Medellín vs Cuenca: a Comprehensive Comparison

View of Cuenca during the day
View of Cuenca during the day

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.

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

Iglesia de San Sabastián in Cuenca (photo by Rommel Gsrcia)
Iglesia de San Sabastián in Cuenca (photo by Rommel Gsrcia)

1. Climate

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.

Tomebamba River in Cuenca and Pumapungo ruins at right (photo by Micah MacAllen)
Tomebamba River in Cuenca and Pumapungo ruins at right (photo by Micah MacAllen)

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.

Two cost of living comparison sites (Numbeo and Expatistan) both report that the cost of living is higher in Cuenca than in Medellín.

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.

Domes of Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion in Cuenca (photo by Alex Proimos)
Domes of Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion in Cuenca (photo by Alex Proimos)

6. Safety

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.

7. Healthcare

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.

8. Pollution

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.

9. Traffic

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.

Cuenca’s tiny Mariscal La Mar airport
Cuenca’s tiny Mariscal La Mar airport

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.

13. Currency

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.

15. Language

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.

17. Altitude

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.

View of Cuenca at night
View of Cuenca at night

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.

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  1. Americans, no,both cities are terrible. Stay home. Stay home, drink your Budweiser, watch your baseball and football. These cities are boring,very expensive and the women, uggghh, especially in Medellin.
    Do not waste your money coming over here.

    • I respectfully disagree or are you being sarcastic.

      Very expensive – huh? – I just renewed my apartment lease in Medellín for a 110 square meter (1,184 square feet) apartment with three-bedrooms, two-bathrooms and two balconies for less than $400 per month. How is that expensive?

      Other examples of it not being expensive — it costs me about 60 cents to use the metro or a bus, a taxi normally costs about $2-$4 to get to places I normally go. I pay less than $45 per month for triple-play services with HD-TV, 10 Mbps Internet and phone with unlimited calls in Colombia. My electric/gas/water bill is normally less than $40 per month.

      It’s definitely not boring – there are so many things to in Medellín and nearby that have been covered on this website.

        • It would take a LONG time for Medellín to be saturated as it still has an undeserved reputation to overcome and it’s also a big city.

          Cuenca is a different story as it is a much smaller city and has been touted by the retirement publications for many years. The impact of foreigners is already really being seen in Cuenca.

          Here in Medellín the impact is primary only in El Pobaldo with all its hotels, hostels and furnished apartments catering to tourists. Outside of El Poblado you rarely see foreigners or hear English in my experience.

  2. You forgot that Colombia has you pay Colombian income tax on all your income no matter where or how it is earned if you stay 1 day over 1/2 a year. At least, that is my understanding but I don’t know about Ecuador.

    • Both Colombia and Ecuador have 183-day residence rules for income taxes.

      Colombia includes worldwide income in the base income for tax purposes. But if you pay income taxes in another country on income earned outside of Colombia you can subtract those income taxes paid in another country from income taxes due in Colombia.

      For example, I earn an income in the US and last year I had to file income taxes in Colombia but I didn’t have to pay any income taxes in Colombia. I had paid more income taxes in the US than the income taxes I owed in Colombia. So the net income taxes I paid in Colombia last year was “zero”. Colombia is also very lenient on deductions of business expenses like home offices.

      My Colombian accountant told me that many of her expat clients pay little to no income taxes in Colombia.

      Ecuador does something different than Colombia – they exclude income earned outside of Ecuador from the base income if it’s taxed elsewhere. Residents in Ecuador receiving foreign income, which have been taxed in other country, are excluded from the taxable base in Ecuador and are not be subject to taxation in Ecuador. In the case of income from tax havens without taxes the exemption will not be applied and income will be part of the taxpayer’s income base for tax purposes in Ecuador.

      Bottom line is before moving to a foreign country it is best to understand the tax implications and best to talk to a tax professional as everyone’s situation is different.

