Bogota, Colombia Report of what it's like to live there - 05/01/13
Personal Experiences from Bogota, Colombia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Orlando, Florida. 4 hours (there are direct flights through JetBlue). There are numerous flights to cities in FL and the US in general on both US and Latin American carriers.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Employed at the US Embassy, third-tour foreign service officer.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
U.S. Embassy people live in what's called the Gringo Bubble - an area of about 30 blocks in the Chica/Rosales section. We all live in apartments that tend to be spacious and modern. However, ovens are much smaller than US ones, so cooking sheets, large baking pans, etc., may not fit in them. Power outages are not uncommon. Closet space is luxurious in most of the apartments. As stated above, they can be cold - so bring space heaters and quilts. Commute times are usually 30-60 minutes depending on rain and traffic.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Most things available but are 20% higher in cost than in the US.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Toilet paper (actually all paper products), peanut butter, wine (it's expensive here), baking goods (chocolate chips, nuts - very expensive here, baking soda). Maybe an ice-cream maker (local ice cream very expensive). Most things are available here or through Amazon/Net grocer. The recent US-Colombia trade agreement is resulting in a new wave of US products showing up on grocery shelves.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Pretty much everything you could want. Prices are generally in the US range, but there are bargains, too. My favorite local chain was Wok, which has a super-tasty pan-Asian menu with noodles, sushi, dumplings, etc. at reasonable prices. McDonald's is here, too, as are Subway, BK, KFC, etc. But the local chicken joints are cheaper and better.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
None! You don't even need screens on the windows! They can't take the altitude.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Help is very available and cheap - $20/day - but it varies up or down. However, Colombian labor laws are tricky and require large severance payouts at the end. It's very hard to fire anyone you hire, so choose carefully---especially if they are taking care of your kids. Research the logistics before you jump in. Many of our friends have had headaches related to empleadas.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, all over the place, but they are quite expensive. Bogotanos are VERY fitness-conscious, and you can see them exercising indoors and out all over the city.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
ATM machines are available all over, but they charge high fees. Credit cards are swiped at your table on portable machines - so the card never goes out of your site. We have never had a problem. Use a Capitol One card - they don't charge you a conversion fee (many others do and they can be high).
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Not much, but some.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
We use a slingbox to get all US TV. Many people get Direct TV Puerto Rico, which has Spanish and English shows. Most people seem to have no problem getting what they need. There are virtually no English-language newspapers or magazines available locally.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
The more the better. Many Bogotanos, especially younger ones, have some English. Cab drivers generally have none, so it's good idea to write down the address that you want.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
A lot. There are few if any accommodations, and the sidewalks can be difficult due to poor repair, steepness, and being wet and slippery. One rarely sees people in wheelchairs here. Traversing Bogota is not for the faint of heart or the physically impaired. Traffic is heavy and fast and often does not respect crosswalks.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are very affordable and usually clean and friendly. However, they can be nearly impossible to get during busy periods (Friday nights especially) or if it's raining. So don't get too dependent on them, and have a plan B. Buses tend to be super crowded and not very user friendly.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
A small SUV is best - but bring a used one if possible. Your car will get dinged up no matter what you do. Drivers here are aggressive and often do not follow basic rules of the road. And traffic citations are rare. Carjackings have decreased significantly in the city, but always keep doors locked and windows rolled up (people will reach in from motorcycles and take your property off the seat if they can).
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, at about $80/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Buy a cheap one with a pay-as-you-go plan. It's the easiest way, and if it gets stolen you don't care.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Yes, they LOVE dogs here and pamper them endlessly. Anything you could want for them is here.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Bogotanos tend to dress up, and the climate requires long pants and sweaters/jackets. At the workplace it is ties and jackets.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Colombia still has a very high murder rate, but Bogota itself has become increasingly safe. While robberies and muggings still happen, you can avoid most of that by using common sense (travel with a buddy, walk purposefully, don't wear ostentatious jewelery, and do NOT pull your Iphone 4 out in public if you don't have to.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is pretty good, but not quite at a US level. It is very difficult to navigate without Spanish, and payment is always required at the point of service.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Although some people complain of pollution/allergy/asthma problems - we have found the air to be generally fresh and often rain-washed (see below). Our biggest issue has been the altitude, which can take a long time to adjust to --- and some people never do. It makes stairs harder to climb, impacts sleep, and in general makes you feel more tired.
