If someone had told me 10 years ago that I’d end up living in Medellín I would have laughed.
I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly adventurous person. And even from a very young age had that burning curiosity to get out and explore the world. But, to be honest, back then Colombia wasn’t even on my radar.
Like most people I knew very little about the country other than the widespread stereotypical labels – drugs, kidnappings and violence. Who would want to go to a place like that, right?
And while it now rather embarrasses me to think about what a narrow and uneducated view I had of Colombia back then, why would I have thought anything different? That was the worldwide portrayal of Colombia at the time.
So, what changed and how did I end up living in Medellín, Colombia? Here’s my story.
Why Move to Medellín?
Of course, it all started with a Colombiana!
Back in 2009, shortly after finishing university, I left my home town of Glasgow in Scotland and headed south to kick-start my professional career in London, UK (Technology / Project Management).
At around the same time my now Colombian wife, Marcela, who had just completed her degree at Universidad Nacional in Medellín and had also come to London in order to study English.
It was in the good old days before Tinder and the like and therefore we met the old fashioned British way – on the dancefloor of a rather awful London nightclub!
Despite coming from two countries which, in all seriousness, couldn’t be more DIFFERENT, we quickly found that we had a ridiculous amount in common and hit it off instantly. The rest as they say is history.
From that point to now living in Medellín has been a bit of a gradual journey which goes something like this.
2010 – 2016: Yearly Vacations
In the early days my trips to Colombia were typically short 2-3-week vacations where we would come to visit Marcela’s family.
Normally these were once per year and typically around Christmas time. We would usually split our time between Medellín and the small neighbouring pueblo of San Vicente Ferrer (where Marcela’s parents are from).
But we would normally also try to add on a trip somewhere further afield. So, I could get to experience more of Colombia.
2016 / 2017: Career Break / Spanish Immersion / Volunteering in Colombia
In 2016 I hit a bit of a wall in my professional career in London.
I imagine a bit like many other foreigners who find themselves living in places like Medellín. I had reached my early-30s and suddenly realized that even although I had a well-paid job, good career prospects and a comfortable lifestyle, I was severely lacking in purpose. Yet I knew this wasn’t how I wanted to live the rest of my life.
So, I therefore decided to quit my job and take some time to reflect upon what to do next.
At around the same time Marcela had been offered an amazing new position at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington DC. So, we both decided to pack our bags, leave London and try something different.
But while Marcela headed for DC, I took the trip significantly further south to her home of Medellín, which seemed like a much more inspiring place to ‘find myself’. (And when I say to ‘her home’ I mean this in the most literal sense as I actually went to live with her parents for five months!)
It was during this period that I really got to know Medellín. I spent my days studying Spanish (which wasn’t great before that point), volunteering at a local kid’s foundation called Poder Joven and making the preparations for our upcoming wedding in Medellín.
2017: Wedding in Medellín
In March 2017 Marcela and I were married in El Retiro, a beautiful little town further up the mountain just outside of Medellín.
It was an amazing occasion for so many reasons – not least the sometimes-hilarious fusion of Scottish and Colombia cultures.
But one of the best things for us was to be able to bring all of our family and friends from all over the world and to share with them that same beautiful, colorful and vibrant Colombia that I had been raving about for years.
After our wedding we both headed back to Washington DC to start married life together. But it wouldn’t be long before I’d be returning to Colombia!
2017: Launching our Travel Business in Colombia
Having had now spent a considerable period away from my corporate career, and with that much needed time for reflexion, it had given me the confidence and perspective needed to exit that path completely and instead follow something I was truly passionate about.
This is when Other Way Round was born. It’s a project I’ve created together with Marcela. And it combines our joint interests of travel, adventure, social impact and of course Colombia.
During my eight or so years of visiting Colombia I’ve always been fascinated by the rich and amiable Colombian culture. And I feel massively privileged that I’ve gotten to experience it in a seriously authentic way, which the majority of foreigners probably haven’t.
So, our mission with this travel tour company is to bring together small groups of travelers and share with them that same type of intimate and real-life experience I’ve enjoyed in Colombia over the years.
Marcela still combines this with her role at the IDB in Washington DC. So, I currently split my time between DC and living in Medellín.
My First Impressions of Visiting Medellín
When I first arrived in Medellín all those years ago I was hooked instantly by its rather hypnotic charms. Of course, Marcela being a fiercely proud Paisa had done her job well in priming me on what to expect.
The brilliant weather, the beautiful landscapes, the delicious food, the lively culture, the warm and friendly people, and all of those other very amazing – and very true – things about her city.
But I must admit that even then it was still way COOLER than I ever expected.
