Cartagena skyline sunset

What's soft retirement?

This original concept describes a step or phase before retirement, usually well before and part of your retirement planning; This used to imply that this is an agenda for professionals well into their career, in a position to be able to forecast and balance between expenses, income, and inflation in the future.

The basic premise of the original soft retirement is having enough savings in the bank to support yourself until full retirement. Freeing you to do things like working half-time, changing fields of work, volunteering, or starting your own business.

The point is: You might still need to work, but you have more control over how and where you’re doing it. This used to be the whole story.

Global changes in work dynamics due to the pandemic, migration, social changes, conflict, and a new class of independently wealthy youngsters are ongoing factors changing this original meaning.

The high cost of real estate in developed economies and disaffection from the conventional 9-5 job lifestyle also contributes to looking for alternatives in those not far into conventional professional paths.

Pension Savings 50%Below recommended on average
Pension Readiness75%Average score by countries

What about soft retirement abroad?

Early retirement into a different country than where you already reside depends mostly on where you are coming from and where you are going.

Even between developed economies, there are enough differences in the cost of living to make it worth it, but then again, you will be faced with more or less the same problems you are trying to avoid: high property costs, inflation, and on top of that, probably additional taxing and red tape.

Soft retirement in developing economies solves a lot of these details but introduces different questions and perceived issues, that also depend on where you are coming from and where you would plan to retire. The most usual ones are:

  • Is the language too hard?
  • Cost and standard of living
  • Healthcare
  • How's security and politics?
  • Exchange rate, taxes and treaties
  • Local job opportunities
  • Local tourism and immigration

This will be a small series of articles where we will elaborate on soft retirement scenarios in the developing nation we know and love. And why we think you should consider Colombia for your soft retirement plans. In this first part, we will start addressing the most essential and complex ones:

Occupation70%Plan to keep working after retirement

Soft Retiring in Colombia

Colombia, the country, (the one with two Os), is located between the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Amazon forest. It is crossed by the 3 mountain ranges in which the Andes split up here in the top of South America. So you get not only contrasting geographies but mixes of all of them.

This is a unique combination of variables providing an equal diversity in climate, regions, people, and landscapes. Ironically, being one of the countries that have access to 2 different big seas, Colombia didn’t prioritize developing coastal cities early in its history, instead, our top cities are either on a big mesa like Bogota (2600m asl / 7M pop), hilly valleys like Medellin (1500m asl), or a proper valley like Cali (1000m asl).

In recent years coastal cities have seen impressive developments focused on trade and tourism. Besides our main ports, the main economic and social centers are the big 3 cities cited, with a wide array of intermediate cities and towns with unique characteristics.

In our case, the simplest way to start describing our country is by giving this geographical context because, well, it isn’t normal to have all this diversity in one place when you are not a big country (440K sq Mi.) and this influences everything: urbanization, transport, security, economy, and even culture. For additional background, we think we can get away with linking to the quick overview of our country in Wikipedia and the linked articles you’ll find there.

How is Colombian Spanish?

Out of all the languages of Spain (Vasco, Galego, Catalá, etc) Latin America inherited the one used in the political center, the Castilian, none of the other ones ever made it, hence some people debate if the Spanish language as a single entity is a thing, or how applies to us noting that Latín America started speaking Castilian by the rule of Castilian colonizers, and plenty of the original languages from before “la conquista” are still alive and thriving (You could use Windows in Quechua for a long time). Still, Castilian is the lingua franca but variations across countries are notable even for natives.

Colombian Spanish language is one of those that least deviated from the original Castilian and is considered neutral in regards to accent within other Caribbean variations. The relationship between Spanish and English is pretty paradoxical:

For Anglo natives – Spanish is hard in the book but easy on the ground.
For Latin@ natives – English is easy in the book, but hard on the ground.

Not only is one of our official languages (San Andres Islands’ creole) but Colombians dig English. Due to so many commercial and political relations, the language has a sort of prestige attached, English has been taught in Private schools for a long time, and for at least 1 decade English is part of the curriculum in all public elementary and secondary schools, with the Chinese language joining soon. Private bilingual schools have been popular for even longer. Transnational language education brands have been around for a long time too.

