Living in Colombia as an American in Cartagena

Living in Colombia as an American in Cartagena

I moved to Colombia in 2011 and spent that entire year in a small town near Cartagena.  I loved it so much that I stuck around, and have been living in Cartagena, Colombia ever since.

I grew up in South Carolina in the USA (in the town of Columbia no less!).  After spending a semester abroad in Havana, Cuba during my studies of History, Political Science, and Latin American Studies, I fell in love with Caribbean culture.

Upon graduation, I hoped to spend some more time in South American and the Caribbean and continue to learn Spanish, and well honestly, I wanted to put off getting a real job for a bit.  I had heard of a program called World Teach from a former coworker and looked into it.

I ended up moving to Colombia a few weeks after graduating and spent a year as a volunteer teacher in the small town of Santa Ana. It’s near the famous beach of Playa Blanca, about 90 minutes outside of Cartagena.  It was a unique experience, and with not much to do in the little town, we volunteers spent lots of weekends in Cartagena.

After my year volunteering, I found I liked being in the classroom, liked being on the Colombian Caribbean Coast, and decided I wanted to stay.  I also had a Colombian girlfriend, which I’m pretty sure factored into my 23 year old decision making process.  I ended up getting a paying job at one of the schools in the city.

I eventually got a better job and then another better job and a few promotions at that job.  I also eventually got another girlfriend that became my wife, and well, in 2020, I am still living here in Cartagena.  In fact, a few years ago, I even applied and received Colombian residency (before my places of employment had always taken care of getting a work visa for me).

My wife and I are actually considering an eventual move back to the Columbia, South Carolina (she wants to have the same experience living somewhere else), but I certainly don’t regret my decision to spend my formative years living in Cartagena.

I’m happy to share my experience with Robe-Trotting for anyone else considering coming to live in Cartagena!

My Experience Living in Cartagena, Colombia

living in colombia cartagena sign

Adjusting to Life in Cartagena

I think that in many ways, I had a slightly different experience than many expats in Cartagena that come to teach in international schools, as I spent a year volunteering and washing my clothes in a bucket and had a few lower paying jobs for a year after that.

Cartagena can be an interesting place to be an expat since it is also such a big tourist destination. It is a bit frustrating that street vendors and hustlers still treat me like a tourist even after so long living in Colombia, but well, living in Cartagena certainly has its perks too.

The first of those perks is just how pretty the city is. In fact, sometimes I forget just how uniquely pretty and charming the colonial architecture and stone walls really are. The year round beach weather and beautiful nearby beaches, like the aforementioned Playa Blanca and the Rosario Islands are also pretty nice perks of living in Cartagena.

While it is hard to ever truly feel like a local, or at least to feel like I’m being treated like a local, living in such a tourist town with a particularly difficult Spanish accent, I do feel like I know my way around most of Cartagena and can fit in with most Colombians in social situations.

Of course it helps that the people are also nice and welcoming. My experience with locals has been overwhelmingly positive. Cartagena has a bit of a reputation for street vendors and some places and taxis overcharging tourists. However, that is still a small, if infamous, minority.

Connecting With Locals While Living in Cartagena

"Whether living in Cartagena or elsewhere as an expat, it's important to get out of your comfort zone and have some local experiences."

Adam, on life in Cartagena

Most average Colombians are generally very happy to show off and give a good impression of their country and their city. Knowing a bit of Spanish, or at least making an effort to learn, goes a long way in this area. Not to mention, it will also help you avoid being overcharged!

I remember one time being invited by one of the porteros, or guards, of my old apartment building to go to a sancocho. Sancocho is like a big stew that is a traditional favorite all over Colombia. It can be made with chicken, beef, pork, or fish (or some combination thereof) along with vegetables like potato, yuca, carrots, and onions. It’s kind of like a barbecue but with a giant pot of soup in place of the grill.

This sancohco was with the portero’s family and neighbors. Kind of like a block party, the pot of soup was set up over a small fire in the grass median in the street in front of their house, and in addition to the soup there were lots of cold beers. I was the only foreigner there, and experiences like this one are the type I’m very grateful I have had here. Whether living in Cartagena or elsewhere as an expat, it’s important to get out of your comfort zone and have some true local experiences.

