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I’ve lived in Colombia for more than two years now, specifically in Medellin, while also traveling throughout most of the country from Palomino to Mocoa. I’ve seen more of Colombia than most Colombians, and it has become my home away from home and is the longest I’ve ever lived in another country. After that long, there are bound to be things that rub me wrong or even things I hate about life here.
To all my Colombian friends, I want to be clear that I love living in Medellin, and I love Colombia.
It’s nothing personal.
There are good and bad things about any place on earth (including other places I’ve loved living), and there are far more things I love about living in Colombia than I hate–which is why I’ve stayed so long.
I don’t mean to offend anyone, I just want to address some of the real frustrations, annoyances, or downsides about living in Colombia, or sometimes more specifically about living in Medellin (along with some of the silly, unimportant things that perplex or confuse me as an expat).
Keep in mind while reading that just because something is on this list, that does NOT mean:
1) it is a serious complaint that ruins my time or ruins my life, and thus I should “just go back to Los EEUU”.
2) it is “the worst” in any given category, when undoubtedly there are other cities or countries that are worse offenders than Medellin or Colombia in various categories or qualifications.
3) that these complaints are unique only to Medellin or Colombia, or that the United States (my home country) doesn’t also suffer from some of the same problems listed below.
4) that some of the complaints apply to every single person or place in Colombia, when there always are exceptions, although if I’ve included it below, it’s because it’s something that is WAY too common or that the majority seem to do.
It seems like the proportion between quality and service are often inversely related in Medellin. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out to a somewhat middle class or upscale bar or restaurant and you have to practically beg for service from the waiters or waitresses.
Once they can finally be bothered to serve you (usually with a look of disdain that you are making them work), they finally come take your order, and then it takes them half the night to bring you your food or beer.
The worst part though, is that they have the nerve at the end to ask whether or not to include “servicio” (aka a tip) for their extremely attentive service (in a culture where tipping isn’t common, although tipping can be one of the most perplexing things a foreigner encounters when traveling to the USA).
All of these places have the same spiel when you ask for the bill “vas a pagar en efectivo o con tarjeta?” “y quieres incluir el servicio?”
Whereas you can go to a cheap little mom and pop restaurant for a menu of the day for like $3 (9.000 pesos) and you get fast, efficient, and even friendly service with no expectation of a tip.
I actually once had a guy chase me down the block because I “paid too much” aka left a modest tip when it wasn’t expected.
The fact is that big businesses often hire incompetent people, and Colombian law make it very difficult or almost impossible to fire these people — the onus is on the business to have cause to fire them, or the employee can sue.
And since waitstaff don’t earn their income through tips (and can’t be fired for being a bad worker), they act like it’s a nuisance when they actually have to work when you show up, rather than sit there chatting on WhatsApp.
Going Out to the Movies
I like going out to the movies every once in a while, and Colombia has some truly amazing cinemas, big, modern, clean, 3D, 4D, whatever-D, and VIP.
But every time I go to the movies in Medellin, I’m reminded of why it’s terrible here and immediately wish I was at home with Netflix. First of all, the lines are out the door almost any given night because going to the mall is the trendy thing to do here (I’ve never seen so many malls in one city, and each one is full), so you need to go like an hour (or more) beforehand… And the lines move slower than molasses… Why?
Because they have assigned seating and everyone has to go to the front of the line and hem and haw for 15 minutes trying to pick their assigned seats. It is ridiculous how long some people take to buy their tickets and pick seats–I honestly don’t understand how it can take that long.
Are assigned seats really necessary?
Didn’t we have technology like 10 years ago that can solve this problem?
I mean Medellin has got cameras that can find exactly where you parked in a gigantic mall by entering your license plate into a kiosk… Things I’ve never even seen in the USA.
Pablo Escobar may long be dead, but he has forever left his mark on the culture of an entire city. Much of the youth today in Medellin look up to Pablo Escobar as a role model, probably since they didn’t have to experience the terror and violence that he perpetrated on an entire country.
