Medellín Versus Cartagena: Colombia’s Two Top Destinations
Medellín versus 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 a 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 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…
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. By comparison, Cartagena’s 24-hour average is 82°F (28°C).
In Medellín, the average daily high temperature is about 82°F and the average low about 62°F (27.6°C and 17°C).
In Cartagena, the daily high averages just under 89°F and the low about 75°F (31.5°C and 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, but in Medellín you can do without.
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. As Cartagena is on the coast, you’ll find more and better seafood restaurants here than is found in Medellín.
3. History And Culture
Cartagena wins here. Cartagena is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, founded in 1533 and boasting a rich history. In 1984, Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cartagena has had an interesting confluence of cultures over the past 500 or so years, which includes the cultures of the Spanish, Native Americans, and Africans.
In comparison, Medellín is a younger, less diverse city that never enjoyed Cartagena’s prominence, so the city and its culture are more contemporary.
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 cost more.
I looked at two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments for sale in Cartagena in good locations, sized at about 100 square meters, to find how Cartagena compares to other cities in Colombia.
|City in Colombia||Price per square meter*|
* Using an exchange rate of 2,868 Colombian pesos per U.S. dollar with an average of 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 compared to Cartagena.
In general, Cartagena is a more expensive place to live than Medellín.
5. Things To Do
This is 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 the 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 because it’s a much bigger city.
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. Cartagena 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 less busy.
7. Health Care
Medellín wins here. Medellín has eight of the top-rated hospitals in Latin America; 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 then in Medellín in my experience.
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.
Located in a valley surrounded by mountains that don’t allow easy movement of air in and out, pollution tends to stay in Medellín’s metropolitan area. Though 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 in Medellín is generally much worse than in Cartagena. A survey by Waze a couple of years back rated Medellín as one of the worst cities in Latin America in terms of traffic.
And while the traffic can be awful 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.
10. Access To The States, Europe, And The Rest Of Latin America
Medellín wins this one, although both cities service the same destinations in the States (Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and New York).
Otherwise, Medellín’s airport is the second largest in Colombia, with nonstops to 13 international locations in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Cartagena has only seven, and no flights to Europe.
Domestically, you can fly nonstop to over 30 cities in Colombia from Medellín but only nine 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 best. More English-teaching jobs are 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 inexpensive.
Both cities have extensive bus routes and inexpensive taxis. 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.
I have lived in higher floors in high-rise apartments in Medellín for over six years, sleeping 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 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.
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.
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.