Living Cheap in Medellín – But Still Living Large and Enjoying Life

Tree lined street in Manila barrio

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Sonja Bricker.

I arrived to Medellin in October 2016. From day one I have recorded and categorized every peso spent. 148 days later I have successfully kept my monthly expenses between $850 to $900, on average. I consider that I am living cheap in Medellín but still “Living Large”.

Both Jeff and Dave have previously written articles about their monthly living expenses. Dave provided his cost of living from the perspective of a single, working man. And Jeff detailed living expenses of a couple last year.

Here, I present the perspective of a 46-year-old single woman on a 6-month tourist visa who is not working but who is living cheap in Medellín.

Note the above photo is one of many quiet tree-lined streets in the Manila barrio of El Poblado where I am currently living cheap in Medellín.

My Background

Since my first international trip at age 15, a summer long kibbutz adventure in northern Israel, I have been addicted to travel. At 16, I spent a month in Japan on a sister-city exchange program. And at 17, I lived for a full school year in Mexico as a Rotary Exchange student and learned Spanish.

Solo bicycle trips across Europe, Asia, South America and New Zealand followed, along with a motorcycle trip in northern India. The countries kept adding up and my curiosity never waned.

However, as an adult I had never tried staying put in any international city.  I continued instead to roam, backpacker style, for months at a time. Then, at age 45 I discovered Medellin. After only a five day visit in January 2015 I decided to return for an extended period.

Although I am not in position to retire yet, I was granted a year-long unpaid sabbatical from my job. Knowing I will resume earning an income helped mentally prepare me for using savings for 12 months. In order to make it work, my budget is $900 or less per month.

In the monthly expenses in this article I used an exchange rate of 3,000 pesos to the USD. This is the average exchange rate I have experienced since I have been living in Medellín.

My rented furnished bedroom

My rented furnished bedroom

Rent – 900,000 pesos ($300)

I spent my first month paying $425 per month for an Airbnb master suite, living with a 62 year old Colombian woman and her adult son. It was an idyllic introduction to Colombian culture.

In addition, it gave me plenty of time to find my preferred neighborhood.  I believe this is a crucial foundation for living here happily.

For me, the pocket neighborhood of Manila in lower El Poblado is the perfect fit. It is extremely quiet, has a small commercial district with restaurants, shops and a D1 grocery store. It is a 10-minute walk to both Carulla and Exito as well the Poblado Metro station.

I am within easy walking distance to the Ciudad del Rio area, with the Modern Art Museum and park, plus central El Poblado and Milla de Oro attractions.

I found my room on compartoapartamento.com which lists rooms for rent in all areas of Medellin, some starting as low as 300,000 pesos per month. All it took was creating a profile, listing my price range and immediately received several offers daily.

Kitchen in my shared apartment

Kitchen in my shared apartment

Within a week I found my furnished room in Manila, in a 2-bedroom, 2-bath apartment for 900,000 a month. This price includes all utilities, Internet, weekly housekeeper, laundry service and incidentals like dish soap, toilet paper and garbage bags. My roommate in the shared apartment is Colombian and we get along well.

I believe where you decide to live is key to living cheap in Medellín.  There are many more expensive options but where I live in Manila is perfect for me at this time.

Encicla bikes, photo courtesy of Secretaria de Movilidad de Medellín

Encicla bikes, photo courtesy of Secretaria de Movilidad de Medellín

Transportation – 99,000 pesos ($33)

I love walking and cycling, two free modes of transportation. I feel very safe in my immediate surroundings.  I consistently walk home at night from the Milla de Oro, central Poblado and Modern Art Museum district.

Plus, I am comfortable taking the Metro at night when returning from evening events downtown. In addition, five days a week I walk to and from my yoga studio, a distance of 6 kilometers. I am rarely in a hurry and take taxis infrequently.

Immediately upon arrival I got my Civica card , so I save 13% per metro trip (2,000 pesos instead of 2,300).  And am able to transfer to other lines (MetroCable, Tranvía and MetroPlus) free of charge.

Also, I enrolled in the Encicla program, allowing me free access to the ubiquitous blue bikes Monday – Friday until 8pm, Saturday until 3pm.

With the extensive metro system in Medellín as well as inexpensive buses and taxis plus bikes, it is very possible to live in Medellín without a car.  This is another important factor that can make living cheap in Medellín.

