PANAMÁ CITY TO MEDELLÍN: Reflections After Moving to Antioquia's Capital
Medellín is a favorite place for many people from other cities in Colombia and abroad. It is no coincidence that thousands of expatriates looking for an ideal place to do business, invest, reside temporarily or permanently or simply go sightseeing come here every year. In mid-March 2021, I moved to Medellín with high hopes for a better life, like many people. I arrived with high expectations, leaving a life behind. In this article, I want to show you what has happened during my time here. Additionally, I will take an in-depth look at how the situation is currently in the City of Eternal Spring from a personal perspective.
For several years, I was happy in Panamá, a small, Central American nation of just 75,517 square kilometers. It is smaller than the state of South Carolina in the United States or Austria in Europe. I had arrived as a refugee years earlier, emigrating from Venezuela. There, I was a political opponent and persecuted by a disgraceful regime. In Panamá, I found a safe place to live with my family and in a short time I managed to prosper and leave behind a harsh exile.
At that time, Panamá was the most stable country in Latin America, strategically located between two oceans, already with a stable democracy, and dollarized economic activity. Nothing could go wrong, or so I thought. If you want more information about how Panamá was until recently – look at the following report: “Panamá—Economic Quantum Leap”.
Leaving a Complicated Life Behind
Those who know me personally know that the last years that I lived in Panamá City were very economically difficult for me. In the month of May 2018, I suffered a very hard blow; I lost my job and overnight, 90% of my annual income was reduced. This left me in a very difficult financial situation. For almost three years I had to reinvent myself and start over. In short, after experiencing a huge job scam, I kept struggling to recover with a lot of effort and discipline. Then just when I felt like I was thriving in business again, the month of March 2020 arrived and the COVID-19 pandemic began. At that moment I strongly felt that the Isthmus prosperity season was no longer what the news was saying. To better explain what happened. I will first make a brief summary of how the country got to this point that pushed me to emigrate to Medellín.
Panamá is a Young Nation With an Incredible Political History
To understand a little better the recent events in Panamá, especially in 2021, and how they brought me to Medellin, we must go back 32 years. On December 20, 1989 the President of the United States, George W. Bush, authorized a military invasion to the country. The operation was called “Just Cause”. The objective was to capture the military and political leader Manuel Antonio Noriega and protect US interests in Panamá. Noriega was a dictator who controlled the country with a heavy hand for more than 6 years. According to the US intelligence reports, he was also accused of drug trafficking. During the years of Noriega’s reign he did business with the Medellín Cartel, managing to send tons of cocaine to North America.
Manuel Noriega was a former ally of Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar Gaviria. He was arrested on January 31, 1990. He later served time in the United States and France for drug trafficking, organized crime and money laundering. In 2011, he was extradited to his native country to remain under house arrest. Noriega died of health complications on May 29, 2017 at the age of 83.
The bloody death of opposition leader Hugo Spadafora occurred at the hands of government supporters on September 13, 1985. Additionally, there was the Albrook massacre, in which Major Moises Giroldi and a group of rebels who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Noriega were killed. These unfortunate acts of violence generated more discontent in the country. The protests were repressed by Noriega. The United States responded by imposing severe economic sanctions on Panamá.
The invasion of Panamá caused more than 655 deaths, 2,007 wounded and almost a hundred disappeared, of which more than half were civilians from Panamá, trapped in the lines of fire. For several weeks, there were violent clashes between forces loyal to General Noriega and the US military.
The invaders bombed important areas of the capital city such as the popular Barrio El Chorrillo and the Ciudad Colón. Due to the American military and organizational superiority, in just 42 days the conflict ended, with the triumph of the United States. In the following months, more than 30,000 affected or displaced people were reported, as well as hundreds of businesses who were victims of looting and economic losses of more than one billion dollars.
Post Invasion - A Golden Age for Panamá
The relations of the Isthmus of Panamá with the United States have been intense since the founding of the republic. In 1903, the United States needed to control such an important 82 km trade route to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in a few minutes. Due to the refusal of the Colombian Congress to grant permission and the failure of a French company to develop this work, Panamá consummated its independence on November 3, 1903 when it separated from Colombia. Immediately, Panamá obtained the recognition of the United States. The price of this support was the granting of the canal rights permanently through the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. For nearly a century, the canal and all surrounding areas were under the control of the United States.
