Medellín vs Costa Rica, which is the better place to live? Both are popular foreign retirement locations, which is really better?
International living ranks the country of Costa Rica as its fourth best foreign retirement location this year, which is ahead of Colombia ranked number five.
Costa Rica is a country in Central America bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the southeast. Medellín is located in a valley in the Colombian Andes Mountains and mountains also surround it. Many expats consider Medellín the most livable city in Colombia.
Many expats I have met prefer Medellín. I also have met several expats living in Costa Rica that prefer Costa Rica. However many expats living in one place have never visited the other.
It’s not really fair to compare the two places if you haven’t been to both of them. I have lived in Medellín for over six years but I have traveled to Costa Rica several times on vacation and on business.
I have only seen a few comparisons of Medellín vs Costa Rica but these tend to miss several very important points or have a bias.
Both places have their pros and cons. This comparison comprehensively compares these two places in 19 categories, in no particular order.
In several cases in this article we compare the city of San Jose located in the center of Costa Rica to Medellín. In some categories it’s not fair to compare the city of Medellín to an entire country.
Note in this article we only include photos from Costa Rica as this website already has countless photos of Medellín. The above photo is view of San Jose from the Museum of Jade by Wikipedro.
We previously compared on this site:
- Medellín vs Panama City,
- Medellín vs Lima,
- Medellín vs Cuenca,
- Bogotá vs Medellín,
- Medellín vs Pereira and
- Medellín vs Cartagena.
1. Climate – Medellín vs Costa Rica
It’s a tie here. 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 San Jose the average annual temperature is similar at 72.7 ° F (22.6 °C). The climate in both cities is similar due to the altitude.
In Medellín, the average daily high temperature ranges from 81.0 to 82.8 °F (27.2 to 35.4 °C). The average daily low ranges from 61.7 to 63.3 °F (16.5 to 17.4 °C).
In San Jose, the average daily high temperature ranges from 80.8 to 86.5 °F (27.1 to 30.3 °C) and the average daily low ranges from 64.9 to 66.6 °F (18.3 to 21.3 °C).
During the rainy season from May to October the average high humidity in San Jose is typically 80 to 87 percent. During the rainy season in San Jose it typically rains over 210 mm (over 8 inches) in five out of the six months.
In comparison, in Medellín the average humidity for each month ranges from 63 percent to 73 percent. The annual average humidity in Medellín is 68 percent. In Medellín there is only one month out of the year (October) that typically has over 210 mm (over 8 inches) of rain.
In both cities you can survive without air-conditioning or heating. However along the coasts in Costa Rica at lower elevation, air-conditioning is required.
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, San Jose has a metro population of about 2.2 million, which means Medellín is much larger. The population of the entire country of Costa Rica is only about 4.6 million.
Medellín has many more restaurant options, many of which have been covered on this website. TripAdvisor lists less than 525 restaurants in San Jose. And over 920 restaurants in Medellín when you include the other municipalities in the metro area like Envigado and Sabaneta.
Medellín also is livelier and has many more nightlife options in the much bigger city, which have also been covered extensively on this website.
3. Cost of Living
Medellín clearly wins here. Similar real estate properties I have seen tend to be at least 50 precent cheaper in Medellín than in San Jose, Costa Rica.
The cost of living in terms of USD in Medellín has dropped over the past couple of years due to the strength of the US dollar compared to the Colombian peso.
While in San Jose prices have gone up with inflation plus an increase in the number of expats in the city has helped drive up some real estate prices.
Two cost of living comparison sites (Numbeo and Expatistan) both report that the cost of living is much higher in San Jose, Costa Rica than in Medellín. For example, Expatistan reports the cost of living in San Jose is 41 percent higher than in Medellín.
An expat I met recently in Medellín that used to live in Costa Rica told me his cost of living has dropped by over 40 percent since moving to Medellín a year ago. He said he has found many things that are cheaper in Medellín, particularly the real estate and anything imported.
