After spending seven unforgettable weeks in Buenos Aires, I once again packed my bags and this time, relocated to Medellin, Colombia, where I ended up living for another two months.
Why Medellin? I was drawn to the fact that there was a huge digital nomad (pardon the douchy term) and entrepreneurial community there, thanks to the city’s high quality of life, low cost of living and friendly people. Medellin is also known for being one of the most creative cities in South America; many entrepreneurs from all around the globe move to Medellin to start businesses (I lived with three of them).
I certainly had my preconceptions about what it was like to live in Medellin, but not all of them proved to be accurate. So for those of you who are curious, here’s what it’s REALLY like to live in the former drug capital of the world…
It’s safe (really!)
Before I moved to Medellin, I had received my fair share of warnings. A lot of my friends and family back in the states thought I was certifiably insane for moving to a place that was once the drug capital (and the most dangerous city) of the world. One ex-colleague of mine relayed warnings to not go anywhere near Colombia, because the entire country was replete with drug trafficking, kidnapping and violence.
Rest assured, these warnings were nothing more than vast, unfounded generalizations based entirely on anecdotal evidence and stereotypes. Even just a little bit of research on Medellin shows that this is a far cry from reality.
Here’s my take on things: Like any city, it depends on the neighborhood you’re in. I lived in El Poblado, which is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Medellin, and felt like I could have just as easily been in a suburb of the U.S. All of the bars and restaurants were within walking distance from my place or a short cab (or Uber) ride away and I honestly felt safe walking home at any hour of the night.
But when I ventured out to other areas (like the slums, for lack of a better word), I definitely didn’t feel quite as safe. I visited Comuna 13, known for once being the most dangerous neighborhood of Medellin. Over the years, it has undergone a massive transformation; home to a library park, an outdoor escalator and some colorful graffiti art, the neighborhood is now liveable and relatively safe (at least comparatively). But I wouldn’t recommend flashing your belongings or meandering down any dark alleyways.
Bottom line: Like any city, you just have to “keep your antenna up,” as my mom always used to say, and be aware of your surroundings. But honestly, most of the time, I felt safer in Medellin than I did in the U.S.
People are very honest
I gotta say, as bad as it sounds, this one surprised me. Being in a developing Latino country (not to mention a city that was once the drug capital of the world), I would have expected the locals in Medellin to try and take advantage of gringos like myself whenever they could.
Au contraire. There was not one, but multiple instances, where I nearly overpaid by quite a lot (the Colombian currency takes some getting used to, okay?!). The taxi drivers/cashiers could have easily pocketed the extra money, but instead, they told me that I was paying way too much and gave me back the money I didn’t need to pay.
It’s cheap–but not THAT cheap
Compared to a city like Buenos Aires, Medellin is definitely cheap. And when it comes to housing, the dollar and euro go a long way. Because the city has developed so much over the last ten years, many of the apartments are modern and new and come equipped with pools, saunas and gyms.
Just to give you an idea, I paid $500 USD a month to live in a shared penthouse where I had my own private bathroom, desk and a queen-sized bed. The two-floor apartment had a large terrace with a big screen projector and a kick-ass view of the entire city, as well as another large balcony (which also had an awesome view). It also had a treadmill, which proved particularly advantageous due to the city’s unpredictable weather.
And for all that, I still think that I was overpaying a bit.
I found my place through one of the Facebook expat groups (so no, I didn’t live with any Colombians)–but Airbnb is also really cheap and honestly an option for long-term rental. When I went back to Medellin (on my way to Brazil), I rented a room in Poblado for a week and paid about $10 per night. The apartment was nice and fairly modern; I had my own bathroom; and my bedroom had a panoramic view of the city. Like so…
Yup, $10 USD a night for that. True story.
In Medellin, I was able to afford things that I currently wouldn’t be able to afford back home (or in many other places for that matter).
I never go to get my nails done in the U.S. because it’s not worth it to me to spend $60 to $70 on a mani/pedí every couple of weeks. But in Medellin, this was something that I could easily afford. I paid a total of $15 for a gel manicure and pedicure at a nice salon in Poblado (which would have cost me nearly $100 back stateside). Imagine what I would have paid at a “cheap” salon!
