Colombia As An Alternative To Thailand
Over the past decade, increasing numbers of people from North America and Europe are moving overseas and living as expats. They include backpackers, students, English teachers, digital nomads and retirees. The motivation is often warmer climate, lower cost of living, less stressful life, or they just want to experience a different culture.
Thailand, along with Malaysia and Vietnam, are probably the most popular destinations in Asia. Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil are popular Latin countries among expats. Spain and Portugal are probably the most popular in Europe for retirees.
I took voluntary early retirement about 6 years ago, and considered most of the above places. For a number of reasons I chose Chiang Mai, and have obtained retirement visas the last 5 years, though I have not be there full-time. I like Thailand, but like many of Stickman’s readers I am also considering other places.
I recently spent about 6 weeks in Medellin, Colombia, which has become a popular place among tourists and expats in recent years. Twenty years ago it was one of the most dangerous places in the world, but it has made tremendous strides over the last 15 years in improving the economy and eradicating many of the drug cartels and guerrilla groups. Medellin is now a vibrant place, with an emerging middle class, improving economy, and a boom in tourism. Medellin is Colombia’s 2nd largest city, with a population of about 3.5 million. It is located in a valley in the Northern Andes mountains. The Medellin natives, or “Paisas” are very friendly, proud people and consider themselves different from other Colombians.
I will cover the main areas a foreigner might consider when deciding if Medellin is worth a look. These are my opinions only based on a short visit and speaking with local expats.
VISAS: Colombia has over 15 different types of visas but I will only cover the main ones:
Tourist Visa: citizens of most countries can be approved to stay 90 days as a tourist, up to 180 days per year. But no one visit can exceed 90 days.
Education Visa: you can obtain a one-year education visa provided you have registered and paid to attend classes at a recognized University or language school. You must provide proof of registration.
Retirement Visa: you are eligible if you are over 50 years of age, can prove at least $1,000 in pension or other recurring income, as well as obtain local medical insurance. The visa is good for one year and is renewable. After a specified number of years you may be eligible for permanent residency.
Work Visa: to be eligible you must have an employment contract with a local company that sponsors you.
Investor Visa: you may qualify for an investor visa if you either purchase real estate, or invest or start up a business. The amounts change due to exchange rate fluctuations, and I believe the amounts are about $150,000 for real estate, $ 50,000 for a business. Foreigners have the same property rights as Colombian nationals.
WEATHER: Colombia, since it’s located near the equator, has a tropical climate and it gets very hot along the coasts. Medellin, because of its elevation, has been called the “City of eternal spring” since it has year round moderate weather. The average monthly temperature is always about 70 Fahrenheit, and it rarely goes above 85 or below 60. There is a rainy season but rarely severe storms. Residents told me that they almost never need to turn on the A/C or heat.
COST of LIVING
Medellin has a low cost of living compared to most of North America and Europe, though there is a wide range depending on what neighborhood you live in, whether you shop at local markets and eat at local restaurants or prefer to shop at western style supermarkets (like Tops, Rimping) and eat out at foreign restaurants often. It’s very similar to Thailand in that regard.
You can get a very nice apartment in the high end, expat neighborhoods for say $ 800-1500 per month, depending on size and age of the building. If you shop around and go to more local, though nice areas, you can find apartments in the $ 500 per month range. It should be noted that many rental apartments in Medellin are unfurnished, so you can expect to pay more for a furnished place.
I did not look into the real estate for sale market, but was told that there are very nice apartments for sale in very good neighborhoods for less than $150,000 but there is a wide range of prices.
For food, if you go to local markets, the costs for fruits, vegetables, meats are very inexpensive, I would say comparable to those in Chiang Mai. I looked in a few butcher shops and the prices are cheaper than Thailand and much better quality meat.
If you dine out in a nice Italian, French, Argentinian, Peruvian restaurant, you will spend $ 20-30 per person depending on whether you drink. A local Colombian restaurant is much less.
Medellin is very impressive in this area. About 15 years ago they built a metro train system that runs north – south the length of the city, with limited lines going east – west. There is also a cheap and extensive city bus system, and there are cable cars that connect the city with some of the neighborhoods high up the mountain. Taxis are everywhere, clean, drivers use the meter always, and very cheap. Because the city is in the mountains, there are not a lot of superhighways, so there is car traffic during rush hours.
