Medellín vs Cuenca: Comparing Two Popular Expat Destinations in Latin America

Medellín, Colombia and Cuenca, Ecuador have become increasingly popular destinations for expats, digital nomads, and retirees.

Both cities offer a unique charm, vibrant cultures, and an array of attractions that cater to various lifestyles and preferences.

In this comprehensive blog post, you’ll learn about the many facets of living in these two amazing cities, including the pros and cons of each, comparing aspects such as living conditions, cost of living, infrastructure, and safety.

Hopefully, this will help you make an informed decision about which city might be the ideal destination for your next adventure or new home abroad.

Medellín, Colombia: A Jungle With a City In It

Medellín ColombiaMy first impression of Medellín, Colombia was that it’s a jungle with a city in it.

Medellín is nestled in the Andean mountains, but the elevation is low enough that it has lots of tall trees and tropical greenery, which provides an amazing backdrop for the bustling city life.

Pros of Medellín Colombia

Medellín is a fascinating blend of modern comforts and jungle-like surroundings. It has a lot of great things going for it, such as:

  • Scenic beauty: Surrounded by mountains and lush greenery, Medellín offers a stunning landscape.
  • Pleasant weather: With a year-round spring-like climate, Medellín is known as the “Land of Eternal Spring.”
  • Lower elevation: While still at 4,900 feet / 1,495 meters, it’s much lower than Cuenca so it’s warmer and the air is easier to breathe.
  • Vibrant culture: The city is known for its colorful murals and diverse population of Colombians and other South Americans, plus tourists, digital nomads, and expats from around the world.
  • Cleanliness: In the neighborhoods we visited, streets were well-maintained, and dogs were on leashes.
  • Modern infrastructure: Medellín has drinkable tap water and a wide variety of restaurants catering to all tastes and dietary needs.
  • Transportation: Affordable taxis, buses, and a metro system are available throughout the city, along with Uber.
  • International airport: Direct flights to some locations in the United States and other countries make Medellín easily accessible.
  • Affordability: Housing, food, and restaurant prices are comparable to Ecuador and much lower than the United States or Canada.
  • High-quality healthcare: Colombia is known for its excellent healthcare facilities and is consistently ranked high by CEOWorld Magazine.
  • Housing options: While high-rise living is popular in Medellín, townhomes and single-family homes are available if you’re willing to venture further out. Check out our Medellín Colombia Real Estate Tour for more about housing in Medellín.
  • Kaime Medellin ColombiaExcellent restaurants: We ate at a variety of amazing restaurants in the Zona Rosa tourist area of El Poblado. You’ll find everything from street vendors to high-end gourmet restaurants, and the prices are very affordable compared to the US.
  • Service culture: Compared to Ecuador, Colombia has a high-quality service culture. Restaurant servers, drivers, tour guides, cashiers, etc. are attentive and care about the quality of service you receive.

Cons of Medellín Colombia

We enjoyed our time in Medellín and plan to go back, but a few things make it less than perfect:

  • Crowded city: With a population of more than 2.5 million people, Medellín can feel quite congested.
  • Colombian Peso: Conversion rates may be tricky for those used to the US dollar and the value fluctuates a lot.
  • Heavy traffic: The city has heavy traffic and swarms of motorcycles, which might be concerning for some. After getting moto-robbed in Guadalajara, Mexico, the swarms of motorcycles had us constantly looking over our shoulders.
  • Safety concerns: Moto-robberies, pickpocketing, kidnapping, and other safety issues are a significant concern. It’s important to be cautious and avoid certain areas, especially at night. It’s also common for sex workers and Tinder daters to lure foreigners to a restaurant or hotel room where they are roofied and robbed.
  • Tax residency: Staying in Colombia for more than 183 days per year might make you a tax resident, so consult a tax professional before moving there long-term.
 

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Cuenca, Ecuador: A South American Gem

Cuenca Ecuador View from Mirador Turi

Cuenca, Ecuador is a charming UNESCO World Heritage city with a rich history and stunning architecture. Like Medellín, it is also known as the “Land of Eternal Spring” for its pleasant weather.

While much smaller and about 1,000 miles / 1,600 kilometers south of Medellín, Cuenca shares some similarities with its Colombian counterpart in terms of cost of living, quality of life, and available amenities.

However, they differ in population size, safety levels, and currency (Ecuador uses the US dollar).

Comparing these two cities is a valuable exercise for those considering a move to Latin America.

