Medellín vs Santa Marta, which of these cities in Colombia is really the better place to live? In our Medellín vs Santa Marta comparison, we comprehensively compare the two cities in in 16 categories to see which is the better place to live in for expats.

We previously wrote about 11 reasons why Medellín is considered a top foreign retirement location. The foreign retirement publications have for several years have been touting Medellín as top foreign retirement location.

Medellín is a city located in a valley in the Colombian Andes Mountains in Colombia. And mountains surround Medellín with a river running though the city.

Santa Marta is city located on the Caribbean coast in Colombia. Santa Marta is the 11th largest city in Colombia with a metro population of less than 600,000.

Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia with a metro population of about 4 million. Many expats I have met living in Medellín prefer Medellín. And expats living in Santa Marta tend to prefer Santa Marta. But some of these expats living in one of these two places have never traveled to the other. And it’s not really fair to compare two places if you have not been to both of them.

I have lived in Medellín for over seven years. But I have traveled several times on vacation to Santa Marta and the coast. In my opinion, both places have their pluses and minuses. No place is perfect.

Since we have already compared Medellín with several cities in Colombia, some readers asked that we also do a Medellín vs Santa Marta comparison.

Note, the following 16 categories in this Medellín vs Santa Marta 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 Santa Marta comparison.

View of Santa Marta, Colombia

View of Santa Marta, Colombia

View of Medellín from Pueblito Paisa, photo by Jenny Bojinova

View of Medellín from Pueblito Paisa, photo by Jenny Bojinova

1. Cost of Living 

Santa Marta wins here. Similar apartment properties I have seen in Medellín in estrato 5 or 6 neighborhoods tend to rent for or sell for at least 10-20 percent higher prices than in Santa Marta – or sometimes even higher.

Other costs like groceries, restaurants and other things tend to be at least 5-10 percent cheaper in Santa Marta in comparison to Medellín.

The Expatistan website reports that the cost of living is 11 percent cheaper in Santa Marta when compared to Medellín. And the Numbeo website also confirms that the cost of living in Santa Marta is cheaper than in Medellín.

Air-conditioning is needed in Santa Marta, so your electricity costs will be much higher in Santa Marta than in Medellín, where it is possible to live without cooling or heating.

However, the cost of living in terms of USD or Euros has dropped in both cities in Colombia over the past few years due to the weakness of the Colombian peso.

2. Climate

Medellín 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. Also, Medellín is 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 Santa Marta, the temperature during the entire year averages a warmer 82.9 ° F (28.3 °C). The average daily high temperature in Santa Marta ranges from 89.8 to 92.8 °F (32.1 to 33.8 °C). And in Santa Marta, the average daily low temperature ranges from 72.1 to 77.9 °F (22.3 to 25.5 °C).

The all-time record high in Santa Marta was 100.8 °F (38.2 °C) and the all-time record high in Medellín was 100.4 °F (38.0 °C). Also, many of the local apartments and homes in Santa Marta don’t have air-conditioning in my experience, so it can get very hot during the day when inside. But hotels and apartments catering to foreigners all tend to have air-conditioning.

For the entire year it rains on average 69.0 inches in Medellín and 21.5 inches in Santa Marta. Medellín experiences some rain 227 days per year on average and Santa Marta experiences some rain 80 days per year on average. So, it rains more often in Medellín.

But Santa Marta is more humid with an average humidity during the year of 76 percent compared to 67 percent in Medellín.

The bottom line is that Medellín has a cooler climate and air-conditioning and heating isn’t required. While in Santa Marta has a much warmer climate, so air-conditioning is required. So, Medellín wins this category. However, some expats may prefer the warmer climate in Santa Marta.

Hospital Pablo Tobón Uribe, the best hospital in Medellín, photo by SajoR

Hospital Pablo Tobón Uribe, the best hospital in Medellín, photo by SajoR

3. Healthcare

Medellín easily wins here. Medellín has nine of the top 58 ranked hospitals in Latin America while Santa Marta has none.

Colombia has 23 of the top hospitals in Latin America. And Colombia’s healthcare system has been ranked as the best healthcare system in Latin America by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Furthermore, WHO ranks Colombia’s healthcare system as #22 out of 191 countries it ranked, which is ranked higher than many wealthier countries like the Germany (#25), Canada (#30), Australia (#32) and the United States (#37).

Here is the current list of the nine top ranked hospitals in Medellín, with the rankings in the top 58 hospitals in Latin America:

  1. Hospital Pablo Tobón Uribe (#9)
  2. Hospital Universitario de San Vicente Fundación (#16)
  3. Clínica las Américas (#23)
  4. Hospital General de Medellín (#28)
  5. Clínica Universitaria Bolivariana (#34)
  6. Clínica El Rosario (#43)
  7. Clínica Cardio Vid (#44)
  8. Clínica Medellín (#53)
  9. Clínica Las Vegas (#58)

Good healthcare is an important category for retirees. And Medellín easily wins this category due to having seven of the best hospitals in Latin America.

