The country of Colombia is not in my World’s Cheapest Destinations book, but it is in my cheap living abroad book A Better Life for Half the Price. It has a whole lot going for it as a place to live. With the Colombian currency losing some substantial value against the dollar the past five years or so, the cost of living in Colombia is 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 some expatriates currently living in the closest country to Central America. Most of the press about moving to Colombia focuses on Medellin, and indeed that’s where many of these expats are, but I got some perspective on other locations around the county as well to see how the cost of living compares.
Peter Lombard runs incentive travel and team retreats company Globe Guides. He is rather typical in the sense that he moved to Colombia for a slower pace of life and a lower cost of living combined. He lives in Bucaramanga now and has no intention of leaving. “My lifestyle here involves more walking, more community, more actual relationships (not just virtual ones). I like the fact that food is made fresh, that people make the time to enjoy what they have (even if it may be deemed minimal by American standards), and that work isn’t the overwhelming priority.”
What’s the average cost of living in Colombia for expatriates?
Most self-funded younger foreigners or fixed-income retirees seem to get by fine in Colombia on well for $1,000 to $2,500 per month, a fraction of what they were spending in their home country.
“I try to limit myself to less than $1,200 per month, as a ‘rule’ but can sometimes go over if I have to have some dental work done or whatever,” says Ryan Shauers. He runs the Desk to Dirtbag blog and writes a lot about life in his adopted country. He has lived in Medellin for around three years and included in his budget is “$100-150 or so for traveling to nearby pueblos.”
Jason Bennett, who leads marketing for Colombia-based hospitality and real estate investment company LifeAfar, owns his own condo. He says, “My expenses range from $750 – $1000 with household expenses (utilities, property tax, insurance), groceries, dining out, and transportation. I would expect another $100 – $200 once I am eligible for the healthcare system.”
Business owner Matt Seager has lived in several spots in Colombia, mostly in the Coffee Triangle region and on the Caribbean coast. “I have generally spent in the range of $1700-2500 per month,” he says. “This covered everything from rent, food and entertainment, some local activities and excursions, and money for partying. One consideration is the strength of the Colombia peso to USD, which is more favorable to Americans today than it was a few years ago. Costs have actually gone down. Prices are pretty steady region to region, however, tourist city Cartagena is notably more expensive than anywhere else in the country. The coffee region is a great value as it has several university cities like Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia. The Caribbean coast also has good pricing in Santa Marta,Palomino, and Minca, which is a great value in the Sierra Nevada mountains.”
He says an income that would have you struggling to pay the bills in the USA lets you live it up in Colombia. “For $2500, you can live like a king in the sense that you can have your own room or small apartment in a decent area, and be able to basically do whatever you want in terms of activities, eating out, etc.”
What are the rent prices like if you move to Colombia?
One of the interesting facts about living in Colombia that you discover when apartment hunting is that the system is very socialist or progressive depending on your point of view. Apartment rental prices in Medellin and other big cities closely align to their zone because taxes and utility costs also vary by zone. So a “Zone 6” house will have the highest rates and a “Zone 1” place will be in a slum—but with super-cheap utilities. Most foreigners who are getting corporate housing paid for by an international corporation end up in a 6, while most independent workers on their own dime find a compromise in 4 or 5.
So while Jason Bennett says that if he didn’t own a place already in the best part of Medellin, he would probably have to pay $1,200 to $1,500 in rent for a similarly furnished place in a new building with 1,000 square feet and great views. This is the tippity top of the market though and usually if someone is paying that much on their own they’ve got a partner or roommate.
Ryan is paying around $400 a month for rent and utilities combined in his Medellin apartment. “The cost for a house or apartment is an incredible value, at least for someone who was originally from Seattle and then lived in Washington D.C. Back in college I was paying $500 a month for a tiny studio apartment in Seattle. Then in D.C. there were ‘English basements’ which were going for $1,200 a month. Here in Medellin I can pay $315 a month for a spacious three bedroom, two bath apartment with a balcony, in a great neighborhood that is walkable to everything.”