Too many people are out there searching for quick riches and an easy buck, whether through drugs, sex, murder, or robbing others. The guys dream of being drug dealers, king pins, they blast reggaeton music (Spanish hip hop) which idolizes the narco drug culture, assassins, and womanizing, and they dress as “nea” as possible.
Meanwhile the girls have latched onto the idea that catching one of these guys in a relationship is their only way out of poverty and they skip education and become “grillas” or prostitutes at a young age and then soon find themselves with a baby on their hip and a guy who is completely unfaithful.
Meanwhile, other, more educated Colombians criticize foreigners for their passing interest in Pablo Escobar (the most famous person to ever come out of Colombia), or the TV show Narcos, when no one does more to promote and celebrate Narco Culture than the people that were born and raised in Medellin.
Incredibly, you can even find people like “Popeye” — a former top assassin for Pablo who killed more than 300 people, along with orchestrating the bombing of a plane that killed 100 and assassinating a leading Colombian Presidential candidate — who has become a YouTube star with more than half a million subscribers.
Like, how is this guy still alive or even walking free today? That tells you something about the Colombian justice system.
Hilariously though, even Popeye fell victim to Medellin’s insecurity (which he helped create) and was robbed at gunpoint by those notorious motorcyclists who forced him to pull his car over and give up his sunglasses, cellphone, cash, and jewelry (hey, he’s an old tough guy mafioso).
Don’t ever count on receiving mail that was sent from abroad.
I was sent a few Christmas cards one year and they literally never arrived, not even five months later… Maybe they are still on the way?
If it does come (sometimes things do arrive), it will take months. Be sure to never send anything of value though, as that definitely has a habit of disappearing.
For some reason, my bills for EPM or UNE always show up on time though, like clockwork.
Safety and Security
Medellin is “mas o menos” safe, but there is a long, long way to go in every big city in Colombia (and many small or medium sized cities). Some Colombians act like these sorts of robberies happen all over the world.
No, they don’t.
These violent robberies with motorcycles robbing people (even Popeye!) at gunpoint at virtually any time or place (mid-day, busy areas, nice neighborhoods, wherever, whenever), pretty much only happen in Latin America, and Medellin is among the worst offenders — even within Colombia.
And although nothing has happened to me in Medellin, I know far too many friends and acquaintances that have been robbed violently. I know WAY more people who have been robbed in Medellin or Latin America in general, than I know who have been robbed after a lifetime in the US.
The fact is the police don’t do anything about it (most of the police are like 19 year old kids with guns), even if they do catch the robbers, they are back on the street in no time where they can do it again (but this time with more practice in how not to get caught).
It doesn’t just happen to foreigners either, indeed it happens more to Colombians, and most Colombians are sick and tired of the insecurity as well.
Turns out if someone does try to rob you and you fight back (not a good idea if they are armed–that’s how tourists get killed) then the robber can actually turn around and sue, then you’ve got to fork over money to them anyway.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been standing patiently at the counter to receive attention at a store or other business, waiting my turn, when all the sudden some potbellied Colombian dude crowds up next to me (bumping into me, of course, since they have no concept of personal space) and shouts at the clerk and they attend to him first.
Sometimes the clerk will give me a knowing look, as if to say sorry. Other times they seem to care even less than the guy cutting to the front.
This lack of lines is common throughout Latin America, and can be found in many situations, except when you’re going to the movie theater, then it’s a monster, multi-hour line. But it’s all a symptom of a bigger problem in Colombia…
Lack of Common Courtesy
People generally seem to think that the world revolves around them here, or that other people don’t seem to exist.
People cut lines, they stand in the middle of the sidewalk blocking passage, they flail their arms blindly on busy streets and almost slap you in the face, they park their car over the entire sidewalk so you have to walk in the street, they yell on their cellphones in the middle of a restaurant, and on and on.
