A Guide to Medellín, Colombia
Been hearing a lot about Colombia lately? You’re not alone. Not only has Lonely Planet called Colombia the 2nd Best Country to Visit in 2017, but Travel & Leisure has dubbed it “South America’s Best Kept Secret”. Colombia is in that perfect tourism sweet spot between being off-the-beaten-track and right on the cusp of becoming one of the hottest destinations. And it’s easy to see why. This country has everything. Lush Amazonian jungle? Check. Beautiful tropical islands? Check. Stunning snow-capped Andes mountains? Check. Bustling cities and a thriving fashion market? Check. Charming colonial cobblestone streets and rich Latin American culture? Check.
It’s a country that’s just begging to be discovered, but the fact that it is still relatively unfamiliar to the international tourism market makes it all the more cool. Plus it means you won’t be fighting crowds to get to the best spots when you visit. Win/win.
Colombia has a ton to offer in terms of destinations, from Cartagena, to Santa Marta, to Bogota, but ask anyone who’s been to Colombia, is from there, or has lived there and they will give you one single piece of advice — Make sure you see Medellín.
When I was told that, I’ll be honest, I had my doubts. I immediately questioned the idea of flying 2 hours inland to a valley in the middle of Colombia. A city instead of the beautiful Colombian coast? What could possibly be so cool about this place? I hadn’t read any blogs on it, seen Instagrams of it, or heard much about it at all. In fact, I’ll admit that all I knew about it was from Narcos. But, 4 days was all I needed to spark my love affair with the capital of Colombia’s Antioquia region, and you can bet that I’m now one of those people here to tell you why you can’t go to Colombia without visiting Medellín.
Here is your guide to Colombia’s capital of cool, Medellín:
What to see and do in Medellín
Day Trip to a Pueblo
One of the best parts about Medellín is the breathtaking countryside and adorable pueblos that lay just beyond the city’s reach. In Colombia, one of the most common cultural traditions is that families will have second homes, or fincas, in the countryside. They’ll travel to these fincas on weekends to get away from the city, and will spend their days in pueblos like Guatapé, Jardín, San Antonio de Pereira, or Santa Fé de Antioquia, hanging out in the beautiful towns and parks, and having long leisurely meals outside.
Is Guatapé the most colorful town in the world or what?! This adorable little pueblo about an hour and a half from Medellín is a must-do on any trip to Colombia. I recommend hiring a driver and tour guide through See Medellin to take you there. Their prices are reasonable and their tour guides make sure you see all the beautiful parts of Guatapé.
Aside from how absolutely breathtakingly colorful the town is, the main attraction of Guatape is even more (literally) breath-taking… the “Rock of Guatape” – or
El Peñon de Guatape
Zig-zagging 600 vertical steps up, this 10-million-ton rock overlooks the gorgeous lakes of Guatape. The attraction was created after a group of friends scaled the rock in the 1950s using nothing but a wooden plank, and someone got the bright idea to build a staircase in the rock’s singular, gaping crack. The best part? The freshly made mango micheladas at the top.
This pueblito or “mini pueblo”, is a little like the vibe you get from the pueblos outside of Medellin, but right in the city! It’s a great spot to have lunch and walk around.
Pueblito Paisa, Tunel av nutibara, Medellin 050030, Colombia
This spacious (and hectic!) plaza houses 23 larger-than-life funky bronze statues by Medellín’s favorite sculptor, Fernando Botero. The open air museum is one of Medellin’s main attractions.
Plaza Botero, Carrera 52 at Calle 52
Take the Metrocable to Parque Arvi
One second, you’re taking in a spectacular bird’s eye view of Colombia’s second largest city as your cable car crawls over a mountain ridge, and the next, you are suddenly flying above a gorgeous forest with no city in sight. Parque Arvi takes you high above the city into an ecological park in Medellin’s eastern Santa Elena district.
Parque Arvi, open 9am-6pm
Where to Stay in Medellín
You’ll want to base out of the El Poblado neighborhood of Medellin. It’s bursting at the seams with cafes, restaurants, bars, clubs and hostels and is definitely the hot neighborhood of the city.
