Medellín vs Cartagena, which of these two cities in Colombia is the better city to live in for expats? This Medellín vs Cartagena comparison is a beach city versus a mountain city showdown.
In our Medellín vs Cartagena comparison, we comprehensively compare these two cities in Colombia in 19 categories to see which is the better city to live in for expats.
I have met a few expats living in Cartagena that prefer Cartagena over Medellín. But I have also met many expats living in Medellín that much prefer it. Also, Medellín seems to constantly receive positive press about being a top foreign retirement location.
I have lived in Medellín for over seven years. But I have traveled to Cartagena over 20 times for business and pleasure and have spent about four months in the city. Cartagena was also the first city I discovered in Colombia back in 2016. In my opinion, both cities have pluses and minuses. No city is perfect.
We also have compared on this website:
- Medellín vs Cuenca – two top foreign retirement locations in Colombia and Ecuador.
- Medellín vs Costa Rica – two top foreign retirement locations
- Medellín vs Panama City – two top foreign retirement locations
- Medellín vs Lima – two top foreign retirement locations in Colombia and Peru
- Medellín vs Buenos Aires – comparing the cities in Colombia and Argentina
- Medellín vs Bogotá – the two largest cities in Colombia
- Medellín vs Pereira vs Bucaramanga – three cities of eternal spring in Colombia
- Medellín vs Cartagena – a beach city versus a mountain city showdown in Colombia
- Medellín vs Cali – a showdown between the “city of eternal spring” vs the “city of eternal summer” in Colombia
- Medellín vs Manizales – Medellín versus a smaller city in the coffee region of Colombia
- Medellín vs Santa Marta – Medellín versus a smaller coastal city in Colombia
The above photo is of Bocagrande Beach in Cartagena. Note, the following categories in this Medellín vs Cartagena comparison are in no particular order. And where possible, we provide some statistics to back up how we chose the winner of each category in our Medellín vs Cartagena comparison.
1. Climate – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín easily wins here. The temperature during the year in Medellín averages 72.5 °F (22.5 °C). The Medellín weather and climate is a benefit of living in the city. Medellín is also known as “La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera”, or the city of eternal spring. The average temperature in Medellín typically only varies by about 1 °F during the year.
In Medellín, the high daily average temperature ranges from 81.0 to 82.8 ° F (27.0 to 28.2 °C). And the low daily average ranges from 61.7 to 63.3 ° F (16.5 to 17.4 °C).
In Cartagena, the temperature during the year averages a much hotter 82 °F (27.8 °C). The daily average high temperature in Cartagena ranges from 87.1 to 89.2 °F (30.6 to 31.8 °C). And the daily average low temperature ranges from 75.0 to 78.3 °F (23.9 to 9.7 °C).
The all-time record high in Cartagena was 104 °F (40.0 °C). Cartagena is a beach city on the Caribbean and it can get quite hot on some day. But Cartagena does not really have a hurricane risk.
In Medellín, the average annual humidity is 68 percent. And in Cartagena the average annual humidity is 81 percent. So, Cartagena has more humidity than is found in Medellín.
But in rains more often in Medellín. In Medellín, 10 months each year have over 100 mm of rain on average. While in Cartagena seven months each year typically have over 100 mm of rain on average (May to November). For the entire year it rains on average 69.0 inches in Medellín and 42.8 inches in Cartagena.
In Medellín it is quite possible to live without air-conditioning or heating. While in Cartagena it is hot enough that you will definitely need air-conditioning.
2. Cost of Living – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín wins here. Apartment properties I have seen in Cartagena in estrato 5 or 6 neighborhoods tend to rent for or sell for at least 30-40 percent higher prices than similar properties in Medellín. And I have seen some properties in Cartagena with even higher prices that are double the prices in Medellín.
The big difference between the cities is that in Cartagena, some apartments have nice water views. And in Medellín, some have nice mountain views.