  3. Excellent observations of Cuenca. You’re spot on for someone only visiting Cuenca two times. I’ve lived in Cuenca for over 5 years. The only item I would question is the number of extranjeros in Cuenca. Although the Ministery might say 12,000 the number is closer to 4500. Half of all expats either leave Cuenca to go back to the place of origin or move to another location in their first five years. The only time the government is involved in the exit is if the person had an investment visa. Almost all of my friends who have left had retirement visas.

    Two years ago I spent 8 days in Medellin and fell in love with the city. Medellin definitely is my next choice if the economy of Ecuador gets worse. My question to you is the following. Do you have to pay a fee each year when you renew a retirement visa. In Ecuador the retirement visa is good for 10 years.

    Thanks again for a well written and accurate comparison.

    • Hi Lenny,

      Thanks! I was able to talk to several expats that had been living in Cuenca for a while when I was there that helped me understand the city. Yes the reported number of foreigners in Cuenca from the Ministry may be high.

      Regarding the Colombia TP-7 retirement visa — unfortunately you have to pay each time to renew. But you can renew using a service and avoid the expenses of a trip to Bogotá. There are fewer documents required than the visa in Ecuador and the process doesn’t really take much time in Colombia. IMHO Colombia should really make its TP-7 retirement visa good for five years.

      After five years of the TP-7 visa you can get a Colombian resident (RE) visa that is good for 5 years (it used to be indefinite). After having an RE visa for five years you can become a citizen of Colombia. Colombia permits dual-citizenship as does the U.S. and many other countries.

      After becoming a dual-citizen there will be no more visas. My plan is to go the dual-citizenship route in about four years.

  4. i live in cuenca, and have lived here for 4 years. for my investment visa, I only needed $25,500 for me and my spouse, and it is good for an indefinite period of time. i never have to renew. i recently read that an investment visa in colombia is $100,000 and has to be renewed! so, for that, cuenca wins hands down!

    we visited medellin 2 years ago and we’re returning for another visit soon, as we still are considering living in another south american country ( or 3 ) over the next few years. we both loved medellin on our first visit; more modern, more and better shopping opportunities, and warmer climate. but, the traffic in medellin was a deal breaker after our first visit. having said that, cuenca’s traffic just keeps getting worse by the day. more people, more cars and no new roads! and, with the construction of the tranvia, traffic congestion is horrible in parts of the city. cannot get anywhere in cuenca in just a half hour any more, unless one walks! and my apartment in cuenca? 3 BR/2BA $430 a month. condo fees, electric, water, gas costs me $105. fiber optic for my internet runs $70 a month, and Puntonet ( my current provider ) is way better than TVCable!

    health care here in cuenca has been great for us so far. nearly all of the doctors we’ve seen were trained in the US or Europe. I pay no ecuadorian income tax as all of my money is earned in the US and I pay my taxes to the US. don’t much care about the nightlife. too old to be wasting my time bar hopping until 1 or 2AM; outgrew that need 30 years ago. good restaurants are important, and I have to admit i was very disappointed with the quality of restaurants in medellin. typical food of the andes; bland with too much emphasis on starches and cheap fillers. almuerzos are pretty much the same in both cities; tepid soup/broth; a plate of 3/4 rice, small piece of meat, wilted lettuce and unripened tomato slice; and a lousy postre. will not eat almuerzos in any city in the andes as they always suck. the better restaurants in medellin were way higher priced than the better restaurants in cuenca on my last visit to medellin.

    and i agree with the tongue in cheek comments by Mike; both cities suck! US gringos, please stay in the US! you’d be wasting your time living in either one of these lousy third world cities ( those of us that love life in SA don’t want any more ugly gringos ruining our great SA cities! )
    in my opinion, one cannot go wrong living in either city. but, living costs should never be your only reason for living anywhere. if you choose to live someplace just because it’s cheap, you’ll end up hating the place very soon.

    us? we’re coming to medellin to spend a month living like we live here in Cuenca. if we like it, Medellin may become a new home for as long as we can get visas…

    • Thanks. FYI there are multiple investment visas in Colombia. The lowest investment amount for a TP-7 investment visa is currently about $23,000 for investing in a company in Colombia at the current exchange rate. Some real estate firms here have structured rental real estate properties as companies with multiple investors requiring this minimum investment to enable receiving a visa. The property investor visa currently requires an investment of about $80,500 at the current exchange rate. These would be for a TP-7 investment visa that must be renewed.