“In a university city like Manizales, a small studio apartment can be found for around $300 per month” says Matt. “Furnished apartments are not as common, but can be found in the $350-$500 range. If a person is willing to share an apartment with another person this will lower the monthly expense. For short-term stays, a single private room can be found in a hostel, pension, or family-owned hotel for $15-25 per night. Rooms can be rented for weeks or months at a time in these establishments for even less if you ask. I usually pay around $300-$400 a month for a decent sized private room with private bathroom in a small hotel in Manizales, with internet and cable TV included.”
“My monthly expenses, aside from travel, are roughly $1000 a month,” says Peter. “This includes a lovely three bedroom apartment in a secured highrise in Bucaramanga, food, transportation, utilities, and even someone to come in and clean on a weekly basis. I do run my American companies from here so I spend a bit more on telcom than average, but even high-speed internet and unlimited calling together cost me less than $100.”
For utilities, Jason says he pays about $50 for electric, $25 for water, and $50 for Internet.
What does it cost for food and drink in Colombia?
“Dining out is an incredible value,” Jason says. “Lunch is usually around $5, and for dinner it is very hard to spend more than $20 and that includes drinks.”
A decent “meal of the day” lunch will average about $5 in the cities. 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.
“The cost of restaurants and nightlife in Medellin is pretty crazy,” says Ryan. “You can go to an awesome local brewery and get five craft beers for about $8, which is sometimes what ONE beer costs back in the United States. And then there are the menu of the day places where you can get a tasty and complete meal for well under $5. You can’t even get fast food for that price back home.”
“Breakfast is a small and cheap meal, but lunch presents an opportunity for a great value at local restaurants,” adds Matt. “Lunch specials are often generously portioned and priced. For example, a large chicken cutlet served with salad, rice, french fries, and a drink can be purchased for $3-$4 in a local restaurant in Pereira or Manizales. The same meal with fish replacing the chicken cutlet can be found in Santa Marta for roughly the same price.”
Trying to eat familiar food from home is not the way to go though, says Matt. “Normally cheap foods from America can actually be significantly more expensive in Colombia. For example, the famous Subway five dollar foot long does not exist in Colombia. There is a certain prestige and status that comes from patronizing these American brands, and a foot-long Subway sandwich that would cost five dollars in America can easily cost $10+ in Colombia.”
Everyone I’ve spoken to who lived in Colombia says they eat better and feel healthier after moving there. “Fruit is the way to go-incredibly varied, delicious, and cheap throughout the country,” says Matt. “Fresh mango is sold everywhere for pocket change.”
“You can get a big cup of chopped-up mango or papaya for less than a dollar,” adds Jason.
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 the same. The Medellin metro is cheaper now than it was six years ago in dollar terms.
“Transportation within the city is very economical,” says Ryan. “The metro system is about $0.75, same with any single bus fare (there are also some buses that are integrated with the metro system and provide a reduced overall price, along with the metro cable/gondola, street cars, etc). Generally speaking, you can get most anywhere you’d want to go in the city in a taxi for about $7-8 (but it’s often less).
“Taxis and Uber are also very low cost, as you can go miles in any direction for about $5,” Jason says.
In smaller cities like Bucaramanga, it’s even less. “I pay somewhere in the area of $10-15 a week in uber/taxi, with the average ride being somewhere between $1.20-1.90,” says Peter.
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.
“Intercity long distance buses often cost me about $50 per ticket round trip,” says Ryan, “but you can also get a ticket on a budget airline like Viva Air for about the same price if you book in advance and have some flexibility with your dates. “That will save you many hours on those winding mountain roads.”
