Shortly after arriving in Medellín, I got The Fear. I barricaded myself in my tiny, claustrophobic Airbnb, binge-watching Narcos and compulsively reading up on the lurid crimes that still plague the former murder capital of the world. Every backfiring engine was a gunshot. Every taxi driver was scheming to deliver me into the hands of the paramilitaries lurking in the jungle. At the calisthenics park, I carefully guarded my water bottle, in case someone slipped in the scopolamine drops that would turn me into a zombie.
This paranoia wasn’t entirely the product of an overactive imagination. On a trip to the shopping mall, I couldn’t help but notice security guards toting shotguns with fingers hovering on the trigger-guard, or the mobs of masked riot police assembled in the park.
My salvation came, as it often does, through a basic grasp of statistics. Having internalised the fact that flying is hundreds of times safer than driving, I’m calm on bumpy plane rides: my instincts might scream at me that zooming through the atmosphere in a rattling aluminium tube 35,000 feet above the ground is completely fucking insane, but on this matter, my instincts are just plain wrong.1
Same goes for Medellín, Colombia: the perception just doesn’t jive with reality. Pablo Escobar has been dead and buried since I was in nappies; nowadays, his former fiefdom is no more dangerous than plenty of metropolitan areas in the United States.
Going by the murder rate, it’s considerably less dangerous than New Orleans, St Louis, Baltimore, and Detroit, and roughly in the same ballpark as Atlanta or Chicago.
In other words: if you wouldn’t give a second thought to living in, say, New York City, it doesn’t make sense to get in a flap about visiting Medellín. Like any unfamiliar city, you just have to exercise a little caution.
Paisas—the people of this region—have many charming idioms. The one you will hear most often is ‘No dar papaya’ (don’t give papaya), i.e. don’t make it easy for bad people to take advantage of you. While this would be considered the most callous victim-blaming in the enlightened west, here it’s considered good old-fashioned common sense.2
The Shocking Truth About Living in Medellín
There is something jarring about Medellín: how ridiculously friendly and open everyone is! Given the circumstances, this is really weird.
It’s not just the decades of bloody violence; recent enough that most everyone has lost family or friends. There’s also the crappy economic conditions: a minimum wage of ~$1 an hour; a six-day workweek; the worst work-life balance in the world:
Paisas would be entirely within their rights to be grumpy and frazzled and constantly on guard. Instead, they’re the warmest, most happy-go-lucky people I’ve ever had the pleasure of living amongst. I had many hilarious conversations with Uber drivers, shared gym equipment with face-tatted and faultlessly polite gang members, and was greeted with hugs and kisses by everyone from my landlady to the staff at my office space.
In six months, not one single person got frustrated with my terrible Spanish, or made me feel the slightest bit unwelcome. In six months, I only remember seeing one public altercation where anyone so much as raised their voice.
Obviously my experience as a foreigner in a mostly middle-class bubble isn’t representative, but again, it’s hard to argue with the general trend. Check out this graph I stole from Rob Wiblin’s twitter:
Latin American countries are clearly doing something right, and I’d like to figure out their secret. Quality of life here is much higher than the rest of the world, despite having ~5x less money to splash around than rich westerners.
Which brings us to the alleged point of this post: what’s the cost of living in Medellín? From a quality-of-life perspective, how much bang do you get for your buck?
As usual, I’ve kept meticulous records of every peso that passed through my sweaty paws in the last six months, and categorised it into average monthly expenses.
Medellín Cost of Living: The Breakdown
To be honest, I no longer think this cost-of-living breakdown is comparing apples with apples.
But it’s still a handy pretext for poking at various aspects of daily life in foreign lands, without having to resort to ‘Wot I Dun on My Holidays’.
This is not meant to be a prescriptive guide; only an illustration of what’s possible. All prices are in US dollars.
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Accommodation | Food | Transport | Alcohol | Internet | Co-working | Recreation | Tourism | Bank and Currency Fees | Visas | Community | Medellín for Nomads
Broadly speaking, there are three neighbourhoods you’ll probably end up staying in or around:
El Poblado (Comuna 14 on the map) is the oldest, the richest, and the most touristic. There are lots of gringos, a higher concentration of English-speaking locals, the best nightlife, the flashiest restaurants, and the highest prices. Personally, not my cup of tea.
