I lost a lot of myself in Medellín. In a good way of course. By that I mean it stole a massive piece of my heart. It snuck up on me, and it robbed me blind. In its place is now a piece of Paisa pride.
Seven glorious weeks in the city of eternal spring and I already want to go back. Like, now. If you’ve stumbled across this because you’re visiting soon, I’m envious. Actually, can I come too?
We arrived as tourists and we booked one week. Thinking that was enough to delve into the city that flashed across our TV when we binged on Netflix’s Narcos series.
It’s hard to believe that in as little as 10 years ago Medellín was still too dangerous to visit. The most violent city, in the most violent country in the entire world. And even though there are still remnants of its violent history, the drastic development is hard to comprehend.
“Pajaros De Paz” The bird scuplture on the left was destroyed in ’95 when a cartel bomb exploded during a concert, killing over 20 people. One of the many devastating moments in Medellín’s incredibly violent history. The artist Fernando Botero demanded that the damaged sculpture was not to be removed, and instead created and placed an identical bird next to it as a symbol of rejection towards the violence. This is such a powerful symbol of how far Medellìn (and Colombia) has come. What was once the most dangerous city in the world, in as little as 20 years, is now such a beautiful, urban, vibrant place. Home to the most happy, welcoming and optimistic people we’ve ever met. We genuinely cannot walk down a street without a Paisa saying hello, welcome and/or thank you for visiting. We’ve been here 48 hours and have had the chance to meet and chat with more locals than any other place we’ve visited. Genuinely the most charming and approachable people we’ve encountered, please ignore any echoes of worry or concern when visiting Colombia, and in particular, Medellín. Like a cruel mistress, she will steal your heart and have you begging for more. From these two gringos to all the paisas, thank you.
It’s also strange to think back, when we arrived as stereotypical tourists, excited to be in the home of the infamous Pablo Escobar. God, we were so naive. Like many, we were brainwashed by Hollywood. We had no idea just how much this city had to offer, outside of its narco narrative. We had no clue of the locals attitude and how the name still stings the air and leaves bad tastes all around.
We arrived planning to do every Escobar tour we could and ask every question we wanted answered. Us, the couple that had front row seats to ‘Capturing Pablo – an Evening with Steve Murphy and Javiar Pena’. A live Q&A, held in Dublin, with the two DEA agents who helped capture the infamous man.
It wasn’t long after we touched down, that we realised Medellín has come far from its painful past and is tired of being associated with the narco nonsense. We jumped back on the fence, and then fell into the garden of the Paisas. After a few days, we barely spoke his name.
We ignored our original plan, opened our eyes and started learning from the locals. We washed Hollywood away and instead watched the local news. Discovering that to this very day the violent history is still in the process of unravelling, thanks to ongoing peace talks between the government and paramilitary organisations.
Medellín is a city that continues to thrive due the Paisa attitude alone. A city that thousands of ex-pats now call home and a place that you will find tough to leave.
The weeks spent here changed me. For the better. Always for the better. I left calling myself a Paisa, whether anyone agrees or not and I’ll always see Medellín as home from home.
I didn’t need the positive and infectious Paisa attitude, or the warm and friendly welcome. It wasn’t just the weather, the culture, the incredible history, the food and the million other things I love about Medellín.
From the minute I exited the bus and scanned my eyes across the sparkling mountains, lit by the thousands of neighbourhoods that proudly watch over the city, I was addicted.
Seven weeks in Medellín, and yet it still wasn’t enough.
From Bogotá to Medellín:
First thing first. Unless it’s a local holiday, there is no need to pre-book a bus. You’ll most definitely find a cheaper deal, in person.
We took an overnight bus to Medellín from the Transporte Terminal in Bogotá. A beautiful 10-hour scenic drive up and over the Colombian mountains, a drive we enjoyed in the dark, to save on accomodation.
At the Bogotá bus station, enter through Puerto 2 and get your haggle hat on. There is no fixed tariff for this journey so nearly every price can be negotiated.
There are a lot of bus companies who travel this route. We went with the cheapest, Cornorte. They have busses running all day, including overnights leaving at 6pm, 7.30pm, 8.45pm and 10pm.
We jumped the 8.45pm for 50,000 COP (€15) Not bad considering it had the whole lot; WiFi, plugs, recliner seats and movies.
