Is Cali or Medellin worth visiting? Let’s find out which of the two Colombian cities deserves to be included on your travel itinerary to Colombia.
After Bogota (the capital city of Colombia), Cali and Medellin are the biggest cities in the country. Cali and Medellin are also among the most touristy cities in Colombia.
While Cali is known for the annual International Salsa Festival, Medellin has been nicknamed the city of the eternal spring, making it the ideal place for so many of us who are trying to escape the tropical temperatures of Cartagena and Santa Marta.
Cali vs. Medellin. Which city is worth visiting? Let’s find out.
During my time in Colombia, I managed to spend time in Cali and Medellin. In a contest Cali vs. Medellin, the winner for me is Medellin.
I liked Medellin more than Cali for quite a few reasons which I have shared with all of you below. Hopefully, you will find my comparison of the 2 Colombian cities useful when preparing your Colombia travel itinerary.
Cali vs. Medellin? Why is Medellin worth visiting more than Cali?
Medellin almost always comes first in any best Colombian cities to visit ranking, sometimes claiming the 1st position even over Bogota. There is a reason why Medellin always gets on the podium in any Colombian city ranking.
If you ask travellers who’ve been to Cali, Bogota and Medellin, they will always tell you their favourite has been Medellin. During my time in Colombia, I have not met one single traveller who told me they favoured Bogota over Medellin or Cali over Medellin. After completing my tour of the biggest cities in Colombia, I understood why Medellin has become a magnet for travellers and digital nomads alike. Do you want to find out too? Then, keen reading.
In my opinion, Medellin stands out as a city worth exploring, especially when compared to Cali. Why is this true? Let’s find out:
First of all, Medellin is affordable, making it the best travel destination for any budget traveller and not only.
Second, Medellin is safe. I will cover this topic in more depth below, but for now, it is safe to say that the city has come a long way and it is no longer perceived as the heart of Escobar’s drug cartel.
Third, Medellin’s public transport system is good, as the city has a metro system (the only one in the country) as well as a bus network.
Fourth, Medellin is a walkable city, which makes it easy for travellers to wander around without spending money on taxis or public transport
Fifth, Medellin is a green city (something that I was surprised to discover). The city is one of the greenest I have seen in Colombia. It felt good to walk around and not feel that you ran out of breath because there was no shade.
Sixth, in Medellin you can find the coolest places to stay (colonial houses were my favourite).
Finally, Medellin is known for its vibrant nightlife, El Poblado and Laureles being the most popular areas to go out in the city.
I could carry one for a while, but I will stop for now.
Let’s look at each of these things in more detail below.
But before we start…
Fun fact: Medellin is more popular among travellers than Bogota
During my travels in South America, I discovered it’s common for some cities to be more popular among travellers and tourists than the capital city. This is the case with Medellin which is more popular among travellers/tourists than Bogota. The same happens in Brazil, where Sao Paulo and Rio are more popular than Brasilia (the capital city of Brazil).
Cali vs. Medellin. Which city wins the competition?
I have already made it clear that for me, the winner is Medellin. I have already briefly mentioned above some of the reasons why I think Medellin is worth visiting more than Cali. Yet, now I want to go more in-depth and also touch on other areas I discovered while I was in Cali and Medellin.
Which city has the best weather?
The weather plays a big role in choosing my travel destination. I’m sure most of you are like me. I like warm climates, but I cannot deal with excessive heat. If I were to choose between Cali and Medellin, I would choose Medellin because I liked the spring-like weather in Medellin than the humid heat I experienced in Cali. Cali has a more tropical, hard-to-cope-with-heat type of weather. It was similar to the humid heat I experienced on the Colombian coast in places like Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta.
Without much nature around, Cali felt like an oven around the day. It was tiring to explore the city in the day. On the other side, Medellin felt like a breeze of fresh air. It was not hot or humid. The constant highs of around 30 degrees Celsius felt great. So, in terms of the weather, I would always choose Medellin over Cali.
Cali vs. Medellin. Which city has better vibes?
I guess this is subjective, perhaps more than any other reason listed in this blog post. But I liked Medellin because it was more internationally diverse than Cali was. From the moment you walk down the street, you notice far more internationals in Medellin than in Cali. I’ve always liked an ethnically diverse place over one where you find locals mostly. That’s why I prefer Medellin over Cali.
The number of foreigners I met in Medellin was surprisingly high compared to Cali where I barely saw any foreigners. Plus, I spoke with so many people in Medellin about moving to the city for a while because they liked the vibe of the city. I barely spotted any foreigners when I was in Cali.
In 2023, Cali seemed to be overlooked by travellers. For some, this is a good thing. Others, like me, prefer being in a city that hosts a significant community of international travellers/digital nomads etc.
