One of my big goals for 2014 is to finally get to Colombia. It’s been on “the list” for a long time. Many of you have asked for information about the country, so today I turn the blog over to my friend Dave from Medellin Living. He traded his backpack for an apartment in the city. Dave gives us the ultimate list of things to do to one of the most popular destinations in Colombia.
Once dubbed “The Most Dangerous City in the World” by Time magazine due to the drug-fueled violence of Pablo Escobar, in the last 20 years Medellin has undergone a transformation. In addition to big improvements in public safety, there’s been a huge surge in urban development projects, including Colombia’s first metro system and cable cars to service poorer neighborhoods located high on the mountainsides, as well as new parks and libraries.
Now, Medellin is becoming one of the “it” cities in the world, with tons of tourists visiting and foreigners settling and retiring here.
Medellin is one of the few cities I’ve fallen in love with at first sight. Beautiful mountains, warm weather, friendly locals, and a vibrant culture are just a few of the reasons I’ve spent more than two years living in Medellin. And I’m here to show everyone that there are more than enough things to do to keep any visitor busy.
Plus, travel in Colombia continues to be an excellent bargain compared to other countries in South America. While it’s not as cheap as in Ecuador or Bolivia, your money will go a lot farther than it does in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, or Uruguay.
Explore the Numerous Parks and Plazas
The natural beauty and unique climate of Medellin is something to behold. Set 4,905 feet (1,495 meters) above sea level in a valley surrounded by tall green mountains, its close proximity to the Equator ensures constant spring-like temperatures year round.
The pleasant weather lends itself well to enjoying the dozens of parks and plazas to be found in and around the city. Each space offers its own unique design and personality, with all of them being excellent places to grab a seat and watch the locals go about their daily lives.
My favorite places include:
- Plaza Botero – Home to 23 of Fernando Botero’s larger-than-life sculptures, this plaza can be reached via the Parque Berrio metro station. Make sure to step inside the Museo de Antioquia, which faces the plaza. Entrance is free, and you can see paintings by Botero as well as other Latin artists.
- Parque Berrio – Across the street from Plaza Botero, this small park is always filled with juice vendors and local street performers playing traditional Colombian music.
- Jardin Botanico – Easily accessible from the Universidad metro station, the city’s botanical gardens host numerous events, concerts, and festivals throughout the year. Go here when you want a break from the city noise.
- Parque Explora – Across the street from Jardín Botánico, this complex features Latin America’s largest freshwater aquarium, as well as an outdoor park with interactive games demonstrating the laws of physics.
- Pueblito Paisa – A mock pueblo built atop Cerro Nutibarra, a small hill in the center of the valley. The hill offers terrific, near 360-degree views of the city. It’s about a 20-minute walk up from the Industriales metro station, or you can take a taxi.
- El Castillo Museo y Jardines – Inspired by the castles of the French Loire Valley, El Castillo was constructed in 1930. Admission to the property, which includes the gardens and a guided tour of the castle’s interior, costs 8,000 pesos ($4 USD). The easiest way to get there is by taxi.
- Parque Arvi – Escaping east over the mountains to one of the region’s largest nature reserves is as easy as jumping on the metro system. A regular ticket will take you as far as Santo Domingo. Once you exit the metro cable, buy another ticket for the separate metro cable that runs from Santo Domingo to Parque Arvi. The cost is 4,200 pesos ($2.20 USD).
Get Your Adrenaline Going
Medellín offers visitors a number of ways to get their adrenaline going, many of which offer spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
- Paragliding – This is one of the most popular tourist activities, especially amongst backpackers, thanks in part to dependable thermals and incredibly low prices. You’ll be hard pressed to beat 80,000 pesos ($41.50 USD) for a 15- to 20-minute tandem flight anywhere else in South America. The action takes place in the mountains north of the city, about an hour’s bus ride from the Caribe bus terminal. Flights are weather dependent, but otherwise available every day of the week from several companies.
- Mountain Biking and ATVs – Given the rugged topography, it should come as no surprise that there’s ample opportunity to go riding in and around the city. Whether you prefer mountain biking or ATVs, there are an increasing number of tour companies like Adventure Trails catering to foreign tourists, as well as Colombians.
- Soccer Matches – South America has a reputation for rambunctious fans, making soccer matches between Medellin’s two local teams, Atletico Nacional and Independiente Medellin a real spectacle. Supporters for each of the teams occupy bleachers at opposing ends of the stadium. They shout, and sing, and unfurl massive banners throughout the full 90 minutes. Ticket prices are well under 40,000 pesos ($20.75 USD), and even if you’re not a huge soccer fan, the experience can send shivers down your spine.
Pablo Escobar Tours
The legacy of Pablo Escobar is still a cause for division amongst residents of Medellin, with some people seeing the man in a positive light, while others do their best to relegate the violence of the 80s and early 90s to the history books.
Curiosity from foreign tourists, many of whom know nothing more of Medellin before they arrive than its association with Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, has led to a boom in Pablo Escobar tours.
A typical half-day tour will include visits to Monaco, the eight-story apartment building where the Cali Cartel detonated a car bomb in an assassination attempt, a visit to the building adjacent his final safe house where he was ultimately killed, and his family grave in the city of Itagui, south of Medellin.
Tours are available for as little as 42,000 pesos ($21.75 USD) per person through Zorba. All three sites can also be visited independently using a combination of the metro and taxis.
Take Salsa Lessons
Cali may be the salsa capital of Colombia, but there are plenty of dance studios in Medellin where you can learn salsa dancing and other Latin styles, including the bachata and tango.
Santo Baile specializes in Cali style salsa, and is run by Mayra Cutiva, a Cali native who’s been dancing and teaching salsa for 15 years. Under the tutelage of her and the other teachers, you can go from wallflower to “So You Think You Can Dance” in a few weeks.
Academia Baila Latino is another popular dance studio, specializing in LA and Cuban-style salsa, including salsa casino.
The cost of one-hour private lessons has risen in recent years, but it’s still a bargain by Western standards. Expect to pay between 40,000 to 50,000 pesos ($20.75-25.95 USD) per hour, with discounts for purchasing four or eight hours at a time. If you want to spend less, sign up for group classes.
Both studios host regular dance parties for students and their friends and partners, thereby allowing them another venue beyond the city’s bars and dance clubs for showing off their new moves.
Sample the World’s Best Coffee
Colombia is one of the world’s top coffee producers, therefore it’s every visitor’s duty to sit down and enjoy a cup.
Oddly, for a country so highly respected for its coffee, Colombians don’t seem to have a huge coffee culture. Sure, you’ll see it available everywhere, from vendors selling little cups on the street to small shops and restaurants, but for the most part, they aren’t selling the country’s higher quality, export-grade coffee.
To assure yourself of a quality cup, there are a few places you can go. First and foremost, the Juan Valdez Cafes are Colombia’s version of Starbucks. They offer delicious coffee, pastries, and free Wi-Fi. In 2014, Starbucks is finally going to begin making its way into the Colombian market, starting in Bogotá and eventually expanding to 50 cafes nationwide.
If you prefer indie coffee shops, head to Pergamino Cafe in Parque Lleras. Since opening in 2012, it has received rave reviews from travelers and expats and has attracted a strong Colombian clientele too. Pergamino has free Wi-Fi, and they recently finished an expansion.
Discover Colombian Food
I like to poke fun at Colombian food for its lack of spices, but the truth is I’ve discovered quite a few meals I enjoy here.
More importantly, I’ve tried to find the best restaurants in Medellin, where you too can sample authentic Colombian dishes. Beyond the food, these places all have excellent atmosphere and service as well.
- Brasarepa – Located in Envigado, a city just south of Medellin, Brasarepa serves up typical Colombian dishes in an unpretentious setting. The restaurant was featured in Anthony Bourdain’s 2008 Colombia episode of No Reservations. Lunch here will run you about 10,000 pesos ($5 USD).
- Hato Viejo – This restaurant started out with a downtown location over 30 years ago and continues to go strong. Try the bandeja paisa, a signature dish from the region, which includes spicy ground meat, pork cracklings, fried egg, fried plantains, refried beans, rice, avocado, and a small side salad. Entrees average 20,000 pesos ($10.40 USD).
- Ajiaco’s y Mondongo’s – Ajiaco is a potato-based soup with shredded white meat chicken, corn, capers, avocado, and cream. It’s originally from Bogotá but is available throughout Colombia. The cost here is 15,200 pesos ($7.90 USD). For the adventurous, try the mondongo (tripe soup).
- Marmoleo – For a unique dining experience and some of the best steak (imported from the USA) in the city, check out Marmoleo. Entrees run from 30,000 to 50,000 pesos ($15.50-25.90 USD), making it the costliest restaurant on the list. They also hold special events, including horse parades and fashion shows.
- Queareparenamorarte – Also featured in the 2008 Colombia episode of No Reservations, this restaurant is actually located about an hour outside of Medellin in Rio Negro. At 28,000 pesos ($14.55 USD), the average cost of an entree is on the expensive side, but the food is well worth the pilgrimage. I recommend the Cazuela de Pescado, a filet of fish served over rice with a sour orange sauce, onions, sweet peppers, tomatoes, limoncillo, and cilantro.
As they say in Colombia, Buen Provecho!
How to Party Like a Local
Medellin balances the feel of a small pueblo in the mountains with the vivaciousness of a major Latin American city. The nightlife options are limited early in the week, but the activity in bars and dance clubs slowly begins to pick up pace on Thursday nights thanks to a few popular ladies’ nights. Friday is big, and by Saturday everything is hopping.
The local firewater, and favorite drink amongst the locals, is called aguardiente, or guaro for short. It’s clear, anise-flavored liquor traditionally consumed as a shot, but don’t be surprised if you see locals drinking straight from the bottle too. It’s often chased with water or soda.
Another locally produced liquor is Ron Medellin Anejo. This rum is widely available and taken straight, on the rocks, or with ginger ale or Sprite. Colombians prefer their aguardiente and rum straight, saying it doesn’t produce as big a hangover the next day if you skip the soda.
There are tons of places to go out at night, but the epicenter of nightlife in Medellin is Parque Lleras, a dense collection of restaurants, bars, and dance clubs situated around a little tree-filled park in the upscale Poblado neighborhood. Within a few minutes walk from most of the city’s hostels and many hotels and apartment rentals, it couldn’t be easier to find a restaurant or bar to your liking.
Beyond Parque Lleras, there are plenty of other places to kick up your heels. Here are just a few of my favorites to get you started:
- El Eslabon Prendido – Located downtown, El Eslabon is a salsa bar known for its live music on Tuesday nights. The cover charge is only a few thousand pesos (one or two dollars).
- Dulce Jesus Mio – This is a typical fonda club, which is to say it’s a caricature of the typical bars found in rural pueblos. During the weekends, the cover charge is 15,000 pesos ($7.80 USD). If you’re a guy, they may not let you in unless you’re accompanied by a girl.
- Luxury – Looking for a place that only plays reggaeton? A 10,000 peso cover ($5.20 USD) gets you access to this popular club.
- Patio del Tango – One of the city’s few remaining milongas (tango bars) and a great place to grab dinner and a show on the weekends. There’s no cover charge, but they do have a 30,000 pesos ($15.55 USD) minimum for food and drinks per person.
- Sixttina – Located on the seventh floor of the Rio Sur mall, Sixttina plays crossover music and often hosts live shows with top reggaeton singers. Cover is 20,000 pesos ($10.40 USD), but for just 5,000 pesos ($2.60 USD) more, your ticket is also good for the adjacent Kukaramakara club, which features live music.
- Son Havana – Currently the best salsa bar in the city. Go on Thursdays and Saturdays for live music. Entry is free on Wednesdays, otherwise the cover charge is between 5,000 to 10,000 pesos ($2.60 to $5.20).
Visit Nearby Pueblos
No trip to Medellin is complete without a visit to at least one or two pueblos. These small towns offer middle- to upper-income Colombians the chance to escape the city’s noise and craziness every weekend. Many locals own or rent fincas (country homes) in pueblos and the surrounding countryside.
Guatape is a colorful pueblo located about two hours by bus from Medellin. It can easily be visited as a long day trip, either independently (it’s safe) or as part of an organized tour. A one-way bus ticket costs about 8,000 pesos ($4.15 USD).
Guatape is situated on the edge of a lake, and it’s possible to take tours of the surrounding area by speed boat or party boat. You’ll see more with the former, including the remains of one of Pablo Escobar’s former homes.
A 15-minute rickshaw ride from Guatape is El Penol, a granite monolith with over 700 concrete stairs etched in its side. For a few thousand pesos (a few dollars), visitors can climb to the top for breathtaking 360-degree views of the region. Rock climbing is also an option, if you prefer a challenge.
Santa Fe de Antioquia became the first capital of the department of Antioquia all the way back in 1584. Santa Fe can be reached within an hour by bus, and due to its lower elevation, it’s noticeably warmer.
And as if this list isn’t long enough to keep you busy, there are a dozen or so festivals in Medellin each year, celebrating everything from Christmas lights and flowers to salsa, tango, jazz, and poetry.
Backpackers and budget travelers who take advantage of the local transport, eat like a local, and don’t go overboard with their partying can experience the city for as little as $40 a day. Add a few nicer restaurants, salsa lessons, or a tour or two, and budgets should be increased to $55-60 USD a day.
Medellin may lack big landmarks like you’ll find in Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires, but spend a little time here, and you may find the spring weather, mountain views, helpful locals, and relaxed pace of life hard to leave. Combined with the low cost of travel and living, it’s no wonder more and more foreigners are deciding not only to visit Medellin, but to live and retire here too.
David Lee is the editor and founder of two popular travel blogs: Go Backpacking and Medellin Living. He is also author of the Medellin Travel Guide: Insider Advice from an American Expat in Colombia.