Living in Medellin
If you’ve seen Narcos or followed the history of the drug trade in Colombia at all, you probably have the wrong idea of what Medellin is like. Before I visited, I imagined a town devastated by the drug trade that was so much a part of it’s recent history and which remained completely unsafe, especially for foreigners, women and foreign women. I could not have been more wrong.
Medellin is a lovely small city and although it has dangerous parts, so does every city. You don’t go to the South Side in Chicago late at night on your own or parts of the Bronx in New York. You also shouldn’t go to Santo Domingo in Medellin, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the city altogether. If you do, you’ll eventually regret it.
Housing in Medellin is affordable for people from the USA or most of Europe, even in the posh neighborhood of Poblado. As always, rent is cheapest if you’re willing to share a place but even renting a furnished apartment by the month will be less expensive than where you’re from. The popular-with-expats neighborhoods are Poblado, Laureles, and Sabaneta.
You can rent a furnished room through Airbnb for as little as $250/month in Laureles or a furnished 1 bedroom penthouse for $1250/month in Poblado. If you’re staying long-term, it could be worth renting somewhere unfurnished and buying furniture. A lease can bring that 1 bedroom penthouses rent down to $400/month + utilities and you could furnish and equip the apartment for under $1000. Long-term, that’s a lot of money saved.
Medellin has some public transportation but, like in most of Colombia, it isn’t great. The subway and cable cars exist, but the buses are what you’ll be riding most of the time as they are the heart of the transit system. It can be a bit confusing to figure out routes on your own so be sure to download Google Maps Medellin.
If you’re planning to take the metro or buses in Medellin, put a little bit of energy into getting a Civica card. It’s free to get but you will need to show a form of ID like a passport or cedula. You can only pick up a Civica card at the Niquía, San Antonio, Itagüí y San Javier metro stations. Your Civica card will have no value on it when you purchase it but there are over 600 locations around Medellin where you can recharge it. It’s a bit more effort than just paying with cash but it will save you both time and money in the long-term – you’ll save time by not having to buy individual tickets for the subway or fumbling for change to pay for the bus and money becuase Civica card fares are up to 15% cheaper than cash fares. In a city like Medellin, 15% of 2,000 COP ($.68) doesn’t feel like a lot, but if you’re take the subway/buses around a lot, it can add up over time.
Getting to and from the international airport is easy. You can either hop into one of the official taxis at the airport and it’ll cost you a flat rate, depending on where you’re going. Most places in Medellin cost 65,000 COP ($22). If you’re traveling light and on a budget, you can take the airport shuttle to Poblado for 9,500 COP ($3.25) and switch to a taxi to your housing. Local taxis have a minimum fare of 7,000 COP, even if you’re just going around the corner but apps like Easytaxi, Cabify and Uber all operate in Medellin with a lower minimum fare.
Coffee, which is as necessary for health and happiness in Colombia as water, is very affordable. You could go to Starbucks and overpay for decent coffee but why would you when you can get amazing local coffee for cheap at nearly any cafe in the city. Most coffee shops with wifi and comfortable seats will have coffee ranging from 3,500 COP ($1.20) for an espresso to 8,000 COP ($2.75) for a fancy whipped iced mocha with chocolate swirls. If you’re feeling adventurous and polite, you can head to the center and get a delicious coffee for as little as 1,200 COP ($.40). There is an actual cute sign in a coffee shop in el centro that says “un tinto = 2.000, un tinto por favor = 1.500, Buenos dias, un tinto por favor = 1.200” which is a lovely gentle reminder that a little civility can go a long way.
Cell phone companies are abundant and the plans are affordable in Medellin. I got a prepaid SIM card for 5,000 COP ($1.70) and paid Claro 42,900 COP ($14.55) for 2GB of web, email etc and unlimited What’s App, Facebook and Twitter, which is where I waste most of my internet allowance anyway. Compared to $50+/month for comparable usage in the USA, that’s a really good price.
Both eating out and groceries are very affordable in Medellin. You can get a burger + fries for 25,000 COP ($8.50) at a nicer sit-down place or for 10,000 COP ($3.40) at a fast food place. Nearly every restaurant will deliver your food or drinks for a small fee so you don’t have to cook at home unless you want to. If you do decide to cook at home, groceries are very affordable, whether you go to the Whole Foods-esque store Carulla or the more local and affordable shop Euro. Expect to spend about 40,000 to 80,000 COP ($13.70 – 27.30) for a week’s worth of groceries, depending on where you shop and what you buy. For reference, three mangos will cost approximately 3,000 COP ($1.05) and most other fresh produce is similarly affordable. Imported goodies, like pesto, is more expensive, costing 22,000 COP ($7.50.) A package of arepas (the Colombian staple food) will range from 4,000 to 8,000 COP ($1.36 – $2.73) depending on the brand and how many are in a package.
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Medellin is a city where you can splurge. Taxis are affordable. Getting a massage or your hair done is reasonable. You can get eyelash extensions for 30,000 COP ($11) and a pedicure at a really nice place for 16,000 COP ($5.50). If you want to save money on your splurges, you could leave Poblado and get your treatments done in Laureles for about half, with decent pedicures going for 8,000 COP ($2.75). A nice gym membership can be as little as 160,000 COP (or $55) for a 3 month contract. Massages are equally affordable.
If you’re celebrating a birthday or any other special event, it’s easy to splurge at a nice restaurant in Medellin without breaking the bank. For example, you could go to Chiclayo, a lovely Peruvian restaurant in Laureles, and have a bottle of wine and two entrees for 105,000 COP ($35.80).
Medellin is a great place to buy many things (like food) but certain things like makeup and electronics are still quite expensive. A known brand, like Maybelline, powder can cost upwards of 30,000 COP ($10.23) so if you wear make-up, stock up before you leave home. Electronics are similarly pricey so make sure everything you need is in good working condition before you head to Colombia. A new apple laptop charger will cost 328,000 ($112) and a 16GB iPhone 6s Plus will cost 3,255,900 COP ($1,110).
Is it worth it?
That depends. Do you like warm weather, great coffee and fast internet? If so, Medellin might be a good fit for you. If you prefer to be cold, decaffeinated and/or off-the-grid, you may want to look at another city.
I didn’t expect to like Medellin as much as I did but I can easily see why so many digital nomads and expats flock to city and why it is dubbed “the Chiang Mai of South America”. More than anywhere else I’ve visited in Latin America, it has the same coffee shop culture and ability to function without speaking the local language as Chiang Mai. If you love Chiang Mai but have to work on US time zones, consider Medellin.
This post is by Amna Shamim, a writer/marketing consultant who quit her life in NYC and now travels the world, basing out of a different city every 1-2 months. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Hobo On The Go and read her favorite for-client articles at here. Whether you’re looking for a great writer or just want to let her know about your adventures, please feel free to reach out.
You can also find Amna Shamim on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram.
If you would like to know even more Amna was recently one of the featured women nomads in Glamour Magazine.