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Colombian woman

The country of Colombia is not in my World’s Cheapest Destinations book, but it will be in my upcoming one out later this year on cheaper living abroad. It has a whole lot going for it as a place to live and while it’s a country on a roll in terms of its economy and strong currency, it’s still a great value for those who settle there temporarily or permanently.

RTW DaveTo get the scoop on what they spend on a regular basis, I got in touch with two expatriates living in Colombia. David Lee, best known for his blog GoBackpacking.com, lives in one of the most popular cities for expats, Medellín. He often talks about his experiences there on another blog, Medellin Living, and has an e-book out for people traveling there.

I also spoke with Bogota resident Jeff Jung, who runs the great Career Break Secrets site and is author of The Career Break Traveler’s Handbook.

taking a career breakCompared to a big US city, your living expenses are significantly lower in Colombia. Jeff estimates that he spends about half what he did in the USA overall. Dave’s expenses rarely top $1,800 a month, which again is about half what many people of average means spend per month in the states, Canada, or Europe. And they probably go out far less on that budget.

What do you spend on rent living in Colombia?

“My last apartment in the north of Bogotá ran 1,100,000 per month + HOA fees (called administración) of of 100,000,” says Jeff Jung. That comes out to about $630 US. “Renters should find out both parts of the cost when looking for an apartment. You could find something decent (old but decent) for as low as 800,000 and spend up to 2,000,000 per month for rent only. In US dollars that’s a range of approx $400-$1000 (or more for higher end places). I’m quoting unfurnished prices so a furnished place might start closer to US$500. Gas and electricity will run about $15 and $50, respectively, per month. Cable and internet can run closer to US pricing at $50-80 per month. A common money-saving tactic of Bogotanos is to live with others so you can get a larger, nicer place with all common housing costs shared.”

Medellin view

Dave’s view

David Lee does just that in Medellin, sharing a spacious three-bedroom apartment with a view in a very desirable neighborhood. His share averages between $330 and $340 with utilities. Those utilities are a shade over $200 per month for the three of them for electricity, gas, cable TV, fast internet, land line phone.

Colombian parilla

Barbecued meats platter

What does it cost to eat out in Colombia?

travel living MedellinDave and Jeff agree that a decent “meal of the day” lunch will run you about $5. You can certainly pay less at places where local workers eat, or spend a few dollars more and get much better quality. That’ll generally get you a soup, a main meat dish with a side or two, dessert, and a fresh juice or something else to drink. “That can easily go up in Bogota to $10-15 depending on where you eat,” says Jeff.

Naturally dinners can run the gamut, from cobbled together street for for a couple dollars up to high-end restaurants that will cost nearly as much as you would spend in Europe.

How much does it cost to get around?

City buses are around 60 to 75 cents one way. A one way on the nicest “TransMilenio” in Bogota will run you about 90 cents. The Medellin metro is about 85 cents. See the “bargains” part below for taxis.

Intercity buses start at around $8 for a couple hours and can cost as much as $55 for long overnight routes, so sometimes it’s worth it to double that and fly. The two most expensive routes in the country are Bogota to Cartagena and Bogota to San Andres, Jeff says, but there are frequent specials if you book ahead. You can sometimes find internal flight fares as low as $55 and often the longest routes are going for around $100.

What are some of the best bargains in Colombia?

“Taxis are plentiful and cheap,” says Jeff. “The basic fare is about $1.80 and an expensive taxi ride will cost you $10—that’s traveling a long distance across Bogota. Taxi drivers are not tipped.” Dave says in Medellin he generally pays 4,200 – 10,000 pesos ($2.30 – $5.50).

Dave points to the great nightlife in Colombia as a bargain. He says going out to clubs and having a blast is not going to set you back very much in Medellin compared to a place like London, Las Vegas, or New York City. In a nightclub the usual routine is for the group to get bottle service. You pay $30 or so for a 750ml bottle of rum or aguadiarte (the favored anise flavored local spirit) and you get ice and mixers. “Colombians go out in groups,” he says, “so if there are five of you that’s $6 a person. Very few places have a cover charge. If they do its generally a couple dollars and at the most, maybe the equivalent of $12 at the very fanciest place.”

What can you get for a buck or less in Colombia?

A one way city bus ride; a whole lot of different street food (empanada, arepa con queso, boiled/salted potatoes); a 600ml bottle of water; a local mass-market beer; a tinto coffee or two; a glass of juice from a stall; a kilo of seasonal fruit or vegetables; an hour online at an internet cafe.

What are the pros and cons of living there?