In 1999 Panamá regained total sovereignty over the Interoceanic Canal zone, which complied with the Treaties signed in 1977 in the city of Washington by Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos and US President Jimmy Carter. After Noriega’s arrest, Panamá managed to establish a stable democracy, dismantling the army, so that the country would become a positive benchmark throughout Latin America in terms of economic development, quality of life and foreign investment. It has exhibited an average nominal gross domestic product among the highest in the region. For many years this country was considered as the: “Singapore or Dubai” from Central America.
The Rise of "El Loco" To Power
Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Berrocal is a wealthy Panamanian businessman who in 2009 won the presidential elections with more than 60.3% of the votes in alliance with various opposition parties. During his government, Martinelli promoted large investments for more than 20 billion dollars such as the Panamá Metro, expansion of the canal, and among others. These investments were made to strengthen the economy and consolidate the country’s position as a financial center. The business, logistics and services boom opened the country to foreign migration through extraordinary decrees called “Crisol de Razas”. With these laws it was sought that Panamá had enough manpower to undertake large works. In his government, foreign direct investment increased from 1,259 million dollars to 4,651 when he gave up power in 2013.
Few people will understand how I preferred to leave Panamá and come to Colombia. So I must explain as the genesis of the debacle I experienced. The election of the engineer, businessman and political leader of the Panamanian Party Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez as President of the Republic on May 4 of 2014 with 39.04% of the valid votes (724,440), compared to a percentage of 31.40% (582,122) of the official candidate Jose Domingo Arias of the Democratic Change Party.
Despite his economic achievements and high popularity, El “Loco Martinelli” was accused of spying on calls, emails from opposition political leaders and being involved in several corruption cases. The most notorious being the alleged bribes he received from the Brazilian company Odebrecht. However, since the US invasion of Panamá in 1989, no ruling party has won the next election in a row. So it is said that in Panamá every 4 years an opposition party always wins.
In 2011, Martinelli broke the alliance with the Panameñista party with which he had been elected in 2014, removing Vice President Juan Carlos Valera from the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs. He would later become leader of the opposition and winner of the 2014 elections. In a story very much in the style of a Latin soap opera, they were first friends and then rivals. Juan Carlos Varela came to power seeking revenge with his former ally. Thus, he spent most of his term denouncing alleged acts of corruption by his predecessor. In those years the Panamanian economy slowed down. Unemployment rose to 6.7%, labor informality went from 36% to 45%. Public debt increased from 34% to 39%, also increasing the fiscal deficit considerably.
Ricardo Martinelli went from hero to villain in a short time and for some he has been a victim of his political enemies. Panamá has a recent history where anything can happen. Being the most popular president in the country, he became a villain when he left power and his opponents started investigations against him. Then, in June 2017 Martinelli was extradited to Panamá from the city of Miami in Florida to face charges in his country. On November 9, 2021, Martinelli was acquitted for the second time of charges of wiretapping opponents of his government. This paves the way for a possible presidential candidacy of Martinelli in 2024. This story is sure to continue soon.
Panamá Papers: A New WikiLeaks-Style Scandal Shook The World
On April 3, 2016 an international scandal broke out with the leak of documents from the Panamanian Law Firm Mosack Fonseca in the so-called case of: “Panamá Papers”. Secret data of clients around the world who used their services were revealed to create “offshore” companies through this firm. These were often used to launder money from illegal activities and tax evasion. The report splashed on companies, political leaders and personalities of life from various countries. As a result of this situation, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placed Panamá on the gray list, qualifying it as a “tax haven” affecting the country’s reputation.
Additionally, in 2020, the European Union included Panamá on a black list of countries that do not comply with the regulations on fiscal transparency to avoid money laundering elaborated by the World Economic Forum. This problem generates distrust towards Panamá as an international business center and therefore affects the arrival of new capital to the country.
On March 8, 2020, the first COVID-19 case was detected in the country. More than a year and a half later, the effects of the pandemic are still being felt in many areas, with more than 476,000 positive cases and 7,356 deaths at the end of November 2021. From an economic standpoint, Panamá has been one of the countries most affected in its finances after COVID-19. Some figures indicate that there are more than 1 million people unemployed. This is not an insignificant figure in a country with only 4.5 million inhabitants. This has caused the bankruptcy of thousands of companies and families, adding to the increase in complaints of abuse of power and corruption by some public officials. Additionally, prominent leaders of the official party are generating an increasingly hostile environment to the arrival of foreigners.
