Colombia has been ranked as one of the top foreign retirement locations by foreign retirement publications. But there are downsides to living in Colombia.
Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world, after Brazil. Colombia has a diversity ranging from snow-capped mountains to beaches, thick jungles to vast plains, small pueblos to bustling cities. Also, Colombia is the only South American country bordered by two oceans.
I have traveled throughout Colombia over the past 10+ years and many of the landscapes in Colombia are breathtaking. I even wrote about the top 20 tourist attractions in Colombia based on my experiences.
In addition, Colombia has a relatively low cost of living for many foreigners. And there are many websites with articles touting Colombia as a great place to live.
To me, there are a number of benefits to living in Colombia. And I previously wrote about 27 reasons why I ended up choosing Medellín in Colombia as a great place to live.
However, many publications I have seen tend to only discuss these positives and advantages about living in Colombia. And the downsides are glossed over or may not be mentioned. So, Colombia tends to be portrayed by some publications through rose-colored glasses.
On this website, there is no sugar-coating or looking at things only through rose-colored glasses. We cover both the benefits and the downsides or the pros and cons about living in Colombia and traveling in Colombia.
I have lived in Medellín for over eight years and the following list of downsides is based on my experiences living in Colombia and traveling throughout Colombia. I’m an expat originally from the U.S., so this is an expat’s perspective.
Downsides of Living in the Cities in Colombia
Each city in Colombia is different with different benefits and also different downsides – the pros and cons are different for each city. We previously looked at the downsides to living in Medellín, downsides to living in Bogotá, downsides to living in Cali and downsides to living in Cartagena.
Each of our articles about the downsides of living in cities in Colombia also include some downsides that really apply to any city in Colombia. Also, we have looked at the downsides to living in El Poblado, which is the most expensive neighborhood in Medellín.
Downsides to Living in Colombia
Several readers asked what the overall downsides to living in Colombia are – the downsides that apply to any city in Colombia. So, we now look at Colombia downsides – the downsides to living in Colombia.
The following list of downsides to living in Colombia is in no particular order. In addition, not all of these downsides apply to everyone. And some of these downsides can be overcome or avoided.
1. Need to File Taxes Twice and High IVA Tax
If you are an expat from the U.S. living in Colombia, you likely will have to file taxes in both the U.S. and Colombia.
You are considered a tax resident in Colombia if you stay in the country for more than 183 total days during a year, whether this time is continuous or not. In addition, Colombia taxes the worldwide income of tax residents.
Just because you have to file taxes in Colombia doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay income taxes. Colombia has several deductions plus you can subtract some income taxes paid in another country from income taxes due in Colombia. We previously looked at filing income taxes in Colombia.
Colombia also has a 19 percent IVA tax (a value added tax – VAT) on many products, which makes buying many things more expensive. The IVA tax used to be 16 percent but was increased to 19 percent in February 2017. But some grocery items such as milk, eggs and fruits and several other items are exempt from the IVA tax in Colombia.
2. Spanish is Required
I have met some foreigners that have been living in Colombia for several years that don’t speak much Spanish. But most Colombians generally don’t speak much English. So, to be independent when living in Colombia you will need to speak some Spanish.
It is difficult to get by living in Colombia without speaking some Spanish. Only a few of the locals speak English. Most of the people that you will interact with on a typical day, such as store clerks, taxi drivers and waiters will speak little to no English. In addition, Education First ranks the English proficiency in Colombia as low at 48.90 on a 100-point scale.
I took 10 Spanish classes at Universidad EAFIT, so I speak Spanish at the intermediate level. And I am continuing to study to improve my vocabulary and pronunciation.
Nothing has helped me enjoy my time in Colombia more than the ability to effectively communication. And I was able to receive two Colombian student visas that permitted me to be in Medellín full-time.
Also, the English-speaking expat community in cities in Colombia is relatively small. In Bogotá and Cartagena, you are likely to find more English speakers than you can in other cities in Colombia. But even in Bogotá and Cartagena most Colombian don’t speak much English.
