A city with a complicated and bloody history. Forever intertwined with the name Pablo Escobar and the cocaine epidemic. Political corruption, sky-high murder statistics, and extreme poverty. The cocaine trade crippled Medellin and through much of the ’90s into the 2000’s the inhabitants of the city lived in fear. And few travelers explored its streets.
But this is not the Medellin you see today.
Medellin is a city transformed. A city looking forward. Eco-friendly, clean, safe, and economically booming. It’s a young city. Completely rebuilt in the last two decades. And quickly becoming a tourist hotspot in Colombia. Rightfully so. This is a city that makes you feel at home.
On the surface level, there are many things to love about Medellin. For starters, it’s undeniably beautiful. The many red brick buildings contrast with deep green mountains surrounding the city. Medellin sits in a valley surrounded on all sides by lush green mountains. And the city itself was built around nature. Numerous parks and green spaces can be found within the city.
The streets are clean. Colombia hires the impoverished and homeless as garbage collectors. This gives the disadvantaged job opportunities as well as keeps Colombia’s streets trash-free.
Transportation couldn’t be easier. Medellin is blessed with a well-connected above ground metro, solar-powered cable cars, uber, taxi’s and bus stops on every corner. The city is also very walkable.
The sunshine city. They call it the city of never-ending spring. Medellin is blessed with temperate-sunny and 75 degrees weather pretty much year round.
Delve a little deeper into Medellin and you’ll find that what truly makes this city worth exploring is its people. Kind-hearted and resilient. This isn’t a city where you can just hit the highlights and check out. You’ll be required to learn a bit about Colombia. Without the backstory, you can’t appreciate where they are now.
Here’s how to get the very most out of your stay in Medellin.
Where to Stay
One of the most confusing hurdles we encountered when arriving in Medellin. So let me save you some time. The neighborhoods are all very different, but all easily accessible from one another.
So where do we stay when we are looking for decent accommodation for a cheap price? Somewhere authentic, heavy on the local cuisine, and safe to walk at night?
Laureles is the answer.
Laureles is where the locals live. Every evening the streets fill with Colombians drinking from the bottle at tables outside liquor stores. And restaurants here served some of the BEST food we got in all of Colombia. I’m willing to bet Dejameq’tecuente has the best chicken in the entire country.
Most travelers end up in El Poblado. Which is a huge mistake. Unless clubs packed with tourists and international food is what you are here for.
I will preface this by saying I hate organized activities. Being herded around a city with 20 other foreigners and spoon-fed information to feel as though I’m “experiencing” the country is my own personal hell.
This is the first thing you should do in Medellin. This free tour takes you to the tourist highlights and helps you get your bearings in the city. Our guide also gave us the real history of Colombia. From the perspective of a local. This kind of insight into the lives of Medellin citizens was invaluable.
This tour gave us the opportunity to ask questions about the city, get food recommendations from people who live there, and meet some other cool travelers.
Other highlights from the tour included: Eating Medellin’s best buñuelos, visiting Plaza Botero, drinking in the oldest bar in Medellin, and seeing the Botero’s birds of Peace.
Birds of Peace: Botero is the most well-known sculptor in Colombia. You’ll recognize his iconic “fat” people and animals everywhere. In 1998 one of his bird statues was used to house a bomb. It was detonated during an outdoor concert killing 30 and injuring many more. The youngest victim was 7 years old. The perpetrators have never been caught. Instead of removing the statue, Botero himself contacted the mayor of Medellin and constructed an identical bird just 10 feet away. So they will never forget the victims of the tragedy. Now both birds remain as a testament to the transformation of the city.
Otherwise known as San Javier, this is Colombia’s most notorious neighborhood. Back when Pablo Escobar controlled the streets of Medellin this neighborhood was the epicenter of drugs, crime, and cold-blooded murder.
Today it is an artist community.
Still impoverished in many ways but rich in Colombian history and culture. Here the locals choose not to forget the horrors they went through. They make art from their difficult pasts.
The clean-up really started when some youth centers were established in the community. Kids had a place to go and socialize with one another. They formed break-dance troops instead of gangs. And now they do street performances for tourists. A way to make money for themselves without selling drugs.
