What…are you nuts? You went to Colombia? Isn’t it dangerous? Are you missing an organ now? You went to make deals with a drug cartel?
I have come across many people during my travels this year, both fellow travelers and locals. Just a mere mention of Colombia to them immediately stirs up the stereotypical fear of drug infested, unlawful country that has nothing to offer but cheap drugs and sex. When a country goes through such a dramatic period in history filled with drug overlords with extravagant luxury, bodyguards and sophisticated drug supply chains and power to control the lives of everyday Colombians it is hard to remove that negative image from people’s minds. But Paisas (this is what they call the people from that state of Antioquia where Medellin is located) wants to put this behind them and move on to greener pastures of their life, the one filled with hopes and better life for them and their future generations.
Medellin was the epicenter of drug industry twenty years ago dominated by cartel tycoon Pablo Escobar. He was Medellin and Medellin was he to most people outside the country. Everyone in Medellin feared him that is until the C.I.A funded operation that helped Colombia’s military (thanks to Uribe, president of Colombia at that time) to end him and rest of the drug cartels along with him. Picture is worth a thousand words. The image below shows the sharp decline of homicides in Medellin since the mid 90’s.
Today Medellin is the most vibrant and innovative city in the whole of South America. Beginning in the late 90’s the city has heavily invested in infrastructure, transportation, parks, educational centers that overall has contributed to a higher quality of life to the city residents. In fact the city has seen many innovative changes that it even went on to win the most Innovative city of the world in 2013. Much of this credit goes to the former Mayor Luis Perez who initiated city-wide reform in 2000 and helped financed the metro cable systems.
Medellin in Daytime
Parque de las Luces, Medellin
In fact Medellin has one of the most reliable and cleanest metro systems in the world. When I did my free walking tour in Medellin (as I always do in all my travels), the tour guide mentioned the metro system is so important to Paisas that it has become a lifeline for them to feel proud of the city.
Metro train in Medellin
It helps lift their spirits after all the negative things they had to go through in the last 20 years. The city has the biggest outdoor public escalators in the world. It stretches 28 stories. The cable cars are both efficient and reliable. If you ever go to Medellin take a cable car ride to Arvi, which is located at the top of the hill.
Colombian school children on the metro cable
“Encicla” – the free biking system started with the idea of integrating all universities, parks and metro rail is free to use for both residents and tourists. The city street has many paved bike paths. They even have car free street days every weekend where residents can go running or biking in the city (better than in New York where it is only 3 days in a year).
Encicla bicycle system
As a traveler you are always looking for free wifi to check your emails or catch up on your social media updates. The free wifi can be found in many metro stations, universities, parks and tourist locations.
Parque Explora is a science and technology museum encompassing the largest aquarium in Latin America. The botanical garden is full of exotic plants and trees that could be a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. It can be a great date spot or a meeting place. The outdoors botanical garden is free. But you have to pay to get inside the Parque Explora aquarium and technology experimental center. It is definitely worth your money and time.
Aquarium in Parque Explora
International investors are slowly discovering the city’s great potential. When I visited Medellin in 2015, I spotted many new residential and office-building constructions across the city. Medellin sits on a valley so the view is really gorgeous from any part of the city as long as you are on a higher floor.
Because the city sits in a valley formation the weather tends to be pretty consistent throughout the year. The temperature hovers anywhere between 65-85 F (18-30 C) hence the city is referred to as “City of Eternal Spring”.
Places to live or stay while visiting Medellin
Without a doubt my favorite neighborhood to stay in Medellin would be Laureles/Estadio. If you come to Medellin don’t stay in Poblado. This is where most of the gringos end up going to live. Parque Lleras, which is the center of Poblada is where you find the drug vendors, call girls and prostitutes. I literally hate that area. I much prefer the quieter area like Laureles where you can meet the local paisas and experience the true paisa life. Plus the area is almost flat so walking or biking is not tiresome as supposed to other barrios like Envigado or Poblado. In Laureles find a place (either an Airbnb or a rental) close to Estadio so you can take advantage of the stadium close to the metro. Many of the services in Estadio like the running track, gym, tennis court and swimming pools are free to use regardless of your resident status.
