16 Random Pieces of Advice for Life as a Foreigner in the City of Eternal Spring
Medellín is a truly fantastic place to live. Along with its welcoming climate and warm culture, the opening up of the city’s entrepreneurial spirit has encouraged people to relocate to the city for either work or leisure. I’ve been a proud resident for nearly half a decade now, and over the years I’ve often found myself fielding requests from newly arrived expats about all aspects of life. This article addresses the most common of those inquiries, and provides what I hope are some useful suggestions to make life in Antioquia’s capital a little bit more comfortable. You might be thinking that you want to…
(1) Furnish an Apartment
Sick of paying gringo prices for your furnished rental apartment? Let’s say you’ve stopped lying to yourself about moving home anytime soon and have taken the jump to a long term unfurnished rental in Medellín. Here are some tips on how to furnish it.
If you don’t have a strict budget, the best place to go for a wide variety of quality products is probably Homecenter or Exito. Both of these retail giants have an array of many household ítems, ranging from big to small, at acceptable prices. I say acceptable meaning that, compared to prices in North America or Europe, they are about the same or a little bit cheaper. Another great retail store I’ve come to frequent is called Flamingo; it has two different locations within a block of the Parque Berrio metro station. Prices at Flamingo are roughly similar to Éxito and Homecenter – and while the quality of the products is good, they don’t reflect the discounts that are available elsewhere in the city.
Deals abound, but you have to know where to find them.
Medellín is undoubtedly the best city that I’ve ever lived in to be a consumer, and its not simply the prices that make it so. There is a phenomenon here with regards to the geographical placement of stores that works entirely in consumer’s favors.
Most notably in the downtown sector El Centro, but also prevalent in other areas, stores are grouped together based on their offerings. Thus, if you go to El Centro, there is a specific street designated, for example, to the sale textiles. Not just one, or two, or even three…but rather … seven to ten different tiendas, all side by side by side, all offering the same or substantially similar products. This is an ideal situation for a consumer, especially in a market where negotiating for prices is expected.
The ability to negotiate a price with a seller, and then walk right across the street to a competitor if negotiations stall, is very advantageous to a buyer. And even if haggling is not your thing – just being able to browse through a bunch of different stores in the span of a few minutes really helps you learn what is out there and quickly compare prices.
The first map shows the location of the aforementioned textiles street. It has a bunch of different stores selling fabric. It’s also a great place for sheets, blankets and curtains.
The next location will place you in the middle of the “lighting street”. It has a variety of different stores selling bulbs, colorful LED lights, lamps, etc.
The location on the third map shows you the “furniture street”, with a variety of different places selling beds, mattresses, tables, nightstands, desks, etc. The competing furniture stores are actually spread out over a couple different streets but that location will land you right in the middle and you can explore from there. Note that this is a rougher part of El Centro and the adage of no dar papaya is particularly important if you go. But if you’re looking to buy a lot of furniture for low prices, there’s no better place in the city. Remember that haggling is part of the shopping culture at each of these places and the best prices can only be achieved through a bit of negotiation.
Looking for artesanal decorations? The pueblo of El Retiro is famous locally for being the go-to spot to buy higher quality furnishings. For electronics, while many expats know that Centro Comercial Monterrey near Poblado Station is a good spot, also worth checking out is La Cascada in El Centro, another mall dedicated to the sale of electronics.
(2) Figure Out a Way to Beat Rush Hour (or Have an Alternative for Uber)
Although there are many great things about living in Medellin, the rush hour traffic (hora pico) is not among them. There is a solution, however – it will just require you to get outside your comfort zone. The application PICAP works similar to Uber, but instead of a shared car, the service is a shared moto. The drivers carry around an extra helmet, and after they pick you up, you hop on the back and will be weaving through cars in no time. The amount of time you can save during rush hour is substantial – see the video below for proof.
Frustrated by rush hour traffic in Medellín? Use the application PICAP to weave through traffic and save time (click video to start)
As for Uber, although generally it works quite well in the city, sometimes drivers can be flaky or surge pricing can be significant. To expand your options, check out some of the Uber competitors operating in the city: Cabify, Didi, Beat, and Easy Taxi are all recommendable. My personal favorite is InDriver, which allows passengers to offer their own price for a ride and see if any drivers accept (or counteroffer). Because most of these applications take less of a percentage from the driver than Uber, they can be cheaper.
(3) Acquire a Local Drivers License
Want the time-saving benefits of having a moto but don’t trust random Colombian drivers? You can always get your own motorcycle license and you’ll be maneuvering amongst the local traffic in no time.
Visitors to Colombia can use a driver’s license from their home country to drive in Colombia – but only for the first three months after entry into the country. If you are within this three-month limit, it is a good idea to carry your passport or a photocopy showing your entrance date, as Colombia police are notorious for stopping tourists and trying to collect a fee for driving without a proper license.
