In Medellin, Colombia, Christmas seems to be all about the lights. By the first of December, they're draped everywhere —on palm trees, pine trees, lampposts, doorways, highway signs, shop entrances, and park benches.
Driving into the city is like entering a fairy land. Parque Poblado is ablaze with swaying strings of white lights. The Rio Medellin, a river that cuts through the center of the city, is lined with elaborate lighted Christmas scenes including reindeer, elves, angels, and gingerbread houses every December and January. These scenes take weeks to erect, continue for miles, and attract tourists to the city from all over the world. This city’s annual Christmas Festival of Lights is something to see.
Medellin is also noteworthy for another reason: It is emerging as a top retirement haven. I’ve been spending time in Medellin for two and a half years, traveling to the city regularly from my home base in Panama City, Panama. Arriving at Medellin’s international airport for each visit, it is clear that I’ve left Central America behind. The differences between this continent and the one just to the north are striking. The Euro-undertones in Medellin are strong, from the way the women dress to the way people greet you in passing on the street.
Medellin is reminiscent of Buenos Aires, Argentina, with its annual International Tango Festival, Botero Museum, downtown shopping areas, antique shops, and arts and literary history. But Medellin, which has a population of about 3.5 million, is more manageable than Buenos Aires, which is home to about 15 million people. Medellin is easier to navigate, cleaner, and safer.
Medellin makes a good impression immediately and on many levels. Architecturally, this city is lovely. Built almost entirely of red brick, with most every structure topped by a red clay tile roof, the place is pleasing in its consistency. When viewed from any point on the surrounding hillsides, Medellin appears as a sea of red clay tiles and red brick buildings interspersed regularly by swatches of foliage and flowers. The effect is calming and peaceful.
Another thing you’ll notice immediately upon arrival in Medellin is that this city is nowhere near as scary as you might have expected. As every local resident I’ve spoken with has explained, the drug wars are history, not a current reality. I’m sure some drug trade continues, as it does in every city of any size anywhere in the world, but this is no longer a defining part of Medellin. Far from intimidating, the people of Medellin are friendly, helpful, and hospitable.
Medellin is impressively green, with trees, plants, and small gardens everywhere, and remarkably clean. In the central neighborhoods, you see no litter. The metro, a point of pride for the local population, is spotless and like new.
Medellin is a pretty, leafy city that is safe, peaceful, and welcoming. But would this city with such a troubled past be an appealing place to plan to spend time in your retirement? I was won over by both the face and the spirit of Medellin within 48 hours of my first visit and have become more infatuated with what this city has to offer with every subsequent visit over the past two years. I’d say that this would be one of the best places in the world to think about settling down for retirement.
One big plus for retirees is the climate, which is temperate year-round. As it’s situated on the side of a mountain, the altitude of Medellin ascends from around 1,500 meters to 1,800 meters. The surrounding mountains rise to more than 2,500 meters. Temperatures range from 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Medellin is culturally and recreationally rich and diverse. Living here, you'd never want for something fun and interesting to do. On any given day, you could go hiking or bike riding. You could visit a museum or one of the many shopping malls. You could see a tango show or an opera (in season). Come evening, you could dance the night away (tango is a national pastime) and sample the local rum in one of the bawdy nightclubs or enjoy a fine meal and white-glove service at one of the many international-standard restaurants.
Medellin is the second-largest city in Colombia and known as a major industrial center for the country. The main products are textiles, coffee, and flowers. But it is also a city of parks and flowers, with interactive outdoor museum-parks, an aquarium, delightful botanical gardens, a planetarium, a barefoot park with a Zen garden, and dozens of small parks and treed plazas that are well-tended and manicured. At every turn, this city begs you to come outside and enjoy what it has to offer.
The city is also a literary and an artistic hub. It’s the base for newspapers, radio networks, and publishing houses. Major events include an annual poetry festival, an international jazz festival, an international tango festival, and an annual book fair. Back in 1971, Medellin was even the venue for Colombia's answer to Woodstock, the Festival de Ancon.
Medical care in Colombia is not only of international standard but also very affordable. Costs for procedures in this country can be 30 percent to 90 percent less than for comparable procedures performed Stateside. Medellin is expanding its reputation for medical tourism, especially for cosmetic treatments, dentistry, and eye surgery. The city’s Healthcare Cluster, a public-private partnership between the municipality of Medellin and the Chamber of Commerce, has set exceptionally high requirements for applicants seeking membership, improving quality standards in the city even further. Medellin’s five hospitals are ranked among the best 35 in all of Latin America.
Medellin offers good local health insurance options for resident retirees. The market leaders nationwide are Suramericana and Liberty Seguros, which provide coverage for people up to 60 years of age at the time of application. Colsanitas and Coomeva are other great options. Premiums vary depending on age and type of coverage, but you can expect to pay as little as $70 to $150 per month.
Perhaps the biggest reason to put Medellin near the top of your list of potential retirement spots is the cost. A retiree could live well here on $1,000 to $1,500 a month, depending on the exchange rate between the Colombian peso and the U.S. dollar. You could live on even less if you’re willing to go completely local. Of course, you could certainly spend more if you wanted to. One of the appealing things about Medellin is that this is a place where a truly luxury-level lifestyle is available if you’re interested in pursuing and paying for it.
One notable cost savings living in Medellin is utility expenses. Thanks to the climate, you could live here with neither heating nor air conditioning, meaning your utility costs could be almost negligible. This could reduce your overall monthly budget by $200 or more.
However, the real cost advantage of Medellin has to do with real estate. This city’s property market is a bargain. El Poblado is the top end of the market, for both renting and buying. Here you're looking at $1,000 to $1,500 per square meter to purchase resale (sometimes furnished) and $1,500 to $2,000 per square meter to buy new. You could also rent a furnished apartment for as little as $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom to maybe $3,000 for a luxury-level penthouse. And that’s the top of the market.
In other neighborhoods those prices can fall in half or lower. For example, you could rent a one-bedroom apartment in the Laureles neighborhood for as little as 850,000 pesos a month, maybe less. At the current exchange rate, that's about $450. This less discovered neighborhood that is safe and pleasant is a very good budget choice compared with more central and more discovered El Poblado. And in the Florida Nueva neighborhood, you could rent a two-bedroom apartment for 650,000 pesos a month, or about $350.
The current cost of renting or of investing in your own second or retirement home in this city is an absolute bargain. Bundle this with the quality of life, and you will understand why Medellin is emerging as one of the world’s top retirement havens.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.