Medellín is a beautiful city with a great climate and a low cost of living. I even wrote about 27 reasons why I ended up choosing Medellín as a great place to live. But no city is perfect. Expats considering living in Medellín should also consider the downsides to living the city.
Also, Medellín has been ranked as one of the top foreign retirement location by the foreign retirement publications. And there are many other websites with articles touting Medellín as a great place to live.
To me, the biggest benefits of living in Medellín are the climate, low cost of living, good and inexpensive medical care, proximity to the U.S., friendly and welcoming people and the great and inexpensive public transportation.
However, many publications I have seen tend to only discuss these positives and advantages about living in Medellín. And the downsides are glossed over or may not be mentioned. So, Medellín 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 and traveling to Medellín and the rest of Colombia. So, to balance out my article about 27 reasons why I ended up choosing Medellín as a great place to live it is important to also consider the downsides about living in Medellín.
I have lived in Medellín for over seven years and the following list of downsides is based on my experiences. I’m an expat from the U.S., so this is an expat’s perspective. The following list of downsides 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.
Note the above photo is traffic in Medellín near the Bancolombia headquarters during rush hour.
1. Traffic Can be Bad
Colombia was ranked as one of the world’s worst places to drive in terms of driver satisfaction based on a study done by Waze. Colombia had several cities in that study that ranked as some of the worst in terms of traffic, including Bogotá (7th worst) and Medellín (8th worst).
Traffic is a downside of living in Medellín. And traffic reportedly is the biggest concern of expats living in the city. But the traffic in Medellín isn’t so bad. It’s worse in Bogotá in my experience. Also, the much bigger cities of São Paulo and Mexico City have some of the worst traffic found in Latin America.
Medellín has a pico y placa rationing system that was implemented to address the traffic problem in the city during rush hour. Pico y placa is a rush-hour road-space rationing system used on Monday to Friday. Under pico y placa you are restricted from driving in Medellín during rush hours on Monday to Friday from 7:00-8:30 am and from 5:30-7:00 pm depending on the numbers on your license plate.
I also recommend the Waze app for smartphones. I have used this app for nearly two years and it has saved me so many hours from being stuck in traffic. Using Waze, you can find out how long it will take to get to a destination and the best route to use. Frequently the best route avoids traffic.
I also use the metro to avoid traffic. And there are many places in the city where it’s faster to go by metro. The Medellín Metro transports over 160 million passengers per year. So, traffic would be much worse in the city without the metro system.
2. Pollution is a Problem
The World Health Organization (WHO) previously reported that Medellín was ranked #9 and Bogotá #10 in a list of the 10 cities most polluted in Latin America. Medellín’s location is in a canyon with mountains surrounding the city. This does not allow for easy dispersion of pollutants. So, pollution generally stays in the metropolitan area. This is similar to the problem found in Denver. However, rain in the city can help clean the atmosphere.
But pollution is worse in many other cities in the World. According to WHO there are over 600 cities and towns around the world with worse pollution than Medellín .
In addition, the pollution level in Medellín varies in different parts of the metro area. According to the city’s monitoring stations, the worst level of pollutants in the metro area tends to be found in El Centro, La Estrella and Itagüí and the lower parts of the valley.
In the hills found in El Poblado, Envigado and Sabaneta pollution levels are generally lower. So, it’s possible to choose a neighborhood to live in Medellín with less pollution.
Also, Medellín has pollution monitoring in place. And when pollution has become a problem as it did in March 2017 the city takes action. Actions that Medellín has taken in the past have included restricting the use of cars and motorcycles, banning outdoor activities at schools, cancelling sporting events and even warning residents to stay indoors and avoid outdoor exercise.
3. Spanish is Required
I have met some foreigners that have been living in Medellín for several years that don’t speak much Spanish. But most Colombians in Medellín (and the rest of the country) generally don’t speak much English. So, to be independent you will need to speak some Spanish.
It is difficult to get by in Medellín 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 very low at 46.54 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 Medellín 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 Medellín is relatively small. But the expat community in the city is also pretty active with many regular meetups each month and other ways to interact with other English-speaking expats in the city.
4. Cars are Expensive
Cars can be quite expensive in Colombia due to import duties of up to 35 percent. Reportedly over 60 percent of the vehicles sold in Colombia are imported. So, many models of cars sold 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. Colombia has additional 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.
Expect to pay more for a car in Colombia 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 Medellín without a car. Medellín has a modern metro system, which is the only rail-based metro system in Colombia. Furthermore, the Medellín metro is a comprehensive and inexpensive system.
In addition to the Metro, Medellín has extensive bus routes in the city with inexpensive fares as well as very inexpensive taxis. So, it is very possible to live without a car in Medellín. I have lived in the city for over seven years without owning a car. And the majority of expats living in the city (reportedly over 80%) do not have a car.
Cars are not the only expensive thing found in Medellín. We previously looked at nine expensive things in Medellín. But the cost of living is still low in the city with 14 surprisingly cheap things in Medellín.
