Medellin was once known as a dangerous city, due to the notorious drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar who smuggled tons of cocaine all over the world in the period between 1976 and 1993. It was the era of violence and chaos.
Today, things are much different in Colombia’s second-largest city, which has slowly but steadily risen to be one of the favorite destinations for both foreign and domestic tourists.
Otherwise called the City of Eternal Spring, Medellin lies in a narrow valley and boasts an incredible skyline packed with jagged peaks and high-rise buildings.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Medellin with enough time to explore and experience the city’s vibrant culture, here are some tips that will help you make the most of it.
Start by absorbing the city through one of the famous viewpoints
If you’re flying to Medellin, you can begin your adventure straight from the airport. Las Palmas Avenue stretches from the airport to the city, and it provides several amazing viewpoints, including the stunning Mirador de Las Palmas, the last spot on the picturesque trail. You can also take in the spirit of the city by observing it from the Cable Car (either Santo Domingo or La Aurora) viewpoint.
If you can, take this trip in the evening and you will encounter locals selling delicious food, such as sausages and grilled meat, prepared on the scene.
Since you’re already there, and if you’re not too exhausted, you can take the cable car ride to the Arvi park. In about 30 to 40 minutes you will leave the crowded city and get to a scenic park where you can enjoy the serenity and trek the pre-hispanic roads.
Meet the people and “Habla con ellos”
“Paisas” are people from the Northwest of Colombia, including Medellin, and they are considered to be one of the friendliest people in the world. They have pride and love for their country, and a lot of kindness to offer to tourists and travelers. They love to tell jokes and introduce people to their culture, inviting them to aguardiente (the Colombian spirit drink), salsa, and blood sausages.
However, most people, especially the older ones, are not very good English speakers. If you’re in Medellin for more than a couple of weeks, you could use the opportunity to learn Spanish in one of the language schools and by chatting with the locals.
Check all the tourist hotspots
While you want to explore Medellin like a local, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to check all the tourist must-sees in the city. Because of the city’s well-connected transportation system and its temperate climate, visiting all the outdoor tourist places will make for a pleasant day rather than an exhausting scramble to “see it all.”. So, here’s a quick roundup:
- Plaza Botero is home to 23 sculptures made by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. It is one of the most vibrant squares in Medellin, bustling with visitors, street performers, and musicians.
- Parque Lleras is also packed with people, and it’s a wonderful place to make new friends. You will see food sellers and people drinking and dancing until dawn.
- Jardin Botanico is an ideal retreat from the chaos of the city. The botanical gardens cover over 14 hectares, and they boast an incredible number of different plant and bird species. The site also hosts numerous events, such as concerts and festivals.
- Guatapé is a popular day trip from Medellin, and it is one of the most colorful places you will ever visit. While there, you can also climb the famous Guatapé rock.
- Some of the museums you should see are Museo de Antioquia (for pre-Colombian works), Cementerio Museo de San Pedro (the cemetery of famous Colombians), Casa de la Memoria (exhibiting country’s history of armed conflict), and Museo de Arte Moderno (for modern art).
Visit the isolated “comunas”
Comuna 13 and Comuna 8 were once the most violent and poorest parts of Medellin.
During the 80s and 90s, Comuna 13 used to be so isolated that guards stood at entrances to the district, allowing access only to people who had evidence they lived there. Drugs, murder, and violent crimes were rampant here.
The Colombian government started working on cleaning up the area in the early 2000s and trying to reconnect it with the rest of the city. Thanks to street art and community projects, tourists have been flooding this area lately. This is a fantastic way to truly experience the real Medellin and meet the people and history. But although it’s a lot safer now than it was before, you still shouldn’t go here at night, especially not alone.
Comuna 8 is a small district reachable by boat. It’s still one of the poorest parts of Medellin, and unlike the Comuna 13, it’s not as popular with tourists. Because of this, Comuna 8 is the most insightful and authentic experiences you can have in the city.
Eat, drink, and have fun like a local
It would be a big mistake to leave Medellin without trying some of the amazing local specialties, so don’t be tricked into visiting Italian or similar international cuisine restaurants.
The arepa, a staple food of the paisas, is a type of cornbread served with most of the meals. You can get it with the bandeja paisa – a mix of red beans, white rice, avocado, chorizo, shredded meat, and many other delicious ingredients. The deep-fried pork rind called chicharron is not for the weak, but it is fantastic. You can save a lot of money by trying out street food instead of going on restaurant tours.
Besides aguardiente, other local drinks you should have a taste of include canelazo, aguapanela, kumis, and refajo.
If you want to party like a local, you can listen to folk music at the Parque de Berrio or visit one of the many bars for the authentic salsa music experience.
Medellin is an amazing city with a troublesome history. Be aware of that and show respect for everything the people around you have gone through. Because of that, it is recommended to avoid the “Pablo Escobar tour” which will be offered to you by many tourist agents. The violent life and legacy of this narco boss left their mark on the people in Medellin, and they would see that as glorifying the crimes he committed. Other than that, just follow your heart and enjoy.