Marathon track in Estadio, Laureles
I literally think you get more value out of your money spent in Medellin. Food, Public transportation, Accommodation (Rental or Airbnb), Haircut, Personal services, Hospital care, Prescription drugs all cost less than 1/3rd of what you would pay in any city in the developed world (e.g New York or London).
Every lunch meal in Medellin is served with some fresh fruit juice. The typical “Menu del dia” (Menu of the day) comes with a 3-course meal for literally 3-4 USD.
Typical Paisa meal with fresh Jugo
Did I mention Medellin is host to the biggest collection of tropical fruits in the planet? If you visit Medellin make a point to stop by either La Majorista (little further from the center) or La Minorista (only a cheap taxi ride from the center) to sample the amazing variety of fruits. The fruits are not only fresh and natural but also very cheap.
Fruit store in La Minorista
A note about taking transportation
If you are visiting any touristy spots in the center of the city my advice would be take the metro after 9 am and return back before the peak time hits at 5 pm. The metro is packed during the peak hours and it stops at midnight. Alternatively take the taxi to get around the city. Taxis in Medellin are both reliable and cheap. Another alternative would be Uber, which usually has English-speaking drivers that can help you to navigate the city.
I know it is understandable for single travelers to feel a little scared about visiting Colombia the first time. My advice would be to take the free walking tour on Day one to get a feel for the neighborhoods and hear directly from the travel guide on some safety tips. Read my other post regarding travel safety while traveling as a solo traveler.
Interesting things to do while you are staying in Medellin
- Parque Arvi
I mentioned this earlier in my post. Situated in the eastern slopes of Aburra Valley, Parque Arvi is the nearest vacation destination for both the paisas. The ride to the top of the hill by cable car ride alone is worth taking this trip. Make sure to stop at Santo Domingo and walk around a little bit but not too deep into the favelas. Try some pastries and the tasty fried Empanadas.
How to get there? Take the metro train to Acevado station and then cable car to Santo Domingo and switch to another cable car that goes to Parque Arvi. Use metro card for both metro and cable car rides.
- Guatape/Piedra del penol
These two places are a must visit for anyone who is visiting Medellin. Not only you get an amazing view when you get to the top of Penol but also you can get a taste of the Colombian way of living while wandering the streets of Guatape.
The climb to the top of Penol is an easy hike if you are in decent shape. I did find some of the local paisas stopping every 10 minutes and trying to catch their breadth. You will not regret the climb once you get to the top of the rock.
Mt Penol – Stairways to heaven?
Gorgeous view from the top of the rock
Guatape is a colorful town with each house decorated and painted differently. There is a resoirvoir where you can take a ferry or a boar and go around the lake or take a zip line ride across the reservoir.
How to get there? Take the metro to Caribe station and then catch a bus from Terminal de Norte (about 2 hours) to Penol. Ask the driver to drop you off at the rock first. To avoid the tourist crowd try to get there before 10 am.
You can take the same bus from the Penol to Guatape. It takes additional 20-30 minutes.
Perhaps one of the best places to experience inexpensive paragliding in the world is Medellin. A 20 minute ride would cost you $35 including renting a GoPro camera + SD card. The view is breathtaking when you are almost 3000 feet above the valley.
Yes, that’s me taking off to the top of the valley.
How to get there? Take the metro to Caribe station and bus from Terminal De norte to San Felix. It takes about an hour to get there.
- Feria de Las Flores (Flower festival)
Every summer (around early August) the city of Medellin hosts a week long festival to display its proud heritage of the variety of flowers that grow in and around the countryside. Usually there are fireworks, exotic flower displays, live music concerts and a road show of old vintage cars
Santa Fe mall, one of the largest malls in South America usually has an interesting display of the flowers to celebrate this festival.
Santa Fe mall flower display
Flower parade at the last day of the festival
How to see the flower festival? Check the feria de flores official website for schedule of events and locations.