Colombia and Peru are similar in many ways – both are economically hindered by impossible geographies of Andes Mountains and Amazon rain forest. Both suffered decades-long insurgencies from leftist guerrilla rebels aiming to overthrow the state (FARC and Shining Path, both still operational but the former more powerful). Both countries are top cocaine producers with long histories of narcoterrorism and corruption. Both governments are more capitalistic within Latin America, with Colombia being the top U.S. ally in the region. Both have highly stratified societies with a tiny percentage of white, Spanish descended families that control a majority of the wealth. Both have rich cultures with their own distinct music and art.
Colombia and Peru also have differences. Ethnically, Peru’s indigenous population is huge – many Peruvians speak Spanish as a second language. Colombia has less indigenous influence because the land had no giant civilization like Incas, Aztecs, or Mayans. The lack of Indian labor required Spanish colonists to import African slaves, so unlike Peru there is a significant black population in Colombia with its own distinct culture.
Commonalities and differences aside, what makes an expat choose a country to live in? Here are the countries rated on a typical expat’s lifestyle criteria:
Food – Peru
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Peruvian food is inarguably superior to Colombian. Peruvian cuisine is the best in South America. Colombian food, on the other hand, is among the simplest. Peru wins by landslide.
Cost of living – Peru
When working locally, your salary usually reflects the local cost of living. So this criteria is more important for online earners – people being paid in dollars or euros to their home country bank account – and retirees on a fixed pension. If you’re earning the same regardless of where you live, your money will go farther for food, rent, entertainment, and everything else in Peru.
Economy – Colombia
This is tough to rank as there are many variables to consider: ease of doing business, growth prospects, size of the market, taxes, import / export regulations, and more. Starting a business (legally) and importing are equally painful in each country. The growth prospects of each are among the world’s strongest, but Colombia’s growth is stronger. Plus, Colombia is a bigger market.
Colombia’s population is better educated. The country’s already more developed, despite the troubles of past decades. Its infrastructure is light years ahead of Peru’s. Colombia beats Peru on economy.
Ease of staying / visa requirements – Peru
Colombia is a difficult place to stay. The tourist visa is only good for 60 days. It can be renewed, but only twice per year. So they effectively limit your time on a tourist visa to six months per calendar year. That’s why I worked for an English institute for over two years – for the visa. If you’re not going to work for a Colombian company, you can get an investor’s visa. For an investor’s visa you don’t actually have to set up a business. But you need to demonstrate that you have $30,000 and that’s obviously not realistic for most people. There’s a student visa, but then you’d have to study part-time. I know some gringos who married Colombian women to stay legally in country (¡a réves!).
Peru, on the other hand, does not limit your time on a tourist visa. They give you 90 days, and as long as you leave the country every 90 days, you can come back for an unlimited number of 90-day tourist visas. I know a woman who lived in Arequipa for six years doing that. At first she was taking bona fide vacations: Bolivia, Argentina, etc. But towards the end she just drove over the Tacna-Arica border, had lunch in Chile, and came back to Peru the same day for a new visa.
In both countries you can simply overstay your tourist visa and pay the fine when you leave. There’s no repercussion as long as you pay the fine. However, the fine’s much lower in Peru. Plus, they’re never going to come looking for you in Peru. It’s unlikely they will in Colombia, but I have heard of (the former) DAS leading raids on gringos doing business illegally in Colombia – as well as deporting gringos. If you’re going to keep a low profile (i.e., no business and NO BLOG), overstaying your visa is an option in either country. The problem in Colombia is that you have to pay a higher fine every time you leave. So if you’re the type that likes to visit home once a year, it will be expensive.
Attractiveness of the land – Colombia
Machu Picchu is gorgeous – the best view I’ve seen in my life – and there is rain forest. But you’re probably not going to live in Cusco or the jungle. For most gringos, you will probably end up in the desert. These cities have beautiful neighborhoods because of irrigation, but the natural state of the land is desert wasteland. Unlike Colombia, there is no finca culture where people escape the city for the pueblo to enjoy peace, quiet, and beautiful scenery.
Colombia, on the other hand, is picturesque throughout. Road trips are like going through the ravines and valleys from the old 80s and 90s action flicks where gringos shoot up cartel bad guys. The entire country is as beautiful as those backdrops. For natural beauty, Colombia beats Peru with extreme prejudice.
Weather / climate – Peru
While Peru’s landscape isn’t as beautiful because of the lack of green, the flip side is that it never rains. I’m writing this in Arequipa and I haven’t seen rain in over six months. In Lima, the largest city after Cairo to be built in a desert, I’ve seen rain only once.
