Adam McConnaughhay came to Colombia in 2011 for a one-year volunteer-teaching experience and has been there ever since. In addition to continuing to teach, he also writes about Cartagena and other destinations in Colombia on his website.
Read more about expat life in Colombia in our Expat Arrivals Colombia country guide.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I'm from Columbia, South Carolina.
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Cartagena, Colombia
Q: When did you move here?
A: January 2011
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: I spent a semester abroad in Cuba, but Colombia was the first country I came to live and work.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: In my first year, I came as part of a volunteer-teaching program where I lived with a group of other volunteers. Afterwards, I lived on my own before meeting and marrying my wife.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I wanted to be in Latin America somewhere, preferably the Caribbean, after graduating from university. I ended up coming here with WorldTeach where I spent a year volunteering in a rural community just to the south of Cartagena. Since my year of volunteering, I have continued teaching, first at a language institute primarily to adults and for the last six years at a private bilingual school. In the summer of 2018, I started a website as a side project to share my experience travelling and living here.
Living in Cartagena
Q: What do you enjoy most about Cartagena? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: Cartagena really is charming and beautiful. Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted just how pretty the old colonial city is. The history of the city is also fascinating.
Rating the quality of life is tricky, especially considering I have it a bit better than the average Cartagenero. Some things, like being able to walk to the corner store to get basic goods, are great and much easier than having to drive to the supermarket back home in the US. Other things can be frustrating or more difficult than at home. Overall, I’d say my quality of life here is quite good.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: Overall I haven’t had many negative experiences. I have been robbed once, but in nine years, I wouldn’t consider that to be so bad. I generally feel as safe as I would in any city in the world. Sure, there are other things like a smaller personal bubble or more seemingly unnecessary bureaucracy to get some things done that can still be frustrating sometimes.
The things I miss most about home, in addition to family and friends, would have to be food, most notably great chicken wings, collard greens and grits, following college football. And while I never liked cold weather that much, I do sometimes miss the cooler weather of the fall as compared to always hot Cartagena. I’m sure it’s pretty clear I’m from the US south from that list.
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: My experience was probably unique living in a rural town as a volunteer the first year. That year I learned how to do my laundry in a bucket and ride with three people on motorcycle taxis to get in and out of town. Eight years later, I do have a washing machine and mostly avoid motorcycle taxis.
As far as more general culture shock, even after eight years, as somewhat of an introvert, the loudness of people here can still get to me. It’s one of those things that’s charming until it isn’t, like in a classroom of 25 ninth graders.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Colombia?
A: Generally speaking, the cost of living is much lower here. While some things like electronics and luxury goods may cost more, basic goods, especially your standard foodstuffs, are extremely cheap. While certainly cheaper than back in the US, housing here in Cartagena is quite high compared to the rest of Colombia. Likewise for eating and drinking out, although again, they are relatively cheap compared to the States. We live a fairly comfortable but not extravagant lifestyle spending approximately $1,500 a month.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Cartagena? What is your most memorable experience of using your city’s transport system?
A: Public transportation here is okay but could be better. The newer Transcaribe bus system implemented a couple of years ago is still short some buses. It does not reach all areas of the city and can be extremely crowded at peak hours. However, it gets you around fairly quickly and comfortably. Some of the older busetas are still running and depending on where you are and where you are going may get you there quicker once you learn the routes. Taxis are also prevalent and easy to flag down, although you have to use tough negotiation skills sometimes with them.
Probably my most memorable experience was stepping off a bus a bit too early once and promptly falling over. Fortunately, nothing but my pride was hurt. In all seriousness though, I’ve had tons of positive experiences on public transportation here with people offering to hold bags in their laps while standing or people making sure I got off at the right place if I was going somewhere new.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Cartagena? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: Fortunately, I haven’t had any serious health issues. The standard healthcare system is ok but there can be long waits for appointments. For Cartagena, Sura is the best operator. I also have what’s called a “prepaid” health insurance through Colmedica that is much quicker to get an appointment but also much more expensive. The recommendable hospital for expats here in Cartagena would be the Bocagrande Hospital.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Cartagena or Colombia? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Petty crime would certainly be the biggest safety issue in Cartagena. As a tourist town, that shouldn’t be surprising. Recommendations like being aware of where you are, not being out too late, and not making yourself a target that apply anywhere also apply here.
