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Wednesday, July 1st, 2015


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Paradise for Pesos: Colombia, South America

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.

columbia_oj_300Food 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 jonschwartz77@gmail.com.

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18 Responses to Paradise for Pesos: Colombia, South America

  1. Lucien Lidji says:

    That’s it. I’m moving.

  2. Chris K. says:

    I’m not sure how much cocaine the author is consuming while in Colombia, but cities like Medellin and Cali are far from being considered safe. Ranked 9th and 6th most dangerous cities in the world. The fact remains that Colombia is home to a ongoing and extremely violent drug war, as well as the continued terrorist threat from guerrilla groups such as the FARC. The author needs to do some real research, and maybe leave the safety of the hotel before writing such an article.

  3. D. says:

    Good article. As for the above comment on Medellin being “extremely dangerous”, it is obvious this person has not been to Medellin.

  4. Chris K. says:

    D.- please learn how to read. I never said that Medellin was “extremely dangerous”. I only said it should, and it not, not be considered safe. I have spent considerable time in Medellin, I suggest you do some actual research and next time you’re in Medellin, try leaving the Poblado neighborhood.

  5. Chris K. says:

    sorry, third sentence was supposed to read- I only said it should, and is not, considered to be safe.

    and for the record, I loved my time in Colombia (close to a year) and hope to go back soon. But I think it’s irresponsible that the author is creating a false sense of security when Colombia, like many third world countries, clearly retains certain levels of risk for both locals and tourists.

    I just think this article was very poorly written and does not accurately describe modern Colombia. I suppose it maybe the experience of a backpacker that rarely leaves the confines of their hostel or never ventures outside of neighborhoods like poblado.

  6. jonschwartz77 says:

    Chris K., for someone who has spent so much time in Colombian, it surprises me that you assume that everyone in Colombia does Cocaine or is involved in the trade. I find it insulting that you would make those assumptions about me. Maybe you don’t realize that most Colombians do not do drugs, sell them or cultivate them. I live with a Colombian family, none of whom have ever done drugs.

    As for the rest of your response, you clearly missed the part where I said that “I love visiting Medellin and always feel very safe there”. Maybe you mixed up your feelings with mine. This is not a piece about the drug trade in Colombia but about the economics of an American (me) living there. We will do that article next time.

    I am not sure what you were doing in Colombia but I personally experienced many things outside of the hotel and outside of Poblado. I have many Colombian friends from all income levels over the country. I have spent time in many bad neighborhoods in many different cities.

    But that is not what this is about. This is about Paradise for Pesos, which it is. I have many friends who would prefer that I not write any of this in fear that the rest of the world will find out our secret.

  7. ben330 says:

    Viva la Colombia!

  8. chris k. says:

    I never made the assumption that everyone in Colombia does cocaine and/ or is involved in the drug trade. I know very well that vast majority of Colombians don’t use drugs or sell them. Foriegners traveling or living there, especially in a drug fueled town such as Taganga, however, are much more likely to be partaking in such activities.

    But what you put in your body is up to and was not the point of my comments. I think the article was very poorly written and doesn’t accurately describe the cost differentials between living in the US versus Colombia. It reads more like an eighth graders “what I did this summer” essay.

    It’s true, you can eat lunch for as little as $2-3 dollars, but he food is very basic (rice, beans, “salad” and a small piece of overcooked meat). You would not pay much more then that in the US for the same type of food. Nice restaurants, up to western standards, are often quite expensive, even campared to a US equivialant.

    Hotels and houses/ apartments may also be a bit cheaper in Colombia, but the quality is much less then you would find in the US. A nice hotel, not a hostel or guesthouse, may be $100 or more for the night. But the local Sheraton would still offer more in the way of service and amenities.

    Clothes, electronics, automobiles and other consumer goods are also more expensive in Colombia compared to the US due to the large import tax.

    In addition, doing business in Colombia presents a number of different challanges, which could be an article in itself, as I’m sure you would attest. But the biggest diference is that it is very difficult to achieve the levels of income in Colombia that could be attained in the states. That is, at least, with a legal business.

