We are often questioned on the advantages / disadvantages / differences of several Latin cities that have been rated as top popular Latin American destinations, and are currently retirement locations for expats. In many ways it is like " comparing apples & oranges " their populations and features vary widely, each has their advantages and disadvantages, however here is our succinct summary of our subjective comparisons & experiences between Cuenca, Ecuador Medellin, Colombia & Panama City, Panama. We know many expats who have relocated from each of these cities to another for a variety of reasons.
Medellin & Cuenca have being recognized within the emerging top 10 2018 travel destinations in South America along with Brasilia, Curitiba & Recife, Brazil; La Paz, Bolivia; Cali, Colombia: Salta, Argentina; Asunción, Paraguay; and Guayaquil, Ecuador.
For background context, we are Ecuador expats with over ten years experience living in Latin America. Several years, and currently living in Cuenca, and two to three months exploring each of Medellin, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Chile.
We have established and organized our thoughts and observations into eight categories for the comparison : Attractions, History & Culture, Economy, Geography & Climate, Safety & Corruption, Infrastructure, Healthcare, & Education
Medellín's mountains provide several natural parks including the huge Parque Arví nature reserve covering 39,500 acres with 54 miles of walk-able trails and activities like hiking, biking, jogging, horseback riding, atv's, picnicking, parasailing and bird watching. Plaza Cisneros - artificial forest with over 300 posts; Botero Plaza with 23 monumental sculptures by Fernando Botero; Plazuela Nutibara - historical and representative of the city site; Uribe Palace of Culture; 40 museums; 21 public parks; 28 theaters; and several public libraries. In addition, Medellín has several small pueblos nearby including Guatapé, Jardín and Santa Fe de Antioquia.
Cuenca's natural basin holds the confluence of four rivers and forms an attractive setting for the historic Incan settlement. Attractions are authentic representing 28 indigenous groups, colonial cobblestone streets, marketplaces, cathedrals, festivals set on the confluence of four rivers. The New Cathedral with its iconic blue and white domes, the colourful flower market in the Carmen de Asuncion Monastery, central Plaza Calderon, nearby Ingapirca, silversmiths of Chordoleg, fresh trout and hiking in the Cajas, and a variety of museums are the highlights.
Panama City's primary attraction is the world famous Panama Canal, but others include the Centennial Bridge, Presidential Palace, Panama Viejo, the waterfront promenade Las Bóvedas, and the cities museums, skyline of many high rise buildings, and shopping districts. Coastal water related activities such as scuba diving, boating, deep-sea fishing, swimming, or water voyages to nearby islands.
History & Culture
Both Cuenca in 1999, and Panama City in 2003, have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Both have rich historic districts featuring an impressive concentration of many well preserved European architectural style historical buildings: museums, cathedrals, and prominent homes. Cuenca has over 52 stately churches, some dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Cuenca's architecture, much of which dates from the 18th century, was 'modernized' with the economic prosperity of the 19th century. Cuenca's cobblestone streets provide a harmonious blend of ancient tradition and contemporary style, with old and new successfully existing side by side.
Panamá Viejo founded in 1519 is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.
Medellin started as a small rural agricultural settlement in the early 18th century. Its more recent tumultuous and violent past with drugs has destroyed much of its cultural history, leaving very few historic buildings. Its culture is contemporary being a pioneer of inventive architecture and urban renewal. Medellín hosts Latin America's largest Christmas light festival which is world famous, a summer flower extravaganza, and fashion show, Colombiamoda amongst many other events.
In each city, you can enjoy orchestra, theater, art openings, museums, and a robust cultural scene. You'll pay a fee for most of these in Medellin or Panama, while in Cuenca they're often free. Panama's culture most closely resembles the United States, and it has a much larger, and more established, community of foreigners. It's up to you to decide whether that's the atmosphere you're seeking.
Cuenca known as the "City of Festivals," is an interesting confluence of cultures and is an Artesanel Mecca for South America. From religious celebrations during April, International Art Competitions, and Film Festivals, Corpus Christi in June, November's " Fiestas de Cuenca " major cultural event in South America, to Cuenca's Christmas holiday parade, Pase del Niño Viajero, ( the largest and best in the country ).
Medellin currently has the lowest cost of living ( due to COP exchange rates which have dropped dramatically over the last several years ) with the broadest selection of imported goods, followed by Panama then Cuenca, Ecuador with the highest cost of living. Costs of imported items, particularly electronics, appliances and automobiles, are much more expensive in Ecuador. This often takes new visitors by surprise, and has recently caused a significant exodus of expats north to Colombia, Panama, and Mexico for lower living costs.
Medellín is important to the region for its universities, academies, commerce, industry, steel, textiles, confections, food and beverage, science, health services, flower-growing and festivals. The main economic products are agriculture (from its rural areas), public services, chemical products, pharmaceuticals, refined oil, and flowers. Fashion is a major part of the economy and culture of the city.
Both Panama & Ecuador use the U.S. dollar, so there's much less risk associated with the country's currency exchange. Sales taxes on goods and services is 16 % in Medellín, 12 % in Cuenca, and 7 % in Panama City.
Panama's economy is service based, weighted heavily to banking, commerce, and tourism. The Panama Canal, which opened in 1914, was of great benefit to the infrastructure and economy in Panama City. During World War II, construction of military bases and the presence of large numbers of U.S. military and civilians brought prosperity to the city. Panama City, a major international port, is the political and administrative center of the country and home for over 80 banks.
Cuenca's economy is based on industry, rubber and car tires, textile, furniture and Panama Hats, agricultural, and tourism with its influence extending to the surrounding communities.
