Well, it’s good! For Europeans or North Americans, expect the cost of living in Colombia to feel pretty cheap. You do need to check your expectations though; I once saw a disgruntled expat complaining that he’d been told he could have the same lifestyle for way cheaper in Colombia than in the USA, but by the time he imported a German car and rented one of the best apartments in his city he had met his home budget… While it is possible to get many imported items in this part of the world, it’s always best for both your cost of living in Colombia and your cultural experience to eat, travel and buy local. Sometimes this means taking a cut in quality, other times what you receive may be better than what’s available at home. It’s mostly a case of the former, but hey, let’s call it swings and roundabouts.
For this guide to the cost of living in Colombia, I’m going to use example prices for some of the more local options available. Of course, you can always find establishments who are willing to charge you a pretty peso for a more luxury experience (or just one that feels less like a street stall), but that’s not so representative of the average Colombia. The prices listed here as part of the cost of living in Colombia are representative of 2020. I’ll try and keep it updated in the years to come!
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How much does accommodation cost in Colombia?
As the wealth distribution in Colombia is such a shitter, a small shift in the location and quality of a place can make the monthly rent swing vastly. The estrato number has one of the greatest effects on the cost of accommodation in Colombia (here’s an explanation of the Colombian estrato system and where to stay in Bogotá), but it is also a good indicator of safety so it’s a sensible thing to aim high in.
The cheapest accommodation Andy and I stayed in in Bogotá was 500k COP per month (£125), which was a double room with en suite in an apartment shared by 8 other rooms in Quesada, Chapinero. Our most expensive was £200 for our own apartment for a week in Usaquén.
In most cities in Colombia, hostel dorm beds in decent areas start from around £6-10 a night, with private hostel doubles being in the range of £17-25. The cheapest I’ve heard of is a dorm bed in Pixel Art Hostel in Cali, which is currently £2 ($3) a night, and actually doesn’t look that bad.
How much does a meal cost in Colombia?
Colombia is one of the wonderful countries in South America that offers menú del días, which are set lunchtime menus that usually include a soup, filling main meal and drink – sometimes even a fruit dessert! There are often at least 2 options to choose from for each course. These menú del días greatly reduce the cost of living in Colombia, so you should absolutely be taking advantage of them. Note that if you go into any Colombian restaurant and ask in Spanish for the ‘menu’ they will assume that you mean this set meal, rather than the list of all foods. For that, you need to ask for the ‘carta’.
In the more local barrios of Bogotá, you can expect to find a menú del día for around 8k COP (£2), but I’ve seen some as low as 6k. Out in the really small pueblos and rural areas, they’ll drop even lower.
Stuffed arepas from a street stand are usually between 2k and 4k COP, whereas in a restaurant they may be a little more. Non-stuffed cheesy arepas should be even cheaper, but they’re more of a snack than a meal. It would be unusual for any street stall in Colombia to charge you more than 4k for any one item, but I can’t blame them for trying in the more touristy areas.
For dinner in a restaurant, you’re going to want to budget 8-12k COP at a local spot, though there are other bargains to be had at fast food places, etc. At a mid-range restaurant, you’re looking at 12-20k per person. It’s a little odd that dinner tends to cost more when lunch is normally a far larger meal, but I guess it’s because the economies of scale of the menu del día allow lunch-timers to keep their running costs down.
Food-lovers, don’t forget to check out these posts for your Colombian travels:
When you think of Colombia, the first thing that comes to mind is good coffee, right? But alas, almost all the first-rate coffee beans are exported to richer economies, so Colombia is left with are the dregs and burnt bits. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of Colombians have never even tasted good Colombian coffee, but on the plus side they’ve never had to pay extortionate prices for coffee, either.
For those just after a caffeine hit, coffee sellers on the street sell small cups of ‘tinto’ from as little as 200 pesos (8p) up to 2k (50p) in more wealthy areas. Be warned though, this stuff takes some getting used to, as it’s made from the lowest quality of Colombian coffee beans with no milk, so to counter the strength of the taste they often pre-mix sugar cane syrup into the tinto. For that reason, you really don’t need any more than a shot of it to keep you buzzing through even the heaviest of mornings.
In the more affluent parts of cities, you can of course still find the classic coffee shops that you see back home, with some Pinterest-worthy independents, a smatter of Starbucks and a plethora of Juan Valdez cafés of a similar vibe. These coffees aren’t actually priced that differently to those you’d get back in the UK (up to 12k), but you’re paying for the atmosphere, really.
If you want a fix that keeps your cost of living in Colombia low but doesn’t compromise on quality, Tostao is your place. We became a little bit obsessed with it during our 9 months in Colombia, and for good bloody reason. While I don’t really rate the larger drinks, for less than 50p the espresso blanco is an absolute banger of a coffee. Great pastries, too!
Cost of living in Colombia for casual drinkers & party-goers
So, like coffee, if you don’t mind sticking to national beers (whose taste ranges from liquid gold to piss depending on who you ask) you can get by paying 3-4k (up to £1) for a can or bottle in a local bar, or 4-6k for a premium Club Colombia. More upmarket places will charge as much as 12k (£3) for the same beer, but also normally provide imported beers such as Heineken (which is held in strangely high regard out here) for about 50% more.
