Medellin or Manizales — Comparing Colombia’s Lush Expat Mountain Cities
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Medellin or Manizales — Comparing Colombia’s Lush Expat Mountain Cities


Outside of an electronics store, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as many huge television sets as there were in the Black Pepper sports bar in Medellín, Colombia. Sitting at a long table, I was surrounded by eight-foot flatscreens, and by an international collection of expats who had gathered to watch the L.A. Rams deliver a winning performance in the 2022 Superbowl against a dogged, but ultimately overpowered Cincinnati Bengals team.

The atmosphere was buoyant. My companions were a self-selected bunch who had come along to enjoy the month’s activity organized by a San Francisco escapee named Bill Casper. Bill’s an ex-teacher who now calls the Colombian city home, and runs the Medellín Men’s Group on Facebook. (That’s just one string to his bow—when I met him, he was deep into setting up a plan to organize a free boxing program for local kids, since the public school system in Colombia doesn’t include a physical education component in its curriculum, and after-school classes can be prohibitively expensive for a lot of families here.)

Question: Are you interested in retiring abroad?

 
Medellín is a city composed of several smaller districts, each with its own look and character. El Poblado, where I watched the game, is traditionally the most popular with U.S. and international expats. It’s upscale, well-tended, and hilly. In fact, most areas in Medellín are on a slope of some sort, with the exception of the downtown area, El Centro.

Some context: Usually, when I write articles for International Living, it’s with the hindsight that comes from leaving things for a month or two after I’ve returned from my scouting trip. This time, however, I’m doing things a little differently. As I write, a ceiling fan whirrs above my head, suspended from the lofty ceiling of a colonial-era Colombian townhouse that’s been converted to a small hotel without sacrificing any of its dark wood and baroque charm.

It feels very different from the high-rise, manicured atmosphere of El Poblado, but that’s just part of what makes Colombia so interesting. This is a land of extreme contrasts, and, for want of a better expression, bespoke opportunities for building exactly the sort of expat life that fits you.

Does the idea of hanging out with a group of guys in a sports bar, watching the Superbowl and gnawing on chili wings sound like a good time to you (I’ll admit, it was a good time), or are you happier with a good book, antique chandeliers, a carved-wood wingback chair, and 22 framed oil paintings hung on the walls around you? (Yes, I’ve counted them.)

These, and other questions like them, are what will make your overseas experience one that enriches and energizes your life. But, there’s a complicated bit that gets lost in the collateral damage of the digital culture war that defines our era: Enjoying a guys’ (or girls’) night out in a swanky part of town; and chilling in a historic masterpiece building where the wardrobes took a 19th-century cabinet maker a week of fretsaw artistry to create, is not an either/or paradigm. You can like both.

You can love the beach, and the mountains. A night at the movies and a day in the sculpture museum.

The country is laden with opportunity for pretty much every taste, and expats here are all finding something different that enhances their life.

The people I’ve met here all cite different things that make Colombia buzz for them. But every time I’ve asked the simple (but wickedly disarming) question “So, what does Colombia give you that you didn’t have where you came from?,” they’ve each had an answer ready to hand.

“There’s a sense of community here,” one expat told me. “Colombians are the warmest and most welcoming people I’ve encountered in the 26 countries I’ve been to. They don’t have much money, but they’d give you the shirt off their back if you needed it.”

Same question, a different expat’s answer:

“What does Colombia have? You mean, apart from the affordability, and the perfect climate? Well, people are more relaxed. In the U.S., I’d just get up, go to work, eat at my desk, go home, eat, watch TV, sleep, repeat. Here, in the evening, everyone’s outside, they’re sitting at cafés, walking in the park, dancing to bands. They’re just enjoying being alive, and what life offers. That’s so important. We lost that, somehow. It feels like a cliché saying it, but it’s true.”

Medellín—The Reigning Champ

That outdoor, public life is on display all over Medellín, especially in the leafy parks and wide boulevards of El Poblado’s “Golden Mile.” There, thick groves of dark-leafed foliage and miniature forest canopies soften the edges of glittering new condo blocks from the nightlife hub of Parque Lleras through to the fairways of the Medellín Country Club’s golf course.