So if you like international cities, definitely consider Medellin which has become a hotspot for travellers/digital nomads/long-term travellers. If you prefer mingling with Colombians more and avoid travellers/digital nomads, you should go to Cali as it feels more authentic because of the lack of international travellers. Who knows, perhaps the trend we’re seeing currently in Cali might change in a few years.
Medellin is a better place for young people than Cali
While Cali has a few museums and quite an interesting city centre, the city felt quite deserted during the week. Nevertheless, Medellin seemed to offer young people something to do almost all week.
In Medellin, you could join language classes, go to salsa lessons, and go out in well-known neighbourhoods like El Poblado and Laureles every day of the week.
Although you can go to salsa-themed events towards the weekend in Cali, the city did not seem to be as animated as Medellin was during the week.
If you don’t go out too much, you might find Cali the perfect place for you. But for someone who likes to have some fun during the week too, I would suggest you choose Medellin over Cali because it looked like more things were happening in Medellin than in Cali.
Cali’s city centre is nicer than Medellin’s city centre
Colombia is doing a great job at reviving the city centre of its biggest cities. In 2023 when I visited Colombia, Cali’s city center looked better than Medellin’s city center.
Obviously, this is subjective and you might have liked Medellin’s city center better than Cali’s city center.
Yet, Medellin’s city centre came across as a rough area with many homeless people sleeping on the street even during the day. Cali’s city centre seemed a bit better and did not look as sad as Medellin’s.
Having said this though, I still believe that overall, Medellin looked much nicer than Cali which had many more run-down buildings than I spotted in Medellin. However, the city centre in Cali looked better than the city centre in Medellin.
Medellin has a better public transport than Cali
When it comes to big cities like Cali and Medellin, good public transport is fundamental to travel around the city hassle-free and without breaking the bank.
Medellin is the only city in Colombia that has a metro network which makes a huge difference when moving around. Medellin and Cali are big cities with a population of over 2 million people each (according to online data) which means one cannot walk everywhere. Therefore, having access to good public transport is essential.
The metro is always your best option because it does not wait in traffic ( believe me the traffic in Latin America can be pretty bad, especially at peak times). That’s why the winner here is Medellin because its metro network allows you to move around the city hassle-free.
Plus, I always find the metro better to travel with as opposed to the bus. It is more straightforward.
Just to clarify Cali has a bus network which I have not used while I stayed there, but I assume it will get you to places should you use it. However, I prefer the metro system from Medellin which was efficient, inexpensive, clean and safe (I used it at night time, although I was not alone).
Don’t skip Cali if you like salsa
This is where Cali gets another point. If you are into salsa and want to experience an International Salsa Festival, then you should not skip Cali and plan to visit the city during its famous International Salsa Festival.
Many salsa-related events are happening in Medellin too. From basic salsa classes to more elaborate salsa shows, there is plenty to choose from. Yet, none of these events are as big as the International Salsa Festival Cali hosts every year.
I attended a wonderful salsa class in Medellin where I learnt the basic moves of the famous dance. These classes are run regularly in the city and sometimes are free to attend (although tips are always welcomed and recommended). So unless you plan to attend the International Salsa Festival in Cali, you can very well experience some good quality salsa in Medellin too.
Medellin is a hotspot for digital nomads. Cali not so much
If you are a digital nomad and wondering whether Cali or Medellin is the right place for you, look no further because Medellin should be your first option.
With all the attention Colombia is receiving lately from the international travel community/digital nomads etc., it is no wonder that Medellin has become the newest hotspot for digital nomads and travellers alike.
I did a few free walking tours when I was in Medellin during which I met so many digital nomads considering moving temporarily to Medellin. I also met long-term travellers who became temporary residents of Medellin because they loved the city so much.
While Medellin is the new hotspot for the travel community, in 2023 Cali was somehow overlooked by the same community.
I barely spotted any foreigners while I was in Cali. In fact, Cali felt more authentic because there wasn’t a big growing expat community yet. Nevertheless, the locals are still welcoming and happy to help. My hosts in Cali together with all the other people I interacted with while in the city were so welcoming and friendly.
But as a digital nomad, I would not recommend Cali because perhaps it will be a bit more difficult to make new friends if you cannot speak a good level of Spanish. It will be much easier to find international travellers if you are in Medellin. Whether you join a free walking tour, book a few nights in a hostel or go to a party in El Poblado, I can bet you will end up making new contacts in Medellin.
Cali vs. Medellin? Which city is more dangerous?
