Medellín vs Cartagena: a Comprehensive Comparison

Cartagena beaches
Cartagena beaches

Medellín vs Cartagena, which is the better city to live? It’s like comparing apples and oranges – beaches versus the mountains.

Cartagena is a historical resort city 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.

Many expats I have met prefer Medellín but I have also met some expats living in Cartagena that prefer Cartagena.

I have lived in Medellín for over six years but I 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.

Both cities have their pros and cons and this comparison comprehensively compares these two cities in Colombia in 14 categories, in no particular order.

Note in this article we only include photos of Cartagena as this website already has countless photos of Medellín.

We previously compared Medellín vs Pereira and Bogotá vs Medellín in previous articles on this site.

Café del Mar on the Walled City in Cartagena
Café del Mar on the Walled City in Cartagena

1. Climate

Medellín wins here hands down.  The 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”.

While in Cartagena the average annual temperature is 81.9 ° F (27.7 °C).

In Medellín, the average daily high temperature ranges from 81.0 to 82.8 °F (27.0 to 28.2 °C) and the average daily low ranges from 61.7 to 63.3 °F (16.5 to 17.4 °C).

In Cartagena, the average daily high temperature ranges from 87.8 to 89.6 °F (31.0 to 32.0 °C) and the average daily low ranges from 72.9 to 77.0 °F (22.7 to 25.0 °C).

The record high each year in Cartagena is typically around 104 °F (40.0 °C).

Due to the hotter climate air-conditioning is definitely needed in Cartagena.  In Medellín you can survive without air-conditioning.

2. Restaurants and Nightlife

Medellín wins here. Medellín is a much bigger city with a metro population of over 3.7 million so it obviously has many more restaurant and nightlife options.

In comparison, Cartagena has a metro population of over 1.2 million.

Medellín has many more restaurant options, many of which have been covered on this website. TripAdvisor lists less than 500 restaurants in Cartagena and well over 900 restaurants in Medellín when you include the other municipalities in the metro area like Envigado and Sabaneta.

Medellín also has many more nightlife options, which have also been covered extensively on this website.

Cartagena is a tourist location so it also has many restaurant and nightlife options, just not as many as are found in the bigger city of Medellín.

One area that Cartagena beats Medellín is in seafood restaurants, since Cartagena is on the coast you will definitely find more and better seafood restaurants in the city than are found in Medellín.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

3. History and Culture

Cartagena wins here. Cartagena is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, being founded in 1533. In 1984 Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cartagena has a rich history. As the Spanish colonized South America they pillaged the riches of various South American countries.

The port of Cartagena has a well-protected bay and benefited from this plundering and it became one of the most important ports in the Caribbean. Cartagena was a major trading port, particularly for precious metals. It was also a slave port.

The Spanish built many fortifications in the city during the 16th,17th and 18th centuries including the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the walls around the old city and many other smaller fortifications.

In 1741 the city endured a large-scale attack by British and American colonial troops in what is known as the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. The Spanish with about 6,000 men and six ships successfully fended off a massive fleet of 186 ships and 23,600 men due to the city’s fortifications.

This victory in Cartagena prolonged Spain’s control of the Caribbean waters.

Cartagena is different than much of the rest of Colombia. It’s more like being in the Caribbean than being in South America.

Cartagena has a very interesting confluence of cultures over the past almost 500 years, which includes the cultures of the Spanish, natives and Africans.

In comparison, Medellín is a younger city having been founded in 1616. So the city as well as the culture in Medellín is much more contemporary.

4. Cost of Living

Medellín wins here. Similar properties I have seen in Cartagena in estrato 5 or 6 neighborhoods tend to rent for or sell for at least 25-30 percent higher than in Medellín – or even much higher.

Properties in lower estratos tend to have lower prices differences between the cities but in general are more expensive in Cartagena.

Electricity costs compared to Medellín will typically be at least 60-70% higher in Cartagena due to the need for air-conditioning.

Other costs like groceries, restaurants and other things tend to be at least 5-15 percent cheaper in Medellín in comparison to Cartagena.

In all my trips to Cartagena I haven’t found anything cheaper than in Medellín. In general Cartagena is a more expensive place to live than Medellín.

