Bogota, Colombia Report of what it's like to live there - 11/02/18
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?
No, I have also lived abroad in West Africa, North Africa, and Europe. I have lived overseas for nearly 20 years.
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?
Washington, DC. There are 6-hour direct flights from Washington although most of the USG fares go through Miami, Atlanta, or Houston. Bogota El Dorado is generally an easy airport with good services. Diplomatic immigration line is quick, but there can be a long wait for baggage.
3. How long have you lived here?
Two plus 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?
All embassy housing is in apartments. Apartments are all located in good neighborhoods, most of them an easy walk to shopping, parks and restaurants. Some of the apartments in Rosales are not as walkable due to the hills, but they tend to have amazing views. Buildings have a mix of amenities: some have pools, playgrounds, party rooms, and gyms, while others have fewer amenities. All of the buildings have doormen/security.
As far as I know, all have some parking but garages can be tight, and most seem to have some kind of storage room for residents although those storage rooms are sometimes small and damp. Most apartments include a small maids quarters that can also be used for storage if you do not have live-in household help. The housing is not far but commute times to the U.S. Embassy run 30-75 minutes depending on traffic and time of day.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Nearly everything is available here except for some specialty products and some baking products. Cuts of meat are not always the same and finding meats like lamb can be difficult. PriceSmart, the Costco membership club equivalent, has a lot of U.S. products, including Kirkland brand, in bulk quantities. Some specialty ingredients and spices are only available in smaller stores, not big supermarkets. There is not a huge variety in beer the way there is in the U.S; just local brands and a few microbrewery options. Wine is usually South American wine, as European wine is more expensive.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
None. The only household or grocery items that I order are items that we are brand-specific too (and could live with out).
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Many, many U.S. chains are here, including ones that you don't see as much in the U.S. anymore: fast food, pizza, Hooters, Fuddruckers, Vapianos, Hard Rock, Johnny Rockets, PF Chang's, etc. Everything can be delivered, and almost everything can be ordered online without even having to talk to a person. There are great restaurants although there's not a huge variety in international options. Most sushi has cream cheese in it, there's only one or two Indian places, one or two Middle Eastern places, a few decent Thai places, and one or two good Mexican places. It depends how picky you are how happy you will be with the international options. Colombian food tends to be bland, so finding spicy cuisine can be hard.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
No, there are almost no mosquitoes due to the altitude. I have not seen ants, roaches, or anything else in my housing.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO comes very quickly. Local postal facilities are not adequate.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Most individuals have at least a part-time housekeeper, while families with children often have full-time employees. A smaller percentage of the embassy company has live-in employees, either hired locally or who accompanied them from a previous assignment. Some employees are only nannies, while others will do both cleaning and childcare. Household help is generally affordable, and even paying a slightly inflated embassy rate, I pay about $500/month for a full-time employee. Colombia has strict laws on overtime, uniforms, insurance, bonuses, and severance. There are companies that will do the paperwork for you, and in restrospect, I wish I had used one to make 100% sure my payments were all correct. Most household employees do not speak English.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are widely available including one in the embassy. There are Crossfit studios, pilates, yoga, weightlifting, boxing, all kinds of specialized gyms. Many people have personal trainers. Some families belong to country clubs with pools, golf, and other sports. Biking is very common.
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 and safe to use locally; most places will bring the card reader to your table in restaurants. ATMs are common and safe, although you have to be careful about where you use them to avoid being robbed. I have heard of a few problems with credit cards, usually after using a credit card in a taxi. International credit cards are not always accepted online, so things like buying movie tickets or show tickets online can be difficult.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Minima. International Church of Bogota and one Catholic service that I know of.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You really need Spanish. Unlike other U.S. embassies I have worked at, Spanish is the working language for most offices even inside the embassy. You'll want some level of Spanish for nearly all interactions, and the people who have the hardest time here are the ones who came without any Spanish.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Embassy personnel are permitted from taking public transportation in Bogota. Taxis are affordable, although we are required to call or request dispatch online, or take them from an authorized taxi line at the airport. Taxi drivers tend to know the city and to navigate better than Uber drivers, but cars are small of often unsafe or uncomfortable. Most people use Uber or other similar services, although there are some problems with Uber's legal status and you often have to sit in the front with Uber drivers.
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 from giant Suburbans to compact cars. I appreciate having a smaller car for tight parking garages, but wish that I had a larger car for road trips and camping. If you are going to camp/hike a lot you may find yourself on rough dirt roads, and want all wheel drive or higher clearance. We honestly don't drive much at all in the city because of the availability of taxis and Uber, so I mainly use my car for trips outside the city. All parking is reverse-in.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High-speed Internet access is available. Depending on your apartment building, you may not have a choice of company. We have a large apartment and thick walls and had to have two lines installed to have decent speed in both the front and back of the apartment, and it is still glitchy from time to time. Customer service for the internet providers is not great. Some people manage to get it installed before the arrive, but for most people it can be done within a week or two.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I believe everyone uses a local provider, although some people keep their U.S. WhatsApp numbers or use Google Voice or similar services. You can get prepaid or pay-as-you-go services with data that are affordable.
