“Pupo!” demanded my one-year-old.
I stared at him blankly. “What did you say, bub?”
“Do you need a diaper change? Poopoo?”
“NO!” he was screaming in earnest now, furious at my lack of comprehension, “PUPO!”
My (Colombian) husband intervened at this point and popped a pacifier into the baby’s mouth.
Little man cooed happily in response.
“Chupo!” explained my husband, indicating the pacifier.
“Where on Earth did he learn that?” I asked, amazed. This kid usually refused to speak anything much beyond an eloquent grunt.
“Colombia!” came the inexorable reply.
My three-year-old daughter wandered in next. “Mommy, can I have helado?”
Toddler Spanglish – one of the many entertaining surprises we enjoy as an American family living in Medellín.
Our little family has lived in Medellín now for almost four years. It’s been an incredible opportunity to learn, adapt, and explore in a culture that is different from my native Arkansas in every way. The change has been an exciting one, but it is not without challenges.
There are a great many advantages to living in Medellin Colombia, not the least of which is purchasing 12 empanadas for two dollars.
Yes, this is perhaps the most obvious benefit of moving to the Third World, but it’s worth mentioning. While imported products may be astronomically expensive in some cases, many of life’s simple pleasures are good and cheap compared to their USA counterparts. Some of these include:
- Housing/Rent – When compared to the market of any inner city in the USA, housing is exceedingly affordable.
- Food – One of my favorite aspects of Medellin is the wide range of great food. Even the more expensive restaurants won’t charge more than $15/plate.
- Services – Whether it’s the girl that comes to my house to do my nails each Thursday, or the local handyman, you can count on paying about 75% less than US prices for any type of service.
- Healthcare – While individual health insurance is none too cheap, the government-sponsored EPS health insurance is wildly affordable, as is out-of-pocket care. A recent six-hour trip to the emergency room for our son (not covered by insurance) only cost us about $150 out-of-pocket.
The In-Home Empleada
To call her a maid would be a colossal understatement. Our full-time empleada does clean the house. She also helps care for the kids, cooks, does the laundry, walks the dog, sews on errant buttons, and occasionally runs small errands for us. If I were to ask her to make me up a nice hot chocolate on a chilly afternoon, she would do that too, but I am far too middle-class American to ask.
I once hired a cleaning lady to clean my apartment when I lived in Los Angeles. It cost me $90 for six hours of cleaning. The average Colombian empleada works nine hours per day, five days per week for a fraction of that price.
As a working mother, this help is indispensable. I’ll admit, I’ve grown accustomed to having her around. This may be the number one reason why I could never go back to the First World. I’ve fallen in love with my empleada.
Tip: According to my Colombian friends, empleadas are notorious for accidentally-on-purpose pocketing their employer’s valuables. Always hire an empleada that comes highly recommended by someone you know.
Automatically Bilingual Children
Spanglish aside, my six-year-old and three-year-old are 100% bilingual through absolutely no effort of my own.
Many Colombians notice the kids’ effortless transitions from Spanish to English and back again. I am often asked which bilingual school they attend. My answer is always,
“Why would I put them in a bilingual school?”
Both of our children learned to speak Spanish fluently within a few months of starting at a Spanish-speaking daycare. Our rule is that only English may be spoken in the home, with the end result being that the children learned both languages easily and without even the hint of an accent in either tongue.
Of course, I have been known to break my own rules at home, sometimes lapsing into Spanglish because certain words are just so much better in Spanish. Look up pecueca, friolenta, or mamitis, and you’ll see what I mean.
Exceptional Private School and Daycare Choices
My daughter’s first experience with daycare took place in Los Angeles. After searching for weeks for a decent and affordable option, my husband and I chose a small daycare with a tiny outdoor playground and zero grass. The curriculum seemed OK, but it was no children’s paradise. She cried every day for two weeks when we dropped her off each morning.
Flash forward one year: we had moved to Colombia and begun shopping for daycares once again. The options were limitless. Most facilities came fully equipped with huge grassy playgrounds, toddler-planted herb gardens, and on-site farm animals that the kids could both handle and care for. The very best of these charged less than half the price of the tiny daycare we had been using in the US.
When we took my then-two-year-old to see our final choice, the look on her face was identical to the one she wore upon her first visit to Disneyland. Not a tear was shed when we walked away.
The private school options for elementary and high school are equally as limitless, yet markedly less expensive than private schools in the United States or Europe. With options from the rigorously academic to the art-inspired, your only obstacle will be attaining a coveted spot on the waiting list.
Medellin International Moms
MES: Medellin Entrepreneurs Society
Digital Nomads Medellin
Colombians & Expats in Medellin
Medellin Basketball Association
Gringo Classified With A Price
Practice your English/Spanish in Medellin
Unless they are behind the wheel, Colombian people are kindness personified. Most of the locals you meet on the street are cheerful and happy to help in any way. I was lucky enough to marry into a large Colombian family, all of whom have welcomed us into their fold with open arms. It is a genial and nurturing community in which to raise children.
