Once known as the most dangerous city in the world (only 25 years ago!), Medellin is now known as the most innovative city in the world, and is a must see for any traveller passing through Colombia. What changed? Getting rid of one of the most well known drug dealers in the world helped, but so did strategic use of impoverished areas, implementing new parks and libraries as well as a far reaching metro and gondola public transit system which connected the poorer areas to the hub of Medellin. It’s amazing how much this city has changed, and thrived because of it. Come to Medellin to learn about it’s dark past, but also to enjoy it’s bustling tourist industry and amazing resilience!
How to Get There
We bussed into Medellin from Armenia, after checking out the tallest palm trees in the world in Salento. There are plenty of buses leaving from the main Armenia bus station, which is easy to get to by taxi or public bus. Once you’re at the terminal you want to head upstairs towards the east side of the building, and you’ll see a long hallway of bus companies advertising their destinations. Simply ask when their bus leaves for Medellin, and how much it costs. We were quoted between 35-45,000 COP, and chose Flota Occidental for 45,000 COP as it left the earliest. Beforehand, we were told there was only one bus that left at 7pm, but there were tons of buses leaving all the time, some as late as 11pm. We ended up in Medellin around 1:30am, so the trip took about 7 hours.
We also flew from Medellin to Cartagena with Viva Colombia for 166,500 COP. The José Maria Córdova International Airport is just under an hour taxi ride away from El Poblado (a common backpacker area in Medellin), and the trip will cost you a flat rate of 65,000 COP. The flight itself is less than an hour, and a taxi from the Cartagena Airport to Getsemani (the backpacker area of Cartagena) is 13,300 COP.
Getting around in Medellin is easy with it’s modern metro system. A main subway line runs north/south down the middle of the city, and stops near most main tourist attractions. Other train lines and gondolas branch off east/west to reach even more of the city! You simply walk up to any cashier window, and let them know how many trips (2,300 COP/trip) you want on your paper pass. We’ve included a picture of the Metro system, and below is a quick list of the main stops you might want to check out!
- Poblado – Closest stop to the El Poblado backpacker area. Lots of hostels and cool restaurants here, though everything is fairly pricy. When you get off the train cross the bridge and walk east up the main road.
- Universidad – Lots of fun activities here! As soon as you get off the metro you’ll see the Planetarium, Botanical Gardens and Parque Explora all located nearby.
- Alpujarra – This is closest to city hall and the hub of the city. It also happens to be the starting point for the Real City Tours free walking tour (see below for more info).
- Acevado – This is the stop to get off the train, and hop onto the gondola on your way to Parque Arvi. The first transfer is included in your metro fare, but when you transfer onto the second gondola at Santa Domingo it costs an extra 5200 COP/person.
- San Javier – This is the end of the orange line, and the meeting point for the Communa 13 tours.
- Caribe – This is the stop to get off if you want to get to the Station Norté bus station. This is the station you want to go to if you’re heading to Guatapé!
Where to Stay
- La Presidentia – A fairly basic hostel, but cheap and clean. 50,000 COP for a double room with an ensuite with a hot shower, comfy bed and wifi in the room. There is 24 hour front desk service, and it’s just outside of the main area of El Poblado. Great spot for a night or two if you’re looking for something cheap and simple. You can book online here.
- Yolo Hostel – As the name implies, this was more of a party hostel. We paid 70,000 COP for a private room and a communal bathroom/shower. The draw was the laid back and fun atmosphere, and we met lots of backpackers looking to have a fun night. The staff is great, and they kept us supplied with beer all night! A nice place to go for a fun night, without the cult-like vibe some party hostels give off. You can book a room or dorm bed online here.
What to Do
- Real City Tours – A city tour of Medellin is practically mandatory when you visit this exciting city. Real City Tours did a great job, and provided a lot of information on the history and transformation of the city. The tour is technically free, but a tip of 20,000-35,000 COP is suggested. During the 4 hour tour you will walk to many interesting corners of the city, including city hall, market stall covered streets, cathedrals and bomb attack sites. All of the guides are locals who have grown up in the city and experienced the transformation first hand, and truly enjoy sharing their experience with you. The tours are popular, so make sure to book your spot online ahead of time here. You meet your guide at the designated time at Alpujarra metro station.
- Communa 13 Tour – This is another tour that is highly recommended. Similar to the city tour, a local resident of Communa 13 shows you around the area, and shares their experience with you. It is also free, but a 10,000 COP tip is recommended. The tour lasts 2 hours, and you make stops at the well known graffiti art and escalators that have replaced the terror and poverty of the communa during the Escobar years. The tour can be heavy at times as its violent past and its effect on its residence is serious and heartbreaking. However, it is truly an amazing opportunity to understand the history and culture of this city, and how much it has grown since then. You can book online here. The meeting point is at San Javier metro station.
- Parque Arvi – This park is way up in the mountains and offers wonderful hikes through cloud forests. Unfortunately we were greeted by a massive downpour at the top, so we can’t recommend any hikes, but plenty of maps at the top will outline lengths and paths you can take. In our opinion the fun part was riding the gondola up, which is part of Medellin’s new public transportation system! You transfer to the cable car at Acevedo metro station (see the metro map above), all for a regular metro ride fee, and then pay 5200 COP to continue all the way to Parque Arvi at the end of the main line. Definitely a great excuse to ride the gondolas, and a great way to get out of the bustling city for a few hours.
- Universidad Metro Station – Lots is going on at the Universidad metro station! You can check out the botanical gardens, planetarium and Parque Explora. We checked out the Parque Explora, which is basically a giant interactive science park. It includes an aquarium, vivarium, and tons of interactive exhibits. It is kind of geared towards children, but we still had a ton of fun. Entry is 25,000 or 22,500 COP with a student card.
- Guatapé – Guatapé is known as the most colourful town in South America! It’s famous for its zocalos (colourful plaques on the businesses and houses) and numerous lakes, and is less than 2 hours from Medellin. There are lots of fun shops and restaurants to check out, and often there’s live music playing in the main square to enjoy. On the way to Guatapé you’ll want to stop at La Pierdra, which is basically a giant rock with stairs you can climb up for an amazing view of the area and the lakes and mountains that surround it. You can do a day trip or a day tour to the town, but we recommend heading there without a tour and staying the night so you can experience it without the swath of tourists.
- Explore El Poblado – El Poblado is the main tourist area, and is packed with cool looking (though expensive) bars, restaurants and art. Just walking around the area is fun, and a meal or drink (or two) won’t hurt your wallet too much!
Where to Eat
- Park 37 – A cool outdoor spot in El Poblado to grab a drink. The park consists of small tables and tree stumps as stools, and at night it’s lit up by strings of lights.Food and drink are a little expensive, but that’s expected in El Poblado.
- El Social – This is another open air bar, and is a little more down to earth and bare bones. It gets packed on weekends with tons of groups grabbing a cheap drink before heading out to the bars.
- Breton Creperie – We ran into this spot to escape a classic Colombian rainstorm. 8,000-14,000 COP for a crepe wasn’t a bad deal, and you get to decide between sweet, veggie or meat, and customize your toppings. Not a bad spot for a quick bite!
- El Poblado – There are tons of clubs and bars that offer fun nights out in the tourist district of El Poblado. Some of the higher end ones require steep cover for the guys, but girls often get in free.