So while you learn Spanish you can probably get away with simple English almost anywhere you go within a big city or tourist areas. If you plan on staying for a bit then it makes sense to start studying before traveling, but you can also learn it here since those big language schools and most universities offer Spanish education too. 

If your primary language is not English you will also find Colombo-Foreign schools for French, German, Italian, Hebrew, and many others. A SO or friends in here are also of big help in this regard.

Cost of Living in Colombia

Giving solid numbers in this regard is complex and everchanging due to global inflation and currencies fluctuating in the 2022 and early 2023 economy. Let us start by noting that we have a real-time USD to COP chart on our site, but let’s work with the approximate average price in the last year of $1 USD is equal to $4500 COP. It helps to have round numbers.

The minimum wage is $1’160.000 COP or about $260 USD, and this is after a big 10% increase, the largest in our history, to catch up with inflation. Min Wage is referenced and negotiated monthly and not annually like you might be familiar with. Since we are an economy that is heavily reliant on exports (oil, coal, coffee, produce, and cattle mostly) with a fast-growing services sector, is in most interest to keep the exchange rate controlled and favor getting more value out of the dollar.

A big factor in your cost of living will be the stratum in which you’ll live. Our urbanization model centralizes in cities, there’s no suburbia outside of the city, we have satellite cities instead but they don’t follow the suburbia model.

There are 6 strata loosely defined as low and high tiers of the corresponding lower, middle, and high classes. Stratum influences the average cost of the square meter of your property (buy or rent), and the scale on which some of your utilities will be billed. Food and other expenses are not that affected by this, But services and products used to have some markup regarding the stratum where the shop is located, a big boom in ecommerce and delivery apps is solving that to some extent.

To keep a familiar style of living coming from a developed economy, you go for a higher stratum. A private condo in a close sub-urban area is another usual choice. But the middle class is super comfy for young retirees on a budget. And if you want to go semi-rural then your budget almost duplicates, for lawn and garden afficionados.

We have created a quick and rough Cost Of Living calculator using heavily rounded numbers and only including the most essential things you’ll need anywhere.

If you completed a budget, at first glance it might look wrong, but if you remember the minimum wage you’ll know it checks out. Not saying the MW is enough for most locals, because it isn’t, and welfare and subsidies are available for those in need. Just saying that a local can get by with significantly less than what we, by experience, know that a foreigner normally spends.

Note also that we are not including clothing (no seasons, local industry), tourism, health and beauty, clubs and education, entertainment, furniture, and similar one-time purchases.

Even after inflation, the cost of living is still very affordable if you come with a monthly check from abroad. This is not counting your local income if you go for it.

Policy and overall security

Colombia is the oldest democracy in South America and 24th worldwide, the last non-democratic regime was around 1958. Not to say we haven’t had problems in the last 70 years, but ours are not political but mostly related to the drug trade and associated violence. You’ll perhaps be tempted to check Narcos or other series based on the narco violence of the 80s and 90s, but those series are a vast simplification of what really happened, they are not documentaries but soap operas, you’d get more insight from analyzing the production since they were all done in here, from script to export. There are no series regarding the guerrilla violence that preceded this time, or the paramilitary violence parallel to that, that wasn’t so “romantic”.

Beginning in the 2000s we got the presidency of Alvaro Uribe who focused on big military hits on the FARC guerrilla leaders which eventually debilitated and made viable the peace processes with these armed groups. Remember that our geography is mostly jungle and is a pretty hard theater to deploy militarily: think Vietnam, 10x the size, and with actual mountains. And although we could hold the line for almost 6 decades of internal conflict, guerrilla was every time more brazen, and it took this hard turn to the right, together with advances in arms tech and cooperation, focusing on taking out the leaders and big camps. Going as far as bombing beyond the border with our neighbor Ecuador or pulling things like Operación Jaque. These big groups (FARC / AUC) with considerable regional presence disappeared leaving small remnant groups with local projection.

