Cartagena Versus Medellín—Two Top Colombia Lifestyle Options Face Off
Medellín versus Cartagena… which is the better Colombian city for living and investing?
I get this question often and so have spent a lot of time thinking through the relative strengths and weaknesses of these two very different places.
Cartagena is an historic resort city located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Medellín is nestled in a valley in the Andes Mountains. Some expats consider it the most livable city in Colombia.
But both cities have their fans.
I have lived in Medellín for more than six years, and in that time I have traveled to Cartagena at least 20 times for both business and pleasure. In fact, Cartagena was the first city I discovered in Colombia back in 2006.
Here’s how I’d stack these two cities up against each other, in these 14 categories of importance to the would-be expat, investor, and entrepreneur…
Medellín wins here, hands down.
The 24-hour average temperature during the year in Medellín is 72° F (22 °C). Medellín is a “Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera,” or City of Eternal Spring.
In Cartagena, the 24-hour average temperature is 82° F (28° C), and the record high is typically around 104 °F (40° C).
You can’t live comfortably in Cartagena without air conditioning, while in Medellín it’s largely unnecessary… meaning low monthly electric bills.
2. Restaurants And Nightlife
Medellín wins this one, too. Medellín is a much bigger city with a metro population of more than 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 bigger Medellín.
One area where Cartagena beats Medellín on this score is in seafood restaurants. Definitely more and better options in coastal Cartagena than in inland 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. This is a city with a long and rich history.
Cartagena has seen an interesting confluence of cultures over the past almost 500 years, a mélange of Spanish, Native Americans, and Africans.
Medellín is a younger, less diverse city that never enjoyed Cartagena’s prominence. The city and the culture in Medellín are more contemporary.
4. Cost Of Living
Medellín takes this category. Property in Cartagena (off the beach) rents and sells for at least 30% more than in Medellín—and sometimes much more than that.
The disparity between the cost of beachfront in Cartagena and the cost of renting or buying in Medellín is even greater.
Here’s an overview comparison of the cost of a 2-bedroom, 2-bath apartment in key cities across Colombia, including both Cartagena and Medellín.
|City in Colombia||Per square meter*|
* Using an exchange rate of 3,070 pesos per US$1, averaging 12 apartments per city.
Your cost of electricity should be at least 60% to 70% higher in Cartagena than in Medellín due to the need for air conditioning.
Costs in general, including groceries, restaurants, and other day-to-day purchases, tend to be at least 5% to 15% cheaper in Medellín compared with Cartagena.
5. Things To Do
This one’s arguably a tie. Both cities offer loads of distractions and entertainment options.
As Cartagena is a city on the coast, many of the ways to fill your days here are water-related—scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, boating, swimming, boat trips to nearby islands (particularly Rosario Islands with 27 islands), etc.
As one of the oldest cities in the Americas, though, Cartagena also offers lots of historical attractions, including the walled city and Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
Medellín has more churches and more shopping options, and is a good location for day or weekend getaways to other mountain towns, including colonial El Retiro, for example.
6. Feeling Safe
Medellín arguably wins here. Medellín ranked much higher than Cartagena in a recent survey of 12,548 Colombians asked how safe they feel in their barrios (neighborhoods) and cities.
In this nationwide study, Medellín came in first… citizens felt safest in Medellín’s barrios, with 75% of respondents feeling secure.
Cartagena ranked worst of locations considered in the survey, with only 30% of respondents in Cartagena feeling safe in their barrios.
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 more deserted.
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.
In addition, medical costs are higher in Cartagena in my experience, compared with comparable costs in Medellín.
Cartagena wins here. The World Health Organization last year ranked Medellín #9 on a list of the 10 most polluted cities in Latin America.
Medellín is located in a valley, with mountains surrounding the city, meaning pollutants can become trapped. The fairly regular rain helps to clear the atmosphere, but some days you feel the smog effects.
Cartagena is located along the coast with frequent ocean breezes that help keep the air clean year-round.
Cartagena wins here. 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.
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).
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, with no direct flights to Europe.
You can fly nonstop to more than 30 cities in Colombia from Medellín but only to 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.
That said, even in Medellín there aren’t a lot of work opportunities for foreigners, especially if you don’t speak Spanish fluently. The best jobs in Colombia will require this.
While English teaching job opportunities are available in both cities if you are a native English speaker, competition is fierce and the pay isn’t great.
Your best option if you need or want to earn an income is to start a business. Colombia is a great place to become a digital nomad (like me!).
12. Public Transportation
Medellín takes this one. Unlike Cartagena, Medellín has an extensive metro system with integrated 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 where all taxis are metered.
In Cartagena, always negotiate the fare before getting in the taxi.
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 on the higher floors of high-rise apartment buildings in Medellín for the past six years. I sleep with the windows open every night, and I have never seen a mosquito.
14. Education Options
Medellín wins. As the bigger city, Medellín is home to more than 30 universities, while Cartagena has only a handful.
There are also more Spanish-language programs available in Medellín, including Universidad EAFIT with reportedly the largest Spanish language program for foreigners in the country.
The Bottom Line—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.
In reality, though, the categories are not equally rated.
To determine which city is best for you, you have to put a higher weighting on the categories that are most important to you.
However, if you want to be on the beach—with history, culture, light traffic, and low levels of pollution—then Cartagena would easily win.
Cartagena really shines when you compare it to other Caribbean locations. The lack of hurricanes and the low prices thanks to today’s exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Colombian peso give it a nice leg up over its regional competition.
Comparing Cartagena to Medellín is comparing two very different lifestyles—an Old World beach lifestyle versus a modern, urban, mountain lifestyle.
The great news is that you don’t actually have to choose. Live in one and visit the other when the inclination strikes… like I do.
Full-Time Digital Nomad in Colombia