Daily life in Medellín, Colombia is more exciting than you might imagine. You can walk out the door in Medellín on a Wednesday and find yourself in the middle of a party. Nevertheless, groceries still need to be bought and laundry still needs to be done. This article will cover the practicalities of daily life in Medellín, including the major conveniences (and inconveniences) you can expect to encounter while living there.
Feel free to reference the visual map we created for this series, which shows important places mentioned in this article and others:
This article is part of our Medellín series. For more information, check out our other related articles:
Medellín receives high marks for transportation options, especially considering how poor the offerings of other Latin American cities are in this department. The most high-profile example has to be the Metro (and MetroCable) light rail system.
This excellent system is extensive and easy to use. In fact, it’s also the only metro system in all of Colombia as of 2020. The light rail portion consists of two major lines: the A line running North-South and the B line running East-West. The A line is blue and the B line is orange in the following map:
The map above also includes the MetroCable system, which are cable cars reaching into the poor, hilly neighborhoods on the city outskirts (lines H, J, K, L, M, and P). Finally, the Tramway and several major bus lines are included to complete the whole official “Metro” system.
If you are staying in Medellín for more than a week or two, I highly recommend picking up a Civica card. This card is basically the same as the Oyster card in London and allows you to easily swipe in and out of the system from a prepaid balance. Pick up your Civica card at Niquía, San Antonio, Itagüí or San Javier Metro Stations. The card itself is free, but you’ll need to present a valid form of ID such as a passport or cedula to receive it. It will also start with a $0 balance, so you’ll need to top it up before using it.
We used the Metro system often while living in Medellín. It was reliable and efficient, though I will say that the stations are not the most conveniently located if you are living in the popular parts of Laureles or El Poblado. The nearest station to Laureles is the Estadio station, which is about a 13 minute walk from Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. The nearest station to Parque Lleras in El Poblado is the El Poblado station – a 20 minute walk up/down a fairly steep hill. If you’re traveling between Laureles and El Poblado, you’ll have to transfer at the San Antonio station, which is annoying.
Buses are a lot trickier to figure out in Medellín compared to the Metro system. Most of the buses are run by private companies that each have their own routes, fares, and websites. It is certainly a cheap option if you can figure it out, costing only $2,000 – $2,400 COP (about $0.70 USD) per ride. There are not always marked bus stops, meaning you’ll have to know ahead of time where the bus you want usually stops or try to wave at the driver to get them to stop for you. You’ll also need to pay with cash. The best resources to navigate the bus options are the app Bus Paisa and the website of the Secretaría de Movilidad de Medellín.
Ask yourself if it’s worth the hassle of researching the routes and stops ahead of time. For us, it wasn’t, especially because the routes and timetables weren’t integrated into Google Maps and Uber (R.I.P.) was so cheap. We never took private buses during our 2.5 months of living in Medellín.
Rideshare & Taxi Apps
Perhaps the best way to get to a specific location in Medellín is to use an app and have a driver pick you up. Sadly, the government in January 2020 outlawed the best option for this – Uber – which operated in Medellín from 2013 – 2019. We used Uber often when we lived in Medellín, and it was cheap and reliable.
There are still alternatives, so don’t lose all hope. As of February 2020, Beat and DiDi are rideshare apps that are operating in Medellín. You can also hail a traditional taxi using the taxi apps Easy Taxi and Tappsi. Whichever option you choose, be prepared for the driver to call you while you’re waiting to establish your location. It’s super annoying considering you put your pickup spot into the app itself, but they love to do this for some reason. The taxis also frequently are missing seat belts and the cabbies drive a bit crazy. So close your eyes and say a few Ave Marías while riding.
Internet speed and quality in Medellín was fairly poor when we lived there in 2016. I remember speed tests of about 10 Mbps download – which, funnily enough, felt like a substantial improvement coming from Ecuador.
Average speeds seem to have improved substantially in the years since, however. According to Speedtest.net’s global index, Colombia ranked 90th in the world in fixed broadband as of December 2019. Internet speeds in this survey averaged 28.3 Mbps download and 14.5 Mbps upload for the country as a whole. What’s most impressive is the improvement – average speed in December 2019 was 77% faster than the average speed in December 2018! While I would recommend taking Speedtest’s data with a grain of salt, the positive trend in speed is real. Generally speaking, I’ve found the actual speed to be about half of Speedtest’s figures. I’ll let you judge for yourself whether or not that’s fast enough for you.
I can really only speak for the Laureles district / La Setenta area when it comes to groceries. Luckily, we found an excellent supermarket just north of Avenida San Juan called Jumbo. Huge and modern, Jumbo had just about everything and made a convenient one-stop-shop for groceries. It even had electronics and other household goods should you need them. In fact, Jumbo was so nice that if you’re planning on living in Laureles, it might be worth finding a place within walking distance of it.
If you are extremely budget-conscious, check out the following two chains of warehouse stores: Makro and PriceSmart. These massive “big box” behemoths will be familiar to Americans who’ve been to Costco or Sam’s Club before. You’ll need a membership card to shop at either, though Makro’s is free to acquire. Makro is also conveniently located on Avenida San Juan so it’s easy to access if you’re living in Laureles.