Very steep trail led to this waterfall near Arenales, Envigado area

Very steep trail led to this waterfall near Arenales, Envigado area

Entertainment — 204,000 pesos ($68)

One of the reasons I chose to live in Medellín is the astounding diversity of affordable cultural events. Teatro Lido, Pequeño Teatro, Teatro Pablo Tobon Uribe and Centro Cultural Moravia produce theater, dance and live music on a weekly basis.

I have seen more live music and dance in four months than I have in four years in Seattle.

The Museo de Antioquia has free admission on opening nights of a new exhibition.  And it generously provides free cocktails. The Memory, Pedro Nel Gomez, San Pedro Cemetery, Casa Gardeliana, Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe and University of Antioquia museums are always free.

Also, there are free movies to see city-wide and even mainstream theaters offer super discounted rates early in the day and all day Wednesday. I see at least one movie per week.

I have included bicycle rentals in this category. Since arriving to Medellin I have spent 240,000 pesos on bike rentals in order to participate in the Sunday Ciclovia and Wednesday critical mass style rides hosted by the group Siclas.

In the coming month I plan on purchasing a used bike for no more than 300,000 pesos, allowing me to eliminate rental costs and some metro fees.

Another affordable activity I love to do is hike. Medellin is surrounded all sides by trails, waterfalls and small peaks. All the hikes I’ve done can be reached by public transportation within 90 minutes.

There are numerous hiking groups on Facebook (antioquiaalaire, Arrieros Caminantes – Medellín, digitalnomads Medellin, etc.), both Colombian and expat, that offer weekly guided hikes for a 10,000-peso guide fee.

In addition, I pay $8 for NetFlix streaming.

Carulla where I do most of my grocery shopping

Carulla where I do most of my grocery shopping

Food/Alcohol – 617,000 pesos ($205)

Because I never go out to breakfast and rarely go out for dinner my food costs are low. Instead, I keep my kitchen well-stocked. Although more expensive than other grocery stores, I shop primarily at Carulla because it is convenient.

However, I almost always eat out for lunch – my favorite neighborhood “menu del dia” is only 10,000 pesos. Throughout the day I constantly eat street food – empanadas, palitos de queso, granizado de café, salpicon, guarapo, cut fruit, kettle corn, caramelized peanuts, churros, ice cream.

There are several good bakeries in Manila and I treat myself to chocolate croissants, brownies, cookies and slices of cake quite often. I virtually never drink alcohol.

Once I splurged on a three hour personalized private cooking class at Quiai (150,000 pesos) and learned how to make some of my favorite Colombian dishes. As a result, I enjoy cooking at home and experimenting with local ingredients.

Yoga — 200,000 pesos ($67 per month, unlimited classes)

108 Yoga is located in the Los Balsos neighborhood and offers 39 weekly yoga classes, including hot, power, ashtanga, iyengar, beginner, vinyasa flow and even a kid’s class.

The facility has four practice rooms, a lounge, smoothie bar and shop full of yoga related products. I have practiced yoga for 16 years and 108 Yoga is one of the best studios I’ve been to. On average, I take 5 classes a week.

Personal Care — 288,000 pesos ($96)

Probably one of my favorite aspects of living here is being able to afford ‘luxury’ services like pedicures, manicures and massages (85,000 pesos an hour, Mikko Sneck ) which I indulge in twice a month. This category also includes toiletry products and small gifts.

Cell Phone — ($10 USD)

I decided to continue using my iPhone 6s while here, simply paying $10 a month back home to keep it in airplane mode. Therefore, I can make and receive calls and text messages through WhatsApp whenever I have WiFi, which is free and plentiful all over the city.

Extras — 300,000 pesos ($100)

In addition to everything outlined above, I often take day trips (Guatape, Santa Fe de Antioquia, El Retiro) and buy locally made clothes and shoes.

Total per Month — 2,640,00 pesos ($880)

Not included in the above is insurance. I paid $442 to World Nomads prior to leaving the U.S. for an insurance policy that covers “Emergency Sickness/Accident Medical Expense” up to $100,000, “Hospital Advancement” up to $500 and “Emergency Evacuation/Repatriation of Remains” up to $300,000.  This policy also covers baggage delays, theft, trip cancellation, etc.

The Bottom Line: Living Cheap in Medellín

For me, my quality of life is significantly higher in Medellín than in the United States for a fraction of the cost. Although I live in one of the more expensive neighborhoods, I save a lot of money on transportation, not drinking and eating like a local.

