Millennial Expats Moving to Colombia:
3 Cities to Live In
Globe-trotting expats are like pilgrims of the digital age. Ever since we’ve been able to take work out of the physical office, the idea of ‘work hard – travel hard’ has been a particular point of fascination.
The best way to learn is from experience, so I’ve made a point of traveling as much as I can with a trusty laptop under my arm and a backpack full of the basics. I’m not a digital nomad, but I’ve had my share of remote work, and I’ve observed as various destinations turned into expat hotspots.
There was a moment in one of the Colombian cities – the quirky Medellin to be specific – that I realized this country might just be the perfect expat destination of the moment. Any of these three urban areas are worth considering, so read on if you’re contemplating moving to Colombia.
In 2018, I ended up in Medellin, visiting a friend who was working there at the time.
On my first day there, I met up with my friend, and we had lunch at Palazzetto D’Italia Ristorante (what can I say, I’m a sucker for Italian food). After some catching up, we went for a stroll up to the Plaza Botero. Learning that parque (park) refers to a city square rather than the usual green parks is only one of the numerous interesting things I learned in Medellin.
The day was cloudy but perfectly pleasant. We kicked back on a bench right in front of an art-deco Museo Antiqua building, and I asked her to tell me a bit about living in Medellin.
Cities like Medellin are incredibly convenient because they have a well-established metro system that will take you smoothly from one destination to another – and this fact especially tickles the bones of environmentally conscious millennials. Even if you have to jump into a taxi, they’re super cheap.
Rent can be cheap as well; you can easily find decent accommodation for as low as $500 per month. There is plenty of affordable office space in Medellin. And there’s either a convenience store or an Exito! (Colombia’s supermarket chain) around every corner.
The expat community is thriving, so you’d have no trouble finding someone to speak with in English while you catch up on your Español and learn the local slang. As you socialize and mingle with the locals, you’ll get the hang of all the unique expressions and start sounding more like a paisa (someone from the Antioquia region).
The urban area has a perfectly balanced population of 2.5 million (add in another million for surrounding urbanities that make up the metro area). There are at least seven hospitals that offer satisfactory medical care, as long as you pay a reasonable $50 a month for insurance.
One of the selling points of Medellin among many visitors is its consistently wonderful climate. The city is set in the basin of the eponymous Medellin river at 4900ft, and the air manages to stay light and clean. The temperature is constantly in the upper 70s, which sounds too good to be true, but I can confirm that it holds up.
2. Santa Marta
Medellin, Bogota, and Cali are all nestled amidst the colossal ranges of the Andes. Now that I finally had the chance, I had my heart set on visiting the Caribbean coast.
It’s funny, but it never occurred to me that I could go to the Caribbean until my friend suggested it. I already went half-way around the world and spent two months in Sydney, working from a cafe right beside the docks of the Darling Harbour; but when I thought of the Caribbean, I guess I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything other than plundering pirate treasures.
At first, my friend recommended visiting Barranquilla, but I wanted to try something smaller and ended up in Santa Marta. I could throw my paisa slang out the window there, and I was truly forced to brush up on my Spanish.
I might have been a stranger in a strange land, but I felt right at home at the seaside. The first thing that I noticed was the temperature difference – it easily reached the 90s up here. Not as breezy as Medellin, but the hue of the sea was the exact sharp teal that I’ve dreamed about ever since I’ve seen it in movies.
The city has a significantly smaller population than Medellin – about 500 000 residents, and it shows in all the best ways. Santa Marta relies on tourism for obvious reasons – there’s the Caribbean seacoast, the Tayrona national park right next to it, as well as some well-preserved historical sites and (Colombia’s own) Sierra Nevada mountain range.
However, I found the elbow space for more tranquil moments welcoming after the cacophony of the metropolis. That’s not to say that this town doesn’t know how to party.
Rodadero beachside is a rowdy hotspot, and I met some fellow foreigners on the white sands. Many of these people have decided to live in a ritzy suburb along the beach, which broadly echoed the Miami appeal as far as I’m concerned. I didn't want to splurge, so I rented a room in the city, near the park in the vicinity of the Buenavista Mall, for $650.
Since we’re on the topic of money: my paycheck arrived several days after I settled in Santa Marta, and I was in for a pleasant shock. The currency exchange was so favorable I realized why so many expats flocked to Colombia.
Santa Marta is a lively historical city – Columbia’s oldest, as a matter of fact, and I squeezed the mileage out of that aspect. Even the park near my apartment hid treasure-troves: three museums, several landmarks, and a botanical garden. Imagine what secrets the broader city holds!
Confession time: ‘Romancing the Stone’ is one of my favorite films. That’s why going to Cartagena was a no-brainer for me.
It took me 4 hours and 20 minutes to reach Cero del La Popa – an imposing patch of half-burnt greenery that seemingly rises out of the city, with the old covenant adorning its top. For the most part, I walked along a narrow, twirling row before finally reaching a clearing with a beautiful view of the city and the coastline.
Naturally, the impression of the city was completely different than what I expected based on ‘Romancing the Stone.’ It’s more faithfully represented in ‘Love in the Time of Cholera.’ The neighborhoods around Cero del La Popa are mostly rugged, with quaint houses and charming, albeit deteriorating, facades.
There’s an old walled city, and an abundance of cultural hotspots – museums, theaters, galleries, and other cultural landmarks that turn the city into a saturated playground for expats. You can spend years in Cartagena and never be bored, and yes, it does have a wild side!
It’s a bigger coastal city than Santa Marta, but it’s just as affordable, which is a recurring theme that attracts expats from every corner of the world. However, Cartagena has an interesting edge that flips the odds to its favor as a preferred expat home.
It has what is known as free zones, which have been established to attract investors. These areas offer certain tax-exempts, benefits, and special customs. They’re like safety bubbles that provide any aspiring entrepreneur the benefits to help kickstart a provision trading business.
I haven’t been to Colombia in over a year, and I must admit that I’m thinking about going back there. In fact, mulling over this idea is one of the leading motivations for writing this article. In 2019, Colombia stands as a country with rising standards, thus attracting investors and newcomers from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Right now, it has an impressive established infrastructure that is welcoming to digital nomads, and I’ve heard praise for the coworking spaces in these three cities I’ve visited. One thing is for sure: the up-and-coming expat populace and the socio-economic development of the country are showing a lot of promise for the future.