Costa Rica (Central Valley) vs Medellín: a difficult comparison

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I just read an article posted on the Medellín Guru’s website that compares the city of Medellín, Colombia with Costa Rica. Both are the most desirable relocation destinations in Latin America in my opinion. However,  it very difficult to compare a city with a whole country. That’s like comparing apples and oranges. A much fairer and more realistic comparison would be to compare Medellín and Costa Rica’s Central Valley since both have a similar topography in that they are both located in mountain valleys.

Medellin, Colombia

First I would like to point out that I lived in Latin America for almost 50 years and have visited every country except for Paraguay. I studied in Mexico and hold advanced degrees in Latin American studies and Spanish linguistics. Although I live in Costa Rica and am a citizen here I have visited Medellín on numerous occasions while doing extensive research.

For the last 30 years, I have conducted relocation/retirement tours to Costa Rica and other countries in the region. I am proud to announce that starting in 2018 I will begin conducting one-of-a-kind Exploratory Relocation tours to Medellín for those who want to move there.

San José, Costa Rica

Taking all of the above into consideration I think that I am more than qualified to provide an object review of both areas as places to relocate. I will address each of the points in the in the Medellín Guru’s article individually. I have not included the whole article but only excerpts of each topic with my take on the situation.

Medellín Guru: International Living ranked the country of Costa Rica as its fourth-best foreign retirement location in 2017, which is ahead of Colombia that was ranked number five. Christopher Howard: International living has a vested interest in the countries that they rate above Costa Rica and Colombia, so their opinion is slanted and really not objective. Furthermore, they get a lot of attention because they have a tremendous marketing machine.

Medellín Guru: Many retirees in Costa Rica choose to live in the Central Valley of Costa Rica, which is the area surrounding the capital city of San Jose. Other expats choose to live near the water and the Guanacaste province on the northwest Pacific coast is popular with expats. And other expats choose to live in other parts of Costa Rica.  Christopher Howard: Costa Rica offers more choices for living in different areas: Central Valley (Escazú, Santa Ana, Heredia, Atenas, Alajuela, Grecia and San Ramón), San Isidro (to the south), and the Northern, Central and South Pacific beach areas. From the Central Valley, most beaches can be reached in a matter of hours by car or bus. On the other hand, to visit Colombia’s beaches you have to take a flight from Medellín or be willing to spend countless hours on a bus.

Medellín Guru: . In my opinion, both places have their pluses and minuses. No place is perfect. Christopher Howard: Correct

Now let’s look at the 20 categories.

1. Cost of Living

Medellín Guru: . Apartment properties I have seen in San Jose, Costa Rica tend to rent or sell for about 35-50 percent higher prices than similar properties in Medellín. And sometimes even higher. I have seen some rental properties with 60 percent higher prices in San Jose compared to similar properties in Medellín. And property prices in Costa Rica can be even higher along the coasts. Christopher Howard: Yes, I agree 100 percent.

Medellín Guru: However, you should also factor in taxes into the cost of living. Colombia has a higher IVA tax than Costa Rica, which is included in the prices of goods sold in stores. And Colombia taxes the worldwide income of residents, while Costa Rica only taxes local income. Christopher Howard: True

2. Climate

Medellín Guru: It’s a tie in this category but… Christopher Howard: Both places (Medellín and the Central Valley) boast spring-like weather. So, it is quite possible in most cases to live without air-conditioning or heating. The rainy seasons are different, with Costa Rica getting more rain in the afternoons during some months.

Medellín is in a deeper Valley and has a population of almost 5 million people. There are 5 million in all of Costa Rica. What does this equate to? A lot of pollution in Medellín. The breezes in Costa Rica’s Central Valley limit the pollution.

3. Healthcare

Medellín Guru: Medellín wins Christopher Howard: but Costa Rica has excellent health care, too. More expensive than Colombia but still affordable when compared to the U.S. Medellín has seven of the top hospitals in Latin America while Costa Rica only has one according to the Medellín Guru. Hospital Cima was excluded as was the new Hospital Metropolitano. Both should be on the list. Medical Tourism is big in both countries.

