I’m four months into a six month stint in Colombia, and I thought I’d share some of the pros and cons of living in the country that put cocaine on the map. Disclaimer:While a lot of the things below could also be said to be true for Latin America in general, for the purposes of this article I’m confining my assertions to Colombia.
I should also note I’ve spent most of my time in country in the city of Medellin, which is the second most populous in the country. There’s obviously a big difference between life here and life in the country, just like there are noticeable differences in culture and lifestyle between coastal and mountainous locales, regardless of country.
Aforementioned disclaimers aside, let’s start things off on a positive note with the pros of living in the country famous for its coffee and cocaine.
Pros of living in Colombia
There’s a lot to like about Colombia. It’s affordable, the people are friendly, and it has some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. Below are some of the things I know I’ll miss when I leave.
- The women have long, beautiful hair.
- Limonada hierba buena.
- Menu del dia.
For me, this is the single sexiest trait a woman may possess. Long strands of protein are a strong indicator of health and vitality. Nothing pleases me more then running my fingers through a long, silky mane of lustrous Colombian cabello.
Hair length here is a refreshing contrast to the unpleasant trend in the West of women cutting their hair incredibly short. This is often done under the guise of self-expression, personal freedom, or defiance of ‘the patriarchy’. Thankfully, this case of cutting off the nose to spite one’s face is much less prevalent here in Colombia.
Hierba buena (literal translation: ‘good herb’) is a generic term which denotes a number of aromatic plans in the mint family. Hierba buena lemonade is a popular drink here, and I can see why. Its refreshing combination of sweet, citrus, and minty flavors is a balm on a hot afternoon. It also freshens the breath and aids digestion!
In Colombia, lunch, not dinner, lays claim to the title of the most important meal of the day. Menu del dia is a sort of set menu offered by many of the restaurants here, especially the more typical, family-owned ones.
El menu typically includes a starter (usually some kind of soup), a main (usually either steak, pork, chicken, fish, or chicharrón), and sometimes even a small dessert and a cafe. This will run you anywhere from eight to seventeen thousand Colombian Pesos (roughly $2-$6). This is great value, and one of the many reasons Colombia is a great place to gain weight.
Speaking of chicharrón, the ubiquity of deep fried pork belly is another great thing about Colombia. It’s commonly found on the menu del dia, and is also served at breakfast. I like to add it to my burritos for a delicious, crunchy addition.
Colombia is famous for its coffee, and rightly so. While your normal cup of tinto isn’t anything incredible, you can get a decent cup of coffee at any of the ubiquitous Juan Valdez locations. Pro tip: If you’re an iced coffee fiend like myself and you make it to Medellin, check out Rituales in Laureles. Their cold brew is the highlight of many an afternoon.
While I really like Colombia, it isn’t all good bean and coffee colored latinas. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, there are parts of life and culture here that make me furious enough to want to go a couple rounds on the heavy bag.
- Fast drivers, slow walkers.
- Poor service, long lines.
- You are forced to handle the receipt.
- Homicide, robbery, theft, kidnapping.
Colombian drivers are the worst I’ve ever seen. While Medellin has plenty of crosswalks, they may as well not exist, because nobody pays them any mind. In fact, they may be doing more harm than good as they only serve to give you a false sense of security when crossing the street.
Crossing the street in Colombia will likely pose the greatest threat to your health and safety. The motorists are beyond discourteous, they’re flat out dangerous. I’ve had more than a couple cars accelerate towards me while I cross a crosswalk in front of them. The reasons for this are interesting to speculate on. Besides racking up a few bonus points in a good ‘ole game of ‘run down the gringo’ it might have something to do with the sense of entitlement a car owner here feels in a country where possession of a motor vehicle is a major status symbol. It might also be related to the next item on the list.
Conversely, when walking here one is constantly having to skirt around slow and oblivious pedestrians walking in the middle of the sidewalk. Not only do Colombians walk painfully slow, they’re situational awareness is abysmal–they’re either totally oblivious to everyone/thing around them or they just don’t give a shit, or some combination of the two.
While on a personal level Colombians are generally very warm and friendly, in the context of forced everyday social interactions their behavior is objectively rude. Evidence of this is observable in hundreds of small ways, from having your personal space invaded to being cut off in traffic.