Beyond the initial three months, expats can risk continuing to drive with their home country license – but it is advisable to take the steps to acquire a Colombian license. The first step is to register for the RUNT system, which costs about 14,000 COP. Upon registration, you will have to seek out a licensed driver’s school (personally I did mine at a school called ‘Conducimos’). I took 20 hours of classes and then a theoretical and practical exam. Don’t worry about failing – both exams were fairly straightforward. Finally, you’ll need to complete a medical exam that takes about an hour. When I completed the process in 2017, it cost about 750,000 COP total. After completing all the exams, you can head to the transit office, pick up your license, and be ready to hit the street.
Note: I’ve read multiple accounts online of expats skipping much of this process by paying someone else to do it for them. If you’ve got the money and don’t have the time, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I can pass along a contact that might be able to help you with this.
Now that you’ve got your license, you’ll want to look into getting your very own set of wheels. When buying a car or moto used here, be sure that it is up to date with SOAT.
(4) Take your Amor to a Romantic Lookout
Perhaps a regular restaurant date just doesn’t feel charming enough for the potential amor de tu vida. Take your partner to one of the majestic miradors around the city instead. Towards the north, San Felix is a mountain-spot with breathtaking views over the city. Though equally beautiful during the day, a visit after dark will give rise to sights of the city lights; sometimes checkered with cloud cover. San Felix is muy arriba, so you feel as if you are looking at the city from the sky. In fact, it is the most common part of the city to go paragliding.
If you’re in the south, San Felix is pretty far away. Instead, you could check out La Octava Maravilla, which is a restaurant and cocktail bar located in Sabaneta that also has breathtaking panoramic views of the city.
(5) Spoil Yourself with a Celebrity Hair and Makeup Stylist
Originally from Venezuela, Angel Ganimedes has been doing hair and makeup for Medellín’s elite for about five years. He works as a freelance stylist out of a variety of different salons in the city and his clients have included Reggaeton stars, instagram influencers, and many local models. If a premium hair styling or makeup session is in your near future, you can reach out to him directly on his instagram @ganimedesart or message us and we can send along his whatsapp.
(6) Choose a Local Cell Phone Company
Following market liberalization in the early 1990’s there are now several cell phone service providers in Colombia, the largest three being Claro, Movistar and Tigo/UNE. Each one has its respective benefits and drawbacks; however, given that calls between the same service provider are free in Colombia, Claro is perhaps the one to choose on account of the fact it has the greatest number of customers.
Claro also has the broadest network coverage and the network most likely to cover small towns if and when you decide to travel outside of the city. Expats from the United States may be surprised to find that the business model used there – involving cell phone contracts – is actually illegal in Colombia. The carriers may not force you to sign a contract for cell services – so if you have a prepaid phone plan you may cancel at any time. The drawback is that without the cell phone contract, it’s not as easy to get the latest phones for little or no upfront cost.
Another thing to note is that the importation of cell phones is heavily restricted in Colombia and that cell phones are one of the few ítems that are generally more expensive in Medellín than in North America. So if you are reading this before you arrive, its a good idea to get a phone beforehand. However don’t be surprised if you get a text demanding that you register your cell phone upon arrival after activating it with a local SIM.
(7) Stay Legal – or Get Legal
I received an email from DIAN (Dirección de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales) recently, “inviting” me to file a tax return. How kind of them. Apparently, the Colombian authorities have stepped up their enforcement of foreigners and are pursuing us more now than ever. The following is a picture of part of the email, in which DIAN highlights the possible scenarios under which an expat might have to file a declaración de renta (income tax return) here:
Thus, it is not merely local income that could trigger the need to file a form. Simply spending a lot on a credit card, or depositing a lot into a bank account could also give rise to this obligation.
If you are unsure about your particular situation, its best to simply play it safe and contact an accountant. Contact Us and we can get you pointed in the right direction, with advice from a trustworthy local accountant that I’ve used personally. If you’re already in hot water and think that a lawyer as opposed to an account is what you need, let me know and I’d be happy to recommend one of those as well.
(8) Sign up for Health Insurance (EPS)
If you’re planning to stay in Medellin for longer than a vacation, it is a good idea to sign up for Colombia’s health insurance program. The health insurance program – Entidadas Promotoras de Salud or EPS – is mandatory for residents and available to all foreigners with a visa. Those earning a local wage can expect to spend roughly 12.5% of declared monthly gross income.
EPS can be set up through one of the country’s many health insurance companies. EPS Suramericana is the provider ranked highest on account of its strong financial shape and ability to pay service providers. For more detailed info, see this article on the health care system in Colombia.