Ask people what they like about Medellin and the weather usually comes first in this placed nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring.” Dave says, “You can wear a t-shirt and jeans day or night pretty much all year. ” There are two rainy seasons though, which can range from mild to ongoing deluges from year to year and Dave says if expats complain about something, that’s usually it. Bogota is higher and colder. It has the big city attributes on the plus side (museums, great restaurants, the arts), but also more of the normal big city problems.

Bogota Colombia

Central Bogota

While the crime and personal danger situations have improved dramatically in Colombia over the past decade, Medellin and Bogota are still big cities in a country with substantial income inequality and lingering drug gang activity. “I have been robbed, so I can testify that it’s a real risk,” says Dave. “But that’s true in almost any city in the Americas.”

The music, the beautiful women, and the gorgeous countryside get high marks from visitors and residents, plus the relatively low labor costs mean that almost no expat cleans their own apartment or does all their own gardening work if they have a house.

The Colombian visa situation:

You get three months in Colombia upon entering the country as a tourist. To extend that another three months you can either leave the country and return or go apply for an extension for about $40. But you can only stay six months of a calendar year this way, so you have to get out after that. There are supposedly 17 different kinds of visas in Colombia, so if you want to stay longer, it’s best to hire an attorney to sort it out. Dave obtained a business visa by showing a steady stream of income and what he was working on. It’s good for 19 months. He says some digital nomads opt for an “independent activities visa” which is more ambiguous. Those who have found local love can apply for a “civil partnership visa.”

To find out more:

Career Breaks Jeff

Jeff Jung

Dave helpfully broke down his living expenses over three months a year ago in this blog post. He says he has since cut his gym membership cost in half through a promotion at the same place he was using before—the best in the city.  See lots of details in his Medellin Living website or get his Medellin Travel Guide book in PDF form or for Amazon Kindle. He’s on Twitter at @rtwdave.

Jeff has lots of advice for anyone ready for a career break on his Career Break Secrets website and in his Career Break Traveler’s Handbook, available in paperback or Kindle versions. Follow him on Twitter at @CareerBrkSecret.

Want to keep up on the progress of my living cheap abroad book coming out later and get tips for moving abroad? Get on the list.

alentejo traveling tim leffel

A lot of travel bloggers really don’t need to ever do a year-end summary because they’ve already told you about everything they ate for lunch in each destination and every monument they snapped a photo of. I try to be more evergreen than that, telling stories that are reasonably timeless and giving advice that is useful for more than the next two weeks. So here’s a look back at travels and projects over the past year, including some I didn’t write much about on this Cheapest Destinations Blog.

I kicked the year off right with a newly revised 4th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. It’s been a decade since the first one came out. (For what it’s worth, this was also the 10th anniversary of Vagabonding, which you can now get as an audio book read by Rolf himself.) If you bought or reviewed my new edition, thanks!

After the book came out, I hit the road again.

1) I started out in chilly Salt Lake City checking out new travel gear on the way and then went to Park City for the first time. I skied all three resorts, rode the Olympic bobsled course, and went snowshoeing the backcountry. A story on that trip just came out.

salt church near Bogota2) In February I headed down to Colombia again, visiting Bogota for the first time (check out this crazy cathedral in a salt mine nearby) and returning to the Coffee Triangle and Cartagena. If you’re heading to South America sometime, this is a great place to start. Not the cheapest, but great music, beautiful things to see, fun nightlife…

3) During spring break my family returned to our old hip home of Nashville, Tennessee to see old friends. Mostly we did that, partied, and ate well. Here are some tips on eating local food in Nashville.

4) Panama I’ve been here several times now, but on this trip I explored some different areas for a Global Traveler magazine article I was researching on adventure travel there. I did some hiking, ziplining, and coffee farm exploration around Boquette, then explored Coiba Island and a few islets from a base on the mainland.

5) The great company Bike Tours Direct invited me to try out one of their tours in Portugal, in conjunction with local operator Turaventur in the Alentejo region. I cashed in some miles gained through smart travel hacking and took my wife along. We slept in a castle and this palace that are a surprisingly good value, drank great wine for under $10 a bottle, and worked off a lot of flab cycling through the countryside. I wrote a story about it: Wildflowers and Wine: Biking Through Castle Country in Portugal.

6) On the way back we stopped in Madrid. But our flight got changed and we missed the Tapas tour we were going to do with Viator. Bummer. But do they have a cool looking airport or what? This is not a sci-fi movie set. It’s baggage claim.

Madrid's baggage claim

7) I went to Miami to cover a luxury travel conference for another publication and hang with the beautiful people, staying at the cool National Hotel. (Hint to aspiring travel writers: those covering luxury tend to stay in better digs than those writing about budget travel.)

