28 April 2017

Allison Voss - Expat in Bogota, Colombia

Allison Voss - Expat in Bogota, Colombia

We’ve had the chance to talk to Allison Voss, 26, an American expat who has moved to Colombia with her boyfriend. Senorita Voss who has lived there for a year, now works as a consultant. 

Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: Columbia, South Carolina.


Q: What made you move out of the US?

A: I left the US, originally, for what I thought was going to be a 6 month period. I moved first to Nairobi, Kenya to work for a management consulting and financial advisory firm working with businesses that have a social or environmental impact. There, I fell in love with a Colombian and moved with him to Bogota, Colombia after being in Kenya for just 8 months together. Crazy, the things we do for love…


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I am currently back in the US, as my boyfriend is going to graduate school and I am working in New York. Before moving back to the US, I most recently lived for a year in Bogota, Colombia, where I was studying Spanish and then later working, and my boyfriend was working as well.


Q: How long did you live in Colombia?

A: I lived in Bogota, Colombia for a year.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: I was living with my boyfriend who grew up and spent the first 24 years of his life living in Bogota. The adjustment for us was quite easy as he was from there, and we lived together.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: Yes, definitely. This to me is the most difficult aspect of living abroad - the homesickness for family and friends. It hits you sometimes when you are least expecting it. You may be out having a fun time with your partner’s family or with new friends, but there is never anything quite like your own family or friends that you have built life-long bonds with. 

I learned to cope with this homesickness in various ways. First of all, it helped to skype with my parents and siblings on a weekly basis. We all agreed that we would always try for Sundays, so Sundays we would always try and make time to talk for about 30 minutes to an hour.  At least to try and feel more connected when we were continents apart. With friends, Skyping was rarer, so we stuck to emailing and messaging via WhatsApp. 

I also found it important to come home at least once a year to visit with family and friends. Having a month in your home country is a good amount of time if you can find it. Stay with your parents, your siblings, your friends, say hello, catch up, share new moments together and refresh yourself. And eat any of the foods you might have missed when you were living abroad.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: I wish I were Colombian! I’m serious when I say that Colombians are some of the most wonderful people that you will ever meet. There is a reason why Colombia is chronically listed as one of the happiest countries in the world year after year. They are incredibly family oriented, caring, sensitive, thoughtful and full of life. Clearly, I am biased since I am in love with a Colombian…


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Colombia? How did you manage to find a social circle there?  

A: It was easy for me to meet new people, because my boyfriend, who I was living with, had spent the first 24 years of his life living in Bogota. We were always with his old friends and family, who were all very welcoming and kind to me. 

I also made some friends from the intensive Spanish school I was enrolled in. There were other people like myself who were with Colombian husbands/wives, partners, etc., so it was wonderful to meet other people who were in the Colombia for similar reasons. Then, after 6 months of being in Colombia, I started working where I was able to make some additional close friends. 

Without having Spanish school or work, I think it would have been very difficult to have made friends. Colombians are some of the kindest and loving people you may ever meet, but they keep their friends for life. For example, my boyfriend’s friends have been his friends since he was a young child, and they have stayed very close. Because of this phenomenon, it could be difficult as an expat to join a friend group. Some of my friends from work who were Venezuelan found it difficult upon first moving to Bogota to find close friends and said it took about 6 months to truly find their sense of place.


Q: How does the cost of living in Colombia compare to your home?

A: The cost of living is significantly less in Bogota, Colombia than in most cities in the U.S. With the deflation of the Colombian peso to US dollar being at about 3,000 pesos to $1 USD. One dollar goes a long way in Colombia. Living in the northern part of Bogota in la Zona Rosa, my boyfriend and I paid about the equivalent of $1,000 total in rent for a well-located, spacious apartment, and I probably spent another $500-$1,000 per month on food, drink, activities living there. In total, I probably spent $1,200-$2,000 per month, living well, going to restaurants, traveling regionally and living in a nice neighbourhood and apartment.

  • Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: Depends on where you go. A cup of coffee from a street cart may only cost you the equivalent of $0.25, but there are also some specialty, high-end coffee shops where you might pay the equivalent of $2 for a Chemex of Colombian coffee.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: For lunch, most Colombians will eat at a lunch restaurant that will be serving a plate of the day. This would come with a soup to start, then rice, meat and a little salad or vegetables, and then a little taste of dessert (like a little pudding or piece of chocolate). All this food would be the equivalent of about $3 and you leave very fully!

  • Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: At an expensive restaurant, you could pay anywhere from $10-$100 per person. The number of expensive restaurants continues to grow in numbers in Bogota. Every week, there are more and more fancy, upscale restaurants; however, there are some very nice Italian or pizza places where you still might only pay $10 per person (if you don’t get any alcohol).

  • Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: A bottle of wine could be as cheap as $5/6, but most bottles are around $12-15 from the grocery store. Wine is imported, so it is not as inexpensive as other foods and drinks. I am not sure how much a pack of cigarettes costs.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in Colombia?

A: I did not open a bank account when I was in Colombia. I had transferred some money to my boyfriend’s Colombian account, and he would get out money for me as I needed. Most restaurants and grocery stores all take credit cards, so I wasn’t using cash very often. Sorry, I don’t have more advice here.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?

A: While living in Colombia for a year, I had a 6-month student visa while I was studying at the Spanish school, and then I spent 6 months on a tourist visa. I did mess up with my student visa, as I had not realized that I needed to register it at the consulate in Bogota within 15 days of being there. They realized this when I was renewing my tourist visa, and I was forced to pay a fine of about $100. So just a word of advice, if you go on a student visa, don’t forget to register it once you are there!


Q: Would you say that healthcare in Colombia is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?

A: I didn’t have any health issues when I was there. Sorry no advice to share here.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance the US or Colombia?  What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?

A: I had a healthcare plan back in the US, which I bought international emergency coverage in the case that something truly bad were to have happened to me and I would need to be jet sent back home. I think this just depends on what your health needs are. If you are a person who gets sick a lot, then maybe look at the Colombia health plans, but if not, I would keep a US based healthcare plan and know where you can use it in Colombia.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to Colombia? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?

A: I would recommend bringing one large suitcase and one carry-on size suitcase and that’s it. Having a carry-on sized suitcase is good to have so you can use it for weekend trips around Colombia. The weather in Bogota is about 50-80 degrees year round, so you don’t need much variety in your wardrobe, and you don’t need bulky winter clothes. I would not move other things like furniture or home goods. All the other necessities for an apartment you can buy there, so I wouldn’t recommend bringing anything like that. It’s very developed, so you can find everything that you need there.


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?

A: The language was the most difficult obstacle for me at first, as I didn’t speak a word of Spanish before arriving and most Colombians don’t speak much English. Just going to the supermarket and paying proved to be difficult the first month or so. Having the energy and determination to learn the language and to communicate in Spanish as much as you can is important. People will be patient with you and they don’t care if you make mistakes. The important thing is to keep trying.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Colombia?

A: The most positive thing about living in Colombia is the people and their culture. You will be hard-pressed to find a more welcoming and happy group of people. 

The negative side to me was just being far from my family and friends. This would come with living in any foreign country. I was happy that my siblings and parents were able to visit for a couple days and that I was able to go back to the US for a few weeks very easily and cheaply.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?

A: My favorite touristy thing in the area is the Salt Cathedral, which is about 30 minutes outside of Bogota. It is absolutely breath-taking and massive. While it is not listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it should be!


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: I moved back to the US and am in New York City for the time being, but I love Colombia and will definitely be back (hopefully soon)!


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?

A: Try everything, don’t say no to strange foods or activities. Learn to appreciate another culture and way of living. You may not like cow’s tongue or chicken neck, but you wouldn’t know until you have tried it.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Colombia?

A: First, I would be happy to share my own personal blog, Understanding Intent (www.understandingintent.com). Here you can find some of my posts about living in Colombia. Another great blog about Colombia is “How to…Bogota” (http://www.howtobogota.com/) which also has some great tips for moving the city.