In addition, Medellín is a much bigger city than Santa Marta. So, it clearly has many more medical and dental providers than are found in Santa Marta. But since it’s a larger city there is also a much bigger population to care for.

4. Traffic

Santa Marta wins here. In a survey by Waze in 2016, Medellín was ranked #176 in the world in terms of drivers’ satisfaction out of 186 metros surveyed.

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. And the worst traffic in Medellín in my experience tends to be in El Centro, El Poblado and Envigado.

Since Santa Marta is a smaller city, it has much fewer cars on the road and less traffic problems in my experience than are found in Medellín.

The Medellín Metro

The Medellín Metro

5. Public Transportation

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. Furthermore, it integrates two rail lines, four Metrocable cable-car lines, two Metroplús elongated bus lines, a Tranvía tramcar line and even feeder Metro buses.

Santa Marta in comparison only has a normal city bus system plus taxis. Both Medellín and Santa Marta have extensive and inexpensive city bus routes plus inexpensive taxis.

The taxis in Medellín are metered and you just need to pay the fare on the meter. In comparison, Santa Marta doesn’t have taxi meters which is similar to taxis in the coastal city of Cartagena and also in Barranquilla.

Some taxi drivers in Santa Marta will take advantage and charge a higher “gringo” fare for foreign tourists. There is an official fare list in Santa Marta that taxi drivers are supposed to have in their taxis. But some conveniently don’t have this official list.

To make sure you are not surprised at the fare at the destination when in Santa Marta, always make sure to ask the fare to the destination before getting in a taxi.

The Medellín Metro system was named one of the top transport systems in the world by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) in 2012. Due to Medellín’s much more comprehensive metro system that is considered world-class, Medellín wins this public transportation category.

6. Safety

The two cities arguably tie here. In a survey of over 14,000 Colombians in 2016, Medellín ranked higher than all other cities survey in Colombia in terms of citizens feeling safe in their barrio (neighborhood) with 73 percent feeling safe in their barrio in Medellín. This compares to 63 percent in Santa Marta feeling safe in their barrio. So, Santa Marta ranked fourth out of surveyed cities.

However, 51 percent in Medellín felt safe in their city compared to 56 percent feeling safe in their city in Santa Marta.  So, in terms of surveyed Colombians about safety in their cities both Medellín and Santa Marta both ranked well, so arguably tie in this category.

In terms of homicide rates, Santa Marta ended 2017 a homicide rate of 13.4 per 100,000 residents. In comparison, the much larger city of Medellín ended 2017 with a homicide rate of about 23 per 100,000 residents. So, Medellín has a higher homicide rate than Santa Marta.

We previously looked at safety in Medellín. Over the past few years Medellín has experienced a homicide rate that is lower than is found in St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit or New Orleans in the U.S. Furthermore, Medellín dropped off of the list of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world a few years ago based on homicide rates.

7. Pollution

The two cities arguably tie hereMedellín has pollution problems. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) 2018 Ambient Air Quality Database, Medellín is ranked #9 out of the most polluted cities and towns in Latin America based on PM2.5 pollutants.

Medellín’s biggest issue is that it’s located in a canyon. Mountains surround the city of Medellín. 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 help clean the atmosphere.

However, according to WHO, in Latin America several cities and towns have worse pollution than in Medellín. Lima, Peru; Monterrey, Mexico; five towns in Chile; and Guatemala all have worse air pollutant problems.

Santa Marta has a problem with coal dust that is kicked into the air by coal loading operations in the Santa Marta port. Santa Marta also has a pollution problem in its bay. In January 2013, a barge illegally dumped 2,000 tons of coal into the Bay of Santa Marta.

The Numbeo website ranks both Medellín and Santa Marta similarly in terms of pollution. So, both cities have pollution problems and arguably tie in this category.

However, Medellín is the cleanest city out of over 30 cities I have been to in Latin America and you won’t see much litter. Santa Marta is a less clean city in my experience.

Inside the terminal at José María Córdova airport in Medellín

Inside the terminal at José María Córdova airport in Medellín

8. Travel Access to North America, Europe and Latin America

Medellín wins hereMedellín’s José María Córdova international airport (MDE) is the second largest airport in Colombia. This airport 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 Lima, Maracaibo, Mexico City, Panama City, San Salvador and Valencia.

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. From Medellín’s two airports you can fly non-stop to over 30 cities in Colombia.

