"This is your first trip to Colombia, and you've chosen to focus on Medellin? That will save you a lot of time," our new friend remarked. "This is the place to be in this country right now."
After spending a little more time in La Bella Villa, as Medellin is known, we decided that this resident American expat knew what he was talking about. Medellin is impressive from the moment you depart the international airport and begin to make the drive down the mountainside toward it, and more so the longer you're here.
The Euro-undertones are strong, from the way the women dress to the way people greet you in passing on the street. Wandering around Medellin is more reminiscent of walking around Paris than almost any other city in the Americas. If you were to compare Medellin with another city in Latin America, it'd be Buenos Aires, Argentina. Medellin, population about 2 million, is like a miniature version of Buenos Aires, from its annual International Tango Festival to its Botero Museum. However, Medellin is more manageable than Buenos Aires (which is home to about 15 million people), easier to navigate and cleaner. Otherwise, the neighborhoods, parks, downtown shopping areas, antique shops and the arts and literary history in Medellin all remind you of that very European city way down at the bottom of this continent.
Medellin makes a good impression immediately and on many levels. Architecturally, this city is lovely. Built almost entirely of red brick, with almost every structure topped by a red clay tile roof, the place is pleasing in its consistency, especially when viewed from some height. From the windows of one of the city's penthouse apartments, for example, Medellin appears 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 you speak with will assure you with pride and relief, 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 the drug business is no longer a defining part of this city.
Far from intimidating, the people of Medellin are friendly, helpful and hospitable. Traveling across the city on its metro one afternoon, my husband and I stepped out from our train and on to the station platform uncertainly, looking left, then right, then down at our small pocket map. We weren't sure which way to go next and were moving slowly as we tried to get our bearings. An older gentleman who had been on the train with us, a native of the city, began to walk out of the station but then turned around and came back toward us. Addressing my husband politely, formally, he asked, in Spanish, if we needed help. Lief explained our ultimate destination, and the man walked us over to the big map on the wall to point out the quickest route then personally escorted us out to the street.
Medellin is impressively green, with trees, plants and small gardens everywhere. It's also remarkably clean. In the central neighborhoods, you see no litter. The metro, another point of pride for the local population, is spotless and like new.
Medellin is a pretty, leafy and clean city that is safe, peaceful and welcoming place. That's a good starting point. But would this city with such a troubled past actually 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 arriving on my first visit. Today, three years later, having enjoyed many return visits since, I'd say that, yes, no question, this would be a very nice place to retire.
One important plus for would-be retirees is the climate, which is temperate year-round. You could say that Medellin's climate is near-perfect. As it's situated on the side of a mountain, the city's altitude 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 every day of the year. The rainy season is during the second half of the year, but it's mild. Prolonged rainy periods and flooding are uncommon.
The city's altitude gives it a gentle, agreeable climate and, as well, means there are few bugs. Some residents I've spoken with insist they've never seen a bug. I won't try to convince you of that, but I will say that, living here, you could keep your windows open night and day, year-round, without screens.
Next, Medellin is culturally and recreationally rich and diverse. Living here as a retiree, 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.
It's not only restaurants in Medellin that can be of international standard. El Tesoro, for example, is as impressive a shopping mall as you'll find anywhere in the world. It's a five-minute cab ride up the hill from Parque Lleras, the heart of downtown Medellin and the best address in the city.
Medellin is the second-largest city in Colombia and is known as a major industrial center for the country (main products are textiles, coffee, and flowers). It is also, though, a city of parks and flowers, with interactive outdoor museum-parks, where children can build and experiment, run and play. There's an aquarium, an amusement park, delightful botanical gardens, a planetarium, a "barefoot park" with a Zen garden and dozens of small parks and treed plazas, all well-tended and even manicured. At every turn, this city begs you to come outside and enjoy what it has to offer.
Medellin is not only an industrial, economic, and financial center for this country, but also a literary and an artistic one. It's also the base for newspapers, radio networks, publishing houses, 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.
Among the many things I wasn't prepared for arriving the first time in Medellin was the developed level of its infrastructure. This is a place where things work. Here in the city of flowers, the roadways are wide and well-paved, and wireless internet is ever-present and free in many places, including at Juan Valdez Cafes, the Colombian answer to Starbucks, with branches all over the city and the region.
Medellin was built in a deep valley surrounded by tall, pine-covered mountains. The domestic airport sits almost downtown, making travel to other cities and regions in Colombia easy. The larger international airport is on higher ground but only about an hour's drive from the city.
There's no bad season for travel to Medellin, but some times of the year are more interesting than others, and we're approaching perhaps the best season to plan a visit. Late June is the International Tango Festival, when the people of Medellin celebrate their love affair with this sultry dance. July is the International Poetry Festival (in Spanish), the biggest celebration of its kind in the world, attracting more than 100 poets each year. And early August is the Festival of the Flowers, the most important event in the Antioquia Province where Medellin is located, when the region remembers one of its most important industries--the cut-flower business. Dating to 1957, this extravaganza features parades of antique cars, flower carriers, and horses.
Retirement in Medellin isn't for everyone. You would need to speak at least a little Spanish, and you would be breaking new ground. Whereas Panama City, for example, is an established and developed choice for foreign retirees, Medellin is an emerging one. On the other hand, this still very misunderstood city has a great deal to offer foreign retirees with an open mind and a spirit of adventure.
Colombia is working hard to change its image, investing millions in advertising abroad using the catch phrase, "The only risk is wanting to stay." Once you've seen the city for yourself, you'll understand.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 28 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her newest book, How To Buy Real Estate Overseas, published by Wiley & Sons, is the culmination of decades of personal experience living and investing around the world.