You can walk down the sidewalk where someone is blocking the way, make eye contact with them, and they still won’t politely move to let you pass unless you ask for “permiso” or just bump into them (when in Rome).
It’s baffling sometimes to see just how little consideration the majority of people show for those around them.
This lack of courtesy extends to people behind the wheel, where it seems to have become a sort of upper class entitlement… The “I can afford a car, therefore I’m better and more important than you poor people walking” complex.
You must be very careful, drivers will practically run you down in the street like a dog (something they do actually do on purpose), and they will NEVER voluntarily yield to you, only if you force them to by stepping out in the road.
If you drive in Colombia, you will see a whole new class of animal behind the wheel as normal rules of the road (even those concerning their own safety) fly out the window.
The only thing that keeps things relatively sane within the city of Medellin is the prevalence of red-light and speeding cameras all over, because the transit police (different from the ineffectual regular police) literally don’t do anything except report to the scene of accidents (which are plentiful) and stand at intersections directing traffic when it grinds to a halt.
You know how much money the Colombian government could make if they actually tried to enforce some semblance of order among Colombian drivers?
You have plans with someone at a certain time? Forget about it.
Colombian time means that everything is later than actually stated.
I see this as another symptom of the lack of common courtesy and respect… They simply don’t care if they keep you waiting half an hour or much longer because the world revolves around them.
They will even lie and say they are on their way, when they haven’t even left the house yet.
Again, this is something that is common throughout Latin America though.
Not sure where the store or business you are looking for is located? Ask for help from a kind passerby and they will tell you “two blocks ahead and to the right”. So you follow their advice and find there is nothing there. You ask someone else at that location and they tell you it’s four blocks in the other direction…
… and there’s still nothing there.
Now, at first I chalked this up to a simple mistake or misunderstanding on my part, but it truly has happened too many times to count, and has happened when I’m basically fluent in Spanish.
After asking for directions all over Latin America (and not just in Colombia), I’m convinced that most people are incapable of saying “I don’t know” so they literally just make things up and lie to you.
They would rather send you on a wild goose chase, or basically just get rid of you and make you someone else’s problem rather than, you know, actually helping or admitting they don’t know.
My rule of thumb, if it is something important or time sensitive, is to ask at least three people to see if the information lines up or if every answer I get is different.
Honestly, it’s better to rely on Google Maps than ask locals, but be careful taking your phone out on the street or open yourself up to those previously mentioned robberies.
Thousands of Pesos
One dollar is equal to about 3,000 pesos. Their currency has suffered from so much inflation that they have three useless zeros. I don’t know why the government doesn’t reform the currency and just chop off those three zeros, but whatever.
The real problem is those bills of 50,000 pesos (roughly $16) that are a total burden… You can’t believe how tough it is to break a 50,000 bill or use them in many businesses… Yet that’s about the only bills the ATM machines spit out.
50,000 was the largest bill, but now they are introducing a 100,000 peso bill, which is probably only useful if you are going to buy a car in cash.
8 Days A Week
Yeah, it’s like the Beatles’ song every day in Colombia. There are 8 days a week here.
If the doctor tells you to take a pill “cada 8 dias” that actually means once a week, aka seven days.
So how many days are in two weeks? Is it fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen? The whole thing is very strange.
How Many Continents are There?
Speaking of strange counting… According to Colombians there are only 5 continents on earth.
Which doesn’t make much sense if you think about it… They don’t count Antarctica at all, okay, fine, I guess.
North America and South America are considered only one continent… simply, America. Which is also part of the reason they get so irked that those from the USA refer to themselves as Americans, since according to them, everyone from Canada to Paraguay is also American.
But how are they one continent when they are connected only by a tiny little sliver of virtually impassable land?
Yet, Europe and Asia are considered two different continents when they are connected by a massive swath of land crisscrossed by roads, trains, and no clear division (unless you count a low lying mountain range)?
I’m of the mind that Europe and Asia should be considered one continent, Eurasia, but I can’t fathom how North and South America could be considered one continent.