      There is also a resident investor visa in Colombia that permits you to get a resident (RE) visa good for five years immediately but this requires an investment of about $150,000 at the current exchange rate.

  5. by the way, next time you visit Cuenca, let me know. will be happy to show you around. places the tourists don’t know about

  6. You assume that warmer, to, hot, weather is”better”, individual tastes can vary, whether you’re aware of that or not

    • Agree. I found it uncomfortably hot during the daytime. But the night time temps creates a perfect outside cafe atmosphere in Poblado’s restaurant district. Like you said – – “Individual tastes can vary.”

  7. Good article, I live in Medellin and have been to Cuenca and enjoyed it as a vacation destination but it’s too small for me to live.

    A small error for you to correct:
    In comparison, Cuenca has a metro population of about 700,000 million (remove ‘million’), which means Medellín is over five times larger.

  8. Having visited both cities, I suggest that everyone now rank the importance of the topics above for themselves.

    For Medellin on the plus side,
    1. The Poblado neighborhood where most Gringos seem to migrate to is an isolated enclave with very steep streets, razor wire around the 30-story condos and a wonderful and eclectic restaurant scene.
    2. Shopping availability is heaven.

    on the negative side:
    1. COP to USD is now about 3,000 to 1. 18 months ago it was 2,000 to 1. Does this indicate radical instability? To me it does.
    2. Air pollution is horrendous in general.
    3. The fabulous Metro System does not include the Poblado neighborhood.
    4. Have you crossed the bridge over the central river – the one that the Metro parallels? Did you think you were sitting INSIDE a septic tank?
    5. Did you pass several men lying on the sidewalk in the old city that you were not sure if they’ve been dead for several days? ( But actually were still breathing? )

    • Some comments regarding your Medellín “negatives”.

      1. The exchange rate for the Colombian peso is correlated to the price of oil due to Colombia being a major oil exporting country. Weak currencies have also has happened in the other major oil exporting countries in Latin America like Mexico and Brazil. If Ecuador wasn’t using the USD, their currency would do the same as an oil exporting country.

      18 months ago (January 2015) the exchange rate was 2,400 Colombian pesos to the USD. You have to go back 22 months to September 2014 for an exchange rate of 2,000 pesos to the USD.

      The current exchange rate has made the cost of living and real estate much cheaper in Colombia in terms of USD than two years ago.

      2. As noted in the post above Medellín does have a pollution problem that is worse than in Quenca. But pollution is worse than in than Medellín in many cities in the Americas including Lima, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, Bogotá, Phoenix, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Quito, Buenos Aires, Houston and New York – see:

      Medellín has air pollution monitoring stations throughout the city that you can see via a mobile app and I just looked and most are showing acceptable levels. When it rains as it did recently it tends to clean out the air, which you can see via the motoring stations.

      3. The Medellín Metro system does actually include three metro stations on the west side of the El Poblado neighborhood. There are the Poblado, Aguacatala and Industriales metro stations in El Poblado. The Poblado metro station is an easy 10 minute walk downhill from Parque Lleras. Or the Aguacatala metro station is a 10 minute walk from Santafé mall. And there are cheap (1,800 peso) Metro connection buses available throughout El Poblado to get to/from the metro stations.

      5. There are homeless on the streets also found in Cuenca and every other city I have been to in Latin America. Cities in the US also have homeless on the streets. It’s not something unique to Medellín.

