…So, did you arrive in Medellín okay Amber?
YES HAHA I arrived in Medellín with no problems, which is a first for me (but not something that continued – stay tuned for Cali).
Upon arrival as it was the Festival del Flores I was greeted into the city with a shot of aguadiente. It went to my head a little as I’d only eaten a vegetarian Subway salad hours before (please don’t worry about me, I’m okay. It was my only choice at the terminal.)
I loved Medellín so much, I stayed over a week making me well equipped to write this ultimate guide. I’m virtually a Paísa (this is what locals call themselves – a bit like Geordies, the Scouse or Londoners). Medellín is the capital city of the department of Antioquia, and is located in Arburra Valley. From some angles Medellín can be a concrete jungle, however beautiful mountains surround the city with many colourful comunas lining the slopes.
Medellín is also known as ‘the city of eternal spring’. The surrounding mountains mean the temperature year round averages between 25-28°C, while in the evening, it lowers from 16.5 to 17.4°C.
There are SO many things to do in Medellín; if you’re here for a few days or more, here is what I believe you should put on your list:
Amber’s must-see things to do in Medellín!
#1 Take a tour around Comuna 13
Highly recommended: if you only have 48 hours in Medellín make this a priority. You can do a free one, we didn’t realise this ahead and paid 60,000 Pesos booking through our hostel. If you’d prefer to do a free tour there will always be someone in the know at your hostel.
Comuna 13 – also known as the San Javier – has the most turbulent history of the city. Once labelled the most dangerous community within Medellín due to its astronomical homicide rates (and subsequent forced displacement of thousands of residents). It was a pivotal centre for paramilitary, guerrilla, and gang activity. Its location was ideal for crime; our guide pointed out that it leads directly to the main highway (San Juan Highway) thus provided easy transportation of drugs, money and arms.
In the past decade Comuna 13 has seen an immense shift; the government poured a lot of money into the area turning it into a vibrant and hip part of town that is home to some amazing street art.
As it is still a functioning neighborhood we also saw some of the locals leading their daily lives. We saw a group of teenager’s breakdancing, alongside (to our horror – and I don’t really like small children) a mother biting her child’s arm as a method of punishment. I’m not sure what the number is for Colombian Childline.
#2 Explore downtown with a free walking tour
I chose to go with RealCity tours with the two Dutch guys who built a bong out of Venezuelan money from Cartagena. Sadly they ended up in a different group: I was late painting my toenails. Oops.
There are a few free walking tours, but what I loved about the RealCity walking tour is that it took you through downtown Medellín and taught you about modern Medellín and how the real locals live today. We visited a local counterfeit market, which was hilarious although had some questionable things for sale including a LOT of porn and counterfeit books. I spotted a DVD named ‘Father Daughter Perversions: Volume 8’ and also a copy of Mein Kampf… a bit concerning that a Colombian could use that to practice German…
We also visited some churches, but to admire the prostitutes that work around there. Brothels and prostitutes are often located around churches in Medellín so that the men who use them can ‘wash their sins clean’ afterwards. 🤔
#2.1 Plaza Botero and Plaza San Antonio
We were also taken to Plaza Botero to admire Fernando Botero’s 23 large bronze statues. I suggest you go here and to Plaza San Antonio even if you don’t do a walking tour.
Botero also has two statues in San Antonio square, known as the ‘Birds of Peace’ – one being more recent than the other. In 1995, 10 kilos of dynamite were stuffed into the first bird statue before a concert took place. When the bomb detonated 29 people were killed with more than 200 injured. Narcotraficantes took credit for the bomb.
Botero asked that they leave the statue in San Antonio to remind visitors of Medellín’s violent history. He has since erected a new bird that sits next to the damaged bird. This supposedly represents Medellín’s peaceful future.
We also visited Plaza Bolivar where the elderly, junkies and even families congregate together in one area. It is a great place to go people watching with a coffee! ☕️
The tours leave daily at 8:54am, 10:24pm and 2:19pm daily. Make sure you book a spot in advance, as they’re really popular and do book out with a wait list. I only booked a day or 2 before though.
#3 Pablo Escobar Tour
Understandably controversial, and many Colombians are against tourism around Pablo Escobar as 1 – they wish to shed any former memory of him and 2 – disagree with monetizing on his legacy.