Electricity costs in Cartagena will normally be 80-100 percent higher due to the need for air-conditioning. Costs of other things like restaurants, drugstore items and groceries tend to be between 6 to 20 percent higher in Cartagena when compared to Medellín
I have yet to find anything in Cartagena that is consistently cheaper than in Medellín. Numbeo confirms that the cost of living in Medellín is cheaper than Cartagena here.
3. Traffic – Medellín vs Cartagena
Cartagena wins here. In my experience, the traffic in Medellín is worse than in Cartagena due to being a bigger city with more cars on the roads.
Traffic can get bad in Medellín during rush hours. It can sometimes take an hour or more during rush hour to get certain places in Medellín. The worst traffic in Medellín tends to be in El Poblado, El Centro and Envigado.
But there is worst traffic in Latin America than in Medellín. In my experience, the traffic is much worse in the bigger cities of Bogotá, São Paulo and Mexico City.
Cartagena, in comparison, has much less traffic than Medellín. Worst case traffic in the smaller city of Cartagena may mean being stuck in traffic for 30 to 40 minutes
4. Pollution – Medellín vs Cartagena
Cartagena wins here. The World Health Organization (WHO) previously reported that Medellín is ranked #9 in a list of the 10 most polluted cities in Latin America.
Medellín’s biggest issue is that it’s located in a canyon. And mountains surround the city. So, pollution tends to stay in the Medellín metropolitan area. This is similar to the problem in Denver in the U.S. But fairly regular rain in the city can clean the atmosphere.
But Medellín doesn’t have the worst pollution in Latin America. According to WHO, Santiago, Chile and other towns in Chile, Lima, Peru; Monterrey, Mexico; Cubatão, Brazil; as well as some towns in Costa Rica all have worse pollution levels than in Medellín.
Cartagena, on the other hand, is located on the coast. So, there are regular ocean breezes that keep the air clean in the city. In addition, Cartagena is a much smaller city than Medellín. So, there are fewer cars on the roads and less industry.
5. Healthcare – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín easily wins here. Medellín has seven of the top 49 ranked hospitals in Latin America while Cartagena has none.
Here is a list of all the top ranked hospitals in Medellín, with the rankings in the top 49 hospitals in Latin America:
- Hospital Pablo Tobín Uribe – Medellín – #9
- Hospital Universitario de San Vicente Fundación – Medellín – #16
- Clinica Las Américas – Medellín – #18
- Hospital General de Medellín – Medellín – #26
- Clinica Universitaria Bolivariana – Medellín – #33
- Clinica El Rosario – Medellín – #33
- Clinica Medellín – Medellin – #47
In addition, Medellín is a much larger city than Cartagena. So, it obviously has many more medical and dental providers than are found in Cartagena. But since it’s a larger city there is also a much bigger population to care for.
6. Things to Do – Medellín vs Cartagena
The cities arguably tie in this category. Both Medellín and Cartagena have many things to do in the cities as well as many things to do nearby.
TripAdvisor has 198 things to do listed in Cartagena. And it has 185 things to do listed for Medellín. While this is unscientific, it helps to demonstrate that there is a similar number of things to do in each city.
Since Cartagena is a beach location, it has many water related things to do that aren’t found in Medellín. This includes boat trips to nearby islands (particularly Rosario Islands, which has 27 islands), scuba diving, deep sea fishing, jet skiing and many others.
But Medellín has mountain activities like hiking and paragliding. In addition, as the bigger city, Medellín has many more churches as well as more concerts and festivals than Cartagena each year.
7. Travel Access to North America, Europe and Latin America – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín wins here. Medellín’s José María Córdova international airport (MDE) is the second largest airport in Colombia. And it has non-stop flights to nine international locations in the U.S., Europe and Latin America. And on November 9, 2018, a 10th international destination will be added for Medellín when Spirit starts flights twice a week to/from Orlando.
From the MDE airport there are non-stop flights available to Fort Lauderdale, Miami and New York (JFK) in the U.S. In addition, from MDE you can fly non-stop to Madrid in Europe. Also, you can fly non-stop to Aruba, Curaçao, Lima, Maracaibo, Mexico City, Panama City, San Salvador and Valencia.
Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez airport is a much smaller airport. From Cartagena, you can only fly non-stop to only six international cities year-round: Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New York (JFK), Lima and Panama City. In addition, from Cartagena you can fly seasonally to Toronto and Montréal. Also, you can fly to Amsterdam from Cartagena but with a stop in Bogotá. And Spirit will start offering service to Orlando from Cartagena in November 2018.
In addition, there are more domestic Colombia flights available from Medellín as the city has two airports: the international José María Córdova airport and the domestic Olaya Herrera airport (EOH). From Medellín’s two airports you can fly non-stop to over 30 cities in Colombia while from Cartagena you can only fly non-stop to seven cities in Colombia.
8. Public Transportation – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín wins here. Medellín has a modern metro system, which is the only rail-based metro system in Colombia. And it has been in place for over 20 years.
The Medellín Metro is a comprehensive and inexpensive system. It integrates two rail lines, four Metrocable cable-car lines, two Metroplús elongated bus lines, a Tranvía tramcar line and even feeder Metro buses. And Cartagena doesn’t have a metro system.
Both cities have extensive bus routes and inexpensive taxis. But the taxis in Cartagena do not have taximeters. So, be careful of inflated taxi fares in Cartagena.
Some taxi drivers in Cartagena will take advantage and charge a higher “gringo” fare for foreign tourists. There is an official fare list in Cartagena that taxi drivers are supposed to have in their taxis. But most conveniently don’t have this official list. To make sure you are not surprised at the fare at the destination when in Cartagena, always make sure to ask the fare to the destination before getting in a taxi.
Due to Medellín’s world class metro system, Medellín easily wins this public transportation category.
9. Restaurants and Nightlife – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín wins here. Medellín is the much bigger city. Medellín has a metro population of about 3.8 million. While Cartagena’s metro population is a little over 1 million. So, Medellín has many more restaurant and nightlife options than are found in Medellín.
If you look on TripAdvisor, it lists 1,065 restaurants in Medellín but less than 560 restaurants are listed in Cartagena. This makes sense as Medellín has almost four times the metro population of Cartagena.
Medellín also has many more nightlife options than are found in Cartagena, since it’s a much bigger city. The nightlife in Medellín is much more diverse. You can find bars, nightclubs, music and pubs of many styles in Medellín.
10. Safety – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín arguably wins here. In a survey of 12,548 Colombians, Medellín ranked much higher than Cartagena in terms of citizens feeling safe in their barrio and city.
In terms of feeling safe in their city in this survey (slide 40), Cartagena was ranked the second worst out of all the cities surveyed. Only 15 percent of respondents in Cartagena felt safe in their city. This compares to 45 percent feeling safe in their city in Medellín.
In this same survey (slide 41) citizens felt the safest in their barrio in Medellín. In Medellín, 75 percent of respondents felt safe, the highest out of the surveyed cities. In Cartagena, only 30 percent of respondents felt safe in their barrio, which was the lowest ranked city in the survey.
In Cartagena, the touristy El Centro, known as the Walled City, is generally considered one of the safest areas, with virtually no homicides and little crime. In addition, the other tourist areas in the city like the beach neighborhoods of Bocagrande and El Laguito are considered relatively safe areas.
All of the tourist areas and best residential areas in Cartagena are located in Unidad Comunera Urbana 1. And the 14 other unidades comuneras in Cartganea are generally considered to be much less safe areas, where most tourists and expats rarely go.
11. English Proficiency Levels – Medellín vs Cartagena
Cartagena wins here. Cartagena is considered a major tourist city so you will frequently find English speakers in hotels and restaurants in the city. And even some of the taxi drivers and shopkeepers in Cartagena speak some English.
Medellín has fewer Colombian English speakers in my experience. You will typically find in Medellín a few English speakers in hotels and a few restaurants. Also, executives at larger companies in the city typically are bilingual. But in everyday life in Medellín you will find fewer English speakers than in Cartagena.