Speaking of Colombian parties, they usually consist of sitting in a big circle, listening to very loud music, and drinking lots of beers and Aguardiente, a sort of licorice flavored cane liquor. Oh and of course the obligatory being required to embarrass myself with my gringo dance skills (read lack thereof).

The Expat Community in Cartagena

As far as hanging out with other expats in Cartagena, I’ve mostly stuck to hanging out with other teachers at my school. There isn’t a huge expat scene in Cartagena, but it’s growing, and there are a few bars, like The Clock Pub that tend to be popular with foreigners living in Cartagena. It seems most common that there are little groups of people who work together and the like.  The Facebook group Expats in Cartagena, CO is also a good resource for information and meeting other people living as expats in Cartagena.

Of course it can be hard being away from family and friends, but I’ve been fortunate to be able to go back home and visit at least every other year. We also are able to easily stay in touch via Skype since the time zone here is the same except for during daylight savings time when there is just an hour difference.

There have of course been tough moments like when family members have been sick or passed away, and well, I definitely have moments where I wish I could go and chow down on some grits, collard greens, or South Carolina mustard barbecue, but generally I’m quite happy living in Colombia.

Finding a Job and Working in Cartagena

Looking for a Job in Colombia

I currently work as a History teacher at one of the local bilingual schools, where I teach in all English to a population of mostly Colombian students. I also spent some time working at another school as well as at an English Language Institute that catered mostly to adults.

Job hunting in Cartagena can be a bit difficult. The truth is outside of teaching and highly skilled business jobs, there’s not a huge market for expats living in Cartagena. Those interested in non-profit work or internship opportunities in both the non-profit development as well as the tourist sector may also be able to find some opportunities.

Finally, given the relatively low cost of living compared to the United States or many countries in Western Europe, digital nomads or people able to work remotely may also be interested in Cartagena. Although it is more expensive than other popular cities like Medellín to live, you do, of course, have the benefit of being close to the beach.

My experience was that places are notoriously bad about responding to emails, and if you’re job hunting, you’re better off going in and asking if you are able to. If not, you should reach out to potential employers directly, although my experience is they can be bad about getting back to you. Being in the right place at the right time is also helpful. In fact, that is kind of how I got into where I work now, which has proven to be quite good for me.

Interviews and Working in Cartagena

I’ve also had a mix of experiences in job interviews here. I remember at one school having to do a 170 question psychological test in Spanish, then having like 6 interviews (doing multiple interviews with different people is quite common, at least in schools). However, where I work now, my interview experience was very quick and relaxed, but I have coworkers who had longer ones, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

As far as work culture, I would say things are generally more relaxed. People tend to be quite friendly, and a lot of work teams have a sort of “family” atmosphere. Colombians tend to be very happy and go lucky, at least outwardly. It’s also common to say hello to everyone in the room individually, so, especially when you’re new, it’s good to do as the Romans a bit.

A sort of elephant in the room in places like the international school where I work is the very large gap in pay between expats and native Colombians. It can understandably cause a bit of resentment. It can also be easy for all parties to stick to their “group.” In my experience, it can be helpful to make a point to always be kind and friendly with my Colombian colleagues, and again, making even a little effort in the Spanish department is also very helpful.

As far as other advice based on my experience working in Cartagena, I would say to be ready for unexpected changes. This is a bit of stereotypical Caribbean, but things can often change at the last minute, and things can often run late. It can be frustrating at times, but I try to worry about what I have control over and not the things I don’t.

Daily Life in Cartagena, Colombia

Where Do Expats Live in Cartagena?

It’s quite easy to get around in Cartagena by taxi, and at least in comparison to the US, quite cheap. There is also a decent bus system called Transcaribe that is relatively new and growing.  People tend to be quite aggressive drivers, and parking is a pain, so I haven’t seen the need to buy a car and not sure I would ever want one.

Cartagena has a mix of living conditions as a major tourist destination but also one of the cities with the worst poverty in Colombia. I have mostly stuck around the areas in the downtown, touristy area to live, which also make for the best areas to stay in Cartagena.

