My Response to “11 Downsides to Living in Medellin: An Expat Perspective“
Recently, I found the article above written by Jeff Paschke on his website Medellin Guru. Jeff and I are both Americans living in Medellin. Although I don’t know him well, I have attended a few of his monthly Expat gathering events. At the time of writing, Jeff had chosen to live in Medellin for the previous 8 years. And almost 2 years later, he still lives here, so he is obviously not terribly affected by these “11 downsides”. And he has also written many favorable articles comparing Medellin to other top Expat retirement destinations.
Nevertheless, I cannot let an article with this title go without a response. After all, we are committed to establishing a Christian community of support for English-speaking Americans living in Medellin, and the first English-speaking Christian Church in Medellin. Why would anyone come to live in Medellin looking at 11 downsides? Let’s examine these so-called downsides to see how serious they really are.
Downside #1 – “Traffic can be bad”
Is there a city of this size that does not have some traffic issues? Couldn’t you say that about almost any large city in the world? In fact, from a positive view, most Americans living in Medellin would argue that traffic is a strong indicator that many people really like living here. Prior to retiring at the end of 2015, I had spent 35 years commuting in the awful Houston rush-hour traffic.
Public Transportation and The Metro
But in Medellin’s case, there are two very big differences. First, Medellin has a comprehensive public transportation system anchored by the Metro, an amazing achievement and the only commuter train system in all of Colombia. For approximately 75 cents USD, over 500,000 people ride the Metro every day. Together with the massive number of public and private bus systems, it is very easy and inexpensive to get anywhere in the entire Aburrá Valley region.
We Don’t Even Want to Own A Car!
Second, and equally important to Americans living in Medellin – Owning a car is unnecessary. Within 6 blocks of our apartment, we have at least 200 restaurants, 2 large modern shopping malls, and 2 large grocery stores. Our favorite grocery store, Carulla, is 1 block away and is open 24 hours. They also have a great lunch counter and grill area serving meals all through the day and night. Additionally, the delivery company, Rappi will deliver practically any item from any restaurant and any grocery store for a very modest fee. If we wanted, we would never have to leave our comfortable apartment.
In our case, the traffic in Houston had a much larger impact, simply because there were no other options. There were no trains or buses. You had no choice but to sit in the traffic for as long as it took, or get up earlier to save a few minutes commute. Here in Medellin, especially for Expats, traffic is more of a mild annoyance rather than something that significantly affects our well-being.
Downside #2 – Pollution is a Problem
There is no question that we have many days when it looks gray and smoggy outside. Fortunately, today is not one of those. Here is a gallery of photos I took today from my balcony. As you can see, there is no pollution out there today.
And another thing, I grew up outside Houston Texas, near the refineries along the Ship Channel. When the wind was blowing from the East, not only did we have haze, it was very ‘fragrant’ if you get my drift. On those days, Pasadena was called “Stinkadena”. In Medellin, even on our smoggiest days, the only thing I smell is roasting coffee.
And as Jeff admits in his article, “According to WHO there are over 330 cities and towns around the world with worse pollution than Medellín.”
Downside #3 – Spanish is Required?
Now I just flat no that is wrong. I have lived in Latin America for 3 1/2 years, and many times I have started to try to learn Spanish. And I even set a goal last month to spend an hour a day learning Spanish. So far, in a month, There has not been a single day where I spent even 5 minutes studying. Do I know some Spanish? Yes, a few words. But the minute someone speaks even 1 sentence, I am hopelessly lost.
It is surprising how effective Google Translate is. I have carried on whole conversations with locals including my dentist on my phone. And when I get in serious trouble and need a translator, our facilitator, Angie is just a phone call away. If for some reason, she is not available, there is always a very nice person in the room who sees my dilemma and comes to the rescue. Would it be better if I learned Spanish? Absolutely. But Spanish is certainly not required.
Today during my walk, I met 6 Americans who either live here or who have visited many times. None of them knew much Spanish. One of the guys owns a business here and hires bi-lingual Colombians who can translate for him.
Downside #4 – Cars are expensive
I think I already covered this. When we lived in Panama, we had to have a car. And during that 17 months, the number one thing Paulette and I argued about was each other’s driving. I hated her driving and she definitely hated mine. So for us, the fact that we don’t need a car is a real blessing. That we are saving money by not owning one is a double blessing. And if you come to visit, the Motos driving between the lanes and on either side of the cars will convince you that you have no interest in driving.
Downside #5 – Taxes
Who wants to file and pay taxes twice? Nobody I know. And just like in the US and everywhere else, there is much confusion about this requirement. I’ve spoken to more than one person here who thinks they have to pay taxes twice – once here and again in the U.S. And the thing that annoys me the most is when people go to a Facebook group and ask other Expats for tax advice!