Good healthcare is a very important category for retirees. And Medellín wins this category due to having seven of the best hospitals in Latin America.

4. Traffic

Medellín Guru The two places arguably tie here.  Waze conducted a survey in 2015 that ranked Costa Rica as the eighth worst country in the world to drive in. And Colombia was ranked 13th worst in the world. Furthermore, another survey by Waze last year ranked Medellín and San Jose as two of the worst cities for traffic in Latin America. Christopher Howard: Agreed but strange with Medellín’s excellent Metro system that the traffic is as bad as it is.

5. Public Transportation

Medellín Guru: Medellín wins here. Medellín has a modern metro system, which is the only rail-based metro system in Colombia. And it has been in place for over 20 years. Christopher Howard: Agreed. San José needs a Metro to link the suburbs and neighboring cities.

6. Safety

Medellín Guru: Costa Rica wins here. Costa Rica generally has lower crime rates than is found in the city of Medellín. Christopher Howard: Agreed. Both places are much safer than many areas of the U.S. with NO mass shootings.

7. Pollution

Medellín Guru: It is arguably a tie here.  The World Health Organization (WHO) previously reported that Medellín is ranked #9 in a list of the 10 most polluted cities in Latin America. Christopher Howard: Don’t agree.

Costa Rica, in general, has less pollution than Medellín. However, Costa Rica and San Jose, in particular, has a big problem with volcanic ash. The Turrialba Volcano near San Jose erupts on a fairly regular basis. Twice when I visited San Jose the city was coated in volcanic ash. In general, Costa Rica has less air pollution than found in Medellín. But Costa Rica has a problem with volcanic ash. Christopher Howard: Don’t agree. The problem with the volcanic ash is sporadic with the worst happened almost two years ago. The emanation of volcanic ash cannot be controlled. Pollution can be reduced. Medellín has many more people than San José which contributes to the pollution.

8. Travel Access to North America, Europe, Latin America and Colombia

Medellín Guru: Costa Rica wins here by the skin of ti’s teeth. Christopher Howard: The bottom line you can fly non-stop to many more international locations from San Jose’s Juan Santamaría. From Medellín
‘s airport, there are non-stop flights available to Fort Lauderdale, Miami and New York (JFK) in the U.S. In addition, from MDE you can fly non-stop to Madrid in Europe.  Both places are easily accessible.

9. Things to Do

Medellín Guru: The two places arguably tie here. Both Medellín and Costa Rica have many things to do. Christopher Howard: I agree. But as the Medellín guru states, “Colombia is a much larger country than Costa Rica. So, there is obviously a much bigger variety of things to do throughout Colombia. 

10. Restaurants and Nightlife

Medellín Guru: Medellín wins here. Medellín is a much larger city with a metro population of about 4 million. While San Jose’s metro population is only about 2.2 million. In fact, Medellín’s population is about 80 percent of the population the entire country of Costa Rica, which is about 4.9 million. Christopher Howard: Agree but the Central Valley’s nightlife is good and there is something for everyone to do to stay busy and happy.

11. Currency

Medellín Guru: It’s a tie here. Christopher Howard: The bottom line is that the cost of living is about 30-40 percent less in Colombia. But it all boils down one’s lifestyle. 

12. Taxes

Medellín Guru: Costa Rica wins here. Christopher Howard: I agree because as the Medellín Guru points out,  “Costa Rica can be considered a tax haven for foreigners with incomes in another country as tax residents in Costa Rica are only taxed on local income. While in Colombia tax residents are taxed on worldwide income.But as the Medellín Guru points out,” In addition, with the much lower cost of living in Medellín it is possible that even if you have to pay income taxes in Colombia, your total cost of living including taxes can be lower in Medellín than in Costa Rica”.

13. Job Opportunities

Medellín Guru: Medellin wins here. Medellín is a much larger city with nearly double the metro population of San Jose. So, clearly, there are many more job opportunities in Medellín. Christopher Howard: Partially agree but more and more foreign countries are creating outsourcing work in Costa Rica.