I feel I am living cheap in Medellín as I could certainly spend much more. I could also likely spend less by living in another neighborhood outside of El Poblado. But I like the convenience of the Manila barrio where I am now living.

Most of all, I am grateful for the opportunity to live in Medellin, such a beautiful, dynamic city that has welcomed me since the moment I arrived.

About Sonja

Sonja is from Whidbey Island, WA. She has traveled to 46 countries but never wanted to settle down in any of them until she discovered Medellin. She is currently living here in Medellín for six months until she figures out how to be a permanent resident.

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About Guest Blogger

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Comments

  1. Congratulations to the writer for this excellent piece – in my opinion the best posting I’ve seen on here.

    Personally I have concerns that the ‘cheapness’ of Medellin, at least to a standard of living that most expats would find acceptable, is often overdone. I think this article is a realistic view of what can be achieved. My comments:

    The writer chose well in Manila. It’s an up and coming area and has seen a dramatic change in the past couple years. It is however a small area so for anyone wanting to copy the author be aware that the availability of apartments is going to be limited. For anyone thinking that this is an area to purchase in you will need to be very careful. Portions, if not all of the area, may fall under the City’s redevelopment plan that cuts a swathe from Poblado Avenue through to Industriales. Properties in the development area will be bought up to build high density live/work areas. So, anything you buy may be subject in the future to compulsory purchase. So the charming Manila of today may not have many years left. In the interim enjoy it.

    On the food prices – and it’s good to see a cook in the city – they can be surprisingly expensive once you get outside of the mainstream Colombian diet. A large amount of food is imported. The writer is spending around $7 a day ($3 of which goes towards that lunchtime special). Spending another $4 a day on food is possible, but it does need a certain amount restraint. So, yes it’s possible to live on the budget that the writer states but you’ll need to be clever with your cooking and purchasing to keep an interesting diet. If you can’t stick to a Colombian diet – and many can’t – allow a lot more for your food costs.

    On the rental costs it’s not clear to me from the article whether the writer is sharing the bedroom or the apartment. In both cases any couple reading this article and considering renting an entire apartment might want to do the math on what the cost might be in having the place to themselves.

    On the health care costs the plan that the author has again seems like a good choice. One issue may be how the plan treats existing conditions (my guess it that they may be excluded) which may be important to some.

    On the cultural side to the city the writer has done good groundwork in digging out the places of culture. I agree that the city has a cultural side, although I think much of it is work in progress. For example the new Modern Art Museum is a wonderful building, but the building size far exceeds the current collection. Personally I believe that Medellin is playing catch up with many other Latam cities in terms of accessible culture but as the writer has found there’s a decent amount if you dig enough. But Medellin isn’t (yet) Buenos Aires or Mexico City.

    On transportation Manila is as said well placed for the Metro – and also has a good number of bus connections. Biking? In the city one needs to be a little brave. There are plenty of cyclists, in particular at the weekend but the combination of bad driving, crowded roads, a natural hilly terrain and increasing pollution means that it may not be a solution for all ex-pats.

    The ex-pat community here needs more constituents like the writer. Hopefully this article will encourage more of them to come and try Medellin.

    • Well stated, if one can live on tipico Paisa without variation, it’s possible to live even cheaper in a private finca and have it cooked by someone else. Medical and dental are great but as everywhere choosing the right one’s are the challenge. The costs are one tenth as much as in Mass.so you can afford a few mistakes getting to the right people.

  2. $67 seems like a lot for Yoga but for 25 classes it really is a sweet deal.
    I also enjoy the pricing on Personal Care haircuts etc.
    Sonja has been a nice addition, I enjoy reading her posts

    • What I don’t get is why pay for Yoga after years of doing it? I never took a class but practiced for years with basic training from the internet.

  3. Very good article, Sonja. You covered a lot of the bases, with a beautiful photo of Arnales waterfall. Good to know about the FB hiking groups. Thanks for writing this informative article, providing the reader with a glimpse of Colombian living.

    • Looking forward to visiting Medellin and all the neighborhoods Sonja reviewed. Great info. Better than the guide book I have been reading

  4. With the health care costs it might be prudent for someone to get a local insurance option as World Nomads is a pay then claim insurance policy. At least the one I had for Colombia was in November 17 till January 17. Colombian hospitals will require payment (Cash / Credit card) before any treatment. World Nomads do have a financial hardship option available for people that can’t pay for their medical bills before claiming. Those on a budget should bear this in mind. Also some insurance companies will deny a claim if you are injured in an area of Colombia where the US State department has an active travel warning.

