Medellin was long excluded from the list of popular tourist and expat destinations, but the city has today become something of a mecca for Spanish-language students, retirees, remote workers and digital nomads alike.
The main reason for this is that Medellin is an attractive place to call home. The weather is great, locals friendly, nightlife lively and the prices still fairly competitive. The availability of decent internet, infrastructure and healthcare have all helped make living in the city a feasible option for people from all walks of life.
If you’re currently considering a move to Medellin – whether to study Spanish, or for any other reason – you’ll need to know how to go about making the transition into your new life. What follows are a few reflections, based on my own experiences of living in the city from 2007, that should help you make the move across more easily.
Where to Live in Medellin
The first, and arguably most important, decision you’ll need to make when relocating, is where exactly in the city you should live.
Medellin has over 3 million inhabitants and spans dozens of different districts, meaning that it may seem like your options are endless. But, to be perfectly honest, most of the city’s neighbourhoods offer little excitement. They’re a bit rough round the edges and don’t contain much of interest beyond basic housing.
Never fear though – the attractions of the better districts in the city more than making up for the shortcomings of the poor neighbourhoods. As a foreigner, the main areas I’d recommend to live in Medellin are (in no particular order):
- El Poblado / Patio Bonito;
- Laureles / Estadio; and
Each area has it’s pluses and minuses, and which one is right for you will ultimately be a question of personal preference. The following short introductions to each district should help orientate you a little when deciding:
1. El Poblado / Patio Bonito
Poblado is by far and away the fanciest part of town, and is home to the city’s main shopping malls, exclusive restaurants and upmarket hotels.
At its centre is Parque Lleras, Medellin’s most famous nightlife spot, where you’ll find all manner of expensive bars and nightclubs. It’s also where the city’s rich kids live and come to party.
The other thing to note about Poblado is that it is the district of Medellin where you’ll find the highest concentration of hostels and hotels, and thus also the largest number of tourists and expats.
Though there’s plenty of nightlife in the immediate vicinity of Parque Lleras, move just a few blocks away and the district is actually extremely tranquil. Almost all the accommodation here takes the form of high rise apartment blocks; most of which also have on site swimming pools, gyms and saunas for their residents.
If your aim is to integrate with locals, Poblado won’t appeal much
Live in the upper reaches of Poblado and you’ll need a vehicle to get about. Public transport isn’t up to much, facilities and shops are widely dispersed, and the limited footpaths are far from pedestrian friendly.
Rent somewhere close to Parque Lleras and you’ll be nearer to the action. Living here would best suit those who are keen on becoming part of the Medellin expat community, and who expect to spend much (or even most) of their time with other foreigners.
With its shopping malls, and familiar consumer outlets (like Starbucks, Hooters and Subway), Poblado is the part of Medellin which most resembles the US. If you’re after maximum comfort and familiarity then this could well be the right part of town for you.
However, if your aim is to integrate with the locals, get to know Colombian culture, and practice Spanish for several hours a day, then this area won’t appeal so much. Beyond the expat crowd, Poblado doesn’t have anywhere near as much of a community feel as do other parts of the city, making it hard to make local friends.
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2. Laureles / Estadio
Laureles and Estadio get a good write-up among many a Medellin expat. Fans of the area like the place because they say it has a similar level of facilities to Poblado, but without so many foreigners knocking about.
Laureles is still a very residential area, but unlike Poblado, it has plenty of small streets lined with detached houses, rather than just high rise apartment blocks. There is some decent local nightlife too, especially along either side of “La 33” – a large main road that travels into the heart of the district.
All this makes it easier to mix in with Colombians and to get a better feeling of what local life is like. Though there is plenty in this part of town that is familiar, anyone living here will definitely also experience much that is different from what they’ve known back home.
One of the main downsides of these areas, and particularly of Estadio, is that they don’t feel quite so safe as Poblado. That’s not to say that the risk of crime is necessarily greater here, but I expect you’ll feel a little less comfortable walking around here at night (not least because the quiet residential streets rarely have decent street lighting).