I also paid $10 for a haircut at a high-end salon in Poblado (something that would cost me a minimum of $60 in the U.S.).
We had a housekeeper come to clean the apartment several times a week, and each time, it cost us a total of $20 USD (so $5 each) for about six hours worth of cleaning. Given the fact that she worked so hard, traveled for several hours to come to us and had a son to provide for, I felt bad about paying her so little. I talked to my roommate about paying her a bit more, but he said that if we paid much more than the going rate, we would then become the dumb gringos who get taken advantage of…so alas, that stayed the same…
We also had a full-time chef, who came five days a week and cooked all of our meals (that cost about an additional $500/month per person for the food ingredients plus her services). As someone who reallyyy does not like to cook (at least not on a daily basis), this was a huge bonus for me.
Here are some of the gourmet meals that she cooked for us…
Your mouth watering yet? Ok sorry, I’ll stop.
Moving on…Uber and taxis are also very inexpensive. I never felt guilty about taking them because they almost never exceeded the cost of what I would pay in NYC for a subway ride. To give you an idea, a 20-minute taxi or Uber ride will set you back about $3 USD. There was one time (in Cartagena) where I think I paid about 50 cents for a ten-minute Uber ride…yet again, I felt pretty bad about not compensating the poor driver more for his time.
As for groceries, you will probably spend about $70 on a week’s worth of groceries, give or take, depending on what you buy.
What’s not cheap? Going out to eat. If you want to eat at a nicer restaurant in Poblado, you will probably spend just a bit less than you would at a similar restaurant in the U.S.
The medical care is amazing
The medical care in Medellin is inexpensive; the facilities are state-of-the-art and modern; and the doctors are generally top notch.
To be seen (and tested) by a good doctor, you will pay about the same without insurance as you would pay with insurance in the U.S. To give you an idea, I paid about $30 USD for a dentist visit, where they did a very full and extensive teeth cleaning. A procedure that would have cost me between $1,500 and $10,000 in the U.S. (an upper endoscopy) cost me $150 in Medellin.
If you’re looking for a doctor in Colombia, I recommend searching for one on Doctoralia.
And don’t be sketched out if the doctor gives you his or her Whatsapp number. It’s totally normal in Colombia (and all of South America–or at least Brasil and Argentina) for doctors to converse with their patients via Whatsapp. I remember being so weirded out by this the first time this happened and actually questioned the legitimacy of the doctor based on the fact that they contacted me via Whatsapp and not a regular phone call. But soon found that this is standard protocol in Colombia.
It’s really easy to meet people & network
I normally worked from home, but every time I worked from a coffee shop, I would generally meet other gringos/expats/travelers. On my last day in Medellin, I probably met at least ten different people (all gringos of course), some of whom I ended up going out with for dinner and dancing later that night. That’s how easy it is to meet people in Medellin.
It’s also inspiring to be surrounded by–and meet–so many ambitious and creative people. On my last day in Medellin, I was working from a restaurant and started talking to the guy sitting next to me, who was also working from his computer. Then the other guy next to me (also working) chipped in and goes, “I hear you talking about content marketing…I started a content marketing company.” And then revealed that he was one of the founders of Contently, a company which is pretty big in the marketing world and one that I was well familiar with. As a content marketer, that was a pretty exciting moment for me.
The digital nomad/expat community in Medellin is huge and all the gringos tend to know one other and stick together. To be honest, I didn’t have much luck meeting Colombians. I suppose like anywhere, it’s always easier to meet other expats and travelers than it is to meet locals.
It rains a LOT
Known as the city of eternal spring, Medellin has a pretty ideal climate. It never gets too hot or cold and the temperature hovers in the 70s Fahrenheit (mid 20s celsius) year-round.
The downside is that it is always a bit chilly at night (so not quite comfortable enough to go jacket- or sweater-free). And it rains (ie: pours) a LOT, which can get annoying if you are unprepared. I learned the hard way to always bring an umbrella (and sweater) with me wherever I went. Luckily the rain never lasts too long (generally only a few hours) before it’s sunny again.
