Hola chicas! I’m branching out today from my usual design posts to tell you guys all about my recent trip to Medellín. Mark my words, ladies, Medellín is the the next Latin American Prague. I really feel like it’s poised to become the next hipster tourist destination, and I’m glad I got to experience it before this happened. So, in case you’re thinking about travel to South America, I can at least fill you in on all of my recs and do’s and don’ts for travel to Medellín.
Why Medellín? I think I mentioned this in an earlier blog post, but my husband and I were looking for a quick and easy destination outside the U.S. (I’m over U.S. travel, I feel like I’ve seen and done it all) so we were considering Panama because we have a friend there. But then we had dinner with a group and one of the women there (ya’ll this woman is 77 years old and she travels all over the world, I swear to God I hope I end up like her, she’s a hot sh*t there’s just no other way to put it lol) was like, “why not Medellín?”. She lives there part-time because her son is married to a Colombian, and she loves it.
Well guess what? We loved it too. Luhhhhh-ved it. I was totally iffy because I’m more of a Europe/Scandinavia type of traveler and living in South Florida I feel like I get plenty of Latin culture here in Miami. But, no. This was so totally different.
So anyway, rather than wax on about how great it was I’m just going to list my recs for you in case you go and then just go over some basics that I picked up as to how to conduct yourself there wisely and safely.
El Che | Tres Tipicos
Traditional dining. El Che has great, traditional churrasco steak. And then there’s Bao Bei which is Asian fusion. I don’t really drink and I’m not a nightclub person but I was told that the Hotel Charlee has a really happening rooftop bar (though I heard the rooms are noisy because it’s right in the middle of Parque Lleras or the “Gringo Ghetto” (more on that later).
The neighborhood breakdown is this: Most tourists stay in El Poblado. We stayed at the brand-new Marriott there (I’m not against airbnb by far but for our first trip we figured we would just stay in a nice hotel). It was A+, the only thing there was no hot water the first night but as soon as we told the front desk, they fixed it. The front desk clerk told my husband “Americans love hot water.” LOL! Yes we do!!! BUT I booked the Marriott precisely because no hot water and poor internet were the main complaints even among the 5 star hotels in Medellín and I figured since it was brand-new it would be okay. So, other than that minor hiccup, and they also did not pick us up at the airport as arranged so we just took a cab, it was totally good. The views are spectacular there and the room was just like a nice Marriott here in the states. Annnndddd… like $72 a night. Yup. That’s Medellín for ya! The other hoods where you might want to stay include Envigado (this is sort of the ritiziest residential hood in Medellín, but it’s more residential and has fewer hotels). Laureales is also a perfectly good and nice area. And then there’s Parque Lleras, or the Gringo Ghetto. Parque Lleras is totally festive, especially since we were there at Christmastime, but ya’ll it’s kind of sketch. It’s pretty much all hostels and then bars and restaurants and this is where you will find the most American/European tourists. I just tend not to like areas like that anyway but if you’re young and want to party, go to Parque Lleras you’ll probably love it.
Safety: On the note of the Gringo Ghetto, I’ll address what is pretty much the number one question I got asked about Medellín. Here’s the basic deal, as far as I can tell. First of all, since a peace treaty was signed with President Santos and FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) it’s a much less violent place. Ya’ll, Colombia has a crazy long history and I can’t really speak to it – we heard 3 main viewpoints on politics there and that’s just how it is, each person has his or her own opinion dependent on background, so I’m not saying the treaty is good or bad all I’m saying is that I felt perfectly safe. Safe as in, I wasn’t worried we were going to get kidnapped or shot, even out in the countryside, and I think they’ve cleaned up most of the mines but most definitely if you’re planning on hiking, do your research and go with a guide, nature isn’t my thing but I do know that, you don’t just go off by yourself into the hinterlands in this country.
But as far as Medellín itself goes, my only fear was getting mugged, and that’s pretty much my fear anytime I travel. So, a few things you can do to prevent this. One: no jewelry. Nada. I wore cheap little earrings and that’s it. Leave the watch and wedding rings at home. Not worth it. Two: don’t walk around with your iPhone out looking for directions or texting. Don’t flash your iPhone. There are a ton of motorcycles in Medellín and it’s really easy to snatch a purse or phone from someone on the sidewalk, so just be careful. There are armed guards with machine guns all over the place, don’t let this put you off, it actually made me feel safe. Our hotel had a sniffer dog and we were wanded with a metal detector which I also was fine with. I left my Macbook in the safe in our room, no problem at all once we were in the hotel I felt 100% secure. Like I said, I did not fear for my life or safety, I just don’t want to get my sh*t stolen.
