Now again, I ask you to forget everything you have ever heard about Medellín, because it probably wrong and doesn’t do this city justice. Let me make some things clear before we dive head first into this fascinating city: it is safe to travel there and walk around (except for dodgy neighbourhoods – like in every big city in the world), Pablo Escobar is part of the city’s history, but they are writing a new one and focus on their future, their climate is awesome and you only need a light jumper in the evenings or when going up the hills (they don’t call it “city of eternal spring” for a reason), and finally, 2 days is way to short, if you can, take more time. My itinerary is quite crammed, but manageable and not too stressful, leaving time to unwind and take it all in.
I came to Medellín by bus from Salento, which is a nice trip with lots of curvy roads (but you can buy motion sickness pills in the bus stations in Armenia and Pereira, and I can highly recommend them…). I arrived at Medellín’s bus station Terminal the Sur, which is, you might have guessed, in the South of the city. It is a short and cheap (COP $5,000) taxi ride away from the El Poblano neighbourhood, where most of the hostels and restaurants are located. It appears quite “Western” and upscale, with nice houses, parks, interior design shops and lots of bars and restaurants around. I stayed at The Black Sheep Hostel this time, sporting a nice rooftop terrace in a quiet side street. I have stayed at Casa Kiwi some years ago which was also nice and quite stylish. There are a lot of hostels to chose from, so check on TripAdvisor before for your preferences and current reviews. I spent the late afternoon and evening chatting to fellow travellers at the hostel, and buying some food at the nearby Exito supermarket and preparing it in the hostel kitchen. I may or may not have enjoyed a local beer or two (Apostel beer is from Medellín and pretty amazing).
Day 1 – fruit tour, botanical garden, city walking tour
Ok, the first full day in Medellín. You will understand why I had a relaxed night the day before, because I had stuff to do and things to see! I had talked to other travellers who came from Medellín to Salento, and also done some research online on what I wanted to do while in the city. One thing was very high up on the list, and that was go to Minorista market, the biggest market in the area. Now as a blond, white woman travelling alone I didn’t want to venture there alone, no need to push my luck. Plus, it’s a massive market and I don’t know my way around there. So I booked a tour with Real City Tours to do an exotic fruits tour around the market. Perfect for me! I booked through their website a few days before, and the tour is COP $40,000 (about 13 €) per person. The tour company gave me great instructions on how to get from my hostel to the meeting point outside of the market, and I was excited to take the fantastic public transportation system of Medellín for a first ride. The Medellín metro and even its busses are great: fast, cheap, reliable, punctual, and spotless. Not something I can say about a lot of European public transport. Anyway, in front of the market I met the rest of our little group, 6 other international travellers and our guide Jessica, a Colombian raised in the US. Therefore the tour was held in excellent English and is suitable for people who do not speak Spanish. We got a short introduction and dove right in.
In the next 2.5 hours we tried about 15 or 16 different exotic fruits and learnt about their health benefits and how to prepare them. We tried Colombian classics such as guava and lulo, a citrus fruit that is especially used for juices; and we also tasted some weird and wonderful fruit such as piñuela that is eaten with salt, chontaduro, a starchy fruit of a palm that is pre-boiled and supposed to evoke your (sexual) appetite, and four different kinds of passion fruit. We passed by different fruit sellers, some more talkative than others, and had some freshly made arepa (a typical savoury corn patty or cake served hot) in the middle of the market. We finished the tour with a yummy juice at one of the little cafés at the markets. All in all a really interesting and enjoyable tour, not to say a very tasty one!
After filling up on vitamins (no lunch needed after the tour), I jumped back onto the metro and headed to the metro stop “Universidad”. There I snooped around the grounds of the local University of Antioquia to check out their buildings, before heading across the street into the Botanical Garden (free entry). I wandered around there, enjoying the sunshine and some rest. Unfortunately the orchid house was closed for reconstruction, but should be opened again by now. I also did some people watching, there were a few groups of girls around having their pictures taken for their high school graduation. There is a small café in an old train carriage in the middle of the park if you fancy a snack. The botanical garden is a great spot to relax and unwind, maybe have a picnic, and enjoy the people and some (faked) nature.
In the afternoon I gave myself into the services of Real City Tours again. Whenever I had talked to people coming from Medellín, they all have been going on about the free walking tour. Initially I wanted to do one of the Pablo Escobar tours that are on offer by a few companies. But after reading and hearing mixed reviews from fellow travellers, and just ravaging reviews for the general walking tour of Real City Tours, I decided for that one. I did not regret that decision. The tour needs to be pre-booked online a few days in advance as they are so popular and spaces fill up quickly. They have a tour in the morning and one in the afternoon. Our tour was guided by Pablo, a young guy from Medellín who owns the tour company and also speaks excellent English. He is very passionate about the tours and educating travellers on Medellín and its history. This is what makes their tours so successful. He is a great story teller, delivering information that doesn’t bore you, and hitting so many feels when he talks about the dark times of Medellín, when it was run by drug cartels (the history on how it got that way is very interesting, and how the consumption of cocaine by Westerners shaped a city and a country, and its history so much). The tour lasted for 4 hours and was interesting every minute, so I was kind of disappointed when it finished (although it was getting dark already). You get to see all the major sights in downtown Medellín, such as the cathedral, Botero’s statues, and the park of light.
