Not that long ago very few people would have considered Colombia as a holiday destination. Notorious drug cartels and high homicide rates were often the things most associated with the South American nation. However, whilst recently visiting Bogotá and Medellin in Colombia on a data collection trip for ECA’s Cost of Living Survey, I found a very different story.
In 1988 Time Magazine accredited Medellin as the world’s most dangerous city. It was home to Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel and the murder rates in Medellin were the highest in the world. In the 1990s, Medellin had a homicide rate of 375 per 100,000 residents, which is more than double that of modern-day Tijuana, Mexico - the world’s current most dangerous city.
Fast forward a couple of decades though and the story couldn’t be more different. Between 1991 and 2010 the murder rate in Medellin dropped by almost 80% and it now witnesses fewer homicides than major U.S. cities such as St. Louis and Detroit. It’s also recently been dubbed the world’s most innovative city, beating other finalists such as New York City and Tel Aviv. In the competition, Medellin was praised for its parks and libraries, colourful street art scene, and its infrastructure, such as the modern cable car, which has had a significant positive social impact on the city’s poorer neighbourhoods.
Bogotá too, presents itself to expats as a modern city with a population of eight million people. Bogotá has a notably high altitude of 2640 metres (8660 feet) above sea level. Only Ecuador and Bolivia have capital cities with a higher altitude than Colombia, meaning that it can take a few days to adjust to being there. This presents expats with a cooler climate in contrast to Medellin and the pleasant weather has earned it the nickname ‘La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera’, translating as ‘the City of Eternal Spring’.
However, no city is perfect, and it was evident to me during my trip that Bogotá suffers from chronic traffic problems, with gridlocked roads throughout the day seeming to be the norm. Waze regularly publishes their Driver Satisfaction Index measuring drivers’ experiences in over 185 cities around the world. Most recently, Colombia had five locations in the bottom 25 cities with Bogotá and Medellin coming in at 166th and 176th respectively. This is something that any potential expat, or tourist for that matter, will need to be wary of. In our most recent Location Ratings survey Bogotá also scored poorly for air pollution and with such significant congestion issues, this looks like something that will not be improving any time soon.
Whilst Colombia is substantially safer today than it was a few decades ago, it is also important to note that there are still areas that expatriates are advised to avoid. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has rated many of the major cities such as Medellin and Bogotá as safe to visit, but still recommend that some of the more rural and coastal areas of the country be avoided for “all but essential travel”.
I had a sharp reminder of Colombia’s recent past when on my day off in Medellin, I joined a walking tour of the once-notorious Comuna 13 region of the city. Our tour guide was only 20 years old but told us that when she was younger her father was shot dead because he had stepped across an ‘invisible border’ in Medellin into a gang’s territory. Luckily the area has since made a dramatic turnaround and is now even considered somewhat of a tourist hotspot, illustrating the remarkable change in fortunes that the city has seen. ECA International publishes detailed accommodation reports that can assist assignees and global mobility professionals to identify the preferred districts of a city to live in and these are updated regularly to accurately reflect an area’s suitability for expatriates and their families.
In a recent currency review blog post, ECA reported that Colombia had experienced a large drop in the value of the country’s currency. Some FARC rebels had declared that there had been a failure to implement the 2016 peace deal and that they would be taking up arms against the government again. However, FARC leaders have since announced that they have expelled rebels who announced a return to armed conflict, so the peace could yet survive. Nevertheless, the value of the peso has not bounced back, so assignees paid at least partly in foreign currency should see their overall cost of living fall, although the impact will be offset somewhat by moderately rising inflation.
I found Colombia a vibrant and beautiful country. The food and coffee were among the best that I’ve had on my travels and the locals were particularly friendly and hospitable. While the country may still have its drug cartel reputation to overcome, I have no doubt that Colombia will continue to attract an ever-growing number of visitors from all over the globe who will want to see this beautiful country for themselves.