Envigado (bordering Poblado to the south) is an independent town in its own right. It’s super safe, super ‘authentic’, and mostly unmolested by tourists. Longer-term expats love it, and I enjoyed my day trip out there. The only downside is it’s ~10km away from the city centre—one of the last stops on the metro—which is not so handy for activities in and around the city.
Finally, the Laureles-Estadio area (Comuna 11). This is the middle-class paradise I chose to call home: flat and walkable, lots of parks and greenery, and an abundance of cafes, coworking spaces, and restaurants. I lived in barrio San Joaquin, which is very peaceful despite being a few minutes off La Setenta, one of the main nightlife strips, and a short walk from the stadium and metro station.
As far as finding accommodation goes, I got lazy and used Airbnb—a short-term studio to get myself established, and then a long-term apartment for the rest of my six months. I paid a premium for the convenience, but it was still cheap as chips: ~US$600 a month for two bedrooms/two en suites, with a terrace and kitchen, and internet, water, gas, electricity, and cleaner all included.
(My friend Josh flew down from California to stay with me for a couple months, which brought the costs down in my breakdown.)
I was too scared to publish this until I was safely out of the country: Colombian food kind of sucks. It’s not exactly bad, so much as uninspired. They don’t really go in for seasoning here. Just big, bland mounds of plantain, rice, beans, and meat, uniformly fried or boiled.
On the other hand, it’s cheap and plentiful. Most places offer a menú del día—a set lunch with soup, main plate, juice, and dessert for $3 or $4. It’s not going to knock your socks off, but it’s filling and healthy.
As for the ever-present arepas (stubby corn pancakes), everyone agrees they’re pretty good when they’re covered in toppings, which is what I would call damning with faint praise. Have some faith in your product!
The good news is you don’t actually have to eat Colombian food, unless that’s your kink. I mostly cooked at home, taking advantage of the cheap and abundant fresh produce.3 For example, you’re awash in avocados: great big tubs of guac, avos bigger than your head. There are guys pushing carts around the streets screaming AAA-GUAAA-CAAA-TE!!! at all hours of the day. It’s a millennial’s wet dream.
The other good news is that Medellín is big enough and cosmopolitan enough to have plenty of ethnic food options, and all the milk-crate-furnished, mason-jar-sipping boutique eateries any hipster could wish for. I ate out pretty often, and conservatively, I’d say it’s about twice as affordable as the US.
Paisas are extremely proud of their Metro rail system, which has become a symbol of the technologically-advanced city. And so they should be! It costs all of ~2600 pesos (80c) to ride most anywhere on one flat fare—less still if you get a Civica card—runs on time, and is eerily clean: no torn seats, no stink of piss à la the San Francisco BART, no tagging, no litter.
The Metro network is also connected to four lines of cable cars. Now, up until this point in my life, every gondola I’ve ridden has been a tourist experience for which I’ve shelled out upwards of $20.
In Medellin, they built cable cars as commuter transport for poor people.
They’re integrated into the ticketing system, which means you can ride all the way up into the hills surrounding the city, admire the view, and all the way home for the princely sum of 80c.4
In the same fashion, they installed giant outdoor elevators in one of the poorest comunas to help people get up and down the hills. This won’t affect your daily existence, but it’s pretty neat.
While the city is surrounded by steep hills, parts of it are very bike-friendly. There are hundreds of public bicycles available from dozens of stations, which you can use for free if you sign up for the EnCicla service. Laureles has dedicated bike lanes, and even closes some of the main streets a couple times a week for the exclusive use of cyclists, scooter-ists, and rollerbladers.
For everything else, there’s taxis. Unfortunately, Uber was forced to pull out of Colombia just as I was leaving. This genuinely blows. It’s not about the pricing—the little yellow city cabs are perfectly affordable—so much as the safety and convenience. A bunch of apps have sprung up in the absence of Uber; I’m not sure which will emerge as victor.
The local spirit, aguardiente, tastes like aniseed mouthwash and apparently gives dire hangovers. Politely accept the proffered shot, then discretely toss it into a nearby potted plant.
Josh and I worked our way through every beer in the supermarket, and settled on Club Colombia as the best of the mainstream brews. The inferior lagers can be rescued by ordering them ‘con michelada’— muddled in lime or mango, and rimmed with salt.
Drug laws here are relaxed, which was also surprising given the history.
You can smoke weed or drink in public: this right was enshrined by the frickin’ Constitutional Court, motivated in part to protect the liberties of homeless people, who don’t have the luxury of a private premise to consume their mind-altering substance of choice. Mad respect.
