At a recent family dinner while futily trying to explain to my grandparents what I ‘do’, I told my Papaw that I’m’moving to Colombia in January.
He got all excited because he thought that meant I’d gotten a ‘real job’ there, so I let him down easily: nope, I’ve already got a job, actually like 12, I do them all on my computer. I tried to paint a picture of this geographically unbounded life where I just work from my laptop wherever I want to (read: wherever I can afford to), and to explain how I’d had enough success since coming back from Mexico that I was ready to strike out again.
At the end of it, he stared at me, blank expression, and asked, “So why are you going to Colombia?”
I admit, outside my own head, it might be kind of hard to see how all the pieces fit so perfectly together. So, in the interest of having a canned answer on file, and to spread the word about how cool this place is, here are 11 of the main reasons I’m moving to Colombia this week.
1) It’s obnoxiously cheap, and dollars are buying more and more as the Colombian peso drops
If you read a guide book or blog post that’s more than a year and a half old or so, it normally groups Colombia in that middle price tier for South America: it’s not as expensive as Chile or Brazil, but it’s no Ecuador or Peru.
Only that’s kind of outdated now.
As is the case in a lot of developing countries in Latin America and elsewhere, Colombia’s economy relies heavily on commodities, especially petroleum. A complicated economic equation with overproduction of oil and slowed growth in China and Brazil results in the Colombian peso taking a huge hit, which, while a huge obstacle for working Colombians who now need more pesos to buy the same things, is great for anyone earning in currencies like dollars and euros.
When Web Work Travel’s Medellín Digital Nomad Guide came out in 2014, one US Dollar was equal to 2,588 Colombian pesos. Today, as I edit this post it’s 3,288 (that’s up 40 from when I wrote the first draft four days ago). That basically means your dollar is buying 25% more now than it did a year or so ago. A one-bedroom apartment in a decent neighborhood in downtown Medellín is still maybe 500 million pesos (¡!), but whereas that would have been about $194 last year, now it’s only $153!
So this is absolutely reason number one I’m moving to Colombia: I wanna move into a modest apartment in a cool neighborhood in Medellín and pay $150 US dollars a month to live in probably a nicer apartment than I’ve ever lived in in the West.
2) Cheap domestic travel means traveling deep and wide
Yesterday I bought a flight from Bogotá to Medellín for next week, and it cost about $28 USD. If I’d bought it a couple of weeks ago, I could have gotten away with spending $15. (That’s of course not including the 45 cent bus ride from the airport into the city, to be totally transparent.)
Mostly thanks to Viva Colombia, Colombia’s version of Ryanair, there’s a pretty wide network of cities that are reachable by air within Colombia for less than $40 or $50 (and often less than half that). This makes it super practical to plan for a weekend trip into the depth of the Amazon rainforest while living in one of the big modern cities in the Andes.
Especially in a country as diverse as Colombia, it’d be a joke to spend a few months sitting in one city and think you’d learned anything about this giant chunk of the map called ‘Colombia’. Cheap flights mean Colombia and I will be getting to know each other very well.
3) Colombian Spanish comes in loud and clear
Saving money is all good and stuff, but I could do that just as well or better in Bolivia or Thailand or Nepal. The other big reason — let’s call it co-first place — I’m moving to Colombia next week is because I want to improve my Spanish, and Colombia is an ideal place to do that.
Colombia is said to be home to one of the clearest varieties of Latin American Spanish. The Rolo dialect of Bogotá is considered a prestige dialect of South America, and the Paisas in Medellín are known for a sing-songy way of speaking that doesn’t zip by quite as fast as their cousins along the Caribbean coast.
Colombians are generally proud of their Spanish, and I’ve been promised by local friends that the whole country will band together to cure me of my mexicanismos.
4) Medellín is the cool ‘digital nomad’ hotspot for Latin America
I first started hearing about Medellín around two years ago, when I was first thinking of moving to Colombia, and then again in Mexico City where many of the digital nomads I met in the hostel were planning on lighting there for a while.
Medellín has become the flavor of the moment largely because of the other things I’m talking about in this post, and it’s sort of a snowball effect: having this community of migrant professionals draws more like-minded people.
I’ll be actively avoiding the expat-heavy El Poblado neighborhood, where the majority of these digital nomad types live, if nothing else to avoid getting stuck in the international bubble I got caught in in Mexico City. Priority number one is always getting to know local people, but it’s also important to me to have access to an expat community, which always makes up an important part of my social and professional circle wherever I go.
5) And just to the south of Medellín is Colombia’s Coffee Region
Long before it was known for its drug cartels, Colombia was known for its delicious coffee, which you can get fresh at the source just to south of Medellín in the Coffee Region. It’s beautiful to behold, and even better to drink.
It’s everywhere and it’s delicious and I shall drink ALL OF IT very soon.
6) And also it’s just fucking gorgeous, like have you even looked at it
7) Which is largely because it’s a megadiverse country with five distinctly different climate zones
There are 17 countries in the world considered by UNESCO to be ‘megadiverse’, and it’s the most diverse country per square kilometer in the world. Megadiverse countries are “a group of countries that harbor the majority of Earth’s species and high numbers of endemic species”, and are generally attractive travel destinations for their many different climates and landscapes.
