I speak with many expats who are considering both Medellín, Colombia, and Cuenca, Ecuador… and I’m frequently asked to compare the two.
As these are two of my favorite cities in Latin America and I’ve lived in both, it’s an interesting and fun comparison to make.
Medellín has a first-world look and feel. Cuenca is a traditional Spanish-colonial city. That said, Cuenca and Medellín are surprisingly similar in a number of ways.
Note that, as Medellín is such a large and diverse city, I’m basing my comparisons to its upscale, expat-favored El Poblado neighborhood.
Both Medellín and Cuenca enjoy great weather year-round. My home didn’t have heat or air conditioning in either city, which saves a lot on the monthly budget.
That said, the weather in these two cities is not the same. Medellín is warmer, with daily highs averaging about 82°F (28°C), lows in the 60s, and only 1 degree of seasonal variation. In Cuenca, monthly average highs vary from 68°F to 72°F, depending on the time of year, and nightly lows are also correspondingly less. I never broke a sweat in Cuenca and wore a long-sleeved shirt with no jacket almost every day of the year.
Rainfall is higher in Medellín (69 inches versus 35 inches in Cuenca), but the average number of sunny days annually is higher in Medellín.
Which city has better weather? That’s a matter of your own taste.
The altitude of both cities is worth noting. Medellín sits at about 5,000 feet above sea level (1,500 meters). Most people won’t notice the altitude unless they have respiratory problems that cause low oxygen levels. Cuenca’s elevation is about 8,300 feet (2,530 meters). You’ll probably notice the difference on arrival and then adapt to it after a short time. However, if you have oxygen-deficiency issues, Cuenca is not a good choice for you.
Residency is easy to establish in both Colombia and Ecuador, with low thresholds for visa qualification in both cases. Both countries offer retiree visa options with income requirements starting at around US$800 per month and investor options with minimums starting at US$30,000.
Colombia’s visa, however, is quicker and easier to obtain, with fewer required documents. Ecuador requires a criminal background check, for example, whereas Colombia does not.
Also, Ecuador imposes restrictions on how much time you can spend out of the country during your first two years of residency, while Colombia has no restrictions. Ecuador’s visa is intended for people who actually want to live there, while Colombia’s can also work as a back-up residency.
Both countries offer a fast path to citizenship, with some options beginning after just two years of residency.
Entertainment And Culture
The cultural scene in Medellín is similar to that in Cuenca. This is surprising because Cuenca has about 600,000 people in its metro area, while Medellín has about 4 million. In both cities, you can enjoy orchestra, theater, art openings, museums, and a generally sophisticated cultural scene. It feels more sophisticated and world-class in Medellín, but I enjoyed Cuenca’s cultural scene just as much.
You’ll pay a fee for most of these kinds of offerings in Medellín, while in Cuenca they’re usually free.
The infrastructure is good in both Medellín and Cuenca. Both cities offer drinkable water, reliable broadband internet, and dependable electricity, water, and phone service.
Also, both cities are walkable and have excellent and cheap public transit systems, meaning you could live in either one without owning a car.
If you decide to drive, you’ll find traffic jams equally maddening in both cities… although Ecuador’s drivers are more rude, aggressive, and reckless than their Colombian counterparts.
Real estate is cheap in both cities, even by South American standards. The best comparison to make would be between Medellín’s upscale El Poblado and Cuenca’s downtown. Downtown Cuenca is cheaper. Real estate in El Poblado is selling at US$1,765 per square meter on average at today’s exchange rate, while in Cuenca the per-square-meter average selling price is just US$1,123.
Personally, though, I consider Medellín’s real estate as good a value, thanks to the generally high standards for construction and workmanship typical in this city.
For the lifestyle you’ll enjoy in Medellín, the real estate prices are a tremendous bargain. And I’d say that the same is true in Cuenca. For the lifestyle it offers, its property market is also a bargain.
However, the lifestyle in one is nothing like the lifestyle in the other.
This brings us to the ways in which these cities differ.
Medellín’s El Poblado offers a modern, upscale ambiance. It has elegant shopping, spotless infrastructure, glistening new buildings, and more fine dining that you might expect even from a much bigger city. New, luxury brick high-rises look down from lush, wooded hillsides. Tall trees line clean, well-maintained streets. And El Poblado is only one of several such desirable areas in this city.
On the other hand, Cuenca is one of the Americas’ premier Spanish-colonial cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old Cathedral was built in 1557, the architecture is well-preserved Spanish colonial, and the streets are cobblestoned. You’ll even see evidence of the Inca occupation from the early 1500s. Yet just outside the historic center, Cuenca also offers new, modern high-rises. So you could live in a modern home, yet have the historic center within walking distance.
El Poblado has a first-world environment; you’d be hard-pressed to find a U.S. city to beat it. Cuenca, on the other hand, is part of a developing country, with some of the third-world characteristics that it suggests—like poor sidewalk and building maintenance.
Access to the United States is easier from Medellín than from Cuenca.
Medellín has daily nonstops to the United States, while you’ll need to connect (and possibly spend the night) in Guayaquil or Quito when traveling to and from Cuenca. This adds a day of travel and added expense to every trip.
The expat community is a much greater presence in Cuenca… especially on a per-capita basis. You can find expats in Medellín if you look for them—at local coffee shops and the Irish pub, for example. And a couple of Americans are signed up at my gym. However, day-to-day, I don’t encounter many expats in my travels.
In Cuenca, the expat community numbers over 5,000 people and has made a cultural imprint on the city. The impact, in my opinion, has been generally positive.
Since the infusion of North Americans to Cuenca, there’s been an explosion in the numbers of nice cafés, restaurants, and book shops… as well as other expat-owned services and businesses. Today in Cuenca, you can find most everything you’d want for comfortable living, including fellow English-speakers. In Medellín, you’ll struggle if you don’t speak any Spanish.
Whether an expat community of that size is a positive or a negative for you will be a matter of choice.
Cost Of Living
The cost of living right now is comparable between Medellín and Cuenca, but it won’t necessarily stay that way.
The U.S. dollar today buys 3,070 Colombian pesos. That’s very strong by historic standards. If the peso-dollar exchange rate returns to 2014 levels, Medellín will become noticeably more expensive for dollar holders. Of course, there is no way to predict if or when this will happen.
By contrast, Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, so dollar holders don’t have to worry about a weakening dollar. Neither do they benefit from the windfall of a strengthening dollar.
Both of these cities are very affordable, though, so I’d focus on other factors when making your comparisons.
And the winner is?
There is no winner. Neither city is better. Manhattan is not inherently better or worse than New Orleans… but it’s a lot different. The same goes for Medellín and Cuenca.
I see Ecuador as a cultural adventure. Life here is as different as you can get from life in the United States or Canada without leaving the world’s European-based cultures.
When I retired to Cuenca at age 49, I shunned places like Medellín, Chile, and Uruguay, because they were too much like America. I wanted something as different, enriching, and exciting as I could get, and Cuenca fit the bill.
When I bought my place in Medellín, 10 years later at the age of 59, it was also exactly what I was looking for… a place to enjoy perfect weather and a sophisticated lifestyle that I couldn’t afford in the United States. By then, Medellín fit the bill.
Medellín became my “ideal retirement spot”… whereas a decade prior it had been Cuenca.
You’ve heard many times that the “perfect retirement location” is different for everyone. This is true, but it’s not the whole story.
Your “perfect spot” can also change with your age and as you have more experience living abroad. Your ideas about what’s “ideal” for you can evolve over time.
Meaning the adventure and excitement of discovery need never stop.