Despite the bad rap that Medellin, Colombia once had as a drug haven, Larry Rose decided to take a leap of faith: He retired there. He was a 66-year-old former schoolteacher looking at living out the rest of his life on a small pension.
“I couldn’t live comfortably on that little in California even though I had family there,” Larry says. “Influential magazines like HuffPo, Forbes and the New York Times travel section all raved about Medellin, calling it charming, European, with spectacular weather at 75 degrees year round. Medellin is known as the City of Eternal Spring.”
Medellin, he found, is also a thriving city
And the drug king pins?
“In the U.S. you keep seeing stories about Pablo Escobar, the drug lord. Yes, coca and marijuana are all grown in Colombia, but they’re sold in the U.S. It’s the United States that has the problem. So I moved here in 2012 and haven’t regretted a second of it.”
Larry filled us in by phone from his home in the Colombian city.
So, what is the crime situation?
We still have gangs in certain communities – in small areas, just like in Los Angeles. They’re a remnant of the old cartel, which is mostly gone. I feel safer on the streets here than in San Francisco. Gangs are only interested in fighting with each other. Pablo Escobar killed drug lords, police and politicians – he wasn’t dangerous to the populace. But when he was here, foreign investment was zero. After he left, Medellin won the 2013 most innovative city in the world award from Citibank and the Wall Street Journal.
That’s what I love about Medellin. Even with that reputation, it was able to establish itself as a desirable place to live, a city on the move. We just finished our flower fair, which people come from all over the world to see. Colombia is famous for flowers. We have 19,000 species of orchids alone – the greatest biodiversity in the world.
How hard was it to move alone to a foreign country where you didn’t know anyone?
It helped that Colombia is a short trip back to the states. It’s the closest part of South America to the U.S. It also didn’t hurt that I soon found the love of my life in Medellin -Beatriz, a librarian 15 years younger than me with a little daughter. She is just wonderful. Beautiful, gentle, smart. I met her in the library, asked her to coffee, lunch, a concert and then to marry me. The 15 year age gap is nothing here. Many American men here go out with much younger women. The Colombian people are gorgeous by the way. They’re also warm, charming, helpful and friendly. I never felt isolated.
Did you speak Spanish?
I came with no Spanish. If you have a propensity for languages, it’s easy to learn, but there’s a large expat community, mostly Americans, Canadians and Brits, living in two neighborhoods where the majority of the merchants speak English. Many expats socialize only with each other, but most of my friends are Beatriz’s family – she has a lot of brothers and sisters, all professionals who only speak Spanish. I’ve begun to be able to say what I want in Spanish, but when they talk back it’s hard to understand, and the phone is impossible.
What’s the best thing about living in Medellin?
You don’t need a car. Taxis here are incredibly inexpensive, you can go halfway across town for $5 or less. All the cabs are metered and there’s no tipping. I take cabs everywhere and I’ve never waited more than three minutes. Cars are not recommended. Your driver’s license isn’t good here. You’d have to get a Colombian license, but traffic is no fun, the drivers are aggressive. If you want to travel to local towns, busses are the way to go. Despite stereotypes, there are no chickens on the busses, they’re all Mercedes buses with restrooms and airline seats. If you want to take a trip you rent a car, which isn’t as expensive as in the States.
And of course, the weather. No snow, no earthquakes, no tornadoes, no hurricanes, no droughts. It’s in the mountains with pure air.
What’s the worst?
There’s a lot of poverty. People come from small villages to the city looking for work. But the middle class is growing. Colombia was exploited by the U.S. for much of its history and still is. The country used to be owned by United Fruit, and Chiquita banana is still here and doesn’t pay well.
And some gringos here are ultra right wing crazies. And the coffee is wonderful, but the best is exported to the U.S.
How about healthcare?
Medellin has some of finest hospitals in Latin America. It’s acknowledged to be a top medical center – originally for cosmetic surgery, but the hospitals are now as good as most in the states.
Because I’m married to a Colombian I’m eligible for EPS, their socialized government insurance. I take a lot of meds, which cost me a total $2.40 a month. You can get EPS if you have residency. To get residency you have to buy a home, invest in a business, or be here on a pension visa for three years.
Medicare unfortunately doesn’t travel, but Aetna and Kaiser do, and there are a number of private insurance companies that will cover you here, though for not very much.
Medication here is inexpensive to pay for out of pocket. Surgery is a lot less expensive than in the States, in the four digits, not five, so if you have some cash you can simply pay for treatment. For example, before I had EPS, I was in hospital for ten days and had to pay cash for a bleeding ulcer, and the total cost was $4,000. I walked into an ophthalmologist’s with a scratched cornea and she gave me meds for my eyes, checked my eyes completely and gave me a new glasses prescription, in her modern office, for $40.
You can buy local insurance, but it might be difficult if you are over 65. The solution is to fly back to Florida. It’s a three hour flight, inexpensive to Ft. Lauderdale.
What are the visa requirements?
For a pensioner visa, the first one is six months, then a year. If you want to stay, after a few months you go to the immigration office and show financial documents that you have an income of at least $19,000 a year.
[Here’s a helpful video about getting a visa in Colombia.]
Do you expect to live the rest of your life in Medellin?
Yes. My family is here now. I also have family in the U.S., including two adult kids in San Francisco, a sister in Long Island and relatives in Florida who I stay in touch with through Skype and visits.
What does Aging with Attitude mean to you?
Staying open to new experience and thriving because you’re learning new things.
Cost of Housing (and living) Cheap; a third to a half of what it would be in U.S. Larry’s pension is $3500 a month, but you can live comfortably in Medellin for $2,000 a month. For their four bedroom apartment with veranda, garage, two baths, a large living room and a dining room in one of nicest neighborhoods in Medellin, Larry and Beatriz pay $350 a month. An apartment in a luxury neighborhood with security guards and swimming pools costs more. Food is also cheap. Your bill for four at one of the finest restaurants will come to less than $70, including wine.
Expat Community Small but active. While their numbers are steadily growing, expats – about 10, 000 of them – still make up a tiny percentage of the city’s three and a half million residents. Many expats are businessmen who have pool and pizza parties where expats socialize.
Crime Manageable. You have to mind your wallet and cellphone. There is pick pocketing, and phones get lifted. In bad neighborhoods there’s violence, so you stay out of them. Everyone knows where not to go.
Human rights/civil rights Everyone votes, and civil rights are strongly enforced. Children are well taken care of, schools are excellent. Racially, Colombians are diverse, with Africans on the coast where the slave trade was, Indians throughout the country and whites of mostly Spanish descent. Most of the politicians are white. The races do mix socially, but there is there racism – just like back home.
Best places to stay if you want to check it out
Inntu Hotel Larry’s favorite, the Inntu is 4-5 stars and runs well under $100 a night. Currently a room is around $55 on Kayak.com.
Charlee Hotel A spectacular luxury hotel – first choice on Trip Advisor. Rooms range from $170 a night and up – not cheap, but fabulous.
This post was updated to reflect the status of Medellin as a major Colombian city, but not its capital