3. Corruption is Common in Colombia
Transparency International’s corruption rating has Colombia ranked as 99 out of 180 countries in terms of corruption perception.
If you want to get some things done in Colombia it can require a bribe. I have talked to several expats that have relied on local lawyers to take care of bribes so the expat can have “deniability”.
I know from experience the court system is corrupt in Colombia and favors those with money with many things being done “under the table”.
However, Corruption is an issue in several Latin America countries and is considered worse than in Colombia in some countries. For example, Brazil is ranked 105, Ecuador is ranked 114 and Mexico is ranked 135 by Transparency International, all worse than in Colombia.
4. Exchange Rate is Volatile
When living in Colombia pretty much all of your costs will be in the local currency – Colombian pesos (COP).
The exchange rate over the past three years has been very beneficial if you have U.S. dollars (USD) or another Western currency. But the exchange rate has fluctuated dramatically over the years. So, it hasn’t always been like now.
Over the past 10 years the exchange rate has ranged from 1,745 to 3,438 pesos to the USD. So, your cost of living in Colombia in terms of USD will fluctuate. Over the past three years the exchange rate has ranged from 2,711 to 3,438 pesos to the USD. This is a much higher exchange rate range than the prior seven years.
5. Colombia Can Be Dangerous
There are parts of Colombia and parts of each city in Colombia where you really shouldn’t go. And you should learn these.
Parts of Colombia are still ravaged by a war between guerillas (the ELN et al), paramilitaries and government forces. And while Colombia signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), some dissident groups refused to demobilize.
The U.S. Department of State has a Colombia Travel Advisory that is currently at Level 2 – exercise increased caution. In this travel advisory, it is advised to reconsider travel to several departments in Colombia including Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Norte de Santander Departments, with the exceptions of the cities of Popayan (capital of Cauca) and Nuqui by air.
Also, Canada has travel advice and advisories for Colombia that says to “exercise a high degree of caution”. It also recommends avoiding all travel within 20 km of the border with Venezuela, within 20 km of the border with Panama and the ports of Buenaventura and Tumaco.
While the reported homicide rates in some cities in Colombia can be lower than in some cities in the U.S., these reported rates should be taken with a grain of salt; there are also some disappearances that are not counted as homicides.
While safety in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years street crime is still common. So, there is a need to take certain basic precautions and being vigilant about your personal safety. We have a separate article about safety in Medellín with safety tips that also apply to other cities in Colombia.
6. Cars are Expensive in Colombia
Cars can be quite expensive due to import duties in Colombia of up to 35 percent. Reportedly over 60 percent of the vehicles sold in Colombia are imported. So, many models of cars sold in cities in Colombia can be more expensive than in the U.S.
Colombia has a free trade agreement with the U.S. that went into effect in 2012. The agreement is phasing out the import duty for vehicles over a 10-year period but there are still import duties.
In addition, Colombia has free trade agreements with several other countries. These other agreements are also phasing out import duties for automobiles. Over time this will help reduce the costs for imported vehicles sold in Colombia.
When living in Colombia, you should expect to pay more for a car than in the U.S. Also, there are also ongoing costs with owning a car including insurance, maintenance, taxes and gasoline.
But it is possible to live in several cities in Colombia without a car. For example, Medellín has a comprehensive metro system and many inexpensive bus routes. So, it’s possible to overcome this downside by not owning a car.
Cars are not the only expensive things in Colombia. We previously looked at 9 expensive things in Medellín for expats. But there are more inexpensive things found in Colombia and we looked at 14 cheap things in Medellín for expats.
7. Customer Service is Lacking – Patience is Needed in Colombia
You will need patience and tolerance living in Colombia. If someone says they will be there in 30 minutes it may be in two hours, tomorrow may mean sometime later in the week and so on.
Also, don’t expect someone to be on time for a date. It’s a pleasant surprise when they are. Colombians don’t come from a service-oriented culture. So, customer service can at times be very slow. And cashiers at groceries stores can be frustratingly slow in Colombia.
