they say here, poco a poco (little by little) we’re getting there. We will probably never be fluent, but we are getting more competent, and confident.
- The air pollution. Like other big cities around the world, Medellín struggles with air quality. March and April tend to be the worst months, when the air is affected by the change from dry to rainy season. On the positive side, the city is working on improving the air, and it will eventually pay off. At least 80 new all-electric buses are slated to hit the roads here very soon. There is a program in place to switch the taxis to all-electric cars. And the “pico y placa” program curbs cars on the road according to license plate number and rotating days/ hours. Now, if they can just do something about the smoke-belching diesel trucks and busses.
Summary: if you have breathing problems or are otherwise sensitive to air pollution, Medellín may not be your place. So far, we haven’t really noticed any adverse affects. We use air monitoring apps on our phones and stay in doors on the very rare, super-bad days.
- The traffic. It can be positively RIDICULOUS. We live in a slightly less-traveled area, Laureles, and we also don’t own a car. But we’ve come to dread the times when we have to take a taxi across the river to El Poblado, a much more compacted and congested neighborhood. It’s a matter of planning and making sure we’re not stuck in rush hour, when it can take well over an hour to go three miles. More than once, we’ve gotten out of a traffic-mired cab and walked the remaining blocks to our destination to avoid being late to an appointment.
- Petty crime. No, the Medellín of today is a far cry from the narco-terroristic days of the 70s and 80s. It’s highly unlikely you will be a) kidnapped, b) a bombing victim, or c) shot by a drug warlord. But it’s just like any other large city with a large income gap between rich and poor (in other words, any large city in the world), and petty crimes are on the rise in the more upscale neighborhoods.
There’s a popular saying here – “no dar papaya” – which basically means not to put yourself in a situation where you could be taken advantage of. Don’t walk down the street wearing expensive jewelry or a big camera around your neck. Don’t wave your iPhone in the air (iPhones are a big target for “snatch and grab” thieves on motorcycles). And watch your gear when you’re riding public transit. It’s all just common sense, really. Our friend Jeff at Medellin Guru has a much more detailed overview of crime and safety in Medellin – read it here.
One year as expats in Medellín, Colombia has taught us so much. Probably the most important thing we’ve learned is patience and understanding, especially with ourselves as we navigate an unfamiliar place and continue to make our home here.
Are you considering the expat life? If so, why, and what cities/countries are you looking at? What are your top criteria?