Medellín Versus Cartagena: Colombia’s Two Top Destinations
Medellín vs Cartagena… which is the better Colombian city for living and investing? I hear this question a lot, so today we’re going to take an in-depth look at their strengths and weaknesses.
Cartagena is an historical resort city located on the Caribbean coast. Medellín is located in a valley in the Andes Mountains, and some expats consider it the most livable city in Colombia.
Both cities have their fans.
I have lived in Medellín for over six years but I have traveled to Cartagena over 20 times for both business and pleasure. In fact, Cartagena was the first city I discovered in Colombia back in 2006.
Let’s take a look at how they compare, in 14 different categories.
This mountain city and coastal city are Colombia’s two most popular expat destinations
Medellín wins here, hands down.
The 24-hour average temperature during the year in Medellín is 72° F (22 °C). Medellín is known as “La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera,” or the City of Eternal Spring. While in Cartagena, the 24-hour average temperature is 82° F (28° C).
In Medellín, the average daily high temperature is around 82° F (27.6° C) and the average daily low is about 62° F (17° C).
In Cartagena, the daily high temperature averages just under 89° F (31.5° C) and the average daily low is about 75° F (24° C). The record high each year in Cartagena is typically around 104 °F (40° C).
Both cities have almost no seasonal variation.
Due to the hotter climate, air-conditioning is definitely needed in Cartagena. In Medellín you can do without air-conditioning.
2. Restaurants And Nightlife
Medellín wins this one. Medellín is a much bigger city with a metro population of over 3.7 million, so it naturally has more in the way of restaurants and nightlife.
Cartagena is a tourist destination (population 1.2 million), so it has more restaurant and nightlife options than you might expect, just not as many as are found in the bigger city of Medellín.
One area where Cartagena beats Medellín is in seafood restaurants. Since Cartagena is on the coast you will definitely find more and better seafood restaurants in this city than are found in Medellín.
3. History And Culture
Cartagena wins here. Cartagena is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, founded in 1533. In 1984 Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has a rich history.
Cartagena has had a very interesting confluence of cultures over the past almost-500 years, which includes the cultures of the Spanish, Native Americans, and Africans.
In comparison, Medellín is a younger, less diverse city, which never enjoyed Cartagena’s prominence. So the city and the culture in Medellín are much more contemporary.
Cartagena’s walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a solid property market
4. Cost Of Living
Medellín takes this category. Properties I have seen in Cartagena (off the beach) tend to rent or sell for at least 30% more than in Medellín—or even much higher. Of course, beachfront properties are more.
We looked at 2-bedroom, 2-bath apartments for sale in Cartagena in good locations, sized at about 100 square meters, and here is how Cartagena compares to some other cities in Colombia.
|City in Colombia||Per square meter*|
* Using exchange rate of 2,920 pesos per USD, averaging 12 apartments per city
Electricity costs in Cartagena compared to Medellín will typically be at least 60% to 70% higher due to the need for air-conditioning.
Other costs like groceries, restaurants, and other things tend to be at least 5% to 15% cheaper in Medellín, in comparison to Cartagena.
In general Cartagena is a more expensive place to live than Medellín.
5. Things To Do
This one’s arguably a tie. Both cities have many things to do in the city as well as plenty of things to do nearby.
As a beach location, Cartagena has quite a few water-related activities that aren’t found in Medellín. This includes boat trips to nearby islands (particularly Rosario Islands with 27 islands), scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, and so on.
As one of the oldest cities in the Americas, Cartagena also has many historical sites including the walled city and Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
Medellín has many more churches and shopping options since it’s a much bigger city.
Cartagena’s beaches are a big expat draw
6. Feeling Safe
Medellín arguably wins here. Medellín ranked much higher than Cartagena in a recent survey of 12,548 Colombians, in terms of citizens feeling safe in their barrio (neighborhood) and city.
In this nationwide study, Medellín came in first… citizens felt the safest in Medellín’s barrios, with 75% of respondents feeling secure. In comparison, Cartagena was ranked the worst with only 30% of respondents in Cartagena feeling safe in their barrio.
In general, the tourist areas of Cartagena, including the walled Centro Histórico, Bocagrande, and El Laguito are relatively safe. But take care after dark when the streets become much less busy.
7. Health Care
Medellín wins here. Medellín has eight of the top-rated hospitals in Latin America, while Cartagena has none. Being a bigger city, Medellín also has more medical and dental providers.
