When we dream of ditching the grey office life to go and teach abroad, often we are picturing sunny skies, deserted beaches, and idyllic blue water. Seem like an unrealistic fantasy? Well, you’ve obviously never heard of Cartagena. This colorful colonial city is every bit as vibrant and romantic as a fantasy city should be. With sun-baked plazas shadowed by grand churches, and flowers adding their color to the bright city walls, this Caribbean town seems almost too good to be true. It is very real though, and as Colombia’s development marches on, it’s the ideal spot to grab an awesome teaching placement. Teach in Cartagena before it’s cool!
Teaching Jobs in Cartagena
There are lots of opportunities to teach English in Cartagena, Colombia. Because of the town’s beauty and fame, there are a number of expats to compete with, but even so there are plenty of jobs to go around.
Teaching placements in Cartagena are usually in either public or private high schools, or at universities. Eager to put decades of civil conflict and drug wars firmly in the past, Colombia is making great efforts to bolster education across the country, with a particular focus on disadvantaged and vulnerable neighborhoods. Raising students’ level of English has been a big part of this, so the last few years have seen a surge in the number of native English speakers being placed in public high schools, to teach alongside Colombian teachers. This kind of placement is incredibly rewarding, but also challenging.
You will have to deal with minimal resources, oppressive heat, and the coastal tendency to be late for everything Stick with it though, because this could be the best teaching job you ever do. Because you don’t need any prior experience, this is also a great place to kick off your teaching career.
Universities and private schools will offer slightly better pay and organization, but because of competition for placements, you will need a TEFL or TESOL certification, or at least one year of experience to get a position.
Life in Cartagena
If you ask someone who has been to Cartagena what it’s like, they will probably go starry-eyed and breathless, before gushing about the colonial beauty and white sand beaches the town is famous for.
Cartagena is beautiful, drenched in color and bougainvillea, the narrow streets populated with street vendors hawking exotic fruit and freshly squeezed limonada. The 16th century walls around the old town give splendid views out across the sea and over the rooftops, and are a favorite spot with locals for watching the sunset and sipping aguila beer.
Coral reefs and white-sand beaches are found just offshore is the Islas del Rosario, where you can swim, snorkel, and sunbathe to your heart’s content. Playa Blanca is widely considered to be the most beautiful beach in Colombia, and with the endless blue water and soft sand it’s easy to see why. Less than an hour’s drive from Cartagena is El Totumo, an active volcano that is filled with warm mud. Splashing around and getting covered from head to toe in the thick, dark mud is one of the most entertaining things you can do in the area.
As well as being gorgeous, Cartagena is hot — and not always pleasantly so. It is a sweltering, wet, humid heat that sears everyone who steps outside at midday. In rainy season there are tropical downpours that eliminate any need to go to the beach, they are so thoroughly drenching. Be prepared for these weather extremes, and pack accordingly.
Salaries & Costs
The cost of living for ESL teachers in Cartagena is more expensive than most other Colombian cities, but it is still extremely affordable. Teachers in Cartagena will enjoy a low cost of living that makes dining out, drinking, and traveling easily accessible.
Salaries for ESL teachers in Colombia vary depending on your placement and the number of hours you work in a week, but usually fall somewhere between $500 and $1500. If you are lucky enough to get an exceptional position at a fancy private school you could make as much as $2000, and live like royalty. Even if you are on the lower end of this salary scale though, you will be making enough to cover your basic living expenses.
Rent is the biggest expense, at around $300 a month for a room in a shared apartment. Food is very affordable if you shop at markets and buy local products. A meal out in a nice restaurant will rarely cost more than $10 and a bottle of beer is $1. Traveling to other cities is easy, with a large, modern airport close to town. Flights are cheap (as little as $30 to fly to Medellin or Bogota) but you will want to take some savings with you if you plan on taking weekend trips (and you definitely should).
Accommodation & Visas
¿Casa, pensione, o apartamento? There are several different housing options for teachers in Cartagena. Programs will provide assistance in finding a place to live, but usually it will be up to you to do the actual house-hunting.
The most popular accommodation option for when you teach in Cartagena is homestays. Living with a Colombian family has a multitude of benefits, not least because you won’t have a chance to feel homesick with your new Colombian mama looking after you. This option allows you to work on your Spanish, taste local cuisine, and generally get deeper into Colombian culture.
Teachers can work in Colombia on a visitors permit but it is only valid for three months, with the possibility of extending another three months. Foreigners can only stay in Colombia for six months out of each calendar year, so once that time is up you have to get out (overstaying will mean a hefty fine at the airport). To teach abroad in Cartagena for longer than six months, you will need a visa. Work visas can be difficult to get in Colombia, so in order to be successful in your application, you will need your employer or program provider to help you through the process. If you find work at a language school, make sure to stipulate that getting you a visa is part of the deal: a lot of private language schools will also pay any visa fees. To find out more about how to teach in Cartagena legally, check out the GoAbroad’s Colombian Embassy Directory.
Benefits & Challenges
Cartagena is famous for its good-natured locals; they will be happy to teach you all the important things you will need to know to survive life there, such as how to dance salsa and speak Spanish like a costeño. Your weekends will be packed with dancing, drinking at rooftop bars, the occasional yacht trip, and jaunts around the rest of the country. And every day you get to wake up and stroll through the perfect, romantic streets of Cartagena.
One of the biggest challenges you will face while teaching abroad in Cartagena is organization and time management, specifically, a complete lack of it. It can be hard to adjust to an education system that seems messy at best and completely chaotic at worst. If you are working closely with other teachers in Cartagena, you will have to learn how to be flexible in your approach to planning and schedules, and learn how to go with the flow.
Colombia is still struggling with many social issues, and this spills over into the classroom. Keep this in mind when you start getting frustrated with the way class times change without notice, or when someone forgets to tell you that school has been cancelled that day and you take the bus for an hour just to find the gates closed. Cojelo suave, take it easy, and get back to loving living in the Caribbean.
Despite the challenges that can come with working in education in a developing country, there are so many more benefits that you won’t have much time to dwell on your struggles. Teach in Cartagena, a city of dreams. Start brushing up on your español and looking for teaching jobs in Colombia today.