Geography & Climate
All three cities temperatures are constant year round, with minimal variations due to their proximity to the equator.
Cuenca, at 2,450 metres, is in a large Andean basin with four major rivers. Encircled by spectacular mountains, natural beauty, with a backdrop to the Cajas National Park, it is a source of enchantment for visitors and locals. Cuenca has a much higher daily temperature range with warm days in the mid to upper twenties falling to the low teens for chilly evenings. Without central heating some foreigners find a few evenings each year rather cold. This provides the lowest average daily temperature of 15.5 °C , also half the precipitation at 32 inches annually with 1800 hours of sunshine. The rainy season, which is characterized by bright sunny mornings and afternoon showers, falls between January and May. A major advantage of Cuenca's higher altitude is the absence of tropical insects, from wood devouring termites, disease carrying mosquitoes, cockroaches, crickets, & scorpions and many more. And a concern of the higher altitude is the possible health affects that may occur as your body must adjust to the lower amount of oxygen available.
Medellin at 1,500 metres lies in a rather steep canyon bisected by the Medellin River. The steep valley provides spectacular vistas, however it also traps significant levels of smog and pollution in the valley basin. The World Health Organization has ranked Medellin #9 of the most polluted 10 cities in Latin America. Fortunately the frequent rains clean the atmosphere. It is known for its warmer eternal spring like climate. It is also a tropical rainforest climate with an average temperature of 22 °C with 227 days annually providing 70 inches of precipitation, and 1820 hours of sunshine. We found mid day temperatures can reach low 30's Celsius, and without air conditioning it was uncomfortable in the urban asphalt of the valley basin. Higher elevations are popular for providing more breezes, less valley smog, and views. Rainfall was tropical and torrential - during rainstorms it was very difficult to hail a taxi.
Panama City, a Pacific Ocean port in a tropical rain forest. Average temperature is constant at 27 °C with 130 days annually providing 75 inches of precipitation. The heat and humidity here is very high, over 85 %, we found uncomfortable and requiring air conditioning for comfort. As is common in coastal locations sunshine is subdued by nearly continual clouds. The salty sea air, and high humidity create significant maintenance issues, and tropical insects are plentiful.
Safety & Corruption
Just like all cities in the world there are areas to avoid with higher crime rates, particularly after dark. While crime rates have been dropping in Medellin, the smaller city of Cuenca, and Panama City win by a wide margin here. Cuenca has a friendly atmosphere and an easy and relaxed pace of life. In all Latin American cities you must take care - you don't go out with jewelry on and don't flash cell phones, money, or your wealth. Your lifestyle plays a significant role in your safety.
Corruption is common in all Latin countries but is most prevalent in Ecuador. In 2016 Transparency International ranks Panama # 87, Colombia # 90, and Ecuador # 120 out of 176 countries in terms of corruption.
There are few English speakers to be found outside of the service industries such as hotels, and tourist restaurants and facilities in any of these cities so it can be rather difficult to get by in any of these cities without speaking some Spanish. Each of these cities have inexpensive, extensive public transportation networks with buses and metro systems, plus inexpensive taxis, reliable internet service and electricity.
Medellin is the largest city ( more than 8 times the size of Cuenca ) with a metro population of over 4 million, modern upscale ambiance with the highest traffic congestion. Obviously it has many more restaurants, shopping malls, brand name outlets, and nightlife options. In 2013 it was chosen as the most innovative city in the world due to its recent advances in politics, education and social development. It has a domestic and international airport which serve 7.5 million customers annually. Medellin Metro is a comprehensive " world class " system integrating two metro trains, a new tram, buses, 4 cable car lines, and two escalators. It is spotlessly clean, easy to use and very inexpensive. Not typical of Latin cities streets all have signs and use a simple numbered grid with Carreras running north and south, and Calles running east and west. In comparison Medellin is much easier to navigate with and street signs everywhere.
Panama City is a busy seaside port, less than half of the size of Medellin with under 2 million inhabitants. Tocumen International Airport provides direct flights to over 60 international destinations, and the Pan American Highway joins the Americas. To reduce traffic congestion a new city wide metro now spans the city. Infrastructure most closely resembles that of the U.S.A. with its roads more well-maintained. Street layout in Panama City can be quite confusing with non-existent, or confusing road signs.
One of America's premier colonial Spanish cities, Cuenca, the smallest of the three with population of 500,000 has high quality services including high quality potable water, fiber optic internet, public plazas & sports and nature parks have free internet services, efficient public transportation including an "under construction" state of the art 27 station metrovia system scheduled to open in late 2018, extensive network of dedicated cycling and walking paths, a wide variety of ethnic restaurants. Currently it's airport has rather limited service of domestic connections.
Perhaps somewhat surprising for developing countries, all three cities have very high quality, state-of-the-art network of public and private medical facilities. Being a bigger city, Medellín has many more medical and dental providers but they also have many more patients to care for. It is a significant challenge to rank healthcare institutions due to lack of data, and availability of trustworthy information. However, Medellin has nine of the top 100 ranked hospitals in all of Latin America, while Cuenca and Panama have none.
All three countries are investing heavily in education for their future generations. All three cities have both public and private schools. Most of the private schools are at least bilingual. Medellin is home to over 30 Universities, Panama City has 12 Universities. Even though Cuenca has only 6 universities it was declared the " City of Universities" by Ecuador's National Assembly in 2011.
This comparison simply provides information. Everyone has different perceptions and priorities - the only way to know if it fits your requirements is is to spend time there and experience it ! The bottom line is determined by you !
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