5. 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.
Also, the gross income requirement for filing taxes in Colombia is fairly low. In 2016, the filing requirement was gross income of less than 1,400 UVT, which was 41,654,200 pesos (only $13,881 USD at the official exchange rate at end of 2016).
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.
6. Difficult to Get a Loan/Credit
It takes a while to establish credit in Colombia. Mortgages are very difficult for foreigners to get. So, if you want to buy property in Colombia you may have to do it with cash. Local credit cards are also difficult for foreigners to get as well as car loans.
You need to be well established in Colombia before banks will even consider lending to you. It is even difficult for Colombians to get a mortgage, which is why the mortgage market in Colombia remains quite small – only about 3% of adults in Colombia have a mortgage.
To even be considered for a mortgage as a foreigner in Colombia, you will need to have residency with a cedula and have lived in Colombia preferably for at least a few years. You also need to have a bank account in Colombia and a credit history in Colombia. And you likely will be asked for proof that you file taxes in Colombia.
In over seven years living in Medellín I only met one expat with a local mortgage. And he was well established in Colombia with a Colombian wife and had lived in the country for over six years.
7. Questions from Friends and Family
Medellín still has a bad reputation to overcome from the days of Pablo Escobar, but Pablo is long gone. However, when the average person in the United States or Canada hears “Medellín” thoughts tend to turn towards the scenes in the popular Narcos series – drugs and widespread violence and Pablo Escobar.
Once you start living in Medellín, you come to realize that the current reality in the city is very far removed from the time of Escobar and the violence depicted in the Narcos series. The city has achieved a remarkable turnaround since the time of Escobar, who died over 23 years ago.
But, if you are an expat living in Medellín, one downside is that you will constantly get many questions from friends and relatives. This happens to me almost every month. Over the past seven years I have heard the same questions over and over again. Questions like – Is it safe? If I come will I be kidnapped? Will I get robbed?
I have been living in Medellín for over seven years and my father finally came and visited me for the first time in Medellín earlier this year. My father was hesitant to come to Medellín for many years due to the reputation the city still has in the U.S. But he finally decided to come after reading some of the more recent positive press about Medellín. And he ended up having a great time in Medellín. The city greatly exceeded his expectations.
8. Need to Lower Your Expectations
You will need patience and tolerance living in Medellín or other cities 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. 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, service can at times be very slow.
For example, when I furnished my apartment, everything was delivered later than originally promised. A sofa was promised in two days but ended up being delivered in five days. And a refrigerator was promised the next day but was actually delivered in three days.
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 Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and several other countries in Latin America.
9. Jobs in Medellín Typically Don’t Pay Very Much
Don’t go to Medellín expecting to find a job that pays very well. It is difficult for a foreigner to make a living in Colombia unless you are an expat that works for a multi-national company or if you have a job in the U.S. or another wealthy country that is location independent.
In addition, the better paying jobs in Medellín tend to require the local language, Spanish. But this is no different than in the U.S. The better paying jobs in the U.S. will require English.
10. 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 couple 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 1,655 to 3,437 pesos to the USD. So, your cost of living in Colombia in terms of USD will fluctuate. Over the past two years the exchange rate has ranged from 2,800 to 3,437 pesos to the USD. This is a much higher exchange rate range than the prior eight years.
11. Crime Remains a Major Concern
Crime and safety continue to be major concerns of expats considering moving to Medellín and expats living in the city.
There are parts of Medellín where you shouldn’t go, particularly after dark, and you’ll need to learn these. Like any big city some neighborhoods in Medellín are not really safe at night.
In the 1990s Medellín was known as the “murder capital of the world”. In 1991, Medellín had a homicide rate of 375 per 100,000 residents, which is over triple the current most dangerous city in the world: Caracas, Venezuela. But over the past 25 years, the homicide rate dropped dramatically in Medellín. Now Medellín has a homicide rate that is lower than St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans in the U.S.
Safety in Medellín has improved significantly in recent years. But street crime is still common in Medellín and other cities in Colombia. So, there is a need to take certain basic precautions when it comes to being vigilant about your personal safety in Medellín. But this is no different in this regard than many other cities in other Latin American countries. You can follow our expat safety tips to reduce the risk of being a victim of crime.
I have been fortunate that I have never encountered a security problem anywhere I have lived in Medellín in over seven years. But I am also safety conscious and take care not to flash cellphones, cameras or money. And I take taxis at night. In addition, I installed security doors in two apartments I lived in.
The Bottom Line: Downsides of Living in Medellín
The bottom line is that no city is perfect. For me the positives and advantages of an expat living in Medellín greatly outweigh the downsides and negatives. I have traveled to over 40 countries and haven’t yet found a city I would rather live in than Medellín.
But before deciding to live in a city like Medellín it’s important to understand the downsides. Some publications tend to praise Medellín 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 Medellín from an expat’s perspective.
What other downsides have expats experienced living in Medellín?