Since arriving in Colombia and the locals finding out I had previously been in Mexico, I am constantly asked to compare the two. They want to know about the linguistic differences, the people, climate, everything. Beyond it serving the curiosity of the locals, I figured as Mexico City and Medellin are two rising digital nomad hotspots, this may prove valuable to someone looking to travel or set-up shop in one of these cities. So, I will do my best to compare what I saw in Mexico City (or CDMX as it is abbreviated) to what I have seen so far of Medellin.
*Obviously, this will be a biased review so take it as you will, but I have LOVED both cities all the same and could see myself living in either one. So don’t take me pointing out their shortcomings as too harsh.
Mexico Wins. I am a fan of soups, so I liked things like ajiaco (which is actually more of a dish in Bogota), but the rice, beans, arepas, empanadas and other non-spicy dishes of Colombia just don’t do it for this Texas girl who likes all of the flavors of Mexican cuisine! I could probably live on tacos and chilaquiles for the rest of my life. As someone who has also been trying to eat vegan or mostly plant-based for the past 9 months or so, I found it much easier in Mexico City (apart from the use of cheese on everything). Colombia (and South America in general) just tend to be heavy meat-consumers.
As a friend pointed out, when was the last time you saw a Colombian restaurant outside of Colombia? Peruvian, sure. Mexican, yes. Maybe a Brazilian or Argentinian steakhouse, but Colombia does not appear to be world famous for its cuisine.
Overall, Mexico City probably wins, although I personally enjoy getting around Medellin more. CDMX has more options and is cheaper but more congested. Although lacking in some respects, Medellin’s transportation is more appealing in many ways. The metro is beautiful and new, placed above ground with stunning views of the city and mountains, particularly if you take the metrocables up the mountains, such as toward Parque Arví. It also is very clean and feels safe.
The metro in Mexico City was surprisingly clean (compared to some places like NYC) and efficient, but I always felt more guarded when riding due to pickpockets and just some creepy men (There is a female-only car). Buses are packed in both places but more regulated and reliable in Mexico City with designated stations and swipe in metro cards. In Medellin, you can just flag the bus down. This came as a shock to me. I told my friend as we were walking down the street, “but there is no bus stop, the bus won’t just stop here.” He laughed as he flagged the bus and it stopped for us to hop on. I imagine the smaller network of buses in Mexico City work similarly to those in Colombia, but the large red buses, almost appear like mini metro stations.
Uber is available in both cities, although it is recommended that you sit in the front, as if you are a “friend” since it is unregulated and technically not legal. The advantage of Medellin is there is not nearly as much traffic congestion so traversing the city will not take as long as it will in a city the size of Mexico City. There are crazy motorcyclists in both cities and I would not particularly advise driving in either one unless you are familiar with the city and an aggressive driver. Public bikes are available for rent in both places, and on sundays both cities close down certain streets to allow for city-wide biking.
I would say Medellin wins. (It depends on what you are looking for.) There is definitely something for everyone in both Mexico City and Medellin. I find that in both cities, going OUT seems to be more common, as many people either live with roommates or still live with their parents. Admittedly, I did not go out much in Mexico City, but the times that I did it seems like there are fairly standard options of clubbing or hitting a bar, mostly in Condesa or Roma Norte.
In Medellin, you have the added option of more salsa. Inevitably, at some point while you are out you will get asked to dance salsa, so brush up on your skills. It seems that most of the partying in Medellin happens in Poblado, particularly around Parque Lleras where there is a large collection of bars, restaurants, and clubs. Be forewarned that venues in Latin America, in general, often stay open until 4am, with 2am considered an early close. I mean, I’m a night owl, but it’s been since my college days that I’ve stayed out that late. For the drinkers in the crowd, mezcal is a drink specific to Mexico, or at least that you should try there. In Colombia, aguardiente, affectionately known as “guaro,” is the liquor of Antioquia (the region around Medellin) and often a drink of choice.
