Two weeks and two lessens learned in traveling to Medellin, Colombia

Oh no! My bank card no longer works, and I cannot call them because my phone does not work either! What do I do now?

Yeah, that happened, and I will write a little about that and how I overcame these issues in the first two weeks after leaving the United States as a non-location-dependent remote worker, aka, Digital Nomad, to spend three months in Medellin, Colombia.

I thought I knew a bit about this country before I arrived, but nearly everything I had learned via sources in the U.S. is nothing like what I have found to be real in my experience here.

Today is my 14th day in the Eternal Spring in the El Poblado neighborhood of the city, which is ground zero for tourists and remote workers. But it is nothing like a typical tourist destination in the US. Instead of Day-Glo T-Shirts and little Abe Lincoln statues, there are street vendors and people walking around selling everything from cigarettes to candy bars, but even those are different.

Also, don’t even mention Pablo Escobar or anything like that, which would be kind of like going to Atlanta and asking about slavery as if it still existed. Just don’t.

Even in Envigado where he lived, the town he is from which touches Medellin where his legacy is still present in memorial. Leave the jean shorts and Dallas Cowboy hats at home, and nobody cares if you are voting for Biden or Trump either. Visit this country and leave the U.S. where it is, everyone knows, and frankly, nobody cares. These Americans have their own thing going on, but to see that you can not look through Red, White, and Blue goggles. Lastly, we in the U.S. may think we know poverty, but beyond this neighborhood, it is hard to see the depth of poverty most of this country lives in despite the sheer beauty of the natural land.

Enough of that, a point made, now only to the lessons …

Perhaps my biggest error was leaving the US without solving an issue I had with my local Credit Union flagging my card for suspicious activity while I was still in the US. What happened was, when I booked my Air B&B for the first month my card was blocked. I did not find this out until I was at the supermarket and it was declined. At that moment, I became “that guy” whose card did not work. Oh, the humiliation!

Compounding this was it was only a week before I was scheduled to leave and I could only put a travel advisory on the account for 30 days at a time, which exposed another oversite on my part once in Colombia with my phone service that I will discuss later on.

I have three other cards for payments that I have yet to use, but the main one, with a British online-only bank Revolut, fell through literally the night before I departed. What happened there was that I had originally gone with their basic plan, received the card, deposited $100 to the account, but the night before opted to take them up on their offer for a premium plan for added security. As soon as I clicked “OK”, the following screen read that they would send me a new card. That card is now back in the states and the one I have no longer works.

Buyer beware with Revolut, and this one is on me because I had only gone off the suggestion of other digital nomads who recommended the service, but those videos were more than a couple of years old. Since that time, satisfaction with Revolut has plummeted due to what also took place. They have no way to speak to a human, and the only way to get into their customer support is via the app. Since I had a new card and had not yet confirmed receiving it to make a new pin, I was locked out of the app. Approaching them on Facebook presented a bot that would not read replies despite them telling me to Direct Message them. So, I am out $100 as are many people as you will see if you google the name.

Arriving in Medellin, I had by Credit Union visa that was paranoid, a Revolut card that no longer worked, and a card from Square and one from Venmo. So far, I have not had to use either of those, but I am sure they will work at least once, or as sure as I can be anyway. The Credit Union card still works, though I have been unable to contact them directly via the phone as you will now see why that is the case.

Little did I know, but while traveling around Medellin the first day with my phone still set to always know where it is for google maps, I racked up over $400 in roaming fees. YIKES!

Complicating this, the SIM card I purchased locally to connect here in Colombia placed me in Colombia and neither my Credit Union nor Verizon would allow me to connect for security purposes.

That led me to transfer my US number to Google Voice, and as of14th of October, the phone now allows me to send and receive texts. Just getting texts was an issue for two-step verification since I had to have my Verizon SIM card in for messages to reach my phone. Putting that back into my phone, however, was also agreeing to rack up more roaming charges just to get a text message.

All of that is cleared up now, and with the Google Voice option, along with a VPN from Express VPN, allows me to connect to the US as if I am in Tampa, Florida. My phone is now very confused. I get headlines from Athens, Georgia, my web searches return results in Spanish, and I get Tampa weather alerts. Hey, I wanted to go global, and it appears my iPhone took that to the extreme.

The good news is, I was able to open a Schwab account, which I should have done before leaving so that I could receive the card, and they don’t have any inherent paranoia, like Verizon and my Credit Union (not naming them because they are local and I love them anyway and fully understand both as to why they are doing this). Still, I will not be able to get the Schwab card until I return to the US in December before going on or possibly coming right back to Colombia or some other South American country that currently looks to me Chile depending on a couple of factors surround Covid.

Speaking of Covid, the 2-5 day turnaround for the results was an immediate concern since I had to have a negative test that was not more than 96 hours old. So as not risking the results getting back before departure, I took the test on the 23rd of September since I was flying out on the 1st of October. You guessed it, it took just two days to return. The time stamp on the results was 12:30 PM EST and my flight landed in Medellin at 2:30 CST so I knew I was going to arrive in the 96th hour. Luckily, the operative time was when I departed Atlanta at 7:30 EST so it was not a problem.

Travel itself was quite easy as there were relatively few people at either the Atlanta or Ft. Lauderdale airports, though the latter was much more than the former. Still, everything went smoothly and I arrived, masked and all, simply fine.

Arriving in Medellin, I found that everybody wears a mask, and I do mean everybody. The police are on corners to remind people as they pass if it is even too low on their faces. They are genuinely nice about it and nobody seems to have any outward opinion about the mask. The “Karen” reaction to the mask does not exist here, or at least not that I have seen, and I would be very surprised to see anyone acting at such an emotional level about something the society has agreed upon, or been told to do, in the name of safety.

That said, in the bars and restaurants, with most have outdoor seating since the weather is beautiful here every day of the year, nobody has their mask on. Furthermore, many restaurants have “indoor” seating where there is no glass in the window or roof on the ceiling. Plants are everywhere, and the combination of frequent rain and tons of sunshine makes for a particularly good feel. The places are also clean, as are the toilets, and the staff is always neat and tidy. Coming from the US, the difference is very noticeable though that may sound offensive to my fellow US compatriots. It is true. Do not take my word for it, look at the photos I have posted, though I have not documented the bathrooms because that would be weird.

Check back in a couple of days when I discuss other things I have learned thus far about international travel in the time of Covid, and other potentially useful information if you are planning on leaving the US any time soon. Most of this information is valid for all travelers working remotely, and for information on where you can fly to from where you currently are visit travelbans.org for the latest information. Remember, everything I have written here is not the only way to do it, just the way I am doing it. There are many ways to get the issues of banking and phone connectivity resolved, but be sure you have planned, AND tested, everything before you leave. Even then, as they taught me in the US Army, “The best-made plans go out the window when the first shot is fired.”

You have your own “Six” out here, meaning you need to cover your own back if you really want to be free. Do your homework, and use Colombia based sites for information as it is much better than anything you will find from the State Department to U.S. based travel websites. It is not dangerous unless you are foolish, much like in any U.S. city where wandering into the wrong neighborhood is a wrong turn. Even then, what you encounter is on you and not them.

While we all are Americans, you are from Estados Unidos, the United States, and that means nothing special here regardless of what you may think. I have encountered zero animosity when acknowledging I am from the U.S., but I also don’t think I am better than them as we are constantly told within our own little bubble.

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