Generally speaking, most newly arrived expats should probably avoid going south of the area known as Pie de la Popa outside the walled city until they get their bearings. There are plenty of fine local residential neighbourhoods down the Avenida that are plenty safe. There are also some that are not safe. Neighbourhoods that should generally be avoided unless going with a well-trusted local include Olaya, Daniel Lemaitre, Pozón, Torices off the main streets, and the areas around Mercado Bazurto.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Cartagena? What different options are available for expats?
A: Housing is generally fine, although as stated before, it is more expensive than elsewhere in Colombia. There are plenty of options available ranging from unfurnished to bare-bones furnished, to luxury furnished places. It can be a bit difficult to find places. Checking the classifieds on the local newspaper’s website can be a good starting point. For those looking for nicer furnished places or staying only a short time, checking on AirBnB for places that might be open to rent longer term could also be an option. That honestly might be the best option for new arrivals to get their bearings and find a longer-term place.
Word of mouth is also a good way to find housing here. Finally, walking around and looking for signs or asking in buildings is probably the most effective way to find a place.
One word of advice I would give is to be very clear what the terms of your contract are. Most rent contracts here have steep penalties for leaving early, so make sure you are aware of that. I also had numerous problems with a former landlady over maintenance. Make sure you are clear from the start who is responsible for repairs, particularly if you are renting a furnished place.
Many landlords are also likely to want proof of income and a co-signer. If you’re coming for a job, your employer should be able to give you a letter (a certificado laboral) and may be willing to co-sign for you.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: For schools, most expats will likely want to enrol in one of the private schools. The two most prestigious are the Colegio Británico de Cartagena and Colegio Jorge Washington.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: For new arrivals, I would recommend sticking to the areas around the Walled City. Centro is a charm to live in if you can find a place in your budget. I miss living there. Getsemaní would also be a good spot, especially for younger expats. Bocagrande is a popular option for expats. I find it too touristy and wouldn’t want to live there, but it's on the beach. El Cabrero and Marbella up the other side of the waterfront offer a slightly better deal and are still easy to get into Centro.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Cartagena?
A: People are generally very friendly and welcoming. Cartagena is a tourist town, so there are plenty of hustlers in the tourist areas. Living here or not, you are likely to be seen as a tourist forever.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Most of the friends I’ve made, locals and expats, have been through work. That’s probably as easy here as it is anywhere else. I'm a bit of an introvert though and am fine with a smaller group of 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 with the locals?
A: I have both local and expat friends. For advice on making friends with locals, again any coworkers or mutual friends are a good place to start. Given it’s a tourist town, there are some bad apples around looking to take advantage of people. For that reason, it’s not a bad idea to at least be wary of people you meet out and about, although this is usually pretty obvious quickly. There are plenty of people who are quite friendly though. If you have passable Spanish and are open to getting to know people, you should be able to make friends with some locals.
Working in Cartagena
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: I actually more or less did the visa process myself at the job I got immediately after my volunteer year. It wasn’t too bad, but you do have to make sure you have all the documents in order. Fortunately, everywhere else I have worked have taken care of it for me. For places that hire foreigners, that should generally be the case. Those coming for retirement or to open a business should check out the requirements carefully to be sure they meet them.
Q: What is the economic climate in Cartagena like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Outside of teaching, there isn’t a ton in Cartagena. There may be some NGOs, tourist industry, and possibly business jobs for those with experience in those fields.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Cartagena or Colombia? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: There are good and bad differences. Generally speaking, things tend to be much more slow-paced and disorganized than in the States. That has its perks and drawbacks. While expats will generally have it much better, employees are generally also not valued or treated as such by management here.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Cartagena or Colombia?
A: For advice to new expat arrivals, I would say to have an open mind. I would also immediately get to work on learning Spanish if you don’t know it already, as you’ll be able to have much better interactions with locals with it. Finally, be patient and flexible. You will almost certainly want to pull your hair out at times, but remember the warm weather, take a look at the city, and remember why you were drawn here.
► Interviewed November 2019
► Read about more expat experiences in Colombia