Colombia has five distinct climates within its borders (six if you count its islands in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean). This means traveling from Bogotá high in the Andes, to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, to Leticia deep in the Amazon, you’d feel like you’ve traveled to three different countries.
I’ve got my eye on Medellín, La ciudad de la eterna primavera, the ‘city of eternal spring’. The average annual temperature is 22 C (72 F), i.e. the perfect temperature at which to do anything. It’s near the equator but relatively high (1495 m/4,905 ft) nestled up in a valley of the Andes mountains. It’s the kind of place where I am hell-bent on having a little balcony and where I, lacking stern parents to tell me it’s time to come in and wash up for supper, will never stop playing outside.
8) It’s also a much meltier melting pot of cultures
Just like there are several distinct climates in Colombia, there are several distinct cultures. The Caribbean and Pacific coasts are full of largely Afro-Colombian descendents of colonial slaves who were purchased and trafficked mostly from the Gulf of Guinea region, from Benin and Togo to the Congo, and in the Caribbean region especially the Spanish spoken is more similar to that of Cuba or Puerto Rico than to the dialect spoken in Bogotá.
Whereas most of Central America and the other Andean countries host large indigenous populations, in Colombia only about 3% of the population is made up of indigenous peoples. For comparison, Mexico’s population is about 21.5% indigenous, and that of the US is just under 1%.
Most of its component peoples have intermarried over time to form different racial and economic classes of mestizos, but I don’t know much yet about how cohesive Colombian society is as a whole.
Aside from the dominant national culture of the Andean cities, other cultures thrive along the Pacific coast, the interior Llanos, the Guajira penninsula in the north, and in the Amazon.
9) It’s one of the fastest developing countries in Latin America
Your ethical responsibilities in a country rife with inequality and poverty are usually different than what’s expected of you in a country where public institutions are strong and most people are generally doing okay, so it’s important to understand a little bit about where a country is in its development before you move in.
In Mexico I got an inside look at life in a country that already is ‘developed’ by many standards but suffers from political corruption and legal and illegal criminals who keep most of the money hoarded in the posh neighborhoods and suburbs of Mexico City and Monterrey.
I don’t know what exactly to expect of Colombia yet. I’m sure that in the central areas of big cities like Bogotá and Medellín will look like prosperous, modern urban areas where the people are riding several years of economic and civil progress. I’ve heard so much about urban development projects in the poor neighborhoods of Medellín, but I’m interested to see how many people are actually benefitting from it and how.
10) 2016 will be the official start of a new era of peace in Colombia
Speaking of change, anyone born after Civil Rights in the US has never lived in a world where Colombia was not at war. The internal conflict, with its roots traceable back to 1948 although it began officially in 1964, is finally, for all intents and purposes, over.
Last year the pope pope-mobiled over to Cuba and called the Colombian president andthe leaders of the FARC to Havana to start sorting out an agreement that would actually stick. This winter the agreement was negotiated, and all that’s waiting is signatures on paper.
Since around 2012 it’s gotten remarkably safer to move around in Colombia, and I imagine it’ll be even safer in 2016. I’m expecting a country that’s rejoicing as it celebrates a peace that most of its population has never known, and rightfully so. But what will happen to all the former soldiers in the leftist guerrilla groups and the right-wing paramilitaries? Many are young and have little or no education, so finding jobs may not be a realistic expectation for many of them.
If this isn’t handled very well, it could end up in a Colombia that’s rowdier than it was before the peace talks began. But for now, the outlook is bright, and if all goes as Colombia and the international community expect it to, March will see an official peace accord put into law.
11) It’s the perfect happy medium of development and cost
This is in a way the main reason I’m choosing to move to Colombia, and it’s something anyone should think about when moving to a new country.
Think of daily comforts and cost of living as being on a curve, and the highest point on the curve is where you can get the most comfort for the proporitionally least cost. This is what Colombia is to me and many other Westerners, especially those who can work remotely.
Its bigger cities are in many ways as developed as many in the West, and I know I’ll have access to good emergency healthcare and decent transportation infrastructure. Most importantly, internet is everywhere, and in the bigger cities you can get a connection of decent speed for a few bucks extra.
Somewhere like Bolivia or Nicaragua would have been cheaper, but then I would have had to forego some of those ‘comforts’, and reliable Internet is more like a necessity if I want to keep feeding myself. By the same token, life in Argentina or Chile would have in many ways more modern affordances, but then I’d be payiing American prices or more.
Colombia, for me, is the perfect fit, the high point on the curve.
What’s happening in Colombia now? In the late 80s Medellín was the most dangerous city in the world, and now its El Poblado neighborhood is bursting with wealthy Western digital nomads living in luxurious apartments. How much is the urban development and the entrepreneurial and expat culture changing, helping, or hurting the city?
In a country that’s changing as fast as Colombia is, I’m hoping to see some of these dynamics playing out in my day-to-day life in Colombia this year.
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