There are many reasons I live abroad, but mainly because it’s easy. As an American, the economics of living abroad simply make sense. How much money have I spent today? Well, it is 3:00 p.m. and so far I have spent 10.000 pesos. That is $5.
I live in Armenia Quindio, the coffee region of Colombia—a beautiful mountainous region of the country with a mild climate that usually feels like spring on the East Coast. There are good schools, good hospitals and plenty to do. I live with my girlfriend in a very comfortable four-bedroom house in one of the best areas of the city. My rent is 650.000 Colombian pesos per month, which is just under $350. I’m self employed and I have the best health insurance in the country—it costs $100 per month. I have a car; the insurance is about $100 per year. I have life insurance in the U.S. which costs $125 per month, but it is supposed to be the type of plan that grows in value over time to save for retirement.
Food and drinks are a lot cheaper in Colombia. Tinto, what the Colombians call coffee, is less than 50 cents a cup at a café and only 25 cents from a street vendor. Mixed fruit, or a mango viche (mango with lime and salt) costs about 50 cents. Lunch, or almuerzo, usually cost between 3000 and 6000 pesos. For $3 I can get fresh fruit juice, soup, meat, salad, rice, plantains and beans. Dinner is often something easy and rarely costs more than lunch.
Armenia Quindio is far from a beach town but life is still easy and people seem to live well and be happy. People generally get to work around 8 a.m. but you always see people taking their time and enjoying themselves throughout the day. Almuerzo is an important part of any Colombianos life—it’s the biggest meal of the day and is a time to see friends and family, eat and relax. Almost everything shuts down from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. At noon the streets start to fill with people heading home or out. If you work close to home you probably eat with your family. Kids go to school in the morning or afternoon so they are also home for lunch in the middle of the day.
When I travel, I go all over the country: Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Cali, and Bucaramanga. Bogota is the capital, the center of culture, art and style; the city has 8 million people. It also has the best graffiti. Medellin is special place with the best looking and hardest working people, the most money and the best weather. It used to be the cocaine and murder capital of the world but crime has significantly dropped off. I love visiting Medellin and always feel very safe there. Cartagena was built over 500 years ago and is full of some of the most beautiful Spanish architecture. Santa Marta is adjacent to the tallest coastal mountain in the world at 5600 meters, and is just south of some of the best beaches on the continent. Cali is the Salsa Capital; everyone in that town can dance. Bucaramanga is near the mountains and full of adventure sports. I can get to most places in the country for $50-$100 on any one of the national airlines.
The cost of a private room in a nice guest house with a good environment averages around $25. I own a guest house in Taganga on the Caribbean coast. Taganga is a fishing town surrounded by mountains, rainforest and beautiful beaches. There’s good surfing nearby and it’s one of the cheapest places in the world to get certified in SCUBA. The area also has a high population of indigenous tribes and a lot of culture. I rent out my Taganga place —it is more like a mansion (see photo at the top of the page), complete with a pool, BBQ and enormous outdoor living area—for as low as $50 per night. Compared to the $500 a night I’ve spent in good hotels around the world, you can see why traveling in Colombia is so enticing.
Before moving to Colombia I lived in D.C., New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Baltimore. I made good money and was able to put a little bit away but most of it went to my bills. I had to get up every day at 7 a.m., shave, put on a suit and tie and walk my dog in the freezing cold. I would then go to work, returning home, again in the dark and cold. Thanks, but no thanks.
But, most importantly, with a cheaper cost of living comes more freedom. I can start a business or do something that I want to do, like taking a month or two off work to travel—without having to worry about covering a $5,000 plus nut every month. The idea of quitting my job in the U.S. was daunting. Six months at $5,000 per month is a lot of money.
According to my numbers, I am looking at about $750 per month down here, before the extras. My mortgage alone used to cost me $2,500 per month, and that was in Baltimore!
Most of the people here do not have a lot of money. And, like most developing countries, people with less money have fewer opportunities. However, there is money and the ability to make it for those who try.
I am not saying that I do not love America and I am not even saying that I wouldn’t want to live there again. I realize that life would not be as easy if I hadn’t earned American dollars before I got here. But, once you do have some money there is a lot that you can do with it outside the U.S.
Jonathan Schwartz is currently running CASA MAR in Taganga Colombia www.tagangacasa.com. He was one of the original partners of Hotel Mirador in Taganga and getting ready to open a guest house in the Zona Cafatera. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.