Laureles wins for Medellin. I will give Condesa a slight edge over Roma for CDMX due to location and proximity to parks. Here, I am only going to discuss the neighborhoods I am familiar with, which are the ones that expats frequent. In Mexico City, I would say the most common neighborhoods for expats to stay in are Polanco, Roma Norte and Condesa. Poblado and Laureles are the most expat-frequented neighborhoods in Medellin. Envigado, a little town south of Poblado in Medellin has also been gaining traction because people stay there and attend language exchanges or schools.
These are just my personal comparisons but to me, Laureles (Medellin) reminds me of Condesa (Mexico City) with its tree-lined streets and residential feel. Nutibara avenue (also referred to as “setenta” or 70) reminds me of the tree-lined Avenida Nuevo Leon of the Condesa area of Mexico City. Also, the circulars around Segundo Parque in Laureles remind me of the curved streets surrounding Parque Mexico in the Condesa area. Walk around in either Condesa or Laureles on a sunny afternoon and it has a neighborhood feel, while still having plenty of amenities and expats around. Most of Laureles is not directly accessible to the metro walking, but areas surrounding Laureles are and there are buses that take you to the metro. Similarly, Condesa falls between several metro stops but has close proximity to the shopping, museums, and Parque Chapultepec in the Polanco area, and still access to downtown or other areas.
Personally, Roma (CDMX) more closely resembles Poblado (Medellin). It has a young population, more hipster type feel, with cool coffee shops, vegan eat spots, and new places popping up all the time in both places. Alvaró Obregon in Mexico City is a main street through Roma comparable to Calle 10 running through Poblado. Poblado and Roma are both easier to navigate than Laureles or Condesa respectively, due to their use of more of a grid system. Once you are familiar with any of the areas though, none of them are particularly confusing.
Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any Metro stops that take you directly into the heart of either Roma or Condesa (CDMX). Nino Heroes is probably the closest for Roma and depending what part of Condesa you are going to, I usually used Chilpancingo or Chapultepec to head to the north part up towards Polanco (CDMX). Poblado (Medellin) is also not the easiest to navigate simply due to the hills. The metro station is at the bottom of a large incline, so be prepared for a hike to get to just about anything if you plan to use the metro. Laureles is significantly more flat and walkable than Poblado.
Although the views in Poblado can be breathtaking, I lived there for about a week and then found that I wanted to branch away from the many “Americans” and expats I would run into. I moved across town to the Laureles-Estadio area and although in another expat area, was living in a more residential area with a distinct Colombian feel. In Mexico City, I spent most of my time in Condesa and Roma, living in Hipodromo (which is close to Condesa) and Navarte (south of Roma). However, when I ventured down toward Coyoacan and the older parts of Mexico City I found them very quaint as well.
Mexico City wins. I feel like I was more comfortable in Mexico City walking around in the areas I stayed in at night. I felt comfortable walking around with my backpack without fear of being robbed. Of course, in congested areas such as the metro I was hypervigilant switching it to the front, wasn’t flashy with valuables or my phone, but I felt like there were more clearly delineated “nice areas” where within those bounds you felt safe to roam freely. That is not to say crime doesn’t happen in Mexico, I just feel like it is less violent and more often opportunistic crime (at least that I witnessed).
In Medellin, I don’t walk around many places alone at night, perhaps to and from very short distances to the metro early in the evening, but beyond that, I take an Uber. Early on in my arrival, I was walking back home alone when two girls stopped me and told me to be careful because it can get “rowdy” at night. People are much more alarmed here to see a single female walking alone at night. In Mexico city, females ran along running paths in certain areas of town at night with no problem. In my opinion, this can be attributed to the fact that CDMX is a much more international city and so it is hard to tell who is foreign. In Colombia, if you are a ‘gringa’ you most definitely stand out.
Medellin wins. Housing prices are comparable. Food is cheaper in Colombia. Drinks are cheaper in Colombia. I think the only thing I’ve noticed that is more expensive in Colombia is public transport. A metro ride in Colombia costs about $0.80-1 USD versus $0.25 in Mexico City. Some goods are also potentially more expensive and harder to find in Colombia, such as electronics, brand name shoes, clothes, etc. This is also true to an extent in Mexico City, although there are a greater variety of stores that you might find in the U.S.
