Stuart Oswald is a British expat living in rural Colombia with his family. He is passionate about the local people and culture, and uses his knowledge of the Colombian lifestyle to help expats trying to establish themselves in the country. Have a look at his blog, Stuart Oswald, for an insider's take on making a home in Colombia or follow his adventures on Twitter (@StuartOswald).
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: London, United Kingdom
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Cundinamarca, Colombia
Q: When did you move here?
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved with my partner.
Living in Colombia
Q: What do you enjoy most about Cundinamarca? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the UK?
A: Mine is a small town in the Colombian Andes, about 3 hours drive west out of Bogotá. I rate the quality of life here as being very high compared to London. It’s easy going and focused on daily chores. Come the weekend it turns into a warm holiday destination for the people of Bogotá looking to make an escape from the city grind.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about London?
A: Tea, clean drinking tap water, a cooler climate, and the absence of mosquitos. I have some useful tips on my blog for expats trying to make a life in Colombia.
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: Colombia is a civilised country and its people are well educated. The biggest shock that still pervades today centres around hygiene. The restaurants, staff and public facilities are dirty and there isn't a big culture of handwashing, especially in rural areas. In urban areas there is a lot of dog mess and rubbish on the streets.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to the UK? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: The cost of living can be very economical if you shop, eat and do as the locals. Trying to live, go to restaurants and shop like you would in Europe will cost you the same as it would abroad.
Q: How would you rate the public transport? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: Pretty bad. Rush hours are terrible across the board. The situation is totally different outside of rush hours, where it can be quite pleasant. Intercity transport is fine with coaches feeling much like flights. Domestic flights are cheap, too. There is a heavy reliance on cars here for everyday life.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Cundinamarca? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: No particular hospital, but the service is generally amazing compared to the NHS I was used to in the UK. It is cheaper and wins in every aspect (professionalism, care, price, speed..)
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Colombia? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: No, not really. Some neighbourhoods of larger cities are not very nice to venture out in at night. The biggest danger is street robberies, but these are rarely violent. Keep your phone in your pocket and relax.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Cundinamarca? What different options are available for expats?
A: Housing is on par with Western nations but you will be paying exactly the same price for it as you would back home. If you go down the strato level you can get cheaper accommodation in less affluent areas.
Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: The North of Bogotá and Medellín are the obvious places. You’ll feel so at home you won’t even realise that you’re in a new country.
Meeting people and making friends in Colombia
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women, etc.?
A: Colombians are very tolerant of foreigners and tend to welcome the difference Westerners bring to their circles. Women guests are respected, in some cases more than in some Western cultures. The local religion is overwhelmingly Christian, which means you will enjoy a clear monoculture that is unmistakably Colombian.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Foreigners in Colombia are still quite a novelty so you will have many locals approaching you to be friends. Enjoy the attention as Colombians tend to move on to the chores of daily life once they’ve accompanied you on trips and shown you the sights.
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? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: In my part of rural Colombia I am the only foreigner. There are no expat groups of any kind until I get to Bogotá.
Working in Cundinamarca
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I tackled it myself but it is pretty straightforward. You will need lots of paperwork, so be organised. Queues are the hardest aspect of the process, but hiring a consultant can take a lot of the hassle out it. Having said that, visas do not require you to fulfil difficult requirements and their are many types on offer.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Cundinamarca? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The climate for business is amazing. Every sector I know is harnessing growth. The most important resource is simply networking. Word of mouth will be your greatest benefit.
Q: How does the work culture differ from the UK? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Colombia?
A: Be prepared for bureaucracy, and lots of it. The paperwork needed for even the smallest tasks is immense in comparison to Western nations.
Family and children
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: It all depends on how important socialising is to them. The language is always an important factor. In the big cities, however, there are big expat communities and the pressure to integrate isn't as strong.
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: Children are amazingly flexible. It is important that parents present changes in a positive way. It is advisable to keep all routines the same as what the children are used to. Comfort toys are import as well as routine tasks like homework. Food can be the biggest change that can cause problems in adjusting. Be positive and try to present food as close to what they are used to as you can. With regards to language changes, I find that communicating in a familiar language at first is important, try to introduce Spanish slowly and positively. I manage an English Homeschool group for expats in Colombia. If you would be interested in joining, please get in touch for more information.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: I would suggest private schools where possible, but the state schools are good too. Be prepared for lots of homework and try to supplement your child's education with homeschooling.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Don’t expect the lifestyle you are used to back home. Be prepared to accept big changes. Find your comfort zone and step out of it as often as possible. There can be issues with making a life here, but try to see even the worst aspects in a funny light. Remember that Colombia is a developing country, so try to have a positive attitude. If you're looking for more information on my life in Colombia, follow my blog and get in touch with me, my email is email@example.com. Good luck.
~ Interviewed April 2018