    Good article.

  5. Stephen says:

    Hi,

    First let me say that the article by Sonja is really nicely done and thorough.
    Agree with others that it’s very informative and a nice guide.

    I do have a question which Sonja might answer or someone else can help with.
    Sonja states she’s on a tourist visa which allows you to remain in Colombia for 180 days. From what I’ve read and been told by at least one expat living in Medellin part-time the limit is 180 days per 365 days. Once that’s up you must exit and can’t return until 365 days are up…..I believe I was told it’s not a calendar year but would begin the day you arrive and then the days in country accumulate.
    Because it was mentioned in the article that this budget was for 148 days that would leave 32 days until the 180 is hit. Sonja mentions buying a bike soon but if she’s going to have to exit for approx. 6 months is there really a reason to buy a bike?
    I may have gotten that 180 day limit thing wrong so if someone can clear that up I’d appreciate it.

    • Hi Stephen —
      Great question.
      I will indeed be leaving Colombia very soon as my 180 consecutive days will be up (beginning of October-end of March). I will return to Washington for about one month and then come back to Medellin for another two months, staying slightly under my 180 days in a calendar year time limit (January/February/March then May/June). I hope to purchase the bike before I leave, store it at my apartment and have it to ride when I return.
      Does that clarify things?

  6. That is correct that the visitors ‘visa’ day count is based on a calendar year. There’s also the 180 consecutive days rule that Sonja mentions. So yes you can spend up to 180 days a calendar year, but if you split a stay over two calendar years then no one stay can be more than 180 consecutive days.

    However the Colombian tax rules apply to a rolling 365 day period, not a calendar year. If you spend less than 183 days in any one 365 day period then you only pay Colombian taxes on Colombian income and assets – and as a tourist your unlikely to be generating any tax liability (as you can’t work) other than if you own property (asset) and rent it out (income).

    Over 183 days and then you are liable for Colombian taxes on your worldwide income and assets – even as a ‘tourist’.

    Because of that ‘non-permanent’ ex-pats pay as much, if not more attention, to not falling into the 183 day trap as they do in ensuring that they keep within the tourist ‘visa’ rules.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks to Sonja and Brit for clarifying all this…… Although the day count and tax info makes my head spin!
      I’ve only been visiting Medellin for a week and a half about every 5-6 weeks since last September.
      I did live in Panama City for a couple of years and it was quite as complicated, particularly the taxation part.

      Thanks again,
      Stephen

  7. Awesome post! This helps me with my 6 month plan. Thanks so much!

    • Avid reader of the articles and this one struck my curiosity, due to an upcoming trip.

      Any information or suggestion to my question will be helpful (see below). I have been to Medellin several times (Ranging from 2 weeks to 2 months period). I am a USA retiree, flying out of Washington, DC on American Airlines and currently looking at returning mid April and staying between 90 days and 180 days.

      To keep busy, I will also look into taking some Spanish classes -1 on 1, since my current level is very basic (Option)
      A) Private Tutor
      B) EAFIT
      C) UPB

      My question is – Since I want to have a Flexible return date, do I have to have a return ticket before I arrive? I have searched the internet and I have found very conflicting information. I know I may also may get conflicting information here, but hopefully, someone who actually experience similar scenario will also response.

      • Most airlines will ask for a return ticket when you check in if you are a tourist without a visa. I’m aware that some expats buy refundable return tickets and get a refund when they arrive.

      • Ted – maybe this will help you (any 1) on the onward ticket situation?

        https://tinyurl.com/gozv9lo

      • I did a bit of research on this issue before coming to Colombia in January 2016.

        According to my research, as Jeff pointed out, it’s the AIRLINE that will (sometimes) ask for proof of return travel. Meaning that Colombian immigration rarely asks to see proof. And some airlines have a reputation for asking for proof of return travel much more often than others.

        At the time when I found out about this issue, I had already purchased a one-way ticket to Colombia on United Airlines, which I discovered is among the airlines that tends to ask for proof of return travel. I considered buying a refundable return ticket (Colombia back to the US), but then found out that proof of ONWARD international travel was also acceptable. So I ended up buying a cheap one-way ticket from Bogota to Quito, Ecuador, on discount airline Viva Colombia.

        In the end, neither United Airlines nor Colombian immigration asked me for proof of return/onward travel. Of course that doesn’t mean they never do so. I recommend doing some checking on Google to see what the current situation is, just in case things have changed in the last year or so.

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