Bogota, Colombia Report of what it's like to live there - 09/10/18
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?
This is my second Department of State experience; previously I was in Dhaka.
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?
"Home" is Northern Illinois. I believe there are direct flights, but we generally go through Newark or Houston thanks to Fly America. You can fly direct to Florida in fewer than four hours.
3. How long have you lived here?
One and a half years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
(this is about US Embassy housing) All housing is apartment living. From what I've seen, everyone has plenty of space. There are two main neighborhoods: Chico and Rosales. We're in Chico and I love it. I walk everywhere, to the grocery store, to malls, to park, to restaurants and cafes. I had heard that it was noisier, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. I don't hear traffic noise, just construction, but you can get that anywhere.
Rosales is also close to great restaurants and a grocery store, but it's hillier and you'll feel those walks much more than you'll feel it after walking around Chico. In both neighborhoods the amenities in the apartments can vary GREATLY. For instance, our building has no extras. Others can have play structures, pools, movie rooms, and community rooms. Some are even setup like complexes of towers, where the kids can run outside and to other buildings, without leaving your guarded gate. You may also have no American neighbors, few or many. It just depends. Most apartments will end up with a water leak or two each year, but the buildings feel safe and well-constructed.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There is very little that you can't find here. I do miss good cheeses, but you can find some. In general most groceries seem to cost less than at home (though that can vary with the exchange rate), but specialty items are definitely more expensive. Even cereal can be expensive. We have a Pricesmart (Costo), and there's a commissary at the embassy. We order a few items from the states, but very little.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I can't think of anything that I've craved that I couldn't find.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Dining out is a highlight of this post for us. A family of five can eat out often because it's inexpensive. A fancy date night with drinks and the works, might cost US $100. The cocktails will cost almost as much as the main course. It's rare to see a main course item over US $20. It's also very easy and convenient to order food to be delivered at your home via Uber Eats, Rappi and Domicilios. In fact, you can order ANYTHING to be delivered to your home via the apps: groceries, gifts, car wash, manicure, CASH.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
NONE! I did see a fly today, but even they are rare.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We have DPO and pouch through the embassy.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Lots of families hire empleadas. Some cook and clean. Some just clean. Some watch kids. I believe families pay around COP $50k-$60k per day (US$17-$20). There are a lot of legalities around it too, as far as bonuses, time off, uniforms, etc. and I've heard that if you mess up with any of it, you'll get sued. I've also heard about petty theft.
We don't have help, so all of this is hearsay. A friend used a home cleaning service called Casa Express and it seemed like even with the fee, she was paying about the same daily rate as people who hired their empleadas directly, but then she didn't have to worry about any of the benefits. If I were to have help, it's the route I would take. Others have liked having an empleada who has worked for other embassy families.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are Bodytechs around, including one at the embassy. I don't know about the cost. I see MANY people working with personal trainers in the parks. A friend was working out with one and I believe he charged her about COP $45k-50k/hr.
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?
Credit cards are widely accepted, but some doctors offices require cash. Check before you go. ATMs in malls and grocery stores are safe. Note that if you have SDFCU, they charge you 1% every time you take out cash, and many of the local banks will charge you around US $4-$5. I've learned which banks don't charge me that fee, so that I'm just paying the SDFCU 1%.
USAA will refund the bank fees, so use them if you can. Also, many banks have a limit of COP $300k to $400K per transaction. You can pull out cash a bunch of times, but you don't want to do that, if you're paying a fee. Also, when asked if you want to make a charge in Pesos or Dollars, always choose Pesos, as many local banks hit you with a 3.5% fee when you charge in dollars. There is a bank at the embassy, and it's easy and convenient to cash checks there, but I generally get a little bit of a better rate from ATMs, even after my 1% fee from SDFCU.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I know of a non-denominational church that many embassy families attend. There is also an English-language Anglican (Episcopal) service and a Catholic Mass. There may be more, for instance, not sure about LDS.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You really have to have Spanish and the more the better. You can get a private tutor for about COP $50k/hour. I've taken classes at Universidad Sergio Arboleta that cost about US$220 for a month of classes that run two hours a day. There are many other options that I see posted on Facebook groups.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. It's possible, but definitely not easy. Sidewalks will suddenly end or have big chunks of concrete knocked out. Most multi-story buildings have elevators.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis and Ubers are plentiful and cheap. They're safe if you use an app to call them. We aren't allowed to hail them off the street. I'll spend an hour in a taxi and then find that I only spent about $7. Short quick rides are often $2-$3. If you don't like driving, you could easily live here with no car.