One of the tourist boats in Cartagena to nearby Rosario Islands
One of the tourist boats in Cartagena to nearby Rosario Islands

5. Things To Do

It’s arguably a tie. While unscientific, TripAdvisor has 147 things to do listed for Cartagena and it has 151 things to do listed for Medellín.

Both cities have many things to do in the city as well as many things to do nearby.

As a beach location Cartagena has many water related things to do that aren’t found in Medellín.  This includes boat trips to nearby islands (particularly 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 due to being a much bigger city.

6. Safety

Medellín arguably wins here. Medellín ranked much higher than Cartagena in a recent survey of 12,548 in Colombia in terms of citizens feeling safe in their barrio and city.

In this study (slide 41) citizens felt the safest in their barrio in Medellín with 75 percent of respondents feeling safe. In comparison Cartagena was ranked the worst with only 30 percent of respondents in Cartegena feeling safe in their barrio.

In terms of feeling safe in their city (slide 40), Cartagena was ranked second worst of the cities surveyed with only 15 percent of respondents in Cartagena feeling safe in their city.  This compares to 45 percent feeling safe in their city in Medellín.

In general, the tourist areas of Cartagena including the walled Centro Historico, Bocagrande and El Laquito are relatively safe.  But take care after dark when the streets become much less busy.

7. Healthcare

Medellín wins here.  Medellín has eight of the top rated hospitals in Latin America, while Cartagena has none.

Being a bigger city, Medellín has more medical and dental providers but they also have many more patients to care for.

Medical costs also tend to be somewhat higher in Cartagena in my experience compared to the medical costs in Medellín.

8. Pollution

Cartagena wins here.  The World Health Organization (WHO) last year reported that Medellín was ranked #9 in a list of the 10 cities most polluted in Latin America.

Medellin is located in a canyon, with mountains surrounding the city, which do not allow easy dispersion of pollutants.  So pollution tends to stay in the metropolitan area. But 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.

9. Traffic

Cartagena wins here.  My impression is that traffic is Medellín is generally much worse than in Cartagena due to it being a much bigger city with so many more cars on the roads.

A survey by Waze last year rated Medellín as one of the worst cities in Latin America in terms of traffic.

While the traffic can get pretty bad in Medellín, the worst traffic is primarily found in the El Poblado and Envigado neighborhoods during rush hours in my experience.

In comparison the traffic in Cartagena is nothing in comparison. Worst case in Cartagena may be only about 30 minutes being stuck in traffic.

10. Access to US, Europe and the rest of Latin America

Medellín wins here. Medellín’s José María Córdova airport is the second largest airport in Colombia and it has non-stop flights to 13 international locations in the US, Europe and Latin America.

From Medellín you can fly non-stop to Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and New York (JFK) in the U.S.

From Medellín you can also fly non-stop to Madrid in Europe. In addition from Medellín you can fly non-stop to Aruba, Curaçao, Lima, Maracaibo, Mexico City, Panama City, San Salvador and Valencia (plus seasonally to Punta Cana).

From Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez airport you can fly non-stop to only seven international cities year-round: Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New York (JFK), Panama City, Guayaquil and Maracaibo (plus seasonally to Quito).

There are also 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 while from Cartagena you can only fly non-stop to 9 cities in Colombia.

11. Job Opportunities

Medellín wins here. Medellín is a much bigger city so obviously there are more job opportunities in Medellín in comparison to Cartagena.

But there still aren’t a lot of work opportunities for foreigners even in Medellín, 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 greatest. There are more English teaching jobs available in the bigger city of Medellín.

Historically the unemployment rate in the smaller city of Cartagena tends to be somewhat lower than in Medellín. However many of the jobs in Cartagena are tourist related so they tend to be relatively low paying jobs.

12. Public Transportation

Medellín wins here. 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 very inexpensive.

Medellín’s metro system has been in place for 20 years and Cartagena doesn’t have a metro system.

Both cities have extensive bus routes and inexpensive taxis. But unlike Medellín the taxis in Cartagena don’t have taximeters.

Some taxi drivers in Cartagena take advantage of this and charge higher “gringo” prices to tourists. In Cartagena, taxi fares are supposed to be based on an official list of prices set by the city. Taxi drivers in Cartagena are also supposed to carry this list of official prices, but they usually don’t.

For example, the official 2015 fare from El Centro (the Walled city) to Bocagrande or Laguito is 5,500 pesos with a 500 peso surcharge if the time is between 8pm to 5am.  But I am aware of taxi drivers in Cartagena trying to charge foreigners 10,000 pesos or more for this fare.