However, keep in mind that your cost of living can vary dramatically based on your lifestyle in either place.
Some expats living in Costa Rica avoid the high costs of San Jose by living in a much smaller city or town in Costa Rica where the cost of living can be lower. But by living outside of San Jose you lose some of the benefits of the big city.
You will likely need to give up things and live a simpler life than you’ve come to expect in the U.S. so you’ll be making lifestyle changes. Also a car would likely be required.
Costa Rica wins here. Costa Rica can be considered a tax haven as residents are taxed only on local income. While in Colombia residents are taxed on worldwide income plus DIAN (the IRS of Colombia) has ruled that foreign pensions are taxed.
However living in Colombia can be tax neutral for many. I have met many expats living in Colombia that pay no income taxes.
Income taxes paid in another country are subtracted from taxes due in Colombia. So there is no double taxation in Colombia as some websites claim.
Colombia also permits many deductions including excluding 25% of your income from being taxed plus deductions for expenses related to receiving your income, mortgage interest, health insurance, retirement savings and economic support of dependents.
I have lived in Colombia for over six years and I have paid Colombian income taxes only one year that were less than 10% of the income taxes I paid in the U.S.
A friend of mine in Medellín only pays property taxes of about 0.3% of the value of the property. Property taxes in Colombia typically range from 0.3% to 3.3%. Property taxes in Costa typically are about 0.25%.
Sales tax (VAT) is higher in Medellín at 19% for most items. While in Costa Rica the sales tax (VAT) for most items is currently 15%. However, keep in mind that Costa Rica has import duties on many items so many things can be more expensive in Costa Rica.
We highly recommend that you talk to a tax professional before moving to a foreign country to understand all the tax implications.
While overall taxes (including income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes) may be higher in Medellín this should be factored into the cost of living.
The much lower cost of living in Medellín means that even if you pay more taxes in Medellín, the total cost of living including taxes can still be much lower in Medellín than in Costa Rica.
5. Things To Do
Medellín arguably wins here. While unscientific, TripAdvisor has 114 things to do listed for San Jose.
In comparison TripAdvisor has well over 200 things to do listed for Medellín when you include the other municipalities in the metro area like Envigado and Sabaneta.
Both cities have many things to do in the city as well as many things to do nearby. Well over 120 things to do in and around Medellín have been covered on this website over the past several years.
Medellín has more shopping malls than are found in San Jose, Costa Rica. We have already covered over 15 malls in Medellín on this website.
The largest shopping mall in Costa Rica, City Mall in San Jose, has about 300 shops. Santafé mall the largest in Medellín is somewhat larger and has over 380 shops.
Medellín also has more churches, more sights and landmarks, more of everything due to it being a much bigger city.
Medellín has several natural parks including the huge Parque Arví nature reserve covering 39,500 acres with 54 miles of walkable trails with activities like hiking, biking, jogging, horseback riding, picnicking, and bird watching.
Colombia is also a much larger country than Costa Rica so there are a much bigger variety of things to do throughout Colombia. Colombia is also the second most bio-diverse country in the world after Brazil.
Costa Rica has it’s beaches but so does Colombia. Cartagena or Santa Marta are only about an hour flight from Medellín.
Costa Rica wins here. Costa Rica generally has lower crime rates than are found in Medellín.
The reported homicide rate in all of Costa Rica in 2016 was relatively low at 12 homicides per 100,000 habitants. But this reportedly was the most violent year in the country’s history and has doubled since 2002.
In December last year, University of Costa Rica School of Statistics reported that more than half of those polled consider Costa Rica’s level of insecurity to be either high or very high.
Medellín’s homicide rate in January 2017 dropped 32 percent compared to a year ago. Over the past couple years Medellín has had a homicide rate that is lower than is found in St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit or New Orleans in the U.S.