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?
People bring everything. I suggest something small and easy to park and drive. High-clearance is nice for pot holes (they're everywhere) and when you're out of town on dirt roads. You see mostly Toyotas, Nissans and Hondas, but I haven't heard of anyone not being able to get cars serviced. I haven't checked prices of tires or parts, to see if it's worth shipping them.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High-speed internet is available and it's cheap. The amount of time it takes varies as the rules around what paperwork you need seems to change. I think it took about a month for us, but recently a family we sponsored had it setup in about a week. We use Claro and have three phone plans with data, internet, cable and a landline and pay about US$140-150 a month in total.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I rolled my US # over to Google Voice years ago, and it sort-of comes around the world with me. I have it ringing at my desk phone right now, but I can also get voice mails and texts through it on my cell phone. I work from home, so I also have a US # via Skype, so that work can call me and it rings through to my phone or the computer, wherever I want to answer it.
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?
PET HEAVEN. Vets are plentiful and good and will even come to your home. Most dogs seem to go to doggy day camps. Our dogs just goes away when we're out of town and we pay COP $25k/night - a little over $8. You'll also see dog walkers all over, taking dogs out for morning and afternoon walks. No quarantine. There are pets stores all over and specialty shops selling pet baked goods and ice creams.
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?
Spouses vie for eligible family members (EFMs) jobs at the embassy. Now that the most recent hiring freeze has been lifted, there are more jobs being listed. Some teach. Some telecommute. Some offer home-based business, like yoga. If you get hired locally, the salary will vary GREATLY depending on whether you're hired at the local rate or an expat rate.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
I know a number of people who volunteer at orphanages. I'm sure there are plenty of other options.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal at work (suits). In public, Colombians are more likely to be dressed up, where even casual looks well thought out and put together. You can tell someone is a foreigner if he's wearing shorts in public.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
No dar papaya! (Don't let yourself be a victim.) Don't carry your phone in your back pocket or it will get swiped. I had one swiped from a front pocket. I carry it in a bag or in an inside pocket now. If you're on your phone outside, pay attention to your surroundings. Colombians have warned me when I've been typing something into my phone out in a park.
It seems pickpockets and some knifepoint robberies seem to pick up around Christmas time. I was more cautious walking my dog at night this past December, but in general I don't ever feel unsafe. Use any big city rules. Avoid bad neighborhoods, but the nice neighborhoods will get the petty thieves looking for opportunities to swipe something. Security seems quite competent and is everywhere.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
People seem to get cold viruses their first few months here. It surprised me because my kids are generally never sick, but it seemed like we caught everything at first. One of the nurses at the Embassy told me that he finds many families seem to catch everything their first 6 months and then he doesn't see them again for the rest of their tour. The local care is good, too. It has to be very severe for a med evac.
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?
BogotÃ¡ is in a bit of bowl. The lower down in that bowl you are, the worst the air will be, but bad days are "yellow" or maybe "orange." There's a monitor near housing, where we're higher up, and it's generally "green." The embassy itself is lower. You'll often see bike commuters wearing masks. Coming from a post with really bad air, I have no complaints
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I don't think there's anything different from living in a city in the states. The climate really doesn't change year round. There are flowering trees near my apartment that seem to flower every few months.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
I think there can be a little frustration with living in basically perpetual fall as the sunrise and sunset times only change by a few minutes over the course of the year. The weather doesn't change much either, though within a day, it can feel chilly or hot, depending on sunshine, shade and breezes. It rains often, but usually not for long.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Fall or spring, all in one day. Wear layers. I'll put a coat on at night to walk the dog. It doesn't change much, but it's pretty mild all year long. Never actually hot and never really cold.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are actually many, I've found. The two that the embassy families use the most are Colegio Nueva Grenada (CNG) and Colegio Gran BretaÃ±a (CGB), but I know families who send their kids to the French school and some of the others. I've heard some complaints that people came in and didn't realize that there were options other than CNG (the "American" School). Do your research.