Climate and Nature
Medellin wins. The climate is somewhat similar. Medellin is the city of eternal spring and is about 60-80 F year-round (mostly 20s C), with a rainy season in the spring. Mexico City is about the same temperature, although slightly cooler with dips into the 40s or 50s, but mostly 60-70s (upper teens, low 20s C). Mexico City also experiences periods of heavy rain seasonally, mostly concentrated in the summer.
They are both surrounded by mountains, cities nestled in little valleys. Perhaps it was the size and density of Mexico City, but I found it to be stickier and more unbearable on hot days due to a lack of breeze, which is so nice to find in Medellin. As mentioned previously, the views in Medellin far exceed those of Mexico City (from a nature perspective). Medellin is much more green and lush, has more tropical flowers and fruits, and a variation in elevation and landscape compared to Mexico City. If you want to get outside the city and see nature or the sites of Mexico City visit Xochimilco (the floating gardens) or the pyramids of Teotihuacan.
Mexico City is much, much larger than Medellin, with a total of about 25 million inhabitants. For that reason, I actually like the authentic more small-town feel of Medellin (if you can call a city of 3 million people small). It appears to have everything that you need without as much congestion and many of the problems that plague Mexico City due to its size. However there are advantages that come with a city of the size of Mexico City including more commercial stores and shopping, a more reliable transportation system, a bigger airport closer to the city (Medellin’s international airport is about 45 min outside the city), a more developed park system, infrastructure to clean the city (both cities are pretty clean but Mexico has more public work projects on improving air quality etc), and funded art projects. Medellin is most certainly more modern than I would expect given the predominant American perception of Colombian is narco-trafficking. One thing that appears to plague both is some pollution and smog due to the number of motorists on the road and the way the cities are situated in valleys.
Culture and People
This is where people always want me to draw comparisons and choose a winner and I simply can’t. The people in both cities are incredibly welcoming. Chilangos, as those in Mexico City are called are extremely hard working, take a lot of pride in their businesses, their country, their craftsmanship, and want to share their food and culture with you. Paisas, as those from the Antioquia region of Colombia are known, are friendly as well. They want visitors to share in the same love and pride for their city that they hold. They are an accommodating, chill people, who know how to experience the finer things in life. They seem to have the work-life balance thing down, at least better than Mexicans and Estadounidenses (as “Americans” or those from the U.S. are known). They still work incredibly hard, but they are part of a country with many holidays, and they know how to take time to spend with family, to enjoy and relax. Paisas know their city has a clouded past but they are proud of the improvements it has made and the resiliency of its people. They are quick to teach you salsa, practice Spanish with you, or give recommendations of places to visit in their beautiful country.
There were significantly more people in Mexico City that spoke English. I still used Spanish most of the time but when I got stuck, the person I was speaking to would often switch to English to help me out. In Colombia, that is a rarity. Very few people have learned English here. If they have, it has often been of their own accord and they may be a polyglot, knowing and taking an interest in learning several languages. Nonetheless, I find it refreshing to be deeply immersed in a culture and not rescued by my native language all the time. I had no problem understanding Chilangos, and I do not have a problem with the paisa accent either. In general, both Mexican and Colombian Spanish is relatively easy to understand, without a heavy accent that you might find in southern Spain or Argentina.
I made incredible friends in both cities, found it easy to connect with people and practice Spanish and could see myself living in either one long term. There is clearly a reason that digital nomads have picked these cities as wonderful hubs to work and live in. They are sunny, friendly places, with fun cultures, cheap cost of living, good wifi (by the way), good food, and close proximity to the U.S. or Canada if that is your home base. I think the number one concern I have heard from people prior to visiting is about safety, and I have not felt unsafe in as a single female traveling in either one. Just be aware of your surroundings and as the Colombians say “No dar papaya” (or basically don’t give people a reason to rob you, don’t put yourself in harm’s way).
If you have any questions regarding my time in either city or would like to give your opinion about something I have written, go right ahead. I am interested to hear what others think and happy to help out a fellow traveler.