First, it was just so different from anywhere I’d ever been before. I’d travelled a fair chunk of the world beforehand but still hadn’t really come across many places quite like Medellín.
It seemed to have completely kept hold of all its original culture and identity. And it wasn’t at all overly influenced by the outside world. Also, at the time there weren’t many other foreigners around which kind of made it feel all the more mysterious. (So much so that it actually felt to me like I was the only foreigner in Medellín!)
I was immediately struck by just how modern the city of Medellín itself was – with its clean and efficient metro system, its innovative cable cars, its hip bars and sophisticated restaurants. All this was completely different than the image I had created in my mind.
And it was a bustling, noisy, vibrant city full of colorful characters and brimming with the type of personality which would make most other cities completely envious.
And yet it was also a city full of contrasts. Within eyesight of this same modern Medellín were mountains filled with overpopulated slums. So, it became very evident to me that in Medellín there are such extreme contrasts between rich and poor with levels of poverty which I personally had never experienced before.
That first visit to Medellín certainly left its mark on me and I always knew that at some point I would love to come spend a more sustained period here to really get under the skin of this fascinating city.
My Daily Life: Living in Medellín
So, what does a typical day look like for me now when living in Medellín?
It depends. At the moment we’re still in the fairly early stages of Other Way Round and so much of my time is spent out and about in different parts of Colombia sourcing unique experiences where we can take our guests.
When not doing this most of my days tend to be computer-based working on things like marketing, dealing with customer enquiries etc. And a typical day looks something like below.
- Wake up early (just like most of the Colombians do)
- Go for a run or bike ride (to the nearby Cerro Nutibara with its awesome views)
- Shower + breakfast (can’t get enough of arepa with quesito)
- Work (typically from home but sometimes at a co-working for change of scene)
- Morning coffee break (go for a wander to a neighborhood coffee shop)
- Hearty lunch (at home with my in-laws)
- Siesta (yes, I’ve definitely learned the joy of a siesta in Colombia)
- Evening stroll around our neighborhood park (Parques del Rio)
- Light dinner (still stuffed from lunch)
- Early to bed
- Rinse and repeat
Also, I take weekly Spanish lessons in Laureles and the odd social event in the evenings. But in general, my life living in Medellín is very simple, super relaxed and most of my time and effort goes into working on the business.
I stay with my in-laws in Barrio Conquistadores, which is a fairly residential part of Medellín. And so even to this day, with the ever-increasing number of foreigners arriving in the Medellín, I still go most days without seeing any other foreigners.
On the weekends I tend to either go on caminatas (hiking) with some of the local hiking groups. Or I go on long scenic bike rides. And I often head to San Vicente with family to spend time at the finca.
I should say that, if this all sounds slightly boring to you, this is only a snapshot of how I prefer to spend my time – living in Medellín can be as lively as you want it to be!
There’s always something fun and interesting going on and the locals are always up for a party!
My Favorite Things About Living in Medellín
So, what is it that makes living in Medellín so special anyway? I’m sure that every foreigner who decides to call Medellín home has their own personal reasons for doing so.
For me, rather than it being one single thing, it’s more a compilation of lots of little things.
In no particular order, here are six of the main reasons why I can’t get enough of living in Medellín.
1. The Weather
Ok, so to begin with, I’m Scottish and therefore obviously just about anywhere else in the world is an upgrade weather wise (unless damp, rainy days are your kind of thing).
But the weather in Medellín is particularly ideal. I’m sure you’ve heard of the whole ‘city of eternal spring’ thing but for me the Colombian ‘spring’ is a bit like the best Scottish summer on record every single day.
Lots of sunshine, not too hot, not too cold and the fact that I can leave the house wearing only jeans and a t-shirt and not worry about it for the rest of the day is pure joy!
2. The Landscapes
I’ll never get bored of the ridiculously beautiful setting of Medellín nestled away deep within the Andes mountains of Colombia.
The drive in and out of the city is particularly epic (it’s even better on bike), there are awesome views all around as you maneuver throughout the city during your daily life.
And the vivid contrast between cityscape and lush mountainous backdrop is breath-taking.
3. The Food
Colombian food is typically a no-frills affair and while I know for some people it can feel a bit stodgy I genuinely can’t get enough of it.
Tropical fruits in abundance, a ridiculous variety of fresh juices, arepas, delicious cheeses, rice, beans, sweet plantain, fresh soups, avocados galore, patacones, corn and buñuelos to name only a few of my favourites.
And if you spotted the lack of meat on that list, it’s not a reflection of the Colombian diet, rather it’s down to me being vegetarian!