North Americans and Western Europeans used to their more well-oiled realities will run up against their share of disorganization, poor service, long lines and bureaucracy in Colombia, which can range from mildly frustrating to infuriating.
However, this is no different than many other countries in Latin America. I have experienced similar issues in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and several other countries in Latin America.
8. Jobs in Colombia Don’t Pay Very Much
Don’t come to Colombia expecting to find a job that pays very well. It is very difficult for a foreigner to make a living in Colombia unless you’re an expat that works for a multi-national company. Or it’s possible to have a location independent job based in the U.S. or other more wealthy country and work remotely.
Keep in mind the minimum monthly wage in Colombia is only 828,116 pesos ($251 USD) per month in 2019.
9. Colombian Food Isn’t the Best
While some foreigners claim to love Colombian food, I don’t really like some of the typical Colombian foods. For example, Arepas, those starch-laden answer to the tortilla common in Colombia, to me don’t have any flavor. So, you need to add cheese to them or something else to make them edible.
But there are several typical Colombia foods I like. And I also like many of the typical street foods in Colombia. Also, I like the huge variety of tropical fruits found in Colombia.
But some food in Colombia to me is too bland and leaves much to be desired. While there are several foods in Colombia I love, they are the exception, not the rule. I personally prefer the food of Peru and Mexico in Latin America.
Other Downsides That Don’t Apply to All Cities in Colombia
There are several other downsides that really apply to particular cities in Colombia. For example, Traffic and pollution are problems in the two biggest cities of Colombia: Bogotá and Medellín. But traffic and pollution aren’t that big of a problem in other cities in Colombia.
So, traffic and pollution aren’t really downsides of Colombia, as some posts and videos on the Internet claim. Traffic and pollution are downsides of cities like Bogotá and Medellín and not the overall country of Colombia.
The Bottom Line: Colombia Downsides – Downsides to Living in Colombia
No country is perfect and there are downsides to living in any country. For me the positives and advantages of an expat living in Colombia greatly outweigh the downsides and negatives. I have traveled to over 40 countries and decided to live in Medellín in Colombia.
But before deciding to live in a country like Colombia it’s important to understand the downsides.
Some publications tend to praise Colombia as a top foreign retirement location but they don’t really discuss all the downsides. So, hopefully the above article will help communicate some of the downsides of living in Colombia from an expat’s perspective.
What other downsides have expats experienced living in Colombia?
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Kudos on an objective look!
Keep the good work!
Thanks for the accurate post about downsides of living in Colombia.
This should be required reading for anyone using the foreign retirement publications like International Living (better known as International Lying) or Live and Invest Overseas. Both retirement publications seem to sugar coat everything and almost never talk about the downsides.
You took 10 classes of spanish and you are at intermediate level? No creo…lol
Also, I have a Colombian wife that doesn’t speak much English so practice daily 🙂
Methinks you meant that your wife doesn’t speak much English…
Yes, LOL my bad… updated my comment.
Such a well balanced and insightful article that makes fine distinctions.
An excellent post as always, Jeff. I have at least one other downside that I noticed in Medellin that might possibly extend to the country as a whole. That is, the idea of personal space. It’s seemingly everywhere; the markets, the streets, the traffic and anywhere else you might be publicly. Colombians have no problem crowding or “cutting” you in line, driving with reckless abandon even if you’re rightfully in the crosswalk, or simply walking into you with nary an apology. In the US this would be considered rude and a lack of social manners.
Yes, it’s a small thing but if you’ve been living in one culture for most of your life, then a transition to Colombia could be a culture shock. After speaking with several expats, I’ve learned it’s never just ONE downside. It’s death by a thousand cuts. The language barrier, the traffic, air quality, the corrupt officials, the food blandness, the “gringo tax” etc. all take their mental toll. Factor all of this and add in a situation where you’re a victim of a crime and it’s almost certain your days as a Colombian expat are numbered. The folks that are best able to navigate this seem to be those with a personal, familial or romantic relationship with a Colombian.
