24 Mar Our 5 Favorite Things About Medellín, Colombia
Medellín, Colombia is quickly becoming a hub for expats, entrepreneurs, and digital nomads in South America. During our recent stay in the city, we were really impressed.
Though our intended month-long stay was cut short due to a family emergency, we still discovered a few of the best things Medellín has to offer. Turns out that nine days was enough to confirm that we made a good choice visiting Medellín! This post shares the top reasons why we loved it.
10 Reasons why we went to Medellín in the first place
People frequently ask us how we choose the places we visit. In the past, we’ve written generally about our rationale and strategy for choosing digital nomad destinations. Here’s why Medellín came to the top of our list this year:
1. While in Ecuador, we met numerous travelers who raved about Medellin – and Colombia in general
2. It’s a beautiful city with a nice metro and all the amenities you could need
3. It’s a Digital Nomad hot spot
4. The country strives to make their history of drugs, crime, and war just that: history
5. Internet is decent
6. Weather is great. It’s nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring.
7. Cost of living is affordable
8. We can practice our Spanish there
9. Some nomad friends were planning to be in town around the same time
10. There is nice hiking and day trips nearby
Medellín Top 5
These are just five of the reasons we’ve grown to appreciate this place:
1. A City Transformed
Colombia gets a bad rap. I can’t tell you how many people back home referenced the show “Narcos” – a TV series featuring the infamous Pablo Escobar – when we mentioned that we were heading to Medellín. True, Colombia has suffered economic woes, guerilla warfare, drug trafficking, crime, and civil unrest for decades. Conflict peaked in the 90’s, cementing news headlines of these horrors in the memories of the global public.
Today, things are different.
At the turn of the century, a newly elected president started investing aggressively in the country’s infrastructure and development. This paved the way for the progress and security that Colombia’s citizens – and over 4 million visitors a year – now enjoy. More recently, negotiations are on track to finish disbanding the guerilla group (FARC) in exchange for participation in congress, development of rural areas, and a peaceful resolution to years of fighting.
Medellín has gone from one of the most dangerous cities in the world, to being recognized as one of the most innovative. According to our Real City Tours guide (more on that below), the transformation owes its success to two key strategies:
- Democratic architecture – The city targeted poor, high-crime areas to revamp unsafe public spaces. The main square, pictured above, was once one of the more dangerous areas of downtown. The city transformed it into a beautiful, open park with a series of pillars that illuminate the area at night. Below, the former Palace of Justice was saved from ruin through a contract with a shopping center that ensured the historic building was restored and preserved.
- Education with dignity – Development efforts also focused on supporting education. Low income neighborhoods received their own combination library/community center/parks. These new facilities provided a safe, friendly place to foster learning and build up the communities. As for school fees, the amount residents pay is adjusted based on the economic status of the neighborhood where they live.
The people of Medellín – known as paisas – are well known in Colombia for being enterprising. Businesses large and small are popping up in this international hub of entrepreneurship.
Our first impression of Medellín was that it was even more developed than we expected. There is a wide variety of restaurants and cafes, plenty of gyms, malls, public transit, etc. Our neighborhood of Laureles even had a few reasonably priced health-food restaurants, with options for vegetarians (a rare occurrence in the “developing” world).
We stayed in an Airbnb condo near the trendy Laureles neighborhood. We paid less than $20 a day for a small but complete place with kitchen, hot water, good wifi, and a washing machine.
Although we weren’t eating much dessert on this trip, we did splurge at one of Medellín’s long-standing sweet spots, Reposteria Astor. Chocolate cake, mil hojas, and cafe con leche totaled about $5.50. It’s always nice when you can treat yourself on a budget!
The Sunday bike-ways program is another thing we absolutely love about Medellín. They close down multiple, major streets to traffic and thousands of people come out to walk, jog, bike, or blade. The fact that this happens every single Sunday morning and holiday (plus weekday evenings in a couple locations) – is such a positive, healthy tradition!
