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Cartagena’s Old Town yields 16th-century colonial buildings, quaint eateries, boutique hotels and rooftop vistas.Pro Colombia

As I begin research on my future life as a snowbird – though, for now, I prefer the younger-sounding “digital nomad” – my checklist steadily grows: safety, balmy weather, reliable internet, gay-friendliness, decent health care, a stimulating café society, proper gastronomy and, of course, good value.

While I’m still a few years away from punching that time card for the final time, I am starting to consider warmer climates where I can escape Toronto for the winter months. Boring old Arizona? Somewhere more exotic like Vietnam? The world is brimming with possibilities, but Colombia wasn’t even on my radar until I took a vacation there this past September.

My boots-on-the-ground sojourn to the country, roughly the size of Ontario, starts in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and then the high-altitude capital city of Bogota. What I find is a multicultural population and naturally diverse landscape, with beaches, mountains, rain forest and desert. Not only that, there are non-stop flights from Toronto and Montreal – bonus check mark.

Turns out, Colombia is trending among discerning travellers like me. The country is among the top-five best places to retire in the world, according to International Living magazine’s annual ranking and the World Economic Forum. “The message for all international visitors is that Colombia is a safe, biodiverse, charismatic and culturally rich destination, ready to welcome everyone,” says Gilberto Salcedo, tourism vice-president of government agency ProColombia.

Bogota's Mercado de las Pulgas de San Alejo is filled with flea-market finds.Pro Colombia

Salcedo has even more good news: A remote worker visitor visa will be available by the end of 2022. “This will allow foreign visitors to spend more time in our country while working virtually,” he says. The visa will be granted for up to two years, provided you have health insurance, earn at least US$750 a month and don’t generate a Colombian wage of any kind.

This country of 49 million is enjoying a renaissance that began in 2016 with the end of 50 years of violent conflict between the government, paramilitary groups and crime syndicates. The peace in Colombia is propped up by a growing upper-middle income economy, one of Latin America’s biggest, and free-trade agreements with a variety of countries, including neighbours like Chile and Mexico, and also economic powerhouses such as China and Japan.

“Definitely, there’s been very important progress in terms of security in Colombia,” says Richard Emblin, director of editorial for The City Paper, Bogota’s English-language newspaper. “Essentially, the conflict in Colombia remains deeply rural, in areas that would not affect tourism. The country is very safe for retirees along the coast and in big cities, where there is very little threat or security concern.”

The important issue of health care for retirees is covered here, too. The World Health Organization ranks the Colombian health care system at 22 out of the 191 countries rated – higher than Canada, which sits at 30. Snowbirds have easy access to clinics, hospitals, dentists and pharmacies throughout the country’s urban centres.

Street art is everywhere in Bogotá, part of the city’s public policy, filling the communities with colour.Pro Colombia

And as for overall value, Colombia easily wins out over destinations like Arizona, where cost of living easily comes in at US$4,000 a month, or more. A digital nomad or an expat wouldn’t spend more than US$2,500 per month in Colombia “including rent, bills, food, transportation and some extra activities,” Salcedo says.

All of this certainly makes Colombia appealing, but what really wins me over is the natural beauty of the country, countered by the urban feel of Bogota itself.

I’m peeling off my zip-up the moment the plane doors open on the tarmac in Cartagena. This port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline enjoys tropical heat year-round, with precipitation at its lowest from January to April. Visitors come to check out the extremely well-preserved colonial architecture, including the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandria, along with more modern beauties like the pastel-coloured Teatro Heredia performing arts centre. The white-sand beaches of nearby Isla de Tierra Bomba and Isla Baru draw a steady crowd year-round. And of course, I want to lap up the culinary culture – my visits to Alma and Candé restaurants deliver exceptional traditional Colombian fare.

I quickly feel at home – all of the Old Town is tourist-friendly and safe any time of the day, unlike many beach towns where walking around at night is ill-advised. After dark, I grab a pint on the corner of a busy square, then wander into the hip, brightly coloured neighbourhood of Getsemani, once working-class, now home to casual eateries and small bars, where the locals mix with the tourists. This is my new ‘hood, I think to myself as I watch couples squeeze into tiny sidewalk tables and teenagers congregate around busy empanada carts.

I find a different vibe later in the week in Bogota – and I have to throw on a light jacket. Despite being so near the equator, the city is also 2,640 metres above sea level on an Andean plateau, so the average temp. is about 20º C year-round. People on the street are sporting puffy vests and cotton sweaters. I see someone wearing a wool scarf and have to laugh.

It’s the perfect weather for bike-riding, so I glom onto a group tour. Bike paths total nearly 500 kilometres in Bogota, so we never run out of road. We start in the city centre, in Plaza de Bolivar, where several school marching bands have collected to practise. We bike about, catching on to the rhythm, before heading to leafier parts of town, stopping along the way for photo ops at Parque Nacional and La Soledad.

Cartagena enjoys tropical heat year-round, with precipitation at its lowest from January to April.Doug Wallace

We finish up in Distrito Grafiti, an area earmarked for outdoor murals in a variety of styles, the artists both local and international. Despite grey skies, my photos are incredible. Street art is everywhere in Bogota, a mirror to the local culture that feels more fresh than gritty, particularly the portraits by local graffiti hero Stinkfish.

To enjoy Colombia’s full diversity, you need to get out of dodge, of course – out to the Pacific coast to see the whales migrating, into the Amazon rain forest to catch sight of monkeys and capybaras and up the volcanoes, notably Nevado del Ruiz, for a hike in the clouds. Ten per cent of the planet’s biodiversity can be found in the country’s 1.1 million square kilometres, says Salcedo. “We are No. 1 in birds, butterflies and orchid species, and the only country in South America with two oceans.”

But back to my checklist. Salcedo points out that Colombia has an advanced legal LGBTQ+ framework, referencing the laws in place that allow same-sex marriage and adoption, prevent censorship and discrimination, and recognize non-binary genders. Public opinion also scores well: A whopping 72 per cent of respondents to a World Values Survey for Equaldex didn’t mention homosexuals when asked who they would not like to have as neighbours.

Good thing, because I might be moving in soon. All the high notes Colombia is hitting have landed it in my top five list – the only list that really counts.

How to get there

Air Canada and Avianca currently fly from Toronto to Bogota 11 times per week, and from Montreal to Bogota three times a week. Air Transat now connects Toronto and Montreal with Cartagena two and three times per week, respectively. And Sunwing will begin once-a-week flights this December from Montreal to San Andres, a Colombian island off the coast of Nicaragua.

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