I’d like to join the others in congratulating you to this once again well balanced article. To add my two cents to your points 6, 8 and 9:
My impression is that not only cars are more expensive, but also consumer electronics and any kind of household “eletcrodomesticos”, plus, of course, less choices on these articles compared to North America. To your point 8: If someone relocates to Colombia to try and land a job at local conditions, they are probably a tad out of touch with local reality, especially if you compare local conditions to EU or Canadian standards (not only pay-wise, but also compared to social security, work hours, vacation entitlement etc.. which is offered in the EU and not so much in Colombia (except, of course, if you have an expat contract with an international company or if you are a gifted entrepreneur..). To your point #9: I am glad to see that I am not the only one who has a critical view of local cuisine)… Having said this, I am once again looking forward to spend quality time in MDE in August… Cheers Harry
@ Dan: I especially like you correct labeling: “International Lying”.. right to the point!
In Medellin Laureles I haven’t experienced the famoso “gringo tax” that there might be in El Poblado and that definitely exists in Cartagena. I sure wish the prices were better marked but on the whole, the vibe here isn’t predatory like in many other tourist destinations. I’ve been in some extremely developed and sophisticated scam tourist traps and Laureles isn’t one of them. The cashier line at the grocery store is vastly complicated by the ever increasing additional bill paying and phone topping up services the cashier will offer. Next I’m expecting them to ask the person ahead of me if they would like to apply for a mortgage or a car loan.
Traffic and pollution are absolutely a problem everywhere
Not true – go to the pueblos near Medellín or other smaller cities in Colombia like Pereira, Manizales, Santa Marta, Armenia and so many others where there isn’t really much of a traffic or pollution problem.
Jeff, not sure if I would agree with your statement regarding Armenia and Manizales. The sheer fact that these cities have to resort to “pico y placa” is an indication that there are some serious traffic issues during peak hours. Poorly maintained buses plus dirty Diesel don’t help the air quality in these cities, either..
Armenia and Manizales are much smaller cities in Colombia with populations of about 300,000 in Armenia and 500,000 in Manizales. So, no way they have the same amount of traffic or pollution that is found in Medellín with a metro population of 4 million or Bogotá with 10+ million.
Manizales doesn’t do pica y placa all the time and a study in Manizales showed that a traffic jam during rush hour generally does not exceed 20 minutes. Pica y placa is being done in Manizales at times due to some road construction reducing lanes available, see (in Spanish): https://caracol.com.co/emisora/2019/01/30/manizales/1548846246_840401.html
As for pollution, I know just as soon as I am standing outside the eldorado in Bogota hailing a taxi. My eyes are burning, and I don’t acclimate for roughly a week. For me anyway, their pollution is by far the worst I have experienced in my 23 country journey. That’s why I am opting to be in places you speak of, such as Armenia and those surrounding areas. Plus the cost of living is cheaper there. Just not sure I will be able to find a decent place to live outside the city.
I rarely have a clogged traffic situation to deal with. My quite walkable neighborhood in Medellin has almost everything I ever need so I am not in traffic in the first place. When I do need to travel about town I pick my times carefully. Air pollution, especially on the heavily travelled routes, is truly post apocalyptically ghastly but it’s not bad if your digs are away from it. I have an unobstructed clean breeze off the mountains wafting through my apartment 24/7. The lush vegetation throws off a lot of oxygen too.
I agree with you. You can choose a walkable neighborhood in the Medellín metro area and avoid traffic most of the time. Also, you can time your trips to other parts of the metro area to avoid peak traffic hours. I live in Sabaneta where I am a five minute walk to Parque Sabaneta and two nearby grocery stores and many small neighborhood tiendas selling groceries and fruit and vegetables. Also, there are probably 100 restaurants and bars and many small shops within a 10-minute walk. And it’s a 10-minute walk to a metro station and about an 18 minute walk to the large Mayorca mall. So, most places I can walk to.
I like your reply Geoffrey. May I ask where you live or at least what part of the City. I am making my first trip to Medellin in Feb. 2021 .
