Tips for a great trip to Medellín, Colombia
We started our 2018 round-the-world trip in Medellín, Colombia for several reasons, including my wanting to brush up my Spanish, both of us wanting a chance to decompress after a hectic eight weeks leading into our trip, and because we needed a place to finish some client projects and regroup before plunging into Peru. While some of those reasons may not apply to you, here are some tips that will hopefully help you plan your own time in Medellín, Colombia should you decide to visit this beautiful and engaging city.
We used a combination of the Metro, Metrocable, taxis, Uber, and walking. We were warned by an ex pat who had just left Colombia that Uber is technically illegal, but that if you ride in the front seat, you shouldn’t have any issues. Your mileage may vary, but that was the case for us. Aside from trying to get a ride from the airport into Medellín in a downpour at midnight when all the Uber drivers kept cancelling, as well as other times when you really need the Metro or Metrocable, Uber worked well and was inexpensive.
Reality check: Of all the times you want Uber to work, during a downpour at midnight in an airport far from the city center in a foreign country is sort of the biggest. Instead, we ended up being shoved into a more or less non-Uber private car and paying the same price as a taxi anyway. As we hurtled along the dark, windy roads into Medellín, I reminded myself that I’ve seen all of the Jason Bourne movies enough times that surely I could throw myself out of a moving vehicle with only minor injuries if we were in fact being driven to our deaths as Keith strongly suspected. (Fortunately, Keith was wrong, and the driver, while perhaps not super familiar with Medellín, or driving, was not a murderer.)
Favorite activities in Medellín:
Our favorite Medellín activities were relatively low-key as we eased into long-term travel. The free walking tour through Real City Tours was recommended by several people, including our friend who had just lived in Medellín, and was a helpful introduction to the history and culture of the city through the eyes of a local. Our guide Monsa was enthusiastic, positive, and very direct in answering questions about her city and country as she showed us around some of the main sights in the city center, such as the Square of Lights, Palacio Nacional, Veracruz Church, Botero Square, Berrio Park, Bolivar Park, Metropolitan Cathedral, and San Antonio Park. As an added bonus, we got to watch part of Colombia’s last World Cup game with a bunch of die-hard fans during the tour.
Aside from getting to see so many sights with a knowledgeable guide, one of the highlights of the walk was hearing her reflections on what it was like for residents of Medellín during the reign of Pablo Escobar, versus what it is like now. Seeing areas that have been rebuilt through city improvement projects – particularly the gleaming clean Metro – in light of what some of those areas had previously been like was especially meaningful.
Reality check: The walk was great, but it was also hilarious to discover that we and one other American woman were the oldest people there. By a lot. And also the only ones not wearing yellow Colombia soccer shirts.
Another favorite activity was taking the Metrocable (gondola) to Parque Arví, a park outside the city. Essentially, we took the Metro to the Acevedo station in the north of the city, then transferred to the Metrocable Line K to Santo Domingo. At Santo Domingo, we transferred to Line L Arví.
Reality check: Sounds straightforward, right? It is, or should be. This is the gondola ride that so many Instagram photos are made of. But remember that the Metrocable is a gondola. And they don’t stop. So, if you’re in a car with all locals, one of them stands up to get off at a Metrocable stop, and all of you get up to follow him, it gets exciting when you realize he is getting off early and that isn’t your stop. When that happened, the rest of us had to hustle back onto the moving gondola car because of course they don’t stop. It was hilarious. Afterwards.
One minute you are climbing the sides of the Aburrá Valley with millions of homes below, while the next you are gliding above trees in a beautiful nature area. When we got off the Metrocable, we were greeted by cooler air and the chance to enjoy a relaxing afternoon. We had lunch from the street stalls at the top of the hill, then hiked in the park to a waterfall. It was a great way to see incredible views of the city, while also getting to take a break from the hustle of this booming metropolis.
Reality check: While this sounds idyllic, don’t be fooled—one of us would describe our hike as more of a “death march,” and if not for an enterprising local running what Amy described as his own, app-less Uber system (which Keith declared “hitchhiking,”) we might still be in Colombia, hiking up the side of a mountain.
Our favorite lower-cost meal was a lunch one day when we tried several empanada stands around central Medellín near where the walking tour began. None of the individual empanadas (usually stuffed with meat and potatoes) cost more than the equivalent of $1 US, and all of them were tasty. Cost for our own empanada tasting menu was less than $10 for two, and we were stuffed. Our favorite was probably El Machetico, where the staff was especially kind and the empanadas warm and flaky. Another memorable meal was at Hacienda Traditional, where we had a bandeja paisa (essentially a tray of potatoes and sausage).
Reality check: If you go to Medellin, you probably should try bandeja paisa. But anyone who knows Amy knows that “tray of potatoes and sausage” is not her idea of an ideal meal.
Medellín has a wide range of high-end and fine dining choices. Our favorite high-end meal was our last night in Medellín, when we ate at Carmen in the El Poblado neighborhood. The seven-course chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings for two, as well as two additional cocktails, was about $200 US. Every single dish was beautiful and delicious, and the wine pairings were excellent as well. We estimated that a comparable meal in Chicago would’ve been about twice the cost, and the staff at Carmen would give the staff of any acclaimed US restaurant a run for their money in terms of the service. It made for a memorable last meal in Medellín, and we’d definitely go back.
Reality check: The meal really was fantastic. But next time, I wouldn’t plan it for the night before a 2:45 a.m. wake up due to an early flight. Ugh.
Lodging: When picking our lodging for Medellín, we mainly needed a place that was quiet, had good internet and work space (because we had several client commitments to fulfill during our time there), and had a washing machine so we could head on to the next leg of our trip with clean clothes. On all of those factors, our Airbnb in the El Poblado neighborhood fit the bill, even if we discovered that the hot water wasn’t necessarily reliable. (We were interested to discover that the apartment building we were staying in appeared to be being used almost entirely as an Airbnb, so if you are booking an Airbnb in Medellín, check to see if there are other units open in the same building.)
Reality check: The hot water might have been slightly less than unreliable. In fact, it reliably disappeared when Keith was taking a shower. Or me for more than 60 seconds. Minor details!
We both really enjoyed our time in Medellín. The people were friendly, the atmosphere laid back and approachable, the weather in early July, while humid, was warm without being too hot, and there was a good variety of low- and high-end food. And, most importantly, we exceeded our client commitments and left Colombia sleepy (who thought a 5:30 a.m. flight was a good idea?!), but rested and ready for our next destination: Peru.
Reality check: Thank you, Josh, for all your advice and suggestions. Hasta pronto, Medellín!
One thing we’ve already recognized is that running our full-time coaching and consulting business (Apochromatik.com), our Cuba business (CompleteCuba.com)and launching the Red Dot Blue Dot project requires internet access, organization, and time. Thanks for your patience as we prepared this post!
Have any questions we didn’t answer? Please post them below and we’ll be happy to respond!