Deteriorating Situation Forced Me Leave
In 2021, there were high levels of unemployment in Panamá. Thousands of companies and families went bankrupt and the corruption of the ruling party worsened. As is often the case when there are problems in countries, an environment had also been created increasingly hostile to the arrival of foreigners. I consider this to be a dangerous medium-term breeding ground for the canal country. So after trying various options for employment and entrepreneurship endeavors, it was clear that I had to look for new opportunities for myself.
Despite feeling a bit disappointed, I must thank Panamá for the great opportunities it gave me for those 10 years. It has been an incredible experience for my professional and personal growth. I left many very valuable friends and dreams for which I fought to the end. I really want Panamá to return to the path of growth and stability in every way and I hope to be able to return someday because I love this country as my own.
Considerations Before Moving to Medellín
I’ll be honest – Colombia has always been in my life in one way or another. I am a citizen of that nation and half of my maternal and paternal family are of Santanderian origin. Yet one reads so many repeated stories of violence and hardship that it was clearly not my first choice when I emigrated again. The first option was to enter Spain. For this we made some contacts, but everything fell apart with the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was clear that I could not enter Europe and requesting a special visa within the exceptions imposed by this country was a bit complicated for me.
Medellín Offers Quality of Life with Less Cost
One of the main reasons that made me decide to move to Medellín permanently is, without a doubt, the convenient cost of living. In general, Medellín has lower prices than Panamá City. Thus, for example, a small family of 3-4 people in Panamá needs an income of at least $3,300 USD to have a basic life on the Isthmus. That is to say, without frills and simply to cover the rental costs of a modest apartment in a central area of the city and to cover the expenses of food, utilities, education, transportation, health, and any other unforeseen expenses. Now, in Medellín, you can live with up to 39% less (around $2,000 USD for a monthly savings of $1,300 USD) in a Estrato 6 that is one of the highest socioeconomic levels in Colombia. These numbers were overwhelming when choosing to come and live in Medellín with my family, since I can live with a better quality of life and save a lot of money.
In addition to the low cost of living when compared to Panamá city, Medellín is a city that exhibits unprecedented social and economic growth. Thus, for more than 20 years it has successfully evolved in the fight against poverty and crime. Medellín offers great opportunities for nationals and expats, partly due to being the headquarters of the so-called Software Valley – where the development of technology companies is promoted. As if that were not enough, the Valle de Aburrá has a diversified economy, which includes the coffee, textile, financial services industries and more recently the cultivation of flowers, tourism, among others.
Medellín: A Climate Among the World's Best
The climate in tropical Panamá is usually hotter and also humid most of the year, with average temperatures of 29 degrees Celsius. Therefore, if you do not like excessive heat, it will be difficult for you to adapt. I confess that I sometimes had to bathe up to five times a day in Panamá to refresh myself a little from the sweat. So, the use of air conditioning or a fan is a constant part of life in this city and the cost of electricity is one of the highest in the world.
As for Medellín, due to its latitude at about 1,500 meters above sea level, the temperature ranges from 15-20 degrees Celsius most of the year. Therefore, the climate is much cooler than Panamá. Personally I love the difference, since I can always wear the same type of clothes. I can walk comfortably without sweating excessively here. It is no accident that people say that this is the City of Eternal Spring. Really, the year-long weather is gorgeous.
Comparison of Security in Panamá Vs Medellín
In reality, it is difficult to compare Panamá City and Medellín, since obviously, Panamá has a smaller population and therefore a lower rate of robberies and violent acts such as homicides. In the same way, due to its strategic location, Panamá is always an almost obligatory route for illegal drug trafficking and international money laundering, as it is considered a tax haven and narcotics transportation route.
We can say that Panamá has a better security system than Medellín. Generally, in the streets you will always observe the continuous patrolling of the police, especially in the capital and wealthy area of San Francisco and Costa del Este. However, there are so-called red zones that have a higher incidence of crime and where little is officially known. These include Curundú, San Miguelito and the Zona Libre de Colón.