Pls…remember there are as many different types of arepas in Colombia, as u can imagine. All depends on the region… the ones u r talking about are called “Arepa Paisa”… I don’t like them either… However, u can find some other amazing ones like “Arepa Santandereana”, “Arepa de queso”, “Arepa de chócolo”, among others.
This is a good article so give you that but I did have a laugh about your arepas comment. First of all Colombian arepas are not that good anyway. Venezuelan much better. But of course you have to put something with them. They are made for stuffing. They are less like a tortilla and more like a Gordita. Minor issue but o thought it was funny. Good job!
Exactly, Mark! There is arepa guy on the street corner near my condo – stuffs freshly ma arepa (very cheesy dough). Get meat for dinner and egg for breakfast. Venezuelans make it even better – Reina Pepeida (chicken salad), great place USD 4.00 on Via Argentina in Panama. Still looking for Venezuelan in Bogota. Can get everywhere walking or Transmileno. Most of my income is USD so very low cost of living. Of course USD could reverse so diversifying with Colombian investments.
For me, the rose-colored glasses started coming off after 3 or 4 years of living here. I agree with your downside of living in Colombia, and probably have a few more pet peeves as well. The biggest upside for an ex-pat from North America or Europe is the low cost of living with a few more pluses like the biodiversity, festive atmosphere. But the big plus for a retiree like me is the relatively low cost of living. The security issues are always there… be aware of them and take precautions, but don’t let paranoia take over. And yes, Colombian food can be awfully boring and tepid, but when done right, I really like it. Unfortunately, it is hard to find places where even Colombian food is done right. And no arguments about the other downsides like city traffic, the double tax liabilities, etc., etc. I always tell people, who have visited here 2 or 3 times, that Colombia is not for most people… give it some time before you move here.
I see another disadvantage… maybe other ex-pats don’t. I call it “the Colombian Fog.” What I mean is that many Colombians seem oblivious to their environment and the people around them. I could go on about this, but it probably would be more appropriate in a private discussion over a square bottle than on an internet forum…LOL. Out of all the downsides mentioned, this one probably sticks in my craw the most.
Not sure where you are living in Colombia, but if you like BBQ, Villa Vicencio will be perfect. You just walk up to the fire pit where they have 2-3 different animals cooking, and you carve out what you want. All the while, being serenaded by some local musicians. Very laid back atmosphere. Just be careful where you sit. I had a guy peeing right next to my table, and I thought what the heck! Until I looked down, and there was a pee trough that ran outside, lol. So no such thing as a banyo in that restaurant, lol.
Curt, It will be very nice if you elaborate more regarding “the Colombian fog” issue, please it would be very informative and helpful to people like me that does no live on fantasy and never like to wear the rose colored glasses. Please help us to grow a little bit more. Thank you.
Good article. Personally the fog got thicker the more I could consverse in Spanish.
Seems like living in a large city has its disadvantages, even more so if you aren’t used to the culture or don’t speak the language. So far my time in colombia has been exceptional! I have spent most of my time in a small Pueblo about three hours from Medellin. If considering moving here I would recommend you look in to smaller towns within driving distance to a larger city where you’ll have access to more amenities. This way you can enjoy many of the positives and avoid some of the negatives mentioned in this article.
I was about to comment on your dislike of Arepas but then I realized the blog is called “Medellin guru” which means you are probably talking about Arepas Paisa (from Antioquia, the region in which Medellin is), which are known for their lack of taste compared to any of the other variants in the country. Even us Colombians make fun of the Arepas of Antioquia. That said, you were right when comparing them to tortillas. Arepas, like Tortillas, are supposed to be eaten with something inside or on top of them, usually cheese.
Love the article. Yes things here are INCREDIBLY expensive compared to the minimum wage here in Colombia. That’s why no one is able to save money. Quick math: a cheap lunch here costs about 7 thousand pesos (some cities 5 and others 10) which would be the equivalent to minimum age workers in the US spending about $25 on lunch. Who spends that much on a normal lunch in the US??? Eating out for dinner is even more expensive. I agree that the food isn’t the best. The good foods that they do have are great (mote de queso, sancocho, cabeza gato nojoda) but in terms of variety its aweful (like 2 or 3 types of cheeses at olimpica for example). Also things like eggs, flour, milk, and corn taste different and are a lot better in the US. DO NOT try and come here and find work. Find a job you can do online ANYTHING working for a US company. Just wish I knew these things before coming but definately do not regret coming. My wife being from Sincelejo makes things 100% easier and better.
