Is Medellin a fantastic place to live for expats, with perfect weather, great neighborhoods, and an attractive cost of living? Because that’s probably what you’ve heard 100 times about Colombia’s second-largest city. After my first visit there, staying a tad more than a week, I’m going to say the Medellin life is probably not for me. But it might be for you, so read on.
Back in the golden age of blogging, most of us would write stream-of-consciousness, first-impression articles about a place talking about what we loved and didn’t love. These were usually fun to read because they were unvarnished, from the heart, and often kind of funny, mishaps and all. Then this blogging thing became a business rather than a hobby for many people, me included. The almighty Google killed off RSS readers to make us all start searching more as consumers and writing how they wanted us to write as publishers. I could do a whole post on what has been good and bad about that evolution, but for this one I’m just going to spout off and not worry about what kind of traffic Big Brother will send my way.
I’m going to write about Medellin life as a person who is giving the city a 7 on a 10-point scale as a potential place to live and work remotely. “It’s a like, not a love” as a friend I met up with there said after wrapping up two months in the city. As I have said many times though, the only way you know if you’re going to love a place or not is to spend some time there. The “wallet factors” and the “head factors” you can list on a legal pad. But to know if a place is going to speak to you, then you have to invest the time and money to try it out.
My Main Issue With Medellin: the Topography
I stayed at two hotels (prices are good) and an Airbnb apartment in Medellin, all within about a mile and a half of each other. In any normal city that would mean I could walk between the three of them easily. Not in the El Poblado area of Medellin though. I heard hints that this most upscale part of town was hilly, but I didn’t realize that meant you must go up, then down, then up, then down, and maybe do that three more times to go the equivalent of 10 blocks. I’m all for getting exercise, and there are good sidewalks at least, but it’s so difficult to go for a walk there that I was usually the only one out on foot in the residential zones.
Everyone who lives in that area takes taxis/Ubers constantly and for every pedestrian, I saw about 20 motorcycle delivery people bringing food to the high-rise apartment buildings. Those taxi rides are cheap, just $2 or $3, but I hate catching a ride to somewhere close just because it feels like a day on the Annapurna Circuit to get there walking.
Yes, there’s one area of El Poblado that’s really hopping, the place where there are 100+ bars and restaurants around. So because of that and the clustering effect, this area is where most of the expats live. There are gyms, good coffee shops, brewpubs, and ethnic restaurants, so it’s got everything you need. After you catch a cab from your high-rise that is. You could live in that nightlife area, but it rocks late into the night, so you’d need to be a heavy sleeper or very late riser.
And oh, this part of town is a long way from the metro station. It’s a half hour or so downhill from here minimum depending on your location, maybe 40 minutes coming uphill back. Just ask all the workers coming in every day to wait on the wealthies they’re serving. Because this is Strata 6, which under the Colombian quasi-socialist system, means you’re paying the highest rents and utility payments in the city. (Stratas 1 and 2 at the other end are highly subsidized by the Strata 5 and 6 people.)
There Are Flatter Areas Though
If I go back to Medellin for longer, which I probably will, I’ll likely stay in a flatter neighborhood where it’s easy to avoid getting in a car. I liked Laureles a lot because it’s filled with places to eat and drink but is much more pedestrian-friendly. It’s right by a metro stop and there are still loads of great apartment buildings that will take you up 10 or 20 floors if you want to rent a place with a view. It also doesn’t feel so dominated by well-off foreigners and wealthy Colombians. It feels like more of a real neighborhood.
If your Spanish is good and you’re not trying to be surrounded by other foreigners and places that serve sushi, this is a city of at least four million. I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer size, which probably also colored my impression, but that means there are plenty of other options around.
If I were moving here, instead of just passing through, I’d probably rent a temporary place in Laureles and then look around to see if the grass is greener somewhere else for a long-term stay. If you step down to Strata 5 or 4, rents and utility rates drop accordingly. As foreigners, we’re free to pick our social strata, even if we’re loaded in local terms. For locals it’s based on monthly income.
The Medellin Weather Is Overhyped
I should probably say “a bit overhyped” because the temperature does stay in a relatively defined range if you’re looking for that. But what people don’t tell you is that it rains a lot here. As in every day I was in the city it rained for at least two hours and one time it went for 10 hours straight, full-on thunderstorms. I had to really struggle to find a window to take that photo at the top with some relatively clear skies.
I was only in the city for eight days, so some may say I can’t judge the weather by that, but one expat I interviewed said, “Dude, it has been raining for a year and a half now.” One day I was at a hotel I looked out at blue skies and headed down to the gym, looking forward to hanging out at the swimming pool after. By the time my workout was over 40 minutes later, it was pouring. So much for that.
Another expat I spoke to said, “Yeah, maybe it’s not every day in every month that it’s going to rain, but I never leave the apartment without an umbrella.”
I’ve seen some expats complain about this on message boards after they moved on to another place. One said, “If I wanted to see the sun that seldom I could have stayed in the Pacific Northwest.”
I looked on a climate site to see what rainfall is like in different months of the year and these people were right that there’s not really a dry month. The site said, “A lot of rain (rainy season) falls in the months: March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December.” The other two average 2.5 inches per month. It’s quite green though as a result. I took this shot right in the city, a block from the nightlife zone!