There is also a stop to get some snacks near the oldest church in town (which happens where most of the prostitutes are as well – go figure!). But it is also where the Hare Krishna’s have their local temple and restaurant Govinda, so I could get some veggie food and some more to take away for dinner. I can absolutely recommend this tour and it should definitely be on your list of things to do in Medellín. It is generally free, but you are expected to give a tip at the end, which you will happily do, believe me! If you only have one day in Medellín, take this tour.
Phew, what a day! I went back to the hostel with some travellers that I met on the bus from Salento and did the walking tour with. I then had another beer and some of the food I got from Govinda that I bought earlier, and called it a night after some chatting. It was such an interesting day, but I was quite tired so decided against going out.
Day 2 – metro cable, Parque Arví and the best veggie food I could have wished for
On day 2 my plan was to head up the hills that surround Medellín. I took the metro to the station of Acevedo, and from there to the metro cable up the hills. The metro cable was installed as a mode of transport for the poor, connecting the poor neighbourhoods that grow up the hills with downtown Medellín. The ride on them gives you an overview of the city and also let’s you literally look down into the lives of the less fortunate of Medellín. You also go by other measures that the city has installed to include the poor, such as the impressive black blocks of the Biblioteca España, a massive free library to give the people access to education, books, courses and computers. You can either just take a ride over the neighbourhoods and then turn back at the station of Santo Domingo Savio, or you purchase another ticket to continue on the metro cable to Parque Arví, a nature reserve near the city. The ride to the park takes in total about 45 min, I would say. Time to relax and enjoy the view. At Parque Arví I would recommend to take a guided tour that they offer various times per day on different topics. I did not take a tour and found it a little underwhelming, as I don’t know any of the plants around there nor did see much wildlife. I think a tour would have been much more interesting.
Nevertheless, a short stroll from the park’s centre there are a handful of food stalls, and one of them was surprisingly vegetarian, offering a lunch menu. They made my portion vegan with a soya burger patty, some salad, rice and beans. Really good stuff for relatively little money (must have been around 2 or 3 € incl. a drink). After a stroll around the area and taking in some sun, I headed back down to the city by metro cable again.
I then headed back to the hostel to relax for a little, and also took a stroll around the neighbourhood of Poblano, peaking into tea shops (I have lived in Britain for too long, I guess) and watching dog owners playing with their pets in the little parks. In the evening I headed out in Poblano to try one of the vegetarian restaurants that I had seen on Happy Cow. None of the fellow travellers wanted to join me, they rather went for fast food chicken (why would you), but it was their miss. I ended up at Verdeo restaurant and cannot stop ravaging about it! It must have been one of the best vegan meals I have had outside of my house. I had some lentil “meat” balls in a tomato-orange sauce, and as a dessert a chocolate mousse with fresh berries. And just because I can I also took a chocolate brownie take-away (they have a small deli during the day, so some things are for take-away). The food was absolutely delicious, the restaurant had a really cool interior, and the waiter was super attentive and nice. A truly great experience and one of my highlights in Medellín. After this fantastic dinner I strolled through the neighbourhood which comes to life at night. There are so many bars and clubs you can choose from, especially around Parque Lleras. Or grab a beer or your drink of choice and just hang out around there, chat with people and do some people watching (which is what I did). It is a very lively atmosphere, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. If you want to party hard, you cannot find a better place than around there too (but enjoy responsibly and son’t do drugs, kids).
The next day in the morning I took a flight from Medellín to Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast (blog post to follow). There are many more things to do in Medellín, such as visiting Museo Botero which I did some years ago when I went to Medellín for the first time, or exploring other neighbourhoods. If you can, try to go in August as they have a huge flower festival going on then, with parades and desfiles. I thoroughly enjoyed the city and will surely be back. Now it’s your turn to experience the city of eternal spring!
Sites and Sights: ++ (not full of historic buildings, but still full of history and stories)
Food: +++ (vegan-friendly, wide variety of restaurants to chose from)
Best time to go: all year round as the climate is pretty stable (not too hot, not too cold, occasional showers)
Transport: fly into the city airport or the international one a 30-45 min drive away; also very good bus connections to all parts of the country
Money: medium value-for-money (not as cheap as in the countryside, but not as expensive as Cartagena)