I fell for Medellin and it quickly became one of my favourite cities in Latin America, alongside Sao Paulo, Asuncion, and Cordoba. Yet, I want to stress that while neither Cali, Sao Paulo nor Medellin are danger-free cities, they are still exciting places to live in.
Most of the people I know consider cities like Medellin, Cali and Sao Paulo dangerous to visit. While that’s true to a certain extent because all these cities report high levels of crime (according to online sources), there is also something unique about them.
In my case, it has always been the locals who are always so welcoming and willing to help. I cannot recall how many safety tips I got from locals in Medellin, Cali and Sao Paulo.
Locals will always warn you about rough neighbourhoods, safe areas to go out at night, the best places to walk around the city by yourself etc. I am always grateful to the locals who took some of their time to share this precious information with me.
My take on why Medellin felt more dangerous than Cali
If I were to compare Cali vs. Medellin, I came to know more rough areas in Medellin than Cali, although according to the data I found online, Cali seems to be more dangerous than Medellin. As a matter of fact, I even came across a blog post that listed Medellin as one of the safest cities to visit in South America.
As I spent more time in Medellin than in Cali I got to know Escobar’s city better than Cali. Therefore, based on my personal experience in Medellin I would probably not go that far and call Escobar’s home city one of the safest places to visit in South America. That’s because I’m not sure I would call safe- a city where I had to get an Uber after dark because the 10-minute walk to my hostel wasn’t safe. (My hostel was located in downtown Medellin).
To conclude, because I spent more time in Medellin and got to walk around the city more than in Cali, Medellin felt more dangerous than Cali, although according to the online information I found, Cali seems to be ranked in far more dangerous cities tops than Medellin.
Safest areas in Medellin and where to avoid staying based on my experience
In my experience, the best areas for tourists to stay in Medellin are El Poblado, Laureles and Florista. Avoid staying in downtown Medellin as it gets quite rough at night and you will constantly need an Uber to travel after dark (even if the metro station is a 10-minute walk away from your place).
Where to consider staying in Medellin?
During the free walking tour, we were told that El Poblado was specifically created for tourists. It is the safest area in Medellin which according to our tour guide also hosts the safest street in the city (the street was one of the highlights during our night tour in el Poblado). I inserted a picture of the infamous street below.
Laureles is also known as an area where young people hang out. It’s where most students hang out too because it is close to one of the universities in Medellin.
I was out and about at night in El Poblado and Laureles and felt super safe with lots of tourists around, and local people enjoying themselves. Still, you should use common sense and keep an eye on your valuable things.
Florista is a neighbourhood I first stayed in when I arrived in Medellin. It did not have the same party vibe as El Poblado and Laureles. The area is rather quiet residential with lots of bars and restaurants around. It felt perfect for those looking for a quiet residential area, yet clean and safe, away from the bustling areas of el Poblado and Laureles.
Where not to stay in Medellin based on my experience
Avoid staying in the downtown area at all costs. It is a rough area during the daytime, with lots of homeless and drug addicts around. And it becomes very unsafe at night because of that. Unfortunately, in Latin America, I came across something that happens the other way around in Europe.
While city centres are usually the best-looked-after areas, in Latin America happens the opposite. Across Colombia and in other countries like Brazil, city centres can be the ugliest and unsafe parts of the city. It is a shame, but it’s a reality you have to get used to.
Safe areas in Cali
I already mentioned that I did not venture too much at night when I was in Cali. The city centre is small and you can visit everything in more or less 2 days. Also, salsa-themed events tend to happen during the weekend and unfortunately, I was in Cali during the week.
The area I stayed in Cali was 30 minutes away on foot from the city centre. The flat was located in the south of the city (not too far from Autopista Sur), in a very safe residential area where kids played in the park long after dark, which I found quite surprising at first.
The only night activity I did in Cali was going to the supermarket after dark, but it was a short walk away and everyone was still out so seemed and felt safe. I cannot say everywhere in Cali was the same, probably it wasn’t, but this was my experience during my short stay in Cali.
TIP: when you book your accommodation in either Cali or Medellin, choose a place where people give feedback on the area too. The more people you have saying the area was safe, the better it is for you. I never go wrong when booking places where the feedback was that the area was safe.
Based on my experience, I found Medellin to look way more rough than Cali. The downtown in Medellin was home to more homeless people and drug addicts while Cali looked better.
I have to say that I stayed more days in Medellin than in Cali, so I had time to learn more about safe areas in Medellin than I did in Cali. Nevertheless, this is my opinion for now about why Cali is less dangerous than Medellin.
Medellin is a more English-friendly city than Cali is
Because of the international community that’s growing in Medellin, locals have started showing more interest in learning English.