My favorite place to live was undoubtedly inside the Walled City. I once had a great apartment there but unfortunately had a falling out with the landlady over some renovations (it’s a long story).

I’ve always thought it would be fun to live in the trendy neighborhood of Getsemaní. The waterfront area just outside the walled city known as El Cabrero is also a good spot and we lived there for several years.

Lots of expats living in Cartagena also like the upscale neighborhood of Bocagrande, and there are many perks there. Particularly, there are lots of nice apartment buildings and nearby restaurants, although I’ve always found it a bit too touristy for me to want to live there.

These days, my wife Susana and I live in a mostly residential and local neighborhood near the airport. We have a good deal on rent and a decent if not luxurious place, although it’s a bit further from the restaurants and things to do downtown in the walled city and Getsemaní, where you’ll find the majority of the best restaurants, attractions, and nightlife.

The Good and the Bad of Living in Colombia

Colombians are of course known for being quite outgoing and fun loving, and there is no shortage of nice nightclubs and bars around the downtown area. Some of our personal favorites are Bazurto Social Club and the rooftop bar at Townhouse.

The seafood is also terrific. I always liked shrimp and fish and the like back home, but never really ate much calamari, octopus, or things like ceviche.  My wife Susana loves this stuff and has turned me on to it too. Also, I love the arepas de huevo here, a big deep fried disc of corn flour dough with an egg and ground beef in the center. Common for breakfast, it’s also a nice late night snack! Also, the limonada de coco (coconut limeade) is something I’ll definitely miss a ton when I’m no longer living in Cartagena.

One drawback to Cartagena is a lack of outdoorsy stuff to do, with the exception of the beach. However, on the flip side, there are some great spots to go and enjoy the great outdoors up the coast around Santa Marta. For mountains and waterfalls, the pretty little town of Minca is beautiful, not to mention it offers a nice respite from the Caribbean heat. Meanwhile, Tayrona National Park offers great hiking and pretty, unspoiled beaches, and the little town of Palomino offers a chill, party atmosphere and fun tubing down the river. All of those places can be reached easily for a weekend trip relatively easily by charter bus services.

The Cost of Living in Cartagena, Colombia

So, the truth is, the cost of living in Cartagena can vary greatly depending on where you live and what kind of lifestyle you prefer. It’s worth noting that the average Colombian household is likely to get by on $1000 US dollars or less a month (minimum wage is approximately $225 USD). However, the average expat budget for living in Cartagena is likely to be much higher.

Average Monthly Rent in Cartagena

As noted, most expats want to live in the upscale neighborhoods close to the old walled city. There are nice neighborhoods elsewhere, but if you frequent the touristy area to go out, what you save on rent you may very well end up spending on transportation. The Zona Norte, or Northern Zone, offers some newer buildings on the beach as well as some gated suburbs for those looking for a bit quieter, although they tend to be pricey and transportation can be tricky if you don’t have a car.

Regardless of where you choose to live, rent can vary quite a bit depending on the newness of the apartment building. Factors like the condition of the interior, how recent it has been renovated, the quality of the furnishings and amenities like a pool determine the rent. Another thing to keep in mind is that Colombia has defined social strata which pay different amounts for utilities. Higher stratas pay more for the cost of their consumption which is used as a tax to provide subsidies to lower income stratas.

Generally, in nicer neighborhoods you’ll pay more, however, you can find nice places outside of the highest stratas. The amount you save on bills can be significant, especially between strata 4 and strata 6. My nice apartment in the old town was actually a strata lower than my next apartment. Although it was nicer and more expensive, I actually paid less for utilities.