Another thing to note is that while Laureles does have good facilities and bars overall, they are more dispersed. While Parque Lleras and La 10 are the undisputed centres of the action in Poblado, Laureles and Estadio don’t really have an equivalent spot.
3. Envigado / Sabaneta
Having lived in various parts of Medellin, I have to say that Envigado has always been my personal favourite.
Envigado, and Sabaneta too, are supposedly separate entities from Medellin, but as the city has grown over the past few decades, all three have basically merged together to form one large conurbation.
This hasn’t changed the small town feel that Envigado and Sabaneta can still offer within the big city. Both have a main square (which you can explore below) that forms the centre of local life, and offer a variety of bars, small clubs and fondas (traditional Colombian nightlife spots) dotted about the place.
Here, you can enjoy the comfortable and relaxed pace of life in a Colombian town. At the same time, the bright lights of the big city are only a short 20-minute bus, taxi or metro journey away (from Envigado, that is. Getting in from Sabaneta is admittedly more of an effort).
To me, these areas have plenty to recommend for anyone looking to stay in Medellin for more than just a week or two. They’re close enough to the action that you’ll still feel part of the main city, but far away from the main tourist throng that you feel like you’re actually living among Colombians; not in an expat bubble.
Envigado and Sabaneta still offer a small town feel despite being within a big city
There are far fewer foreigners living here than in Poblado (though this is beginning to change) and, in my experience, you get treated extremely well in this part of town. This all helps make it, for me, one of the best places to live and practice your Spanish in Medellin.
Finding a Place to Live
After deciding where you want to base yourself, the next challenge is finding a place a room or apartment to stay in. The good news is that there’s plenty of medium and long-term renting options available in the city. As a general rule, it’s much easier (and cheaper) to find a room in a shared place, than it is to rent somewhere independently.
Renting a room in somebody else’s apartment is a straightforward business. Without doubt, the best place to start looking is on the local webpage compartoapto.com.
This is the go-to site for Colombians and international visitors alike when trying to find a room to let in the city. It’s free to browse and set up a profile, but to be able to contact prospective roommates you’ll have to pay a small fee (about $3). I’ve found demand for roommates to always outstrip supply and have never struggled to find somewhere quickly.
An alternative route for getting a room in a shared place – if you’re planning on studying Spanish, that is – is to approach the language school or university that is hosting your course. Some of these institutions can arrange homestays on your behalf (for a fee) or share with you details of trusted local landlords that have rooms available for rent to language students.
A final useful place to start looking for accommodation is on the Facebook groups that deal with the topic. One of the most active for this, featuring regular adverts for both short and long-term lets for foreigners, is the Medellin Rooms, Apartments and Expat Info group.
Renting Your Own Apartment
The situation is more complex when it comes to renting your own place. The main obstacle to getting a proper let – in other words, a long-term unfurnished apartment – is that most local letting agents will ask for a Colombian “fiador” or guarantor, who will be legally liable for the rent if you don’t pay.
The main obstacle to getting a long-term let is that you’ll need a guarantor
After you’ve been in the city for a while and have made some decent local friends, you may be able to ask one of these to be your fiador. But, even then it’s a pretty big thing to ask of someone, so don’t be surprised if people are reluctant to agree.
Recent arrivals need to be a little creative to get around this requirement. Some agents or landlords, for example, may be willing to accept an advance of several months’ rent instead of a guarantor (though far from all do). Another option is to try and rent from a landlord introduced to you via your personal network of contacts who might be more flexible.
Getting a long(ish) lease without a guarantor probably means that you’ll have to get a furnished apartment and pay a little over the odds for the privilege. You can do this via international platforms, like the AirBnb sublets section, or alternatively look for private landlords on sites like compartoapto.com.
You should also join the Facebook group mentioned above, where agents are more used to renting to foreigners.
Living Costs and Accessing Your Cash
Beyond the accommodation question, another key thing to consider when moving to Medellin is your budget and the cost of living.
By international standards, Medellin is still a pretty cheap place to live and enjoy – especially following the slump in the value of the local currency over the past couple of years (mainly due to the fall in oil prices). However, don’t expect the kind of economy here that you’d find in Asia or even some parts of Central America.
