When I quit my job at the beginning of 2016 to hit the road and spend the next year living abroad, I wasn't sure what qualities were most important to look for in a semi-permanent location. I'd spent a fair amount of time abroad, but prior to venturing out at the beginning of last year my travel experiences were limited to vacations, a college study abroad program, and a few months spent working in Romania. I didn't have any experience living abroad full-time, and what I soon came to realize is that the qualities that make for a great tourist destination don't always intersect with those that make for an ideal place to set up shop long-term. I've spent time across North America, Europe, South America, and Asia, but when I landed in Medellín it didn't take me long to see that this city is uniquely well-suited for a digital nomad lifestyle. I haven't been everywhere, but I've yet to find a better city for a freelancing foreigner to live, work, and play anywhere in the world - and here's why:
Medellín is situated in central Colombia, and Colombia is located in the far north of South America. Colombia's proximity to the US makes it a great location for nomads working for companies or with clients located in North America. The country shares a timezone with either Eastern Standard or Central Standard time, depending on the time of year, so unlike other popular locations in Asia or Europe, it is easy to communicate and work with people in the US during normal business hours. Being at the far north of South America also provides advantages, as it is cheap and relatively fast to fly to the US. I travel to San Francisco several times a year to visit family and meet with clients, and I was shocked at how inexpensive my last flight was. I booked a round-trip ticket from Medellín to San Francisco with one layover in Los Angeles (total travel time ~10.5 hours) for less than $450.
Medellín is known in Colombia as "la Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera" (the City of Eternal Spring) - and for good reason. The temperature remains virtually the same year-round, with highs generally in the low-80s F (high 20s C) during the day and lows in the mid-60s F (high teens C) at night with only moderate humidity. The city lies very close to the equator, but is also at an altitude of nearly 5000ft (1500m). This makes the climate much milder than other cities at a similar latitude. Medellín is known to have the best weather in Colombia, as Bogotá is at a higher altitude and therefore colder, and the coast can be extremely hot.
Just 2 decades ago, Medellín was the most dangerous city in the world, with a sky-high murder rate, and most of the city under de facto control of the drug cartels. While the violence of the Pablo Escobar era has left deep scars on the psyche of the city, present-day Medellín bears very little resemblance to the corrupt and bloody past of the 80s and 90s. I've actually felt much safer during my time in Medellín than I have in many other South American cities, and the areas of the city foreigners are likely to visit do not suffer from crime rates much different from those in many American and European cities. The city is clearly set on a positive trajectory, with thriving restaurants, cafes, malls, and night clubs, as well as some of the best infrastructure in South America with Colombia's only subway system. The size of the city is also ideal, as it doesn't suffer from the traffic, overcrowding, pollution, and trash that plagues many larger cities. It doesn't take long to get to most places in the city, and most things are centrally located. At the same time, as Colombia's second-largest city, you still have access to everything you'd expect from a major city.
Most travelers coming to Colombia are already going to be expecting low prices compared to North America or Europe, but I can confidently say that Medellín has some of the best prices of anywhere I've visited. You can get a lunch including soup, salad, entree, two sides, dessert, and a drink for under $4 US. Food in the supermarket can be had for similarly low prices. Transportation is also incredibly affordable, with an Uber across town generally running less than $5. Housing is also very cheap and available, and a brand-new one-bedroom apartment in the best area of town generally goes for under $700 per month. If you're on an even tighter budget, accommodation in a more modest neighborhood can easily be found for half that.
The reason why I travel is to immerse myself in foreign cultures, and to allow new ways of seeing the world to inform my own outlook and lifestyle. From the perspective of a Californian, some cultures are more foreign than others, and some cultures are more welcoming to outsiders than others. For me, Colombian culture provides a great balance of familiarity and novelty. Colombians are some of the warmest, most vibrant people that I've met. Paisas (people from Medellín and the surrounding state of Antioquia) are open and inviting toward foreigners. Tourism is new to the city and booming, and locals are quick to include foreigners and show them that perceptions of their city do not match reality. While I don't feel like a local living in Medellín, I don't feel like an outsider either, and having improved my Spanish substantially over the last year, I've had little trouble getting to know locals and making new friends.
In searching for a location to settle down in long-term, it was important for me to not only be able to connect with the local people, but to also have the opportunity to connect with other digital nomads with experiences similar to my own. Medellín has a strong and growing expat community, and many of the expats in the city are digital nomads working remotely. I've met a ton of incredibly interesting foreigners from across the world during my time in Colombia. While it's amazing to connect with local people while abroad, sometimes you just want someone to go watch football (not soccer!) with, and the Medellín digital nomad community makes this easy.
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