(9) Get Away From Noise/Traffic/Pollution and Into La Naturaleza
Surrounded by mountains, there are many nature reserves and hiking spots in and around Medellín. Some popular spots include Cerro de Las Tres Cruces in Belén, El Salado in Envigado, and the Parque Arvi nature area in the northeast of the city, connected to the metrocable. For longer hiking options, check out this article with a few other suggestions for day hikes or this article for how to conquer Cerro Tusa, the pyramid mountain.
(10) Get Rid of Those Two Gringo Left Feet
Let’s face it – try as we might – we’ll never be able to match los latinos with respect to style or movement on the dance floor. Still, one way to assimilate into the local culture is to pick up a few moves so you can at least defend yourself out there. If this is a goal, check out DanceFree in El Poblado, which has group salsa and bachata lessons. Alternatively, Son Havana en Laureles offers smaller classes and a nice ambience.
Too shy or awkward for a group class? Feel free to contact us for the info of a couple private dance instructors who will take the classes to the dance floor of your apartment.
Ready to take your new moves to la fiesta? Check out this article which gives a breakdown of the different nightlife options in Medellín.
(11) Enjoy a Delicious Breakfast
A great breakfast helps start your day off right and there is no shortage of excellent options for how to do so in La Ciudad de Eterna Primavera. If you’re in El Poblado, check out “El Alma” café in Barrio Provenza, which serves healthy, vegetarian dishes alongside local meat-based breakfasts. The café is fitted out beautifully and is well-equipped for serving both locals and travellers alike. A little further up the street from Provenza is “Betty’s Bowls”; a 5 out of 5 star-rated café-restaurant specializing in fine-roast coffees, smoothie breakfasts and healthy brunches.
If you’re living in Laureles, my go-to spots are Naturalia Café and Cafe Revolucion. Naturalia Café offers pizzas, smoothies, good coffee and a place to relax. Café Revolucion, just down the road and a bit faster-paced offers up savory local coffees, gluten-free cakes and brownies as well as brunch and lunch.
Looking for food late night instead of Breakfast? The Rappi service – Latin America’s answer to Grubhub and UberEats – has a major presence in Medellín so you can order at pretty much any hour.
(12) Mejorar tu Español
Whether already here or planning an arrival, the time is always right to brush up on your Spanish. Local companies like Learn Spanish Now offer Skype Lessons online for those not yet here and can get you quickly accustomed to the culture upon arrival. Check out their instructional videos for how to avoid the most basic Spanish missteps and book a private class to take your speaking to the next level. You’ll need to look elsewhere if you require a student visa to stay – this article outlines some of the universities through which you can acquire a student visa.
(13) Vacation at a Unique Colombian Casa
Colombia is home to some incredibly unique houses. Each of the following is worth a google images search and consideration for your next vacation. It’s a good idea to book these places well in advance as they have become well-known internationally (to varying degrees) and are not always available.
(14) Send Kids to High Quality Schools
Okay I don’t have any kids – yet – so this one is a little outside my area of expertise. But for prospective parents looking for a place to send their little ones – I can offer the following as second hand referrals from parents who are pleased with the institutions their kids currently attend. The needs of each family will depend on a variety of factors, including location and much more, but hopefully this list is a decent starting-off point. Also, if you are currently very pleased with the school that your kids are attending, please send me an email about it and I can update this list.
- Colegio Montesori – El Poblado
- Instituto Musical Diego Echavarria – Las Palmas
- Colegio Corazonista – Laureles
- Colegio Columbus school – Envigado
Another company worth mentioning here is called Extudia in Colombia – they can be a really useful starting off point for information about and placement in local private schools.
(15) Rent a Beautiful Finca Not Far From the City
A friend of mine had a birthday a few weeks ago and they rented out a gorgeous finca near Fredonia. I’m sure there are many dozens of great alternatives for a wonderful finca getaway, but we had such a positive experience at this one that I felt it was worth mentioning here. It cost $115 USD for the night and had 15 people sleeping there comfortably. What was especially nice was that they offered to keep a staff member on site during the weekend to cook and clean for us. Reach out if you’d like the contact info for the owner’s and also please see the “Just So You Know” section on the contact page for our policy on referrals.
(16) Shipping from the USA to Colombia
People choosing to uproot their lives back home and make the move to Medellin often already have an entire house full of goods. Generally, my advice would be to sell almost everything back home, and then see Tip #1 from this article about starting anew here. But not everything is inexpensive in Medellín, and sometimes you just need to have something from back home. If you’re looking to ship something from the United States, the most reliable options are likely the major companies such as DHL and Fedex. However, you’re likely to find quite high rates with these companies, and some less expensive options are available. Look into MyUS.com, Colombiana de Carga, SV Services, Servientrega, or Mike Mac Caribbean Shipper for bringing things over from North America at more reasonable rates than the major companies.
That concludes this list – for now. I’m passionate about helping people get accustomed to life in Medellin and feel welcomed here. If there is something else you’re curious about, don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions you have. And check out the following articles for more useful info about living here.