The most daunting thing I’ve had to do since arriving in Colombia is finding somewhere to live. My program provided us with free housing for one month from our arrival, but I spent my first two-and-a-half weeks getting oriented and traveling to the coast (I know, poor me!), so I didn’t actually start my search until I had only ten days of the free housing left. It was a bit nerve-wracking.
In looking for an apartment, the most important things for me were:
- Living with Spanish speakers. I really need to learn Spanish while I’m here, for both personal and professional reasons, and I knew that if I lived with other gringos I’d be getting significantly less practice. (Also, why move to Colombia just to spend all one’s time with gringos?)
- A safe location, ideally near a metro station.
- Not too far from my SENA center, which is located south of Medellín proper in a suburb called Itagüí. This ruled out a lot of places in the city, as my commute would have been over an hour each way.
The first step in my process was figuring out exactly how people in Medellín look for roommates or rooms for rent. I was very sad to learn that Craigslist, the website that everyone in the States uses for this purpose, does not seem to be a thing here.
One means that I heard about is a website called ComaprtoApto where people can post available rooms. Unfortunately, however, it seemed the site isn’t used much, as during the week I was looking only a handful of new places were posted. It also does not include a map of apartments or any way to search for terms in the postings, meaning that you have to go through the posts one-by-one to figure out where each place is located. Even if you do find a place that seems to be what you’re looking for, the only way you can contact someone on there is if either you or they pay to become a “premium member.” Two non-paying members can’t contact one another. All in all, it’s just a miserable website and I was having no luck with it.
After talking to some folks who have been in Medellín for a while, it became clear that the most common way to find an apartment is via Facebook groups (groan!). There are several groups dedicated to finding and renting rooms in the city, including one specifically for students and another specifically for gringos (I avoided this one, despite the many nice-looking rooms posted there.) People looking for rooms post what they are looking for, or people with rooms for rent can post about the room.
If you’ve ever searched for a room in the U.S. using Craigslist, you probably know just how much information is included in most roommate-seeking posts. The majority go into great detail on the apartment, the room, the neighborhood, and, most of all, the roommates. By the time you get to the end of some posts you practically know more about your potential future roommates than about your best friend.
Personally, I am all for this. First, it helps you weed out places that aren’t what you want without having to travel to them. And second, who doesn’t care about who their roommates are?!
In Colombia, however, it is a different world. Here, the #1 rule for apartment postings seems to be: provide as little information as possible. Most postings on the Facebook groups I started following went something like: “ROOM FOR RENT. FURNISHED. GUALABLAHBLAH AREA. KITCHEN, WIFI, WATER, GAS INCLUDED” (in Spanish, of course). I did not see a single one that described the roommates or host family in any detail, and seeing them mentioned at all was exceedingly rare.
To make matters worse, most posts only gave the location of the apartment using some nickname for a small neighborhood. Being new to Medellín, I never had any idea what they were talking about, and googling said nicknames almost never yielded any helpful results.
Trying to make any sense of these one-line posts and un-look-up-able locations was maddening and made the prospect of finding the kind of place I wanted seem pretty hopeless.
After spending a lot of time reading through the postings and feeling lost, I finally I bit the bullet and made my own little posting on the Facebook group. Though I wanted to write something like a US-style ad, with plenty of information about me and what I was looking for, I tried to fit in with the Colombian style and simply wrote that I was looking for a room near the metro in the south of the city.
Responses came trickling in, but slowly. Several were clearly spam that folks were copying and pasting in reply to every posting. Two were just people leaving their phone numbers (um, ok?).
In the end, none of the responses to my ad were particularly helpful, and I ended up just gradually contacting people as they posted ads. To contact people I generally had to send them a Facebook message (groan again) and then, if they responded, get their phone number so that we could continue to communicate over WhatsApp (the preferred method of communication in Colombia, as far as I can tell).
Doing all this with my mediocre Spanish was very confusing (and don’t even get me started on how confusing/non-existent actual addresses in Medellín are!), but I powered through and eventually set up a few visits, though I had no idea if any of the places were anything like what I was looking for.
And so my visits began…
Apartment 1: Sabaneta with Gringas
The first place I went to see was in Sabaneta, an area south of Medellín that used to be its own town but has now been basically enveloped into the city (though it’s technically still a separate city). It is an interesting area, which sort of looks like a small pueblo, except that there are giant modern high-rises standing or being built all around it.
Despite all the construction and rather jarring contrast between pueblo and high-rises, the main square of Sabaneta, a little park surrounded by restaurants and cafes, is really nice.
I met the guy who had posted the room, Esteban, outside a large grocery store near the park, praying that he was not planning to take me back to his apartment to rob and murder me. (Going alone to meet up with strangers in their homes, especially in a foreign country not exactly known for being ultra-safe, made me more than a bit nervous.)
When Esteban arrived I was very relieved to find that he was a genial young guy wearing sneakers and a backpack, who did not give off any rob-and-murder-y vibes. He walked with me a few blocks to a high-rise building so new that still smelled of fresh paint.
I had assumed that he lived in the apartment, but on our way up in the elevator he excitedly said to me, “You’ll be very happy to find out that both the roommates are gringas! You can share your language!” My heart sank. It turned out that Esteban was the owner, but did not live in the apartment. When we got up I met the two roommates, both American girls who had moved to Medellín to teach English. Though they were very nice, I knew that if I lived with them I would not make the progress in Spanish that I need to.
The apartment itself was nice, if a bit sterile, but I learned from one of the girls that they were in the process of building a fourth bedroom in the living room – which would mean that there would soon be no living room at all and the kitchen would be a tiny lightless box.
All of this added up to me telling Esteban on the way out that I while I appreciated him showing me the place, I didn’t think it was right for me. He seemed absolutely shocked when I said this, and immediately launched into a ten-minute diatribe about how I’d never find a place better than this one, that Colombians live with their families and don’t look for roommates, and I was making a huge mistake.
I knew he was probably just trying to convince me to rent his place, but it was still pretty disheartening, and I left feeling worried and down.
Apartment 2: Belly Dancing in Envigado
The second place I visited was in the neighborhood of Envigado, which is technically a suburb of Medellín though it is connected via metro to the rest of the city, and in many parts just as busy and crowded as the rest of Medellín.
The apartment was located in an area full of fancy (in Colombia this basically means foreign) restaurants. I wasn’t too excited about this, as I had wanted to live somewhere more typically Colombian – and on a stipend I won’t be able to afford to eat at those places anyway. The price was also a bit steep at 500,000 pesos, or about 170 USD, per month. (The prices for a modest room in Medellin generally run from about 250,000 – 600,000 pesos, though of course they can go much higher for luxury places, especially in Poblado, Medellín’s most upscale and foreigner-filled neighborhood).
When I arrived, I was greeted by Angelica, the wife of the guy who had posted the ad on Facebook and with whom I’d been WhatsApp-ing. I learned from her that the apartment is owned by her and her husband, who live there along with her cousin. The third bedroom was for rent.
From the moment I walked in I was basically adopted for the day. Angelica first took me around the apartment, which included a small studio area where she teaches belly dancing and yoga classes, introduced me to her two cats (yay!) and then insisted that I go on a tour of the neighborhood with her and her friend who was visiting.
The tour, which lasted several hours, involved showing me all the local grocery stores and gyms, visiting a theater near the center of Envigado where Angelica had some kind of meeting with the owner (I never figured out why), and stopping in a cafe to have coffee and some fried cheese pastries (tasty, but I could practically feel my arteries crying as I ate).
When we finally got back to the apartment several hours later, some students were gathering for a belly dancing class, and Angelica invited me to stay and watch. I declined, but left with a warm feeling, thinking that maybe finding a place with nice Colombians wouldn’t be so hard after all.
I still wasn’t sure about whether I wanted to live with a family, since I was afraid that I’d always feel like I was intruding on their space, but I nevertheless really liked Angelica and her home. I told her I had a few more places to see but that I’d get back to her.
Apartment 3: No windows, no dice
The third place I visited was also in Envigado, though in a much less ritzy part of town than the second place. It was also a 40 minute walk away from the metro station. I didn’t take any pictures of this place, and though the girl who showed me the apartment was very nice, during the tour I discovered that the bedroom for rent didn’t have any windows, and that was it for me – I need me some light and air!
After seeing the third place, I was out of places to visit and growing increasingly worried about my impending homelessness, especially since I was supposed to be starting work the following week and would have much less time for apartment-hunting. After a bit of hemming and hawing, I called Angelica and asked if her room was still available – and it was. We agreed that I would move in on Monday.
I’m still worried about the prospect of living with a couple in their house and not thrilled about the price, but Angelica was just so nice – and nobody in the apartment speaks English! – so I’m going to take my chances for now. One wonderful thing about renting a room in Colombia is that almost nobody uses contracts or leases, so if you aren’t happy you can just pick up and move at the end of any old month. Que bueno! Wish me luck in my new home 🙂