The main attraction for most in Communa 13 is the graffiti. One long stretch of graffiti lines the main wall of the community and it’s always growing. The imagery is as powerful as it is beautiful. Elephants holding machine guns in their trunks. (My interpretation-because an elephant never forgets) A bloody stump of a finger. The many faces of indigenous tribal people.
The views when you reach the top are some of the best in Medellin.
The communa itself is built up into the hillside allowing sprawling views of the city below. Escalators built into the hillside make this region more easily accessible.
Tips for Visiting
Don’t walk to Communa 13. We met many locals who wouldn’t walk around in those parts of town.
Yes, it is safe to visit without a tour guide. We did it & encountered no issues.
Don’t visit after dark. Communa 13 has drastically improved in terms of safety. This area will still get dicey after dark.
Buy snacks from the vendors. Tourism has really helped this community and this is many locals survive.
Parque Arvi is lush nature preserve just outside the bustling modern city. Just riding the cable car to get to it is an attraction in itself.
Ride the cable car all the way to the summit of the surrounding mountains. Soon the barrios beneath you will become small farms high in the hillside and eventually just dense forest.
The trees in this jungle seemed to go on forever. The cable car ride is about 30 minutes, a long time to hang in a little box over the trees. The top has a market with fresh fruits from the jungle, a park, vegan restaurant, and a MASSIVE nature preserve filled with hiking trails.
It’s a welcome dose of nature after a few days in the city.
Tips for Visiting
This is a great activity to plan with Communa 13. This far side of town has little else to see for the typical traveler.
Don’t visit at night. Same rules apply as Communa 13.
Also, try and avoid riding the cable car in the peak heat of the day. No A/C or open windows results in sweltering heat during peak sun hours.
Although not actually in Medellin, I feel like I need to include this colorful pueblo here. Hidden in the farmland an hour (by bus) outside the city, it’s worth getting to.
Most tourists partake in a quick day-trip starting and finishing in Medellin.
I do not recommend this.
Between the hours of 9 & 5, tour hours, Guatape is a zoo. Tourists on every corner, every restaurant packed to the brim, and the Penöl (the huge rock definitely worth a climb) almost inaccessible.
But if you spend the night in Guatape, you’ll have a whole different experience. Wake up early and have the streets to yourself. Eat dinner with the locals. And climb the Penöl without the extra tourists.
The pueblos are truly an amazing place to visit. The streets are vibrantly colored with homes painted red, blue, and green. The communities consist of mostly farmers. If you can make it to Jardin, three-hours from Medellin, I highly recommend it.
Other Medellin Attractions
Plaza Botero. Even if you don’t partake in the walking tour, you should visit this plaza. The architecture is dramatic and the plaza is filled with the famous “fat” sculptures of Botero.
Ride the Metro. Do it during rush hour just for fun. (Not if you get claustrophobic)
Check out El Poblado. Not even close to my favorite place in Medellin but the nightlife is famous. Criminal Taqueria is also worth making the stop for.
Walk around the Botanical Gardens. Surprising large and filled with massive iguanas. It makes for a peaceful afternoon and a great place for a picnic.
Dance in the underground techno scene. Calle 9+1 was a neat hidden away spot.
Grab a drink at a liquor store. Tables crowd the sidewalk out front filled with Colombians throwing back shots and sipping straight from the bottle. The drinking culture here is friendly and social. A perfect kick-off to a laidback evening.
Watch some of the most impressive break-dancing I’ve ever witnessed. Break-dancing troupes take to the streets after dark. Often to bars frequented by tourists and the liquor stores in Laureles neighborhood. Tipping is encouraged.
Why No Museums?
Colombia loves a good museum. I, on the other hand, prefer to learn about things more organically. Medellin is filled with museums for you history buffs out there. Some of the more famous ones include; Medellin Modern Art Museum, Antioquia Museum, and Casa de la Memoria (a homage to the victims of Colombia’s civil war). Museums are free on Sundays.
Prepare to Extend Your Stay
This is a city that travelers fall in love with. Everyone I met planned to stay far less time than they did. Even on our tight schedule, we stayed 2 extra days in the city.
The energy is infectious.
But there are countless other cities in Colombia to captivate you.
My favorite Colombian town of Salento is only a bus-ride away.