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.
To 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.
Compared 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.”
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.
What does it cost to eat out in Colombia?
Dave 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.
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:
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.