Living in Colombia as an expat is an incredible experience. The country is now in a period of rapid tourism growth but there are still many negative stereotypes that persist. I always wanted to visit Colombia because I knew that its culture is very rich, and in that I also mean very diverse.
When I first visited Colombia, I went to Medellin because I discovered I had a distant relative living there. After the first day, I was convinced that I would live here someday. Everything from the gorgeous weather, to the beautiful landscapes, to the cheap cost of living, to the generous and friendly locals all made it a really easy decision for me to move here.
I’m from Omaha, Nebraska, an upper-middle class city. My father was a Jesuit and instilled a strong sense of social justice in me and my two sisters. After high school, I wanted to study International Relations so I attended Seton Hall University’s school for Diplomacy and International Relations.
The school is located in the heart of one of the most diverse areas of the planet. So I met people from all over the world, even countries I embarrassingly had never even heard of! I made a lot of Latino friends and it was then that I knew I wanted to study abroad for a year.
My inspiration for travel really came from a desire to speak fluent Spanish as well as to be able to understand the human experience from the eyes of a different culture. So much of the time our wealthy, educated, American perspective is considered to be the ‘right’ way or the more ‘correct’ way and I knew that was not always true.
I travel to appreciate different cultures and better understand people with their own distinct histories and societal values.
Travels through the Diverse and Beautiful Colombia
So surprisingly, for the first year living as an expat in Colombia, I did not have the means to travel a whole lot. I did get the chance to go on a few work trips to Bogota and the Pacific Coast in Bahia Solano which absolutely blew my mind away.
However, this past year I made it a priority to travel more. I visited the jungle in Leticia, the beach on the island of San Andres, Cartagena, and a few towns in Antioquia like Guatapé, Jardín, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Carmen de Viboral, and San Rafael. Each of these experiences has been so unique because Colombia is just so incredibly diverse.
Medellin is a great place to live and visit but I’m grateful to have gotten to see so many other faces of Colombia too. The indigenous cultures of the rainforest, the marine biodiversity of the coasts, the diversity and mix of music and cultures, etc. Traveling around Colombia almost feels as if you are visiting many different countries because it is all so uniquely different.
When it comes to my favourite place in Colombia it would have to be the Amazon rainforest. My trip there was beyond amazing. Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, only behind Brazil. This is because of the richness of the species found in the rainforest.
To be able to get up close with nature in its completely raw essence was unbelievable. I felt how much cleaner the air was, and really overall I felt a sense of peace from being in the middle of the lungs of the planet. Being in connection to a higher source of power is very important to me. I was happy to get to share in Mother Nature’s beauty on that trip.
This was also the first time I had played with monkeys from the wild, touched an anaconda, and encountered many other animals from the wild up close. These are animals that I only saw growing up in zoos. Being able to witness them so beautifully in their natural habitats really helped me appreciate life in all its forms.
Top 3 Experiences to Enjoy in Colombia
I would recommend visiting Medellin as one of your destinations and going on a coffee tour since the coffee culture so defines Colombia as a country. Medellin is also a city with a great nightlife and pleasant climate giving it the nickname of “City of Eternal Spring”.
I would also highly recommend visiting the Atlantic coast and participating in a dance class or something similar. Dance is such a huge part of the culture here and I love that the Atlantic coast also brings in new rhythms like champeta and cumbia alongside salsa, bachata, salsa choke, porro and other dances.
As a third experience, I would recommend going somewhere where the indigenous population is still alive and celebrated. It was definitely an eye opening experience to get to share with some of these groups in the rainforest when I visited, but they aren’t only in Leticia.
There are various groups all throughout the country that share their cultures in many ways like making different artesian products.
What it’s Like Living as an Expat in Colombia
In general, Colombians are warm and friendly people. They will kindly offer to help you find your way, be understanding as you stumble through your Spanish, or even invite you to their homes. They are definitely hospitable and kind in this manner and most especially to tourists and foreigners, which makes it easier living as an expat in Colombia.
I definitely feel more at home here than I did in some other countries in Latin America. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that, more than ever before, more tourists are now visiting Medellin. Since I have lived here for over two years, I have many close friends who are locals and I do love interacting with Colombians.
However, it can be difficult at times as a foreigner to relate on a personal level to those who do not have as globalized and developed viewpoints as somebody who is very well traveled or could relate to my experiences.
I have no problem saying that, for example, the machismo is very alive and very strong in Colombian society which is something that deeply upsets me. So for anybody traveling here they must be made aware of that.
Colombia is not a paradise and it shouldn’t be talked about like that. I am real with people when they ask me. But in regards to the richness of their culture and what makes Colombia the country that it is, I feel that it has such an untapped potential for growth and development.
The people have lived through a civil war that lasted for decades. You could say that among the people there is a strong spirit of resiliency to keep moving forward. This really is a spirit that defines so many countries of Latin America. It will be interesting to see how this plays out here in Colombia in the next 20 years or so as tourism begins to take off.
Another aspect to living as an expat in Colombia is enjoying the amazing food. Colombian food is not known for being spicy, but rather hearty I’d say. Dishes are pretty much always served with rice and an arepa and will leave you feeling satisfied.
But if you’re talking about street food, that’s something different! For example, I cannot get enough of the fresh fruit here. It’s something that Americans simply do not have access to. The climate here in Medellin is perfect to grow a variety of fruits, so everyone has access to fresh fruits picked right the day before with no preservatives or chemicals.
Other street foods like papitas criollas (little fried golden potatoes) or palitos de queso (cheese sticks) are delicious too!
Essential Tips for Living as an Expat in Colombia
There is a saying here that the only risk in going is that you’ll want to stay, which truly is what happened to me. I would advise people who are visiting Colombia to keep an open mind. You might find yourself in certain situations or have to deal with people or be presented with food, etc, that is different than what you’re used to seeing at home. That’s good!
Experience all of it and take it as a learning and growth opportunity. Travel is about getting outside of your comfort zone. So chat up that stranger, move your body to the rhythms, or try that strange fruit you’ve never heard of. Colombia is truly magical if you keep your eyes and mind open.
But also make sure you take care of your belongings while you’re at it! The stereotype from outside of Colombia that it is not safe doesn’t really match the reality of what it is here. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also be on the lookout for shady people or situations as a traveler.
As a last bit of advice, please for the love of God, do not seek out your beloved Starbucks on your trip here. You can find amazing coffee at any café in Colombia and you’ll be granted a much more authentic experience while you’re at it. Thanks for reading my article on living as an expat in Colombia. I hope to see you here one day soon!