This post was originally written in 2012When I think of the big cities I have travelled to, there are a few that always come up as my favourites. Rio. San Francisco. New York.
Then there are a few that I love that sometimes surprise people. One is Panama City, the other is Medellin.
Medellin may have a reputation as being a dangerous city from its days of being home to a large scale drug war; however I think it is the most fascinating city in Colombia. Named as the world’s most innovative city in 2012 in a competition run by The Wall Street Journal, Medellin is going places. While sometimes overlooked as nothing more than Pablo Escobar’s birthplace, it has so much more on offer and truly defies all common stereotypes about Colombia.
I spent 7 days in the city in November 2012, and found there was no shortage of things to do and see.
Day 1 - I caught the Metrocable to visit Parque Arvi. Situated high in the mountains surrounding Medellin, it was easy to forget we were only half an hour from a big city when spending the day in the forest, ziplining over lakes and trying local snacks.
That night, when trying to get to the stadium to buy football tickets, a friend and I were treated to an impromptu city tour by the world's friendliest taxi driver. Not only did he take us to the stadium and point out some highlights of the city along the way, he got out with us at the stadium, helped us buy tickets and checked they were legitimate. And he only charged us the return cab fare!
Day 2 - I did a city tour, including a visit to one of Pablo Escobar’s houses and the Monoco building, which was bombed by the Cali Cartel.
That evening was the city’s most important football game “El Clasico de la Montaña” played between the two teams from Medellin. It wasn't as high quality football as another game I have seen in South America (Boca), but the winning goal being scored by DIM in the last minute made half of the stadium erupt in celebration. After the game ended, the supporters from each team left in opposite directions, but it wasn't as extreme as being locked inside for half an hour while the opposition fans leave (Boca). We got some street food and beer, then headed to Calle 70 for a taste of Medellin's nightlife outside the Zona Rosa.
Day 3 - I attempted to visit Parque de las Aguas, but got lost and ended up shopping and having a typical Paisa meal for lunch in a small town about an hour out of Medellin.
After getting back to the city, I spent some time exploring the free museum and art gallery in the Palacio de la Cultura in downtown Medellin near the Parque Berrio Metro station. When climbing the the top of the building, we came across a free movie screening in what we thought was a bell tower. We were intrigued for about 20 minutes, but left when the story became too hard follow with the dialogue in German and subtitles in Spanish.
That night, I got dressed up for Medellin’s glamorous nightlife in Parque Lleras.
Day 4 - I visited the Botanic Gardens and Planetarium, and spent some time exploring the markets surrounding the Parque Berrio metro station. Later, I stumbled upon a free outdoor concert next to one of the city’s universities. That night it was back to Parque Lleras to dance salsa, merengue and vallenato until the early hours of the morning.
Day 5 - I explored the famous sculptures in Plaza Botero and headed to Sabaneta, south of Medellin for dinner.
Being a Saturday night, it was back to Parque Lleras for more dancing. Medellin's nightlife is fairly quiet on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but picks up for the weekend with Saturday being the busiest night. The bars that are full on other nights of the week have people spilling out onto the street, and dance clubs you wouldn't know exist when walking past during daylight are crowded with couples grinding "perreo" style to reggaeton.
Day 6 - I took a day trip to Guatape, about 2 hours by bus from Medellin. Buses leave from the city’s north bus terminal, which is connected to the city’s world class metro system and easy to navigate. I got off to climb El Peñol, the giant rock which towers over the picturesque lake below. Weekends in this area are busy, with Colombian families taking trips to the lake famous for it's water sports.
The bus ride to the town is an experience in itself, winding through the mountains and passing small Antioquian towns and roadside food vendors.
Day 7 - I took the metro to Estacion Exposiciones, and climbed Cerro Nutibara for stunning evening views of the city. Built on top of the hill is Pueblito Paisa, a replication of a small Antioquian town.
After a failed attempt at seeing the city's famous Christmas lights, I caught the metro to one of Medellin's fancy malls for arepas con pollo for dinner. For my last night in the city, it was back to Parque Lleras for Mexican food and live music.
Getting to and from Medellin
There are two bus terminals in the city, the north and south terminal. The north terminal is connected to the metro system, making it easy to travel downtown (Parque Berrio station) or to Poblado. If you are arriving at the south terminal, is it best to a take a taxi to your destination.
The airport is about a one hour drive from the city. Buses run from the airport to Medellin, make sure you tell the driver you want to go to "Centro" (cost is 7500 pesos). The bus drops you off near Hotel Nutibara, which is a few minutes walk to the Parque Berrio station. Buses returning the airport leave from the same place.
Where to stay
I recommend the Black Sheep Hostel in Poblado (near the Zona Rosa).