That being said, sometimes I tire of translating everything in my head before I say it and watching my poorly worded Spanish jokes fall flat on a Colombian crowd. For those days when I’m feeling lonely for English conversations and outings in sweatpants, I have my expat friends.
Medellín is home to a thriving community of expatriates from all over the world. Although most of them hail from North America and Europe, I have also met expats from Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Caribbean islands. Those of us who are moms have formed our own tight-knit group in order to recreate some home traditions that are not to be found in Colombia, such as carving pumpkins, Easter egg hunts, and Thanksgiving dinners.
Tip: Do you live abroad and find yourself craving the language and traditions of home? Try searching online for groups of expats in your area. Most major cities have various expat communities that stay in touch through social networks like Facebook.
So Much to Do and See
After four years of searching out family-friendly activities, we haven’t yet exhausted our choices of fun things to do. When we’re not visiting interesting parks, malls, and museums, we head out to the countryside in the lush hills that surround Medellín. Outside of the city limits lie countless pueblos, each with its own story and traditions. The semi-tropical forests and hills that surround the city are also full of trails, creeks, and waterfalls that children never tire of exploring.
You can find a few of these activities on this list.
Surely you didn’t think Medellín was all unicorns and rainbows? Yes, there is a downside. After a lifetime of convenience and security, Colombia can take some getting used to. Here are some of the cons for a busy family:
Everything is Slower
Get ready to slow down. Remember last Saturday when you went grocery shopping, stopped by the post office, got a haircut, bought a birthday gift, and still had time to take the kids to the movies? That day will never happen in Medellín. Between the convoluted and disorganized roadways, heavy traffic, and excruciatingly sluggish customer service, you’ll be lucky to knock out one or two errands in a day.
It’s not always a bad thing. Colombia has taught me how to take a deep breath, calm down, and take it slow.
Fewer Quality Playgrounds
Growing up, I was accustomed to living within walking distance of several large and well-kept public playgrounds. I was disappointed to find that this is not the case in Medellín. While most housing and apartment communities do come with a small, sad sort of playground, many of the city playgrounds are run-down, covered in graffiti, and occasionally frequented by unsavory characters.
I have searched out some beautiful city parks and playgrounds throughout the city, but you won’t find them on every corner. Find information on a few of Medellín’s best parks here, although it is by no means an exhaustive list.
Where’s My Whole-Grain, Gluten-Free, Organic Graham Crackers?
We millennial moms like our health food, but alas, this is one of several things that is very hard to find in Colombia. It would seem that Paisa mamas didn’t get the memo on organic and whole-grain snacks, and most are perfectly happy to stuff their toddlers full of papitas and gansitos (potato chips and snack cakes).
You can find your imported health foods, spices, and favorite brands, but you’ll have to search them out in specialty stores and pay top dollar. Other products that are either hard-to-find or expensive in Colombia include:
- Any USA-based brand of clothing, electronics, or food product
- Brand-name toys
- Good appliances and kitchen tools
- Baby gear
- Fine cheese and cold cuts
That Uncomfortable Zoo Animal Feeling
Many of my friends and family members expressed great concern when I moved my small children to the former ‘Capital of Cocaine’.
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Aren’t you worried about kidnappings?”
The short answer to these questions is no. I do not feel unsafe. In four years I have not so much as seen a robbery or any other criminal activity. Of course, you hear stories. Every Colombian you meet will tell you about their sister’s cousin’s fiance who got beat up and robbed one night in a shady part of town. Many of these stories could very well be true, but we have not experienced or witnessed any alarming situations ourselves.
That being said, it can feel a little unsettling to be a gringo family in Medellín. Although my Paisa husband fits right in, my children and I have very light skin and hair. Moreover, my daughter and I have blue eyes combined with light blonde hair, making us stand out more than a little in a Colombian crowd.
People stare. Children point. When we begin speaking to each other in English, it’s a regular side show exhibit. This, I can handle. I do not feel so comfortable when strangers reach out to ‘pet’ my daughter’s blonde curls without so much as a “How do you do?” Does this attention make my family a potential target? Perhaps. More likely, it’s just a reminder to keep a watchful eye on my purse and my children in public places.
Tip: Even if your family stands out in a crowd, you will likely feel very safe in tourist-friendly areas like El Poblado, Laureles, and Envigado. If ever you go to an area that makes you feel out-of-place or uncomfortable, (for me, these places include small villages and downtown areas of the Medellín city center) take the necessary precautions to feel more secure:
- Don’t dress in flashy “expensive-looking” clothing.
- Keep valuables like jewelry and smartphones hidden away in your purse or pocket.
- Keep your purse or bag zipped up and hold it close to your body.
- Don’t carry money or valuables in a back pocket or the outer pockets of your bag/backpack.
The Good Life
At this moment, I’m swinging in a hammock on my balcony, listening to a lively vallenato tune that’s drifting over from the house next door. My son is asking the empleada for a cup of milo in an adorable Spanglish dialect that’s all his own, and I’ve never felt more at home.
If you were to ask me, do the pros outweigh the cons? The answer is a resounding claro que sí!
Have you thought about living the expat life? Would you like to know more about family living in Colombia? Share your comments and questions below.