Living in Colombia
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A practical guide to the way of life in Colombia
Many an expat-to-be might have an idea of what to expect of life in Colombia, but not everyone is up-to-date with the big advancements the country has made in recent years and continues to make every day. Our guide offers an overview.
Life in Colombia
- Lying in the northwest of the continent and connecting with Central and North America, the country is known as the “gateway to South America”.
- Colombia is one of the most highly populated countries in South America, with the majority of the population living in cities.
- Colombia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on Earth, boasting beautiful wildlife and a varying climate across the country due to its mountainous terrain.
- The healthcare system is subject to widespread criticism, with many expats opting for private healthcare.
- The country has made great steps in improving its safety, however, crime rates remain high. Expats should avoid certain areas and be safety conscious when out and about.
Who Are Colombians?
Colombia is home to an estimated 48.5 million people, making it the third most populous country in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico. Colombia is a highly urbanized country: some 77% of Colombians live in cities, six of which have metropolitan areas with more than one million inhabitants. The population of Colombia is incredibly unevenly distributed across the country, and most areas in the southern and eastern parts are only very sparsely populated.
Ethnically, Colombia is fairly diverse, a fact that stems both from the nation’s history and from the rising popularity of Colombia with expats, retirees, and immigrants from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America. The vast majority (84%) of the population consists of those who are white and Mestizo — people of European and Amerindian descent — with the Afro-Colombian population making up a further 10%.
There is also a significant number of indigenous peoples — though they only account for a small percentage of the population, there are almost 90 distinct cultures. They mostly live in the south and east of the country, primarily in Amazonía and Orinoquía.
Two Coasts, Many Climates
Colombia’s wildlife is as diverse as its geography: some 10% of all species in the world populate its rainforests, steppes, savannas, and mountains. The country can be divided into five distinct regions: the Andes, the Pacific Coast, the Caribbean Coast, the llanos (plains) in the east, and the Amazon Rainforest in the south. Colombia is unique as it’s the only country in South America with access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Given its proximity to the equator, there is fairly little seasonal variety in terms of weather. However, depending on which city you settle in (we have listed some expat favorites in our article on moving to Colombia), you might be surprised by the contrast in weather throughout the country. Located in the Andes, Bogotá is fairly cool and foggy all year with highs usually not exceeding 15°C in the hottest month of March and temperatures occasionally dropping below freezing. In stark contrast, Cali, on the west coast of the country, enjoys high temperatures averaging 30°C or more. Before you pack your bags for Cali, keep in mind that it is a hotspot for violence in the country, with 56 homicides per 100,000 people in 2016.
While officially there are several dozen languages spoken in Colombia today, Spanish is more or less the only language that expats will hear in the city streets. It is highly recommended to brush up your Spanish skills before you relocate. While English is likely to get you fairly far in the workplace, you should make an effort to speak the local language if you plan on staying in Colombia for a longer period of time. There are many regional dialects in Colombia, and “Colombian Spanish” tends to refer to the dialect spoken in Bogotá. Made famous by Shakira, Colombian Spanish is regarded as the clearest Spanish to understand worldwide. You obviously do not need to speak the local dialect to be understood by Colombians — any effort to communicate in Spanish will be appreciated in most situations.
Colombian Politics: Instability and Uncertainty
The politics in Colombia are complex and there are many ongoing problems. Since the 1960s, the government, paramilitary groups, crime syndicates, and left-wing guerilla groups have been at war with one another. Most well-known of these guerilla groups are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and their opponents, the National Liberation Army, who fight to gain territory. Although a hard-fought peace treaty was signed with FARC at the end of 2016, it remains to be seen what impact this will have on the political future of Colombia.
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Healthcare and Insurance in Colombia
Understanding the System
Since the early 1990s, Colombia has made huge steps in terms of public health insurance and the availability of healthcare, and 97% of the inhabitants have healthcare coverage. Generally speaking, there are two regimes: contributive and subsidized. Every employee contributes 4% of their monthly wage to the healthcare system known as Sistema General de Seguridad Social en Salud (SGSSS). To receive healthcare benefits, contributors sign up with a public or private insurer of their choice.
Though progress has been made, Colombia’s healthcare system has been the target of harsh criticism, and accusations of widespread corruption, nepotism, and misdirected funds have been voiced against many of the leading providers. Expats moving to Colombia should look into additional private health insurance.
