Jose is a South African expat who spent several years working for a multinational company and living in Bogotá with his family. He recounts his experiences living and working in Colombia and shares what he has learnt about life in the South American country.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: South Africa
Q: Did you move to Bogotá alone or with a spouse/family?
A: With my wife and daughters
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I was an expat in Colombia working for a French multi-national company.
Living in Colombia
Q: What do you enjoy most about Bogotá? How would you rate the quality of life compared to South Africa?
A: Bogotá is a bustling metropolis, similar in lifestyle to high-density Latin-European cities like Lisbon, Madrid, and Paris. Colombians hold foreigners in very high esteem and give you special treatment. My family especially enjoyed the plethora of small, high-quality restaurants offering every conceivable kind of cuisine. The weather is not conducive to the outdoor lifestyle that we live in South Africa, but the size and quality of residential apartments make it easy to entertain indoors.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about South Africa?
A: What I missed most about South Africa were the loved ones which we left behind whilst I was working in Bogotá. I have come to realize how sports-mad South Africans are, and you will struggle to find friends to watch rugby or cricket with in Colombia. Their only sporting interests seem to be football and beauty pageants. The traffic is far more congested than any South African city and driving is not for the faint of heart. South Africa’s minibus taxi drivers are angelic by comparison!
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Bogotá? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: It is very difficult to acclimatize yourself to life in Bogotá without becoming proficient in Spanish. I recommend doing whatever you can in the first few months to immerse yourself in the language and culture to get the most out of your experience.
Q: What’s the cost of living like when compared to South Africa? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Cost of accommodation is higher than in any South African city, except perhaps Cape Town’s Atlantic Seaboard. Schooling is the other item which will set you back financially if not funded by your employer. Municipal services are cheap and appliances such as stoves, tumble dryers and water heaters typically run on gas. Grocery costs were on a par with South Africa, while clothing was much more expensive. Eating out and local holidays are similar in cost.
Q: How would you rate the public transport? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: Public transport is cheap and readily available, but crowded. The Transmilenio bus service transports over 1 million Bogotános to and from work every day but may be difficult for expats to manoeuvre on.
The swarm of yellow taxis is your best and most affordable option. You can phone for one and the agent fielding your call gives you the registration of the arriving taxi, so it is secure. These taxis are available within 20 minutes 24/7 so it is feasible not to own a car.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Bogotá? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals?
A: We found health care in Bogotá to be superior to that available in South Africa, both in urgency and competence. Investing in a local medical insurance is a must, and compulsory if you work in Colombia. We found Colsanitas to be the best as it ensured you widespread and immediate service.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Colombia? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: There are the usual pickpockets and overchargers, but violent crime is a rarity. Stay away from any areas which the national police or expat forums caution you to avoid. There are far greater levels of crime in the deep south of Bogotá, so only go there if you want to be an obvious target. It should go without saying, but don’t even think of participating in “drug tourism” in Colombia as you are far more likely to get injured or caught than you would be in your home country.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Bogotá? What different options are available for expats?
A: You will struggle to find the same value for money as you find in South Africa. Houses are very uncommon and punitively expensive. The standard is apartments, and almost all have access control and a security reception area. Most apartment blocks also have ample communal zones such as a gymnasium, a function hall, a barbeque area and a swimming pool.
Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: The city is semi-neatly laid out in a grid of streets and avenues. All residential areas are classified according to levels of affluence known as estratos, and municipal costs and taxes are levied accordingly. For reasons of safety and convenience expats usually stick to estratos four to six.
The further north you go the more likely you are to encounter townhouse security estates. Most of the schools which are appropriate for expats are in the far north of Bogotá.
Meeting people and making friends in Colombia
Q: How tolerant are Colombians of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: Locals generally love foreigners and treat them very respectfully. Colombians are mostly patriotic and thus keen to give you a good impression of their country. Locals are sometimes not accustomed to dealing with those who look unlike themselves, however. We did infrequently encounter some non-aggressive discrimination against darker-skinned Andean and African peoples.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: There is a small but vibrant expat community in Bogotá. One of the best ways of meeting new people is through a church. There is an English-medium, multi-denominational church in Bogotá with congregants from Colombia, SA, USA, Canada, etc. The family there will go out of their way to welcome you and help you to settle in if you ask them. It should also be easy to get to know new people through your kids and their teachers and friends.
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?
A: We made true friends with many Colombians and expats alike. Colombians can be very status conscious, and so be aware that some will want to befriend foreigners mainly to enhance their social standing and improve their English.
Also be aware that you will have to make some effort such as inviting people to dinner, accepting invitations to go to country clubs, and attending any local embassy functions if you are serious about getting to know people in Colombia.
About working in Colombia
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit?
A: Be prepared to spend two to three days of your life each year in queues. Immigration consultants are helpful but costly. Be aware that you cannot always get a work visa once already in Colombia so apply before arrival, or if you arrive on a tourist visa you will have to exit Colombia again to apply in a foreign country.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Bogotá? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job?
A: As a consequence of decades of low-intensity civil war between government forces and the FARC guerrilla, Colombia is a country brim-full of untapped economic potential. Colombia’s coal reserves exceed South Africa’s, as do its gas and oil reserves. As such, the region is well placed for increased employment opportunities.
Unemployment is almost non-existent amongst suitably qualified, dual-language entrants, but be sure to do your research before deciding on a move. Entrance salaries tend to be quite low and workplace exigencies high, so be prepared to work.
Q: How does the work culture differ from South Africa? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Colombia?
A: Colombians value education more and are usually well-qualified. Locals take pride in their work and are loyal and dedicated employees. Colombian bosses are also generally more demanding than their Western counterparts.
By way of a tip for expat managers, be careful not to come across as crass or arrogant as this is not the way they expect managers to behave. Colombians will also not generally correct you unless you ask them to, and you should be aware of this when you assume you have reached consensus on any matter of importance.
Family and children in Colombia
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to Bogotá? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: In my experience, dissatisfaction amongst non-employed spouses is a main cause of early termination of expat contracts. The employed spouse has to quickly absorb the local language and culture in order to be effective in fulfilling their contract responsibilities, so they acclimatize by necessity. They are also surrounded by work colleagues who provide support and fill in knowledge gaps regarding the local culture and practicalities. The trailing spouse is afforded none of these luxuries, so assimilation is generally much more difficult for them.
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: It will be difficult for kids to adjust. Parents should engineer opportunities for their kids to meet others in the same boat and encourage them to make friends. Social media platforms make it easier to keep in touch with former friends, but you don’t want your kids to forego making necessary new friendships for the sake of keeping old and sometimes unsustainable ones going. Parents should be aware that many other expat families are on two- or three-year assignments, making the formation of deep relationships even more challenging for children.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: If your kids are not already fluent in Spanish then local public schools are not an option. Private, English-medium schools are expensive and generally follow the IB or A-level curricula, or the American system, which is not as desirable unless the kids are destined to go to university in the USA.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Enjoy the adventure and make the most of it – it will not last forever. Book several holidays and weekends away each year and get to know beautiful Colombia. Parque Tayrona, Amazonas, San Andres, Eje Cafetero, and Cartagena are all highly recommended family holiday destinations.
~ Interviewed May 2018