By international standards, Medellin is a pretty cheap place to live and enjoy
For a properly detailed account of how much each individual item is likely to cost you in the city, you’re best to check out the entries for Medellin on Expatistan and Numbeo. These give you a decent idea of how much it costs for an expat to live here and allow you to compare prices with your home city, or any other destination you’re considering moving to.
Very broadly speaking, a language student living in shared accommodation, going on a few nights out and eating in cheap local restaurants, should be able to get by reasonably well with about $500 a month (excluding Spanish tuition costs).
A remote worker / digital nomad looking for a slightly more luxurious lifestyle – perhaps including some gym membership, meals in nicer restaurants / fancy cafes and co-working spots – should plan on somewhere around $750 a month. A retiree thinking of getting a nice pad to themselves, and hanging out a lot in the restaurants and bars of Poblado should maybe budget for upwards of $1,250.
Accessing your cash is easy as ATMs are all over the place
Accessing your money is easy in Medellin as there are ATMs and currency exchange facilities all over the place. Single transaction limits at ATMs are normally around 400,000 pesos (about $130) though you can make more than one withdrawal a day.
A slight issue is that some cash machines can be temperamental about accepting international cards. This is especially true of Bancolombia, which is predictably enough, the bank with the largest number of machines in the city. It therefore pays to have a few different cards and accounts available for withdrawals for those times when one inexplicably fails.
To get money out in Medellin, you’ll have to pay a few dollars to either the Colombian bank or your own one (or both). If you’re staying for a while and have a proper visa (i.e. not just a tourist one), I’d advise you investigate opening a local account to save some money.
In the meantime, if you need to make large international payments – like for your rent or Spanish tuition – you’d be better doing so via a peer-to-peer service like TransferWise rather than paying the expensive fees that your home bank will charge.
Getting on Top of Spanish
To enjoy living in Medellin to the full extent possible, you’ll need to know some Spanish. In the smarter bars and restaurants in Poblado you’ll be able to get by, at a push, with just speaking English, but outside this area you’ll struggle. And without Spanish, you can near enough forget about making local friends.
Elsewhere, I’ve written about the best apps and online course for starting to learn Spanish and have provided a few other tips and ideas about how to get your Spanish up to scratch quickly.
My main bit of advice would be definitely start your time in Medellin off by doing some Spanish classes – if even only for a short time. Don’t expect that you’ll magically ‘pick up’ Spanish just by living in the city.
Without Spanish, you can near enough forget about making local friends
After about three weeks of classes / concentrated study and you should be able to get from knowing no Spanish at all, to being able to make whatever everyday sort of request you want, and managing some basic conversation.
This will give you an excellent base from which to practice and improve on your own. Without this start, you’ll struggle to get a real foothold into paisa culture.
(To speed up your integration, and to help later move away from overly-formal textbook style Spanish, you might also be interested in my video course on conversational Spanish for Colombia which contains hundreds of the expressions and slang you’ll hear every day in Medellin, but won’t cover in your classes.)
Where to Study Spanish in Medellin
The best place for you to study Spanish will depend on (a) how long you’re planning to stay and (b) where you’re planning to be based (for advice on the second point, check out the where to live section above).
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re staying in the city for anywhere between a couple of weeks and a couple of months, your best bet is going to be either to take private lessons, or to attend one of the city’s growing number of Spanish schools.
I personally took a few private classes with Yadi Leeming from the Blacksheep Hostel (Poblado) and am more than happy to recommend her as a teacher. She’s excellent. Later, I also studied with Diego Trujillo, who now runs the ABC Spanish School in Laureles, and likewise found the tuition to be of a great standard.
Since I last studied, a number of other schools have opened up elsewhere in the city (see the full list here); a couple of which have been repeatedly recommended to me by friends and readers of this blog. The main ones I’ve heard good reviews of are Toucan Spanish (Poblado) and Colombia Immersion (in Envigado and Laureles).