My kids attend CGB and I love it! I'm so pleased we chose it. It's farther out than CNG, but because of the small buses they use, the kids get picked up at the same time as the CNG kids in our building. I hear people complain about the commute up to CGB, but it's families who DON'T attend who are complaining that it's too far or that their kids are on the bus for too long. My kids haven't complained about it. (I'll write a School Report soon.) I would say that most of the embassy kids do go to CNG, but embassy kids make up 5% at CGB right now. CGB is a much more international school, and it's much smaller. If your kids have been in in French schools, the French school seems like a great option, and is walking distance from most housing in Chico.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Both of the main schools seem to have a good mix of what they offer. I believe that CNG has the ability to offer a wider range of needs, but I would ask both schools. I have learned that CGB offers more than I had originally realized. They do offer plenty for GT kids, too, as does CNG, with their AP classes.
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?
No experience, but they are plentiful and I believe relatively inexpensive (as opposed to in the US). Many families seem very happy with them.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are lots of opportunities, if you dig and ask around. The schools offer some sports, too. CGB works their extra curricular activities into the regular school day (some at a cost, some not, depending on what your kids signs up for). This keeps all kids on their same buses every day. They have all sorts of sports, wall-climbing, fencing, robotics, cooking, drama, to name a few. I know kids who take tennis, horseback riding, gymnastics, cooking classes and ballet outside of their schools.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The community is large. And I would say the morale is good, but I find with the US Embassy expats it seems to depend on where they're coming from, if they're from a domestic department and just have this one shot to bring their families overseas. The US Embassy here is HUGE, so experiences seem to vary greatly. As a DoS family, we think we're in heaven. It's super easy living. When asked about living here, my husband likes to say, "It's great! I can drink the tap water," but it's more than that.
It really is easy living, with cheap English language movies, great produce, lots of concerts and events, weekly Ciclovia (roads closed for bikes and pedestrians), parks, markets and festivals. Enough tourism to have walking tours in English. It's a great life! Again, I find some people do complain, but I think there isn't a post in the world where they wouldn't complain, if they complain here. Traffic can be slow and some of the driving habits seem insane (right turns from the far left lane...). People will complain about the traffic a lot, but I think in the big scheme of the world, it's fine. I drive all over, and I'm the person who didn't get behind the wheel of a car once at our last post.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
The American Woman's Club is HUGE and seems to have TONS of activities, depending on your interest level. People go out to restaurants together, host each other in their homes, or rent "fincas" (weekend homes) with each other. Some go out to salsa clubs. Others go out to play Tejo. Some people make close Colombian friends and will do these things with them. Others may never meet Colombains outside of work, but might socialize with those colleagues. You can be as social as you'd like, it seems to me.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I believe it's good for everyone. As in every other country in the world, the single men seem to date more than the single women. Couples can travel more frequently, as it can be spendy to travel with a family. Families have schools, parks, movies, etc.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It appears to be. I have met same sex Colombian couples when I'm out and about and they openly refer to their boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife. I'll see same sex couples hand and hand out around town. I do know that same sex marriage is legal, so they have rights as couples, too.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I believe so. I had heard that the darker your skin, the less well you're treated. I haven't seen it in action.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
I loved getting out to Villa de Leyva, Cartagena and Nemocon (check out the salt mine and museum there). We've done camping trips with girl scouts. There's hiking. Relaxing fancy homes for rent in Anapoima or simple homes for rent out of BogotÃ¡. I think for me the main highlight, though, has just been living here. I get out a lot with my dog and so I feel like I really live in my neighborhood, in a way that lets me engage with a wide variety of people.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
I don't know about hidden gems, per se, other than the museum in Nemocon. I enjoyed it more than the Salt Cathedral that every tourist goes to. My kids have been able to get out and see more than I have, thanks to their school camps. My son loved his trip to the amazon.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
You can find many handicrafts and artwork around BogotÃ¡. There's a great art expo in December.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Lots of parks, cheap restaurants, cheap movies, and it's very pet and kid-friendly.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How little Spanish I actually knew!
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. I will be ready to go when it's time, but that's because I love adventure and am always looking for the next one. I don't like living too long in any one place, but I would come back.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Preconceived notions of Narco Colombia.
4. But don't forget your:
Spanish. Patience when driving.