The idea of living in Medellin, Colombia might be enough to send your old dear to an early grave or at least breathe heavily into a brown paper bag.
It may now be a potential expat hotspot, but it once had a fearsome reputation for being a city of relentless crime, with Time Magazine famously dubbing it ‘the most dangerous city in the world.’
Over 10 years later, there have been bold claims that the Colombian city has transformed itself into a city of innovation and progress.
From someone that’s been there, done it and eaten all the arepas; I’ll jump into that theory while letting you know what to expect if you’re considering moving to the ‘City of Eternal Spring.’
1. It’s ColOmbia Not ColUmbia!
Before we get into the good stuff, there’s something you need to know that will save you a whole load of embarrassment and public shame when you move there. In fact, the Colombians hate it so much that making this crucial mistake will almost certainly get you off on the wrong foot with your new neighbours.
What is it that causes Colombians to pull their beautiful hair out and look back in anger? Our consistent crappy spelling, and even sometimes the pronunciation of the word “Colombia” as “Columbia.”
That’s for the city in the USA, within the State of North Carolina; ‘Columbia.’
In this neck of the woods though, make sure you spell it as’ ColOm’, not ColUm’, resulting in; ‘Colombia,’ and you’ll dodge that fearsome Latin vilification.
So passionate are the Colombians about pronouncing their country’s name correctly that a social media campaign gripped the internet and even resulted in a range of merchandise being created, with the phrase ‘It’s Colombia Not Columbia’ adorning t-shirts and other merch.
2. Colombian Visa Options Are Generous For Expats
After living in 4 different countries with different strictness levels around long-term visas, I found Colombia to be one of the most convenient and flexible for a long-term stay.
Getting yourself a Colombian visa (official government site) when it comes to living in Medellin falls within two different camps and will all depend on how long you want to live in the city.
If you’re planning on only staying for half a year, you can secure a 90-day visa. If you’re a national of most countries in Europe, North America, Latin America and Australia, you’ll automatically be granted this 90-day visa on arrival in Colombia. (Make sure you do your due diligence to see if you’re eligible).
You can then extend this visa for a further 90 days in three different ways. One option is to do the traditional visa run over the border with Venezuela (not to be taken lightly or worth the risk) or, just fly out of Colombia and fly back in then you’ll get a further 90 days.
A beach holiday in Panama is a great option as you can fly directly to Colombia and back.
Lastly, you can head to the local office of Immigration Affairs in Medellin. This option requires less travelling but far more paperwork. I did this once, it took 2 days to get my passport back and I paid 100,000 Colombian pesos (COP), which is roughly $30 US dollars.
If you have a passport outside of the countries mentioned above, you have to apply for a visa before you get on your plane. Thanks to the recent addition of an e-Visa system, this is really easy to do online. All you’ll need to do is fill in a few forms and have the following:
- A passport valid for at least 3 months
- A digital image of your passport page
- A recent photograph of yourself
- A debit card to make payment
- Your email address.
If you want to live in Medellin for as long as possible without jumping through the more bureaucratic hoops, do this…
Colombia’s 90 days visa resets every calendar year. So if you go in July and extend your visa by 90 days, it resets in January and you will get almost a year…meaning you will only have to wait a little bit to re-enter, should you love living in Medellin so much.
3. What Are Medellin Locals Like?
Colombians are friendly by their very nature and Medellin locals (known as “Paisas”) are both family-orientated and sociable, locals are open and bubbly when they meet new people, a little less than Mexicans but mountains more so than we are used to in western cultures.
There’s a large range of classes of people living in Medellin, from those with very little to those who run very successful businesses in the city. Medellin is mainly a Catholic city, so many of its older locals follow quite a conservative and religious way of life but not to the point where it’s considered extreme.
The good folk of Medellin are mainly courteous, welcoming and warm with a heavy dose of old-school manners.
I’m sure Western readers have been in the situation before in a cafe after you’ve ordered your favourite brew and you’re looking for a place to sit. There are seats available, but people have annoyingly put their bags and coat on the available seats.
In the UK most pretend they haven’t seen you because God forbid… you’ll enter their personal space, even worse – strike up a conversation with them or oppress them with a well-meaning smile!
In Colombia personal space just doesn’t exist. They’ll shuffle right over and make sure you’ve got a seat in a heartbeat. Expect to be touched more over this side of the world.