Because of its location in the mountains, there are many outdoor activities available such as hiking, rafting, hang gliding, mountain biking etc.. One nice thing is that on Sunday morning one of the main roads is closed to traffic, and hundreds of people are out walking, running, biking, roller skating etc.. If you take the less than an hour flight to Cartagena and beach areas, there is good diving, snorkeling activities.
Colombia, like most Latin countries, is crazy about soccer. Medellin has 2 teams that play in the Colombian league, and also visiting teams from Argentina, Brazil sometimes visit to play the Medellin squads.
MEDICAL: Colombia, like many developing countries, is a player in the growing medical tourism industry due to its good quality and low cost compared to many other countries. I read that Medellin has 8 of the top 50 hospitals in South America and the expats I spoke with said the quality is very good and a fraction of what it costs in the U.S.
CULTURAL ACTIVITIES: While not having the world-class cultural life of major cities like Paris, London, NY, Madrid, Medellin does offer a number of cultural and educational venues. There are several museums, including the Museum of Antiquities and the Modern Art Museum. There is also a Planetarium, Aquarium, Science Museum and a Zoo.
There is no major symphony hall or opera house, but there are several small theaters that will feature musical shows, dance shows etc..
Most cities in Colombia, including Medellin, have festivals throughout the year. Being a heavily Catholic country, some of the festivals revolve around Holy Days, particularly Christmas. Medellin also holds a large flower festival, a native folklore and handicraft festival, a Fashion week with many designers showcasing their latest, and of course beauty pageants, which are popular in South America.
NIGHTLIFE: like most Latins, Colombians love music and love to dance. Latin music is great, and Salsa, Reggaeton and Hip Hop the popular styles. Reggaeton is favored by younger people and is a blend of Salsa, Reggae, and Hip Hop. Medellin has many nightclubs catering to the younger crowd that get going at midnight till the morning hours.
For the older guys like me, there are several Irish pubs and chains like Hooters where you can enjoy a relaxing pint or two. I did not go to any bars where girls were available for rent.
Since a more “adult” nightlife is of interest to Stick’s readers, I was told that there are many gogo bars around town, many in rough areas of town and difficult if you don’t speak Spanish. There are also many brothels around town, but I did not search them out so can’t comment. I don’t believe that there are any concentrated girly bar areas like a Nana Plaza or Soi Cowboy in Bangkok targeting expats and tourists. I believe that Colombia does get some sex tourists as there are signs around town saying no sex tourists, but I didn’t notice it.
WOMEN: Many consider Colombian women among the most beautiful in the world, and it certainly produces its share of beauty queens and entertainers. The women are very feminine, like to dress well, and there is a lot of plastic surgery done. They mainly have a Latin, voluptuous figure, big booty, and pretty face. If you prefer petite, skinny girls, you’ll prefer Thai girls.
Like Thailand, many older Western men come to Colombia looking for a girlfriend / wife. Many Colombian women are divorced with children, and they see gringos as more faithful and financially secure. Plus local women are more willing to settle with an older guy than in Western countries. I did see quite a few older guys having a nice dinner with their “daughter” or “granddaughter” but much less than Thailand and the women weren’t dressed like bargirls.
I will offer my opinion on the pros and cons of Medellin as a potential retirement destination. My intent isn’t to compare with Thailand, but in some cases I may compare / contrast.
— Medellin has very nice weather year round, no extreme heat or cold (better than Thailand easy).
— the cost of living is cheaper than most of North America and Europe,
— good, inexpensive medical care (similar to Thailand)
— good public transport system train, bus, taxis (much better than Thailand)
— pretty good, though not great visa options. (a bit better than Thailand, no 90-day reporting)
— at least among professionals a lot of Colombians have lived in the U.S or Europe.
— Spanish language easier to learn than Thai for a westerner.
— Colombia is receiving a lot of good press, so country has positive momentum.
— at least for Americans, a much shorter flight back home for visits. Europe is a long flight.
— English not widely spoken among average people (same as Thailand)
— Colombia doesn’t have a good inter city train system (same as Thailand)
— people drive a little crazy, especially motorbikes (same as Thailand)
— Airfares to other South American countries very expensive (Thailand much better)
— though crime has decreased a lot, still need to be careful after dark in certain areas (Thailand safer)
— Colombian cuisine nothing special though good international cuisine available (Thai food better)
Personally I am partial to Asia but I think Colombia, particularly Medellin, has a lot of offer and should receive consideration as a destination for retirees, investors or digital nomads.