An Australian expat in Medellin, Colombia: What it's like to live there

Pablo Escobar: there, we've got it out of the way. We've checked off the inevitable mention of the former drug kingpin who immediately springs to mind whenever you think about Colombia, and in particular when you think about the city of Medellin.

This is the place Escobar once called home, where you can still find his abandoned, fortified mansion, where the presence of this feared and also oddly respected gangster in some ways lives on. The thing is though, the people of Medellin are sick of talking about Pablo Escobar. They'd probably be riled by the very mention of him in this story. The cocaine kingpin died 25 years ago, and his former home city has changed immeasurably in that time. It's cleaned up its act. It's moved on.

It's moved on so far, in fact, that expat Australians now like to call the city home. One, Nathan Rundle, picked up his life in Brisbane and moved it to Medellin four years ago, and has since kicked off a successful craft beer company. I decided to chat to him about life in the (former) land of Escobar.

How did you come to be living in Medellin?

Basically, I just wanted to go travelling. In 2012 I was travelling in South America, and I included Colombia on that itinerary. I met my ex-girlfriend, who's Colombian, here in Medellin, I went back to visit her a few times and just fell in love with the place. We ended up breaking up, but I moved over here permanently in 2014. I was working as an IT administrator in the mining and engineering industry in Australia, and that was going through a tough period at the time, so I put my hand up for a redundancy and took off.

Was it hard to settle in?

I struggled with the Spanish language for a while. I struggled trying to find IT work too. I did get a job after I'd been looking for about 12 months. Finally. But then the Colombian government denied my work visa! So not only did I have to leave the country within 30 days, but I also lost the job. The thing is, though, every calendar year you're allowed six months as a tourist in Colombia, and because that happened about the middle of November, by January I could get another six months as a tourist. So I just went to Central America for a bit. When I got back from Central America I started putting some things for the microbrewery together.

How did that turn into running your own business?

I was only looking at it as a hobby, and maybe as a business further down the track. I was still looking for IT work, and then in the background I was putting this brewery system together, just as a hobby. But while I was still looking for work I went to a beer festival here, one of the very first craft beer festivals they had, and with your entrance fee to get into that festival you got a free beer from any of the guys there. I spent two hours getting little samples of the beers, and I couldn't find one that I wanted to spend my free ticket on. It was that bad. After that festival I thought, I don't have to wait to perfect my recipe, I can start selling now. So a couple of months after that I decided on the name – Aburra Valley Brewing Company – and in November 2016 I sold my first couple of kegs to a craft beer bar.

What's it like running a business in Colombia?

I still haven't really got to the bottom of it. As a craft brewer you're meant to have a food-grade licence, which is something I still don't have, and a lot of the local guys don't – it's such a new industry. So they've turned a bit of a blind eye. But I went to a talk by the guys that regulate that about six weeks ago, and in March next year they're going to start issuing fines.

And what's it like living in Medellin?

I love it. I've got a lot of Colombian friends, but also a lot of foreign friends, there are lots of Americans living here, some Australians. The expat community is growing a lot. This is such a vibrant city.

Colombia has a bad reputation though – is that fair?

I've never had a problem here. That time I went to Central America was the first time I'd seen a gun since I'd been over here. I was in Panama and I got jumped on the street. In all of the time I'd spent in Colombia up until that point I hadn't seen anything like that. You just have to keep your head screwed on here. That's how I look at it: keep your head screwed on and you won't have any problems. They have a saying here which translates to, "don't give pawpaw". That means don't give people the opportunity to rob you or anything like that.

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Is Pablo Escobar still a thing people talk about?

That's actually the complete opposite of what Colombia wants to talk about – they want to move on. They want to leave all that behind. You bring those subjects up with a Colombian and they'll get quite upset. I don't blame them. It's in their history obviously, but they don't want that continuing to be their image. There's just so much more to Colombia than that, like the biodiversity between the mountains, the jungle and the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, and the amazingly friendly and accommodating people ... Medellin has the nickname of the "City of Eternal Spring", because it's got spring-like temperatures all year round. It's amazing. About the only thing I hate about the city is that it's so far from the ocean.

What's your ideal way to spend a day in Medellin?

I like watching football, so I'll go to a bar and watch a few games, or go to the football stadium here. There are lots of parks in the city as well, so I'd maybe grab some friends and have a picnic in a park. They have 18 public holidays a year in Colombia, so they have a lot of long weekends, and generally then everyone will head out of town – someone they know will have a farmhouse outside Medellin, so they'll jump in a car and spend the weekend in the country. That's really popular.

Do you have any plans to come home?

Nah, not really. I've started a business. I've got no plans to come home. I'd like to get the brewery running really well, to a point where I don't have to be here 12 months a year, and maybe I could come back to Australia for a month each year. But that's a way off yet.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater

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