The issue of crime is always a concern of an expatriate when we think of Colombia and especially Medellín. It is that there is a stigma difficult to forget in everyone’s mind, which reminds us of the time of violence unleashed by leftist guerrillas, which fought against the Government for more than 60 years until a peace treaty was signed in September 2016. Furthermore, the fight against criminal gangs and drug trafficking such as those of Pablo Escobar Gaviria. However, the situation of violence in general has been improving, as we will see in the following graph.
Homicides – the most concerning crime numbers that concern locals and expats. Panamá has a homicide rate of 11.60 per 100,000 inhabitants, while Medellín has an index of 14.01 cases per 100 thousand inhabitants. Thus, the difference in favor of Panamá is 2.41 percentage points. Therefore, I can conclude that the homicide situation is more or less similar in both cities.
In Medellín, so far I have been doing well and fortunately haven’t been the victim of a crime. I avoid going out at night to dangerous neighborhoods and I am always discreet. I can go unnoticed many times. However, I see many homeless people on the streets and the so-called: “Gamines” who will ask you for money or street vendors who will approach you almost all the time. This can be a bit uncomfortable if you are not used to it, but in general, if you give any coin they leave you alone and there are rarely any stories of violent attacks on expatriates. If you want to know the recent crime statistics in Medellin, see the article: “Security in Medellín: Improvements over Time”.
Panamá VS Medellín - Infrastructure, Education and Public Services
Panamá is a modern city full of large skyscrapers and first-world shopping centers. However, I have seen that the economic growth has been so accelerated that it has caused disorderly urban planning. This can generate social inequalities. Panamá suffers from some city problems such as: chaos in urban roads, deficiencies in the public transport network, terrible garbage collection and mediocre efficiency of expensive public services.
In Panamá it is normal for real traffic jams to form during rush hours, which in the end deteriorate the quality of life of the people. So if you have a car, you may spend hours in traffic, and fuel is expensive. If you do not have your own vehicle, you will have to suffer horrors with the local taxi drivers who are truly something that you would never want to remember.
Therefore, if you go to Panamá, the best way to move is to hire the service of platforms such as Uber or Cabify. I would always advise to avoid taking street taxis. In addition to being unsafe, the service is usually not the best in my experiences. The Panamá Metro was inaugurated in April 2014. To date, it has 30 stations on 2 lines with a length of 37.3 kilometers. It is very modern and clean. Line #3 is currently being built, so I think that in a few years the transport situation may be better in this city.
In Medellín, on the other hand, there are enough expressways and efficient public transport systems such as the Metro, Metro Cable, Tranvía, and bus lines which allow you to move quickly through the city in a few minutes. Public transport is very cheap. So having a car is not crucial like it is in Panamá.
Additionally, Medellín is a city with good planning. In general, the streets are cleaner and brighter than in Panamá. There are more sidewalks to walk in and green places are abundant.
Education in Panamá is good in terms of English. From preschool to university this language is always taught. A higher percentage of the population speaks English in Panama City than in Medellin. However, when looking at the world ranking of Latin American colleges and universities which compare other subjects, the educational institutions of Medellín are better positioned. We can see this clearly in the Pisa Tests report – where students are tested in areas such as reading, science, and math.
In short, public services, such as electricity, natural gas, internet, telephony and health are quite acceptable in both cities, but I think that the cheapest and most efficient are those in Medellín.
Friendliness Towards Foreigners in Panamá vs Medellín
I must warn you that this topic may be somewhat controversial for many people. It is not my intention to hurt feelings, but rather to simply express my point of view respectfully. In fact, I have great affections in both places. So my heart is somewhat divided now, since Panamá will always be a special place in my life. However, I clearly see that Panamá has developed a love-hate relationship with foreign influence. First, regarding its relationship with Colombia of which it was a part of just 100 years ago, and then later with the United States for the entire 20th Century.
Additionally, due to its strategic location, Panamá has been subjected to constant migratory flows from all over the world. Let us remember that initially, the French and North Americans came for the construction of the interoceanic canal. Then the Chinese, Central Americans, the Caribbean, and, more recently, South Americans. So I see that there is a certain hostility or distrust of some local people towards the foreigners who come to the Isthmus.
Despite being a legal resident in the country for so many years, as a Venezuelan citizen, I often felt different treatment while in Panama. The local laws were somewhat restrictive and I was a bit overwhelmed to work in some areas. So I see that even if you spend years living in that country legally, you will always still feel like an expatriate. You feel a little disappointed. Because you will never be totally free or accepted by the local culture. You will always have an invisible label that says “foreigner” tattooed on your forehead.
