My wife and I retired in 2016 and moved to Medellin, Colombia, as expats. We left 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 we’d recommend Medellin to anyone considering the expat life.
1. Eternal Springtime Temperatures
Medellin enjoys year-round temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Its label, City of Eternal Springtime, came for another reason: Flowers are everywhere. The flower festival each August draws people from all over the world. At 5,000 feet above sea level, nestled in an Andean valley, Medellin had the ideal weather for us.
Pro Tips: Take an umbrella every time you go out and block up. Medellin is a few hundred miles above the equator. Despite the temperate climate, Colombian men don’t wear shorts, and sunglasses are rarely seen. By the way, it’s Colombia, not Columbia.
2. Health Care And Hospital Facilities
One of the first questions potential expats ask is about the healthcare system. By Colombian law, everyone must have health insurance. That includes expats. The national system is administered by two vendors, Coomeva and Sura, who set up payments, screen healthcare requests, and assign physicians. As for quality, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Colombia ranks 22nd in the world for healthcare. The U.S. ranks 37th.
My personal experience was instructive. In January 2019, I had a heart attack. In the emergency room, a bilingual physician determined that I’d had a coronary artery occlusion. She sent me for a stent, and afterward to a private ICU room. With my ER visit, the stent procedure, 4 days in the hospital, and attendant meds and meals, my out-of-pocket expense was $5. Not a typo — five bucks!
The not-so-good news concerns access to health care. There is no official EMS system in Colombia. Private ambulance companies do exist, typically priced at $20 a month or so. 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 are fluent. But very few staff workers do, so a translator is a fine idea.
Pro Tip: Our monthly premium under Sura insurance was $60 total, for two of us! Prescription drugs are equally inexpensive, and many are available over the counter.
3. Restaurants In Medellin
Medellin has restaurants catering to every taste, cost, and ethnic food you can imagine. Our favorites were Gautama in Poblado for amazing vegetarian fare, 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’ve ever tasted. Expect lunch to cost $4 to $7 a piece, and $15 to $23 for a full dinner. The beer and wine selections are what you’re probably used to in the U.S.
Pro Tip: Colombianos start dinner at 8 or 9 p.m. Restaurants don’t open until 7 p.m. or so. Thus, we NorteAmericanos had the place to ourselves at 7 p.m. Tips are a standard 15 percent. You must ask for the check; waiters never volunteer it, as it’s considered rude.
4. Cost Of Living In Medellin
How much will it cost to live in Medellin? Our apartment in the wealthiest enclave in Medellin had 1,100 square feet, three bedrooms, three baths, a laundry room, and kitchen for $800 a month, depending on exchange rates. The building had a 24/7 doorman, heated pool, gym, private parking, and a great location with just a 10-minute walk to the Metro station. We hired a weekly housekeeper for $100 per month, and utilities were another $100.
Farm fresh fruits and vegetables are available every day, and we spent typically $35 or so a week to eat very well at home. We had no car, since we didn’t need one, and didn’t want one. Bottom line: You can live very well in Medellin for $1,500 a month.
5. Public Transportation Is Better Than Vehicle Ownership
We didn’t own a car in Colombia, and didn’t need one. There are 43,000 taxis available, and we rarely waited longer 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, bicycles free 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, squeaky clean, efficient, and modern. Every station has a police presence 24/7, and limpiadoras, or sweepers, are ever-present. Plus, Colombianos wouldn’t dream of littering. They take great pride in how clean their city is, and the Metro in particular. If you sit on the floor in a Metro station, a policeman will kindly have you stand up.
Lastly, Medellin’s José Maria Córdova International Airport has flights to several domestic and international destinations, including many daily flights to and from the U.S. mainland.
Pro Tip: Yellow is assigned only to taxis in Colombia. Don’t speak Spanish? Print your desired destination on a slip of paper, and hand it to the driver. Want to know the cost ahead of time? Say “Cuanto cuesta, por favor.” Drivers are safe, courteous, efficient, and skilled. Most of them speak no English. Take a picture of the driver’s info sheet in case you lose something, or have a bad experience. It’s very important to not slam the taxi door!
6. Entertainment Venues Abound
The Medellin Symphony is world-class, and the 1,500-seat Teatro Metropolitano is one of the finer music venues we’ve ever attended. While we lived in Medellin, Teatro hosted Hillary Hahn, Yo Yo Ma, the German National Symphony, productions of operas, and music by several major stars. The Medellin Youth Orchestra performs there, plus they offer free outdoor concerts year-round. We never paid more than $45 for the best seats, and typically much less.
Our favorite small theater is called, appropriately, Teatro Pequeño, “small theater.” This 80-seat venue has a unique pricing scheme. Tickets are distributed, and the show is presented. Then, as visitors depart, actors line up hat-in-hand. You pay according to how well you liked the performance!
Another venue is Pablo Tobón Uribe Theater near downtown. This theater
offers mostly actors and performers in training, high school and college-aged young people perfecting their acting chops, and honing musical skills to burnish a resumé.
Street performers are always in view. At most major intersections, jugglers, breakdancers, magicians, and rope-walkers demonstrate their skills for tips, and just because they can.
The Medellin Zoo is an island of quiet and a hub of conservation efforts. The zoo features species rarely seen, such as Andean condors, parrots, snakes, and coatis. There’s a wonderful butterfly house as well.
Every shopping mall has several movie screens, and all major productions appear there, many in English and subtitled in Spanish.
Pro Tip: Performances at Teatro Met start around 7 p.m., and afterward, there are several taxis close by. Several restaurants are a short walk to Teatro.
7. Shopping And Sports Venues
Medellin has several modern malls with the most familiar name brand stores. The Santa Fe Mall in Poblado is expansive, with every store and restaurant you’d ever need. This mall also has a large public area that features colorful, creative, richly-detailed displays that reflect the various seasons. In between holiday displays, the space is a busy playground for los niños.
There are sports venues such as a golf course near the Medellin local airport, baseball fields near several high schools, several apartment buildings with tennis courts and pools, and of course there are fútbol (soccer) stadiums. We were advised not to attend a fútbol match in Colombia, because fans become “highly invested” in their teams. No alcohol is allowed inside the futbol stadium, but…
Pro Tip: Stores in Colombia accept credit cards, unless they indicate otherwise, or reject certain ones. ATMs are readily available, and the charge is nominal. Our Schwab account reimbursed our ATM fees. Currently, the Colombian Peso (COP), is exchanged for about 4,000 per 1 USD, so 5,000 COP equals $1.20; 10,000 is $2.40; 20,000 is $4.50; and 50,000 about $13.
We had a wonderful, rich, and fulfilling life as retirees in Medellin, Colombia. We recommend it to anyone, with the caveat of trying it first for several months. Medellin is a big city with the noise and bustle you’d expect. There are 3.5 million souls living in the Aburrá Valley, air quality isn’t the best at times, and traffic is a challenge. But if you’re tired of chilly winter weather, you like big-city living with lots to do and see, with easy access to a major international airport, great health care, and 30 percent of the U.S. cost of living, Medellin is a great place to retire.
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