Spices don’t really exist
If you like spicy food, then you’ll probably be disappointed by the food in Colombia, which is notorious for being quite bland and spice-free. You can also expect a lot of fried things, like plantains, arepas (corn cakes) and empanadas.
If you want food on the go, it’s often going to be food that looks like it’s several days old (and probably is), is cold (but supposed to be hot), and is generally just…not very appetizing. Like so…
But go to a nicer restaurant and the food can be pretty amazing…
Pollution is bad
Because Medellin is situated in a valley, surrounded by mountains, pollution can build up and get pretty bad at times, like during rush hour when there are a lot of cars on the road. Good news is that the frequent rain helps to clear the atmosphere. Also, if you live higher up on a hill, the pollution isn’t really an issue. Where I lived (in El Poblado), I didn’t notice it, but when I ventured out into certain parts of the city, I sometimes felt smothered by the polluted air.
The paisaje is breathtaking
One of the reasons that I wanted to live in Colombia was because I wanted to be surrounded by nature. And Medellin definitely turned out to be a good place for that.
I loved looking out of my apartment window and seeing green mountains in the distance and cows lounging in nearby parks…
I loved walking through the streets of my neighborhood and passing by streams, bamboo trees and lush plant life I’d never seen before.
I loved the open-air restaurants and bars and always feeling like I was amongst nature.
I also loved being able to hop on a bus and in 40 minutes, completely escape from city life and be surrounded by, well, this:
Can you blame me?
For mini outdoor escapades, caminadas (walks) and hikes, I generally went to Envigado (which is technically a separate town, but practically in the city of Medellin).
There are also many pueblitos (small towns) close to Medellin, which make for some amazing weekend getaways. During my two months there, I didn’t get to see as much as I wanted to, but I did pay an overnight visit to the colorful town of Guatapé (an absolute must-see).
It has a thriving cafe culture
Being a city full of digital nomads (again, there goes that douchy term again) and online entrepreneurs, it makes sense that there are a ton of coffee shops and places to work from in Medellin.
And unlike the U.S., where waiters and waitresses bring you the check practically before you have taken your first bite or sip, in Colombia (and pretty much anywhere else in the world, to my knowledge), it’s considered rude to bring patrons the check or offer them their check before they have asked for it. And in the U.S., waiters will ask you about a hundred times how everything is and if you need anything (which, in my opinion, gets so annoying). In Colombia, waiters will only come up to you if you summon them. In other words, you can sit at a coffeeshop or restaurant all day long in Medellin and not be bothered or feel pressured to leave.
And now, I know you’re probably wondering about the coffee itself…apparently, the best coffee in Colombia is exported. But it is still home to (hands down) the best coffee that I’ve ever tasted–Pergamino coffee. Located in the center of El Poblado, Pergamino Cafe is a great place to meet other expats and tourists–and the coffee truly is out. of. this. world. Like many of the cafes in Medellin, there are various brewing methods and beans to choose from, so there’s something for everyone. If you go to Medellin, don’t miss this place.
The locals are warm and friendly
Before moving to Medellin, I had heard rave reviews about how friendly the people were in Medellin. Perhaps because I went with such high expectations, I was a bit let down by the friendliness of locals. I imagine it has something to do with the fact that the city has received a massive influx of tourists and expats over the past few years.
But with that being said, I did encounter some very friendly people. On my first day in Medellin, I had not one, but two different cars of people stop me to ask if I needed help or a ride (and no, they weren’t males with ulterior motives…they were females). I did accept the first ride from two Colombian women (mother and daughter) and they drove me to a nearby coffeeshop.
And on my last day in Medellin, I had an Uber driver pick me up and take me to the airport. Except instead of dropping me off curbside and helping me unload my bags, as would have been expected, he parked the car, paid for parking himself (actually refused to let me pay), and then proceeded to help me take my bags to baggage claim and didn’t leave me until I was in line at check-in.
I had to get photographic evidence of whom is probably the world’s best Uber driver:
Not a bad note to leave on.
So there you have it. The good, the bad and the ugly of living in Medellin.
Verdict: With its low cost of living, temperate climate, vibrant community and excellent medical care, Medellin has a great deal to offer both expats and tourists alike.
So what do you say…ready to pack your bags?