I chose to do a Pablo Escobar tour because of snippits I’d heard throughout the Comuna 13 and RealCity walking tour. Tour guides cannot help but touch on him as he affected the lives of locals so dearly. Furthermore there is a belief that the Netflix series glamorised Pablo Escobar and his actions. As the series closely follows his life (including time with his family) it completely humanises him – at some points viewers even feel sorry for Pablo, which isn’t ideal! So I wanted to find out the truth for myself.
I recommend going with PaisaRoad tours (60,000 Pesos for 3 hours, starting at 9am and 2pm). The tour includes visiting his home, his grave (a bit controversial IMO), where he grew up among many other main sites. The guide was very knowledgeable, did a good job of dehumanising Pablo and bringing to light the horrors of his actions – he especially touched on what we saw in Narcos and the true effects on the local people. The tour has a reputation for being bullsh*t free, too unlike many others that glamorise Pablo Escobar.
In all honestly I’d only do this tour if you have the time. The Museum of Memories also includes artefacts from the war with Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartel. Furthermore (quite rightly) in an attempt to rid Medellín of any memory of Pablo Escobar, many of the key sights have been stripped down and replaced entirely. It is hard to really place yourself in the moment when you’re now looking at a 4* hotel, or at a newly built school.
#4 Park Arví
My friends and I at the hostel monumentally messed up for this one. After buying a load of beers and picnic supplies we accidentally got an UBER to the wrong cable car, and instead of going to Park Arví we went to La Aurora – an area of town that is being rejuvenated as a result of the cable car in 2004. The cable car (and metro line) were very important upgrades to Medellín – the locals are so proud of their public transport system that there is not a single scratch nor discarded McNugget sharer box in sight.
We didn’t realise until we were going up the WRONG cable car until half way up. At that point it was too late in the day to U-turn to Park Arví. Instead we enjoyed our picnic on a patch of grass in La Aurora among a very questionable group of locals and some random wandering cows and dogs.
We got some great views though!
Park Arví is supposed to be beautiful but be careful and remain vigilant; as Arví is so big the police can’t really control what happens there and visitors are prone to mugging. My friend visited a few days later and was mugged at gunpoint, despite going during the daytime and with a group of people. Hide your valuables and don’t go anywhere too remote!
#5 Botanical Gardens
I wasn’t blown away by the Botanical Gardens. I genuinely thought I hadn’t yet been until someone else described where it was (“oh right, I did go there with a coffee whilst hung-over”). I mean it was very pretty but it was no Kew Gardens.
#6 Experience the Festival del Flores (if you can) 🌺🌸🌷
Colombia is the 2nd largest exporter of flowers behind Holland – who knew! Maybe that is why there is so many Dutch people here in Colombia. We visited the parade on the Sunday which is the piéce de résistance of the festival. As I’m so short (hence pocket atlas and not giant atlas) I couldn’t see much of the parade; a Colombian family temporarily adopted me and a pal from my hostel so we could join in on the festivities. It was great for practicing my terrible Español.
The festival is normally on for 1 week in August.
#7 See a football match ⚽️
I’m not really into football; I did get into the most recent World Cup but only because I was in a sweepstake and for the first time in a while England was doing quite well. Otherwise I just see a load of overpaid men running up and down a pitch, maybe scoring once in 90-minutes. This was a pretty cool experience though. We watched Medellín vs Bogotá and the atmosphere was so different to a match in the UK – singing and waving flags as opposed to screaming and swearing (I’ve been to a match at Old Trafford before with Manchester United playing). The stadium is never packed out (it was about ¾ full when we went) because Medellín isn’t a great team. Even a football novice like me could tell because the game was exceptionally slow. We arrived at the stadium 15-minutes before the match and paid 27,000 Pesos per ticket. The stadium is 10-minutes in a taxi from El Poblado.
A word of warning: no alcohol is allowed in the stadium. Vendors go around the stalls shouting, “Cerveza! Cerveza!” but it is alcohol free. Don’t be fooled. Get some Doritos instead.
#8 Go paragliding for the best views of the city!
I wish I did this but I did not have time!! As Medellín is in a Valley you’ll get a birds-eye view of the whole city. Other travellers said that you just float up before reaching the end of the hilltop so its less scary than in San Gil, where you need to run to the edge of a cliff first. 😵
#9 Take a day trip to a nearby pueblo (i.e. Guatapé, Jardín)
I’m going to cover this in a separate post, as this one is becoming faaaaaar too long. But here are some photos of me at La Piedra and of Guatapé square to wet your tastebuds for the next post!
Where to stay in Medellín 🏨
Most backpackers stay in Medellín’s most upmarket neighbourhood El Poblado. This is where many hostels, cafés and bars can be found – just steps from our hostel were international and national restaurants serving up very tasty food.
Black Sheep Hostel
I stayed here very briefly 👀. It seemed really sociable, the bathrooms were clean, I didn’t get to try the breakfast. The main problem is that it is a good 30-minute walk from the rest of the neighborhood! Not ideal if you’re hung-over and want to get to the main square for some food. Also not ideal if you’re out at night and need to get home alone. All peds on the pedometer I suppose!
The Happy Buddha
Happy Buddha has a reputation for being the party hostel where nobody sleeps. It is situated right on the main strip of El Poblado and is a maximum of 5 minutes walk from any main bar. It is also conjoined to a great bar and a taco take-away (#priorities). I stayed here for 2 nights.
I was actually worried about staying here; I’d heard horror stories in Bogotá about the dorms being like a crack den and that I’d get no sleep. I’ve been reading ‘Why We Sleep’ by Dr Matthew Walker so nearly had a nervous breakdown at this news. However I was pleasantly surprised! 🤗
The dorm rooms were very clean (I stayed in the 10-bed dorm on the top floor), the beds were extremely comfortable and the breakfast was half decent – scrambled eggs with toast, granola, yogurt, fruit and coffee or orange juice. Recently Happy Buddha shut down for a bit and although the bar was extremely sociable, now after 12pm only hostel guests are allowed on site.
TIP: I managed to sleep fine but apparently the 10-bed dorm is slightly away from the noise, whereas other rooms are adjacent to next doors bar (a heads up for if you book).
On my first night I was worried about being woken up at 5am by some drunkard stumbling into the room. That turned out to be me 🙋🏻♀️. Whoops.
Casa Kiwi is where I stayed for the majority of my trip (5 nights). It has a rooftop pool but it is tiny: to quote a roommate in my hostel dorm, “I’ve dipped chicken nuggets in bigger pots of ketchup than that pool.” Breakfast isn’t included (whereas for the same price, other hostels do) but the kitchen is pretty decent and it is opposite a supermarket. Casa Kiwi was very sociable with guests coming from other hostels to pre-drink on the deck. It was only a 2-minute walk from Happy Buddha, so exceptionally close to the main strip, but that 2-minute walk round the corner meant you got a quiet night sleep.
I met some interesting characters here, including ‘Theophile the Pedophile’. Theophile is a French name (apparently… I know, who looks at a baby in their arms and thinks, “I’ll call him Theophile”???). The dyslexic in me had a heart attack when I saw the name sticker on his bed. He turned out to be a bit perverse anyway, following me into the bathroom THREE times.
I actually need to make a mental note to stop finding foreign names funny. Especially Dutch names; I’ve so far met a Floor, two Freeks and a Thymen whilst traveling. They don’t really appreciate me giggling 🤷🏻♀️.
TIP: book a 6-bed dorm here and insist you’re on the upper floor. The ground floor has a 12-bed dorm and 1 6-bed dorm but they’re a bit dungeon-y. The upstairs rooms are much nicer. I was upstairs and didn’t even realise there was a downstairs until 2 days in… 😅
Other popular hostels include Tiger Hostel, Wandering Paisa and Purple Monkey. I heard so many good things about Purple Monkey that I almost gave it a go, but I was beginning to feel like the floating gypsy of Medellín so stayed put.
Eating out in Medellín (as a vegetarian/vegan) 🌱
El Poblado is brilliant for vegetarians and vegans. It was the first place that was actually easy for me to eat after a few days going hungry on the north coast (for the first time in my life I was actually annoyed that my clothes were baggy).
Note: El Poblado is more expensive to eat than in downtown Medellín: expect to pay on average 17,000 – 20,000 per meal without alcohol. If you choose to go to Carerra 70 and downtown it’ll be at least 5,000 Pesos cheaper but vegetarians and vegans should prepare themselves for the usual Latino affair of rice and beans.
