Cuenca vs Medellin – South American city showdown

Outlying districts of Medellin, from cable car

Medellin and Cuenca are frequently compared by expats looking for an affordable place to live in South America. Both cities have been the darlings of International Living magazine, sitting at the top of the list of worldwide retirement destinations. Now that I’ve seen both, I thought I’d share my comparison of Cuenca vs Medellin.

Medellin, in a nutshell, was sparkling and alive, beautiful and modern with something for everyone. It has 2.2 million people, but with sprawling neighborhoods extending up into the mountainsides, it seems much larger.

Cuenca was charming, filled with red-tile roofs, Andean culture, indigenous women, and relatively full of gringos. It has 500,000 people, but with most activity centered around the historic center Cuenca actually seems much smaller – like a town where everyone knows everyone else.

What I liked about both Cuenca and Medellin

  • Beautiful weather – never too cold and often nice and sunny. Although there are days Cuenca is too dreary and rainy, and there were times when Medellin felt too hot and muggy.
  • The rivers and parks! The creek in the El Poblado neighborhood is beautiful and surrounded by bamboo. Cuenca’s four rivers – particularly the Tomebamba and the Yanuncay provide a beautiful area for walking and picnicking.
  • Both were relatively inexpensive compared to the US.  I could definitely tell that Medellin was more expensive, but not by a huge margin. A nice dinner out in El Poblado Medellin would be $10-15 per person without drinks. I think in Cuenca it would be more like $8-12.
  • Classes galore – Cuenca’s historical center and Medellin’s El Poblado neighborhood both had dance classes and yoga classes galore.
  • Hiking via public transporatationCajas National Park for Cuenca and Parque Arvi for Medellin.

What I like about Cuenca

  • Cuenca itself is much smaller  and extremely walkable – you can go from one end to the other side of the historical district in 30 minutes flat. Medellin was much larger – the neighborhood of El Poblado seemed the nicest place to live because it is clean, modern, and full of cute international cafes and nightlife. However, other nightlife aside from just going out to eat is scattered over the rest of the city (downtown, near the stadium, etc),and El Poblado is irritatingly far from the metro station walking (20 min) to get anywhere else in the city.
  • Cuenca’s fresh fruit and vegetable markets can’t be beat for the variety of fresh produce you can find and the prices. Looking for vegetables and fruits in Medellin, we didn’t find as much variety or as fresh.
  • Free events organized by the city. I went to the symphony, a tango class, and a violin concert for  free this week in Cuenca. I never heard of such things happening in Medellin, and a friend of mine who is from Medellin but lived in Cuenca for several years confirmed that you usually have to pay for such things there.
  • Cuenca is not close to the beach, but it’s striking distance for a long weekend. Where I didn’t want to brave the ridiculously long bus to the coast from Medellin to Cartagena, you can relatively easily get from Cuenca to Montanita in 7 hours, or Salinas in less. This makes the beach a plausible long-weekend destination, without the hassle of buying a flight as you would in Colombia (although of course Colombian’s Caribbean coast and its turquoise waters are much more beautiful).
  • Cuenca is more charming and old-world, with its colonial architecture and cobblestone streets.
  • For more details of what I like and dislike about Cuenca, check out my 10 Favorite things and 10 Least Favorite things.

Cuenca's Parque Calderon and colonial architecture

Cuenca’s Parque Calderon and colonial architecture

A festival in Cuenca

A festival in Cuenca

What I liked about Medellin

  • It’s livelier. Wandering around Cuenca on a Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday, or past 1am on any night and it feels like a ghost town. Not so in Medellin where people are out and about, and businesses stay open later.
  • Medellin is more modern, everything within El Poblado is absolutely spotless.
  • The cable car public transportation system is absolutely amazing. You can get to a beautiful park (Parque Arvi) by sitting in a cable car suspended high in the mountains – and it is just an inexpensive mode of public transportation, not a tourist trap!
  • Higher concentration of international restaurants and cafes, all with outdoor terrace seating in El Poblado. In Cuenca you have to know where to look, and you will mostly be sitting inside.
  • No “gringo restaurants” or “gringo businesses” in Medellin. This might be a negative for some people, depending on your outlook, but I like that there weren’t any places where Gringos outnumbered the locals. In Cuenca, when you walk into San Sebas Café or the California Kitchen, you might as well be back in the US.
  • Weekend getaways to Guatape (the most beautiful lake I have ever seen) for eating delicious trout, hiking, and relaxing.

Outlying districts of Medellin, from cable car

Outlying districts of Medellin, from cable car

Cute cafe in Medellin - with a tree inside and a view!

Cute cafe in Medellin – with a tree inside and a view!

Medellin feels like a real city, with traffic and all

Medellin feels like a real city, with traffic and all

So am I moving to Medellin? Tempting, but I think overall I still prefer Cuenca. Have you been to Medellin and Cuenca? Let us know what you think in comments!

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One Response to "Cuenca vs Medellin – South American city showdown"
  1. Thank you for giving the information. It’ll help me bunch.

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