  9. The observations and comparisons in the article pretty much bear out my experiences except about pollution and the food. Medellin is listed as more polluted than Cuenca and even Mexico City. Having been to Cuenca and five times to D.F. I found the pollution to be much worse in Cuenca than either of the other two. Almost every passing car and truck there made me gag and cringe at the blackness of it all. Heading North/South on Medellin’s principal commercial roads is indeed a choke-athon but the quieter neighborhoods in West Laureles for example, are much less polluted. In fact I’m seldom bothered by it except around San Juan 44th Street. Mexico City with its 22 million souls didn’t seem anywhere near as polluted as Cuenca but there is a further distinction to be made. I’m not out on the streets commuting, earning a living and cursing behind the wheel. I’m retired and can easily avoid the grunge whenever and however I can manage it so my impressions are real enough for me but still subjective.

      • No it is not restricted every other day. Driving in Medellín is restricted for only a few hours only two days each week during rush hours by license plate number. There is no restriction on weekends.

        This is known as “Pico y Placa” and was something that was initially started in Bogotá followed by Medellín. Based on your license plate number you will not be permitted to drive two week days each week between 7:00 am and 8:30 am and between 5:30 pm and 7:00 pm. So it’s only a restriction for a total six hours per week. See this newspaper article (in Spanish) for details – You can easily overcome this restriction by just driving outside these Pica y Placa hours or use other transportation.

        It is very possible to live in Medellín without a car with the inexpensive metro, buses and taxis in the city. I have lived in Medellín for over six years without a car and I have never even encountered the need to rent one.

  10. Thanks for the comparison articles. We agree with your assessment. My husband and I recently purchased an apartment in the Carlos E neighborhood and can’t wait to get back and furnish it but it’s also a bit daunting. I’d like to see a few more pieces on setting up a place and getting involved in volunteer projects. Thoughts?

    • Thanks. Cost to furnish my three bedroom apartment in Medellín were covered in this: but keep in mind those prices are from several years ago. With the improved exchange rate costs for several things in USD may be less. To save money on furnishings I recommend shopping outside of El Poblado.

      There are some NGO articles on this site that talk about some volunteer opportunities.

  11. A very enjoyable read as usual Jeff, thanks. Having lived in Cuenca now for 16 months, I agree with all your observations about Cuenca (except that the taxis do use meters very reliably). Due to the drop of the peso over the past year, rents are now almost comparable, with a slight edge to Cuenca based on what Medellin apartment rental rates I can find online, but I think that the lower cost of living in Medellin in every other cost-of-living category outside of rent (and education visa & tuition costs, which only applies to some expats) more than makes up for it and makes Medellin the COL winner overall for most people.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to living in a slightly warmer city with light rail, better and broader food shipping options and *MUCH* more reasonable costs for electronics, internet, etc. Will be there in September.

    • Thanks. Keep in mind rental rates you will find online for Medellín include real estate commissions typically of about 10%. If you rent directly from an owner you can negotiate a lower rental price since the owner doesn’t have to pay commission to an agent. I now only will rent from owners.

      According to the cost of living websites referenced in the article, rents are higher in Cuenca than in Medellín. I believe you will be able to find comparable rental properties in Medellín for lower rental prices than in Cuenca.

      • That’s great advice, Jeff; thanks for the reminder to go directly with owners if possible. My Spanish is still limited so I don’t have the confidence to negotiate directly with owners myself unless I luck into one who speaks English, though maybe I can get around it by hiring a student to translate? Not sure what to do. I’m hopeful (but not sure) I can do better than what I see on espaciourbano, etc.

        Lower rentals in Medellin than Cuenca? I sure hope so. But here you can get a 4br house for $300-350! (unfurnished). I have been bracing myself to pay more and get less in Medellin, e.g., $600-750 for a sorta’ nice furnished 2 or 3br in Medellin w/ modern kitchen (for the 1st 6 months), and hoping to get $500-ish for an unfurnished but modern 2-3br place after that (not in Poblado in either instance). If I can do that, or better, I will be ecstatic.

        Are these reasonable expectations?

        Thanks for giving me hope.