There was one stop for grub along the way, and we arrived into Medellín’s Terminal del Norte at 6.30am the following morning.
Wherever you’re travelling from, there are plenty of busses running. Although long journeys (17hours if you’re coming from Cartagena!) the busses are comfortable and well equipped. Sometimes, internal flights are just as cheap as the busses, so keep an eye on the likes of Viva Colombia.
The bus terminal is connected to the metro, head to the top floor and cross the bridge to Caribe station. You can access majority of the city using the metro. Taxis are usually waiting outside the arrivals entrance, although not hugely expensive, agree on a price beforehand or request the meter.
Accommodation in Medellín:
Ask any traveller where they stayed while in Medellín or where they recommend, and you’ll sure hear the word Poblado.
Poblado has everything a tourists heart desires. It’s nightlife is exceptional, the atmosphere is buzzing and there is nothing you cannot find here, but expect Gringo prices. If you’re travelling solo, this is where you’ll met the like minded. It’s a very safe area, close to the centre and on the metro line, just watch for pick pockets.
A tourist’s city within a city, of course we stayed well away and decided to set up base somewhere less international and more local.
We spent our first week in Medellín here and absolutely loved it. Such a buzzing area, the streets are lined with reatauarants, bars, nightclubs, cafes and street food vendors.
There are cheap supermarkets, markets and our favourite, the football stadium. It’s also on the metro line, with San Antonio (the city centre) only three stops away at the cost of 2,300 (less than €1).
This is where the locals come to drink, this the place where you’ll find some of the best Salsa clubs and during football season, when the National team are playing, this is where you want to be.
Aparthotel Fe Jaz:
Aparthotel Fe Jaz is an apartment complex just off Calle 70, the main street in Laureless. Each floor holds a large kitchen, common area, shared bathroom and 4-5 bedrooms, some private, others dorms. There are three floors in total.
How lucky where we to have the whole apartment floor to ourselves. We had a private room and bathroom, a balcony with city views and a living area with a big ass TV and Netflix. Heaven!
The complex is ran by a local family and they sweetest bunch of people. Step outside and meet the amazing locals, who are so friendly, intrigued to know you and are always on hand to help. We made so many friends and were even offered a job.
There is also an Exito and a D1 store nearby, go here to buy all your grocery needs. They’re like Lidl, only cheaper. Yes that’s possible!
Another area we loved was Floresta, only a 20 minute walk or one-metro-stop from Laureles. It’s a lot more calmer around these parts, although there are a number of bars, restauarants street food.
Casa Albaka, Floresta:
Steering clear once again of the tourist town. We moved to the neighbourhood of Floresta, 30mins walk from Laureles and found the coolest hostel. It’s relatively new (May ’17) so you won’t find many reviews on it.
Take it from us, it’s such a great place to stay with a fantastic backpacker vibe. All the furniture and beds are handmade; the common room has hammocks and “crate couches” stacked with cushions, the kitchen is fully equipped (the best we’ve encountered), free self-service laundry (YES!!) all you need is soap, complimentary coffee, excellent Wi-Fi and flatscreen TV in the living room.
Its affordable rates are also highly appealing. During low season expect to pay around 30,000 COP (€9) per night for private room with shared bathroom. Rooms increase to 40-45,000 COP (€13) during high season.
We stayed for 3 nights and found it hard to leave. So much so, we went back to stay a further two times, and if there were volunteer opportunities available at the time, we would probably still be there.
To avoid any additional booking fees and VAT costs, contact the guys directly via Whatsapp +57 302 391 8568. Please, tell John, Eliza and Alejandra we said hello!
Things To Do in Medellín:
Take a Chocolate Tour:
There is no denying that Colombia is home to some of the most drool-worthy chocolate. As chocolate lovers, we jumped at the chance to volunteer for two months on a chocolate farm located only a half hour from Medellin’s northern bus terminal. That chocolate farm (and our home from home) being Origen Cacao, and let us be brutally honest – the chocolate there is TO. DIE. FOR.