Medellin is one the plastic surgery capitals of the world, which may also be why it is so renowned for its beautiful women.
I’m not a big fan plastic surgery, but to each their own, I guess.
But what is truly absurd are the butt implants that have become all the rage here… They look absolutely terrible (sometimes even terrifying), I mean we are talking about a big boxy (literally square shaped) thing stuck on their backside.
It looks not only ridiculous and unattractive, but it also looks extremely uncomfortable… Like, can you still sit down?
This is one that has gotten really bad over the past few years in Medellin, even even more so since I first came to the country. The situation was exacerbated by the effects of El Nino, where it essentially put a cap on the Valle de Aburra and held all the pollution in… Something that happens in other parts of the world as well, like Salt Lake City.
Sometimes looking out my window in Laureles, I could barely see the other end of the valley, near Las Palmas. Everything turns into a China-like soupy haze, they advise people against doing any physical exercise, and then the government declares a Car-Free day and life returns to normal while the pollution remains.
The sheer amount of low quality cars from China and India, the hundreds of thousands of motos, and the old buses spitting out black smoke are all a huge problem that they are doing nothing to address, but they are planting more trees, I guess (even as they chop down others for infrastructure projects).
Medellin is fairly innovative when it comes to public transport, but they need to do more to proactively tackle this problem because it only continues to get worse.
Litter, Litter, Everywhere
Colombia has some gorgeous natural landscapes, undoubtedly. But the worst part about nature in Colombia is Colombians.
Wanna go for a dip in a beautiful waterfall? Expect to hop over tons of rubbish and the picnic leftovers of some inconsiderate Colombian family.
Noisy Mobile Street Vendors
At first it was kind of a neat novelty, having these guys with their pushcarts or cars and their megaphones announcing tamales or fresh fruit or whatever.
But yeah, they get really annoying after awhile.
Every day, yelling into a super loud megaphone about their fruits for sale.
I admit, the fruit carts are great, but some of these megaphones are absurdly loud… Like disturbing the peace, loud. As if we couldn’t hear you? Tone it down a little.
People Hustling While You Eat at Restaurants
Everybody is hustling in Colombia — you don’t see much in the way of homeless people begging for loose change here, rather people will go out and sell candy, gum, movies, whatever. I think that is absolutely awesome, and I much more happily oblige someone trying to earn money like this rather than someone begging for change.
But what I hate is the people that come and harass you in the middle of eating a meal. Again, that lack of common courtesy thing.
Medellin has a climate perfect for patios and outdoor dining or cafes, but these guys make sitting outside a total chore… Honestly, Andrea and I often prefer to sit inside simply to avoid getting hassled.
BUT even that doesn’t stop them at times. Many (but not all) restaurants don’t care that people come in to sell to their paying customers.
To be clear, I will never buy gum or movies or anything from you if you come and interrupt my while I’m chewing or while I’m having a conversation with my girlfriend while we are out on a date.
But I’ve saved the thing that I hate most for last…
How They Tie up Grocery Bags at the Supermarket
You know how plastic grocery bags have those big loops that are meant to serve as handles?
Pretty handy, right?
Well, at every major supermarket in Medellin they load your groceries into those same plastic bags and then go and braid some crazy knot to close the bag, effectively sealing off those handles and leaving a tiny little hole to carry your bags.
So then I’ve got to stop at a bench and unweave these crazy braids just so I can use the plastic bags as God intended them to be used — with big loops that serve as handles.
I can’t understand why they do this (is it simply to assure costumers that the bag lady isn’t stealing your groceries? Probably…) but it is extremely annoying.
I Love Medellin and Colombia
Yet despite these little (and sometimes big) irritations, annoyances, and inconveniences, there is much to be loved about living in Medellin, and I’m proud to call it my home away from home.
What about you? What bothers or annoys you to no end in Medellin or Colombia as a whole? Sound off in the comments below…
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