Although they can vary quite a bit here is a rough idea of what you might expect to pay for rent in Cartagena:

  • Furnished in an Older Building:  $1,600,000-2,400,000 pesos (about $400-600 USD)
  • Furnished in a Newer Building:  $2,500,000-3,500,000 pesos (about $625-900 USD)

Average Monthly Utilities in Cartagena

  • Electricity (this will vary a lot based on how much you use the air conditioning):  $100,000-300,000 pesos (about $30-80 USD)
  • Water:  $50,000-70,000 pesos (about $15-20 USD)
  • Gas:  $5,000-10,000 pesos (about $2-4 USD)
  • Decent Internet:  $75,000-100,000 pesos (about $20-30 USD)

Cost of Going Out in Cartagena

This can also vary quite a bit, as Cartagena has everything from dirt cheap street food to high end gourmet restaurants in 5 star hotels. You can also get cheap beers from a corner store or expensive cocktails and bottles in one of the high end nightclubs. I’m going to give a rundown of the price of a cheap, moderately, and expensive price of some common things below.

Keep in mind that prices in Colombia generally go up slightly year after year, and of course the equivalencies can change based on the exchange rate, which has been quite favorable for the US dollar the last several years.

living in colombia cartagena street food

The Price of Common Foods and Drinks in Cartagena

  • Empanada or arepa on the street: $2,000-3,000 pesos (less than $1 USD)
  • Cheap meal in a restaurant: $15,000 pesos (about $4 USD)
  • Moderately priced meal in a decent place:  $20-35,000 pesos (about $6-10 USD)
  • Meal in an upscale restaurant:  $50,000+ pesos ($15+ USD)
  • Decent takeout:  $25,000 pesos (about $7 USD)
  • A Large Delivery Pizza :  $50-60,000 pesos (about $15-18 USD)
  • Nice meal out for 2 with drinks or a bottle of at a nice but not crazy place:  $150,000-200,000 pesos (about $40-60 USD)
  • Cheap tienda beer (corner store):  $3,000 pesos (less than $1 USD)
  • Beer at a cheaper bar or restaurant:  $5,000 pesos (about $1.50 USD)
  • Beer at a nicer bar or restaurant:  $7,000-12,000 pesos (about $2-4 USD)
  • Cocktails:  $20,000-40,000 pesos ($6-12 USD)
  • Cup of coffee:  $3,000-5,000 pesos (about $1 USD)
  • Nice coffee like a cappuccino at a cafe:  $7,000-12,000 pesos ($2-4 USD)
  • Cost of groceries for a week:  approximately $125,000 pesos a person (about $40 USD)
  • Cost of a bus ride:  $2,600 pesos (about 75 cents)
  • Average cost of a taxi ride around the main downtown areas:  $7,000-12,000 pesos ($2-4 USD)

Creating a Budget for Living in Cartagena

My wife and I live a pretty nice but not spectacular lifestyle spending between 2.5 and 3 million pesos a month on top of rent. In months where we travel or have something nice to celebrate, we may spend a bit more.

That means cooking at home most weeknights, while going out once or twice a month for a nicer meal, and ordering takeout on the weekend. When we were younger and going out dancing and stuff like that more often, we probably spent a little more. I also like to buy things like good barbecue sauces and hot sauces imported from the states, which tend to be pricey compared to basic groceries.

All that is to say, a budget of about $1.5-2 million pesos on top of rent should be good for most expats living in Cartagena. That of course is with the caveat that if you are going out clubbing with bottle service several nights a week, you’re going to need a bit more. On the other hand if you can get by eating rice and beans and veggies every day, you can live considerably cheaper too.

The only other cost of living point I’d make is that electronics and the like that are imported tend to run quite expensive due to import fees. So if you need a new computer or something like that, it’s best to try to get it out of the country if you can swing it.

Now You Know Everything You Need to Know About Living in Caragena

That’s my experience of nearly a decade living in Cartagena as an expat. While finding a good paying job can be a tad difficult, the lower cost of living and beautiful colonial atmosphere in the Caribbean make it a great place to spend some time, especially for younger people. I am very happy with my choice to have spent my post college 20s here, and I hope this helps anyone considering doing the same.

adam mcconnoughhay living in colombia

Adam McConnaughhay

Adam McConnaughhay works as a school teacher in Cartagena, Colombia, where he has lived since 2011.  He also writes about Cartagena and other destinations in Colombia at Connect with him on social media below.

If you’re moving to Colombia, currently living in Cartagena or just curious about travel and life abroad, leave your questions for Adam in the comments below.

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