This does not mean you won’t have language barriers if you cannot speak a word of Spanish while in Medellin, but it will be easier to navigate Medellin than Cali if you cannot even say hi in Spanish.
My overall experience in Colombia has been that generally speaking people over there don’t speak much English. Yet, you’ll have better chances to find someone who speaks English in a city that has a significant international community than in a city that barely has a few international tourists coming over.
Having said this though, you should consider learning some basic Spanish words because it will definitely help you communicate more easily.
Cali is more affordable than Medellin
Medellin is more appealing to travellers than Cali. Yet, nobody can deny that Cali is more affordable than Medellin.
Cali still has the advantage of being cheaper than Medellin as it has not been yet flooded by international tourists/travellers. That’s good to know if you are a budget traveller. You can get a gorgeous 2 bedroom apartment for 9£ a night for 1 person. This is a very hard offer to beat, especially if we consider all the amenities the flat came with. Not to mention the area which was 100% safe.
Except to pay more for accommodation in Medellin. I paid almost 14£ for an ensuite room in a colonial house in downtown Medellin. As you can see the price difference is quite significant.
I tried to compare more or less the same type of accommodation. As you can see there is a difference in prices and Cali has come across as more affordable than Medellin. Therefore, except to pay more for anything in Medellin than in Cali.
Medellin is greener than Cali and surrounded by beautiful nature
Cities with access to parks have always scored high for me. I was surprised to discover that Medellin has so many parks & green areas that I ended up comparing it with a European city.
I loved that Medellin was trying to advertise itself as a green city by taking care of the parks inside the city and the nearby national parks. There were hiking trails everywhere outside the city.
The fact that Medellin sits in a valley surrounded by nature was a big plus for me. Plus, Medellin is not far from gorgeous mountain villages, making it perfect for day trips in the region.
One place that’s absolutely gorgeous and almost everyone that ends up in Medellin goes there is Guatape. This manmade village combines the hilly landscape of the region with the colourful Colombian village houses. The result is a breathtaking place surrounded by nature and gorgeous local architecture.
On the other side, Cali seemed to be located in a more arid area of the country. Walking through the city, I did not see that many trees or parks which is something I missed. The weather did not help either as it was hot and humid, resembling more the type of weather I experienced later in the Aracataca desert and the Colombian coast.
Because Medellin has more green spaces throughout the city and easier access to nearby natural parks, some of which are just outside the city, I have no choice but to declare Medellin the winner of this category.
Where did I feel more at ease as a solo female traveller? Was it in Cali or Medellin?
The answer is more than obvious and for me the ultimate winner is Medellin. I believe Medellin is suitable for well-seasoned solo female travellers. I would not necessarily recommend it to first-timers because it has its rough parts. But it can definitely be considered accessible by people with more travelling experience.
I want to emphasise that ultimately, this reflection is based on my experience in Cali and Medellin and it is 100% subjective. Before coming to a conclusion about which of the 2 cities is worth visiting, you should check other sources because other people might think differently.
A few more useful things you should know about Medellin and Cali
Good bus connections with Bogota and other cities in Colombia
Cali and Medellin are well connected to Bogota via a good network of buses. Several bus companies operate between Medellin, Cali and Bogota. You can check them out using any bus platform such as BusBud or Checkmybus.
On average, a bus journey from Cali to Bogota is 11 hours long, whereas a bus journey from Medellin to Bogota is about 9 hours long. A bus journey from Medellin to Cali takes about 9 hours too.
Always consider extra time when travelling by bus in Colombia as delays are very common. If you want to read more about travelling by bus around Colombia, I have a blog post that goes into more detail on the topic:
Furthermore, you can easily travel within Colombia from Cali and Medellin. Because of its position, I would say Medellin has better bus connections with the Colombian coast, while buses from Cali going to the coast usually have a stop in Bogota.
Cali and Medellin have access to good nearby airports
Cali and Medellin are served by international airports. Medellin is home to the 2nd biggest airport in the country after the one in Bogota, so you can easily fly directly to Medellin if your country operates flights to this city.
Similarly, both cities operate internal flights to Bogota, Cartagena, Santa Marta etc., therefore it is easy to shorten those long bus hours and book a flight instead. Remember that domestic flights in Colombia do cost more than bus tickets.
I liked Medellin more than Cali for many reasons. The city is worth visiting much more than its rival Cali because it has a growing expat community, you can make new friends quicker, has a cool vibe, and it’s more diverse. Medellin can be the perfect place for an expat/traveller looking for an international community to join while staying in Colombia.
If the city of the eternal spring sparked your interest based on my experience in Medellin, let me know in the comments below. I would love to read about your first contact with either of the 2 cities and read whether you share my views on Medellin and Cali.