Cartagena and Medellin are two of the most popular cities in Colombia for very different reasons.
Cartagena is the most popular tourist destination in the country; a historical resort town on the Caribbean Coast. Medellin might be Colombia’s most liveable city; it’s incredibly popular with expats (particularly men, for reasons I’ll get to later). Walking down the street in one of the other is like being in a another country- they are so different in terms of atmosphere, climate, even architecture. Together they are a brilliant illustration of the mind-boggling diversity in Colombia.
I visited both cities over the course of a week, and I thought I’d do a little comparison of these two very different corners of Colombia:
Cartagena: Where People Visit
Cartagena is Colombia’s tourist city- it’s the most visited city by domestic and international visitors alike. I met quite a few people here who were only visiting Cartagena, attracted by both it’s beaches and it’s history. It’s very popular with cruise ships.
The vibe of Cartagena is completely different from the rest of the country- it’s more like being in the Caribbean than South America. The streets are crowded with people selling everything from sunglasses to street food, colorfully painted houses and cramped taxis snaking their way down the street. The restaurants even serve hot sauce with your food- a welcome change from Colombia’s bland cuisine.
Outside of the walled city the vibe changes dramatically. There are the high rises and hotels along the beaches of the bay. To the East, near the bus station, the city is highly chaotic and urban- the clashing traffic, crowded streets and clothes sellers are reminiscent of Bangkok or China, not Colombia.
Personally, I’m not sure I cared for it too much. Yes, the Old Town is gorgeous, and yes, the food was pretty nice. But there was something missing from my time there. It almost felt like the city was putting on a show, which in a way it is- for the massive amounts of tourists that pour in and out. Also: it’s HOT. Ridiculously humid, just stepped into a sauna hot. The kind of weather that makes showering useless because you’ll just feel filthy again in ten minutes.
Medellin: Where People Live
Just 15 years ago Medellin held the title as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with a murder rate on par with Mogadishu. Seriously, it was basically a war zone. You’d never suspect it today: after the death of Pablo Escobar and a serious cleansing of terrorist groups, the city has done a turnaround. There are still neighborhoods you would never want to visit even during daylight, but the center of the city is pleasant and safe.
In recent years the city has become very popular with expats- I personally know 4 or 5 different bloggers who’ve chosen to make Medellin their home. I totally understand it: it’s a beautiful and liveable city. It doesn’t have the drama or history of Cartagena. Instead it’s modern, with leafy streets and sushi restaurants. There are lots of public parks and universities, and amazing nightlife.
There’s another reason that men in particular are drawn to the city, and that is the women. Medellin is known for being a plastic surgery mecca, and many of local women have taken full advantage of this reputation. They essentially have the best bodies money can buy. It’s seriously mesmerizing, particularly if you’ve never seen a fake butt before (I had not). Every night these women come out with their 4 inch heels and hair extensions and flirt with the gringos in the clubs. I don’t know if I’d call them beautiful, personally I found their look a bit too plastic, but they are certainly sexy.
Sexy women and sushi restaurants aside, Medellin was the only city in Colombia that I could actually picture myself living in. It has a youthful atmosphere, lots of public spaces and a lot going on. It’s set in a beautiful valley with rolling mountains all around. It’s known as the City of Everlasting Spring for it’s perfect weather (although of course it rained just for me). It has that essence that just doesn’t show in pictures the way that Cartagena does- it’s just really, really nice.
You can probably tell that the winner in my book was Medellin. From talking to other travelers it would seem that Cartagena is the city that everybody wants to visit, Medellin is the city that nobody wants to leave.