Medellín. A city synonymous with Pablo Escobar, Narcos and a bloody civil war that saw it become the most dangerous city on earth during the 80s and early 90s. Not anymore. Thankfully the dark days of the Medellín and Cali cartels slaughtering one another´s innocent civilians are a thing of the past. We found a cosmopolitan, chic city that competes with Rio and Buenos Aires as one of South America´s most liveable and enticing cities. Medellín was our favourite place in Colombia, which is surprising given we had set out to avoid busy cities in favour of the country’s beaches, coffee regions and national parks. We had planned on spending just a couple of days in Medellin but a week later, we had to forcibly tear ourselves away. Here’s what to do when you visit Colombia’s coolest city…
Stay in Colombia’s Best Hostel
The lobby looks like a boutique Manhattan hotel, every floor has a different theme inspired by Colombia’s diverse regions and you can cook on the rooftop bbq, help yourself to fresh thyme or mint from the herb garden and grab a craft beer from the tiki bar. Three engergetic young Colombian entrepreneurs dreamt up the ambitious concept and it’s taken 2 years and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to realise their dream.
But it´s not style over substance, the staff are efficient at helping you book tours and transportation, the location is safe and convenient and there is already a real traveller buzz to this place making it easy to meet other backpackers. And thankfully, it’s got a sociable bar but isn’t a ‘party hostel’ so you can bank on a good night’s sleep.
Volunteer In The Barrio
Many of the city’s barrios were once no go zones but Medellín has seen a huge transformation since the 90s. Whilst you can go on touristy barrio tours to get a sense of what people have been through, I’d urge you to find the time to volunteer at Angels of Medellín, a charitable foundation helping families displaced by the drugs war.
It´s truly shocking to see the disparity between rich and poor in Colombia but a stark reminder that whilst it´s all well and good eating at fancy restaurants and putting money into the economy, it´s equally important to do something philanthropic while you´re away and see how many Colombians live. Spending even a day volunteering with founder Marcos will teach you more about the city’s bloody past and the scars it still carries than any guide book or tour. You´ll come away feeling that you have made a mark in some small way – helping improve a child´s English perhaps or serving a meal to a grateful pensioner who probably won´t eat again that day.
So bottom line is that I implore you to drop Marcos an email and go along to see what he´s created for the residents of this neglected neighbourhood. Teaching English to kids and cooking for the elderly was one of the most rewarding and memorable things we did in Colombia and I´m sure you´ll feel the same. Contact Marcos through his Facebook page here
Visit Pablo Escobar’s Mansion
From Jardin to Santa Fe de Antioquia, there are plenty of picturesque colonial towns within easy reach of Medellín. One of the best day tours we did during our entire time in Colombia was the Pablo Escobar tour with Escobar Paintballing – you don´t have to paintball to go on the tour though. I was reluctant to go on the tour as I worried it was glamorizing a war lord and perhaps monetizing on Colombia´s bloody past but it was tastefully done and a really informative tour that put emphasis on the fact that Colombia is about more than cocaine and cartels. The guide pointed out that Colombia has a lot more to offer and as the 2nd most biodiverse country on earth, it´s got more to impress tourists than the story of Pablito.
The tour begins at a small pueblo overlooking the man-made lakes, from here you hop on jeeps (definitely volunteer to sit on the roof!) before tearing up the hill to Pablo Escobar´s crumbling mansion set within sprawling grounds. Grab a beer from the bar before you start the tour of the eerie, atmospheric ruins where Colombia’s most abhorrent criminal lived before Police caught him 1993 and set fire to his former abode. As you wander around the derelict grounds it isn´t hard to imagine him living here – the buildings may be ruins but the setting is every bit as lavish as you would imagine.
After a tour of the grounds, an aggressive game of paintballing ensued as we were divided into teams representing the Cali and Medellin cartels. Unsurprisingly, most of the girls opted out of this activity. I foolishly agreed to one game and still walked away with an almighty bruise! It´s probably the most extreme and exhilarating paint ball game you´ll ever play so if you haven´t tried it before I would recommend signing up. The equipment is good and you can pay for extra balls if you get a bit too trigger happy. After lunch at Pablo´s house, we hopped on speed boats across the lake to postcard perfect Guatapé, known for its houses decorated with colorful bas-reliefs. The town oozes Colombian charm – rickshaws wobble up and down cobbled streets and brightly painted houses cry out to be photographed.
Visit Free sights
Do The Free Walking Tour
The best way to get your bearings and learn about Medellín’s history it to sign up for the free walking tour. Over 4 hours you’ll pound the hectic streets of downtown Medellín, stopping to observe the prostitutes who sell their bodies outside the church, gawping at the photogenic Plaza Botero dotted with 23 comically chubby sculptures by the famous Colombian artist and visit San Antonio Park, the site of Pablo Escobar’s heartless bombing which killed 30 people. It may bill itself as ´free´ but in fact the hugely knowledgeable guides don´t get paid so rely purely on tips to make a living – 20-25,000 pesos per person is a fair contribution.
See The City From Above
Party in El Poblado
Be Inspired by Colourful Street Art
Whizz About On World Class Public Transport
Eat Mouthwatering Food
You can´t leave Medellin without sampling the famous Bandeja Paisa, a typical dish of Colombia which will fill you up for the rest of the day. It consists of meat of your choice and is accompanied by a heaping mound of sweet plantain, salad, avocado, a fried egg, rice and beans. The best spot to try one is Centro Comercial Palacio Nacional. You will visit this on the free city walking tour so make a note of where it is – its a palatial building from 1925 which has been transformed into a garish shopping mall with more than 200 budget shops (most selling fake designer clothing and footwear often manufactured on site). There is a casual restaurant right in the middle which serves delicious Bandeja Paisa with a big dose of Colombian charm. At lunchtime expect to queue with locals who flock here for a bargain meal.
If you fancy a blow out dinner (well, most mains average at $15 so not too bad), try Oci.Mde. The cocktail bar alone is worth a visit and if you can´t be bothered to wait for a table, you can eat at the bar counter. Dishes include crispy belly pork salad, slow cooked beef and chorizo and fish stew. As they say in Colombia, ¡buen provecho! Everything we ate was outstanding but it´s quite dressy so maybe don´t go dressed in flip flops and shorts.
For a sugary pick-me-up head to Amarillo chocolate Cafe, a quaint little panaderia offering an enticing selection of cocoa themed drinks and snacks. The chocolate frio is incredible and they also do a good selection of breakfasts.