Last week Mark Svoboda introduced us to Colombia, a country he toured last year as part of the search for his next perfect homeland. Today Mark continues with his comments on the country, including lifestyle in Bogotá and Medellín, transportation, as well as the most common concern for Colombia: safety.
[In case you missed Part 1, click here.]
A Beginner's Guide to Colombia (Part 2)
In my opinion, the most attractive part of Colombia is the lifestyle it can offer.
Despite the strong appreciation of the Colombian peso in the last few years, cost of living is still relatively inexpensive (at least it was when I visited in 2011). The "Big Mac index" shows the price of our favorite hamburger to be $4.54 when converted to USD, which is slightly higher than that in the US. At the same time, if desired, one can eat very cheaply in local restaurants. The Mercer cost of living survey, for example, ranks Bogotá as the 63rd most expensive city of the world.
The large cities in Colombia offer all the amenities one can desire, including a cosmopolitan lifestyle and surprisingly modern and developed urban surroundings. My personal favorite city of Medellín (note that I have been only to Bogotá and Medellín so far) struck me by how modern-looking it was, with efficient public transportation, fashionable and beautiful people (Medellín is said to be the "Milan" of South America due to its fashion industry) as well as people's friendliness.
Bogotá seemed to be a little too big and chaotic for my personal taste, but that doesn't mean you may not like it (as it is definitely the cultural and economical capital of Colombia, with great museums and other cultural establishments). Bogotá is also likely to be safer than most other places in Colombia (I'll get back to that later...)
Colombia also scores pretty high on the Satisfaction of Life Index at number 34, ahead of many developed countries. In my opinion, that gives a good reflection of the general level of happiness of Colombians (and I found Colombians to be happy people). Another interesting index where Colombia traditionally scores high is the "Happy Planet" Index, which reflects environmental efficiency for countries (ranked #2 in 2006 and #6 in 2009).
Colombia has a lot to offer expats and, thanks in part to its nature and the great diversity in climates, it can satisfy almost any taste. On the coast (e.g., in Cartagena, which is a popular tourist destination), the air feels hot and humid, but as one ventures higher in the mountains (e.g. in Medellín, Cali), it feels very comfortable or even cold (temperatures in Bogotá drop pretty close to freezing point at night).
I preferred Medellín's climate, where the temperatures range from about 17 to 28 deg C throughout the day with no distinct seasons due to proximity to the equator. Because it never gets too cold or too hot, there is no need for ACs and heaters. In fact, locals call it "the city of eternal spring" due to its comfortable year-round temperatures and abundant flora. All you have to worry about is if there will be rain or not.
One thing you will surely notice in Colombia (regardless of where you are) is the vast difference in incomes among the rich and poor. The country's Gini index, which measures the variability in different incomes, is one of the highest in the world. In fact, according to recent CEPAL statistics, about 35% of the country's total population lives below the poverty line, with 17% living in extreme poverty conditions. Shanty towns made out of carton and plywood are normal urban scenery in the large cities.
The language spoken in Colombia is Spanish, but the good news is that English proficiency in Medellín and Bogotá was not bad at all. Professionals and the young population in both these cities tend to speak pretty good English. But if you plan to stay in Colombia for the long term, I don't think you could get away without learning Spanish (at least to some extent).
While mortality rates are much higher in the poor population - and problems of immunization and malnutrition do exist - there is an increasing number of high quality (and inexpensive) hospitals located in Colombia's major cities. Medellín is increasingly becoming an important medical destination in Latin America, with the number of visitors seeking medical treatment increasing each year.
According to one source, in 2008, 2.2% of Colombia's international tourists visited the country for medical reasons. Even Argentine former mega football (soccer) star Diego Maradona chose Cartagena in 2005 for his gastric-by-pass surgery, even though Sao Paolo, with its ultra modern hospitals, was a much closer flight away from his Buenos Aires residence.
Colombia is literally located in the middle of the Americas (especially if excluding the unpopulated northern territories of Canada) and offers convenient flight routes to the US and to anywhere in Latin America.
The airports in Bogotá and Medellín feature many international flights, and there are a few low-cost carriers serving routes within the country. Discounter Spirit Airlines flies from both Bogotá and Medellín to Ft. Lauderdale and I found prices quite reasonable. For example, you could fly Ft. Lauderdale - Bogotá roundtrip for as little as USD 305 and you could get to Medellín for USD 360 (and about only USD 300 if you join their frequent flyer club). That is quite refreshing as I recently paid around USD 1,500 to fly to Asuncion, Paraguay (although that location was obviously farther away).
Unfortunately, travel within Latin America is not very cheap as there are no discounters serving routes to neighboring countries. For instance, for a flight from Medellín to Panama City - which is only 1.5 hours away - I couldn't find anything cheaper than $400 roundtrip. And there are no roads built in the jungle between the two countries, so you can't just "hop on a bus."
As for public transportation, Medellín (as far as I know) is still the only city in Colombia with a developed railway metro system that connects most of the metropolitan area. Bogotá feels much more chaotic and, while they have developed a rapid bus system called TransMilenio, it is still a far cry from a proper railway system that doesn't share the road with other traffic.
The bad reputation Colombia garners when it comes to safety came from the extremely violent 80s and 90s, when Colombian drug cartels became famous worldwide. Much of these troubles, however, are gone in the past; when we look at the statistics for homicide rates in different countries, it is obvious that Colombia is becoming safer (but not yet safe), with rates lowest in recorded history. At 33 murders a year per 100,000 people, Colombia's homicide rate is much lower than it was 10-15 years ago, but is still quite high compared to most other countries. (It currently stands as the # 9 most dangerous country in the world right now, down from the top spot just a few short years back.)
The drug cartels that once were dominant forces in many major cities of Colombia have now lost much of their influence due to pressure from the government. Since the assassination of Pablo Escobar in 1993, the influence of the Medellín cartel has decreased significantly.
Having said that, safety is definitely still a concern in Colombia. FARC, a leftist organization in the country, is still active in some parts of the country with 460 police and army members killed and another 2,000 wounded in 2010, according to state statistics. Paramilitary groups (the far right organizations) are the other problem in the region, and it is reported that in recent years they (and not FARC) are responsible for most of the civilian killings.
The thing here to remember is that most of the homicides happen either in 1) rural areas controlled by above-mentioned groups... or... 2) in the very poor neighborhoods of large cities. For example, Medellín's upscale El Poblado area is generally very safe with virtually no homicides, and I felt absolutely safe walking there with my family after dark. On the other side, I was also told that open gunfights in the outskirts of the city are not rare occasions. It reminds me of the situation in New Orleans where I currently live... residents need to be very picky about what areas they visit, or rather, what areas they must avoid. As long you stay away from troubled places, you will likely be just fine.