Out of the cities in Colombia only in Bogotá are you likely to find more English speakers than in Cartagena.
12. Mosquitos and Other Bugs – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín wins here. Mosquitos and other types of bugs can be a major problem in Cartagena. Medellín is at a much high elevation. So, it doesn’t have as many mosquitos and other bugs as are found in Cartagena.
Reportedly the Aedes aegypi mosquitos that spread the Zika virus infection are fairly prevalent in Cartagena. Most notably, the Aedes aegypi mosquitos also spread the Chikungunya virus and dengue fever. So, make sure to take precautions in Cartagena and use insect repellents.
Aedes aegypi mosquitos are less prevalent in Medellín. And most of the cases of Zika reported in Colombia have been at lower elevations.
For over seven years, I have lived in higher floors in high-rise apartments in Medellín. And I can sleep with the windows open with no bugs and I have never even seen a mosquito. Reportedly mosquitoes typically don’t fly very high.
Earlier this year I met an expat in Medellín that had traveled to Cartagena and got sick with Zika. This demonstrates that it’s important to take precautions in Cartagena. And the grocery stores and drug stores in Cartagena all sell insect repellents.
13. Shopping – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín wins here. As a much larger city, Medellín has many more Western style malls and many more shopping options than Cartagena. The largest malls in the Medellín metro area include El Tesoro, Los Molinos, Mayorca, Oviedo, Premium Plaza, Puerta del Norte, San Diego, Santafé, Unicentro and Viva Envigado.
Santafé mall is one the largest malls in Medellín with over 400 shops. And in October 2018, Viva Envigado, the largest mall in Colombia opened in Envigado, directly south of Medellín. The Medellín metro area has many malls and we have looked at the 13 best malls in Medellín.
Cartagena has much fewer Western style malls than Medellín. The largest malls in Cartagena include Caribe Plaza, Plaza Bocagrande, Paseo de la Castellana and Supercentro Los Ejecutivos.
14. Job Opportunities – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín wins here. Medellín is the much bigger city with several major employers based in the city including Bancolombia, Suramericana, Grupo Nutresa and Cementos Argos. So, there are many more job opportunities in Medellín than in Cartagena.
However, there aren’t that many work opportunities for foreigners. This is particularly the case if you don’t speak Spanish fluently. Fluency in Spanish is typically required for the best jobs in Colombia.
In both cites you can find English teaching job opportunities if you are a native English speaker. But the pay for English teaching isn’t the greatest and competition is fierce. As the much bigger city, there are many more English teaching jobs available in Medellín, compared to Cartagena.
In addition, many of the jobs in Cartagena are tourist related. So, they are typically relatively low paying jobs.
15. Expat Community – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín wins here. Medellín has a sizeable expat population living in the city that is well organized. Medellín has large expat groups on Facebook like Medellin Expats and Digital Nomads Medellin that are very active with several thousand members each. In addition, in Medellín there are many regularly organized meetups for expats each month.
Cartagena doesn’t have such a well-established expat community. My expat friends in Cartagena tell me that the expat community living in Cartagena is much smaller. But as a tourist city, Cartagena does have many transient expat tourists visiting the city all the time.
16. Education Options – Medellín vs Cartagena
Medellín wins here. Medellín boasts over 30 universities, due to being a much bigger city. In comparison, Cartagena only has a few universities.
Since Medellín is a much larger city it also has many more Spanish language education programs available. Most notably, Medellín has Universidad EAFIT, which reportedly has the largest Spanish language program in the country for foreigners.
In addition, there are also more bilingual international schools for children available in Medellín, I’m aware of at least three in Medellín (Columbus, Montessori and The New School) and only one in Cartagena.
17. Internet Availability – Medellín vs Cartagena
The two cities tie here. Both Medellín and Cartagena have high-speed Internet of up to 300 Mbps speed available.
In Medellín, it is possible to get up to 300 Mbps Internet speed from Claro. And up to 150 Mbps speed is available from Tigo-UNE. Most buildings in Medellín will have service from at least one of these two providers. And Both Claro and Tigo-UNE in Medellín provide triple-play Internet/TV/phone services.
