I’ve always thought that when parents say they can’t pick their favourite child that really, really if they were pushed they probably could (I’m confident it’s not me since neither of my other brothers have decided to up sticks and move to a different continent). Same goes for other seemingly difficult decisions. Favourite Beatles song? Just open your iTunes and see which one you’ve played the most, chances are that’s it. Favourite friend? Who shows up on your recently-called list the most? Favourite TV show ever? Just watch The Wire and then your mind will be made up. Easy. And it’s with this sense of decisiveness and certitude that I wander naively and candidly into the enduring expat-in-Colombia debate: which is better, Medellín or Bogotá?
Bogotá is massive. And I mean huge. There are over 8 million people here and it’s one of the 30 biggest cities in the world. For this reason it’s perfect for anyone like me who loves to discover new things; new bars, new cinemas, new galleries, entire faces of the city you never knew existed. I’ve been here for quite a while now and I’m still finding out new stuff to do and see. If you spend 1 week here you might feel you’ve exhausted it since you’ve seen La Candelaria, been out in the north and been to Monserrate whereas in reality you’ve just scratched the surface of this expansive, buzzing hive of activity. The truth is you could spend years here and still never find the hidden beer brewer in the north, or the Serbian restaurant in La Macarena, or the little theatre just of the Septima. And they’re only the hidden gems I’ve managed to find so far.
Bogotá is massive. And I mean huge. For this reason it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sprawling nature of the city: by the smog that hangs soberly in the air; by the crowds that force their way onto an already-at-capacity Transmilenio; by the noise that clunks and clatters its way through the streets thanks to the ubiquitous construction work. Bogotá may be dragging itself kicking and screaming into the new century, but its ambition and drive have left it, for the time being, ugly and at times intimidating.
If we started again from scratch and decided to rebuild our cities in an idealized way, they might just look like Medellín. Surprisingly modern, extremely green and with weather to put most other cities to shame, Medellín for many is a paradise on earth. Of course, it’s not without its social problems since we don’t live in the idealized way I described, but Medellín has managed to propel itself into the forefront of the best cities to live in list for many foreigners. Beautiful women? Check. Good, modern bars? Check. Good transport? Thanks to the Metro, a massive check. Whatever you’re looking for in a modern city, chances are Medellín has it. The sense of optimism in the city is palpable and, thanks to the warmth and good-spirits of the locals, you’ll always feel welcome. Moreover, there’s a good chance that soon, like them, you’ll start thinking Medellín is the best place in the world.
But this sense of modernity, this sense of Medellín being constructed with almost clinical precision, can also be a problem for some. If you want to go out you’re forced into certain areas such as Parque Lleras or, for the fashionable elite, into shopping malls with clubs in them. Searching for traditional or surprising places can be quite a challenge (which isn’t to say they don’t exist, just that they’re not so numerous) and eventually the novelty of Medellín’s impressiveness can wear off if you’re looking for a city rich with historical character. I’m still looking for an old, second hand bookshop in Medellín. I’m not sure I’ll find it.
Both cities are great, progressive cities that make for excellent tourist stop-offs and places to live. Medellín’s weather and its general appearance make it an excellent introduction to Colombia. If you still believe what you see in the movies and the media, the city will come as a huge revelation and that will eternally be a credit to Medellín. Overall, as a tourist it might be the better of the two options since it’s more accessible to newcomers thanks to its infrastructure and popularity.
My favourite city, however, is Bogotá. Perhaps because I’m no stranger to huge cities having lived in some previously, I’m quite partial to the hustle and bustle that comes with metropolises and Bogotá’s noise and pollution is just part of the parcel for me. It doesn’t have the weather of Medellín, but for me it has an irresistible character. Frustrating, surprising, overwhelming, addictive and inexhaustible, Bogotá is where I am happy to call home.