Bars often don’t charge an entry fee, but those that do range from 12k to 40k – which sometimes even includes unlimited drinks all night long, so ya know, not that bad of a deal. I get the impression that these entry fees are less about making a profit and more about determining the type of clientele a bar attracts. You know how it is.
While I never opted for a taste of Colombia’s actual most famous export (who was I kidding with the coffee line?!), it’s undeniable that the price of cocaine in Colombia is a common question. Sigh. Anyway, a gram of the white stuff will cost around 10-20k depending on the location and how helplessly gringo you’re looking that day, but be warned that a) there are fewer middle men involved and therefore it’s probably a huge amount stronger than you’re used to back home, so go easy and b) look for trouble in Colombia, and trouble will find you very quickly.
How much should I tip in Colombia?
Now, don’t fall off your chair here, but the country doesn’t actually have a tipping economy so locals don’t usually tip in Colombia at all. If you decide to tip in a tourist area, of course they will accept it; they’ve come to expect tips from holiday-makers wanting to bask in the warm glow of feeling generous in a less wealthy country. However, if you tip in Colombia’s local restaurants – the type where they really are working for a few dollars a day – expect strange looks, confusion, and even to be chased down the street by a panicked waiter to tell you that you’ve accidentally left some money on the table.
This could be a whole other post, but over-tipping reaaaaally effs up a local economy. There are reports that say locals in the centre of Cartagena can no longer get taxis, because the drivers know that Americans will not only happily accept ludicrous prices but then tip them on top of the fare. It also has an effect on whether restaurant owners want to allow locals to take up one of their tables, and can drive up the price of everyday goods & services on which natives rely. While the cost of living in Colombia is cheap for us, our very presence in the country can drive it up to beyond what people who live here can actually afford.
If you really really really want to tip for outstanding service, it should not under any circumstance be more than 10%. Higher than that is kinda crass.
The only people I tip without fail are Rappi delivery men, because they are often Venezuelans working the only way the system will let them without a proper immigration status, and they’re therefore taken advantage of in terms of how much they get paid per job. I try to give 2-3k with every delivery.
What’s the cost of transport?
Pretty decent. For popular routes, it’s not unheard of that a bus to a certain destination costs the same price as an internal flight. As I mentioned in 9 things to know before you travel to Colombia, the price of internal flights is capped by the government, which was a measure to keep the country accessible during the brutal civil war which made many of the roads connecting rural areas and cities too dangerous to travel. This means that flights between popular cities is still very low, though if you’re flying a less well-catered route that requires a propeller plane – such as to El Valle in Chocó for whale watching – you might expect to pay upwards of £100 for your journey.
However, while the flight itself may be cheap, getting to some of Colombia’s airports can be a bore. Medellín has a particularly far away airport, especially now they’re planning to close the one in the city centre. The cheapest way to get to the José Maria Córdova Airport is to pick up a colectivo (shared) taxi from San Diego shopping mall for 17k per person. The taxi only leaves when full.
Road travel in Colombia usually costs £1-1.50 per hour for night buses. The quality of the coaches is not luxury, but usually pretty decent. Local buses between small towns will be a lot cheaper, but also a lot dustier.
Where does the cost of living in Colombia become higher?
As the city of Medellín becomes more and more popular with European & North American expats and tourists, foreigner-aimed rentals and AirBnBs are taking over the area of El Poblado. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always been one of the most expensive, developed barrios to live in Medellín, but this huge influx of foreigners is driving prices up at a scary rate. An apartment that might have cost $400 USD a month (already whopping for Medellín’s average rental price) 5 years ago you might expect to see being flogged in expat groups for $2000 a month now – and the worst thing is, foreigners will sign up to it because for the quality you get the price feels much cheaper than home. Gaaaaaah.
In line with this, there’s a lot of gentrification in the bars & restaurants of El Poblado to cater to expat and tourist tastes.
This has also been happening in the walled city of Cartagena for a long time due to its popularity with American tourists over the last decade or so, and now that backpackers have started coming in droves gentrification is spreading out to the hipster area of Getsemaní, too.
In Bogotá, there have always been barrios that are more expensive due to poor wealth distribution and casual classism left over from colonial days, so you’ll see a huge amount more development and swank in areas such as Usaquén, Parque 93 and Rosales. However, it’s not as popular a place to expatriate to as Medellín, and tourism still sits firmly in the southern area of La Candelaria, so the foreign gentrification and natural native wealth don’t mix and snowball off each other to drive up prices quite so much.
On any of the Colombian islands, such as San Andrés, Providencia or Barú, you will be lucky to find high quality options for accommodation on the cheap, and food is more expensive (25-35k COP for a dinner for most island destinations).
How much did we spend per month living in Colombia?
Even though Andy and I still travelled a lot whilst ‘settled’ in Colombia, we were usually able to keep our total cost of living in Colombia down to well below £1000 per month for the two of us. We lived very comfortably, and rarely missed out on any experiences or trips due to a high price. We saved an awful lot by eating, drinking and travelling like a local. Of course, we had economies of scale in accommodation too, often opting for a studio apartment in a cheaper part of Chapinero.
Got any other questions about the cost of living in Colombia in 2020? Let me know in the comments below! You can find lots more posts about specific destinations and general tips in the Colombia section of this blog, here:
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