Medellín was my first and favorite destination in Colombia; in fact, it was one of my favorite cities during my whole trip. It’s hard for me to identify a specific factor that made it so special, but a vibrant energy enveloped the city, and it was evident that residents were loyal to and proud of their home.
After resting on my first full day in Medellín, I visited Piedra de Peñol and the town of Guatapé the following morning. It was easy to use public transportation to get to Piedra de Peñol: I took the metro (2,400 COP/~$0.90 for a single ride) to Caribe and then bought a bus ticket (14,000 COP/~$5) for the two-hour trip to Piedra de Peñol.
The bus dropped us near the entrance to Piedra de Peñol. After paying the entrance fee (18,000 COP/~$6), I climbed the 650+ steps to the top of the rock.
The climb wasn’t particularly strenuous, but the humidity was killer. By the time I reached the top, I was sweating through my tshirt. (I’m warning you now: this is gonna be a theme throughout this post.)
Many vendors were selling cups of fruit at the top, so I got a cup of sweet and juicy pineapple. After futilely trying to dry off, I climbed down the rock and then began the 45-minute walk to Guatapé. Most people take a bus or taxi to get from Piedra de Peñol to Guatapé, but the walk was easy and safe—albeit not very scenic. My only view was of the cars that regularly whizzed by, and I had to be careful with them since the road had no path or sidewalk. My main reason for walking was to up my step count, but it’s certainly not a must.
Once I arrived in Guatapé, I took photos of the colorful buildings, many of which featured zócalos/panels depicting different scenes.
It was Palm Sunday, so parishioners were in church.
Two hours in Guatapé was plenty of time for me, but I met others who found it enchanting and said they could have spent multiple nights there.
On another day, I went on a four-hour walking tour with Real City (free; tip the guides). My guide Camilo had a biomedical engineering degree and had been leading tours for two years. Sometimes he led two tours a day. (As a former university tour guide, I had a ton of respect for him summoning the energy for this. I was wiped after leading just one 75-minute tour.)
More than 20 people were on the tour, but Camilo had the superpower of remembering everyone’s name immediately after we introduced ourselves. He was an engaging storyteller and gave us an overview of recent politics. To boil Camilo’s stories down into an unnuanced summary, we heard about the main players in Medellín politics (FARC, paramilitary groups, drug cartels, and the government) and how they influenced daily life.
Pablo Escobar was a major figure in some of Camilo’s stories, but instead of mentioning him by name, Camilo referred to Escobar as “the famous criminal.” Since Escobar was such a polarizing figure, Camilo said locals’ ears would prick up if they heard him say “Pablo Escobar.” To minimize interference with the tour, Camilo avoided saying Escobar’s name altogether—a real-life Voldemort.
Even though Medellín was becoming more of a travel destination, Camilo told us that tourists were still an unusual sight for many locals. He said people might be curious about our group, so we could expect stares and random people stopping to see what we were doing. Sure enough, throughout our tour, about ten people stopped by our group to listen in on Camilo for a few seconds and then resumed their normal business after deciding our conversation didn’t interest them. A much larger number of people just stared as we walked by. None of this was a nuisance, but I’m glad Camilo gave us notice, or else I would have been distracted—and perhaps a little wary.
Despite Medellín’s violent history, Camilo was optimistic about the future. He described cultural and educational initiatives in the city. At the end of the tour, he brought us to a plaza with a Fernando Botero bird statue, which suffered heavy damage in a terrorist bombing in 1995. Botero demanded that the bombed statue remain in the plaza and made a new, identical version to stand by it. Camilo said the statues perfectly represented how Medellín was rebuilding from periods of turbulence. Before you roll your eyes and dismiss this as saccharine, let me say that I’m not doing a good job of capturing Camilo’s spirit. As an outsider, I run the risk of sounding patronizing. (“Oh, good for you! Look at all the progress you’ve made!”) But, really, Camilo’s hope was so genuine and infectious in person that our whole group got swept up in it.
After the walking tour, I walked to the tranvía, part of Medellín’s public transportation system. Camilo told us the metro was an important symbol of the city, and residents strictly adhered to the rules while riding it (no eating or drinking, no vandalism). The tranvía required a separate ticket, and it was just as clean—if not cleaner—than the metro. Since the tranvía was at street level, it offered great opportunities for people watching. When I reached the end of the line, I saw that I could take a metrocable, so I hopped into a car with a few other people to go up the hills. As we passed over barrios, it felt invasive to peer into people’s homes, so I tried to avoid being a gawking tourist.
I was the only one to remain in the car as it wound around for the return trip. It began raining heavily, and the car stopped a couple of times before I reached the station at the halfway point, where a police officer told me to exit the car.
A lightning storm was brewing, so the metrocables were being shut down until the storm passed. A few other strandees were stuck at the station with me, and I grew surprisingly chilly. (Short sleeves were the wrong choice, even with the humidity.) After a couple of hours, the storm died down enough for the metrocable to resume operation. Not gonna lie–I felt pretty cool that I had witnessed a lightning storm on the metrocable and was eager to tell the people at my hostel. No one was impressed.
On another morning, I went on a street art tour of Comuna 13 (60,000 COP/~$21), which I booked through my hostel. Comuna 13 had been notorious as one of Medellín’s most violent neighborhoods, but now, it’s a popular spot for tours. Our guide was 19-year-old Esteban, who had grown up in Comuna 13. Esteban briefed us on the recent history of the neighborhood, which had been a war zone between paramilitary groups, FARC, and the government.
As we looked at different works, Esteban told us about some of the artists’ recurring themes. For example, artist John Serna (@chota_13) favored big eyes and luscious lips.