The small Simón Bolivar airport in Santa Marta, photo by Jean Carlos

The small Simón Bolivar airport in Santa Marta, photo by Jean Carlos

Simón Bolivar International Airport (SMR) in Santa Marta is very small in comparison. From Simón Bolivar airport, there currently are only non-stop domestic flights to Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, Medellín and Pereira available. Also, on November 6, 2018, VivaAir is adding flights to San Andrés. And on December 18, 2018, VivaAir is adding the first Santa Marta international flights to Miami.

The bottom line you can fly non-stop from Medellín’s José María Córdova international airport to several international destinations and many more domestic destinations from both of Medellín’s airports. And your flight options are much more limited in Santa Marta. So, Medellín wins this category.

Aedes aegypti mosquito, photo by CDC

Aedes aegypti mosquito, photo by CDC

9. Mosquitos and Other Bugs

Medellín wins here. Mosquitos and other types of bugs can be a major problem in Santa Marta. Medellín is at a much high elevation. So, it doesn’t have as many mosquitos and other bugs as are found in Santa Marta.

Reportedly the Aedes aegypi mosquitos that spread the Zika virus infection are prevalent in Santa Marta and along the coast. Most notably, the Aedes aegypi mosquitos also spread the Chikungunya virus and dengue fever.

Santa Marta has been experienced more cases of Zika per 100,000 residents than in Cartagena or Barranquilla. In mid-2016, it was reported that Santa Marta was experiencing 376 cases of Zika per 100,000 compared to 348 in Barranquilla and 88 in Cartagena.

Aedes aegypi mosquitos are less prevalent in Medellín.  In addition, most of the cases of Zika reported in Colombia have been at lower elevations like in Santa Marta.

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.

It’s important to take precautions and used insect repellent in Santa Marta and along the coast. And all the grocery stores and drug stores in Santa Marta tend to sell insect repellents.

10. Things to Do

Medellín wins here. Medellín is a much larger city with a metro population of about 4 million. While Santa Marta’s metro population is less than 600,000. So, Medellín has many more things to do.

TripAdvisor has only 78 things to do listed in Santa Marta. And it has 189 things to do listed in Medellín. While this is unscientific, it demonstrates there are many more things to do in the larger city of Medellín than in the smaller city of Santa Marta.

Medellín has many more churches, more sights, more parks, more tourist attractions and more landmarks than Santa Marta. In addition, Medellín is a more popular tourist location so there are many more hotels, more hostels and more furnished apartments available in Medellín.

For example, on Airbnb, you won’t find as many furnished apartments available in Santa Marta. There are literally hundreds of furnished apartments available in Medellín.

Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park

Santa Marta has beaches and many water activities. Also near Santa Marta is the popular Parque Tayrona, also known as Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (Tayrona National Natural Park). However, please note that Tayrona sometimes closes. And it is currently closed from January 28 to February 28 of 2018.

La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in Colombia

La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in Colombia

Also, Santa Marta is a kicking off point for several day hikes to La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada. Ciudad Perdida is the archaeological site of an ancient city that is believed to have been founded earlier than Machu Picchu in Peru.

11. Restaurants and Nightlife

Medellín wins here. The bigger city of Medellín also has many more restaurant and nightlife choices than are found in the much smaller city of Santa Marta.

If you look on TripAdvisor, it lists only 263 restaurants in Santa Marta but over 1,160 restaurants in Medellín. So, you will have a much bigger choice of restaurants in the larger city of Medellín.

Medellín also has many more nightlife options. You can find bars, nightclubs, music and pubs of many styles in Medellín found in areas like Parque Lleras, La 70 and La 33. In comparison, in the smaller city of Santa Marta, there are much fewer nightlife options available in my experience.

12. Job Opportunities

Medellin wins here. Medellín is a much larger city with about seven times the metro population of Santa Marta. So, obviously there are many more job opportunities in Medellín.

Medellín has several very large employers and several multinational companies have offices in Medellín that are headquartered in the U.S.

But there aren’t that many work opportunities in either city 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 both Medellín and Santa Marta.

In both Medellín and Santa Marta, you can find English teaching job opportunities if you are a native English speaker. However, the pay for English teaching isn’t the greatest in either city. And competition is reportedly very fierce for English teaching jobs Medellín.

13. Expat Community

Medellín wins here. Medellín has a much larger expat English speaking community than Santa Marta has.

The entire country of Colombia has nearly 19,000 expats from the U.S. and over 2,200 expats from Canada and the UK living in Colombia according to International Organization of Migration. However, a big portion of the expats living in Colombia live in Bogotá and Medellín, the two largest cities in Colombia.

Unfortunately, there aren’t statistics for Medellín. However, I would estimate there may be less than 4,000 expats from North America and Europe living in Medellín. While in Santa Marta the expat population is much smaller, likely less than a few hundred. When I have visited Santa Marta, I have rarely encountered expats except on the beach.

Medellín has large expat groups on Facebook like Medellin Expats and Digital Nomads Medellin that are active with several thousand members each.

