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A Tale of Two Cities: Cartagena and Medellin

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.

31 Responses to A Tale of Two Cities: Cartagena and Medellin

  1. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy November 29, 2011 at 10:28 AM #

    The Caribbean vibe sounds awesome. I think I’d have to see them both. The plastic girls would be funny to see!

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:58 PM #

      Funny, titillating and a little alarming!

  2. Sergio Valencia November 29, 2011 at 12:41 PM #

    Now I have visit Medellin, due I have been to Cartagena, and I think is an amazing experience.

  3. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures November 29, 2011 at 3:48 PM #

    Cartagena is on my dream destination list! Love these pics, especially the rainbow one.

  4. Sam November 29, 2011 at 9:12 PM #

    I visited Cartagena about 13 years ago with my parents, would love to go back and see how much I remember in person.

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:56 PM #

      I wonder if it has changed a lot since then…

  5. ana maria November 30, 2011 at 6:39 AM #

    I love seeing positive posts about Colombia (though I say NO to putting anything spicy on our food – save that for Mexican!).

    My family is from Pereira in the Coffee Region of Quindio so that’s where I’ve spent most of my time. It’s beautiful, lush, and has a ton of awesome outdoor things to do. It’s a small big city and has become much more modern in the past decade but the real beauty is once you get just outside of the city. There’s amazing hiking, zip lines, hot springs, horse back riding, and the road side restaurants in little “finca” homes are the best.

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:53 PM #

      Didn’t get to spend a lot of time in the coffee region but I could tell it was really beautiful! Want to come back again to see more.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Jose Luis November 30, 2011 at 1:37 PM #

    Excellent post. I have visited several cities in Colombia, got married in Cartagena, and am planning on living in Medellin in some near future. By any chance can you put us in contact with the expats living over there? I would love to get more info!

    @Viajecin

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:52 PM #

      Probably the best way to reached them is to check out the excellent website MedellinLiving.com. Lots of resources and local writers there.

  7. GĂ©raldine November 30, 2011 at 3:40 PM #

    I’ve been to Cartagena 2 years ago, its a very pleasant city and playa blanca is definiltly one of the most beautiful beach on Earth!!

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:51 PM #

      Didn’t make it to playa blanca but I wish I had.

  8. Tobias November 30, 2011 at 5:03 PM #

    Cartagena, once again, looks absolutely stunning!

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:48 PM #

      It’s a super pretty place!

  9. Kieu ~ GQ trippin November 30, 2011 at 10:48 PM #

    Cartegena looks beautiful and Medellin sounds like a great city to visit. Plus, SQUARE SUSHI! Now that’s cool. =) I never had a strong desire to go to Columbia. That is until now. Thanks for sharing!

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:44 PM #

      isn’t most sushi square?
      The best part was the jalapenos.

  10. JF November 30, 2011 at 11:48 PM #

    Seems like it would be easier to find out about real Columbia in Medellin. However feels like Cartagena would have a larger variety of stuff to see with time…on one side the high rises hotel and historical city which were monetized for tourism and the local people trying to take advantage of it (places near the bus station). Would love to see all of what Columbia has to offer but have to say that am attracted to Cartegena now…

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:38 PM #

      Yes that is a good point. I think that must be a big part of why Cartagena is so popular- it’s very tourist friendly.

  11. Erin December 3, 2011 at 5:55 AM #

    We actually liked Cartagena more than I expected. The colourful old city is gorgeous and I loved the heat after chilly Bogota.

    We spent 2 months in Medellin as we had heard so many good things about it. I did like it but didn’t love it. For me it was a bit too big and sprawling with too many huge highways. Also as vegetarians (and fans of spicy food) the food didn’t have much to offer us. I think a big part of the attraction for most people is the nightlife and women, and as a couple that wasn’t of interest to us!

    Our favourite parts of Colombia were the small pueblos.

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:37 PM #

      Yeah I liked Colombia but I can’t imagine living there solely because I like more variety in my food! I enjoyed the nightlife but the women were…. well interesting.

  12. Lyndon December 3, 2011 at 6:04 AM #

    Colombian food bland? Obviously you haven’t been eating the same stuff I have. Although it’s not spicy like Mexican food, it is SAVORY and full of flavor. Sancocho, Ajiaco and the grilled meats, fish. I love Colombian food!!

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:35 PM #

      Ajiaco is great, I will give you that. For the most part it seemed like the Colombian’s don’t use much in the way to spices, and many of the foods started to feel repetitive. Outside of Bogota there wasn’t a lot of variety!

  13. Amanda December 3, 2011 at 10:35 PM #

    I really enjoyed all the photos in this post! They really helped make your points, and made me really curious about these two cities at the same time. I can’t say I know much about what Colombia is like today, but I do know that, as you said, a ton of expats call it home, and a ton of others have fallen in love with it. That many people can’t be wrong!

    • Steph December 4, 2011 at 4:34 PM #

      Yeah, I was really excited to come to Colombia for exactly that reason: I didn’t know too much but everyone who’d been had glowing things to say. Now I am one of them!

  14. kyh December 14, 2011 at 8:52 AM #

    so beautiful! i love the beach and island vibe of the place, and the colourful homes!

    i always thought that caribbean and south america are quite similar – latin culture, exotic sights – what’s the difference between these two anyway?

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:52 PM #

      They are pretty different culturally- mainly the Caribbean has a lot more african influence and S. America is more latin.

  15. DanG. January 13, 2012 at 8:34 PM #

    Hello, when you refer to Medellin nightlife , do you mean dance/discoteca nightclubs, bars with music, restaraunts?
    What were the areas in town?
    Hard to believe the Medellin women would have any interests in grngos?

  16. Colleen July 10, 2012 at 12:56 AM #

    I’ve heard of expats retiring to Medellin, but I didn’t know about the city’s plastic surgery obsession. From your photos, it’s easy to see why Medellin was your favorite city.

  17. Kristine January 8, 2013 at 11:40 PM #

    I came across this while I was doing research for my trip to S.A….and ahh!! I was planning on spending 2 months in Buenos Aires but now I’m looking into Colombia…

    • Steph January 9, 2013 at 9:02 AM #

      I have a lot of BA articles as well if you take a look. I personally preferred Colombia though.

  18. Michael Murphy May 30, 2013 at 7:44 PM #

    I just got back from Colombia, Medellin after spending six weeks there with a Medellin women that is the very best ever. We are to be married and I will be living there. It felt like home as soon as I got there and I did not want to come back to the states. I love the people, what a beautiful place. You will also love Bolivar and San Carlos, beautiful places.

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