Start a new life in Colombia? Why? What would you do? Where would you live? Having spent eight months in Colombia and seeing most of it, I am offering my ideas and recommendations for your consideration.
Why Colombia? Because you are a person with a sense of adventure, looking for somewhere off the beaten track where the climate and cost of living is very comfortable.
What would you do? In Colombia you can do almost everything you can do in the USA, even bowling in some big cities, but for most people it will be the outdoors, being able to be outside and active year-round. Just use your imagination!
Where? For most people the choice will be determined by the climate and size of city they prefer. Most people would probably tire of heat and humidity so I would rule out the coast, however, since the coast is not far from anywhere in Colombia it makes it a nice place to go for an occasional change of scenery and temperature.
There are cooler temperatures in Bogotá, heat in Cali, and sort of a spring-like climate in Medellin. These climate options are available but you will feel like you are living on an island in these large cities. Why? Well, for most foreigners, there is only a small area of these cities worth living in. Soon after exploring these metropolises you will be confined to a neighborhood or two, and a few shopping malls. The remaining sections of most cities are either working class areas with nothing special or the large lower class neighborhoods, which have less security. Yes security is usually high on most people's list when they are thinking of expatriating overseas. This means living in an apartment or condo complex with some type of security when in a large city. Single-family homes with fenced or walled yards would be priced out of reach for many. Money always attracts crime and the money is in the large cities. Most retired folks want a more relaxed lifestyle, and to be around nature as well.
Climate? Think altitude, and in the equatorial zone between 4,000 and 6,500 feet is the ideal elevation. You will not require heat or air conditioning at this level.
Size of city? The large cities do have their cultural advantages, but I feel living in a congested enviroment would out weigh this soon. I have found that in a population of less than 30,000 the quality of life is at its best and with a lower cost as well. Fortunately most of these places are located within one to three hours of a large city with all of the services and shopping one could want, along with an airport.
The areas I will concentrate on are in or near the coffee country. Most of these pueblos (communities) are little known outside of Colombia and are even off the radar of most expat magazines. Some are even little known to Colombians themselves! There is mostly working class, undereducated people inhabiting these pueblos , which gives them a certain unspoiled, feel. Upper class people from the larger nearby cities like to visit them on holidays and weekends to escape city life and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere readily available. Some will retire and eventually live in these locations as well. And in the last 10 to 15 years the security and tranquility has returned to most rural areas because the guerilla insurgency has retreated to mostly the jungle areas of the south and the paramilitary has mostly disbanded.
The first place is my personal favorite; a pueblo called Darien. It is located 2 hours by bus from Cali at the perfect altitude of 4,872 feet. It has a small amount of coffee cultivation, agriculture and some tourist businesses. The tourist activity revolves around Lago Calima, a reservoir created in 1961 with an area of 70 sq. km that stretches for several miles long, and less than a half-mile from Darien. The water is warm enough for swimming year-round. There is fishing, of course and something very special; wind! At the far end of the lake a natural weather phenomenon created by the mountains guarding the route from the sea to the hot valley below Darien means wind 300 days of the year. Enough wind for windsurfing and kite boarding. A couple of small resorts with Jet Ski rentals, water-skiing and sailboats operate in the middle section of the lake. But in Darien you will hardly notice the wind, you will just enjoy the climate and relaxed lifestyle.
With a population of about 20,000 Darien is a very peaceful place with most people being connected to agriculture. There is a small but very clean hospital there as well. Buga is in the valley below, and is less than an hour away with a modern supermarket and a beautiful basilica. Cali has an international airport, a wonderful Zoo, modern shopping malls and is the salsa capital of Colombia for an occasional diversion. Housing is very reasonably priced in Darien with small plain houses in the pueblo to farms, grand country estates, and vacation homes overlooking the lake nearby. See Darien for yourself with my youtube presentation, just click here and enjoy!
Next, I present Salento, located in the province of Quindio, less than an hour from either Armenia or Periera; both with airports that have direct flights to the USA, shopping malls and anything else you would require. This pueblo, Salento, has only 3,600 residents with another 3,600 or so in the surrounding area. One of the better known towns that I am describing, it attracts international tourists of the backpacking genre for the incomparable beauty of the Cocora valley and surrounding area. The wax palm, Colombia's national tree is found there towering up to 160 feet tall. This beautiful slow-growing palm is found only at this altitude and is a government-protected tree. Hiking, trekking, trout fishing and horseback excursions are available year-round. Around the town plaza you will find a group of old Jeeps and Willys in pristine condition, which serve as taxis to the outlying areas.
The finest coffee I have ever tasted comes from a small shop in Salento, that has access to a small gourmet coffee plantation. Although the place fills up on holidays and is busy on most weekends, it is never crowded and is a block or two away from the main square. Multiple temporary restaurants are set up around the square to make sure that all the visitors can purchase one of the gourmet trout dinners that Salento is famous for, served on a pate on, that is sort of a large plantain fritter; a must have during any visit to Salento.
Salento is located at 6,217 feet so it is cool and comfortable most of the time, but the emerald green hills and surrounding mountains means there is ample rainfall eight to nine months of the year. Don't worry; it seldom rains for more than short periods in the afternoon. Numerous boutiques, restaurants, small hotels and bars that lead towards a magnificent lookout flank the main street leading away from the town square. Climb the 250 steps up a stairway at the end of the street to a place where one can appreciate the beauty of the area and get a little exercise at the same time. Salento truly is a wonderful/magical place sure to be a nature lover's retirement location dream-come-true at a bargain price. When in the area don't miss the Nacional Parque del Café, a coffee oriented theme park near Armenia and see Juan Valdez!