Colombia, on the other hand, is rain hell. It rains so hard they have national disasters where entire towns get wiped out. I used to tell friends that if they ever wanted to get me out of Bogota / Colombia, the convincing argument would be the rain. Catch me on a day when I’m soaked, cold, and tired. Dealing with the rain is a major part of life in Bogota and greater Colombia.
A downside of life in Lima is what Mario Vargas Llosa described in his novels as the “grey monster” – the overcast that covers Lima eight months a year. For eight months a year there is no sun in Lima. If lack of sunshine is a deal breaker, Lima is not for you.
I give a slight advantage in weather to Peru, just because Colombian rain is so prohibitive.
Party scene – Colombia
As inarguable as Peruvian food is better than Colombian, the Colombian rumba destroys Peruvian. In fact, it may be too much for you if you have trouble keeping control. That’s why I finally left – I couldn’t handle it.
The Miraflores and Barranco sections of Lima are great – more than enough partying for me. But it can’t stand up to Bogota’s Zona Rosa. The size, scale, and number of people partying in Zona Rosa beats anything I’ve seen in Latin America. If you want a grittier party scene, there’s no area in Lima to compete with Bogota’s Primer de Mayo.
If you don’t like big cities, there really isn’t another Peruvian option for rumberos besides Lima. Arequipa’s a ghost town most nights. But Colombia has Medellin, Cali, and the Coast – all rumba hotbeds.
If drugs are your thing, the #1 Andean party favor is just as accessible in Peru as Colombia, but you’re not as likely to see a group of Peruvians snorting in the bathroom of a club. It’s much more common with Colombians. Colombia’s designer drug scene (acid and ecstasy) is also highly developed.
So if your priority is to go hard, Colombia is the country for you.
Cosmopolitanism – Colombia
For big city folks who need the fast life, your choices are Bogota and Lima. Both have populations around 8 million. Miraflores and San Isidro in Lima are upscale and beautiful. Outside those districts, however, the Lima experience is much like the rest of Peru – poor, undeveloped, and Indian. Bogota is an international city known for its pomp and universities. Buenos Aires is the only other city I’ve visited where being a gringo garners little attention.
For a bright-lights, big-city, fast-paced lifestyle, for museums, concerts, theater, intellectual scene, cultural diversity, and all the other things you look for in an international city, Bogota beats Lima.
Modernness – Colombia
In Colombia, you can drink the water. Medellin has a light rail metro. In almost three years in Colombia, I never had my water cut off. I can’t count all the times my water’s been cut in Peru. The buildings, the cars, the infrastructure, everything, is newer, cleaner and more developed in Colombia.
For modern comforts, Colombia beats Peru.
Attractiveness of the people – Colombia
For many expats (“sexpats”), all these criteria don’t matter one bit. I’ve known many gringos who explicitly say it: they’re in South America only to get laid. Nothing else. So their only criteria is beauty of the women. That’s why you find these types in areas where the population reflects the international standard of beauty, and most people prefer white / European – whether they admit it or not. That’s why you don’t see many sexpats in Bolivia, Africa, etc.
Attractiveness of the people doesn’t only appeal to sexpats however. I doubt many women would be willing to move to a place where they’re not attracted to the local men. In my experience, gringa women are more attracted to Colombian men than Peruvian men.
There are many beautiful Peruvian people, but according to the widely held perceptions of beauty, Colombia beats Peru.
Crime / safety – Peru
Despite its being a poorer country with a less developed economy, the streets of the average Peruvian city are much safer than Colombian cities. I don’t know why, but I’ve surmised in the past that there is criminality and corruption in the Colombian personality. There is in the Peruvian psyche too, but it’s stronger in Colombia. There are nasty parts of Lima – Callao, La Victoria – but they pale in comparison to the slums of Colombian cities.
Life is cheaper in Colombia, there are more drug addicts, prostitution is more prevalent, and con men are more prolific. Peru is safer and has less crime than Colombia.
Education – Colombia
See the US News & World Report’s ranking of universities in Latin America. The first university to rank between Colombia and Peru would be Colombia’s most prestigious, Andes University, in La Candelaria (#6). Ninth is Colombia’s National University AKA La Nacho, and #23 is La Javeriana in Chapinero. The first Peruvian university to appear is Lima’s Pontifica Catholic University – at #34, coming after yet another Colombian university, Medellin’s Antioquia University (#27). So four Colombian universities beat out Peru’s best.
Bogota is known as the “Athens of Latin America” for its high number of universities. If you live in the heart of the city, a daily part of life will be navigating the tens of thousands of pedestrian students in university districts.
For primary and secondary education, I’d just assume Colombia beats Peru given its nature as a country that produces more intellectuals, artists, etc.
Are there any criteria I missed in evaluating an expat’s destination? Let me know in the comments!