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?
Veterinarians, kennel services, and dog training are all available. You'll see all breeds of dogs in Bogota, even dogs that seem way too big for apartment life. There are dog buses that go around in the morning and pick up dogs for that day at doggy care, and you'll often see dog walkers with 10 or more dogs.
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 with professional telecommuting jobs seem happiest, although it can be problematic when there are Internet problems. There are a lot of EFM jobs in the embassy, but many of them require at least a two in Spanish. There are some teaching jobs at the international schools, but not much else available on the economy because all jobs will require fluent Spanish and local salary scales are very low.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Colombians tend to dress well and more formally than in the U.S. Business and business-casual are common in the embassy. Formal dress is required for the Marine Corps Ball, American Society ball, and other galas that some people attend.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Bogota is a high-crime city and you need to be very alert to the risk of pick-pocketing, mugging, and scams. You need to be alert and aware of your surroundings, know where you are going, be cautious about using your phone on the street, and be cautious about walking at night.
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 generally good and affordable. An increasing number of embassy families are opting to have babies at post. Medical providers, including lab services, will come to your house. The main health concerns seem to be respiratory; people tend to get coughs and sniffles that just won't go away. Bogota is a high-altitude post and some people have more trouble adjusting to the altitude than others. The altitude can cause headaches and shortness of breath.
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?
Air quality is moderate to bad. It rains a lot so that helps with the pollution but after a few days of no rain it is obvious. Traffic is heavy and the buses spew out clouds of noxious smoke. Many bikers wear masks, especially if commuting by bike. The air quality tends to contribute to the respiratory crud that won't go away.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Overall cold and chilly. Daily highs in the 60s, daily lows around 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit. It rains almost every day, although not all day. Driest months are January and June, with heavy rain in spring and fall. There are frequent landslides and flooding, although mostly outside of Bogota. When it is sunny, the sun is intense and you can get burned quickly. No seasons. I love the weather but once in a while want to be warm, so we go to the coast.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are a variety of schools available, none of them perfect. Our kids attend the DOS-supported school, Colegio Nueva Granada, and we have been generally very happy with the large campus, academics, transportation, and after-school activities. Communication is kind of hit-or-miss and seems to depend mostly on the teacher. CNG does the best with accommodating special needs. Other families choose Colegio Gran Bretana (British), Gimnasio Moderno (boys only, and on the South American calendar), British Montessori, French school. Your choice of school will depend on your preferences in terms of language, commute time, calendar, and/or special needs.
2. 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?
Preschools are widely available. Some are more competitive and are geared at preparing kids for admission to the bilingual schools. Others are more play-based. Some are full-time, others part time. Colombian kids start school at age four, so not all preschools go to age five. We considered a variety of preschools and chose one that was within walking distance, and that was more play-based and less curriculum-focused.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, tons of activities including at school, at home, and out of school, including music, horseback riding, gymnastics, dance, arts and crafts.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very large U.S. embassy community, lots of other embassies but they are all smaller. Moderate-sized expat business community. Generally good morale and most people people that Bogota is a great posting, and many extend for several years here.
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?
There are all kinds of groups and clubs, and more available if you are comfortable in Spanish. American Women's Club, parent's groups, country clubs, running groups, hiking groups.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think the city is good for all demographics; there is a lot to do for everyone. There are restaurants, clubs, movies, playground/parks, and lots of great travel outside of the city.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The mountains and landscape are absolutely beautiful; I've loved living surrounded by mountains. There's great travel although most travel requires flying - our favorites have been Cartagena, Tayrona National Park, coffee country, and the Amazon. We've also done some amazing camping and hiking. There are fantastic restaurants, and prices are very affordable so we can go to 5-star restaurants every weekend. On Sunday and holidays, they close the roads for ciclovia and everyone is out on bikes or skates.
5. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really, although there's an annual artisan fair in December that has a lot of great products, and many people get furniture made here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. I've loved Bogota although the traffic and sometimes the lack of customer service are frustrating. We extended from two to three years and haven't regretted it at all.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Shorts and sandals, cake pans (I have found it impossible to bake at 8600 feet).
3. But don't forget your:
Umbrella, sunscreen, rain boots, hiking boots, bicycle, artificial Christmas tree (there are no real ones), and international ingredients.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Narcos (Colombians hate it, but watch it anyway), Embrace of the Serpent, and everything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez