With Colombia’s reputation sullied by drugs, guerrilla wars and kidnappings, it is hard to view the country as a tourist destination let alone as a retirement haven. Yet, that is exactly what people who have fallen in love with Cartagena say about the coastal city. “Cartagena is a great place for retirement. I have met many Americans who live in the city and they seem very happy to be there,” said Francisco J. Garcia a broker at US Homes Realty. “Life is easy. The people are friendly and the weather is nice all year round.” While an average of 90 percent humidity isn’t for everyone, the fact that Cartagena is rarely affected by hurricanes like others located along the Caribbean Sea is a significant advantage.
Cartagena’s historic walled district with its colorful colonial buildings and winding cobblestone streets is perfect for leisurely strolls. There is a plethora of restaurants for eating out and a buzzing nightlife to keep folks busy all night. The beaches around the city itself are unremarkable, bustling with crowds and sometimes overzealous vendors. However, gorgeous white sand beaches – at Playa Blanca or the Rosario Islands – are near enough for a day trip. The price tag for living the good life in Cartagena is fairly affordable. “You can live well with an average of USD 1,500 [a month],” said Garcia. For those willing to jump in and live like the locals, expenses can be much much less.
Cartagena at a glance
Long before the colonial period, the coast of Cartagena de Indias Bay was inhabited by indigenous people in scattered settlements. Present day Cartagena was founded in 1533 by the Spaniards after which the city quickly became a vital trading port where all sorts of goods – including precious metals – were loaded and sent to Spain. It also functioned as a slave port and a distribution hub from which Africans were sold and transported to other parts of Latin America. The city has seen its fortunes rise and fall over the last five hundred years as various invaders and pirates fought over its prized ownership. By the 17th century the weary Spanish – tired of being a constant target – built walls around their settlement. The city has long outgrown these colonial walls but its charming historic center – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – still remains an integral, vibrant part of Cartagena.
The manufacturing and processing sectors play a huge role in Cartagena’s economy. The city’s exports include sugar, tobacco, oil, cosmetics, leather, fertilizer and textiles. Tourism as of late has also become a vital source of growth. Undeterred by guerrilla activities and travel advisories, the number of visitors to Cartagena continues to climb. It helps that it has positioned itself as a medical destination by fostering well-equipped dental, plastic surgery and weight loss operation clinics that cater to foreigners. In addition, the construction sector has expanded significantly in recent years leading to a property boom.
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Just like most South American cities, Cartagena exhibits a wide wealth gap between different economic classes. Still, even at a time when the ongoing guerrilla war dominates the news from Colombia, Cartagena seems to remain one of the safest cities in the country. “Cartagena bears crime indicators lower than Miami, LA of New York,” said Paul – owner of the Paul Juan Realty.
Real estate in Cartagena
While the financial crisis has slowed down the rate of international property buyers coming to the city, the overall real estate market is actually thriving, according to Paul Juan Realty. “There is always the native Colombian market since the city is the first choice of investment within the nation,” said Juan. “Even in the tougher times of the real estate crisis in the U.S. there was always activity here.”
Just like elsewhere, prices vary by location. “For a brand new beach front condo with one bedroom and two baths in the north side of Cartagena the average price is USD 150,000,” said Garcia. In El Laguito – a popular tourist area – prices run about USD 90,000 for a one bedroom 1 bath, pre-owned condo. Prices jump to an average of USD 500,000 for a three bedroom, three bath home in the Castillo Grande – one of the more upscale areas in the city.
Buying real estate in Cartagena
Foreigners can freely own property in Cartagena, according to US Homes Realty. “Just bring your money using a Colombian bank and obtain the appropriate visa,” said Garcia. “[International buyers] can own as many properties [as they] want with no restrictions in location or size.”
The real estate market in Cartagena is still largely unregulated, giving room for unscrupulous people to enter the market and do as they please, according to Garcia. Foreign buyers should protect themselves by selecting an experienced and reputable agent to help them acquire property. Even builders have been known to vanish without finishing their work after taking money from would be owners.
The future looks bright for Cartagena, according to Paul Juan Realty. There is a large oil refinery expansion project coming up. If this happens it will “bring over 10,000 high level professionals and their families to the city. This will boost the real estate market both for rentals and sales,” said Juan.
In addition, the city has always been a desired location for Colombian vacation home owners but now it is also starting to command international attention. Colombia itself – as a country – is steadily marching towards stability. “It is now Colombia’s moment. Costa Rica, Panama and Puerto Rico are saturated with international buyers,” said Juan. “Colombia has been in the news for its good economic behavior and for significantly reducing the violence problem, and it is kind of being ‘discovered’ as a good place to visit.” Let’s just hope this continues to be true.