        • Hi Jason,

          You should be able to find a bilingual student to hire who speaks English – you may want to ask at the language office at Universidad EAFIT. Best way to get owner contact info is to ask at the porteria offices in high-rise apartment buildings.

          For furnished apartments you can find some reasonable prices outside of El Poblado on Airbnb, make sure to only look for places with reviews though. However most 2 to 3 bedroom furnished apartments in the city (over 80% of furnished apartments are found in El Poblado) are higher priced than your budget.

          You can find nice unfurnished 2 to 3 bedroom apartments for less than $500/month outside of El Pobaldo. A year ago I was paying only about $370 at the current exchange rate for a 3-bedroom, 2-bath apartment with 2 balconies in Belén with an incredible 180+ degree view of the city.

          I just renewed my lease in Sabaneta for an even larger 110-square-meter apartment with 3-bedrooms, 2-baths and 2 balconies for about $400 per month. Rental prices in Laureles, Belén or Sabaneta tend to be at least 25-30% cheaper than in El Pobaldo for similar properties.

          • Thanks for the advice again. I will follow it and attempt to contact owners through porterias and arrange for a student translator at EAFIT.

            I’ve been in touch with a few airbnb hosts and it’s looking good, some are willing to offer decent (sub-$800) monthly rates for a minimum of 3 months, but of course those are not in Poblado, which, yes, is out of my budget.

            Belén does indeed sound like a great neighborhood and I will probably look there or Sabaneta if I choose Medellin over Pereira (75% chance I’ll choose Medellin). For now, I will have to go with more expensive furnished rentals if I stay only up to 6 months per year. I’d really love to be able to live year-round there and do something similar to the great rental deals you’ve written about here and in other articles, but it will be tough for me to get those because I’m not sure I want to do 10 hours of classes per week, every week, year-round, in order to get a student visa (4-8 per week is more manageable; I had 4.6 hrs/wk here in Cuenca–120 hrs in 6 months and the price was a lot cheaper), not to mention the rather high expense of classes at EAFIT. Colombia makes it tough on the average freelancer/digital nomad. 🙂 But I’m going to start with staying at least 6 months per year in Colombia and do some private tutoring a few hours a week to improve Spanish. Then see if I can figure out a reasonable way to stay full-time

            Thanks again Jeff. Your work here has done a lot to help me (and many others) plan.

  12. I have lived in both cities and I love them both actually. But I felt like I was going to die of heatstroke in Medellin after moving out of the very cold and snowy Detroit.

    My son attended El Inem Colegio school and some of the teachers flat out refused to teach him because he was from the USA and was still learning Spanish. His math teacher told him that she needed to speak to me before he could be allowed to be in her classroom. I showed up and she yelled at me and called me a puta, or bitch, in Spanish. She had no intention of talking to me except to yell at me for the country I was born in. So he was not allowed to be taught math. (we now use USA online resources for homeschooling.) El Inem, I found out later, is known for kids having sex in the bathroom and doing and dealing drugs there. Also there is a well known problem (the police are well aware of this but have not yet caught they guy) for kidnappings by a local pervert of El Inem students. My son was almost his victim but he beat the old man up (who had tried to usher him into a white van, with TARPS and TOOLS in the back).

    The cartel also tried to kidnap my son in Medellin. Lucky for my son, he has fast legs and the cartel men were fat and older and could not run well.

    Cuenca so far has been pretty good. Although we were pickpocketed at the Feria Libre Arenal mercado here
    and I lost about 20 to 40 bucks. On another occasion they stole the plastic pass card that we use to get inside our secure building.

    There are a lot off crackheads in the market as well so it is hard to buy baking soda and benadryl in Cuenca, for some bizarre reason. I have severe allergies so I have to take 3 different allergy pills to make up for 1 benadryl I would normally take at night.

    I love both countries. But since I have kids, I am opting to stay in the safer Cuenca for now. So far, no attempted kidnappings here.

    It is a toss up but I love to cuddle and a good fireplace is a romantic thing so Cuenca is my choice. 🙂