Moving to Colombia – What you need to know
Colombia today sadly suffers from a bit of an image problem. Having been torn apart by drug cartels and militias for over 30 years, the image of cocaine barons, prostitution and violence is a hard one to shake off. Although there are parts of the country still controlled by rebels and even cartels, these areas are forever receding as the government works to encourage ceasefires and put an end to the violence.
The reality is that Colombia is now actually one of the safer countries in Latin America to travel around and live in. Massive police and army presence on all intercity roads means that getting from city to city is much safer than before, and the Colombian Tourist Board is working to attract more foreign visitors each year.
From the snow-capped peaks of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, to the sometimes chilly highland temperatures of Bogotá, to the white sandy beaches of the Caribbean, Colombia ticks all the boxes for diversity. Its extreme beauty and friendly, easy-going people have transformed it from a once off-limits danger zone to one of the most ecologically diverse and exciting places to live in the world.
This blog should give you a good insight into the country, whether you are tentatively considering moving, or if you are booked up and ready to board your flight.
Colombia is home to nearly 48 million people, and fauna so rich it is classified as one of the planet´s mega-diverse countries. The country is divided into departments, or departamentos, with a vast array of cuisine, customs and traditions across them all. The biggest by a long way in terms of area is Amazonas which, as the name would suggest, is home to the Colombian portion of the Amazon rain forest, all the way to the tiny tropical island paradise of San Andrés and Providencia.
It sometimes feels like there is more than one Colombia. Culture, language and climate can vary greatly, and you would be forgiven for thinking that you had travelled to a different country when you step of the bus or plane.
The majority of Colombians live in the major cities; Bogotá, Medellín and Cali, with living costs being higher the in the capital, Bogotá. Essentially all opportunities for foreigners wishing to settle in the country are in one of the big cities, primarily Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena, however there are some other opportunities elsewhere.
In terms of weather, Colombia literally has it all. The highest coastal mountain range in the world is found on Colombia´s Caribbean coast – the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (literally the Snowy Range of Santa Marta), which can be seen from the tropical, and slightly more Caribbean beaches of Santa Marta. The subtropical highland climate of Bogotá can be very cold at night and in the shade, especially if you have just come from the Coast, while the lovely warm climate of Medellín is considered by many, not least the people that live there, to be just about perfect.
As well as having lush, tropical rainforest in Amazonas, Colombia also has two deserts: Tatacoa and La Guajira. Given that the country is so close to the equator, there are no seasons, something which you will weirdly miss if you come from a part of the world which is cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Because of this proximity to the equator, the sun can be extremely strong, so remember to use sun cream wherever you are, especially on the Caribbean Coast. What Colombia does have is wet and dry seasons. Where before locals could tell you exactly when the dry season starts and the wet one begins, because of climate change and El Niño it is becoming increasingly hard to tell. The dry season (temporada de sol) is generally taken to be from December to January and July to August, while the wet season (tempoada de lluvia) is from April to May and October to November.
One thing that is certain about the weather in Colombia is that it is extremely interchangeable. You may be sitting in a downpour one minute, and in baking hot sun the next. Whatever climate tickles your fancy, you can find somewhere in Colombia that has it.
Its impossible to talk about just one culture in Colombia, because there are so many! If you are living in Bogotá and you travel up to the Caribbean Coast, you are going to think you are in another country.
Spanish may be the official language (although Colombians would say costeños from the Caribbean speak a different Spanish altogether!) but customs, tradition, dance and food differ greatly from region to region, making Colombia such a fantastic place to live and travel. There are no better qualified to give you a bit of cultural insight than Colombians themselves, and none more willing to do so. Wherever you choose to settle in the country, you will be just moments away from one of the most culturally and ecologically diverse places on earth, so why wait?
Depending on where you are, Colombian cuisine takes into account a plethora of influences, from Native American, to Middle Eastern, to Hispanic. However the diet of the average Colombian is not very varied at all. Almost every meal, even breakfast, will include rice and/or plantain. A typical lunch deal, which you can get from just about every restaurant and includes soup, a drink and a main meal, will involve rice, meat (usually pork, beef or chicken), avocado, plantain and some form of potato or yucca.
There are many regional specialities, such as ajiaco, a creamy soup from Bogotá, arroz de coco, rice cooked in coconut water from the Caribbean Coast, the mighty bendeja paisa from Medellín, and even fried ants (hormigas culonas) from Santander.
Colombian cuisine often lacks seasoning, something which can be a problem for foreigners, and a lot of food, particularly street food, is deep-fried. Popular foods found all across the country such as buñuelos (deep-fried doughy balls) and empanadas (deep-fried meat-filled pockets of corn dough) can be nice, but also very unhealthy. There is the beginnings of a movement among the richer class of eating fresh and healthy produce, but while these foods can be delicious they are more often than not expensive and out of the reach of the majority of the country.
One area that Colombia absolutely excels in is fruit. Its incredible biodiversity means that there is a whole host of fresh fruit available that western consumers simply can’t get. Try the lulo, a tart and limey fruit which looks like a tomato on the outside when ripe and a kiwi on the inside, or the guama, a bizarre fruit that looks like a giant bean pod with black stones instead of beans, covered in a substance that, for lack of a better explanation, looks and feels like spider webs. There are fresh juice stalls everywhere, just be sure to watch how much sugar they put in for you; Colombians like their juice very sweet.