The Charlee Hotel is swanky, swanky, swanky. Even if you don’t stay here, you have to check out their rooftop for sunset cocktails. It is my favorite view in all of Medellin!
Only around $75/night (yes, you read that right), this Sheraton, with its prime location in El Poblado, is all you need for a Medellín hotel. It is connected to a high-end shopping mall (Colombian’s love their shopping malls), has an on-site pool, gym, and an included-in-the-rate buffet breakfast.
If you’re overnighting in Guatape, make sure you check out Hotel Los Recuerdos for a beautiful family-friendly, affordable resort with a gorgeous infinity pool that overlooks the steps of El Peñon de Guatape.
Where to eat in Medellín
This buzzy upscale restaurant in El Poblado was my favorite meal in all of Colombia. Owned and operated by a husband-wife duo, chef Laura spent eight years at culinary school and working in Europe at several Michelin-starred restaurants, and her husband, architect Santiago, is responsible for OCI’s impeccable interior design. Highlights on the menu are the AMAZING 12-hour braised shortribs, the prawns cooked in tomato and chili jam with crispy quinoa and basil (the crispy quinoa was one of my favorite things I’ve ever tasted!), the pork belly and grapefruit salad with pickled carrot and mint and of course the macadamia-nut ice cream sandwich with salted caramel for dessert. And the best part? This may be arguably the best restaurant in Medellin, but the prices are still very much Colombian (entrees like the short ribs will only cost you around $15 USD!!!!!)
Pizza, delicious salads, amazing sangria, and an adorable ambiance. Olivia is your perfect casual dinner or lunch spot in El Poblado.
This cozy Argentinian steakhouse is a perfect dinner spot in El Poblado. Call ahead and reserve a table on their patio, and get ready to eat a lot of meat and delicious empanadas. Welcome to South America.
A perfect spot in El Poblado for tapas, meats, cheese and charcuterie on one of the best outside terraces in Medellín. Did I mention they have frozen Sangria?? Yeah. You gotta go here.
The weather in Medellín
Medellín is nicknamed “La Primavera Eterna”, or the eternal Spring. It stays around an average of 72 degrees year-round, and has a tropical, cool, wet climate thanks to its location in a valley of the Andes mountains. The least rainy months to visit Medellín is during their Summer (December-March).
Safety in Colombia
I’ll start out by saying that I didn’t feel unsafe in Medellín for one second. But, due to the country’s rocky past, I know that this is a hot-button issue for many people who are wondering just how safe the country is today. A lot of feeling safe in any big city comes from knowing the neighborhoods to stay in, and which to stay away from. Use common sense and caution, of course, but know that Colombia is not as dangerous as it is made out to be from its reputation of the 1970s and 80s. I felt completely safe in the neighborhood of El Poblado, even in the nightclubs. If you’re in the Plaza Botero (the chaotic center more toward downtown), keep your belongings close to you in the crowds. On public transportation, stay aware and don’t flash your wealth. I would also note that as a woman, I felt much safer traveling with a man and probably wouldn’t have felt as comfortable had I been traveling alone. It also helped that we both knew how to speak Spanish, as they almost exclusively speak Spanish in Medellin.
There is still a US government issued warning against travel to Colombia, which reads:
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali.
However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas. Despite significant decreases in overall crime in Colombia, continued vigilance is warranted due to an increase in recent months of violent crime, including crime resulting in the deaths of American citizens.
My travel philosophy has always been that dangerous crimes can happen anywhere. They happen every day in my home city of San Francisco, and are commonplace in many of my favorite travel destinations. It’s not uncommon to hear news stories or read travel advisories and feel extremely nervous about traveling to a certain destination, but I am a firm believer in not letting that fear of danger get in the way of seeing the world. While everyone’s travel experiences are different (and one negative experience or secondhand negative experience can forever affect your feelings toward safety in a certain destination), I think it is very important to see the world with an open mind, while staying optimistically cautious and aware.