You can also carry small amounts of cocaine and marijuana and only face confiscation and a fine (in theory). There’s a heladería in Laureles which openly sells ‘special’ icecream; I even saw some cops there, presumably picking up their free scoops.
The last couple of presidents keep trying to recriminalise personal drug use; the Constitutional Court keeps overruling them; it’s all a bit muddy and confusing and something I wasn’t especially interested in putting to the test.
Getting a SIM card is a little tricky. You need to show your passport and register your number, or it will abruptly cut off after 28 days. Best to do this all at the same time, while you’re in the shop.
I went with an operator called Claro, which worked fine everywhere I went in the country.
Prepaid plans come with unlimited messages/calls/social media but not much data: $6 for 850MB for 20 days, or $12 for 1.8GB a month. This was enough for me since there’s WiFi almost everywhere; your milage may vary.
(I have no idea how home internet works, since all my utilities were included in my rent.)
Medellín has aggressively tried to market itself as the ‘Silicon Valley of Latin America’, which is pretty funny. It is true that lots of Colombians work remotely or in small companies, and some of them in tech. This is great news for digital nomads, because it means there are more co-working spaces than you can shake a stick at.
I tried a few different spaces and was immediately won over by the lovely people at La Casa Redonda, who welcomed me like a long-lost relative, and would probably have donated me a kidney if I asked for one.
The main location in Laureles is chaotic and artsy and filled with dogs,5 then they have a more traditional space where I rented an office, and a third location I didn’t visit. The mix is something like 20 per cent extranjeros, 80 per cent Colombianos.
Co-working prices are in the vicinity of 700,000 COP ($200) a month for a hot desk; Josh and I negotiated a deal on a shared office.
If co-working isn’t your thing, there are plenty of cafes that are accepting of laptop lizards. The Juan Valdez chain, which is the local Starbucks equivalent, is a decent place to get work done. For whatever reason, Colombian coffee wasn’t consistently all that good (compared to Vietnam, anyway). Maybe they export the best stuff?
Parks and Recreation
As has been discussed, the city is surrounded by steep hills. If you’re feeling energetic, you can climb these steep hills. If you’re feeling really energetic, you can climb these steep hills, and then do a workout on top of these steep hills:
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As in Asia, there are calisthenics stations sprinkled throughout many parks, which makes me a very happy chappie. Seriously, why do western city planners not do this?
The outdoor gym by Estadio is my favourite. It kind of looks like a prison yard, with weights and bars chained to the ground, and is the training ground of the local Barstarzz-style crew. There’s also a big sports complex here with pools, a skatepark, and running track.
Other free or cheap park-like stuff: hiking trails, the giant iguanas and turtles in the Botanic Gardens, a decent little zoo, and a goofy but fun science museum (Parque Explora).
Taking the free walking tour6 around the central city is a good way to get your bearings. I’d skip the paid tours of the ‘gritty’ Comuna 13, where locals are outnumbered three-to-one by middle-aged Americans wearing fanny-packs, and just wander around by yourself.
Go to El Hueco (lit: ‘the hole’) to haggle for bargains, but be careful. I lost sight of my friend for all of five seconds, and she was swept away in the maelstrom. Legend has it she’s still wandering the labyrinth to this day, asking strangers if they speak English and tearfully replying ‘no hay drama’ when they respond in the negative.
The popular Parque Arví is a nice enough picnic spot, but it’s hard to find the actual hiking trails without a guide, access is sometimes blocked by police, and you have to walk along a road with no footpath to get anywhere. The cable-car is awesome though.
Outside of Medellín: you can drive (or bus) a few hours to get to a whole bunch of cool stuff: the pastel-coloured Wes Anderson set known as Guatapé, colonial Jardín, and Pablo’s estate Hacienda Nápoles, which is now a theme park surrounded by waterways taken over by his rapidly-breeding pet hippos.
There’s also a really big rock.
Bank and Currency Fees
ATMs—when they’re working—usually have pathetic withdrawal limits, and rip you a new one on fees. I think I might have found the holy grail in Scotiabank/Colpatria, which dispenses 900,000 COP ($265) at a time, with no fees, at a fair exchange rate. The two machines I used religiously were on the top floor of the airport, and near the second park in Laureles.
It’s hard (maybe impossible? reports vary) to open a bank account as a tourist. You typically need a Colombian cédula, which you’ll get once you have a proper visa.
