Colombia is a country with a pretty horrendous reputation. It is known worldwide as the world’s biggest producer of cocaine. It has been embroiled in a complicated and bloody civil conflict for more than fifty years. It is renowned for violent crime and corruption. And the recent TV series Narcos, which dramatises the story of infamous druglord Pablo Escobar, hasn’t exactly helped Colombia’s international image. But in spite of all this, expats (including Australians) are moving to Colombia like never before.
In 2016 the country brokered an historic peace agreement with the rebel FARC group, and things are starting to look up. The security situation has improved hugely and tourism is taking off at a dizzying rate. Colombia is full of incredibly beautiful landscapes, from part of the Amazon jungle, to the lush green eje cafetero (coffee-growing region), to the sparkling beaches of the Caribbean coast, to the whale-watching areas of the Pacific coast. Dynamic and cosmopolitan cities like Medellín are drawing people in with great weather, vibrant culture and a very cheap cost of living. If you’re considering moving to Colombia, here is some basic information to get you started.
Colombians are generally very friendly and open people. They are often very interested to talk to foreigners and find out how they came to be in Colombia, although perhaps this is lessening over time as more and more expats and tourists flood in.
Colombian people are usually polite and quite formal. They will often say a general ‘buenos días / buenas tardes / buenas noches’ (‘good morning’ / ‘good afternoon’ / ‘good evening’) to everyone when entering a room. Two women or a woman and a man usually greet each other with a hug and a light cheek kiss, and man greet each other with handshakes, or a hug between friends.
You will notice that the vast majority of people living in Colombia, even those who have very little money, care a lot about their appearance and hygiene. Colombians are usually neat and well-presented. They take care of their hair and fingernails and often wear a lot of perfume/cologne. Many women wear quite elaborate makeup and dress in a very traditionally ‘feminine’ way. Oral hygiene is very important, too. I have noticed that many of my Colombian colleagues brush their teeth after every meal.
Another thing to know about Colombian people is that they can be very direct and matter of fact in a way that can seem decidedly non-PC, but it is usually not meant to be offensive. For example, they will call an overweight person ‘gordito/gordita’ to their face. It basically means ‘fatty’, but it’s actually a term of endearment. Black people are often referred to as ‘negrito/negrita’ (the diminutive form of the word ‘black’), pretty much all East Asian people are called ‘chino/china’ (Chinese), and blonde people will get used to hearing themselves proclaimed a ‘mono/mona’ (this literally means ‘monkey’). These names are all usually signs of affection, not rudeness.
Catholicism is a very prominent part of Colombian culture. The majority of Colombians describe themselves as Catholics, but the degree to which they practice their religion varies greatly. That said, you will see religious imagery everywhere in Colombia and some people may ask you about your religion.
Cost of living in Colombia
The cost of living in Colombia is generally very low in comparison to Australia. The currency of Colombia is the Colombian peso (COP), and the current exchange rate is around 2,300 COP = 1 AUD. Rent, food, utilities and services are all reasonably priced. There are just a few things that could be the same price or even slightly more expensive than they would be in Australia, for example contact lenses, prescription medication and medical care (if you pay for private healthcare in Colombia). Here are some sample prices to give you an idea of what you might spend (living in Medellín, the most popular expat city, and as a couple). All prices are in AUD.
- Monthly rent for unfurnished one bedroom apartment in a nice neighbourhood: Around $600 – $900 (depends on facilities, how modern the apartment is and which neighbourhood)
- Monthly rent for furnished room in a share apartment in a nice neighbourhood: Around $280 – $350
- Generous monthly grocery budget for two people (can easily be much lower): $300
- Monthly gym membership: $26
- Typical monthly mobile phone bill for data and calls: $25
- Weekly cleaning service: $30
- Regular visit to an English-speaking GP: $35
- 1 trip on the metro or a bus: 88c
- Coffee at a nice café: $2.50
- Hair trim at a simple salon: $5
In Colombia, Spanish is the primary language. There are a number of Indigenous languages which are also spoken in some areas, but you aren’t likely to come across them very often. If you are going to live in Colombia you absolutely need to be able to communicate in Spanish. It doesn’t need to be fluent before you go, but you should at least know the basics. Very few people speak English, so it is quite difficult to get by and to connect with the local culture without speaking any Spanish. You might also like to spend some time researching Colombian Spanish, as it is distinctive and also varies greatly by region in terms of accent and slang.
Colombia’s healthcare system is not as bad as you might think. If you are hired by a Colombian company you will be affiliated with the public health system through which you can visit a doctor, dentist or optometrist for only $1.28 per visit. Tests and medications are also heavily subsidised. However, I have found that the public system usually involves a huge amount of waiting and the service provided is not of a very high quality. As such, you will probably find yourself paying for private healthcare. Private healthcare in Colombia is usually of high quality and similar to the service you would expect to receive at home. The cost will depend on what you need – sometimes it’s cheaper than Australia and sometimes it’s more expensive. In major cities with a lot of expats you should be able to find English-speaking healthcare professionals without too much trouble. You can often find recommendations in expat Facebook groups.
Safety and security
There are a few parts of Colombia that are still considered quite unsafe to travel to, but not many. You can find more detailed information at http://smartraveller.gov.au/Countries/americas/south/Pages/colombia.aspx. However, it should be noted that some of the Smart Traveller warnings can be a little overzealous. For example, it states that travellers should reconsider their need to go to the entire Antioquia department, excluding Medellín. This is a bit much, as there are several parts of Antioquia that are outside Medellín but also perfectly safe and very popular tourist spots, for example the small towns of Jardín and Guatapé. But of course other advice, like steering clear of the border with Venezuela, is completely valid and should be followed.
In general, moving to Colombia is now quite safe. The most likely security threat that expats and visitors will face is petty theft, which is quite common in most parts of Latin America. Armed robberies are possible too, but not really commonplace. I’ve lived in Colombia for about six months and it’s never happened to me or anyone I know. Basically, as with anywhere in the world, you need to be aware of your surroundings and use common sense. For example, it’s not a good idea to flash expensive electronics, jewellery or large amounts of cash around in public. Colombians like to use the expression ‘no dar papaya’ (‘don’t give papaya’) to advise people to not give others opportunities to take advantage of them.
Women, especially those with pale skin and hair, will likely be confronted by street harassment on a regular basis. Colombia has quite a machista (sexist) culture and most men aren’t shy about making sleazy comments and gestures to women in public. While it can certainly be very frustrating and uncomfortable, ignoring it and walking away usually stops it. I’ve never experienced anything more than verbal harassment in Colombia, but I know other women who have, so it’s important to be aware of this (although obviously this same warning could be given for pretty much any country in the world).
There’s a reason why Colombia has become such a popular choice for expats. The beautiful places, friendly culture and low cost of living make it a wonderful place to be. And despite what certain TV series would have you believe, the safety issues are now fairly minimal.
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