For long-term Spanish students (those staying for a couple of months or more), it’s wisest to opt for a university course instead of one at a Spanish school. This is principally because at universities you’ll be surrounded by Colombian students every day, making it much easier to make local friends.
For long-term Spanish students, it’s wisest to opt for a university course over one at a Spanish school
The other advantage of university tuition is that they can issue student visas for long-term courses – this is one of the easiest ways to stay in the country longer than the maximum six months permitted under local visa regulations.
In terms of recommended university courses, I studied for about five months at the language centre of EAFIT University (Poblado). The studying environment was extremely pleasant (see above photo), courses were comprehensive, teachers very friendly and the tuition standards high.
A couple of additional bonuses of enrolling here are that you can drop in to any other undergraduate course at the university for free, and that you can make use of the university’s excellent facilities – including a fancy gym, outdoor pool and private TV and movie booths in the library.
Aside from EAFIT, the main other university that offers Spanish courses in Medellin is the Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana (UPB) in Laureles. The UPB also has a pleasant campus, but I’ve heard more mixed reviews about the value of the Spanish courses offered there.
Getting a Long-Term Visa in Medellin
Getting your hands on a long-term visa for a foreign country is always a bit of hassle. Colombia is no exception here.
Things are simplest if you’re planning a stay of less than six months in the country. For that amount of time, you’ll be able to get away without applying for one of the proper visas which involve a load of paperwork.
As a national of most countries in Europe, North America, Latin America and Australasia you’ll be automatically granted a 90-day tourist visa on arrival into the country.
Getting this visa is as easy as passing through immigration at the airport or as you cross the land border. You won’t need any further documentation beyond your passport to do it. Later, as you approach the 90-day limit, you’ll be able to renew your tourist visa easily to stay in the country for a further 90 days.
You can stay in Colombia for 180 days without applying for a proper visa
To stay in Colombia for longer than 180 days in a calendar year, one option is to get a student visa which will cover the duration of whatever course you sign up for. To get this visa, you’ll need to study at an accredited institution, which essentially means either EAFIT or UPB universities (see ’where to study’ section).
This is only really a worthwhile way to do things if you’re planning on studying anyway. If you’re just trying to find a way to stay in the country, without necessarily having any actual interest in studying, this may not be the best option. Courses are expensive and have attendance requirements for the visa to remain valid – skip class too much and your permit to stay can be revoked.
You can find all the information about the available sorts of long term visas on the official government site. While certainly comprehensive, the information provided is pretty much impenetrable for anyone looking fo the first time.
To help you get started, here’s a few of the most useful visa types that might be worth investigating further:
- TP10: A visa available to people with a Colombian spouse or with a long-term partner (generally meaning that you are living together).
- TP7: Visas for retirees receiving a pension of more than about USD650 a month; for remote workers or people receiving other sorts of non-pension related income (e.g. property rent, dividends etc) totalling over about USD3,000 per month; or for foreigners making substantial investments, of tens of thousands of dollars in Colombia.
- TP4: A standard work visa – gained after being offered employment by a locally-registered firm.
No doubt, when you start to look through the documentation to obtain the visas, you’ll have plenty of questions about what precisely is involved. In the cases of both the work and student visa, you should turn in the first instance to the local institution (your employer or university) for assistance.
For the TP7 and TP10 visas, you won’t have this option. Before forking out on costly legal advice, I’d recommend you first try asking for help on some of the Medellin expat groups on Facebook. One called GringoPaisas, for example, has about 5,000 members and many of these have been through the visa process before.
It’s a great place to get some free advice before splashing out on an immigration lawyer. Overall, don’t let any potential complications with visas stop you from making the move to Medellin – you can always start off by entering on a tourist visa then seeking to formalise your situation once in the city.
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Bogota is Colombia’s capital and its largest city, making it a natural-enough base for students of Spanish and plenty of expats rave about how enjoyable life is in the city. That’s largely thanks to the fact that Bogota offers all the major trappings you’d expect of a big urban centre: in other words, a dizzying array of places to eat, shop, drink, dance and enjoy yourself.
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