To ensure no surprises when arriving at the destination always make sure to ask the price to go to a destination before you get in a taxi in Cartagena. Taxi drivers in Cartagena may demand ridiculous rates from tourists if not negotiated in advance.

13. Bugs

Medellín wins here. Mosquitos and other bugs can be a problem in Cartagena. Medellín is at a high elevation so it doesn’t have as many bugs.

Aedes aegypi mosquitos that spread the Zika virus infection reportedly are fairly prevalent in Cartagena so take precautions and use insect repellents.

It is possible to find Aedes aegypi mosquitos in Medellín.  But they are less prevalent and most of the cases of Zika reported in Colombia have been at lower elevations.

Note the Aedes aegypi mosquitos also spread the Chikungunya virus and dengue fever.

I have lived in higher floors in high-rise apartments in Medellín for over six years and I can sleep with the windows open with absolutely no bugs and I have never seen a mosquito. I understand mosquitoes typically don’t fly very high.

I recently met three expats in Medellín that traveled to Cartagena on vacation. Two of the three got sick with Zika, which demonstrates the risk.

14. Education Options

Medellín wins here. As the bigger city, Medellín is home to over 30 universities while Cartagena only has a handful of universities.

As a much bigger city 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 am also aware of only one bilingual international school for children in Cartagena, while I’m aware of two in Medellín.

One of the beaches in Cartagena
One of the beaches in Cartagena

The Bottom Line – Medellín vs Cartagena

In our Medellín vs 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 the end result in this somewhat subjective comparison of 14 categories is that Medellín clearly wins if the categories are equally weighted.

But to each his own. To really determine which city is best for you to live depends on which categories are more important to you with a higher weighting for more important categories.

For example, if cost of living, a springtime climate, healthcare and public transportation were most important, Medellín would win. If history/culture and avoiding traffic and avoiding pollution plus having beaches were your most important categories, Cartagena would win.

The only way to know which city is better is to spend time in both. I have spent much time in both cities and both have their pros and cons. Neither city is ideal.

I personally believe Medellín is a more livable city but Cartagena is a great place to go on vacation.  With the lower cost of living in Medellín I can afford to travel to Cartagena a couple times each year to experience what it has to offer.

Also note that Cartagena is a Caribbean beach location and it compares favorably to several Caribbean beach locations in other countries with lower costs to be found in Cartagena plus a rich history and no risk of hurricanes.

For example the cost of living in Panama City, Panama is reportedly at least 30% higher than in Cartagena.  The cost of living in San Juan, Puerto Rico is reportedly at least 20% higher than in Cartagena.

So if looking at living in other Caribbean beach locations, Cartagena should also be considered.

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    • Not according to Colombian citizens surveyed that don’t feel as safe in Cartagena as in Medellín. See the link to the survey results in the above article.

      Keep in mind Cartagena is much more than the walled Centro Historico, Bocagrande and El Laquito tourist areas that are relatively safe. There are some very poor slums of Cartagena that are not safe and tourists really don’t see. The poverty is immense in the poor neighborhoods in Cartagena. There are also regular robberies of tourists in Cartagena, many that aren’t reported.

      The bottom line is the tourists and foreigners normally only see the good side of Cartagena, there is also a dark side.

      • Perhaps you should go from raw crime statistics. Of course paisa would say that! Don’t they think their city is the most innovative 😉

  1. Thank you so much for giving us an overview of Colombia and the difference between the two cities. My only concern about Colombia is Street Crime. I have heard many good things about the friendly people, the gorgeous women, the vibrant culture and the wonderful scenery…but I am concerned about “personal safety”. I live in Bangkok and I’ve never had a problem in 25 years. Ever. Would like to visit Medellin as a possible place to spend part of my time abroad as an expat. I am also curious about why it is so difficult to get an apartment in Colombia. It’s not like that anywhere else in the world. It’s very easy in Asia to get an apartment. Thank you for your reply.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    thank you for that great article.

    I am currently writing my bachelor thesis and wanted to go abroad to study Spanish after I am done. I am also want to test the waters as I am an aspiring digital nomad and want to connect with like-minded people. It seems as if Medellin is the best fit for me.

    I hope everything works out.