In Medellín, on the other hand, I have felt at home from the first moment I arrived. It has been incredible. People here are more receptive and friendly. In fact, only once since moving here I have had a negative incident with a rude taxi driver. Sometimes I think deep down I hate cab drivers all over the world. But most people, when you say you come from abroad, always try to give you a hand.
Therefore, I lean towards Medellín as a more pleasant city to live in as an expatriate. I also see that there are great opportunities to invest and do business without so many restrictions. Therefore, if you have a talent or previous professional experience, surely in Medellín you will find a way to take advantage of it and be happy.
At The End Of 2020 My Countdown Began
During Christmas 2020, I set a date for my departure from Panamá and began to plan my coming to Colombia and some might wonder: Why did I choose Medellín and not another city in Colombia like Bogotá, for example?. It was actually simple since my opportunities to make money in Panamá closed. I was able to collaborate remotely with several Colombian companies and between them, I got two important clients from Medellín. So at least I was able to arrive with a job almost certainly. Additionally, the cold climate of the Colombian capital was not very attractive to me. So I think it was the other way around and Medellin chose me.
In recent decades, Medellín has been the Colombian city that has undergone an incredible urban transformation. Since the authorities defeated criminal gangs and drug trafficking (or at least reduced its negative consequences and drove it to the outskirts of the city), Medellín has become a place where the quality of life has improved.
My Arrival to Medellin Occurred in March 2021
On Sunday, March 14, in the afternoon, I returned to Colombia, more than fifteen years since my last visit. I said goodbye to my friends, wife and son (temporarily), with the promise to meet again soon in Colombia. The flight from Panamá was very fast – in less than 2 hours I was gone and without issue. As soon as I arrived in this beautiful city I felt at home, as generally the Paisa people are very helpful and receptive.
The first impression of being in Medellín is that despite the pandemic, people live a very busy life typical of a cosmopolitan city. I have seen happy people everywhere. The economy has never stopped, not even in the worst moments of quarantine. Paisa resilience has always been a defining feature here. Every day people look for a way to continue fighting to improve their quality of life. I have asked many people and in general, most of them feel optimistic about the future that is to come.
The Enthusiasm and Optimism of the Paisa People is Contagious
I must confess that I have felt, like they say here: “amañado” (very at home) and I arrived to this content state in a very short time. The treatment I have received from the people with whom I have spent time with has been excellent. Everywhere I find supportive people who want to give the best of themselves. It is a very different city from what the media have reported frequently – about the era of violence and the fight against criminal gangs. I am happy to see that that dark time in Medellin is now over.
Medellín is a city that for years carried the position of being one of the most violent cities on the planet. At that time, the famous Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar Gaviria controlled important areas of influence. Every day there were shooting clashes between rival gangs and with the authorities. So the COVID-19 situation is nothing for these people who know how to always overcome difficulties.
The economic development plan of the local authorities for the period 2020-2023 has among its many fundamental objectives to continue to reduce the social gap by promoting employment, entrepreneurship and granting subsidies in the educational and health fields for the most in need. This is a challenge that will hopefully help many people to get out of poverty and improve their lives.
Move to Medellín Was the Correct One for Me
Personally, I am convinced that there are great opportunities to do business in Medellín. I have seen a climate conducive to foreign investment in this city. There is development of new technologies and companies. So I agree that a rapid economic recovery is expected. The cost of living in Medellín is very accessible, especially when compared to other similar places such as Costa Rica, Panamá, or the Dominican Republic.
Medellín never ceases to pleasantly surprise me every day and has given me hope for a better future. Taking stock I think this experience has been good and it is just beginning. The people are wonderful and there is always a great climate. Perhaps it is too early to make a more detailed analysis, but without a doubt I believe that the decision to come to Medellín could not have been more successful.
My Conclusions After Moving To Medellín
Given how in Medellin there are an increasing number of expatriates from all over the world, I regret not having made this decision earlier. It is that the quality of life that you get is definitely good and the costs are very convenient when living here. The people have been wonderful and the employment opportunities have been sufficient for me. If you are living somewhere else and considering a move to Medellín as an expat, send me a message (+507 6299-4695) or an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will be happy to answer any questions you have.