Mid-70s F, pretty much every day of the year.

That’s high-end Medellín, but the bubbling atmosphere of people getting out and about in the almost-permanently pleasant weather (mid-70s F, pretty much every day of the year) extends throughout the city. Public transport here is extensive—most expats don’t bother to own a car. And because it’s so affordable, everyone has access to all that the city offers.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t in town long enough to wrap my head around all the options, from the thundering Tranviá buses which blast along their own dedicated street lanes, through the moving walkways and escalators that link the Colonia 13 zone to the rest of the city, to the many, many buses that work the smaller routes across the metropolis.

I did, however, get the hang of the city’s metro rail system. OK, I admit it, I only used the blue line, flitting between Envigado, El Poblado, and the downtown area of El Centro. It’s a simple process—you just buy a card from a teller at the station for 6,000 pesos (less than $2), then charge it with credit as and when you need it. Tap your card at the turnstile, and you’re through.

The rail cars are clean, efficient, and quiet, although I never managed to bag a seat on the daytime rides I took. Still, the journeys are short and it never got too packed. The Parque Berrio station is right in the heart of the city, and it’s a 100-yard stroll from there to the sculptures of Plaza Botero and the surrounding stores, museums, churches, galleries, and everything else you’d find in a city of some 3 million residents.

The downtown area is a popular sector for shopping. The flea market extending from the Prado metro station to Parque Berrio is a treasure trove of oddments. From salvaged car radios through vinyl salsa records, to antique army boots—if you enjoy an aimless browse for something that you had no idea you needed, this is your spot. It’s also the location of Medellín’s two best-known sights—the free outdoor sculpture museum of Parque Botero, and the weirdly magnificent Catedral Basilica Metropolitana de Medellín.

The latter is best viewed in the flesh. I’ve never seen a photograph of the building that looked remotely attractive, but seen up close, it’s an exuberant checkerboard-patterned confection that fits its energetic, pulsing, big-city backdrop perfectly. And watching it loom into the skyline as you walk from the south is an experience in South American magic realism that will stay with you forever. It truly is an eclectic, beguiling sight.

Once you’ve seen it though, along with the hugely popular, hugely rotund bronze Botero statues and the department stores of downtown, there’s not a lot to keep you hanging around in El Centro. It’s not an upscale area to live in, and there are far better options in the southern neighborhoods of El Poblado, the adjoining (and lower-rise) Envigado zone, and even calmer Sabaneta area to the far south of the city.

Long-term rents in Medellín are no longer the absolute steal that they used to be—the city is well established as an expat destination, with digital nomads and the work-from-anywhere crowd now joining the international community. Despite the boom, a two-bedroom, furnished apartment in Envigado, if you hunt around, goes for around $800 a month.

In El Poblado, you’re looking at $1,000 and upwards. But when you factor in the overall savings that come with living in Colombia, on food, entertainment, transport, and most of all, on healthcare, there’s a logic to paying out a little more to live in a city that delivers so much to the expat.

Phil Sullivan, a retired lawyer from New York City who now calls Sabaneta home, wanted a more Colombian experience than what was on offer in El Poblado. “Sabaneta’s more downscale than El Poblado,” he tells me, “but in a positive way. It’s very Colombian, and people are very polite and respectful. It’s a religious thing, I think. People there say ‘Gracias a diós’ when they tell you about something good that happened to them. ‘Thanks be to God,’ is the literal translation, but they really mean it. It’s not just a throwaway phrase like you might hear somewhere else. And the attitude comes through in the way they treat you. They’re good people.”

On paper, Patrick is a roving retiree, having lived in multiple locations in recent years, supplementing his Social Security income by teaching English as he goes. Although he’s a U.S. citizen, the second passport he qualified for through his Irish ancestry opens a few additional possibilities for travel.

In particular, it let him work in Europe without needing to go through visa hassles. For a while, he taught in Barcelona, Spain, alongside his Cambodian husband, Sopheap, who also teaches English. What prompted them to move to Colombia, though, was partly the affront that Patrick felt on having his Social Security income taxed in Spain. “You’re kidding me,” he says, about the situation. “When they started doing that, I just said ‘adios’.”

