Not too long ago, a reader considering a move to Colombia wanted to know more about the differences between Barranquilla, where I lived previously, and Medellín, where I live now. As I told her, in many ways the two cities could not be more different. Prior to my own move to Colombia, I heard from others that the cultures of the country’s four major cities – Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla – are very distinct. So far (without having visited Cali – that’s on my list!), I’ve found that to be true, though I’m only qualified to talk about two.
For others who may also be wondering how Barranquilla and Medellín line up, here are a few key differences to consider:
1. As Colombia’s second largest city (after Bogotá), Medellín feels like a big metropolis.
Barranquilla, even though it’s Colombia’s fourth largest city and is growing dramatically, still has a small town vibe. Barranquilla is much more laid back than Medellín, but it can be harder to get things done. By contrast, Medellín has the reputation of being the most “organized” city in all of Colombia, but that comes with intensity. It has also led to a level of growth that in some parts of town has exceeded the city’s infrastructure – hence often brutal (though not as bad as Bogotá!) traffic and major road construction. Whether bustling or relaxed is better depends on your personality and the type of experience you’re seeking.
2. In keeping with the small town vibe, Barranquilla has a lot less cultural events and happenings than Medellín.
Barranquilla’s cultural scene has some headliner events like BarranquiJazz and of course Carnaval. But in between those, you have to be on the lookout to catch the cultural happenings. The upside is that if you’re into arts and culture, you could be part of shaping that burgeoning sector in Barranquilla – a sector that, despite its size, is rich in history. Medellín, on the other hand, is so full of happenings that it’s hard keep up. People turn out in droves (a good or a bad thing depending on your preference) for events like the book fair, food and wine festivals, jazz concerts, children’s festivals, fashion week, and more.
3. Depending on the type of transport you prefer, transportation may be easier in Barranquilla.
Hailing a cab on the street in Barranquilla is far easier than in Medellín, which seems to suffer a cab shortage. On the other hand, the bus routes in Medellín are – surprisingly, given the city’s twisty layout – more easily decipherable than in Barranquilla, even though neither city has a central place you can access information for all bus routes. But whether you are in a cab or a bus, Medellín’s traffic is worse. Another plus for Barranquilla is that it’s far more walkable than Medellín, as long as you are okay with arriving at your destination very sweaty. (If you really hate being sweaty, do not move to Barranquilla.) For longer distance travel through the city, Medellín offers clean, quiet, and exceptionally fast transport via the amazing Metro rail system, which is integrated with the buses, Metro Cable cable cars, and free bikes (yay!). Barranquilla has bus rapid transit but does not yet have rail.
4. The cost of living in Medellín is higher than in Barranquilla.
Medellín is still relatively cheap compared to the US, but Barranquilla is cheaper still. (Cartagena, on the other hand, is inordinately expensive. Think twice.)
5. Weather-wise, Medellín is hard to beat.
I love heat. I lived happily in Miami for ten years. When I told one of my Colombian friends in Miami that I was moving to Barranquilla, she said, “You know it’s much hotter there, right?” I thought she was exaggerating. She wasn’t. Barranquilla is too hot according to me and almost everyone. It’s unrelenting – like Miami in August, but for about 10 months of the year. Don’t believe me? Read Gabriel García Márquez’s autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, and note the frequent references to the extreme heat in Barranquilla and the Colombia’s Caribbean regions. And since Barranquilla doesn’t have a proper drainage system, when it rains, the city completely shuts down due to “arroyos” – flash floods – that are so big they drag cars away and sometimes kill people (hence why the city shuts down). The city is working to fix the problem, but it’s going to take awhile.
Medellín, on the other hand, is the “City of Eternal Spring”. It’s comfortably warm during the day, and then the temperature dips deliciously at night. Even the thunderstorms are lovely as long as you are safely tucked away inside. Think Southern California.
6. For better or worse, Medellín has a lot more expats than Barranquilla.
In Medellín, one could easily fall in with an expat crowd and have an experience that is great but maybe less authentically Colombian than in Barranquilla. On the other hand, the expats in Medellín tend to hail from a lot of places, which provides an interesting global exchange situation. Barranquilla’s expat community is tiny, but is generally smart, intrepid, and open-hearted. I had a hard time finding people, but once I did, I made some great friends.
7. Medellín is a bit more open to foreigners.
This may be because of the larger expat community, which makes foreigners a more common occurrence. In Medellín, nobody is going to think anything of you being from somewhere else. That’s not true in Barranquilla. Beyond that, Barranquilla very much operates on a “who you know” system. That’s true in Medellín too, but I think more so in Barranquilla. On the other hand, Barranquilla often gives foreigners the red carpet treatment when it comes to navigating government bureaucracy and such.
8. Medellín is a bit more closed to people from other parts of Colombia.
Paisas, as people from Medellín and the surrounding region are known, have a reputation for taking great pride in the people, products, and ideas that emerge from there. The pride is usually justified, but also means that Medellín and the Colombian state of Antioquia maintain a sort of a separation – psychologically and otherwise – from other regions of the country. In business, this sometimes manifests as protectionist policies. For example, some friends shared with us a fantastic rum from a state just outside Antioquia. When we decided to get some for ourselves, we found that stores in Medellín didn’t have it. We kept looking, not understanding why it was so difficult to find, until one store manager finally told me that importing it into Antioquia is illegal. Whether Medellín’s regional attachment is a good or bad thing again depends on one’s desires and perspectives.
The only thing that can’t be debated about Colombia’s cities is that there’s variety. You can’t go to one city in Colombia and claim to know the country. It’s as rich and diverse as the cities, towns, and countrysides that compose it.