In comparison, Santa Marta has a smaller Facebook group Expats in Santa Marta – Magdalena – Colombia with 437 members.

In Medellín there are many regularly organized meetups for expats each month. While expats I met in Santa Marta indicated to me there rarely are organized meetups for expats.

Some expats may like that Santa Marta is more off the beaten path with much fewer expats. However, that also means much fewer expats available in Santa Marta to help out and to socialize with.

The new Language School building at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín

The new Language School building at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín

14. Education Options

Medellín wins here. Medellín is a much larger city so it has nearly 40 universities compared to only a handful of universities in Santa Marta.

And, with a bigger expat population in Medellín, the city has many more Spanish language programs available than are found in Santa Marta.  In addition, Medellín has  Universidad EAFIT, which reportedly has the largest Spanish language program in Colombia for foreigners.

Furthermore, Medellín has over 10 bilingual schools available for children. And expats living in Santa Marta told me there are only a few bilingual schools in the much smaller city of Santa Marta.

The bottom line is that the much bigger city of Medellín wins this education category with more universities, more Spanish language programs and more bilingual schools available.

15. Internet Availability and Infrastructure Reliability

The two cities arguably tie here.  Both Medellín and Santa Marta 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. In addition, up to 150 Mbps speed is available from Tigo-UNE and up to 40 Mbps from Movistar.

Most buildings in Medellín will have service from at least one of these three providers. And all three providers in Medellín provide triple-play Internet/TV/phone services. Also, we have a guide to Internet and cable TV providers in Medellín.

In Santa Marta, you can reportedly also get up to 300 Mbps Internet speed from Claro. And up to 20 Mbps speed is reportedly available from Tigo-UNE. Most buildings in Santa Marta 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 Santa Marta.

Similar to other cities in Colombia, 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.

In terms of reliability of Internet, TV, phone, electricity and water services, both cities generally have reliable services. But Santa Marta has sometime had some water problems over the past few of years caused by drought.

I only experienced three power outages in over seven years living in Medellín. And one of these outages I was informed about by the provider EPM beforehand, which was due to maintenance. In addition, I only experienced three Internet outages with Claro in Medellín and these were each resolved within an hour after calling the company.

Santafé mall in Medellín

Santafé mall in Medellín

16. Shopping

Medellín wins here.  Medellín has more Western style malls and more shopping options than the much smaller city of Santa Marta. 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.

Inside Buenavista mall in Santa Marta at Christmas, photo courtesy of Buenavista mall

Inside Buenavista mall in Santa Marta at Christmas, photo courtesy of Buenavista mall

The largest mall in Santa Marta is Buenavista mall with less than 150 shops according to its website. Reportedly none of the malls in Santa Marta have over 150 stores. And there are at least eight malls in Medellín that are larger with over 200 stores.

The bottom line is that Medellín has many more malls which tend to be much larger than in Santa Marta. And as a much larger city, Medellín has many more shopping options than are found in Santa Marta. So, Medellín easily wins this category.

The Medellin Guru City and Place Comparisons

We have compared on the Medellin Guru website:

Rodadero beach near Santa Marta

Rodadero beach near Santa Marta

The Bottom Line: Medellín vs Santa Marta

In our Medellín vs Santa Marta comparison:

  • Medellín wins in 11 of our 16 categories.
  • Santa Marta wins in only two of our 16 categories.
  • The two cities tie in three categories.

So, in this unscientific and somewhat subjective Medellín vs Santa Marta comparison of 16 categories, Medellín easily wins if you equally weigh the categories.

If having a better climate, better healthcare, having good public transportation and better flight access to North America are your most important categories, then Medellín would win for you.

And if a lower cost of living with less traffic plus you prefer smaller cities on the coast with a warmer climate are your most important categories, then Santa Marta would win for you.

There aren’t many expats currently living in Santa Marta and Medellín is much more popular with expats. Santa Marta hasn’t yet been discovered by many expats.

Both of these places in our Medellín vs Santa Marta comparison have their pluses and minuses. I like going to Santa Marta on vacation. But it’s too small of a city and too hot for me to live in.

I prefer living in Medellín due to it having an eternal spring climate, good healthcare, good public transportation and many more things to do and many more restaurant options.

The bottom line in our Medellín vs Santa Marta 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 place is the best for you is to spend time there.

In addition, on this website we have looked at the top 16 things to do in Santa Marta.

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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 September 17, 2018 to add new Santa Marta flights from VivaAir to Bucaramanga starting on October 29, 2018 and to Miami on December 18, 2018.

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.

Editors note: updated on December 22, 2018 with new 2018 Colombian hospital rankings.

Editors note: updated on March 6, 2019 with data from the WHO’s 2018 Ambient Air Quality Database.