Patrick and Sopheap considered their options and narrowed them down to Colombia or Mexico. “Both of them are great places. They’ve both got good tax regimes, they both have great healthcare, and the cost of living is very affordable in either place. Also, they’re both extremely biodiverse, with a selection of climates to choose from.” Colombia won out, though.

“We moved here in October 2021, applied for residency even though we’re choosing to live in Airbnbs (which are very affordable here), and I was issued my cédula [residence permit] in December. Sopheap’s came a little later, in February. It was a spouse’s visa, which is probably why it took a bit longer. They did mine, then they did his.”

Getting that cédula is a breakthrough moment for every expat in Colombia. The long-term visas situation in the country is, at time of writing, going through some changes. Not all of them have yet been passed into law, but there’s talk of a digital nomad visa on its way. (Details of the criteria to qualify aren’t yet available.)

For those on retirement visas, current minimum income levels run to about $900 a month. That income can come from Social Security payments; it doesn’t need to derive from investments or a job. The significance of getting the cédula is simple though—it allows the holder to enroll in Colombia’s EPS system, a comprehensive national healthcare program that costs the user a percentage of their declared income, but comes out as less than $50 a month for most of the expats I spoke to here.

As Paul Heumiller, a North Carolina business owner who has recently relocated to Rionegro (a sweet little mountain pueblo some 40 minutes’ drive from the heart of Medellín) puts it: “I can finally get rid of the $800-a-month insurance that I still have from the U.S. That’s pretty much a $10,000 raise.”

And that goes a long, long way in Colombia.

Colombia is not all about Medellín, though. The city is an enduring expat hot spot, but as with all things, there will always be new contenders hoping to steal its crown as Colombia’s premier relocation destination. Right now, the city that’s generating the biggest buzz among the digital nomad and expat retiree community is a university city set in the heart of Colombia’s coffee country: Manizales.

I’m paying $330 a month for a two-bed apartment.

“I’m paying $330 a month for a two-bedroom apartment that I share with my boyfriend,” says Asha Diehlová, a Canadian expat who hails originally from Kamloops, British Colombia (it’s near Vancouver, apparently). Asha has been living in Manizales since 2016. “That $330 includes internet, gas, electricity, water, refuse—all the usual utilities. I live in the Triangulo area, which is about a 10-minute walk from Cable Plaza [the nightlife/dining zone of the city, as well as where the most modern and upscale shopping options are located]. I love it. It’s relaxed, pretty, central, and it’s close to where I work as an English teacher. Farther south of Cable Plaza is a zone called Palermo. That’s more popular with expat retirees, but I’m happy where I am.”

Traveling around the zones of Manizales is easy—buses ply the main routes around the city almost constantly, at a rate of 2,300 pesos a trip (around 60 cents, U.S.). It takes a little while to learn the routes, since the buses are privately owned and operated. If there’s a centralized schematic or timetable, I’ll admit that I never found it.

Nevertheless, the buses display the main destinations of their route on their windscreen and it’s intuitive enough to figure things out within a day or two. Alternatively, flag down a taxi until you get your bearings. They’re ridiculously affordable, at about $2 a ride unless you’re heading way out of town.

A public transport-related aside that I’m bursting to share on the printed page is that on my final day in Manizales, I needed to get to the long-distance bus terminal. I’d asked another local expat—Erin Donaldson, originally from Reno, Nevada, and now the proud owner of CoffeeAxisTravel.com—how to get there. Erin is immensely knowledgeable about the city, and showed me around the swish areas of Chipre and Milano the previous day.

It definitely wasn’t an omission on her part—rather that I wasn’t paying enough attention—but when she told me that the main station was behind a certain building in the Fundadores neighborhood, I somehow missed the best detail. To get down to the buses, you take a 60-cent, municipally provided, 10-minute ride by cable car. As mass transit options go, it leaps right to the top of my favorite experiences to date. It’s wonderfully calm and silent. Swinging gently along the canyon that runs southwest from the city center, I couldn’t help giggling to myself at the theme-park novelty of it all.