In Cartagena, you can also get up to 300 Mbps Internet speed from Claro. And up to 150 Mbps speed is reportedly available from Tigo-UNE. Most buildings in Cartagena will have service from at least one of these two providers. And both Claro and Tigo-UNE offer triple-play Internet/TV/phone services in Cartagena.
Similar to other cities in the country, the highest speed Internet in both cities will normally be available only in the newest apartment buildings. In older buildings, you may be limited to lower speeds.
18. History and Culture – Medellín vs Cartagena
Cartagena easily wins here. Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Spanish Commander Pedro de Heredia, which makes it one of the oldest cities in the Americas. In 1984, the colonial walled city and fortress in Cartagena were even designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cartagena has a very rich history and is famous for its history, walled city and castles plus its culture.
The port of Cartagena has a well-protected bay and it became one of the most important ports in the Caribbean starting in the 16th century. Cartagena was a major trading port, particularly for precious metals. It was also a slave port.
At the end of the 16th century Cartagena identified its need for protection and the Spanish spent heavily to build many fortifications in Cartagena during the 16th,17th and 18th centuries. This including Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the walls around the old city and several other smaller fortifications. The port in Cartagena became the most important port for Spain in the Americas. And at the time it was the largest port in the Americas.
In 1741, Cartagena endured a large-scale attack by British and American colonial troops. This is known as the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. Most notably, the Spanish with only about 6,000 men and six ships successfully fended off a large fleet of 186 ships and 23,600 men due to the city’s well-built fortifications. This victory helped to prolong Spain’s control of the Caribbean.
Cartagena is quite different than much of the rest of Colombia. It seems to be much more like being in the Caribbean than being in South America.
In addition, Cartagena has a very interesting confluence of cultures over the past 500 years. The culture of Cartagena includes the cultures of natives, the Spanish and African slaves.
In comparison, Medellín is a younger city, which was founded in 1616. As a result, the culture in Medellín tends to be much more contemporary than is found in Cartagena.
19. Walkability – Medellín vs Cartagena
Cartagena wins here. Cartagena is located on the coast and only has one hill in the city where the Convento de la Popa is located. So, Cartagena is very walkable if you can stand the heat. I have walked all over the tourist parts of Cartagena.
In comparison, Medellín is located in a valley surrounded by mountains. Some neighborhoods in Medellín are flat and walkable like Laureles-Estadio. But other neighborhoods like El Poblado in Medellín are hilly and much less walkable.
The Bottom Line: Medellín vs Cartagena
In our Medellín vs Cartagena comparison:
- Medellín wins in 12 of our 19 categories.
- Cartagena wins in five of our 19 categories.
- The two cities tie in two categories.
So, in this unscientific and somewhat subjective Medellín vs Cartagena comparison of 19 categories, Medellín easily wins if you equally weigh the categories.
If cost of living, having a springtime climate and having better public transportation were your most important categories, then Medellín would win for you. And if avoiding traffic, avoiding pollution plus having beaches and a warmer climate are your most important categories, then Cartagena would win for you.
Both of these cities in Colombia have their pluses and minuses. I prefer living in Medellín due to it having a much better climate and lower cost of living plus better public transportation. But I also like Cartagena, as a vacation place.
The bottom line in our Medellín vs Cartagena comparison is that the best place to live is the best place to live for you. Everyone has different priorities. The only way to know which city is the best for you is to spend time there.
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Editors note: updated article on December 11, 2017 with new Colombian hospital rankings.
Editors note: updated article with new Spirit flight to Cartagena from Orlando that starts in November 2018.
Editors note: updated on September 9, 2018 to add new Medellín flights from Spirit to/from Orlando that start on November 9, 2018 with flights twice a week.
Editors note: updated on October 8, 2018 to add the new Viva Envigado mall, which is the largest mall in Colombia.
Editors note: updated on November 1, 2018, with updates to Claro’s fastest Internet speed.