The capital of Colombia’s Antioquia province, and the second largest city in Colombia, Medellín is a monstrously large, thriving metropolis. The city has done a huge amount of work to move away from its notoriously violent past and reputation as the ‘murder capital of the world’ and is now known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ due to its consistently temperate climate. Within the city you will find an eclectic mix of commercial, colonial, industrial and urban areas, as well as multiple outdoor spaces, tourist-centric areas, affluent areas and the poor barrios, all connected by the Metro system. AJ and I spent five days exploring Medellín and nearby attractions and found that, while overall we had a brilliant time, there were things about Medellín that we did not enjoy. In this article I’ll be going through my favourite and least favourite things about Medellín.
My Favourite Things:
- Plaza Botero and the Museo de Antioquia
These two places go hand-in-hand; you cannot visit one without seeing the other, so I’ve counted it as one place. This was my favourite place to visit in Medellín; being greeted by the array of sculptures by Fernando Botero as you walk into the plaza is a wonderful surprise. I found it absolutely delightful to wander around admiring the variety of sculptures of people and animals, I love how chubby they all are!
The Museo de Antioquia holds a fantastic collection of modern and contemporary art, historical and religious art, and sculptures and paintings by Fernando Botero. My favourite exhibition was ‘Relicarios’ by Erica Diettes – a massive collection of personal objects of people who had died, preserved in embalming fluid. It’s really humbling to walk through the room and see all these cases of objects, each representing a different person and their life. It’s a fantastic museum, and well worth the 18,000COL entry fee.
- Day trip to Guatape and La Piedra
I’d read over and over again about how Guatape and La Piedra were a must-do while in Medellín, and having been there I can whole-heartedly agree. They are close to each other and easily visited in a day, although if you have time you can stay overnight in Guatape which is a really cute town.
The best way to go about the trip is to take the bus to La Piedra first and then head on to Guatape in a combi/mototaxi. The bus from Medellín’s but terminal to La Piedra costs 12,500COL, and it drops you off at the bottom of the hill you need to walk up to the entrance. You will find a lot of guys with taxi, mototaxi and horses offering to take you up to the entrance for “only,” 10,000COL or more – don’t bother, you can walk it in 20 minutes or less and it’s not that steep, plus you get to enjoy the view of La Piedra looming over you which is an impressive sight. At the entrance you can buy your ticket (18,000COL), and use the bathroom/grab a drink or food/look at souvenirs, and then head up. La Piedra is insane – it’s basically a GIANT rock in the middle of a lake with steps built up the side of it so people could walk up to the top. I’d read all sorts of accounts of how it would take at least 20-30 minutes to climb the 740 steps, that it was really tough, etc… but honestly we managed it in less than 15 minutes and it wasn’t that bad, so really it depends on your fitness level. The view at the top is absolutely stunning, although be warned that you will be jostling with a number of other tourists to get your photo so be patient. After you come back down from La Piedra and walk back down to where the bus dropped you off, you can wait for a bus going to Guatape, or if there’s a few of you you can share a combi/mototaxi – we got one for 2,000COL each, which is around what the bus would have cost us.
Guatape is an incredibly beautiful town, and really should not be missed, especially if you’ve already been to La Piedra. The town itself isn’t very big so it’s easy to walk around, and it’s absolutely CRAMMED full of bright and colourful houses, pretty street fountains and outdoor areas. It’s a wonderful place to simply wander around, take in the pretty buildings, and find a nice space to chill out in with a beer or two. The bus station is down by the lake front, and a ticket back to Medellín costs 13,500COL.
- Casa de la Memoria
This is a museum dedicated to telling the story of how Medellín has overcome its violent past, and is a memorial to honour the victims of the armed conflict. The building itself is a really unusual shape and has beautiful murals along the side of it. The exhibition inside is very well done, and a lot of the main information is in Spanish, English and French, which makes it really accessible and allows you to really get to grips with the history of the city and the people that were involved and affected by the conflict. Some of the smaller pieces of information, such as the news timeline are only in Spanish, which is a shame, but it doesn’t prevent you from appreciating the exhibition and information in full. My favourite part of the exhibition was the videos they had of people who were involved in and affected by the conflict, telling their stories, while the saddest part was a small dark room which was covered in pictures of the people who had died or gone missing during the conflict. This is a fantastic museum and exhibition and is free to enter; I would highly recommend visiting it.
- The Street Art
From statues to murals, Medellín is full of vibrant street art. As with many other South American cities and towns they can be found scattered throughout the city, adding a touch of colour and delight to your wanders around the city. Some of my favourite pieces were found completely by accident, from the geometric lion on a metal door to the water colour monkey on the side of a building, to the dancing statues at the edge of the Parque Lleras. Whenever you find yourself out and about in Medellín, make sure you bring your camera with you to capture anything you find.
- Metro System is really easy to use
One of the big advances that happened in Medellín was the building of the metro system, along with which came improvements in politics, economics and education. The metro system is a fantastic piece of engineering and makes getting around the city really easy, which helps as it’s so big. One of the things I really like about it is that you don’t have to buy a travel card and then top it up; you pay for however many journeys you want to do (when we went in Jan 2017 it was 2,300COL per journey), they give you a card topped up with that amount, and when you’re down to your final journey you just put the card in a slot at the ticket barrier, so that all the cards get recycled.
