Medellin is a very special place, to say the least. The 2nd most populated city in Colombia and the capital of the Antioquia department, it only vaguely resembles its counterparts Bogotá, Cali or Barranquilla. Scratch under the surface of brick-coloured hills and bodies lying on the pavements and you will surely get a different feeling. Medellin has risen from its terrible past to become the safest, friendliest and most innovative city in Colombia. Of course, alongside the colourful graffiti the city is famous for, not everything is pink. But there is a vibrant life and a city charm that get many tourists to fall in love with Medellin.
We wanted to rest and spend time in Medellin before flying home – and we never regretted it!
We’ve been very lucky with Couchsurfing everywhere in South America. And so were we for the final stop of our trip. Robinson is a teacher originally from the Northern coast of Colombia, he moved to Medellin 10 years ago. He loves the varied folklore from all the regions of his country and dances in a folk group. In fact, he spent time showing us videos of different dances and explaining us their origins and their meanings. And what more, Robinson is also very interested in social programmes. So he could tell us loads.
To travel off-the-beaten path, it’s also to see things with a different eye. We at Green Mochila don’t want to play the violence card all over again when it comes to Medellin. We’ve read too much about that already and hope this post gives you a new perspective.
Why spend more time in Medellin (than anywhere else in Colombia)?
- An integrated public transportation, which includes the only subway network in Colombia, one of the few tramways and the only cable cars network:
It connects many areas of the city (but definitely not all), helping the poorer barrios up the hills in their development. It’s modern, safe, and so clean that the residents speak of “cultura metro“, the ‘subway culture’; meaning that no one would damage, tag or even litter the public transport. There was a time when Medellin was in turmoil after one single tag was found in a metro car! Whoever lives in London, New York or Paris can not properly picture the subway of Medellin.
- A better public transportation means…wait for it…less traffic:
Yes! If you’ve been travelling anywhere in South America for a while, you surely know what I mean. Less noise, slightly less pollution, but still that nasty sensation that you’re risking your life every time you cross the street.
- Social programmes in poor neighbourhoods:
Since they defeated the biggest drug lords in the 1990’s, the city council has improved a lot the situation of the poorer barrios. They got many of them out of poverty and of their dependence on the gangs and the guerrillas. Since then, different programmes have been teaching music to ex-gang members (‘swap a gun for an instrument’); investing in infrastructures in what used to be no-go zones; involving neighbours in the development of their area (read about it in the “Green areas” section), etc.
- Charming local neighbourhoods:
Most towns in Colombia are made of: a trendy area where the museums, bars and tours are; a posh neighbourhood with high-class shopping and restaurants; and the rest, oscillating on a spectrum between ‘uninteresting’ and ‘unsafe’. Medellin is the only town where we saw a different feature, and one that we always enjoy on our travels – residential neighbourhoods with a local charm and no risk.
- Genuinely friendly people:
Honestly, we weren’t mesmerised by Colombians’ friendliness. Maybe our expectations were too high, based on stereotypes and on what many travellers told us. We expected more from the Caribbean coast, thinking that a warm climate often breeds warm people. Until we asked someone who revealed it to us: wait until you spend time in Medellin. And so it was. Medellinenses might not be the loudest or the most colourful in Colombia, but they’re usually chatty, friendly and very helpful.
- A LOT of green areas
Now, this is a significant departure from many other towns: Medellin boasts of many parks and green squares. You will often find one every 4 or 5 blocks. In residential neighbourhoods, many of those will also offer sports facilities and a public library. On the contrary to asphalt jungles like Bogotá, Medellin uses plants and trees on their roundabouts and on their wide avenues. It doesn’t seem like much but you come to miss those…
Chill time: green areas in Medellin
On the evening of our arrival, Robinson, our host, walked us around his neighbourhood. The evening air was warm and many people were outside, eating, doing sport, playing games. Or simply sitting outside of their door and chatting with their neighbours.
Besides the great many squares full of local life and trees, Medellin also offers some green highlights for when you have time to chill.
Arví is the most famous and also the biggest park around town. It’s located 30 km away from Medellin so you’ll need a bus or the cable car to get there. It’s divided in 2 main parts, managed by 2 different entities offering different experiences. The “Parque Piedras Blancas” belongs to Comfenalco; the bigger, wilder part with 2 ecological areas is managed by Comfama.
You’ll find more information on prices, what to do in Parque Arví and how to get there on their websites linked above.
Parque de los Pies Descalzos
One of the cutest parks in Medellin, probably in the country, is Parque de los Pies Descalzos. The official aim of the “Barefoot Park” is to bring a zen atmosphere to the centre of the city. Located in the administrative area of Medellin, where time is scarce, it counts with 2 foot-baths, a bamboo wood, a sand area and a zen garden that you can enjoy barefoot.
You will see many families on the weekend and children playing around. Time passes by in such a friendly atmosphere that gives a meaning to Medellin’s nickname “The City of Eternal Spring“!
For your central green, head over to Parque Berrío. A real city park with the usual urban animals: sellers, hobos, tourists, street musicians… It was the main square in the old times where important events, public masses and hangings took place.
Just a cigarette butt’s throw away from the central Parque de las Estatuas, it’s an ideal resting spot after a long session at the Museum of Antioquia, or before an event in the Palace of Culture (more about these places further). Keep an eye on your belongings.
The Botanical Garden is a must-see. It showcases a great collection of habitats from the different climates of the country. But at the same time its many benches and picnic areas makes it rather informal. The free entrance probably adds to that.
It will therefore bring you from the “palm trees field” to the “rain forest”, from the lake full of turtles and iguanas to the “desert” micro-climate in a friendly local atmosphere. It doesn’t have the “open-air museum” formality of many of its counterparts. Or is it just me thinking that of botanical gardens..?
The Jardín circumvalar is on the outskirts of Medellin, in what used to be a dangerous barrio uphill. It is one of the beautiful programmes the city has organised to improve life conditions in its neighbourhoods. It converted a dark and dodgy area into a lovely eco-park, with the ideas and the help of the residents; a plaque lists their names at the entrance.
Take a bus with direction “los Tubos“. From there it’s a short walk to the entrance and then a steep ascent if you want to reach the “JARDIN” writing. If you have time, push even further up until the monument for one of the best views on Medellin.
A city learning from its past
In 1991, Medellin was awarded the terrible reputation of Most Violent City in the World, with 6809 homicides throughout the year. The city remained for 50 years the playing field of drug cartels, guerrillas, paramilitary and the occasional police raid.
Most of it is over now, and as we already said, the city is working hard on rising back. But the institutions know, and the inhabitants know, that understanding the past is the key to their future.
The House of Memory Museum
This is precisely the task taken on by the Museo Casa de la Memoria (“House of Memory Museum“). The well-curated exhibition explains with different media the story of the violence, but also the efforts of the population and the hopes for the future. There are poetical explanations in Spanish, English & French.
At the end of the visit we felt a mix of terror from what happened, and amazement for the courage of the people. We can’t recommend it enough. As Robinson told us: “Everyone who wants to understand Medellin should spend time in that museum”. Plus, the entrance is free.
Another important visit during your stay in Medellin is the Comuna 13. But not for the graffiti. I mean, yeah sure, the graffiti are cool. But the history of the place, and to see what it’s become, will bring you closer to truly understanding Colombia.
You can take the metro to San Javier station, then walk 15 minutes to the area. You’ll recognise it, it’s that place with an electric elevator and 10 thousands people taking photos. Or you can take a Graffiti Tour; donation-based guides will hail you outside the metro station. Or you can take a tour with Paola at Veci Tours and let your mind be blown.
We actually learnt very little from Paola about the famous graffiti of Comuna 13. Her tour is a ‘Social Tour’ of the barrio. So she told us about the dramatic times but also many anecdotes of the present times. How the area has changed but also how the local drug mafia will come over this evening after the tourists have gone to collect their percentage. The harsh reality of a poor neighbourhood in a big city…
It is an essential tour which includes a visit to the FARC headquarters. The ex-guerrilla fighters have dropped the weapons only recently to try and change their country democratically. And they’re very eager for the world to know, so we’ll do our bit. We had the opportunity to meet 2 of their members – a separate post will come on that topic.
During a scenic ride on the cable car, Robinson mentioned two films we should watch to understand Medellin: Our Lady of the Assassins (2000, originally a novel); The Rose Seller (1998). We haven’t seen them yet, but if you have, please drop us a comment at the bottom.
Culture all the time in Medellin
Museum of Antioquia
If you like spending time in museums like we do, you’ll get your kick in Medellin! Despite the Casa de la Memoria museum, you shouldn’t miss the Museum of Antioquia. It showcases colonial and religious art, pieces by modern and contemporary international artists, and by many Colombian artists.
It will introduce you to other nationally acclaimed artists such as Antonio Caro and Pedro Nel Gómez (who contributed in particular no less than 11 impressive murals). Entrance is at 18,000 pesos and it stands on the…
Plaza de las Estatuas
That wide leafy square close to Parque Berrio metro station contains 23 sculptures created and donated by Fernando Botero, a native of Medellin. It is a touristy area, but also full of local life. Ideal to watch people, like we did several times with some of the cheap and greasy doughnuts the city is full of. Not many arepas in Medellin, but a whole lot of buñuelos!
You can find there street sellers, old men sitting on benches, young girls working, business people from the nearby offices, pickpockets, etc. The 23 large sculptures don’t feel crammed on that large area. They’re ideally scattered along the alleyways, under the trees, around the beautiful…
Read our article about Fernando Botero on DailyArt Magazine
Palacio de la Cultura
You simply cannot miss that majestic black-and-white Gothic palace. The entrance is free so have a look inside, you won’t regret it! The architecture is stunning; there are art exhibitions; panels describing the history and construction of the building; free film projections in its cupola, a nice view from its rooftop terrace; and free toilet in the backyard (you’ll thank me for that!).
Check for free events! It’s Anna’s speciality to look online for events every time we arrive to a new city. Medellin – just like Quito for example – is surprisingly full of free events. From film projections to language exchanges to dance classes, we’re sure you’ll find something to spice up your evenings in the city. One tip though: if the event is at night, ask before if the area is safe and how to get back.
Science time in Medellin
Explora Park is located in what is called Parque de la Innovacion. It’s an interactive science museum including South America’s largest freshwater aquarium. It contains over 300 interactive attractions, as well as a 3D auditorium, planetarium, television studio, and a vivarium. A paradise for small and big children! Adjacent to it is the Parque de los Deseos, a square more than a park, with food vendors, art galleries and a music house.
Walking down the street in the direction of the Bolivar square, I realised that everybody around spoke Spanish. Duh! I’m in Colombia. But living in Berlin, the Babel of Europe, I’m used to hearing at least 4 different languages at any given time. A mere 100 km away, crossing the border, and everyone sounds like they’re out of an episode of Star Trek (just joking Poland, your language sounds great!).
What different expectations you must have when you live on a continent where you can travel 10,000 km and still be able to speak your everyday language! No effort to make, no frustration from not fully being yourself. Just a little fun at hearing different accents. I wonder if I’d be so much into languages if I wasn’t born in Europe…
Learn with us typical words & expressions in Colombian Spanish
Meanwhile, in Medellin, where everybody speaks Spanish. Actually, if your ear is fine-tuned enough (or if you walk around with a local), you can hear differences. Our ears are certainly not fine enough, but Robinson and many others before him tell us. The juggler on the square is from Argentina. The family asking for money at the streetlights comes from Venezuela. The restaurant waiter is Peruvian and the girl selling her craft is a Spaniard. “Yes, I heard that”. Even Anna, who’s only been learning Spanish on the trip, could recognise the Spanish accent.
The Medellinenses have an accent of their own. Not as hurried as on the Caribbean, and not a resounding mess like in Cali. It’s actually quite understandable and soft-sounding.
The population of Medellin originates in the industrious Paisa people, considered to be a separate ethnic group. An intricate mix of male Spaniards and Jews and female Indigenous, they extended to what is now the Colombian Coffee region. Their hard work probably made it what it is today. In fact, many national companies originate from the department of Antioquia and belong to Paisa families.
The Paisa are also very proud of their traditions and do much to keep them alive. You’ll get an idea of these traditions in the “Pueblito Paisa“, a reproduction of an old village at the top of Cerro Nutibara. Also by catching a bus from the northern station to the real villages of Santa Fe de Antioquia or Santa Elena, the flower-making village close to Parque Arví. Also by ordering the typical heavy meal served in every restaurant, the “bandeja Paisa“.
Juan Valdez, the infamous brand logo of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, wears the typical Paisa outfit, with the white poncho, the hat and the moustache. You’ll see many of those in real life in Medellin, and even more in the Coffee Region.
Read more: Our Visit to a Coffee Producer in the Coffee Region
The safety in Medellin
To say that Medellin is completely safe nowadays would be as wrong as saying it’s still the dangerous drug capital of yore. Drug trade is still very present, along with the violence that usually goes with it. Therefore some neighbourhoods are better left alone – but these are usually on the outskirts.
Most parts of the broader centre are really safe to walk during the day. The only dodgy-looking zone is, ironically, around the cathedral. That’s where tramps, drug addicts and prostitutes gather, in a modern version of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It’s very busy during the day so nothing should happen, but we have been advised not to cross it after nightfall.
Neighbourhoods of Medellin that are worth your time
Let me tell you straight away: El Poblado isn’t part of this list of our favourite neighbourhoods. It will sound probably strange but we haven’t even set foot there. Because we used Couchsurfing and because we prefer exploring to partying, we simply didn’t need to go.
El Poblado is Medellin’s nightlife and tourists hub. That district full of hostels, bars & clubs, is temporary home to many travellers; and, at least for some of them, probably the only area they’ll get to know in town. It’s a shame! The city has a lot to offer in terms of local charm and identity. So here come our favourites neighbourhoods in Medellin.
You will need good legs to walk around Medellin! The city is built on seven hills (“cerros“) so it’s not uncommon to go very steeply up before having to go back down at the next block.
We ventured to Manrique Oriental on the day of Saint Anne; we wanted to celebrate Anna’s name day by visiting the church of Santa Ana. But don’t think we are religious: all we wanted was a symbol. We arrived just before its midday closing and celebrated our success with an ice cream at a nearby cafeteria.
We didn’t expect much from Manrique Oriental, didn’t even look up its name before setting off. That’s probably why we liked it so much: a very comfortable barrio full of local life. Narrow squares shaded by exotic trees, children walking up the streets in their school uniform. Also little bars with smiling old men at the terrace and restaurants selling their fried stuff. And because of its elevated position, at every corner a view on the city.
Hard to describe Manrique Oriental. That neighbourhood is a feeling. You know what? Go and see it for yourself.
The Prado neighbourhood is among the oldest in town. So much so that Medellin has listed it “architectural heritage” in 2006. It’s like a Medellin stuck in time. True enough, it cannot compete with historical areas of many European cities. But still, it’s a pleasure to walk around and look at some beautiful facades.
There aren’t many cafés or chill places, but a couple of strange buildings, to say the least. The Egyptian Palace is clearly one of them, and you can visit it with a guided tour or during one of its events.
Ciudad del Rio
This is the part of the city which is along the Medellin river, between the centre and El Poblado. It’s a bit of a hipster area with trendy “Mercado del Rio” market hall, full of cafés and restaurants. The Modern Art Museum is there too, and expensive street food and drinks sellers. The only place where they asked 4500 pesos for an arepa!
This barrio is the native place of Fernando Botero, but today it strikes especially for its modern flare and its comfortable pace. It’s a neighbourhood of bars and cafés, of small shops and lively squares. Very close to where we were staying, we felt good in Boston and we’re sure you’d feel good too.
We’ll be honest, we didn’t fall in love with Colombia, like many other travellers did. It was the final destination of our 11-month trip, so probably we were tired of travelling. Having to stay on our guards all the time surely weighed on the balance too. We preferred other countries in South America, for various reasons. But for sure we were very happy to finish that wonderful trip in such a friendly and vibrant city.
For an additional insight, we strongly recommend Mark’s post on Why he fell in love with Medellin.
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