Ten Tips For Your First Visit To Medellin
Medellin is an amazing city in one of the most welcoming countries. I was lucky to enjoy almost a week in this expat-filled city. Here are my top ten tips that any traveler should be aware of before visiting Medellin.
1. Stay in El Poblado
El Poblado is considered the traveler and expat area of Medellin. Here, you will find great places to stay, eat and drink. The area is centered around Parque Lleras, which isn’t a park in a traditional sense, but a stair-lined concrete zone, which is the center of Medellin’s best restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.
The area is also home to local food but also international food. We particularly enjoyed the Peruvian food found at Rocoto and found the ceviche on par (or better) with what we saw in Peru. For more local empanadas, try the walk-up El Machecito.
It might not provide the best sense of “real Medellin,” but this urban sprawl is home to a diverse group of people and things to do, creating an excellent spot to stay as you venture to other neighbourhoods for the day.
Even though El Poblado might be known as the expat area, I never once felt like there was too much exposure to expats. The neighbourhood (and rest of Colombia for that matter) had an excellent exposure to locals and their culture.
2. The Metro is Great
The metro system in Medellin is excellent. One-way, standard fares cost around 3000 COP per person (approximately $1 CAD). For your first trip, you must visit a ticket booth to buy a white plastic card that can be loaded for multiple journeys.
The metro means a lot to the locals, as the service brings social and cultural benefits. It encouraged tourism and new business growth in the city by bridging the gaps between neighbourhoods with different economic levels. Interestingly, the metro also does this literally. Gondolas are part of the public metro system and also accessible with fares. There are many interesting gondola routes towards Parque Arvi.
Because of the metro’s significance on locals, you will never see any vandalizing or even litter in the shared space. Seriously, it’s fascinating!
3. Venture out to Downtown
While El Poblado might be a great spot to stay, be sure to venture to other areas to get a sense of what Medellin offers.
We particularly liked the downtown areas around La Candelaria. While the official name is La Candelaria, every call is El Centro or downtown. It’s the city’s economic heart and where you’ll find the most people and a more “local” feel of Medellin. It’s undoubtedly more gritty and raw than what you might find in El Poblado, but it’s worth a visit.
I would recommend a free walking tour to get a sense of the area with a local. We used Real City Tours, and were impressed with our guide’s knowledge, help, and eagerness. You’ll likely start around Plaza Botero, named after the artist Fernando Botero, who is easily Colombia’s most famous artist. His style can be found all over the plaza and is characterized by plump fat bronze statues. He also painted the now-infamous “fat Mona Lisa”.
One note on safety: the area isn’t known as the safest. While it’s mostly fine in the daytime, it might get uncomfortable at night. Leave valuables at home and try not to dress in. Even locals will wear their backpacks on the front - so take note!
4. Do a Comuna 13 Tour
Throughout the 80s and 90s, this area was one of the most dangerous places in the world, run by violent gangs. In the early 2000s, this started to change as the new president of Colombia created a project to unite the hillside community with the areas below. Over the next decade, the area was cleaned up, and helped a lot with new transportation projects that connected the entire neighbourhood - infamously the series of escalators that go up the hillside from below.
With these changes, artists felt safe to go out and give life to the community. More artists caught wind of this movement, with many artists travelling form other cities, creating the atmosphere we see today.
And despite the appearance, it’s a safe area to visit - especially for tourists. Locals recognize the benefits tourists bring and are excited to see you. As our guide mentioned, the crime that still exists is broadly protecting themselves from other gangs. According to our guide, the last time a tourist was robbed three years ago, the locals beat the aggressor and made him leave the area in the tourist’s defense.
The stands up on the top-selling beers, coffee, and food, are an excellent place to watch the sunset from. Comuna 13 is a perfect case study for hope, and it’s a place you’ll surely want to visit.
5. Take the Airport Tunnel
There are two airports in Medellin. Olaya Herrara (EOH) is located in Medellin and primarily serves local, regional flights and charters. The main airport, Jose Maria Cordova (MDE), serves larger airlines and is likely the airport you will arrive in.
Despite being called Medellin International, it is located 20 kilometers east of Medellin and in a different municipality. A new tunnel opened in 2019 that cuts the normal commute between El Poblado and Medellin airport in half.
However, in busier traffic times, the older route around can take as long as an hour and a half. It’s a nice drive at regular times. However, my time in traffic was not a pleasant one.
As the tunnel commands a toll of around 20 thousand COP, many drivers avoid the tunnel, instead preferring to go around and keep the toll you prepay with Uber. It’s a very nice drive if you have time, but if not, avoid it.
6. Try a Coffee Tour
The highlight of our time in Medellin was a coffee tour. We visited a local farm south of Medellin in Sabaneta (about a 30-minute drive). Here we sampled different types of coffee brewed with other methods and were able to head out to the coffee fields ourselves.
For any coffee lover, this is definitely a do not miss - we learned a lot and were able to sample many different types of coffees.
Important note on prices: local farmers collaborate with tour companies to get their farms visited by tourists. You can save money by contacting the farm independently, but this requires good Spanish (something we don’t have) and will not come with transportation. In addition, booking through Tripadvisor or Viator will also have additional fees. We chose to book a day-of tour directly with the tour company over WhatsApp and pay in cash. All in, our time was $70 for a six-hour experience and included transportation, an English-speaking guide, and lunch.
7. Hit the Streets for Nightlife
Some people come to Medellin only for the nightlife. The nightlife has a tremendous reputation among locals and travelers.
We stuck to the El Poblado area, around Parque Lleras, a usual spot for travelers, but still with some local Colombians as well. Here is a good link that we used before deciding where to go without getting too in-depth.
Bars and craft breweries are open all around the upperside of the Comuna 13 area. Above is a cannabis infused beer overlooking the area. Quite good!
8. Locals are curious - don’t be alarmed
The locals are curious about tourists and frequently walk up close and listen to your conversation. Yes, it’s weird, but it’s something that is done there. Many times during our tours, we had locals walk right up and join our tour or linger around the outside. Don’t be alarmed. Also, when hearing English, the curiosity is even more prominent, and more people will walk up.
9. Avoid Escobar Talk
As our tour guide said, “20% of the people like the big man, 20% don’t like him, and 60% don’t want to talk about it”.
The point is that most Colombians don't want to talk about Escobar. He's seen as a bad point in history by many, but others see him as a great help to the poorer areas in Colombia. Chances are you'll bother someone if you start talking about him.
10. Be a Digital Nomad
Medellin has exploded in popularity in the past few years, with expats flocking to the streets of neighbourhoods, with the highest concentration in Poblado. Many shared spaces offer flexible working arrangements (even one in our hostel) and some big names, such as WeWork scattered around the city.
The expats I interacted with had a “work hard, play hard” feeling. Most of the day was spent working, and the nights were meant to let loose and have fun.
Take a page out of their book - work hard during the day, and have fun. Stay as long as you can; this is a fantastic place.