FYI: you can drink the tap water in Medellín. It is free.
The Flip Flop Sandwich Shop 🍳
Great atmosphere and huge portions; I felt like Adam Richman from Man vs. Food trying to finish my omelette. I highly recommend here for a late breakfast, as you won’t want lunch! Although I’ll never say no to another plate of food… 🐷
Empanada Express 🥙
Or just any empanada shop, really: here are a tonne of them on Calle 10 between the main strip and El Poblado metro station. Vegetarian ones are hard to come across but a couple included cheese, cheese and potato and pure vegetables (which is also vegan). Expect to pay between 1,500 – 3,000 Pesos depending on the empanada, and ensure they’re freshly fried fritos frescos when ordering! Nobody wants a soggy empanada.
Bao Bei 🥟
A little expensive, but worth the hype. If you go here ensure you arrive at 6pm on the dot to reserve your spot, or else you could be waiting over 2h for a table. Service is slow but the food is delicious; I ordered a mushroom ramen and the vegetarian buns were also to die for.
Sumo Ramen 🍜
A half decent vegetarian ramen for only 11,000-15,000 Pesos depending on size – Medium was enough for me but I am a girl of only 5’2. You can have either a Miso or a Soy base for the liquid; I recommend Miso as Soy was far too salty.
Café Zorba 🍕
Their asparagus and white cheese pizza was the best pizza I’ve eaten outside of Italy, and I’ve eaten a LOT of pizza. Usually whilst hung-over and from Dominos, but that still counts right?
Masala Restaurant 🍛
Not the best curry I’d ever eaten, although how can one compare when one (dunno why I’ve gone so posh) has been to India and has been to Bradford to eat curry. It made a nice change from rice and beans or pizza. And who doesn’t love a cheeky curry?
Nightlife in Medellín
The two main places to frequent on a night out are El Poblado and around Carrera 70 (i.e. downtown). Most backpackers tend to stay around El Poblado and bar hop, there is also a couple of techno clubs (such as 9+1 if you get sick of reggaeton, which we did), a bar with a ball pit in the middle called La Octava (I almost drowned in this ball pit, but got a date out of it being the alluring creature that I am 😏) and a bar called Top Secret that doesn’t close until 10am! El Poblado also has its share of upmarket bars too if you don’t want a night of debauchery.
Although El Poblado is known as gringolandia there are plenty of locals around too if you fancy practicing your Spanish. When I’m drunk my confidence soars and suddenly I’m impeccable at Spanish, which is great for impressing cute backpackers. I’ve learnt a few lines. I’m not sure what happens in the daytime…
I also recommend going out around Carrera 70, where you can find plenty of salsa and reggaeton bars to hop between. It has much more of a local feel; the night I went was also a bank holiday and I partied till dawn with a group of locals. I was the only gringo in some bars: it was awesome! The only non-awesome thing was how much aguadiente I was forced to drink.
One of the locals I ended up out with kept trying to kiss me, so to avoid his advances I kept ducking. He then asked, “Why do you avoid me so much?” and I panicked and pretended I’d lost my earring. He then proceeded to help me find an imaginary earring and roped his friends into helping. It was quite embarrassing. He later said to me “no es su culpa – he estado en del norte de Europa y todo la gente son frío” which basically means he thinks that me and my fellow Europeans are cold. He has a point, but in England if a random sweaty bloke grabs you and presses himself against you to dance its assault!
TIP: drinking in El Poblado is not cheap. A mojito is between 14,000 – 20,000 Pesos. A 75cl bottle of rum from Exito is 30,000 Pesos and a bottle of Smirnoff is 50,000 Pesos. I suggest you pre-drink in the hostel if you’re on a tight budget!
Getting to Medellín 🚌 ✈️
A bus from Bogotá to Medellín takes 8-9 hours and a bus from Cartagena to Medellín takes 12-15 hours. The bus from Bogotá is around 60,000 Pesos and from Cartagena is 120,000 Pesos. If you book in advance you can get a flight for a similar price. The airport is about 1 hour away from Medellín central and airport taxis charge a flat rate of 65,000 Pesos. UBER is a bit cheaper.
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