    So while there may be some saving in living in Colombia, it is a very different lifestyle. To ignore the facts that it still remains a very violent culture and it is a developing nation that does not offer the same quality of life as the US, is irresponsible as an author. Many people are comfortable living with the daily violence and are quite willing to give up their creature comforts for a simpler life, many people are not. I hope that next time you choose to paint a more complete and accurate picture, and write something that is actually worth writing.

  9. jonschwartz77 says:

    Chris K, your quote “I’m not sure how much cocaine the author is consuming while in Colombia, but cities like Medellin and Cali are far from being considered safe” so I guess that you just accused me of doing drugs down here.

    Have you all seen this?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rNL9aNND_A

    Anthony Bourdain was here, liked the food and felt safe as well. I guess that it isn’t just me.
    And look
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/travel/10places.html?pagewanted=2&em
    The NY times thinks Colombia is a top destination

  10. Chris K. says:

    You are supposed to be an author and can’t even form a proper sentence? And, well, of the show fits…

    So, what you are saying is that if Anthony Bourdain feels safe in Colombia (as he escorted by a large crew, and most likely a Colombian security detail), then it must be safe? Or if it’s listed as a top travel destinations, along with such bastiens of safety such as Mumbai and Sri Lanka, then, why yes, it is most definitely safe.

    I suggest you broaden your research beyond clips of a drunken tv host and the NY Times travel section. Perhaps an article actually written/ published in Colombia, such as- http://colombiareports.com/opinion/elyssa-pachico/8494-why-is-colombia-such-a-violent-society.html.

    Or if you can actually read Spanish, pick up the local newspaper in Cali, Medellin or Bogota next time before you attempt to write.

  11. Chris K. says:

    oops, meant to say “if they shoe fits”. anyway…

  12. Jess Barr says:

    As of now I have visited Colombia 3x in the last 12 months. My wifes family lives in Medellin and I have stayed in different parts of the city as well as in a smaller area outside of the city. I traveled with just my wife on the Metro, buses, taxi and such and never had a problem. Im from New york and have always taken the precautions as in N.y. and Med as in any big city. Just have some common sense and you will be o.k.

  13. lidio says:

    Gentleman, you are both entitled to your own opinions and viewpoints but at this junction it’s best to agree to disagree.

  14. Cato says:

    The U.S. drug policy demonizing cocaine and other drugs is the main driver of today’s violence in Colombia. Illegality drives up the price of cocaine dramatically beyond a free-market price and creates a strong incentive for poor Colombians with limited opportunities to produce the drug. It is in my view both moral to legalize cocaine and other hard drugs and economically sensible to do so. Legal cocaine will attract a lower price, and therefore reduce Colombian’s incentive to supply the drug. Remember it is the super-normal profit from illegal cocaine that enables Colombian to stay supplied with food, fuel, weapons, ammunition,medical supplies and bribes to government officials. In short, the current U.S. drug policy is fuelling the Colombian civil war that tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars are spent fighting. Legalizing cocaine, apart from giving the U.S. government more tax revenue, is ironically the best way to fight both the drug trade(lower prices=less supply) and the single most potent weapon against the horrific civil war in Colombian that has caused such suffering. The legalisation of cocaine is not only moral, it is a moral imperative.

  15. Cato says:

    I meant to add Colombian rebel groups.

  16. Pingback: jamboreecolombia2010.org

  17. Brian Moody says:

    Please can you contact me .I have some questions about Armenia.

  18. NiDaa says:

    You need to be more specific on Private Student loans. If they are a stnedut loan, they were certified through your school. If they are Continuing Education Loans, through companies such as TERI or PennState, that are private loans taken for indirect cost of education, then yes, they can be discharged in bankruptcy. I am not only telling you this from the standpoint as a financial aid officer, but also personal experience.If the loan was certified for school, it almost always must be paid back. And just fyi, stnedut loans CAN be discharged in a bankruptcy, but it is almost unheard of.Good Luck!

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