Other crimes that had a significant reduction in Medellín in December to January were theft of persons down 13 percent from same period a year ago. And motorcycle theft down 41 percent, personal injuries down 42 percent and theft of residences down 44 percent
In a 2015 survey of 12,548 in Colombia in terms of citizens feeling safe in their barrio, Medellín fared well with citizens in Medellín feeling the safest in their barrio compared to all the other cities in Colombia.
In both place take care and don’t go out with all that jewelry on and don’t flash cell phones and money. Also keep in mind that lifestyle plays a significant role in safety.
Medellín wins here. Medellín has eight of the top 44 ranked hospitals in Latin America, while San Jose and the country of Costa Rica only has only one.
The top hospital in Medellín is Hospital Pablo Tobón Uribe, which is ranked #9 in Latin America. The top hospital in all of Costa Rica is Hospital Clinica Biblica located in San Jose, which ranks #6 in Latin America.
Being a bigger city, Medellín has many more medical and dental providers but they also have many more patients to care for. The cost of health insurance tends to be higher in Costa Rica than in Medellín.
Medellín wins here. In San Jose and the rest of Costa Rica power outages are a way of life. One expat I met that used to live in San Jose told me he experienced power outages almost every month.
Power is much more reliable in Medellín. I have lived in Medellín for over six years and during this time experienced only two power outages.
One outage I was notified about beforehand and it was due to maintenance of a substation. The other outage was for a couple hours during a major storm. I have never experience an unplanned water outage.
Internet services in San Jose and the rest of Costa Rica should be considered average at best. High speed Internet in Costa Rica is typically more expensive than in Medellín and isn’t available everywhere.
An expat I met living in San Jose is paying more for just 10 Mbps Internet service than I pay for triple-play service from Claro in Medellín with 10 Mbps Internet, HD TV service for two TVs and landline phone service.
Outside of San Jose infrastructure will typically be more lacking in Costa Rica.
I talked to expats living in Costa Rica outside of San Jose that experience more frequent electric, water outages and less reliable and slower Internet.
It’s arguably a tie 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 in Colombia’s Andes Mountains. The city has mountains surrounding the city, which do not allow for easy dispersion of pollutants.
So pollution tends to stay in the Medellín metropolitan area. But fairly regular rain in the city can clean the atmosphere.
Fortunately, the Central Valley where San Jose, Costa Rica is located is windy and a lot of the polluted air gets carried away. And during rainy season the frequent rainstorms clean the air.
However, Volcanologists believe the Turrialba Volcano near San Jose isn’t going to stop erupting any time soon. And that could have long-term health effects for people living in San Jose.
When I last visited San Jose late last year, everything in the city was coated in volcanic ash.
In general Medellín has more air pollution than found in San Jose. But San Jose has a problem with volcanic ash. Also Medellín generally is a cleaner city.
It’s a tie here. A survey by Waze in 2015 ranked Costa Rica as the eighth worst coutry to drive in the world. Colombia was ranked 13th worst.
The survey by Waze last year rated Medellín and San Jose as two 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.
My impression is the traffic in San Jose during rush hours can at times be even worse than in Medellín.
11. Access to US, Europe and the rest of Latin America
Costa Rica wins here. San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport has non-stop flights to over 30 international locations in the US, Europe and Latin America.
From San Jose you can fly non-stop to Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, Orlando and Washington D.C. in the U.S.
From San Jose you can also fly non-stop to, Frankfurt, London and Madrid in Europe. In addition, from San Jose you can fly non-stop to over 15 different cities in other countries in Latin America.
However, one problem with the San Jose airport is that it sometimes closes due to volcanic ash from the nearby Turrialba Volcano. Once when I was traveling to Costa Rica on business my flight was cancelled since the San Jose airport was closed due to volcanic activity.
Medellín’s José María Córdova airport (MDE) is the second largest airport in Colombia and it has non-stop flights to 12 international locations in the US, Europe and Latin America.
From Medellín you can fly non-stop to 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).
There are also many 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.