8) Right after that I went up to Toronto to speak at the TBEX bloggers conference. Then I traveled down the lake to Kingston, Ontario and wrote a story about Canada’s first capital.

Leffel Guanajuato house

9) After two years in Tampa, Florida, I carried an embarrassing amount of luggage up to the check-in counter and boarded a plane to my new home—for the second time—Guanajuato, Mexico. I own a house there now, with this view above, on a hill above the main locals’ market, a short walk from the center. Unfortunately it was completely empty and needed a new kitchen, so my lack of rent to pay has been offset by having to lay out a lot of dough for “stuff.” Short term pain, long term gain. If you’re heading my way, sign up for one of my Mexican street food tours.

10) I hit Veracruz, Mexico for the first time and got a taste of the adventure travel options in that area. One of the best whitewater rafting trips of my life.

national park near Cuenca

11) Ecuador called my name again, with a bit of time in Quito and then more time in and around Cuenca. It’s an interesting city and I really liked the gorgeous countryside around it, but I feel like there’s a bit of a bandwagon effect going on with all the retirees. As a place to live, it looks better on paper than in person to me. Though it is certainly one of the cheapest places to live in the world.

12) I returned to the Riviera Maya again for another travel conference, then did a post-trip in the Merida area. Because I was with the top tour company in the area, my group got to visit Chichen Itza after hours and explore that and Uxmal with two archeologists. And then stay in a hacienda hotel. Very cool.

13) The North American Travel Journalists Association asked me to be a panelist (along with Kim Mance and Chris Jay from the 20 X 49 blog) in Shreveport, Lousiana. Then at the last minute keynote speaker Andrew McCarthy got a movie gig, so I filled in his opening speech spot. I ate really well in Shreveport, then Alexandria, then New Orleans. I may have gained five pounds in less than a week from eating my way through Louisiana. But yum!

day of the dead
14) Day of the Dead is a great time to be in Mexico. I got to experience it in Guadalajara (where the above photo was taken) and in Guanajuato. See some more great Katrina and Day of the Dead photos.

15) An assignment for a trade pub gave me an excuse to go to Mexico City again and as always, it was invigorating. It resulted in my most viral post ever (30K+ unique visitors in four weeks) after blogging on here for a decade: Are you avoiding Mexico City for outdated reasons?

canyon near San Miguel

16) The year ended with a bang: horseback riding and pyramid exploring with Coyote Canyon Adventures outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Then Christmas in Guanajuato, who knows what yet for New Year’s Eve.

In all that I only visited two new countries. But that’s okay, because I’m not a country counter. I’d rather visit five new places in countries I’ve been to than to put a check box next to Paraguay.

I won some more travel writing awards this year, which was nice. This blog and Perceptive Travel both got tagged by NATJA and I won two Gold awards there for a piece I wrote on Bulgaria and a Southeast Asia reflection article I did for Lonely Planet. The Perceptive Travel Blog I launched many years ago won best travel blog from the Society of American Travel Writers.

Thanks for reading along and following, whether you discovered this blog 10 years ago or last week.

I’m not sure yet what I’ll bring you in 2014 besides a February trip to Nicaragua already booked and lots of travels within Mexico. My big project is going to be a book I’ve already started working on about cutting your expenses in half by moving abroad. Title T.B.D. – I’m getting input on that and some parts of the content from the people on this newsletter list: Live Abroad for Less. Sign up!

Panama travel

It’s time for another collection of the best travel stories on the web, from the award-winning webzine Perceptive Travel.

One of the features is mine this time, a piece on getting to the roots of good coffee by visiting farms where the beans are grown. Come along for the ride to Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia in Alert in the Americas.

On Ontario’s remote Moose Factory Island, where the Cree First Nation is cautiously courting tourism, Carolyn Heller learns that there’s more to see than the “sights.” See Going Where No Roads Go in Ontario.

Lea Aschkenas heads into the Amazon jungle of Ecuador and fights discomfort and insects to appreciate the teeming life around her.

Graham Reid checks out some new and noteworthy world music. Afro-soul, Indo-jazz, desert blues, and “Autotune goes to Africa.”