Manizales is exceptionally hilly, and although the individual areas of town—Milano, Chipre, Cable Plaza, Centro, and Fundadores—are all pockets of level ground, the city as a whole is not very walkable. While there’s a lot to recommend about living there, I’m duty-bound to mention that if you have impaired mobility, it’s probably not the best option for you.

Mind you, the healthcare options are good. In conversation with multiple expats in the city, the endorsements came thick and fast. Asha, the Canadian teacher, told me that she’d recently developed vertigo. An emergency visit to a specialist, who completed a detailed diagnostic, cost her around $55. On an earlier occasion in the forested region of southern Colombia, she’d been unlucky enough to contract dengue fever. A four-day stay in a private hospital ensued, with a succession of tests and treatments, with a final bill of just $200 for everything.

Cynthia Reed, a retired bankruptcy lawyer who moved to Colombia from Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 2019, is just as positive about her healthcare experiences in Manizales. “I always avoided the doctor in the States. Not because the care is bad, but because it’s so expensive. Also, here, you get to deal with the actual doctor. Once you’re set up on the system, with your cédula, you can sign up to the Colombian national healthcare program. What you pay toward that depends, as it’s based on a percentage of your income, but my husband and I pay less than $40 a month each. Then it’s less than a dollar for a consultation with your GP.”

I had to ask her to repeat that, just in case I’d somehow misheard. But no, there was no mistake. A trip to visit your GP in Manizales will set you back less than a dollar. I don’t want to labor the point, but I don’t want to drop it, either. Imagine the difference it would make to your life, knowing that your healthcare needs will never again be a financial worry. Cynthia nods, seeing that I’ve figured out how significant that would be.

“And it is a genuine consultation with an actual doctor,” she clarifies. “Not just a passing glance after the nurse has taken all your vitals and done the prep. You get a full chat and diagnostic, not just a two-minute look-over and a prescription, like I was used to. Here, you get to have a conversation. I’m really pleased with the quality of care, and the prescription medications cost nothing. Nothing! Not like the $70 a month it was costing back in the States, just for meds!”

Cynthia also tells me about just how affordable living in Manizales is. The 1,600-square-foot condo she lives in has three bedrooms and a small box-room spare, two bathrooms, lots of extra storage space, and cost just $100,000 in 2019.

It’s in an upscale part of town, and one of the older builds in the area. Cynthia points out that newer condos in Manizales tend to be smaller, but even so, it’s easy to find a good one in a pleasant, safe neighborhood like Milano, in a gated complex, with community pool, gardens, gym, and grounds staff, all for around $500 a month.

I can attest to that—I visited one such named Torres de Milano, where new two-bedroom apartments with glorious mountain views were listed at $100,000 to buy, or $500 a month to rent. Prices in Manizales go lower than that, but my feeling was that the combination of amenities in these gated developments offers the best price-to-quality ratio in the city.

Magnificent mountain views from the city.

Manizales felt to me like a better city to live in than to visit. To be even-handed, I’ll say the same of Medellín. Both are what I term “point-to-point” cities, by which I mean that they consist of various areas of interest—historic centers, relaxing parks, nightlife and dining zones, upscale residential complexes, shopping districts, etc—that are relatively separated from each other.

In practice, that means that you decide what it is that you want to do with your day, choose your transport, and go there. Neither of them are cities to stroll around, checking out the sights and exploring side-streets. The areas between focal points are mostly residential, and of minimal interest. Nevertheless, both cities can sucker-punch you with a magnificent mountain view at apparently random moments, and the hiking, mountain-biking, kayaking, and canyoning possibilities within a half-hour’s drive of their centers are worthy of another article entirely.

Mind you, you don’t need to go even that far for a workout. Cynthia Reed announces that she’s lost 40lbs since moving to Colombia. “I used to think I had a healthy lifestyle, but the truth is, I was fat. Here, the hills keep me fit. Every walk is a workout,” she laughs, as we make our way, on foot, from the high lookout point of the Chipre district to Manizales’ historic center. Mercifully, on this occasion, it’s all downhill.

Manizales or Medellín: There really is no outright “winner” between the two of them. Whichever you choose, chances are that it will fit you perfectly. That’s the beauty of bespoke living.

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Written by Seán Keenan

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