- Riding the Cable Car
The metro system joins up with the cable car that travels over the favelas that span the mountainside of Medellín. You can get onto the cable car directly from the metro at Acevedo station, so that the trip on the cable car is included in the price of taking the metro. As you ride up the cable car you get an impressive view of the city, allowing you to appreciate just how big it is, as well as a look over the favelas, giving you an insight into the way of life there. The favelas are not safe for tourists, so it’s recommended that you do NOT get off the cable car, just stay on it up and back down. At the final stop, you can change over to the cable car that goes up to Parque Arvi at the top of the mountains, which gives you a chance to watch the landscape dramatically change from urban to forest, although you will have to pay 10,000COL to head up that way.
Getting Thai and Indian food in Royal Thai and Masala
Any chance to escape the clutches of rice, beans and fried chicken is one that AJ and I will jump at, and we managed to grab two while staying in Medellín.
Royal Thai is found in the tourist-centric area around Parque Lleras, and while it is expensive, it does really delicious authentic Thai food. We tried their spring rolls, which were, admittedly not the best, and the red and green curries, both of which didn’t look great but which tasted amazing!
While Royal Thai was mentioned in several articles about eating in Medellín, Masala was one that we stumbled across by accident while trying to escape the rain. It’s a really cute small Indian restaurant which has an endless playlist of Indian music videos (which are fantastic btw, so dramatic and over the top!) playing, and cute murals on the walls. The curries are delicious, and again a little expensive, but honestly, it’s worth it if you’re looking to treat yourself.
- Pergamino Café
This is a really cute café that does delicious coffee, muffins and other treats. The exterior and interior are full of wooden panelling and comfortable chairs, and the wifi is strong, making this a brilliant place to chill out and while away a few hours in.
My Least Favourite Things
- How large the city is
As I said before, Medellín is HUGE. I’ve been in similar cities before, like Quito and Lima, but the problem with Medellín is that everything is scattered all over the place. In most cities you’ll find that most of the tourist attractions are concentrated in a similar area; the old town, around/near the central plaza, the new part which is usually the “gringo central” part. However, the different attractions in Medellín are scattered around the city, and usually not within walking distance of each other, making travelling between them a bit of a mission. It also meant that when we got lost on our first day without a map it was a bit of a nightmare to get to where we wanted to be.
- You can’t link from one part of the transportation system to the other
When we were planning our travel route one day we saw that there was a stop that both the metro and buses stopped at, so we figured that we would take the bus so far and then hop onto the metro for another two stops. However, when we got to the bus stop to change over, we found we had to buy another ticket to get on to the metro, but only when we walked all the way up to the metro platform where the barriers were. It was only a small inconvenience, but we were already in a bit of a rush and were stressed at the time so it would have been good to have known in advance that we needed to go out of the station completely and then buy another ticket to get back in.
- The tourist booths shut down inexplicably and we couldn’t find anywhere to get a map
AJ and I love a good map of a city; you can scribble all over it, make notes on places you’ve been, mark walking routes and must-see places, and at the end of the trip it’s a fantastic keepsake for the scrapbook. When we looked up how to get a map of Medellín, we couldn’t find a tourist information centre, but we did find a list of the locations of all the tourist information booths that could be found around the city on the Medellín website. We headed off for the nearest one on our first day only to find it closed with a notice on it saying that for the time being all the booths were closed – no explanation as to why, and no saying when they would be open again. It was really frustrating because we didn’t have any other way of knowing how to get around, and for the rest of our time there we were working off print screens from google maps which meant that we had to decide on where to go in advance, work out the route and then stick to it so that we didn’t get lost. At the very least the Medellín website should have had a notice on the tourist booth page saying that they were closed so we didn’t end up wasting our time.
- Parque Arvi was a little disappointing.
We had heard a lot of good things about Parque Arvi; it was a large nature reserve, there was so much to see and do, there were loads of nice trails to walk, etc…so we immediately put it on our to-do list. It costs 10,000COL to ride the cable car up to it, and then another 10,000COL to get back down, which is expensive, but at least the views are really nice. The problem is that all the hiking trails are only accessible when you go on a guided tour which costs 7,000COL, and which is only in Spanish – our Spanish was nowhere near at a good enough level to engage in the tour so we didn’t go on it. We were told at the information booth that we could walk down to the picnic area and it was a nice 45-minute walk. We thought it would be through a woodland path, but it was actually along the side of the road. When we got to the “picnic area,” it was really more of a camping ground that had a few benches in it and quite a bit of litter. Coming from the UK which has fantastic parks and woodland areas it was honestly disappointing for us and nothing like we were expecting. I think the tours would probably be very good, but it would be a lot better if they had bilingual guides or had tours in English and Spanish.
Would I Go Back?
If I was near Medellín, and I had a few days to kill then yes, I’d be happy to go back and explore it a bit more. But would I specifically plan to go to Medellín? No I probably wouldn’t.
Am I Glad I Went?
Absolutely; I found it be an absolutely fascinating city, and although there were some things that frustrated me, my overall experience was extremely positive. Medellín is a city full of colour, art, culture, history, and a multitude of attractions to suit all travellers.