Cancun vs. Cartagena: Which Caribbean Spot Is Better?
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Cartagena, Colombia, and Cancun, Mexico, are popular destinations in Latin America for travelers seeking warm Caribbean weather and beautiful beaches.
While both cities offer many attractions, they have distinct differences in history, culture, and atmosphere. As an expat of Cartagena and a tourist of Cancun, I share my insights.
Location & City Overview
Cartagena is located on the northern coast of Colombia, while Cancun is on the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula; both cities face the Caribbean Sea.
Both cities comprise three key components: a beach-front tourist area, a downtown, and a surrounding local area.
Cancun’s beach-front hotel strip is the ultimate all-inclusive vacation destination. It offers beautiful high-end hotels and white sandy beaches.
The downtown area is chaotic and needs more urban planning. Still, you can get a feel for the authentic Mexican culture there.
The surrounding area may be the best place to stay if you want to stay long-term as an expat. It is more affordable than the hotel strip and more organized than the city center.
Cartagena’s tourist area is fun but needs to be more organized: many neighborhoods have beach access, but you must cross busy roads to get to the water.
Its downtown or historical center is charming and magical. It truly transports you back to Colonial times with narrow streets, colorful houses, and surrounding walls.
The rest of Cartagena is mainly for locals and, in my opinion, not very pleasant.
As with most countries in the Caribbean region, the climate is hot and humid for both Cancun and Cartagena.
Average temperatures range from 75 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This fantastic weather makes them an ideal destination for those seeking to escape the cold winter.
Both cities experience rainy and dry seasons throughout the year. While it is common to see torrential downpours during the rainy season, Cancun’s location also exposes the city to hurricanes.
Hurricane season occurs between June and November in the Caribbean. Thanks to Cartagena’s location in the southern part of the Caribbean coast, it rarely gets exposed to significant storms.
Yet, in Cartagena, due to poor infrastructure in the city, it is common to find severely flooded streets during the rainy season.
One of the main draws for tourists in Cartagena and Cancun is their stunning beaches.
In terms of the natural beauty of the beaches, you cannot beat Cancun.
Cancun boasts a 14-mile stretch of pristine white sand beaches and bright blue water, making it one of the most famous beach destinations in the world.
The most popular beaches in Cancun include Playa Delfines and Playa Chac Mool. These beaches offer a range of activities, including parasailing, windsurfing, and snorkeling.
The beaches in Cartagena are made up of grayish volcanic sand instead of white coral sand.
This darker color in the sand means less sunlight is reflected in the water, making the water appear darker as well.
The good news is that you can find white sand and blue water a short boat ride away, in the nearby islands of Barú and the Rosarios.
Regarding the atmosphere, restaurants and bars surround the beaches in both cities, meaning you will find fun and energetic vibes no matter where you are.
Both cities offer an array of water activities, making them ideal for beach lovers and adventure seekers.
Cancun’s beaches are larger and more numerous, offering visitors a more comprehensive range of options.
In Cartagena, on the other hand, you can find a more authentically Latin vibe.
Check out my list of the best beach clubs in Cartagena here!
History and Culture
One of the most significant differences between Cartagena and Cancun is their history and culture.
Cartagena has a rich history dating back to the 16th century; a Spanish colony that became the shipping point for all gold, jewelry, and riches being sent to Europe, not to mention the most important port for the slave trade at that time.
Some of South America’s most well-preserved colonial architecture are within Cartagena’s historic center. The walled city has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its colorful buildings, ancient forts, and churches offer a glimpse into the colonial era.
In contrast, Cancun is a much newer city established in the 1970s as a tourist destination. Until 50 years ago, Cancun was a small fishing village of Mayan descendants.
At that time, the Mexican government saw its immense potential for tourism due to its unique location and stunning beaches.
From then on, Cancun was developed with the purpose of international tourism. A fact that is evident in its modern vibe, with high-rise hotels, malls, nightclubs, and restaurants.
The city center has a local Mexican feel. Yet, for the most part, the city does not have the same depth of history and cultural heritage as Cartagena.
Dining and Nightlife
Spanish and African flavors dominate the cuisine of Cartagena, focusing on seafood, rice, and beans.
The city’s street food scene is also trendy, with vendors selling empanadas, arepas, and other local delicacies on every corner. One of the most popular dishes in Cartagena is ceviche, a dish made with raw fish marinated in lime juice and spices.