Colombia has a very generous visa scheme, or lack thereof: you can turn up at the airport and get 90 days on arrival, then it only costs 60,000 pesos ($18) to extend your stay online for another 90 days.
You can’t stay for more than 180 days in a calendar year, but you could theoretically line up an entire year by arriving in June, bouncing out of the country on January 1, then immediately returning for another six months
This was the least effort I’ve ever put into meeting people and building community in a new city: partly because I had friends staying with me for four of the six months, and partly because I was focused on other stuff.
Despite being unusually antisocial, I didn’t lack for invitations. I think it’d be pretty easy to build a community here through all the usual channels: becoming a regular at a co-working space, gym, language exchange, hiking group, meet-ups, Tinder and dating apps, keeping an eye on Facebook forums, etc.
Medellín for Digital Nomads: An Undervalued Opportunity
Time to pit the challenger city against other places I’ve known and loved (e.g. Chiang Mai, Bali, Da Nang).
The pros of living in Medellín: weather is good year-round, infrastructure is better than most of Southeast Asia, air quality isn’t too bad, the people are great, there’s a decent expat community, and the cost of living is oh-so affordable.
The cons of living in Medellín: physical danger. I used to walk home at 3am through the old town of Chiang Mai while pleasantly sloshed; you can’t do that here.
Then there’s the language barrier. This is the first time in all my travels that I haven’t been able to get by speaking English and a few words of local lingo.7
Only about 4% of Colombians speak English, and that’s including the expats. Compare that figure to India (12%) or Thailand (27%). Heck, even China has a higher proportion of English-speakers than Colombia.
But this is a feature, not a bug!
At least, is was for me. I wanted to learn some Spanish anyway, and generally felt like I was getting too complacent. If Southeast Asia is the easy-mode sandbox for testing out living abroad, Latin America is the next level up.
When you measure the cost of living against quality of life, Medellín is a fantastic bargain. It’s only discounted because of a mostly-outdated reputation for violence, and a lack of entry-level ease compared to somewhere like Chiang Mai.
That means there’s a juicy opportunity available for those who are statistically literate, and willing to learn some basic Spanish.8
Having lived in nine countries across four continents, Medellín might be my favourite spot so far.
With that being said, I’ve just arrived in Mexico City, and have a pretty great feeling about it.
Maybe it can bump Medellín off the throne? Guess I’ll report back in six months or so.
- If you want to get a handle on this stuff—base rates, reference classes, relative vs absolute risks in daily life—I highly recommend Risk Savvy, which was one of the best books I read last year.
- The basic precautions:
– Take cabs at night, rather than walk, and order them from an app. If you hail a strange taxi on the street, you and your credit card might get taken for a ‘millionaire ride’.
– Don’t wave your iPhone around, wear flashy jewellery, or carry lots of cash.
– Use basic situational awareness, e.g, if your building doesn’t have a security guard, scan before you enter and exit the apartment.
– If you’re unlucky enough to get robbed, co-operate in full. In the rare instances when tourists are murdered, it’s almost always because they were a) mixed up in shady stuff, or b) resisting a robbery.
– Keep an eye on your valuables while riding the metro or in crowded markets; wear your backpack in front.
– Try not to look like a gringo. Colombians are black, white, brown, and every shade in between. OK, you’re kinda screwed if you’re Asian or a 6’6″ blonde with blue eyes, but otherwise you should be able to pass by wearing long pants, closed shoes, and refraining from talking loudly in an American accent.
- This doesn’t apply to meat and fish from the supermarkets, which is apparently terrible. I don’t eat meat, but I’ve been told that the Plaza de Mercado la América is where the good stuff’s at.
- Except the line to Parque Arví; see the ‘tourism’ section below.
- Paisas are crazy about canines, which makes me think there might be something to the whole ‘cat/dog person’ thing. Medellín dogs are absurdly well-behaved and friendly, and often accompany their owners to cafes, restaurants, offices, shops, the airport, etc.
- Recommended tip: at least 20,000 COP
- You could technically manage by using Google Translate and sticking to the tourist zones, but it would be a lot less fun/more frustrating.
- I only invested about 50 hours, which was enough to get to ‘survival’, then left it at that to focus on other things. If you have the opportunity, you should put in more effort than I did. (Medellín is an unusually good place to learn, because paisas speak unusually ‘clean’ Spanish, and mostly dispense with the tú/usted formality, so you won’t offend anyone by being overly familiar.)