4. The Paisas
The locals in Medellín are absolutely fantastic. They have a reputation for being a super-friendly, welcoming, proud and hard-working people and I can attest that based on my experience this is a label more than well deserved.
My Colombian family and friends have always went WAY above and beyond to make sure I feel safe and welcome in their country and in general the Paisas are a fun, lively and passionate bunch who are great fun to be around.
A big part of what I enjoy most about being in Medellín is its people.
5. Christmas in Medellín
One of the most unexpected things for me about Medellín is that it does Christmas better than anywhere else I’ve ever been. The Medellín Christmas lights are world-class.
The full city gets decked out in bright neon Christmas lights covering almost everything from important buildings, public squares, riverside walks, treetops and prominent lookout points – almost no place is left untouched.
And there is an almost tangible level of excitement in the air throughout all of December as the locals gear up for the holiday season.
My favorite part though is that for the big day itself we (like most of the locals here) get out of the city and head to the family finca where we do nothing but relax in nature, eat awesome food and spend time with family.
6. The Antioquian Pueblos
Quite possibly my favorite thing about Medellín is … leaving the city!
Ok, what I mean to say by that is, that to fully understand Medellín and the Paisa people, you really need to venture outside of the valley and to explore the neighboring pueblos from where many of Medellín’s inhabitants actually originated.
But in fact, there are so many pueblos that if you’re living in Medellín you could easily spend each of your weekends visiting a different pueblo.
The Less Glamorous Side to Living in Medellín
If it’s not already clear from what I’ve said so far, I MASSIVELY love life in Medellín.
However, that doesn’t mean that living in Medellín is completely problem or hassle-free, because it most certainly isn’t. Here are a few of the important things that have struck me.
The Language Barrier is a BIG DEAL
Sure, you can manage to fumble your way through without speaking Spanish, but – and I speak from painful experience here – it won’t be anywhere near as enjoyable.
Although things are slowly changing with the younger generation, there is still very little English spoken in Medellín and you really need to have a decent grasp of Spanish in order to fully immerse yourself into Colombian life.
On the flip side – and I’m going to do that thing where you reframe a negative into a positive – Medellín is an awesome place to come learn Spanish.
I had been taking lessons on and off for years back in the UK, with very little success, and it was only when I came to Medellín for a sustained period and truly committed to learning the language that I really started to progress.
It’s Safer Than You Think – but You Still Need to be Careful
I often feel like the international reporting of Medellín’s impressive resurgence has flipped too much to the opposite extreme. I’ve lost count of the number of articles beginning with the headline “From World’s Most Dangerous City to … XYZ”.
And while some of these are accurate, well-written pieces like the Medellín security article on this website, many others – in my opinion – paint an overly positive picture of life in the city.
Medellín’s transformation is truly an awesome, inspiring story which should indeed be shared with the world. But visitors also need to know that Medellín is still very much a ‘work-in-progress’ and that Colombia as a whole is still a developing country, coming off the back of decades of conflict.
So, Colombia faces many significant challenges particularly around poverty and security. While this certainly shouldn’t deter any visitors from coming to Medellín, I do advise that they inform themselves adequately on the best practices for staying safe while in Colombia.
Traffic Can be Horrible
There are way too many cars, taxis and motorbikes in Medellín in what is, geographically, a relatively small city.
Moving short distances within the city can turn into a traffic nightmare at peak times and returning back to Medellín after a weekend outside of the city can leave you stuck in traffic jams for hours.
There are plans in motion to improve this – adding metro lines, building new access roads, creating bike lanes, etc. But in the short term it’s something you need to accept as part of daily life in Medellín.
While not at the same scale as many other cities around the world, Medellín does have an ongoing issue with pollution. Motor vehicles are the biggest culprits. And since Medellín is located in a valley it makes it particularly difficult for the pollution to escape.
Pollution seems to peak around the month of March. And on occasion driving restrictions are put in place and outdoor activities (like sports) cancelled.
I must admit that this hasn’t particularly impacted me while being in Medellín but definitely something to be aware of if you suffer from respiratory conditions or are thinking to stay in Medellín long term.
Just to reiterate on the less glamorous side: these are issues I think potential visitors should definitely be aware of. But, in truth, they haven’t prevented me from having the most amazing experience living in Medellín and in no way should they deter potential visitors from coming to visit Medellín.
The Bottom Line: From Scotland to Living in Medellín
Thanks to my Colombian wife who I met in London, I discovered Medellín several years ago. And we now have a business in Medellín and I really enjoy living in Medellín.
The bottom line is that Medellín has some amazing weather, beautiful landscapes, good food, a lively culture and warm and friendly people. These and many other benefits to me greatly outweigh the downsides in the city.
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