Colombians hug like they give a shit, you know when they get pissed off and let you know when you’re appreciated. If you ask someone how they are and they’re not ok they will let you know. Latin America is not for the emotionally apathetic.
4. Shut Up About Pablo Escobar Already
Some friendly advice for moving to Medellin and making friends; don’t mention Pablo Escobar within seconds of meeting a Paisa, it’s not the greatest of bridge builders.
Yes, the whole story is fascinating and Narcos was a cracking TV show. I also dabble with True Crime documentaries (and have been on Escobar tours in Colombia) and while Escobar remains to be a divisive figure, most Colombians don’t appreciate this as a conversation starter, some may have even lost a loved one (or two) because of this dark era.
Colombia is rich in diversity and beauty. It gifted the world crazy, talented footballers, the coffee is outstanding and it gave us Shakira’s candid hips… Pablo Escobar is not the only famous thing about Medellin or Colombia.
5. Yes, Colombian Women Really Are That Fit
Maybe you don’t care or aren’t attracted to women in that way, but I am going to go there anyway because safety concerns seem to be a distant thought to readers and friends; this was, without doubt, the number one question that I received while living in Medellin. I was completely inundated with this query and I’m not going to lie… I enjoyed answering it!
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and all that and indeed many other attributes need to be considered, but I dare you to visit and then tell me that Colombian women are anything else other than physically jaw-dropping.
Friday and Saturday nights in Parque Lleras (a party place in Poblado and one of the best neighbourhoods in Medellin) are just absurd. The level of beauty is borderline comical. Many times I’d find myself laughing in disbelief at the masses of absolute Goddesses before my very eyes.
The world is home to countless beautiful women, and many countries are underrated and left out in my opinion, but Colombia’s well-known for it and I can confirm that the reality matches up with the reputation.
6. Safety in Medellin (Real Talk)
Third to the brazen concern over the city’s levels of gorgeous ladies and knowing where to stay in Medellin is how much of a risk it is to your personal safety living in Medellin.
Even though crime in the city has fallen drastically over the past three decades, there are things to be aware of when living in Medellin and wanting to stay safe (or keep your valuables).
The Colombians have a saying, “No dar papaya,” which I’m not a big fan of. This expression loosely translates as – if you’re the victim of a crime – it’s your fault for not being very vigilant.
Don’t get me wrong, I am big on personal accountability, but this is something you need to be aware of, crimes such as theft are less of a taboo in Latin American countries than they are in other parts of the world like East Asia.
I know a high percentage of people who got robbed in Colombia (two of them by gunpoint). These people are smart and careful, not the idiot abroad types who wander about with casual arrogance.
I also know a scary amount of Colombian women who have been sexually assaulted, a big one is getting groped on public transport in Medellin.
I’m a realist on this topic and the spectrum of “safe” is a wide one depending on where you are from, where you are going, or how infected you’ve been by the idealistic notion of the; “thERe is GooD ANd Bad EvEryWHeRe” clowns. I was raised in a rough enough village for UK standards, but it would be like the safe streets of Oslo when compared to the sketchier parts of Medellin.
I’m also an adventurer and prefer people to have freedom of choice. It’s just always best to be honest about safety and not self-censor for weaker minds who can’t handle harsh truths.
Therefore I’m happy to put Medellin in the “still go, but be extra careful,” category. So more like a cool protective uncle, as opposed to an overbearing father. I would say in terms of safety with my other digital nomad city guides – Living in Mexico City would be a fair comparison.
Keep your belongings safe, and out of sight as these can be especially targeted by opportunistic snatchers.
Like any city, crime is usually at its worst when it gets dark, and areas of the city become no-go zones. When you’re living in Medellin, you’ll quickly pick up the dos and don’t of the city; where it is sensible to go in the evening hours and where is best left for the locals who understand the nuances as second nature.
7. Medellin is a Strategic Hub To See More of The Country
Living in Medellin provides an ideal hub for seeing more of Colombia when you’re tired of working too much and you want to get out there and shake things up.
The city is a perfect jumping-off point to see Cali, Bogota and Bucaramanga and if you want to go further then Medellin airport flies to most destinations on Colombia’s Caribbean coast for a relatively affordable price.
Overland travel is an option via bus if you have the stomach for the rocky roads and the patience of a Tibetan Monk, just remember that Colombia is absolutely gigantic – you could fit the UK in it 5 times!
Living in Medellin was a significant chapter in my life with me making solid lifetime connections and learning a new language. Is it for you though? Talk is cheap, there is only one way to find out…