Esteban took us to a café where Serna worked as a barista. I opted for an iced latte with chocolate and arequipe/dulce de leche syrup, but the café was known for its coffee lemonade, which one of my group mates got. She was kind enough to let me take a sip. (Verdict: tasted like lemonade with a coffee kick.)
On another day, a couple of hostel guests and I took the metro and then a metrocable (11,100 COP/~$4 roundtrip) to Parque Arvi. We shared a car with a young girl who was enormously excited to be on the metrocable. I’m not a kid person, but it was sweet to watch her share her delight with her mom. During the second half of this metrocable ride, we glided over trees rather than homes, so it felt less intrusive than the other metrocable I rode.
Honestly, the excited girl on the metrocable was the highlight of Parque Arvi. The park itself wasn’t amazingly scenic, but it was nice to have a retreat from the bustle of the city. My hostel mates and I took a short walk through the forest, which was cut even shorter by rain. On our way back to the metrocable, we stopped at a market, where I housed down a bowl of strawberries and raspberries.
One night, a gorgeous hostel staff member—who had absolutely no interest in me and probably thought I was a creep for staring at him so much—took a group of us to a salsa club that was about a 15-minute drive from our hostel. No one in the group had any idea where we were going, but we put our trust in the gorgeous staff member (aight, I’m just going to call him GSM from now on).
The club was hopping, with a band playing live music. I knew nothing about salsa, but a couple of people (including GSM—you bet I was intimidated; attractive people scare me) valiantly tried to lead me. I had zero moves, so there was no point in trying to pretend to be cool. The best thing I can say about my attempts at salsa was that I didn’t step on anyone’s foot. A fellow guest knew how to salsa and could hold her own; she became popular among the crowd at the club.
Since the club was packed, I occasionally brushed by guys whose shirts were soaked with sweat. They didn’t seem to be affected by the heat or humidity, though, and continued to light up the floor. I was just as sweaty as they were, and I was dying.
The next night, my hostel hosted a free salsa lesson on the rooftop; as a bonus, GSM led the lesson with an assistant. The lesson was on the night of a local soccer match, so there was a large gender disparity: 12 girls were ready to salsa, but only two guys showed up at the rooftop. It didn’t matter—I paired up with one of my female hostel buddies, who also happened to be the salsa veteran at the club we had visited the previous night.
GSM taught us the basic steps first, and then we tried partnering. Although my partner was a good leader and incredibly patient, I don’t remember a single step from the lesson. I have some kind of mental block where I can’t remember dance moves that require more than bobbing from side to side and maybe pumping an arm in the air. Due to the humidity, I got just as sweaty as I did in the salsa club.
At the end of the lesson, GSM and his assistant demonstrated how salsa should actually be done. The lesson confirmed that I’m not meant for ballroom dancing. There’s nothing in my DNA that will allow me to move as smoothly as they did. (But, if anyone can teach me hip hop, you’ll be my hero.)
Later that night, a bunch of hostel guests decided to go out, and a bar called Vintrash was chosen as the meeting place. A couple of friends and I headed out before the rest of the group, which was a mistake: we couldn’t find the forking bar, even after asking staff at other bars, police officers, and a hotel security guard. They either hadn’t heard of Vintrash or gave directions that didn’t seem to get us any closer to our destination.
After combing the streets for an hour, we gave up and tried to find somewhere to dance. Our first stop was a hookah bar with Latin dance music. Drinks were on the pricier side for Medellín (a Corona was 16,000 COP or ~$5.50), but we splurged on a round of beers and tried to get into the music. At this point, though, all of us—even the salsa veteran—had had our fill of ballroom, so we finished our beers and then ducked into another bar that was playing music outside. Strike two: it was more like a restaurant inside, and no one was dancing.
In a Goldilocks-like twist of fate, the third bar we entered ended up being the sweet spot. The DJ played music I could dance to (top 40 from the past couple of decades—this is my language), and the bar was lively, with two floors and a mix of locals and travelers. My hostel mates and I hit the dance floor, and we forgot all about the frustration not being able to find the rest of group from the hostel. Merriment abounded: memorable new friends included a middle-aged couple and their teenage son, and an affable guy who kept gifting shots of aguadientes. (Instead of guzzling these shots, I threw them all over my shoulder. Look, Mom! I’m a full-fledged adult now…?)
A few final notes about Medellín:
- Let me be clear…
- In case I haven’t talked about sweat enough yet, sweatiness was a state of being in Medellín. I hadn’t been that sweaty since Southeast Asia. Thank goodness for charcoal gray and black tops—they were the only way I could kinda hide the sweat pooling down my back. It rained every afternoon during my stay, but it did nothing to break the humidity. It wasn’t a big deal, though; I liked to have a couple of hours of downtime, so I usually just hung around my hostel when it rained.
- The pride of Colombia
- In a country known for beautiful women, Colombians like to say that Medellín has the most attractive women. Colombians—not just Medellín residents—kept saying this to the point where I was like, “OK, I guess I have to write this down.”
- Los Patios
- I had met a Dutch traveler in Indonesia who recommended that I stay at Los Patios if I decided to visit Medellín. I kept a note about Los Patios in my phone for a few months, and the Dutch guy was so right to recommend it. It was one of my favorite hostels, with friendly (and gorgeous!) staff and guests. Los Patios wasn’t a rowdy party hostel, but it was still social with lots of organized events. Rooms were clean and modern, and bunks had personal fans (a lifesaver) and privacy curtains. I give a lot of credit to Los Patios for my fond memories of Medellín.
- “Must-visit” bar
- Los Patios was in Poblado, which is known as the neighborhood where travelers and expats like to go out. The night before I arrived in Medellín, a bunch of hostel guests had gone to a bar with a ball pit, and it was all they could talk about. I never ended up checking it out, but if you’re looking for a good night, the “bar with a ball pit in Poblado” seems like the place to be.