Eight hours of a bus may cost you $20 or less Peter says. “They don’t do straight roads here so it’s hard to sleep and slow going, but it is cheap if that’s your priority. The best way to get in or out of Bucaramanga is by plane. We have flights to Bogota, Medellin, and Panama City with single connection flights to all of North America, South America, most of Europe. With a second connection I can nearly anywhere in the world. Flights to Bogota, or nearly anywhere in the country, are fairly reasonably priced, $100-200 round trip.”
Don’t take the prices you pull up on Skyscanner at face value, however, when you’re checking domestic flight fares from abroad. “Domestic flights purchased from within Colombia are significantly cheaper than when purchased from outside the country,” says Matt.
What are some of the best bargains in Colombia?
When I asked expats living in Colombia what some of the best living in Colombia values were, some mentioned various party substances. Matt cited transportation, lodging, local food, and tobacco. “The worst values may be clothing and foreign food,” he added.
When Dave Lee of GoBackpacking lived in Medellin, he thought the great nightlife in Colombia was the best 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 less 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.”
My pre-paid cell phone plan is another steal,” says Jason. “2GB of data is about $10 per month. Same with my gym membership, just $20. While I am not eligible for the healthcare system yet, there are plenty of stories of overall costs being significantly lower than in the United States.”
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 Lee 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.
“Beyond the cost of living, I’d say the best reasons to live in Medellin are the weather (it is a warm 80+ degrees all year round) and the friendly local people who are always warm and talkative with you,” says Ryan. “Plus you’ve got big city amenities (high-end restaurants, big shopping malls, living in big towers, fast internet, trendy coffee shops, coworking spaces) with a feel of a town that isn’t TOO big like most of the sprawling capital cities in Latin America—some of which have metro populations of 10 million+.”
“There is a saying that if you put three Colombians in a room together you have a party. This is simply to say that Colombians are a fun loving and friendly people,” says Matt. “They are very self-aware in terms of the reputation the country has abroad and the stigma that came with the Escobar years. Consequently, they have received and continue to receive significantly fewer visitors than many other countries in the region. This seems to make Colombians almost go out of their way to be extra friendly, but also genuinely interested in getting to know their visitors and making sure they enjoy their time in Colombia. The women are also among of the most beautiful in the world…” he adds.
Peter says the dramatically lower cost of living and slower pace he was seeking out have done wonders for his overall well-being. “My new life in Colombia allows me to life comfortably, pay down debt, and save towards a house, without having to work the hours I used to work. I’m more involved in my community, youth groups, church, and a healthy social life than I ever was in the states.”
The music, the beautiful women, and the gorgeous countryside get high marks from 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 quality of life in Colombia is exponentially better than my former home of San Francisco,” says Jason. “Back in the states you’d be lucky to make eye contact with anyone on the street. In Medellín locals will offer to give you a tour of their city within a minute of meeting. The pace of life is slower, which has taught me patience and gratitude. I also like how the city and country are still under-the-radar. It’s remarkable the questions I get from people back in the states about safety, when the reality is I feel safer here than I did most places in the U.S.”
The Colombian visa situation:
The visa situation to live in Colombia permanently is a fluid one, so check the embassy sites and local message boards to get a feel for the current situation. In a general sense, 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 or apply for something long-term. There were once 17 different kinds of visas in Colombia. That number has been simplified a bit, but if you want to stay longer, it’s best to be patient and super-organized in your applications or hire an attorney to sort it out. There’s a business visa and an “independent activities visa” which can work for some location independent workers. Those who have found local love can apply for a “civil partnership visa.”
If you want to retire in Colombia, you can get a retirement visa just by showing income of more than 3X the local minimum wage. That currently means you need to show less than $800 per month in income to support yourself. Under some rules changes instituted at the end of 2017, this only has to be renewed once every three years.
To find out more:
Dave Lee, founder of Medellin Living, broke down his living expenses over three months in this blog post from 2013. Nearly every line item on there has actually gone down in price since that time. He has since sold the site, but it’s a great resource for anyone moving to Medellin.
I’ve got an in-depth chapter on cost of living in Colombia vs USA in A Better Life for Half the Price.
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