12. Job Opportunities
Medellín arguably wins here. Medellín is a much bigger city so obviously there are many more job opportunities in Medellín in comparison to smaller San Jose. But jobs in San Jose tend to pay more.
However there still aren’t a lot of work opportunities for foreigners in either place, especially if you don’t speak Spanish fluently.
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.
Historically the unemployment rate in the smaller city of San Jose tends to be somewhat lower than in Medellín.
To work in either country will require work visas. Note the pensionado (retirement) visas in both countries do not authorize you to work.
13. Public Transportation
Medellín wins here. Medellín has an extensive metro system with integrated metro trains, a new tramline, buses and four cable car lines.
The Medellín metro is spotlessly clean, easy to use and very inexpensive. Medellín’s metro system has been in place for 20 years. San Jose and the rest of Costa Rica do not have a metro system.
Both cities have extensive and inexpensive bus routes plus inexpensive taxis. In Costa Rica it can be tricky for travelers to use buses since there are no schedules posted at bus stops, some bus stops are not easy to recognize and buses in Costa Rica don’t have numbers.
The taxis are metered in Medellín and you just need to pay the fare on the meter. Taxis are also metered in San Jose but may not be metered in other parts of Costa Rica.
Taxis in general are more expensive in Costa Rica than in Medellín.
It’s a tie here. Both countries use foreign currencies so you will need to change money. Colombia uses the peso and Costa Rica uses the colon.
However the fluctuating exchange rate in Colombia has been more beneficial lately with the strong US dollar.
Two years ago, the exchange rate was about 2,460 Colombian pesos to the USD and it is now about 2,887 pesos to the USD. This has made real estate in Colombia cheaper in terms of US dollars than two years ago.
In comparison the Costa Rican colon exchange rate hasn’t been as volatile. Two years ago it was about 530 colons to the USD and it’s now about 555 colons to the USD.
But the fluctuating exchange rate moves both ways in Colombia. A year ago the exchange rate was over 3,400 pesos to the USD. So in one year costs have gone up over 15% in Colombia in terms of USD with the volatile exchange rate.
15. Economic Freedom and Ease of Doing Business
Medellín wins here. It is important to compare the countries economically when considering them as places to live and one way to do this is to look at economic freedom.
In terms of economic freedom, The Heritage Foundation ranks Colombia as a country with a “mostly free economy”. It ranks Colombia as #37 out of the 178 countries that it ranks in the world in terms economic freedom.
In comparison, Costa Rica’s economy is categorized as a “moderately free”. Heritage Foundation ranks Costa Rica as #66 in terms of economic freedom.
It is also somewhat more difficult to do business in Costa Rica, which is ranked #62 in the world by the World Bank in terms of ease of doing business.
In comparison Colombia is ranked #53. If you want to start a business this will typically be a bit easier to do in Colombia.
The two places arguably tie in this category. Spanish is spoken in both places. There are few English speakers to be found outside of the service industries such as hotels in either city.
It is difficult to get by in either city without speaking some Spanish since few of the locals speak English.
Most people that you will interact with in both cities during daily life, such as store clerks, taxi drivers and waiters will speak little to no English.
Any publication that claims, “most people in Costa Rica speak English” is not telling the truth.
Education First ranks both Colombia and Costa Rica lowly in terms of English proficiency. Education First ranks Costa Rica in its English Proficiency Index at 50.53 and Colombia is not far behind ranked at 46.54 (a higher number means more speak English).
If you aren’t willing to learn some Spanish in either Costa Rica or Medellín you will need to depend on someone bilingual or will become quickly frustrated.
17. Expat Community
Costa Rica arguably wins here. San Jose looks to have a bigger expat community than Medellín that speaks English.
The total country of Costa Rica has 12,982 expats from the U.S. and 1,976 expats from the UK and Canada living in Costa Rica according to the International Organization of Migration (IOM).
Likely well over half of those expats from English speaking countries in Costa Rica live in San Jose.