Plus this is one of those cities with an “eternal spring” nickname, but it topped 85F degrees on three of the days I was there. Most people wouldn’t consider that “spring” and it didn’t cool down at night as much as I expected. I was still wearing a t-shirt, which is good or bad depending on your tastes.
My Mexico hometown at 6,500 feet is a lot cooler overall than this Colombia one at 5,000 feet. It’s not muggy Cartagena, don’t get me wrong, but almost nobody has air conditioning in the cities you usually hear described as “eternal spring,” such as Boquete or San Miguel de Allende. A whole lot of upscale apartments in Medellin have A/C.
Medellin is a Clean and Friendly City
Some cities make you feel welcome, some are whispering to you to please go back to where you came from. Medellin felt like a welcoming place to me. Most people are smiling and are patient with poor Spanish. They dance, they party, they sing, and I didn’t feel any of that anti-foreigner resentment that can be an undercurrent in some areas. It probably helps that many of the well-off expats are living in the same zone as the well-off locals: they’re not really gentrifying any area where they would be pushing families out and causing rents to go up.
There seems to be a pretty good balance and integration overall actually, even where there’s the biggest concentration of foreigners. They’re still just a drop in the bucket overall. The new digital nomad visa that’s dropping this month could change that though if 10,000 people move there all of a sudden. I don’t really see that happening, but who knows.
I was pleasantly surprised at how clean and orderly the place was by Latin American city standards. Even compared to graffiti-overwhelmed Bogota it feels like a city where the government has its act together. The metro works well and gondolas carry people up to the poorest neighborhoods on the hillsides–for the equivalent of 60 cents. I saw sweepers out all the time cleaning up and not once did I see someone toss their garbage onto the sidewalk like I unfortunately see often in Mexico.
The Cost of Living Makes Medellin Very Attractive
Why do so many expats live in the richest part of Medellin? Because they can, that’s why. Someone I met with was moving from a second-floor apartment in Laureles to El Polanco because his buddy talked him into sharing an apartment together. It was a nice two-bedroom place with a balcony, in a secure elevator building, across from a supermarket, at $900 per month. He’s a retired teacher, but there he can afford the high life, literally. Like The Jeffersons, he was moving on up.
I’ve updated my post on the cost of living in Colombia several times now and I’m going to have to do it again after this latest round of interviews. The reason is, the place just keeps getting cheaper. Back when I first visited the country in 2009, a dollar got me something like 1,600 Colombian pesos. While I was there in September it crossed 4,500 to the dollar. Sure, there’s inflation, but Colombia grows a lot of food and makes its own beer and rum, so they’re fairly self-sufficient in the food and drink departments.
They can grow almost every fruit and vegetable in this country, so I found prices on produce to be on par with or cheaper than Mexico. Street food was even cheaper than in Mexico and was pretty good overall. You can buy a tall-boy can of beer from a street cart vendor for about a buck and drink it right there, so that made me smile.
Most people seem to be paying somewhere between $300 and $1,000 for rent, though you can pay far more for a swanky apartment in El Poblado with a swimming pool, gym, parking spot, and other amenities. Most places come furnished; some include utilities. Prices are still quite good for real estate if you’re in the market, far less than you’d pay in Panama City, Mexico City, or Buenos Aires.
Prices are good for short-term rentals too if you’re just coming to check the city out. Here’s the balcony of the apartment I rented for $52 per night all-in with fees. It had a well-stocked kitchen, a washing machine, and a smart TV in an elevator building with a doorman. Naturally it would have been less for a week, far less for a month. There’s a lot available to choose from.
Food is Great and Inexpensive… If You Like Meat
While Colombia grows lots of fruit and vegetables, most of the items you see in restaurants have some kind of meat as the main dish, especially pork. I had several terrific lunches that were multiple courses for a few bucks, but none of them had a veggie option.
Most of the street food has meat too, though if you’re okay with cheese you can find lots of arepas, empanadas, and the like that are two or three for a dollar. They’ll fill you up for cheap: here’s a sampling with prices. Not exactly health food though.
So people with dietary restrictions or just a desire to eat healthy will spend more on food unless they do a lot of cooking. There are plenty of healthy restaurants, especially in the upscale areas, and I actually had Korean and Vietnamese while I was there, both right on the mark. These places are not for an average local, however, and are priced accordingly. Still, that means around half what you’d spend in the USA when translated into dollars, so it feels like a great value.
This is reflected in the attitude of many of the expats I spoke to here: they are truly living a better life for half the price, just at a higher level than your average digital nomad. Instead of spending $6K per month in a big U.S. city, which they could afford to do, they’re spending well less than half that for a good Medellin life and really living it up instead of scraping by. They want for nothing and they sock a lot into savings.
I’m not going to make any sweeping verdict on Medellin because it wouldn’t be fair. I’d be like one of those annoying bloggers who is writing “The Definitive Guide to ____” after spending a week there or “The 8 Best Things to do in Medellin” when they only had time to do half of them. This one’s for you, after all, not for Google. Someday I’ll go back for longer and give it another go.
For you, however, the Medellin life might be perfect. The only way you’ll know is to get feet on the ground. The good news is, flights to Colombia from countries to the north are usually the cheapest in South America. Check from your airport here.