Another common supermarket chain in Medellín is Éxito. You’ll see these iconic yellow stores every few blocks, it seems. Though smaller than Jumbo, they still have a good variety of food options. One annoyance we found in Colombia in general and Éxito in particular is the tendency of cashiers to take FOREVER to finish transactions. It was not even uncommon to witness them leave their counters mid-transaction to run around the store and check the price of a can of beans that didn’t scan properly. Shockingly, other Colombians in line didn’t seem to mind waiting forever to check out – a stark contrast to how impatient they are while driving.
I don’t recall seeing or hearing about any large open-air markets in the Laureles area. The most iconic small vendor food market is probably Plaza Minorista in the Estación Villa neighborhood. This two-story indoor market has all sorts of local produce, with fruit being something of a specialty. It’s worth checking out if for no other reason than to see how locals buy food. Try to take a cab there if you can as the surrounding area is a bit sketchy.
Everyday household practicalities may be a bit boring but can lead to a lot of daily frustration if things don’t work smoothly. Luckily, in Medellín, there is little to complain about. Water is safe to drink directly from the tap, though some expats install water filters to clean up the taste a bit. I don’t recall the water tasting bad, personally.
Because the climate is so perfect, heating and cooling are largely unnecessary in the city. In fact, most apartments don’t even have heating and cooling. Our studio had a fan and that was about it. As long as you are fine with putting on and taking off a few light layers, you should have no problem with indoor comfort.
Like in the rest of Latin America, dryers and dishwashers are rare. Our complex had a shared washing machine and clothes drying racks for all guests to use. However, you might have to drop off your laundry at a lavandería (laundromat) and pick it up later if your apartment lacks a washing machine.
Recycling is basically non-existant in Medellín. Unless your complex has its own receptacle, you’ll probably have to drop your waste in a streetside collection bin.
Money in Colombia is amusing due to how inflated the currency is. In fact, we’ve never had to deal with such “vast sums” before or since in all our travels. As of February 2020, it would take 3,414 Colombian pesos to equal ONE U.S. dollar. For reference, that’s about the cost of one beer in the supermarket. A good deal on an apartment would be something in the range of 1-1.5 MILLION pesos per month. This can take some time to wrap your head around at first.
What helped us most is mentally “lopping off” the last three zeros and calling the resulting value “mil” (the word for thousand in Spanish). So we would refer to a meal costing 20,000 pesos ($5.85 USD) as “twenty mil” rather than “twenty thousand pesos.” Local Colombians do this themselves. In this way, the currency kind of effectively takes on the name “mil” instead of “pesos.”
Tipping at restaurants in the traditional sense isn’t common in Colombia. Usually, your bill will include a 10% propina voluntaria (voluntary service charge). Tipping on top of this service charge is completely unnecessary; in fact, you should look at your itemized bill to see if it’s included in the first place. If for some reason it’s not there, leaving an extra 10% in cash for the waiter is fine. With a typical meal costing about 20,000 COP, this means carrying at least 2,000 COP around in coins for tipping.
You can pay for large purchases at the supermarket and meals at nicer restaurants with credit cards. For street food and just about everything else, be prepared to pay cash.
Places to Exercise
Once again I can only really speak for the Laureles district when it comes to places to exercise. If you decide to live there, however, you’re in luck – there’s an amazing athletic center called Estadio Atanasio Girardot at the north end of “La Setenta” (Carrera 70). This massive complex has spaces for just about every sport and activity you can imagine. You have to pay for a membership if you want to use most of the facilities. When we inquired about this in 2016, they didn’t seem very equipped to integrate foreigners into their system, but things may have changed since then. We decided not to pay for the full membership because of these communication difficulties and, more importantly, the fact that we could use the running track and outdoor gym equipment for free.
That’s right – feel free to stroll into Estadio de Atletismo Alfonso Galvis specifically and run around the track to your heart’s content, even without a membership. You can also use the outdoor weightlifting/cardio equipment area located approximately here for free. Be aware, though, that this workout area is very popular and you’ll be competing/waiting to use equipment if you go at a peak time such as 17:00 – 21:00.
Cost of Living
Medellín is surprisingly affordable for a city of its stature. Our biggest expenses in any place are always rent and groceries/restaurants. Medellín scores well for both accommodation and food costs, not to mention transportation. It’s not really a “tourist” city, so it’s easy to avoid getting gouged unless you hang out near Parque Lleras in El Poblado all the time.
Our average combined cost per day was $42.42 USD for two people. If you’re by yourself, we’d estimate that to drop to about $28 USD (two-thirds of the previous figure). This average includes basic expenditures for daily life in Medellín such as rent, groceries, eating out, transportation around town, and basic entertainment. As always, your cost of living may vary depending on the amount of comfort and luxury you want. For full disclosure, the data below comes from a 2.5 month period in the Fall of 2016:
|Rent||$350 USD/month for a small(ish) studio in Laureles|
|Entertainment||$120 USD/month (we partied more in Medellín than usual)|
Similar to elsewhere in Latin America, you can save a lot on rent if you know Spanish and are willing to take the time to search for apartments in person rather than relying on Airbnb. Also check out Fincaraíz, Monopolio Inmobiliario, OLX, and Facebook groups for apartment classifieds.