Due to this long experience and continuous deployment, given our size, our army is well-ranked in the world and Colombia is one of the top militaries in the region, with a humble but competent military industry under the control of the state. Military and state presence is adequate in most of the urban centers, being the most isolated regions and close to the borders where violence is done by these groups. We have a lot of borders (6000+ Km) and are mostly waterways deep in the jungle. So they are both a natural wall and a good hideout.

A sad consequence of this long internal conflict is that Colombia is a very low-trust society, to the assertion: “Most people should be trusted”. Being inherently conservative up until recent times, it usually prompts the question as to why are Colombians so agreeable and neighborly anyway. Tourism and business travel have always been high and both things are pretty evident, and one of the most common remarks done about our people.

But every people has its limits and strict covid policies still in 2021, -and the econ minister not knowing the price of an egg- reignited the protests from 2020 into a long continuous standout with violent clashes that resolved when the government backed out. The next thing that happened is something that might be a turning point in that trending low trust.

Last year we got our first progressive (left-of-center) president after almost 20 years of hard right governments that ended, as always, with corruption and bad management. Due to that inherent neoliberal conservativism, -and well, having a violent leftist guerrilla around- there was not any chance to have a left president, is super obvious why. The paradigm shift of coming from that, to electing (and doing a peaceful transition, you know, military swearing an oath) to an Ex M19 guerrilla president is something that not many anticipated, and it was less of a big deal than everyone expected.

While we are yet to see results on the big changes underway, it hasn’t been the total subversion of institutions and military as some feared. If anything, (and you probably don’t know this, but currently most Lat Am governments are left), our left seems one of the most centered of all. Internationally, we didn’t lose friends and got back some that we lost along the way.

Security in Cities

Security in the cities is a different matter, petty thieves and stealing are the most common problems, with violence between small narco groups and other illegal structures making most of the homicide, followed by robbery of mobiles and bikes. Targeted hijacking and extortion are rare nowadays compared to the height of the violence.

Civilians rarely have weapons and civilian shootings are extremely rare. To this date, we have not had a single school shooting by a civilian, for example. You can buy a handgun (no rifles) from a limited selection of brands and models carried by the state military enterprise and you have to do psychological and physical checks, in addition to background checks. Carry is forbidden unless you have a special permit. Consult your consulate in Bogotá for eligibility.

Due to our history, the security companies and industry are somewhat developed and you can find certified bodyguards and armored cars easily if you feel you’ll need that. Other than big corporate types, politicians, protected citizens, and diplomats, is hard to see dedicated security teams protecting civilians in a city, not really needed. 1 or 2 civilian clothed bodyguards/drivers are not unusual if you are very wealthy though.

Home security providers have conventional tech and solutions, and most residential groups have their own guarded security either as a common security zone or gated community, with varying levels of isolation from the common traffic and visitors.

In general, as a foreigner, you’ll have inherent protection given by our policy to go hard on crime towards foreigners. We have plenty of extradition treaties and there are examples of crimes against foreigners that result in the criminal being caught and sent abroad rather quick. Most common crime against foreigners is opportunistic, people that bill you twice for a meal or drinks, scammers, and pickpocketing. Out of all, paseo millonario is one of the scariest but is easily preventable by having a car or using legal taxis, and Uber.

In any case, and while is an overall secure country nowadays, precaution and prevention don’t hurt. Psychos and inherently bad people you’ll find in any country, but as long as you are not looking for what you didn’t lose, you’ll be safe.

The importance of 2nd opinions

As with anything in life, you shouldn’t decide on something based on a single point of view, is always recommended to meet people from the country first and learn their points of view. 

There are various forums for that besides social networks, you could even use apps like Tinder to meet new people and maybe show you around if you come for a bit, beware of people that just want you to send them things or money. 

Most people will just chat with you on dating apps if you are clear from the beginning, language exchange is a very usual activity for example. And even if you are interested in love, our advice is that you keep that to yourself for as long as possible. Foreigners get a lot of attention on dating apps so be careful. 

Besides this, seems counter-intuitive, but you could also ask your local Colombian immigrants how is it here, and why are they there. Check our literature and independent movies, and any impartial analysis you can find.

Subscribe or follow us on our social networks so you know when the next part comes around. Thanks for your read.

Got questions? Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *