Medellín vs Cuenca, Ecuador, which is the better city to live? Both have been rated as two of the top foreign retirement locations, which is really better?
International living actually ranked Cuenca as the top foreign retirement location for several years in a row, in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Live and Invest Overseas also has ranked Cuenca as one of the top foreign retirement locations for several years.
Cuenca is located in the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains. Mountains on all sides surround the city and four rivers run through the city.
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 many expats living in Cuenca that prefer Cuenca. However many expats living in one city have never visited the other.
It’s not really fair to compare the two cities if you haven’t been to both of them. I have lived in Medellín for over six years but I have traveled to Ecuador and visited Cuenca twice on vacation.
I have seen a few comparisons of Medellín vs Cuenca but these tend to miss several very important points or have a bias.
Both cities have their pros and cons. This comparison comprehensively compares these two cities in 18 categories, in no particular order.
Note in this article we only include photos of Cuenca as this website already has countless photos of Medellín. The photo above is a view of Cuenca during the day.
Medellín wins 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 Cuenca the average annual temperature is much chillier at 58.5 ° F (14.7 °C) due to being at a higher elevation.
In Medellín, the average daily high temperature ranges from 81.0 to 82.8 °F (27.2 to 28.2 °C) and the average daily low ranges from 61.7 to 63.3 °F (16.5 to 17.4 °C).
In Cuenca, the average daily high temperature ranges from 68.7 to 73.6 °F (20.4 to 23.1 °C) and the average daily low ranges from 49.1 to 52.2 °F (9.5 to 11.2 °C).
The record low each year in Cuenca is typically around 27 °F (-2.8 °C). In Medellín the record low each year is typically around 46 °F (7.8 °C).
Due to the colder climate in Cuenca heating at night is needed by many people. One of the times I visited Cuenca it dropped down into the low 30’s F at night. It was cold enough to see your breath in the air.
In Medellín you can survive without air-conditioning or heating. While some may like the cooler climate in Cuenca, every expat I talked to living there thought it was too chilly at night.
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, Cuenca has a metro population of about 700,000, which means Medellín is over five times larger.
Medellín has many more restaurant options, many of which have been covered on this website. TripAdvisor lists less than 340 restaurants in Cuenca and well over 900 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, which have also been covered extensively on this website.
If you are out past 1 am in Cuenca pretty much on any night of the week it will be like a ghost town in my experience. In Medellín there are several nightlife areas that will be active late any night of the week.
3. History and Culture
Cuenca wins here. Cuenca is one of the older cities in the Americas, having been founded by the Spanish in 1557. In 1994 the historical town of Cuenca was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the Old Town in Cuenca, you will find Parque Calderón and other colonial plazas and parks. These are neighborhoods that date back to the initial days of the Spanish conquest of the area.
Cuenca has a rich history. The origins of the first inhabitants reportedly go all the way back to the year 8060 BC. Cuenca was also an ethnic Cañari settlement called Guapondeleg.
Archeologists believe this settlement means that Cuenca was actually founded around 500 AD.
Cuenca has an interesting confluence of cultures, which includes the cultures of the Spanish and natives. With its rich cultural heritage Cuenca was even named the Cultural Capital of the Americas in 2002.
In comparison, the city of Medellín as well as the culture in Medellín is much more contemporary.
Medellín has also been solidifying its reputation as a pioneer of inventive architecture and urban renewal, with an array of bold public projects.
This helped Medellín to be named the most innovative city in the world in 2013 in a competition organized by the Urban Land Institute.
4. Cost of Living
Medellín arguably wins here. Similar real estate properties I have seen in Cuenca tend to rent for or sell for at least 10 percent higher than in Medellín – or even higher.
The cost of living in terms of USD in Medellín has dropped dramatically over the past couple of years due to the strength of the US dollar compared to the Colombian peso.
While in Cuenca 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.
Costs of imported items, particularly electronics, appliances and automobiles, tend to be more expensive in Ecuador. Ecuador doesn’t have as many free trade agreements as Colombia has.
In Cuenca many consumer and food items are scarce, expensive or more difficult to find. I wasn’t able to find as many imported grocery items in the grocery stores in Cuenca as you will in Medellín.
Internet services are more expensive in Quenca than in Medellín and you can’t find speeds higher than 60 Mbps (you can get 100 Mbps Internet in Medellín).
For what I currently pay for triple play with HD-TV, Internet and phone services from Claro in Medellín would cost over double in Quenca for similar services from TVCable.
An expat couple I met recently in Medellín that used to live in Cuenca told me their cost of living has dropped by well over 15 percent since moving to Medellín late last year. They said they have found many things that are cheaper in Medellín.
However, keep in mind that your cost of living can vary dramatically based on your lifestyle in either city.
Our cost of living in Medellín for a couple living in a very nice three-bedroom apartment in a high rise with two balconies has averaged about $1,500 per month over the past few months.
A couple I met in Cuenca living a very similar lifestyle to us told me late last year that their cost of living was averaging above $1,650 per month.
Beware of believing any claim that you can live for $600-700 per month in Cuenca as has been claimed on some websites advertising the city.
Those low numbers are farfetched according to expats I talked to living in Cuenca. While it may be possible, you won’t be living a very good lifestyle at all.
5. Things To Do
Medellín wins here. While unscientific, TripAdvisor has has 151 things to do listed for Medellín but only has 66 things to do listed for Cuenca.
Both cities have many things to do in the city as well as many things to do nearby. Well over 100 things to do in and around Medellín have been covered on this website over the past several years.
The bottom line is that Medellín has many more and larger shopping malls. The largest shopping mall in Cuenca, Mall del Rio, is the size of one of the smaller malls in Medellín.
Some expats from Cuenca I met visiting Medellín told me they were amazed by the selection when they experienced the huge Santafé mall in Medellín.
Medellín also has more churches, more outdoor activities, more sights and landmarks, more of everything due to it being a much bigger city.
Cuenca arguably wins here. Cuenca generally has lower crime rates than are found in the much bigger city of Medellín.
The reported homicide rate in Cuenca in 2015 was quite low at 2.58 homicides per 100,000 habitants. This was down from 4.57 in 2014.
Thefts of people were down 2.23 percent last year in Cuenca and roadside assaults dropped by 61.54 percent.
Medellín’s homicide rate in 2015 was 20.0, which was the lowest in 40 years. Medellín now has a homicide rate that is lower than is found in St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit or New Orleans in the US.
Other crime rates have also been dropping in Medellín. For example, thefts of people in Medellín between January 1 and May 14, 2016, were 13 percent less than the same period in the previous year.
In a recent 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 cities 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 43 ranked hospitals in Latin America, while Cuenca has none.
The top hospital in Medellín is Hospital Pablo Tobón Uribe, which is ranked #9 in Latin America. The top hospital in all of Ecuador is Hospital Luis Vernanza located in Guayaquil, which ranks #25 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.
Cuenca 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 in Colombia’s Andes Mountaian. The city has mountains surrounding the city, which do not allow 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.
Cuenca is located in Ecuador’s Andes Mountains. The city has no heavy industry. So pollution is mostly from cars and buses and there are much fewer of these than in Medellín, as Cuenca a much smaller city.
A WHO study three years ago ranked Cuenca in the top 25% of cities in Latin America in terms of pollution.
Cuenca wins here. My impression is that traffic is Medellín is generally much worse than in Cuenca 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 Cuenca is nothing in comparison. Worst case in Cuenca 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 (MDE) 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).
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.
Cuenca’s Mariscal La Mar airport (CUE) is tiny in comparison and only has domestic flights to two cities in Ecuador: Quito and Guayaquil. Only three airlines fly out of Cuenca: Avianca, LATAM and Tame.
To get to the US, Europe and the rest of Latin America from Cuenca you will need to connect in Quito or Guayaquil. Both Quito and Guayaquil have non-stop flights to the US, Europe and the rest of Latin America.
11. Job Opportunities
Medellín wins here. Medellín is a much bigger city so obviously there are more job opportunities in Medellín in comparison to Cuenca.
But there still aren’t a lot of work opportunities for foreigners even in Medellín, 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. There are more English teaching jobs available in the bigger city of Medellín.
Historically the unemployment rate in the smaller city of Cuenca tends to be lower than in Medellín.
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 Cuenca doesn’t yet have a metro system. However a tram system is under construction in Cuenca that will have 27 stations.
Both cities have extensive and inexpensive bus routes plus inexpensive taxis. Taxis in both cities use taximeters but in Cuenca taxi drivers mostly don’t use the taximeters to determine fares.
To ensure no surprises when arriving at a destination always make sure to ask the price to go to a destination before you get in a taxi in Cuenca.
Cuenca wins here. Ecuador uses the US dollar so there isn’t a fluctuating exchange rate like you will find in Colombia, which uses the Colombian peso. You won’t need to change money in Cuenca.
Ecuador dollarized its economy in 2000. Ecuador has centavo coins in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 centavos that circulate in Ecuador alongside coins from the US. 1 centavo = 1 US cent.
However the fluctuating exchange rate in Colombia has been beneficial lately with the strong US dollar.
Two years ago, the exchange rate was about 1,850 Colombian pesos to the USD and it is now about 2,982 pesos to the USD. This has made real estate in Colombia much cheaper in terms of US dollars than it was two years ago.
But the fluctuating exchange rate moves both ways in Colombia. Just four months ago the exchange rate was over 3,300 pesos to the USD.
So in just four months costs have gone up over 10% in Colombia in terms of USD with the volatile exchange rate.
14. Economic Freedom and Corruption
Medellín wins here. Since both cities are in different countries 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 #33 out of the 178 countries that it ranks in the world in terms economic freedom.
In comparison, Ecuador’s economy is categorized as a “mostly repressed economy”. Heritage Foundation ranks Ecuador as #159 in terms of economic freedom.
The government in Ecuador is considered to be democratic socialist. Ecuador’s repressive political environment can make investment in the country more risky.
Although dollarization generates some monetary stability in Ecuador, the government makes extensive use of price controls and subsidies.
The government in Ecuador also has put in place a fairly restrictive entrepreneurial environment, which makes it more difficult to do business.
It is much more difficult to do business in Ecuador, which is ranked #117 in the world by the World Bank in terms of ease of doing business. In comparison Colombia is ranked #54. If you are wanting to start a business this will be easier to do in Colombia.
Corruption is common in both countries but is even more prevalent in Ecuador. Transparency International ranks Colombia #83 out of 167 countries in terms of corruption perception, while Ecuador is ranked #107.
The two cities tie in this category. Spanish is spoken in both cities. 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 locals speak English.
However Cuenca has a bigger expat community that speaks English. Reportedly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said there are about 12,000 expats from North America and Europe living in Cuenca. Over 8,000 of these are reportedly from the US.
The expat community in Medellín speaking English is much smaller. I have seen no official statistics for Medellín. But I would estimate there likely are less than 4,000 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.
16. Education Options
Medellín wins here. As the bigger city, Medellín is home to over 30 universities while Cuenca 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 Colombia.
I am aware of two bilingual (English/Spanish) schools for children in Medellín, while I was unable to find a bilingual school in Cuenca and expats living there told me they don’t know of one.
Medellín wins here. Medellín is at an elevation of about 4,905 feet (1,495 meters) and Cuenca is at a much higher elevation of about 8,400 feet (2,550 meters).
Cuenca is at the low end of the altitude scale for potential physiological effects. The high altitude of Cuenca means the air is thinner but some visitors may not notice this at all.
Some visitors will often notice heavier breathing, a faster heart rate and fatigue. A slowdown of digestion and possibly an increased need to urinate are also possible. Headaches are another common impact of the higher altitude.
If you are impacted it will normally take a few days for your body to adjust to the higher altitude. I experienced some headaches and fatigue the first few days I was in Cuenca.
Take things slow and avoid strenuous activities. The body needs a few days to adjust to the lack of oxygen or possibly even much longer. One of the best ways to combat the impacts of high altitude is staying hydrated.
The high altitude in Cuenca is normally only an impact for shorter-term visitors. Studies have shown that the approximately 140 million people worldwide who live full-time at altitudes above 8,200 feet (2,500 meters) like in Cuenca ultimately adapt to the lower oxygen levels.
But there are some preexisting medical conditions that may be of concern at higher altitudes or precautions should be taken – see the following.
18 Ease of Getting a Visa
The two cities arguably tie in this category. Both Colombia and Ecuador 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. Both countries also have investor visas with lower investment thresholds than many other countries as well as several other visa options.
As an example, Ecuador’s retirement visa (9-I visa) requires a minimum retirement/pension income of $800 per month. The Ecuador retirement visa fee is $500 plus an application fee of $50.
In comparison, Colombia’s retirement visa (TP-7) requires a minimum retirement income of three times the minimum wage in Colombia. The minimum wage in 2016 is 689,454 pesos per month.
The minimum retirement income needed for the Colombian retirement visa is only about $694 per month at the current exchange rate. The Colombia retirement visa fee is $205 plus an application fee of $50.
Ecuador’s visas are more expensive than Colombian visas. Ecuador’s visas also require more paperwork like a criminal background check and reportedly can take much longer to get – a month or even longer.
Colombia streamlined its visa process a couple years ago and you can apply online and approvals are now relatively fast, typically in a few days. Or you can go directly to Bogotá and normally get a visa the same day you apply.
However, Ecuador’s visas are good for an indefinite time period, while Colombia’s TP visas are typically good for a year and must be renewed (except the marriage visa, which is typically good for three years).
After having most Colombian TP visas for five years (or three years for a marriage visa) you can apply for a resident visa that is good for five years, which we covered previously.
The Bottom Line – Medellín vs Cuenca
In our Medellín vs Cuenca comparison, Medellín beats out Cuenca in 11 of 18 categories. Cuenca beats out Medellín in five categories and the two cities tie in two categories.
So the end result in this somewhat subjective comparison of 18 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. A higher weighting should be used for more important categories.
For example, if cost of living, having a warmer springtime climate, healthcare and ease of travel to the US were most important, Medellín would win.
If history/culture, safety, avoiding traffic and pollution plus being able to use the US dollar and living in a smaller city were your most important categories, Cuenca would win.
The only way to really know which city is better is to spend time in both. I have spent time in both cities and both have their pros and cons. Neither city is ideal but I much prefer Medellín.
I believe the above category rankings demonstrate that Medellín would be a better place to live than Cuenca for many people.
I have met some expats now living in Medellín that used to live in Cuenca. They moved when they discovered Medellín and like it better than the much smaller Cuenca – they moved to the “greener pasture”.
A more fair comparison city to Cuenca in Colombia would actually be Manizales.
Manizales is a similar sized smaller city at a similar altitude to Cuenca with a similar climate. Like Cuenca, Manizales also doesn’t have non-stop flights outside the country.
The foreign retirement publications have been touting Cuenca for many years as a top foreign retirement location. But in my opinion Cuenca really doesn’t compare very well to Medellín.
The bottom line is that anyone seriously considering moving to Cuenca should also consider Medellín, which in many ways is arguably a better place to live.