The first thing I did after signing up for residence is to sit down with an excellent Colombian accountant and ask her to help me understand how this affected me in my particular circumstance. That is exactly what I would recommend to any Americal living in Medellin. And after that, I had no worries. So if you move here, sit down with someone knowledgable, explain your income situation, and ask them for advice. Then relax and enjoy Colombia.
And by the way, there is a little-known thing called the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion that you may be able to use to lower or even eliminate your income tax in the U.S. So this may turn out to be an ‘upside’ instead of a downside! Again, ask your accountant.
Downside #6 – Difficult to get a Loan/Credit
As Jeff says, it is very difficult to get a loan or even a credit card as a foreigner in Colombia. I completely agree with that statement. However, I do not agree that this is a downside. It is more like a blessing. Why? Why would you need credit? To buy property here? Why would you want to do that? And why would you want to buy property here on credit?
Buy Investment Property?
If you want to own property for investment purposes, perhaps you should read this article I wrote previously. The same principles apply all over Latin America including Medellin, Colombia. Wouldn’t you rather own that property in a place where you are familiar with the laws? Wouldn’t it be better to have clear title guaranteed? Would you be excited to own property in a place where a corrupt politician could change one law and destroy the value of your property? The lack of a Multiple Listing Service here means you can’t know for sure what the best price really is. And don’t forget foreign currency fluctuations. Sorry, but that is just too much risk for us.
Buy a Home?
And if you want to become one of the Americans living in Medellin, and need a place to call home, save yourself lots of money and lots of risk. Just rent. You don’t know if you are even going to like living outside the US. Or maybe you do, but you want to try someplace else. In 3 1/2 years, we have lived in 4 countries and spent a month each in two others. And we had a blast. How could we have done that if we bought property in the first place we landed?
It can take years and many price reductions to sell property almost everywhere in Latin America. And the economics of rent vs buy are not the same here as they are where you are from. Would you rather pay $650 USD per month to rent a nice apartment with no risk or pay $150,000 or more to buy the same apartment and be subject to all the risks I mentioned above? Count your blessings that credit is very hard to get.
Downside #7 – Questions from Friends and Family
Although Jeff mentioned this as a downside, he did a great job of arguing against this point. Truth is, the only way to answer many of their questions is for your family and friends come to see for themselves. Then they will start to understand how great living in Medellin really is. But the good thing is how easy and inexpensive it is to get here from most places in the US. When we lived in Ecuador, it would be al all-day long adventure with several plane changes and/or bus rides. We have daily nonstops to/from several places in the US.
Downside #8 – Need to Lower Your Expectations
We have heard this same argument everywhere we have gone in Latin America. And for the most part it is true. The Latin American people are so much more social than we are. We are used to getting down to business. Not here. Even at the grocery store it is “Buenas Dias – Buenas Dias. Como esta – Muy bien gracias, y tu? Muy bien.” No business is done without a conversation first.
But if like us, you are retired, what’s the big hurry? Just slow down and enjoy the journey.
Downside #9 – Jobs here don’t pay much
I don’t know why this is even mentioned. Most Americans living in Medellin are either retired, or they work as an employee for their company back home. Why would you come here and work? The average wage is not something you can live on. Our Social Security checks are several times more than people here make working full-time. That is why I tell people how easy it is to live on your monthly SS check all over Latin America, and especially in Colombia. The total cost of living including rent and dining out is about 20% of what it costs to live in most large cities in the US. So it costs 5 times as much to live in the US as it does here in Medellin.
Downside #10 – Exchange Rate is Volatile
As I mentioned in #6 above, Exchange rates are definitely a risk. But in the past year, this has been a big advantage for us. Since all of our money and our Social Security are in US Dollars, every time the rate of Colombian Pesos to the USD increases, it takes fewer and fewer dollars to live here. Even after our recent rent increase, we are still paying less in USD for our apartment than we were a year ago. This can always change, so don’t take it for granted. Be cautious, but for now, enjoy it.
Downside # 11 – Crime remains a Major Concern
No matter where you live, you have to be smart and stay away from dangerous situations. Jeff mentions that in the 1990s Medellin was known as the “Murder Capital of the World”. But I’m pretty sure I remember when Houston Texas was known as some sort of “Murder Capital”. My wife and I seldom go far from our apartment after dark. But I can honestly say that I have never felt unsafe here or for that matter anywhere we have lived or visited in Latin America.
And here is a great story about the caring people of Medellin. We had to go downtown at night to attend a concert by a friend visiting from the US. We took the bus thinking we would only have to walk a block or so after we got off the bus. But the bus stopped about 6 blocks earlier than I expected. There were several older ladies who were so concerned for us that they insisted on walking the 6 blocks with us to make sure we were safe. It was an awesome display of caring. We, of course, tipped them a few dollars, even though they argued they didn’t want anything.
As I hope you can see, to the extent any of these are really “downsides” for Americans living in Medellin, they are not nearly as serious as the headline made them out to be. And in support of that conclusion, Jeff Paschke agrees, because he has lived here for 8 years and has no plans to leave.
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