If you are interested in understanding the Colombian healthcare regime and its issues in more detail, please refer to the Center for Health Market Innovations, who provide an excellent overview on their website.
Urban Medical Tourism vs. Rural Clinics
Colombia’s private healthcare institutions generally adhere to adequate quality standards, particularly in the big cities. The country’s clinics, many of which are among the best in South America, attract their fair share of medical tourism for elective surgical procedures such as plastic surgery. However, you might find that quality and accessibility are less reliable in public clinics and rural areas and, as is often the case, a trip to the emergency room is likely to involve hours of waiting.
Staying Healthy in Colombia
Before you embark on your expat adventure in Colombia, please make sure you have all the shots and vaccinations needed for a safe stay. While authorities do not require any proof of vaccination at the time of entry, it is in your best interest to make sure you are prepared. The following vaccines are recommended:
- routine (MMR, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chickenpox, polio, flu)
- hepatitis A/B
While it is fine to drink tap water in cities, it is advisable that pregnant women stick to bottled water. When visiting rural areas, drink bottled water and avoid ice cubes.
With the exception of major cities such as Bogotá, Medellín, or Cali, malaria is widespread. While the majority of expatriates in Colombia settle in one of these cities (as we have touched upon in our article on moving to Colombia), you should still consult your doctor and talk to them about your options for malaria prevention. It is important to take precautions against mosquito bites — cover up with long-sleeved clothing and trousers (especially at night), use insect repellent on exposed skin, and sleep under a mosquito net if needed.
Colombia was hit by the world’s second-largest Zika outbreak in 2016, a disease which is primarily transmitted by mosquitos, but also sexually transmitted. Pregnant women are currently advised not to travel to Colombia unless absolutely necessary.
Please keep in mind that you will be moving to a mountainous country and it may take some time for your body to adapt to being at a new altitude. If you are healthy, you should not have any problems after braving a few days of discomfort — stay hydrated and try not to do anything too strenuous. If you suffer from circulatory or respiratory problems, however, please consult your physician before you move.
Safety and Crime in Colombia
Positive Progress: A Calmer Colombia
If you have read our other articles on the country, you’ll have noticed an overriding theme: contemporary Colombia is a far cry from what it once was, and on the whole, developments have been positive, including in terms of crime and personal safety. Many remember a time when most news from Colombia was of conflict, violence, and large scale drug trafficking.
While none of these issues have completely vanished, things have considerably improved. Drug-related violence that was once rife in major Colombian cities and surrounding areas has significantly decreased. What were once the most violent and dangerous cities on earth are now comparable to most other South American metropolises.
However, the ongoing armed conflict between the government, paramilitary groups, leftist guerilla groups such as FARC and ELN, and narcotrafficking syndicates is still a major issue in much of the countryside and carries into the cities. Although a hard-fought peace treaty was signed with FARC at the end of 2016, it is uncertain how much of an impact this will have.
Terrorist acts and kidnapping, among others, are problems that are still present. Expats and travelers should avoid entering affected regions, which include the Pacific Coast and much of the south of the country. In particular, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to the port of Buenaventura in the department of Valle de Cauca and to the port of Tumaco in the department of Nariño.
Out and About in Colombia
Political demonstrations, a common occurrence in most Colombian cities, can be a real risk to expats. While the vast majority are peaceful, there is a chance things might turn violent — bringing small, homemade explosives (so-called potato bombs) is not uncommon. It is strongly advised to steer clear of such demonstrations, unless you’re sure of its purpose, your opinion on the matter, and fully aware of Colombia’s culture regarding protests and demonstrations.
However, chances are that your biggest worry in terms of safety is going to be street crime. As is the case in any metropolis around the world, burglary, theft, credit card and ATM fraud are common, as are vehicle theft and carjacking. Follow your usual safety precautions, and if you are unfortunate enough to be robbed, do not attempt to resist as things can quickly get violent.
The OSAC Crime and Safety Report for Colombia also warns that robberies are often conducted in taxis hailed on the street. The driver might stop to let accomplices enter the cab and rob the passenger. To avoid falling victim to this, you should make sure to call a taxi dispatcher, which vary according to the city, or use a smartphone app, such as Uber or Tappsi.