To see Salento and some of the surrounding area click here.
Next we will travel to the Antioquia province and discover a couple of areas mostly unknown outside of Colombia. Here is another small town, Guatape, next to a large reservoir. I picked this area because of the reservoir, which provides much of the power for the area. This has created a water sports mecca that makes it popular with people from all over Colombia. This tranquil small town environment is located less than 90 minutes from Medellin. With a population of only around 5,000 it is situated at an elevation of 6200 feet or 2,000 meters. The city is decorated in a unique fashion. Most all of the houses and businesses have the bottom part of their building covered with 'zocalos', an unusual art form that is different on each. This gives the community a storybook-like ambiance.
There is a nice malecon? (waterside promenade) that winds along the lake by the town, with restaurants and hotels on the street opposite the shoreline. At lakeside there are tour/party boats lined up for short excursions and even a floating discothèque! On your tour of the lake you will see the cross of a church sticking out which is a remnant of a town covered by the waters of the reservoir. Another lake attraction is the old burned-out home of Pablo Escobar, the former infamous cocaine trafficker, as this was one of his favorite vacation areas.
Five minutes from Guatape is El Peñol, one of the largest monoliths in South America. If you have the energy to ascend the 650 steps to the top of this 200-meter high rock, (I had to take four short breaks) you will be rewarded with an unbelievable view of the surrounding area and lake from the topside restaurant/monument. What makes this reservoir so special is that there are so many fingers to it you can have a spot all to yourself with little problem on most days. Kayaking, boating and water-skiing share the spotlight here with backpacking and horseback riding and just taking it easy. Small town-rural living at its best here. Check out Guatape with this link.
For those with a desire to live in a warmer climate, again only about 90 minutes from Medellin, Santa Fe de Antioquia is a great idea. At only 550 meters - 1800 feet it is noticeably hotter, but the hot dry days are rewarded by comfortable nights. With only 23,000 residing in the area it remains uncrowded. The city was founded in 1541 and was once the capital of Antioquia until 1826 when Medellin took over the title. This was a blessing in disguise, since after that, time has stood still for this village and it has retained all the original colonial ambiance of cobblestone streets lined by whitewashed buildings, adorned with tile roofs. This is one of Colombia's best-preserved small colonial cities. In 2006 a tunnel was completed through the mountains that brought Santa Fe out of isolation and within easy reach of Medellin. Fortunately the only development has been summer homes and small resorts in the surrounding area with many swimming pools to take advantage of the temperature. Nearby is the Rio Cauca with the beautiful 'Puente de Occidente' bridge to visit. This is one of the first suspension bridges ever built in South America in the year 1895. Despite having plenty of weekend visitors that are mostly day-trippers, this is a very laid back location. I feel this place is perfect for those wanting a colonial ambiance with the feel of a Spanish summer to call home.
See it for yourself at this link.
The last of my small communities is Jardin. When you enter this place you will think you have entered a time warp. There is no finer typical 'paisa' town then Jardin. A 'paisa' is a resident of the department of Antioquia, typically thought of as the rural type of person. The town's three-hour journey from Medellin into a mountainous area has helped it preserve itself, also , it has been virtually unchanged for a century. A lot of Colombians are unaware of this place. All around Jardin you will find striking mountain views with lush, green, garden filled landscapes. Jardin in Spanish means 'garden' and this place certainly feels like one with flower baskets hanging everywhere. It won't take you long to realize you are in a very special place. The 8,000 or so inhabitants here are especially precious.
Jardin does receive weekenders from Medellin seeking a nostalgic escape from big city bustle, but is seldom crowded. The ambiance here is so unique that frequently it is frequently used as a television set for Colombian soap opera productions as I witnessed during my visit. The main plaza, the lifeblood of the community, was declared a national monument in 1985. The beautiful neo-gothic styled Basilica Menor de la Inmaculada Conception is the showpiece of the plaza with its dark brick façade. Over twenty small bars and restaurants surround the plaza serving $1 beers and 25-cent coffee to all. In the middle of the plaza there is seating for the extra folks from the surrounding areas who show up on weekends, giving it a festive flavor. Around the numerous tables are primitive chairs that are color coded so at the end of the day they know to which business they belong. As a matter of fact these primitive chairs are also an art form here. Local artists transform them into brightly painted murals. Did I say brightly painted? The whole town is brightly painted, even the well-worn buildings of the last century. Here you will see about as many horses as cars. The town's taxi service are 'moto-ratons' or motor mouses, as they are affectionately called; two passenger motorcycle taxis that were imported from India. One can have a nice hour tour of the area for less than $10. Although one could walk anywhere in the town, motor mouses are nice to have around, especially when its raining!
Completed in 2007 there is a scenic five minute gondola ride that ascends from the city to a beautiful viewpoint where one can relax, have lunch and gaze at all the banana and coffee plantations below. For the adventurous, there is a cave tour that features an underground waterfall. Water? Here you can drink it straight out of the tap, the abundant rainfall and streams there are unpolluted. 15 minutes from Jardin is a popular trout farm with an attached restaurant for the freshest fish possible. One word of caution, here in Jardin as in most areas of Colombia some knowledge of Spanish will be essential if you want to live here successfully. Fortunately the Colombian people are noted for their well-pronounced Spanish, although some country people are a little more difficult to understand. Don't worry, they enjoy talking with foreigners since for most, life here is very routine and they welcome some variety. Jardin is rural life in Colombia at its finest. A place to relax, reflect and indulge in things you never had time for before. The altitude of 6,000 feet is very pleasant. Take a little time and check my presentation of Jardin.
I will now end this article by repeating Colombia's new tourist slogan… Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay!