Ah Medellín. The second largest city in Colombia. Quite possibly the most well known city in the country. Due to its size, it can really be overwhelming. But in the end, I loved it. That was really surprising since I am not very fond of huge cities in general.
First, a bit of clarification on how to pronounce the name of the city. Elsewhere in Colombia I didn’t notice it, but once I arrived in Medellin I realized that Colombians pronounce two L’s (LL) as “J“, which is different from most Spanish speaking countries where they pronounce two L’s as “Y”. So yeah, if you want to blend in you’d have to pronounce it as “Medejin“.
So what is this city known for? Thanks to Netflix and Narcos, the city is mostly associated these days with Pablo Escobar. In fact if you inquire about tours, you’ll be informed that the Pablo Escobar tours are the most popular ones. If you’re interested in these tours, then go for it. Just don’t go walking around asking random locals about these tours or anything related to Pablo Escobar. Because the hate him. I repeat, they hate Pablo Escobar. The really really hate him. And they hate the fact that the first thing that comes to mind when people hear Medellin is Pablo Escobar. And if you keep on mentioning his name and keep asking about him, I’m pretty sure the locals would end up hating you too. In fact when you go on one of these tours, the guides would go about it discreetly. The locals hate seeing tour guides making money out of that one person that they hate.
I didn’t need to worry about this though because I wasn’t interested in joining any of those Pablo tours.There’s enough to see in Medellin, the variety of sights kept me busy for days.
If you’re staying in a hostel you’ll most probably be staying at El Poblado. It’s one of the best neighborhoods in the city. There are lots of restaurants and bars in the area, though these are quite pricey— understandable since this area mostly caters to tourists. Houses here also seem to be more upscale. I’ve been told it’s possibly the safest area in Medellin, which is probably why most hostels are here. You can’t have drunken backpackers walking around in a dangerous area after all. I can’t say for certain that it’s 100% safe here, but after a night of drinking I often walked back to the hostel alone in the wee hours of the morning and I never felt unsafe. If you’re traveling on a budget you don’t have to break the bank as long as you refrain from eating out. There are a number of grocery stores nearby so as long as you stay in a hostel with kitchen facilities you can save a lot of money by cooking your own meals.
If you’re arriving at the airport, the cheapest way to get here is to take a Flota Rio Negro mini bus to Terminal del Norte. A single journey tickets costs 6,000 COP (less than 2 USD). From Terminal Del Norte you just have to walk to the Caribe Metro Station which is right outside. From here ride the metro to El Poblado Station. The amount you have to pay depends on the distance. To El Poblado, you’d pay the smallest amount— 2,750 COP (about 80 US cents).
Buses coming from the north and east of the country would drop you off at Terminal Del Norte. As I’ve stated above, from here it’s easy to head elsewhere since there’s a Metro Station right outside. If you’re coming from the South of the country though you’d be dropped off at the Terminal Del Sur. From here the nearest metro station is the El Poblado Station itself, which is a little over a mile away. It’s within walking distance, but if you’re carrying heavy bags it might be too tiring to walk. There are plenty of taxis outside though, and you’d be charge around 10,000 to 12,000 pesos to get to El Poblado. I’d advise trying to book a ride with an Uber first— this would usually cost around 7,000 COP.
The metro in Medellin is very efficient. It’s well maintained and fairly new. I was mainly taking the metro when I was exploring the city. One of the city’s popular attractions is actually part of the public transport system. I’m talking about the Metro Cable.
What makes Medellin unique is the topography. Districts are interspersed between numerous hills. Just pick any district located on the hills and you’d be rewarded by marvelous views. I’d advise heading to the districts that are accessible via the metro cable. There are actually 3 Metro Cable lines— Lines K, J, and H. I’d recommend taking line K since it connects to Parque Arvi.
To reach the Metro Cable line K, simply hop on the Metro and get off at Acevedo Station. Line K connects here. Since it’s part of the metro system, you don’t have to pay an additional fee as long as you don’t get off at any station prior to Acevedo. There are 3 stops: Andalucia, Popular, and Santo Domingo. If you have time I’d recommend stopping by each one and look around. These places aren’t notable per se, but walking around these neighborhoods would give you insights on how the locals live. At the end of Line K, there’s a walkway that connects to line L which brings passengers to Parque Arvi. You’d have to pay an additional 6,000 COP each way though. Parque Arvi is a huge national park on top of the hills and you’d see the most remarkable views of the city from here. You can easily spend an entire day here. Entrance to the park itself is free, but you’d have to pay to gain access to certain trails which cost anywhere from 12,000 COP to 25,000 COP (2.50-7.50 USD) for tourists. As always it’s way cheaper if you’re a local.
The city center of Medellin also boasts some interesting sites. A popular one is Plaza Botero. Fernando Botero is a Colombian artist known for his uh— “huge” sculptures. The museum boasts magnificent architecture, and in the park in front of it you’ll see a number of Botero‘s work. This part of the city is bursting with activity during the day, but it’s best to avoid being here at night. I know there are lots of instances when people exaggerate about the risks and dangers of certain places, but the fact that even the locals refrain from heading to this area once the sun sets makes me believe that there’s some truth to the warnings. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.
My favorite part of the city is Comuna 13. It used to be the most dangerous part of the city with a very high homicide rate. it used to be controlled by gangs and drug lords. In 2002, a lot of its residents were caught in the crossfire when the government tried to clean up this part of the city. Considering its violent and tragic history, I was amazed by how much it has changed. Comuna 13 boasts of remarkable street art– a perfect backdrop to the number of locals performing on the streets. There’s always a huge crowd watching various locals sing, dance, and play instruments. The series of escalators are also quite an attraction. These provide some contrast to the surrounding neighborhood that retains its local charm. The entire district is lively and bursting with activity thanks in part to the number of tourists walking around. You’ll also see lots of small shops where locals make an honest living. Those home made ice pops are to die for and dirt cheap. It’s easy to get here. Simply hop on the Metro and get off at the San Javier station on the Metro Line B. from here you can walk for about 20-30 minutes. If you’re too tired to walk, just hop on a mini bus with a sign saying “escaleras electricas” on the front. A lot of these small buses stop in front of the metro station and wait for passengers. These buses will drop you off at the foot of the hill close to the first escalator. A single journey ticket only costs 2,200 COP.
Since it’s a huge city that is popular with tourists, as expected the nightlife is insane. El Poblado has a number of bars, but I found them pretty chill. The better ones are about a 15 minute walk away. Close to Parque Lleras there are a number of bars and clubs and most travelers seem to flock to this area. On Fridays and Saturdays, people usually stay at these bars and clubs until around two in the morning and then transfer to either Top Secret or Fahrenheit. Both clubs are far from El Poblado— we had to take an Uber. The fare was around 30,000 COP— kinda pricey, good thing there were four of us so we only paid around 8,000 COP each. These are huge clubs that don’t open until past midnight and they remain open until morning. On that one weekend that I was in Medellin, Fahrenheit was open until past 7 AM the next day, while Top Secret was open until 11 AM lol. Although you’d be tempted to wait until these clubs get packed, I’d advise to go a bit early. On Saturday we arrived at Fahrenheit at 2:30 in the morning and there was a long line outside. We weren’t able to get in until past 3:30 AM.
Now to the address the elephant in the room. Medellin is popular because of Pablo Escobar. That also means Medellin is somewhat unfairly associated with illicit drugs. Is it really prevalent? Well I didn’t see people snorting coke left and right, but I’ve met more locals randomly trying to sell me coke and weed in Medellin compared to other places in Colombia... but maybe it’s because there are so many tourists in the city, and many of them are specifically looking for coke and weed. One funny thing happened at one of the clubs I went to by the way. The bouncer was giving small packets of coke upon entry, I kid you not. I guess instead of having one drink included in the price of admission, you get one packet of cocaine. lol.
Though I’m not fond of huge cities, I loved the time I spent in Medellin. It has enough qualities that makes it unique and enables it to stand out from others. In Spite of its size, it retains its charm and local color. Medellin is not one of those generic modern cities. For anyone who wants to experience local culture, it’s one city that I’d recommend.