On the other hand, Cancun’s cuisine has a more international flavor, with many restaurants offering a fusion of Mexican, American, and European dishes.
Because urban planners designed Cancun with international tourism in mind, you can find foreign chain restaurants everywhere. Cancun also has outstanding authentic Mexican cuisine, especially in the city center.
Both Cancun and Cartagena offer a vibrant nightlife scene, with a great variety of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants to choose from.
Check out these Colombian festival and Dancing Articles:
- Dancing Culture in Colombia and Their Cities
- The Best Festivals in Colombia: Which Ones Should You Attend?
- The Different Colombian Dances Explained
Most restaurants and bars stay open late at night, so you can always find a good time if that is your scene.
In Cartagena, you can learn to dance Salsa and Champeta, a local music style with Latin and African influences.
In Cancun, you might hear live Mariachi bands, Cumbia, and North American club music.
Cartagena and Cancun offer a range of activities for tourists to enjoy. Cartagena’s historic center is a significant attraction, with ancient forts, churches, and colorful buildings.
Visitors can take a walking tour of the Old Town or visit the Castillo San Felipe. Take a boat trip to the nearby Rosario Islands or see a bird sanctuary in Baru. Cartagena also boasts a wide array of museums, such as:
- Naval Museum: where you can see the fantastic underwater fortifications designed to protect the city during the conquest
- Palace of the Inquisition: where you can learn all about the Spanish Catholic influence in the region
- Chocolate Museum: where you can try your hand at processing cacao seeds into chocolate
Conversely, Cancun is known for its water-based activities, such as snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming with dolphins.
The city also has a range of theme parks, such as Xcaret and Xplor, which offer a range of attractions, including zip-lining, river rafting, and underground rivers.
Side note: we also compared San Adres and Cartagena in this post.
Now you have an overview of each city and how they compare. You may wonder what it is like to live in these cities long term.
Let’s explore life as an expat in Cartagena and Cancun and see the aspects that affect your daily life beyond the tourist experience.
Transportation in Cancun is unreliable and time-consuming. The buses come irregularly, and there are constant complaints about unsafe taxis. It is crucial to have a vehicle if you want to live comfortably in Cancun.
In Cartagena, you can easily make do without a car if needed. You can find basic amenities within walking distance.
The city is small, and distances are manageable even on foot. There are plenty of taxis and ride-sharing apps to use.
Whether you are visiting as a tourist or living as an expat, we must consider safety while we are abroad.
The recent drug cartel wars plaguing Mexico have made Cancun, among other destinations, unsafe for tourists and locals.
While targeted attacks against foreigners are rare, they happen. You need to be aware of your surroundings and the company you keep while in the city. Having said that, the biggest threat to safety is petty theft.
Cartagena is a relatively safe city for tourists. While gang-related criminal activity is reported throughout the city, most occurs away from the tourist areas.
As with Cancun, there are instances of petty theft and scams targeting tourists. Here is more information on how to stay safe in Cartagena.
For expats, once you recognize the dangers surrounding you, you can live a relatively safe life in either of these two cities.
Cost of Living
In terms of costs, Cancun tends to be more expensive than Cartagena due to Mexico’s proximity to the US.
Mexico is a more developed country, and thus, the prices tend to be higher than in Colombia.
Both cities offer the option of living cheaply or expensively based on your taste and budget. If you are wondering about currency in Colombia, we have a great read about how to use USD in Cartagena.
Colombia and Mexico are pretty similar when it comes to health care. Both have universal health care that is accessible to all its residents. This system is perfectly acceptable for general basic medical care.
Expats can access this healthcare system with any long-term visa. If you have a severe medical condition or a long-term ongoing illness, the system can be slow by first-world standards.
Luckily, both these countries offer private care along with the public system. You can pay for private medical care out of pocket or purchase a monthly insurance policy.
Private care lets you go directly to any specialist and bypass your general practitioner. It also gives you access to complimentary services such as dental care.
As you can see, Cartagena and Cancun have many similarities. Cartagena offers a more profound history and cultural immersion, while Cancun blends modern attractions and Mayan heritage.
Ultimately, they are both great destinations for your next vacation or to settle down as an expat.
Aldo, if you are more into a city experience within Colombia, you may want to check out: Best Time to Visit Bogota for a Vacation or Cartagena vs. Medellin: Which is the better travel destination?