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Interview with John and Susan – American expats living in Colombia

Updated 23 Dec 2019

John and Susan Pazera are US expats currently based in Medellín, Colombia. In 2015, they moved with their two dogs to Boquete, Panama, where they spent three unforgettable years high in the cloud forests and coffee country near the border of Costa Rica. A year ago, in 2018, the Pazeras made another move from Panama to the dazzling city of Medellín — the jumping-off point for their South American travels. After their expat dream came to fruition, John and Susan started Latitude Adjustment, a blog for sharing their experiences as world travellers and expats. Keep up with the Pazera's adventures on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Read more about expat life in Colombia in our Expat Arrivals Colombia country guide.

About John and SusanJohn_and_Susan_Colombia.jpeg

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: We have always moved around a lot, but we're US citizens. Our most recent US residence was in Long Beach, California.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Medellín, Colombia

Q: When did you move here?
A: November 22, 2018, from Boquete, Panamá

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: No, we lived for three and a half years in Boquete, Panamá, after moving there from California.

Q: Did you move here alone or with family?
A: We came together, along with our two dogs.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: This bio from our blog probably answers that question best:

John and Susan Pazera are US expats currently based in Medellín, Colombia. In 2001, after many years living in San Francisco, they took their last sail out under the Golden Gate Bridge and set off on the trip of their lives: a three-year journey down the Pacific coast and through the Panama Canal. The sailing trip ended in 2004, but it ignited a passion for travel and new experiences that even today informs almost every major decision they make.

For John and Susan, the decision to embrace the expat life was in the works for almost a decade – and finally, in April 2015, they moved with their two canine kids to Panama. With six pieces of luggage, two big dog crates, and not much more, they couldn't wait to find out what lay around the next bend. And Panama did not disappoint: they spent three unforgettable years in Boquete, high in the cloud forests and coffee country near the border of Costa Rica.

A year ago, the Pazeras and their fur kids made another move from Panama to the dazzling city of Medellín — the jumping-off point for their South American travels. The beautiful country of Colombia is a perfect home base for visiting South America and the Caribbean, and so far, John and Susan have experienced Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador and the Galapagos, Peru, Curuçao, Cuba, the Bahamas, and some new destinations in Mexico. They've just scratched the surface of destinations in Colombia but have discovered several amazing colonial cities near Medellín as well as Bogota, Cartagena, Jardin, and Santa Marta/Tayrona National Park.

After their expat dream came to fruition, John and Susan started "Latitude Adjustment," a blog for sharing their experiences as world travellers and expats. Their hope for their readers: "That you too will be inspired to jump out of your comfort zone and find the thing that floats your boat — and perhaps even plan an escape of your own!"

Living in Medellín

Q: What do you enjoy most about Medellín? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: The wonderfully kind and helpful people, much lower cost of living, year-round spring-like climate, rich and colourful culture, and incredible scenic beauty of Medellín and Colombia. Our quality of life has improved drastically since leaving the rat race of Southern California. John has been able to retire early, and we have moved to an area where we can walk anywhere – stores, restaurants, entertainment. We don't own a car, and we're perfectly happy! 

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: We miss our family. Other than that, we don't miss anything about living in the US.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The language barrier is real in Medellín. Unlike Boquete, where it's possible to get by without ever learning a word of Spanish, a basic level of Español is really essential here. Moving here meant immersing ourselves completely in an unfamiliar sea of language and local customs. The immersion has paid off so far. We both feel we've made huge strides with our Spanish in just a year through our private tutor, various online resources, and just putting ourselves out there trying to converse with folks. We will probably never be fluent, but we are slowly getting more competent and confident.

Q: What's the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Medellín?
A: The basic cost of living in Medellín is 30 to 40 percent lower than in Boquete, Panama, which, of course, is significantly lower than the hyper-inflated economy of Southern California from whence we originally came. There are a few exceptions, of course – wine and liquor are more costly here due to higher taxes. 

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Medellín? What is your most memorable experience of using your city's transport system?
A: Medellín has a fantastic public transportation system. In fact, it's a big part of the city's turnaround and rebirth. The system of cable cars, escalators, streetcars, and the Metro light rail has transformed many of the city's roughest neighbourhoods. Every time we ride the Metro, we're amazed once again by how efficient and clean it is. The people are so proud of their system that you will never find a smidge of graffiti anywhere on a Metro car. 

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: We are here on pensioners' (retired persons') visas. Although you don't need an attorney to apply for a visa here, we used one to smooth the process. Getting a visa here is much faster and easier than the process we encountered in Panama. Since John is the one with the pension and Susan is still working, she was able to apply as John's beneficiary.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular group? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Medellín?
A: The expat community here is still a tiny fraction of the overall population, and – as such – we haven't "worn out our welcome" yet. With just a few exceptions, we've found the locals wonderfully welcoming, helpful, and patient with our baby Spanish.  

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Having dogs is a great way to meet people! The pet culture is huge in Medellín, and we've bonded with people over our shared love of our fur kids. Also, there's a huge Parks and Recreation Department here that offers tons of free activities. We joined a free exercise class in one of the local parks and have made some lovely friends there.  

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: We do have expat friends, but it's more important for us to integrate into the community and have local friends. With the language barrier, that can be difficult, but – as we mentioned – having dogs has opened doors! And making an effort to speak Spanish, even if you only know a few words, can go a long way towards breaking the ice with folks. 

Family and children

Q: How has your spouse or partner adjusted to your new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: This was a joint decision and a shared adventure, so the question doesn't really apply. In general, we'd say that having both people on the same page and equally invested is critically important for successful expat living. 

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: Here are some kid-friendly suggestions: Take the cable car up to Parque Arvi and go hiking. Hike to the top of Cerro Volador for amazing city views and lots of butterflies. Go up to the top of Cerro Nutibara for city views and also Pueblito Paisa, a replica of a small Colombian town. Take a day trip to the colourful lakeside town of Guatapé. Visit the Museo de Agua (Water Museum). Tour the street art of Comuna 13. 

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Medellín or Colombia?
A: Put aside all your preconceived notions of Medellín and Colombia! The Medellín of today is a far cry from the narco-terroristic days of the 70s and 80s. The people of Medellín are very proud of the strides this city has made in the past two decades to lower the crime rate, raise the standard of living in the poorest neighbourhoods, create new opportunities for all citizens, and create a culture of peace. The advice we'd give new expats is to open their hearts and minds to a different culture, a different pace, and a different way of doing things than they might be used to back home.

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