There is a sort of ‘every man for himself’ vibe here that can wear on one’s patience. I don’t begrudge Colombianos too much in this regard because I understand in a country with such a long history of internal strife and economic depression one must act aggressively in order to get what one wants. Still, living here I can’t help but wish Colombians would just chill the fuck out sometimes.
When patronizing the majority of Colombian businesses one gets the distinct impression that employees here just don’t give a fuck. I’ve witnessed this apathy elsewhere in the third world, but it’s still jarring to a Westerner who had a work ethic instilled in them from a young age. If you happen to receive food served with an unwanted hair, or find yourself waiting in an obscenely long lines at the grocery store, and deign to complain about such deficiencies, expect no more than a tired shrug of the shoulders from the employee to whom you are airing your grievances.
This apathy probably has a lot to do with the abysmally low wage the average Colombian worker makes. In 2018, after negotiations with labor unions the Colombian government raised the minimum wage to 781,242 Colombian Pesos a month (roughly $263 dollars a month). That works out to just over $1.50 an hour. This is what over half of all Colombians earn for a living. For that amount of money I’d be hard-pressed to give a shit about my job too.
Still, there’s such a thing as pride in ones job, and most of the Colombian workers I’ve encountered seem to lack it. This attitude also extends past employees to the business owners and managers. Grocery store managers stand idly by while the lines in their stores extend out the door instead of jumping in and opening an extra register. Restaurant owners shrug their shoulders when your chicken isn’t thoroughly cooked or you don’t receive what you order. Colombians are accustomed to this low standard and don’t seem to mind it. To a Westerner like myself, it’s slightly more infuriating.
Speaking of the grocery store, many of them force you to take the receipt and show it to the security guard at the store’s exit. While I understand the purpose of this is to prevent theft I chafe at being forced to handle a toxic piece of paper coated in bisphenol A, a known hormone disruptor and cancer causer.
Until now, I’ve focused on the unpleasant but mundane negatives of life in Colombia. The above cons, while annoying, are only relatively bad. Well, there is also the fact you are much likely to be the victim of a serious violent crime.
In 2013, The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime performed a study on international murder rates. According to them, Colombia had a homicide rate of 25.5 for every 100,000 inhabitants (by comparison, the United States had a rate of 5.5, or roughly a fifth the size). That put Colombia in the top ten for countries with the highest homicides per capita globally, and that stat hasn’t changed much for the present year.
Now, I’m no fear monger, and I’m not trying to deter you from going to Colombia, but the fact is crime is very prevalent here. I don’t even need to watch the news or read the aforementioned study to know this. Every other day I hear through friends and acquaintances anecdotal tales of crimes, both petty and major. To give you an example, a mother and her daughter were stabbed in front of their apartment building. The perpetrator then drug their bodies inside the apartment, doused the place in gasoline, and lit it on fire. This happened two blocks from my apartment, which is in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Medellin. Another one of many crimes that have happened during my time here is the case of a fourteen year old who murdered two men and injured a third with a pistol. He was recorded committing the act by camera and caught a few blocks from the scene. In police custody he confessed to ten other murders but was not charged for any of them because of his status as a minor.
Many a naive Westerner will probably read this and say ‘yeah, but as long as you keep your nose clean, stay away from the drugs and hookers you’ll be fine.’ While this is generally good advice, as a foreigner you still have just as much, if not more, chance of being robbed or kidnapped. For instance, Medellin has a serious problem with stick up kids on motorcycles. These guys often work in teams of two bikes of two people each, a driver and a gunmen. They pull up on you, put their guns on you, demand your phone and money, and there’s fuck all you can do about it. Colombians as well as extranjerros are equally likely to be victimized by these kinds of stick ups, the latter perhaps even more so because they know you’ve likely got an expensive smart phone and some pocket money.
In the face of these robberies, most Colombians will give the same shrug as the apathetic employee and caution you to ‘no dez papaya‘ (Colombian expression meaning don’t make yourself a target by flashing cash, phone, or jewelry), but the reality is this could happen to anyone at any time, regardless of whether or not you’re being careless with you possessions.
In summary, Colombia, like anywhere has its good and its bad. It’s up to you decide whether it’s particular flavor of good and bad is to your liking.