The total country of Colombia has 18,841 expats from the U.S. and 2,222 expats from the UK and Canada living in Colombia according to IOM. However, the majority of expats living in Colombia are found in Bogotá, the capital and largest city in Colombia.
The expat community in Medellín speaking English is smaller than in San Jose. I have seen no official statistics for Medellín.
But I would estimate there likely are less than 3,000 expats from North America and Europe living full-time in the city.
Medellín is more of an emerging expat location but it is definitely becoming more discovered and has a growing expat community. Having lived in Medellín for over six years I see more expats in the city each year.
Internations actually ranked Colombia in 2015 as being a more welcoming country for expats than Costa Rica, ranking Colombia as number 5 and Costa Rica as number 11.
18. Education Options
This is arguably a tie. Medellín has many more university choices while San Jose has more Spanish language programs and more bilingual schools for children.
As the far bigger city, Medellín is home to over 30 universities while San Jose has much fewer universities.
With a bigger expat population San Jose apparently has more Spanish language programs available than in Medellín. However, Universidad EAFIT located in Medellín is reportedly the largest Spanish language program for foreigners in Colombia.
San Jose has over 10 bilingual schools (English/Spanish). I am aware of only two bilingual (English/Spanish) schools for children in Medellín.
19. Ease of Getting a Visa
The two tie in this category. Both Colombia and Costa Rica have a number of visa options and the visa processes for both countries are fairly straightforward.
Both countries have retirement (pension) visas with low-income requirements and no up front investment required.
Colombia’s retirement visa (TP-7) requires a minimum retirement income of three times the minimum wage in Colombia. The minimum wage in 2017 is 737,717 pesos per month.
The minimum retirement income needed for the Colombian retirement visa is only about $767 per month at the current exchange rate.
In comparison a Costa Rica retirement visa requires a higher minimum retirement income of $1,000 per month.
Both countries also have investor visas as well as several other visa options including student visas and marriage visas.
Costa Rica’s business investor visa requires a minimum invest of $200,000, while Colombia’s business investor visa (TP-7) has a much lower minimum business investment that is no less than 100 times the minimum wage in Colombia or no less than about $25,580 at the current exchange rate.
Colombia also has an investment visa with a minimum investment of 650 times the minimum wage in Colombia or more than $166,000 that is eligible for a resident visa..
Costa Rica’s visas typically require more paperwork like a criminal background check and reportedly can take much longer to get. Some expats living in Costa Rica recommend using a lawyer or visa service.
Colombia streamlined its visa process a couple years ago and you can apply online and approvals are now very fast, typically in a few days. Or you can go directly to Bogotá and normally get a visa the same day you apply.
After having most Colombian TP visas for five years (or three years for a marriage visa) you can apply for a resident (RE) visa that is good for five years, which we covered previously.
The Bottom Line – Medellín vs Costa Rica
In our Medellín vs Costa Rica comparison, Medellín beats out Costa Rica in eight of 19 categories. Costa Rica beats out Medellín in four categories and the two places tie in seven categories.
So the end result in this somewhat subjective comparison of 19 categories is that Medellín wins if the categories are equally weighted.
To really determine which city is best for you to live depends on which categories are more important to you. A higher weighting should be used for more important categories.
For example, if cost of living, having good infrastructure and healthcare and better public transportation were most important, Medellín would win.
If having a bigger expat community, being a tax haven and better access to the U.S. and Europe were your most important categories, Costa Rica would win.
The only way to really know which place is better is to spend time in both. I have spent time in both and both have their pros and cons. Neither place is ideal but I much prefer Medellín.
At the end of the day — there’s no “best place to live”. There’s only the best place for you to live. One man’s paradise is another man’s hell.
And that’s why we suggest living in a foreign city for six months to a year before committing. Only then can you determine if a foreign city is right for you.
I have met some expats now living in Medellín that used to live in Costa Rica. They moved when they discovered Medellín and like it better – common reasons mentioned include the lower cost of living, better infrastructure and there being so much more to do in Colombia.