Another related issue is the noise. There is construction going on everywhere --- and they often work at night or early in the mornings. Dogs are allowed to bark at will, and car alarms go off 2-3 times/night. The result is a very noisy city --- so bad in some areas that people have used it as a justification to move their residences.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
This is probably the biggest negative. Bogota is always rainy and cool - much like Seattle. The rain can come quickly and hard --- even with an umbrella you can be soaked in minutes. And it's cold, so you feel worse. Another poster said in his review, "Did I mention the rain" - several times. This has become our mantra as we always seem to be dealing with it. Granted, there are intermittent sunny days - but you can go 2-3 weeks at stretch where it is gray and rainy every day. Also there is no central heating (you are dependent on small heaters), so the apartments often are cold and damp.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The two main expat schools are CNG and CGB, although kids also go to the British Montessori and a smattering of other international schools. CNG is big: 2000 kids, but it has no cap on the number of locals. So there are a lot of Colombians. CGB caps this at 60%, so there are more expat kids from various countries. Both schools have Special-Needs services, but they are NOT at the level of the US. The other schools (El Camino, etc.) have little-to-no SN services. Despite Bogota's rep as an SN mecca, the services are often not at the depth or or degree of specialization that a US school system might have. So research carefully before bringing a special needs child here. Both campuses are beautiful. Google either school and you'll that see they have extensive web sites with pictures, videos, etc.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Very limited, if they have anything at all. CNG is built into the side of a mountain and has many steep walkways and staircases with minimal accommodations. Again, research this question carefully if your child has problems with ambulation.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Widely available, often close to apartments and affordable.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, mostly connected with the schools.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Large and growing. The American Women's Club (AWC) is a robust group that has multiple opportunities to meet expats from various countries. Membership costs $50/year. Many American companies are expanding their footprint in Bogota, so there are new people coming in all the time.
2. Morale among expats:
Not as good as you would think. It's a big,, impersonal city and many people feel lonely here. The rain keeps you indoors a lot, and for those without Spanish, it can be especially difficult. Still, many find the city and country to be vibrant and alive and enjoy it here very much.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
See above. There are many restaurants, bars, and local celebrations. You can do as much as you want. But it's an early-rising city, and people often just want to go home and go to sleep!
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes. Single men seem to have no problem finding company to keep. But you should be aware that this is a 98% Catholic country, and many women take relationships very seriously. In other words, nothing is ever as free as it may appear. There are parks for families with small children, but in general there is not a lot for them to do outside of Ciclovia. Kids have very long days. They are picked up as early as 5:30 for some schools and don't get home till 4. They often have to be carried off the bus because they are asleep. And remember: it's a city, so they can't play in the street, ride bikes around the neighborhood, etc.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
The ones we have seen in town appear unmolested.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Bogotanos see themselves as the elite of Colombia and are openly prejudicial to darker-skinned Colombians from the coastal areas.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We loved Andres DC. It is a fun and unique place that is both restaurant and floor show. The green spaces all around were well cared for and really made many of the neighborhoods prettier, allowing for dog walking, kids playing, etc. Hiking is great here, but make sure you're in shape if you're going to try Montersatte. The view from the top is one of the best you'll ever see anywhere in the world. The local microbrew (Bogota Beer company) provides great local beer in a friendly, warm setting. The fresh flowers are incredibly cheap and so beautiful - we always had vases of them around - something we had never done previously. Christmas here is spectacular. And don't forget Ciclovia - when they shut down traffic on up to 70 miles of local streets and highways on Sundays (and holidays - of which there are many) for biking, running, walking, or people watching.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Botero Museum, Gold Museum, Salt Cathedral, Montseratte, Cyclovia, holiday celebrations, and many warm and comfortable places to visit down the mountain.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Flowers, leather goods, glassware, grilled meats, pottery, furniture, and custom-made boots!
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Bogota is a thriving metropolis that struggles with an affluent modern population juxtaposed with a poor (and sometimes violent) one. There are many very good restaurants that range from friendly pubs (BBC is a must) to 5-star quality. Although there is no Colombian cuisine, per se, many other types are available here, including Peruvian, Japanese, and Middle Eastern. There is an emerging interest in attracting tourists, but there are only a few real attractions in the city (Gold Museum, Bottero Museum, etc.). If possible, it's good to get to other parts of the country which tend to be warmer and more laid back.
11. Can you save money?
Yes, but it's not super cheap here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I guess so. It's better than many other places. But the altitude, rain, ever-present security issues, and commute time can make daily life a struggle here in many ways.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
shorts, craft beer, and steak.
3. But don't forget your:
umbrellas, boots, vases, space heaters, sweaters, and sturdy shoes.
4. Do you have any other comments?
Bogota is a place of many contrasts. It can be so beautiful at times, and so alive and friendly. But it can be unfriendly, too. Traffic is difficult on the sidewalks and in the street, and many expats struggle with the "death of a thousand cuts" dynamic. Nothing is worse than standing on a sidewalk on a Friday night in pouring rain watching (literally) a hundred cabs go by without one stopping for you. So come here with a healthy sense that while many things will go well, others will not.