Bottom line: As the medellín Guru states, “But there aren’t that many work opportunities in either city for foreigners. This is particularly the case if you don’t speak Spanish fluently. Fluency in Spanish is typically required for the best jobs in both Colombia and Costa Rica. In both Medellín and Costa Rica you can find English teaching job opportunities if you are a native English speaker. However, the pay for English teaching isn’t the greatest in either city. And competition is fierce, particularly in Medellín. But there are more English teaching jobs available in the larger city of Medellín”.

14. Education Options

Medellín Guru: Costa Rica edges out Medellín here. Costa Rica reportedly has over 60 universities and five of these are public. And Medellín has a smaller number of universities, as it is reportedly home to less than 40 universities. Both places have many education options. But since Costa Rica has more universities and more Spanish language programs it edges out Medellín in this category. Christopher Howard: Agreed.

15. Internet Availability and Infrastructure Reliability

Medellín Guru: Medellín wins here.  “Both Medellín and Costa Rica have a high-speed Internet of up to 100 Mbps speed available. But the infrastructure for Internet, power, and water tends to be less reliable in Costa Rica. Furthermore, the highest speed Internet in both places will normally be available only in the newest apartment buildings. In older buildings, you may be limited to lower speeds. In general, the infrastructure is more reliable in Medellín and services are less expensive. So, Medellín beats Costa Rica in this category”. Christopher Howard: Agreed but the Internet is improving in Costa Rica. Especially around San José. I use it to run a business and have no complaints.

16. Economic Freedom, Ease of Starting a Business and Corruption

Medellín Guru: Medellín edges out Costa Rica here. Since both places are in different countries it is good to compare the countries in terms economic freedom and ease of starting a business and corruption when considering them as places to live.Since Colombia is ranked with a freer economy and is ranked a bit easier place to do business, Medellín edges out Costa Rica in this category. Christopher Howard: Agreed.

According to the Medellín Guru: “The Heritage Foundation ranks countries in terms of economic freedom. It ranks Colombia as a “moderately free country”. It ranks Colombia #37 out of the 180 countries it ranks in terms of economic freedom in the world. Heritage Foundation also ranks Costa Rica with a “moderately free” economy.  It currently ranks Costa Rica #65 out of 180 countries in terms of economic freedom. So, Costa Rica’s economy is considered to be less free than Colombia’s economy. In Costa Rica, excessive government bureaucracy continues to discourage dynamic entrepreneurial activity. Furthermore, it is much more difficult to do business in Costa Rica than in Colombia.  The World Bank ranks Costa Rica #61 out of 190 countries in the world in terms of ease of doing business. In comparison, Colombia is ranked #59 in terms of ease of doing business. So, if you are looking to start a business this will be a bit easier to do in Colombia”.

“Corruption is found in both countries but corruption is somewhat more prevalent in Colombia. Colombia is ranked #90 out of 176 countries in terms of corruption perception by Transparency International. And Costa Rica is ranked #58”.

17. Shopping

Medellín Guru: Medellín wins here.  “The largest mall in Costa Rica, City Mall, located in San Jose is smaller with about 330 shops. You can’t find many of the large scales malls like are found in Medellín in the smaller city of San Jose. Medellín has more Western-style malls and more shopping options than the smaller city of San Jose in Costa Rica. The largest malls in Medellín include El Tesoro, Los Molinos, Mayorca, Oviedo, Premium Plaza, Puerta del Norte, Santafé, and Unicentro.

Christopher Howard: Partially true: Malls are springing up everywhere in Costa Rica. The Guru obviously didn’t visit Multiplaza Oeste in Escazú. The bottom line according to the Medellín Guru is that Medellín has many more and larger malls and more shopping options that are found in San Jose or the smaller cities and towns in Costa Rica. So, Medellín wins in this category but not by that much. Both places offer excellent shopping. Many hard-to-find products can also be shipped from the states through one of the private shippers which exist in both countries

18. English Proficiency Levels

Medellín Guru: The two places tie in this category. ” In both cities, you will frequently find some English speakers in hotels and nicer restaurants. And even a few of the taxi drivers and shopkeepers in both Medellín and Costa Rica speak some English. Also, executives at larger companies in both cities typically are bilingual.I have seen some publications claim that most people speak English in Costa Rica. This is simply not true in my experience”.

