Oh, Medellín (pronounced meh·duh·yeen). After my umm, less-than-glowing review of Colombia in a previous post, I must now clarify that although most of the trip to Colombia was an utter bust, there was one clear and definite period of redemption at the end of the experience. What redeemed Colombia, in my eyes, from being labelled not worth visiting at all, was the lovely city of Medellín. Due to the importance of Medellín not just nationally, but as a city of Latin American importance, possibly international importance in some sense, I feel that Medellín warrants its own post.
Medellín (City of Eternal Spring) is an emerald gem, a thriving oasis nestled along the Aburrá Valley in the regional department of Antioquia. It’s not only beautiful, and in many places very modern and cosmopolitan, unlike everywhere else I visited in Colombia, Medellín is also quite old by standards for the Americas, in 1574 the first settlement, a ranch, was established in the valley. Though the establishment of what eventually became the city’s first actual neighbourhood did not take place until 1616 when the settlement of El Poblado was formed.
Medellín is a truly amazing city, a modern center of arts (even for graffiti), education, innovation and entertainment. And good food as well, an anomaly in a country sadly lacking in this department. For a city that once had the distinction of being the most dangerous urban center on earth in the 1980s and early ’90s, during the reign of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel (a time of extreme violence, crime and extreme poverty), the fact that Medellín has made it so far in such a short time is a testament to those many intrepid souls who have been proud to call Medellín home since then.
My hat is certainly off to you. I love your beautiful city and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to visit. And I’m also glad I saw it at the end of my Colombia trip, as it somewhat salvaged the very low opinion of Colombia I’d since developed.
My wife, her father, and I arrived in Medellin by air from Cartagena, landing at the José María Cordóva Airport. A fairly short ride in a private taxi brought us from the airport near Rionegro through the Túnel de Oriente, the second-longest tunnel in Latin America, exiting at the base of a mountain by El Poblado, arguably the most upscale neighbourhood in Medellin, but more on that later.
Our driver was not just an operator of taxis, but apparently somewhat of an accomplished tour guide as well, and he offered such services should we so desire them. Right now! Just a quick tour following our sweaty and hectic trip from Cartagena. Come on! It’ll be fun. We had to decline his adamant suggestions for a short tour, somewhat forcibly.
I also had to inform him, when he attempted to alter the initially quoted fare as soon as the wheels of his vehicle started rolling, that I wasn’t falling for his shit and he could let us out right now if he planned on behaving like a dirtbag. Once it was established that we weren’t new to the country, and I was well-wise to all the regular Colombian bullshit, the rest of the drive went swimmingly.
As a Canadian, it’s often difficult and unnatural to be rude and aggressive to strangers just to avoid being scammed, even for me, and I’m often considered brutally honest among my Canadian friends and family. But after traveling quite extensively over the past number of years, I realize that what often seems confrontational to me is fairly normal in other cultures. Whether I like it or not. Adapt and survive.
Our driver eventually deposited at Hotel Asturias in the lovely Laureles neighbourhood of Medellín, and we were checked in by genuinely helpful and friendly staff, who were more than delighted to give us tips and suggestions of where to eat and what we might enjoy seeing during our stay. After settling in we headed out for our first real Medellín experience.
What a fantastic initial experience we had. After two months of eating barely-palatable food in nearly every place previously dined in Colombia, with a few exceptions, of course, the first meal at “The Grill Station” on Carrera 76 was like falling asleep in hell and waking up in heaven. Hands down the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant, no exaggeration.
Nearby Avenida Nutibara has many restaurants, and after enjoying a large number of them during the course of our stay, I can’t say that any weren’t, at the very least, good. More often great. That goes for almost all the food we had in Laureles and Poblado, and even on the party strip “La 70”.
Much of the grub spots up and down La 70 were hamburger and hot-dog joints, but it’s the party strip so what more does a person need than good, cheap, available, hot food to wolf down for quick energy so you can dance and party long into the wee hours? It’s as good as any cheap sidewalk eats to be found anywhere.
We had an American friend we’d met in Gaira (a town near Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. A suburb of Santa Marta actually). He was an older fella who happened to own apartments/condos in both Gaira and the El Poblado neighbourhood of Medellín. He offered to show us around El Poblado when we got to Medellín, which, after arriving, we were quick to take him up on.
The neighbourhood is, if you remember, the original site of what eventually became Medellín, and certainly has its bit of trendy charm, with popular little cafe’s, galleries, and nightspots, but is better known as the upscale, ritzy area of Medellín. Wealth is apparent in the many gated communities consisting of beautiful new high-rise condos with their manicured lawns and spotlessly clean streets, but where it’s unmistakably apparent is along the Milla de Oro.
The Golden Mile, located on Avenida El Poblado, is an opulent array of luxury car dealerships, glittering business towers, fancy and expensive eateries, casinos and more shopping than could ever be accurately described without actually seeing it first-hand. Massive multi-tiered malls offer the top brands in everything from clothing to accessories to electronics and houseware. It’s truly mind-boggling. Especially considering the fact that it’s located in Colombia.
I could write a small book just from the ten-day experience we had in the city, but not here. There is so much to see and do in Medellin, with its near innumerable libraries, museums, parks (Jardin Botanico de Medellín | Medellín Botanical Garden) is one such example, we spent a very pleasant afternoon there), restaurants aplenty, pubs, bars and discos, and so much more.
The metro takes people to all corners of the city, and was instrumental in changing the dynamic of Medellín after its construction, offering people in every neighbourhood the freedom to live, play and work anywhere the metro reaches. Cable cars branching off of the mainline carry people up the mountainsides to even the hardest to reach areas. One such neighbourhood has a giant outdoor escalator where a cable car wasn’t feasible. Brilliant!
There are even tours to some of these areas, which is the safest way to see them. I recommend this option for those interested in such things, although I personally don’t care which neighbourhood Pablo Escobar is from. It seems to me like he was an asshole. No tour for me.
Although Medellín is now so much safer than it was in the eighties and nineties, it is a big, densely populated city in a country known for crime and violence, and does still have its imperfections, as do all big cities. There are some areas (eg. La Candelaria) that tourists, and maybe even some locals, should avoid going at all, and after dark, some extra precautions should be taken if out enjoying Medellín’s thriving night culture anywhere. You can check out neighbourhood area alerts here.
Although the other places I visited in Colombia didn’t do much for me, save a small few exceptions, Medellín impressed not only me but my wife and her pops as well. A lot. It’s got that magic that some places do and has something special to offer almost everyone. When fate lands me there again, I’ll be happy it did. Until next time, Medellín!
Best Tours of Medellín
- Medellin Full Day Private City Tour
- Half-day Coffee Plantation Private Tour
- Village & Coffee Tour – 7 days
- Electric Bike Food & Drink Tour
- Spanish & Salsa Classes in Guatapé