Bogota, Colombia Report of what it's like to live there - 12/17/08
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?
Multiple other experiences.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
Through Atlanta, if possible; the Embassy usually forces you to route through Miami because of a contract arrangement with American.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Apartments that are about a 40-45 minute drive to the Embassy (on holidays and off, off hours the drive can be made in about 15 minutes).
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
This is an expensive city. Groceries are as costly or more than Washington and other major cities, and it really hurts when the exchange rate dips like it did for a few months in early 2008. Even though gas prices have fallen to around US$1.50 in the US, we're still paying around US$4 here.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Peanut butter, olive oil, spices (Colombians are culinary-challenged), spaghetti sauce.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
McDonald's, TGIF, Hooters, Kokorico, Pizza Hut, KFC, Baskin Robins, Dunkin Donuts, Juan Valdez Cafe (think Starbucks but better), etc.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DHL; but we get everything thru the APO and pouch.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Available, but quality varies. With the mandatory health, social security, and transport costs, domestic help is somewhat pricey here (around US$370/month).
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Use the ATMs at the Embassy or, if you must, in trusted locations out in town. Crime is rampant. Careful when handing over your credit card at stores and elsewhere, card cloning is not uncommon. It's best to use one card and regularly check your activity online to monitor for fraud.
4. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are a non-denominational Protestant service and a Catholic service held near the emmbassy housing area.
5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Buy a box from DirectTV Puerto Rico (departing personnel often have it for sale) and you'll get ABC, NBC, CBS, etc. Telmex also has digital service with a box that can get you a few channels and can be bundled with internet and local phone service (which usually charges per call) to save you money.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I've actually come across more English speakers outside Bogota than in Bogota. Regardless, Spanish is indispensible. It can be a problem especially for spouses, even when dealing with FSNs at the embassy.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
This is definitely not an ADA-compliant country.
1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?
In theory, on the right side like in the U.S. However, there are no enforced traffic laws in Colombia, there are merely suggestions (especially late at night when stop lights turn invisible to Colombians). Be prepared to drive aggresively and without any etiquete. Whenever Colombians get in or near a motor vehicle they become some of the most inconsiderate and aggressive people on the face of the planet. New Yorkers have even commented on how rude and poorly Colombians drive. Buses and taxis are the worst. They will stop ANYWHERE, to include the middle lane, intersections, entry/exit ramps. And be ready for the last minute turn from the far opposite lane.
2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are reasonably priced and safe as long as they're radio dispatched. Never hail one from the street or you're inviting trouble. The tourist train is OK, but buses are prohibited as a form of transport for embassy personnel.
3. 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?
Pretty much everything is on the roads here.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, at about the same rate as in the U.S. It goes down on a somewhat regular basis though, and customer service is definitely foreign to Colombia. Expect a run-around and lack of service for 2-4 days when this happens.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
They're reasonable and you can find them everywhere. Better to buy a phone and recharge the minutes than to do a monthly plan. Comcel has the best coverage, but you can choose Avantel and get the free radio-to-radio function with other Avantel users. Movistar and Tigo also operate here.
3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?
Vonage and Skype.
1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Excellent. Colombians are dog lovers.
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?
Not really. Even in the Embassy, non-Spanish speaking spouses have practically no options because almost all the jobs have Level 4 (Fluent) requirements. Teachers may be able to get a job at one of the schools.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Depends who you work for. Some agencies have the majority of their employees in jeans or cargo pants, for others it's suits.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Lots of crime and the ever present worries of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the FARC decide to do something
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Good medical care on the economy (lots of dissatisfaction with the embassy health unit). Good availability of English-speaking local doctors, but getting past the receptionists and nurses can be challenging for non-Spanish speakers.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Bogota is like a combination of Seattle and San Francisco, but with more altitude than Denver. Lots of rain and temps averaging between 55-65F. Brief daily periods (1-2 hours) and nice months (generally Aug and Dec) are overshadowed by the dominant dreary cloud and rain pattern.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The two most popular with embassy families are Colegio Nueva Grenada (CNG) and Colegio Gran Bretana (CGB). Both have serious issues. CNG has almost 2,000 students and is a U.S. school in name only (U.S. curriculum and administrators). The student body is overwhelmingly comprised of rich, and often obnoxious, Colombians to whom the school caters. The administration blatantly lies to parents on a regular basis. Aside from offering a greater amount of activities, the only other advantage is the proximity to embassy housing.
CGB is much smaller (approximately 400 students, but growing). The commute time is much greater (40-50 minutes on average). The school follows a British curriculum and has a rule restricting the student body to no more than 50% from any one (read Colombian) nationality. This helps reduce the cliques and bullying found at CNG, but does not eliminate it from CGB. The school does not appear to be coping well with growth. Weak administration, poor communication (they say they're a bilingual school but they don't even have a receptionist who can speak English), an expensive and mandatory food program, and a willingness to pay lip service rather than solve problems are among the complaints about the school. Parents are generally satisfied with the academic standards at both schools (each offers the IB program), but are frustrated with practically all other dealings with them.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Both schools have special needs departments and tutoring available. CNG has been accused of labeling more kids than normal as special needs kids in what seems an effort to sell more services; CGB has hired someone who has focused on ESL, neglecting all other needs and driving away many qualified/experienced teachers/tutors.
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?
Many choices and generally good. There are about 4-5 that are most popular (usually due to proximity to housing) among the embassy community.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Moderate, but growing.
2. Morale among expats:
Depends who you talk to. Single guys are pretty happy. Married couples where the spouse speaks Spanish (ie, Latinas/os), tend to be happier.
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?
What one makes of it. The Embassy is large and cliquish. There's very little sense of community like you would find at most posts.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
For single guys and couples without children (or with very young children), it's a good post. Families should avoid this place.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It appears to be fairly tolerant.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
No glaring prejudices.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Andres Carne de Res in Chia, Multiparque and Diverscity for kids, the Gold and Botero Museums, ciclovia on Sundays and holidays.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Art from Ecuador and Peru (or the border region).
9. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter parka and summer shorts (unless you get away to other parts of Colombia).