Medellin Guide: A City of Eternal Spring and Transformation
Nowadays, Medellin, Colombia's second largest city, belongs among destinations where it’s trendy to live and travel. Once the world's most murderous city is now transforming rapidly and attracts visitors from around the world. In our guide we provide you with safety tips, best places to visit, where to stay and how to get there.
MEDELLIN: A CITY TRANSFORMED?
Medellin, once the murder capital of the world gets the second breath and shows the world that the dark past is far behind, but is it?
Well, for sure, the city is transforming for the better, and we can't (and don't want to) even imagine how it must have looked like during Pablo Escobar's domination over the city. Although Medellin, thanks to its weather, prefers to be called the city of eternal spring, it is hard to edge out the drug cartels and violent past.
We should maybe even admit ourselves, that this is one of the reasons why Medellin is so 'sexy' for visitors and everyone includes the visit to their Colombia itinerary.
But people in Medellin rather point out on things such as industrial success, their pride - metro or cable car connecting the undeveloped suburbs with the city's center and all those small achievements help them to deal with the unhappy history.
Also, when we were on a walking tour around the city, and our guide had to mention some historical facts, he never said Pablo Escobar's name aloud, but he called him the infamous criminal. The reason was simple. As we were walking, locals very often stopped around and watched the group of gringos how they learn about their city.
As English is not widely spoken in Colombia, probably the only word they would have understood was the name of the former drug lord, and our guide did not want to cause the impression, that the tour is about drugs and glorifying this person.
Overall, narco-trafficking subjects are taboo in society and the famous Netflix TV series Narcos is very unpopular among locals because they have a feeling that it doesn't depict the reality of Colombia at all.
But to come to the point - is Medellin a city transformed? To some extent, it made a huge step forward, and you can see that city representatives are working hard to create from Medellin a prosperous city where it is good to live.
For example, the most of the buildings and squares in the historical center with a bloody history were transformed into educational centers, libraries or lively plazas. Also, poor suburb, such as the most known one, Comuna 13, were integrated by the modern transport system, so inhabitants are not cut off anymore, and it is much easier for them to find a job or get an education.
On the other side, there are still places you shouldn't go on own sometimes even during a day, although the rate or of criminality and homicides has dropped.
For example in the city center, our guide adviced us to have all the time our backpacks in front so we can have control over our belongings.
You might say that this was only a precaution because a large group of white people attracts attention, but when you look around, you realize, that locals do precisely the same.
This story and many other small details you can spot in the city will tell you that Medellin still needs some time to lift itself out of poverty and problems from the past, but for sure, the city is on the right way.
SAFETY IN MEDELLIN
In a nutshell, we felt safe in Medellin (like in capital Bogota), but we never walked anywhere after dark and made sure, that our belongings are well-secured.
The public transport is crowded so never leave your valuable things in your backpack unattended. We found the area around Parque de Berrio and Calle 51 especially sketchy even during the day.
Our Travel Tip: Basic rule of thumb, when you see locals carrying backpack or handbag on their front, follow their lead. We also created super useful article How To Stay Safe In South America.
5 BEST THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN MEDELLIN
Medellin isn't a classic tourist destination luring its visitors on exceptional architecture or excellent food (well, this is individual), but still, there is plenty to see and do, and you don't need to stay in Medellin for weeks to get the sense of the place.
TAKE FREE WALKING TOUR AROUND MEDELLIN
Before you start exploring the city on own, take one of Medellin's free walking tours to get the best introduction. Guides will show you the most important buildings and places where the historical events took place.
We did the tour with well-rated Real City Tours, and it was a well-balanced mixture of historical information, cultural context, and sightseeing.
In about 4 hours we walked from Alpujarra metro station (the meeting point) to the Alpujarra administrative center, then to Square of Lights, a place which has transformed probably the most when it comes to architecture and security as well.
The Palacio National, nowadays a large shopping mall is a place where you can haggle, but all products are fake. However, the building is impressive, especially the inner courtyard.
Medellin doesn't abound with beautiful churches and cathedrals, but at least two are notable: Veracruz Church and Metropolitan Cathedral.
As the most famous (still living) Colombian artist, Fernando Botero was born in Medellin, there is a square carrying his name right in the city center.
Botero's sculptures and pieces of art decorate the square. Botero himself donated everything you can see around from his collection for free, so the people of Medellin can enjoy it every day without having to go to the museum.
You might ask why you can find Botero's heavily damaged statue at San Antonio Park?
It is a reminder of a terrible bomb attack during concert on innocent people in 1995. Right next to the old one, Botero himself placed a new one under one condition, that the old statue will not be removed and will remind this tragic event.
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RIDE A CABLE CAR
Riding a cable car is the best way how to appreciate the greatness of Medellin from above. Medellin stretches in the Aburra valley and its suburbs climb up the slopes.
There are several cable cars so you can choose the one most suitable for you. For us, the ride wasn't just about the views. From above, you can observe the outskirt communities, and it always hit us to see how many people live in such poor conditions.
In those moments, we can be nothing but grateful for the lives we live.
We used the cable car to get to Arvi Park (Santo Domingo - Parque Arvi) , and one ride cost COP 5 500 per person per one way.
Arvi Park or Parque Arvi is a place high above Medellin where you can enjoy nature and relax from the city's bustle and pollutions, a place with trees and thick vegetation all around.