If you are interested in fully immersing yourself in the chocolate making process, taking a two-hour tour that starts with the heart-warming and highly interesting stories behind the origin of the cacao beans; the local farmers and regions it was sourced from. The tour then takes a turn to the process itself where you can learn how Origen Cacao produces 100% Colombian chocolate, from bean to bar. You will also get the chance to taste the variety of flavours available and even make your own chocolate bars (yes there are differnt flavours and fillings to experiment with, so you never know – you might even learn how to rival Cadburys!).
The two hour tour takes place on Tuesdays and Fridays and costs 75,000CP per person (€20). It is best to book in advance and you can do so here.
It is easy to grab a local bus heading to Santa Domingo (near Barbosa) from Terminal del Norte which is next to the Caribe Metro Station. The bus costs 6,000CP per person each way and drops you right outside the Origen Cacao EcoResort. The bus returning to Medellin costs the same and passes the front gate on the hour, every hour.
Oh! And if you buy any bars, do let us know what you think as some of the stock is the chocolate WE made! *squeals*
The Real City Tours Walking Tour:
First of all, it’s free. Well, donation based. Either way you will find yourself throwing money at the guides, since it’s such a fantastic and interesting day out, basically a crash course on the Paisa town.
A popular tour, there are two a day (9am and 2pm) and you will need to register and book in advance through their website.
It takes around 4 hours in total, learning everything from Medellín’s history, culture, food, its current political statue and the ever-evolving society. You will visit key areas; popular, pristine and well, “rough”. A lot of the areas we visited were those you should steer clear of (but it’s obviously safe to visit with the tour) so you genuinely get the full insight to the “real” Medellín.
The guides are all Paisa’s and therefore extremely passionate people. Expect somewhat theatrical performances, real-life stories and enough information to make you feel like a Paisa yourself.
Casa De La Memoria:
After our walking tour, we had the urge to delve even more into the city’s history, particularly its violent past and recent conflicts. This exhibition-style museum, which is dedicated to victims of armed conflict, is free to visit and most definitely worth it. Located on Calle 51, not too far from San Antonio metro station, walk in eager to learn and walk away feeling emotional, saddened but inspired.
What we found extremely interesting about this place was that, although it is the complete guide to Medellín’s history, there is very little mention of Pablo Escobar. All you will find are paper clippings from the day of his death. This gives a really interesting perspective to the overall attitude towards the famous man.
Ride the Metro/Cable Car:
You cannot come to Medellín and not ride the impressive metro system. The Paisa’s are so proud of their transport system, here you won’t find graffiti or markings on the carts, unlike the rest of the city, there is no litter in sight and you can forget about having a snack. It’s forbidden to eat!
The only rail-based transport system in Colombia, its launch in 1995 was and still is seen as a progressive step from the violence and hopelessness to opportunity, change and a future.
The metro cable is also a must and included in the price of your metro (train) ticket, so there is no excuse to miss this. This system connects the thousands of barrios high up in the mountains with the city, providing many opportunities and a sense of inclusion.
We’re addicted to this big giant swing above the city! The Medellín metro cable not only has the best views, but links to the coolest little barrios and the beautiful Parque Arvi. So much to explore for less than €1, or €1.50 if you take it up and over the forest to Parque Arvi. This is a must in Medellín!
What is a daily commute for many, has now become the ultimate tourist attraction of Medellín. Take the metro to Acevedo station (2,300 COP), and follow the signs for the metro cable. Jump on at no extra cost and enjoy a god’s eye view of the world beneath.
It takes about 25mins to reach the top, also known as Santo Domingo station. We jumped off here and went for a nice stroll around the neighbourhood. Exit Santo Domingo metro on your right and walk down the steps to your right. You’ll see a small park up ahead. There is an amazing viewing point with more spectacular city views. Kids will approach you to offer history on the barrio for a few pennies in exchange. No harm to do it, but they only speak Spanish.
Leave the “park” and take a left and walk right around the neighbourhood. Grab some street food, coffee, enjoy a chat with locals.
NOTE: For the best photo opportunities from the cable car, hold out for one with clear and clean windows.
Sticking with the theme, why not escape the city, say hello to nature and go even higher into the mountains. From Santo Domingo station change to metro cable L and take the cable car to Arví Park, the final stop.
Unfortunately, this isn’t included in your metro ticket but at the cost of 5,200 COP (each way) it’s a steal.