Pros of Cuenca Ecuador

Cuenca offers a slower pace of life, a welcoming expat community, and a unique blend of culture and nature that make it an attractive destination. It’s also much smaller than Medellín with a population of roughly 500,000 people.

Here are a few things we love about Cuenca:

  • Cuenca Ecuador New CathedralUNESCO World Heritage Site: Cuenca is rich in history and architecture, with Inca ruins right in the city.
  • Beautiful rivers and linear parks: The city has 4 rivers running through it, and numerous parks that offer scenic trails and relaxing spots to sit and read a book.
  • Land of Eternal Spring: Known for its mild temperatures, Cuenca offers pleasant weather throughout the year.
  • Walkable city: Most of the city can be explored on foot, with taxis required only occasionally for longer distances or heavy loads.
  • Incredible restaurants: Cuenca boasts a wide array of affordable, delicious, and beautifully plated food options. Check out Popular Expat Restaurants in Cuenca Ecuador for our recommendations.
  • Diverse expat community: The city is popular among retirees, families, and singles of all ages from around the world.
  • English speakers: Cuenca has a larger population of English speakers compared to Medellín, and a large number of Ecuadorians who speak English, making it easier for non-Spanish speakers to settle in.
  • Quality healthcare: Ecuador (especially Cuenca) is known for its excellent and affordable healthcare; CEOWorld Magazine consistently ranks it higher than the US. It’s easy to schedule appointments with high-quality medical professionals, and many speak English. Check out Our Ecuador Healthcare Experience for more details about healthcare in Ecuador, including costs and quality of care.
  • Affordable living: Housing prices in Cuenca are comparable to Medellín, with the overall cost of living being similar and about one-third of the cost in the United States.
  • Drinkable tap water: The tap water in Cuenca is safe to drink and tastes better than in Medellín (it’s not so heavily chlorinated)
  • Ecuador's Unique USD CoinsEcuador is on the US Dollar: The official currency in Ecuador is the US dollar, making it convenient for US American expats. It’s the exact same currency (except for a few special coins minted in 2000 that are not legal tender back in the US). Check out Money and Banking in Ecuador for more on this topic.
  • No tax on foreign income: Foreign residents do not pay tax on their foreign income, although it’s essential to consult a tax professional for accurate and up-to-date advice.
 

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Cons of Cuenca Ecuador

Like any place, Cuenca is not without its challenges:

  • High elevation: Cuenca is located at 8,400 feet / 2,560 meters above sea level (almost twice the elevation as Medellín), which can result in cooler temperatures and thinner air.
  • Limited international flights: While there is a semi-direct flight to Miami, Cuenca’s airport is small, and all international flights require a connection in Quito or Guayaquil.
  • Increased crime rates: Petty theft and robberies have become more common in Cuenca and throughout Ecuador, so it’s essential to be cautious.
  • Laid-back service quality: Ecuadorians have a more relaxed attitude toward service, which can be both a blessing and a challenge for expats adjusting to the local customs. At restaurants, you may need to find your server to take your order or bring the bill. And we often find that they deliver the courses in the reverse order (entree, appetizer and then drinks) so we have learned to order one thing at a time so we get things in the proper order.

Final Thoughts

Both Medellín and Cuenca are beautiful cities with their unique qualities.

Medellín may be better suited if you’re seeking a larger, modern city with great service, lower elevation, and direct flights to the US.

On the other hand, Cuenca might be the right choice if you prefer a smaller city with a slower pace of life, great restaurants, cooler temperatures, a higher safety level, and the convenience of spending in US dollars.

And remember, visiting each city before committing to a move is always the best way to get a true feel for what life there would be like.

Watch Our Video Comparing Medellín Colombia to Cuenca Ecuador

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Hola todos! Welcome to my author bio page! Let's see. Where to begin... I grew up in the country on a lake outside a small Kansas farm town. As soon as I could, I got the hell outta there! Since then, I've lived and/or worked in Kansas City, Washington D.C., Denver, San Francisco, and Ecuador. I started and sold a dotcom, wrote a book about it, started a YouTube channel, and now I write a lot. Amelia and I have embraced the Unconventional Life and we want to help you do it, too!

2 replies
  1. Jorge Cordero
    Jorge Cordero says:

    Hello JP,
    We were recently in Cuenca and loved it. We were a little bit concerned with the increase in crime, but we walked the entire city with no issues. Planning to come back for 2 -3 months to get a better feel for it.
    Thank you for the great information!

    Reply

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