When we got off from the cable car, we were caught by surprise, because it seemed that we need to take a guided tour (in Spanish only) for COP 25 000. Tours in English should be booked at least one week before your arrival.
When we asked a guy in the info center about the possibility to walk around on own, he showed us on map short trail leading just on the paved road. Fortunately, we hanged in and found our way around.
The best way how not to get lost is to download mobile app Maps.me, where you can find trails in the forest. We walked a short trek called Flora Trail.
From the Arvi Park administrative building, walk down the road and in a few minutes you'll get to the crossroad with restaurants. Turn right and carry on for a while. There will be another restaurant with a campground in the curve. Turn left, and on your right side, you'll see an unmarked entrance to the forest.
Now only follow the trail and eventually you'll see signs of Flora trail. The path is very well signed and loops back to the main road. It took us only about an hour, but you can explore more trails on own here and spend in Arvi Park easily all day.
To get to Arvi Park, use the metro and get off at Acevedo Station. Here switch lines - you must jump on the K-Line gondola on the same ticket. Get off at Santo Domingo station, buy another ticket and take the L-Line gondola, to the Parque Arvi, the last station.
The metro ticket cost COP 2 400 per ride, cable car from Santo Domingo to Parque Arvi cost COP 5 500.
BOTANICAL GARDENS OF MEDELLIN
A relaxed place within the city, it is the Botanical Garden. With more than 4 500 flowers, the Garden focuses mostly on orchids collection. There is no admission.
Unfortunately, at the time of our visit the Garden was closed and preparing for the annual Orchids Exhibition. It is easy to visit, use the metro and get off at Universidad Station.
MUSEO CASA DE LA MEMORIA
If you have time just for one museum, we recommend you this one. Museo Casa de la Memoria is free and shows the memories of people whose relatives or close friends disappeared or were killed during Colombia's armed conflict and narco-trafficking war.
It's disturbing exhibitions, but the primary purpose is not to forget this terrible part of Colombia's history and make sure it won't ever happen again.
To get to Museo Casa de la Memoria, get off at the metro station Parque de Berrio.
Cross the square and take a shortcut through the street along the left side of the castle (this street is weird, you can find here stalls with people selling fruits and toiletries on one side and stalls with porn on the right side).
Cross the main road and carry on along Calle 52 for about 10 minutes.
This street will take you directly to the Museum.
GUATAPE: BEST ONE DAY TRIP FROM MEDELLIN
Only 2 hours by bus from Medellin lies a picturesque, and one of the most colorful towns in Colombia.
All houses in Guatape are decorated with ‘zocalos’.
Only 10 minutes before you reach Guatape is another famous site La Piedra del Peñol. The impressive monolith overlooks a flooded dam which created Guatape Reservoir.
If time allows, Guatape and Piedra del Peñol are a worthwhile one day trip.
We've visited both places independently, but you can also join a guided tour.
HOW TO GET AROUND MEDELLIN
Medellin citizens are very proud of their metro system.
It is the only metro in the whole country, and to make sure everything is in the order you'll find two police officers on each platform in every station (plus many more employees of Metro Medellin).
Also, this is probably the cleanest place in Colombia.
We stayed in the El Poblado area, and from here, it was easy to commute everywhere, we did not have to use any other way of transportation.
Each ride cost COP 2 400. The funny thing is that to buy a ticket, you must every time wait in the line, at the busiest times sometimes up to 10 minutes.
People in Medellin probably like to wait in queue.
WHERE TO STAY IN MEDELLIN
There is no shortage of accommodation in Medellin. The most travelers stay in the El Poblado area. It is a neighborhood close to the center with the nearby metro station and the area is in general safe. Also, there are a lot of places where to eat, have fun or do shopping.
Budget | The Garden of Blues Hostel - A budget-friendly hostel offers great location, clean rooms, and breakfast.
Mid-range | Los Patios Hostal Boutique - Stylish hostel with themed rooms is a popular choice among all type of travelers.
Luxury | Hotel Dann Carlton Medellín - This hotel offers luxurious rooms, outdoor pool and spa, and clean spacious rooms.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
HOW TO GET TO MEDELLIN
Medellin is a large city, so there's an airport for those who need to move around the country quickly. If you want to get from the airport to the hotel quickly and without any hassle, you can reserve transfer service.
Bus connections from Medellin to other destinations in Colombia are frequent.
We took a night bus from Cartagena to Medellin with company Expreso Brasilia. The ride is long, almost 15 hours, but we could sleep quite comfortably on the bus. The price is COP 114 500 per person.
WHAT TO PACK FOR MEDELLIN
Medellin is called a City of Eternal Spring for a reason. Climate is consistent through the year, but thanks to the higher altitude it might be a little bit colder than you would think for a city close to the equator, so pack an extra warm layer just in case. If you want to feel extra safe when leaving a hotel room, buy a money belt and anti-theft day pack.
Here are 5 essential things we think you need for Medellin.
Anti-Theft Daypack | A well designed, comfortable, sturdy day pack where you can easily fit your travel things, phone, valuables, and 13inch laptop.
Sunscreen | Use sunscreen in Medellin even if you just go out to explore the city.
Money Belt | Wearing a money belt will help you avoid many sketchy situations in the city center of Medellin.
We've also written an in-depth South America packing list where you will find more useful tips and advice on what to pack.
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