We experienced something similar – though on a smaller scale – in Merida, Mexico. Both cities include separate areas for young children to get instruction on riding a bicycle. In Medellín, the weekly event is called Ciclovías, and we highly recommend participating if you’re in town on a Sunday.
We started walking Avenida Poblado around 7am until we found bicycle rentals. Then we continued by bike down to the Envigado area, where a lively group was doing a Zumba dance work out in the main square. Along the route, you can always pull over at a fresh juice vendor or a cafe to stop and people-watch. In most areas, the roads stay closed until 1pm.
3. Real City Walking Tours
The Real City Walking Tour came highly recommended from our friends, Troy and Dorene. We’ve enjoyed every single free walking tour that we’ve tried around the world and this was no exception. This 4-hour tour goes above and beyond, so make sure to bring a tip for your guide.
Our guide was a former professor and did an amazing job at breaking down the history and politics of Medellín in an easy-to-follow and unbiased way. As the company’s name implies, the tour is all about the real Medellín, not just the nicest places. They talk about the good and the bad – the rough history and the monumental transformations. As you walk through downtown, they do an excellent job of preparing you to experience the city in a safe and respectful way.
For anyone visiting Medellín for the first time, this is hands down the best introduction to the city I can imagine. Don’t leave town without doing it!
4. Getting Around With Ease
While big cities are typically not our cup of tea, they’re a whole lot more manageable when they’re easy to get around. Fortunately, Medellín excels in the areas of public transit and walkability. We walked most places and took a taxi or Uber after dark. (From the airport, the hour ride by Uber is about $20.)
Most neighborhoods we saw have good sidewalks, so it’s not uncommon to see locals on a morning jog – always a good sign in our books. There are also a series of bicycle highways through certain neighborhoods in the city.
Medellín’s crowning achievement is their metro system. It’s clean, efficient, and affordable – though it does get crowded during rush hour. In many ways, the metro sets Medellín apart and is truly a source of pride for its citizens.
5. Guatapé Day Trip
Day trips are an important aspect of any good digital nomad destination. Since our time was quickly running short, we’re really glad we were able to squeeze in a visit Guatapé. Travel time is less than two hours by bus.
On the way into Guatapé, the must-see attraction is El Peñol- an epic climb up a giant protruding rock with spectacular views. Even with its inflated entrance prices and “exit through the gift shop” set up, you can’t really go to Guatapé without doing El Peñol. It’s absolutely beautiful. (If you’re really on a budget, get dropped off and walk up to the parking lot. You can still get good pictures – that’s where we took these first two.)
You’ll climb 750 steps to the top of the rock, then summit the tower, which houses a restaurant and gift shops.
From El Peñol, you can flag down another bus, walk along the road, or take a tuk tuk into the town of Guatapé. (I found the info and tips from Along Dusty Roads to be really helpful in planning our transportation for this trip.)
Guatapé is known for being the most colorful town in Colombia. Every building in the center of town is photogenically painted with bright colors. The murals on the homes and businesses are called zocalos. They’ll make you want to take a picture pretty much everywhere you turn.
Apparently Guatapé gets crowded with Colombian tourists on the weekends. We’re glad we went on a quiet week day. The main thing to do in town is just walk around and admire the buildings. Grab lunch or a coffee to people-watch from the main square. You can also take a short stroll along the waterfront where paddle-boats, ferry tours, carnival rides, and vendor stalls are mostly vacant without the weekend crowds.
We liked Medellín a lot. If we have the opportunity again, we’d like to come back and stay longer. Colombia’s idyllic green mountains are somewhere we think we would be comfortable living for a few months at a time – whether in Medellín itself, or the surrounding area. Finally, we had intended to do a work exchange for Spanish lessons with Colombia Immersion language school, so that’s something we’d still really like to do next time.
Have you been to Colombia? What were some of your favorite things to experience there?
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