Medical costs also tend to be somewhat higher in Cartagena in my experience, compared to medical costs in Medellín.
Cartagena wins here. The World Health Organization (WHO) last year reported that Medellín was ranked #9 in a list of the 10 most-polluted cities in Latin America.
Medellín is located in a valley, with mountains surrounding the city, which do not allow easy dispersion of pollutants. So pollution tends to stay in the metropolitan area. Although, fairly regular rain in the city can clean the atmosphere.
Cartagena is located along the coast so there are frequent ocean breezes that help keep the air clean.
Cartagena wins here. Traffic is Medellín is generally much worse than in Cartagena. A survey by Waze last year rated Medellín as one of the worst cities in Latin America in terms of traffic.
And while the traffic can get pretty bad anywhere in Medellín, the worst traffic is found in the El Poblado and Envigado neighborhoods during rush hours, in my experience.
The traffic in Cartagena is nothing by comparison.
Medellín’s El Poblado may offer the best city life in Latin America
10. Access To The States, Europe, And The Rest Of Latin America
Medellín wins this one, although both cities service the same cities in the States (Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and New York).
Otherwise, Medellín’s airport is the second largest in Colombia, with non-stops to 13 international locations in the United States, Europe, and Latin America.
Cartagena has only 7, with nothing going to Europe.
Domestically, you can fly non-stop to over 30 cities in Colombia from Medellín but only 9 cities from Cartagena.
11. Job Opportunities
Medellín wins here. Medellín is a much bigger city with more job opportunities than you’ll find in Cartagena.
But even in Medellín there still aren’t a lot of work opportunities for foreigners, especially if you don’t speak Spanish fluently. The best jobs in Colombia typically require fluency in Spanish.
While there are English teaching job opportunities in both cities if you are a native English speaker, competition is fierce and the pay isn’t the greatest. There are more English teaching jobs available in Medellín.
12. Public Transportation
Medellín takes this one. Unlike Cartagena, Medellín has an extensive metro system with integrated metro trains, a new tram, buses, and cable cars. The Medellín metro is spotlessly clean, easy to use, and very inexpensive.
Both cities have extensive bus routes and inexpensive taxis. But unlike Medellín, the taxis in Cartagena don’t have meters which results in gringo/tourist pricing by the drivers… something that can’t happen in Medellín with metered taxis.
Taxi drivers in Cartagena may demand ridiculous rates from tourists if not negotiated in advance, so always establish the price before you get in.
Medellín wins here. Mosquitos and other bugs can be a problem in Cartagena. Medellín is at a high elevation so it doesn’t have many bugs.
In fact, mosquitos that spread the Zika virus are reportedly fairly prevalent in Cartagena so take precautions and use insect repellent. It is possible to find these mosquitos in Medellín, but it’s rare. Most cases of Zika reported in Colombia have been at lower elevations.
I have lived in higher floors in high-rise apartments in Medellín for over six years and I can sleep with the windows open with absolutely no bugs… and I have never seen a mosquito.
14. Education Options
Medellín wins at education. As the bigger city, Medellín is home to over 30 universities while Cartagena only has a handful.
There are also more Spanish language programs available in Medellín. This includes Universidad EAFIT (http://medellinliving.com/spanish-classes-universidad-eafit/) with reportedly the largest Spanish language program for foreigners in the country.
I found only one bilingual international school for children in Cartagena, while I know of two in Medellín.
In Medellín’s sidewalk cafés you can enjoy year-round comfort
Comparison Results—Medellín Versus Cartagena
In our Medellín versus Cartagena comparison, Medellín beats out Cartagena in 10 of our 14 categories. Cartagena beats out Medellín in three categories and the two cities tie in one category.
So if the categories were equally weighted, Medellín would clearly win.
But in reality, the categories are not equally rated. To really determine which city is best for you, you’d have to put a higher weighting on the categories most important to you.
For example, if cost of living, a springtime climate, health care, and public transportation were most important, Medellín would win.
But if you want to be on the beach—with history, culture, light traffic, and low levels of pollution—then Cartagena would easily win.
And where Cartagena really shines is when you compare it to other Caribbean locations. The lack of hurricanes and the low prices caused by today’s exchange rates make it an attractive alternative when compared to the rest of the Caribbean.
I have spent much time in both cities, and both have their pros and cons. The only way to know which city is better is to spend time in both.
In reality, comparing Cartagena to Medellín is more like comparing two lifestyles: an Old World beach lifestyle compared to a modern, urban, mountain lifestyle.