While here, go for a hike, bring a picnic to Chorro Clarín and enjoy the fresh air. Definitely grab an authentic Colombian coffee while up there.
Alternatively you can walk up to Piedras Blancas (about an hour or so) or take the local shuttle bus. You’ll have to pay an entry fee but lots of activities including zip lining etc. The bus is free on the way back. We’re not 100% on prices. There are also options to take a horse.
Although tourist heavy, it’s worth popping on down to Poblado especially if you are chasing some nightlife. The streets are lined with every kind of restaurants, café bars, and club but note that prices here are higher than anywhere else in the city.
On the weekends, tourists and locals unite in Parqué Lleras to pre-drink the evening away before heading off for a dance.
Please go here!
What was once known as the most dangerous neighbour in the world, has transformed into a colourful community that welcomes and appreciates a visit from tourists. The walls all brightly coloured with street art, and the houses each painted in bright pastel colours; it’s hard to believe this used to be such a corrupt and dangerous barrio, owned and controlled by Pablo Escobar.
Take a look through our eyes at the once infamous Comuna 13 neighbourhood in Medellìn. Not long ago, this was the most dangerous barrio in the most dangerous city in the world. With scenes of open warfare between cartels, guerillas and paramilitaries, that claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent bystanders, now stands as a symbol of the hope and determination of the paisas to reclaim their barrio, their country and their dignity. Today you will find newly installed electric escalators, to help the locals reach the staggering heights of the houses, graffiti artists painting murals with messages of love, peace and hope, children and families full of smiles and laughter, and a very welcoming community. All of this and more has turned such a violent place into one of the most colourful places in Medellìn. Viva la Colombia.
A city project saw the launch of its outdoor escalator system, which now allows easy access from the hilltops to the city. Climb high and soak up the atmosphere as you go. We spent the entire day here, and cannot recommend it enough.
How To Get There:
Take the metro to San Javier station. From here, you can catch a bus that drops you at the foot of the barrio, just ask the station staff to point you in the right direction.
But of course, we prefer life on foot, and decide to take the 20minute walk, a very enjoyable one we must say.
Exit the metro station and take a left. Walk straight up Calle 42 (the main road) and take a left at the restaurant called Carbon. Stay on the main Calle 40 road, and follow it to the right.
At the junction take a left onto Calle 108 and stay straight as it turns onto Calle 109 and Calle 110. At the end of C110 you’ll arrive into a square full of graffiti. Look up to your right and you’ll see the escalators.
Say Hey To Guatapé:
We heard so much about Colombia’s colourful town including advertised posters about booking tours and a day trips. We decided to give this some of well-deserved attention, packed our bags and jumped a bus with the aim of spending two nights there.
For our full guide on Guatapé, jump on over here.
Journey South to Jardín:
For a taste of authentic Colombia, take the 2.5 hour drive south to a puebla called Jardín. A definite highlight and a must see, feel like you have jumped back in time and live in a world that remains unchanged.
Most definitely worth its own blog, check out how our time was well spent in Jardín, here.
Treat Yourself to a Bandeja Paisa
It would be rude to end a blog about Medellín and not mention the famous Bandeja paisa dish. A family-sized plate for one stuffed with red beans, rice, avocado, fried egg, plantain, mincemeat, chorizo, crispy pork belly, an arepa and some salad.
It sounds like a heart attack and you should fast before taking the plunge, but a trip to Paisa-ville isn’t one without indulging in a bandeja paisa.
So, there you have it – our guide to learning, living and loving Medellín, especially if you are on a budget. A city you will thoroughly enjoy, we originally planned to stay no more than a week but that soon escalate. Before we could bink, we were living and working on a chocolate farm, high up in the Copacabana mountains. A place we called home for two months.
But that’s for another blog.
Our point being, we feckin’ love Medellín.
It’s time to say goodbye to our home from home. Although we’re so excited to be back on the road, and itching to explore the coast of Colombia, leaving the city of eternal spring is so bitter sweet. We bid farewell to our chocolate farm, our fonda-bar home, an incredible city and the Paisa life. She stole our hearts. So no doubt we’ll return one day to get them back, if we can. Seven glorious weeks in Medellín. Yet it still wasn’t enough. Next stop: Cartagena.