Travel book reviews from William Caverlee include Encounters from a Kayak, Food Lover’s Guide to the World, and On This Earth, A Shadow Falls.

travel light gearAs usual, we’re giving away some cool travel gear as well. Last month someone scored a new pair of hiking shoes from Wolverine. This month we’re giving away a whole Travelling Light package from Sea to Summit. The winner will take home a daypack that compresses down into a tiny pouch, a mesh laundry bag, Travelling Light See Pouches, and a travel wallet. If you’re on our newsletter list already, check your inbox or bulk folder. If not, sign up here to get in on the action next time. You can also follow Perceptive Travel on Facebook and watch for the contest questions.

traveling on a budget

Southern Bolivia

A few years back I wrote an article for Transitions Abroad that I updated this month: Budget Travel in South America.

It’s not meant to be a comprehensive country-by-country rundown, but rather a strategy guide to where your money will stretch and what you can expect to pay in general terms. Then at the end there are some resources to turn to for more specifics.

Traveling on a budget in this region has gotten a lot more complicated since I did the first version of that article five years ago. Argentina has become a fiscal basket case again and on top of that they added a reciprocal visa fee that’s payback for what we charge them to enter our own countries. A family of four would now pay around $560 before exiting the airport. This same fee is in place in Chile, Bolivia, and Brazil, which is probably part of the reason those countries get far fewer visitors than Peru, Ecuador, and now Colombia.

travel Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

If you watch financial news regularly, you’ll know that the resource-based economies around the world have been on a roll. Those that have lots of things to extract from the ground have seen their economies boom. In the developed world that means places like Canada and Australia. In South America it means Peru, Chile, and Brazil. Those latter two have gotten far more expensive when their currencies appreciate and Brazilians are now the free-spending travelers of the Americas, buying up a storm wherever they go. (And saving Argentina’s tourism industry in the process.) Colombia has been on a roll—too much of one actually. The government is frantically buying dollars to slow down the appreciation of its currency.

So where would I say you should go if you wanted to backpack through South America for a few months or more? I’d say you should fly to Central America first, because you can do it more cheaply with money or miles, then make your way through Panama and either fly or take a boat to Colombia. Spend a few weeks in semi-expensive Colombia, then go overland to Ecuador and watch your money instantly buy twice as much. (Except liquor and wine, which just doubled in price there this year.)

travelling South America on a budget

Chivay, Peru

You’d then continue down to Peru, hitting the highlights in a leisurely fashion from north to south, then enter Bolivia via Lake Titicaca. You’d make your way overland down to the Salar de Uyuni, spend some time around there, then bus it over to Salta in Argentina. Go overland to Iguazu Falls and then Buenos Aires, taking a detour to Uruguay somewhere along the way by land or ferry. Then take a series of very long bus rides down to Bariloche. Explore Patagonia there and in Chile, then fly up to Santiago. From there if you still have money left, you could spend some time in wine country and Valparaiso in Chile or fly to Brazil for some coastal time. Or head home, or back to Central America, or Mexico.

They key in all of this is to take your time! Distances between many of these locations are vast. Chile end-to-end is the distance of the west coast of the U.S. to the east coast, to give you an idea. These bus trips are so long you get a sleeping berth. You can cut off a lot of time flying, but domestic flights are no bargain except for a few routes like La Paz to Sucre. Trying to be a box-checking, bucket-listing, country-counting flashpacker is going to cost you far more money and part of your sanity.

For a country-by-country breakdown of these destinations and others around the globe, pick up a copy of the new 4th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations.

Bogota Colombia

If you’re visiting a big city on almost any continent and are looking to stretch your budget, try to time your travels so that you will have all of Sunday there.

Most long-term travelers figure this out eventually, but I was reminded of this strategy again when I was in Bogota, Colombia this past weekend. As I’ve talked about before in Quito and Mexico City, a main avenue running through the city is blocked off to traffic, opening it up for anyone wanting to ride a bike in safety.

That’s just the start though. In many cities this is the most likely time for free outdoor concerts and cultural events. After all, it’s when you’re going to have the best chance of getting a crowd. Since many weekend visit tourists are gone by the afternoon, you’ll be mingling with locals more than foreigners too, which is always interesting.

Free museum days can vary a lot and I know in popular cities like NYC or Paris they will usually be on a certain weekday each month to keep the numbers down, but for many other countries it’s politically favorable to make the free day whenever the most families can visit. So when I visited the Gold Museum in Bogota a few days ago, the normal 3,000 peso ($1.75—still a bargain) entrance fee was waived.

Guidebooks will usually tell you this info, but double-check it online to be sure. This is a case where the official city tourism site is usually your best bet as it’s kept up to date and will link directly to the museum/attraction.

The one downside of all this is you may find places more crowded than usual, so time it earlier or later than the masses to avoid a crush. The flip side of that is you’ll get a real taste of who lives in a place, which can be enlightening.

Have fun!