“Next I’m expecting them to ask the person ahead of me if they would like to apply for a mortgage or a car loan.”
I’m sorry that was just the funniest thing I’ve read today. I love this comment.
I just watched a video of the problem with The drugs and the gangs in Colombia They said when the got Escobar the cocaine and the gangs would stop only an idiot would believe that perhaps you could be honest and tell where to stay away from places in Colombia
Jeff also hate cities is there places that are safe and livable just outside the city limits? I have a Russian fiance and her daughter that are sick of 33 below zero weather LOL Me too LOL I would be grateful for any info I read Medellin Guru when it comes in. Also are there any places that sell Rottweiler puppies there?? I love those sweet dog’s very smart very loyal but can be spoiled very easy just like Pit Bulls People make those dog mean and vicious Thanks Jeff
Yes, there are some places that sell Rottweiler puppies.
Jeff, Is there a group of expats that I could meet up with to get to know some people?
We used to host the largest expat meetups in Medellín, our last one had over 200 people in February 2020 – see – https://medellinguru.com/february-2020-medellin-guru-meetup/. But due to the pandemic meetups are not permitted. So, there really are not expat events during the pandemic.
You can possibly arrange to meet people individually that you meet on Medellin Facebook groups. For example, Medellin Guru has a group with over 3,200 members – https://www.facebook.com/groups/2049770935285229
Also, I recommend looking at our article about making friends in Medellín – https://medellinguru.com/making-friends-in-medellin/
My name is Roman. I have worked as a teacher in colombia in several different places. Ex-military. Last was living in Buccaramanga.
I will be returning to Colombia to get some dental work completed in medelin or bogata. Would you suggest where it is reasonably priced and great, for implants.
Thank you, roman
I have ridden in taxis in New York City where driver drove onto the sidewalk to get to an exit street, honking at the few pedestrians on the sidewalk. I have been in a taxi in San Francisco that drove 50 mph in downtown which at the moment had little traffic. I live in a city where many rural citizens come to shop and believe traffic lights are suggestions and not rules.
The worst place I have ever had taxi rides is in Cali, Colombia, where I visited friends in 2018. I do not believe I had even a single taxi ride that I honestly did not think was the end of my life. Gunning the accelerator to the floor so a car couldn’t pass and then slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting the car in front. Gunning through cross traffic that had the right of way if a small gap was seen. Not reducing speed when a teenager on a bike accidentally fell over a curb into the street and complained that screamed and it caused him to put on the brakes! I think at least 90 % of a taxi rides I had during my 2 week stay had at least 1 such harrowing experience.
The police are corrupt and give fines for things such as the motorcycle helmet being on the had at the wrong angle. Many minor fines involve the car being towed away with an exhorbitant fee for the “storage”. A friend wanted to protest a fine for something the policeman had said on the ticket that the other vehicle was at fault for running through a red light but my friend got the ticket, and the so-called judge looked at the report and said “pay the fine, Next”, before my friend even opened his mouth. My friends are not wealthy, barely squeaking by, I am sure that expats or citizens with a good income are not treated this way.
Other parts of my visit were wonderful. The food is generally bland, but spicier sauces are routinely available if you know to ask for them. Arepas are wonderful if you ask for cheese or butter to go along with them. Salads full of many tropical fruits are spectacular. Fruits mixed with ice cream and a sweet topping are to die for, I forget the name, they are dirt-cheap at stands on the street (just make sure the ingredients are kept cool). Everyone seems to go out on the streets at night in populated areas, it reminds me of noisy frat parties except out on the street or in neighboring apartments. Cali is the home of the salsa, many bars even give free lessons. I think the evening life might be a celebration for making it through taxi rides and still being alive! Really……