Christopher Howard: I do not agree. More people speak English in Costa Rica, especially the young people who need it for jobs and have been brought up watching TV shows in English. I have a degree in linguistics and am quick to notice the growing number of English speakers here. I have many English speaking expat friends in Medellín and all of them state that Spanish is a necessity because not many Colombians speak English well.

Was the Medellín Guru says, “The bottom line is that some Spanish is needed in either Costa Rica or Medellín? Or you will need to depend on someone bilingual”. Christopher Howard: The more Spanish the better.

19. Expat Community

Medellín Guru: Costa Rica wins here.” Costa Rica has nearly 13,000 expats from the U.S. and nearly 2,000 from Canada and the UK living in Costa Rica. Likely up to half of those expats live in San Jose, the largest city in Costa Rica”. Christopher Howard: I agree but the stats are incorrect. There are around 50,000 English-speaking expats living full or part-time in Costa Rica with the majority of them in the Central Valley. I am 100 percent sure of this figure.  Costa Rica has the highest number of American expats proportionately than any other foreign country in the world!

Medellín Guru: “The entire country of Colombia has nearly 19,000 expats from the U.S. and over 2,200 expats from Canada and the UK living in Colombia according to International Organization of Migration. But a majority of those expats living in Colombia likely live in Bogotá, which is the largest city and business center in Colombia”.

“The expat community in Medellín is likely much smaller and unfortunately there aren’t statistics for Medellín. However, I would estimate there may be less than 4,000 expats from North America and Europe living in Medellín. In addition, the expats in Medellín are less noticeable in the much larger city of Medellín”.

20. Ease of Getting a Visa

Medellín Guru: The two places arguably tie in this category. Wrong! Colombia and Costa Rica both have a number of visa options and the visa processes for both countries are fairly straightforward. Christopher Howard:  I don’t agree. The process is much more difficult and longer in Costa Rica (see below). Bureaucracy is always a pain in the butt wherever you are.

Both Colombia and Costa Rica have retirement (pension) visas with relatively low-income requirements. In addition, both countries also have investor visas with lower investment thresholds than many other countries.

Costa Rica’s retirement visa requires a minimum retirement/pension income of $1,000 per month.  On the other hand, in Colombia you $738 USD. The Colombia retirement visa fee is $282 USD including the processing charge, which is similar to the visa fee as in Costa Rica.

The process takes considerably longer in Costa Rica and typically require more paperwork like a criminal background check. A lawyer has to be hired and the cost of hiring a lawyer for a visa in Costa Rica is typically between $600 to $2,000 per person. Very expensive!

Colombia streamlined its visa process a couple years ago and you can apply online and approvals are now relatively fast, typically in a week or less.

The Bottom Line: Medellín vs Costa Rica

As the Medellín Guru states,” The bottom line in our Medellín vs Costa Rica comparison is that the best place to live is the best place to live for you. Everyone has different priorities. The only way to know which place is the best for you is to spend time there”. Christopher Howard: I could not agree more.

As he states, “If having a lower cost of living, better healthcare and having good public transportation was your most important categories, then Medellín would win for you. And if having a bigger expat community, having better flight access to North America and Europe and being more of a tax haven, then Costa Rica would win for you”.

“Both of these places in our Medellín vs Costa Rica comparison have their pluses and minuses. The Medellín Guru prefers living in Medellín due to it having a low cost of living, good healthcare, and good public transportation”.

Christopher Howard: I love both places but they are very different as I alluded to at the beginning of this article, so it is really hard to compare them. For now, I choose to live in Costa Rica because I have a family and home here. My main relocation business is also headquartered here. Nevertheless, I recognize many golden opportunities await me in Medellín, so together with my associates, we have started a branch of my relocation business there.  Who knows? Perhaps I will end up living part or- full time in Medellín Le’s see what the future holds.