My wife and I retired in 2016 and moved to Medellin, Colombia as expats. We moved there in 2020 only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which took us to Iowa to be with my 89 year old mother-in-law. Here are seven reasons why we recommend Medellin to anyone considering expat life.
1. Eternal spring temperatures
Medellin enjoys temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit all year round. His label, City of Eternal Springtime, came for another reason: flowers are everywhere. The flower festival every August attracts people from all over the world. At 5,000 feet, nestled in an Andean valley, Medellin had perfect weather for us.
Pro tips: Take an umbrella every time you go out and hang around. Medellin is a few hundred kilometers above the equator. Despite the temperate climate, Colombian men do not wear shorts and sunglasses are rarely seen. By the way, it’s Colombia, not Colombia.
2. Health care and hospital facilities
One of the first questions that potential expatriates ask themselves concerns the healthcare system. According to Colombian law, everyone must have health insurance. This includes expats. The national system is administered by two providers, Coomeva and Sura, who set up payments, screen healthcare claims and assign doctors. As for the quality, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Colombia ranks 22nd in the world for health care. The United States ranks 37th.
My personal experience has been instructive. In January 2019, I had a heart attack. In the emergency room, a bilingual doctor determined that I had had a coronary artery occlusion. She sent me for a stent, then to a private intensive care room. With my ER visit, the stent procedure, 4 days in the hospital, and the attendant’s medication and meals, my out-of-pocket expenses were $5. Not a typo – five bucks!
The less good news concerns access to health care. There is no official EMS system in Colombia. Private ambulance companies exist, usually priced at around $20 per month. But depending on the time of day, etc., city traffic can make it difficult to get emergency care. Most medical professionals in Medellin speak some English, and many speak it fluently. But very few staff do, so a translator is a good idea.
Pro tip: Our monthly premium under Sura insurance was $60 in total, for the two of us! Prescription drugs are also inexpensive and many are available over the counter.
3. Restaurants in Medellin
Medellin has restaurants for every taste, every price, and every ethnic dish you can imagine. Our favorites were Gautama in Poblado for amazing vegetarian food, Peruana in Laureles for Peruvian food and a little hole in the wall in Envigado called Café Barrio Sur with the best fish and chips I have ever tasted. Expect lunch to cost $4-7 each and $15-23 for a full dinner. Beer and wine selections are what you’re probably used to in the US
Pro tip: Colombians start dinner at 8 or 9 p.m. The restaurants only open at around 7 p.m. So we NorteAmericanos had the place to ourselves at 7pm. Tipping is standard 15%. You must request the check; waiters never do this on purpose, as it’s considered rude.
4. Cost of living in Medellin
How much will it cost to live in Medellin? Our apartment in Medellin’s wealthiest enclave had 1,100 square feet, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a laundry room, and a kitchen for $800 a month, depending on exchange rates. The building had a 24/7 doorman, heated swimming pool, gym, private parking and a great location just a 10 minute walk from the metro station. We hired a weekly housekeeper for $100 a month, and utilities were an extra $100.
Farm-fresh fruits and vegetables are available daily and we typically spend around $35 a week to eat well at home. We didn’t have a car, since we didn’t need it and didn’t want it. Conclusion: You can very well live in Medellin for $1,500 a month.
5. Public transport is better than owning a vehicle
We didn’t have a car in Colombia and we didn’t need one. There are 43,000 taxis available and we rarely waited more than 2 minutes for one. the Medellin Metro is the best public transport system in South America. With a train available every 8 minutes, buses that always stop at a metro station, free bicycles with the Metro card and the MetroCable system, you can get around Medellin easily and inexpensively. With the metro you can travel anywhere in the valley for $5 or less.
The metro system is safe, spotlessly clean, efficient and modern. Each station has a 24/7 police presence, and limpiadoras, or sweepers, are ubiquitous. Moreover, Colombians would not dream of littering. They are very proud of the cleanliness of their city, and of the metro in particular. If you are sitting on the ground in a subway station, a policeman will ask you nicely to get up.
Finally, the José Maria Córdova International Airport in Medellin offers flights to several national and international destinations, including many daily flights to and from the American continent.
Pro tip: Yellow is assigned only to taxis in Colombia. You don’t speak Spanish? Print the desired destination on a sheet of paper and give it to the driver. Want to know the cost in advance? Say “Cuanto cuesta, por favor”. Drivers are safe, courteous, efficient and knowledgeable. Most of them don’t speak English. Take a picture of the driver information sheet in case you lose something or have a bad experience. It is very important to do not slam the taxi door!
6. Entertainment venues abound
The Medellin Symphony Orchestra is world class and the 1,500 seat Metropolitan Theater is one of the best concert halls we have ever attended. While we lived in Medellin, the Teatro hosted Hillary Hahn, Yo Yo Ma, the German National Symphony Orchestra, opera productions, and music from several top stars. The Medellin Youth Orchestra performs here and offers free outdoor concerts year-round. We never paid more than $45 for the best seats, and usually much less.
Our favorite little theater is called, appropriately, Pequeno Theater, “little theatre”. This 80-seat room has a unique pricing system. Tickets are distributed and the show is presented. Then, when the visitors leave, the actors line up hat in hand. You pay based on how you liked the performance!
Another venue is the Pablo Tobón Uribe Theater near the city center. This theater
primarily offers actors and performers in training, high school and college youth honing their acting skills and honing their musical skills to polish a resume.
Street performers are always in sight. At most major intersections, jugglers, breakdancers, magicians and rope walkers demonstrate their skills for advice, and just because they can.
Medellin Zoo is an island of calm and a hub of conservation efforts. The zoo features rarely seen species, such as Andean condors, parrots, snakes and coatis. There is also a magnificent butterfly house.
Each mall has multiple movie screens, and all the major productions appear there, many in English with Spanish subtitles.
Pro tip: Performances at the Teatro Met start around 7 p.m., and after that there are several taxis nearby. Several restaurants are within walking distance of the Teatro.
Medellin has several modern shopping malls with the most famous brand stores. The Santa Fe shopping center in Poblado is vast, with all the shops and restaurants you would need. This mall also has a large public space that features colorful, creative, and richly detailed exhibits that reflect the different seasons. Between holiday exhibits, the space is a busy playground for los niños.
There are sports venues like a golf course near the local airport in Medellin, baseball fields near several high schools, several apartment buildings with tennis courts and swimming pools, and of course there are fútbol (soccer) stadiums. We were advised not to attend a football match in Colombia, because the fans are “strongly” invested in their teams. No alcohol is allowed inside the futbol stadium, but…
Pro tip: Stores in Colombia accept credit cards, unless otherwise specified, or reject some. ATMs are readily available and fees are nominal. Our Schwab account reimbursed our ATM fees. Currently, the Colombian peso (COP) is exchanged for around 4,000 for 1 USD, so 5,000 COP is equivalent to $1.20; 10,000 = $2.40; 20,000 = $4.50; and 50,000 about $13.
We had a wonderful, rich and fulfilling life as retirees in Medellin, Colombia. We recommend it to everyone, with the caveat to try it for several months first. Medellin is a big city with the noise and bustle you expect. There are 3.5 million souls living in the Aburrá Valley, the air quality is not always the best and traffic is a challenge. But if you’re tired of the winter cold, like living in a big city with lots to do and see, with easy access to a major international airport, great healthcare, and 30% off the cost of living in the United States, Medellin is a great place to retire.
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