Also, regarding Parque Lleras, I happened to read a response to a review on TripAdvisor, and it was a guy planning a bachelor party to Medellín. He wanted to go because “the Colombian women are the most beautiful in the world and it looks wild.” Ya’ll, Medellín is off the chain, totally. It’s a huge, amazing, vibrant city. But this guy man, I just felt like he was looking for trouble. So (and I know I’m addressing mostly my well-behaved lady readers here 😉 but if you go looking for trouble in Medellín trust me you will find it. So if you think you’re going to go do coke and party, you’re a complete idiot. God only knows what the penalty is for drug possession in Colombia and I personally would not want to find out. The other thing is sex tourism has gotten kind of big there, but one of our friends told us that girls hang out in the bars in Parque Lleras and Poblado waiting for drunk Americans or Europeans, and then they drug them and rob them. So like, think about it. I mean, do whatever but since it kind of has this reputation, criminals are probably going to hang out and just wait for idiots like this TripAdvisor guy to take advantage of. So just stay safe and don’t get too drunk and not pay attention. Which is of course exactly what I would tell any young man or woman here in the States. But it’s a little darker and shadier there which means exercise more caution.
Transportation: You can take Uber but you need to be able to speak a little bit of Spanish or be familiar with the city, it’s a huge city and Uber drivers (or cab drivers for that matter) don’t always know where everything is. Try to get an Uber with a high rating. You can also take cabs but with caution. There’s a scam apparently where cabdrivers and motorcycle robbers hook up, once again, this is not a life threat it’s just getting mugged, but don’t get in a cab with jewelry on and don’t use your iPhone in the cab, roll up the windows and lock the door especially at night. Hail your cab from a populated area. There is a fabulous public transportation system here, it has a train, autobusses and cable cars ya’ll, cable cars!!!! We took all 3, and I was SO impressed. The metro is super clean and efficient. Maybe don’t take it at night but during the day it’s totally fine. And the cable cars are like, probably the scariest thing I have done in 10 years (I don’t mind flying but cable cars, gondolas, ski lifts, no way!!!). But I did not want to miss the view from the top of the Metrocable so I just closed my eyes (which kind of did not work and I still felt all panicky but I made it). The Metrocable system was built so that the residents who live high up in the barrios could get down into the city to work. So it was really an awesome humanitarian/social thing, Colombians seem like they really want everyone to be able to work if they want to and to remove barriers like transportation which I highly approve of.
Things to Do: We did 3 planned tours and then just hung out the rest of time so I’ll share my things we did and what I thought of them. I thought it was a great introduction to Medellín. For things to do in the city (and ya’ll this is seriously just a couple of activities, there is so much to do). But one absolute must-do is the Comuna 13 tour. You don’t have to book it ahead on Viator but email them and just tell them you’re coming. It meets at the Poblado Metro and it’s cheap, I think it was like $25 USD or something and it’s pretty much the whole day. It’s a walking tour that takes you up into Comuna 13 which used to be the worst barrio, or favela, in Medellín. It was controlled by armed guerillas and no one could go in or out. So, after the peace treaty (and once again, this is complicated stuff, everyone has a different opinion on it) but all I know is that the city, once the barrio was freed, built outdoor escalators (Escalators!! Cable cars!!!) and it became an outdoor graffiti museum. Ya’ll, it is totally, totally amazing.
We also did the Pablo Escobar tour. Now, I don’t even watch Narcos and the only reason we really did it was because it has awesome reviews on TripAdvisor. Well, I wouldn’t do it again. We booked the extra tour that goes to La Catedral which was Escobar’s “prison” up in the mountains, and that part was just breathtaking, you go up a really steep, scary, long road to get to it and when you get to the top you can see all of Medellín, so the view was amazing but the tour itself was crazy gringo prices and otherwise totally not worth it. I mean, if you’re a big Narcos fan by all means but maybe just hire a driver to take you up to La Catedral (go in a manual transmission, I’m telling you it’s literally a mountain lol) but otherwise, I just wasn’t that interested and it was a ripoff in my opinion.
The main thing was he got shot in Laureales so we kind of got to check out the neighborhood which is really nice. But otherwise, I did not really enjoy it and furthermore, I felt kind of morally conflicted about it because while Americans love Narcos and kind of idolize Escobar, it is evident, after spending even a minute in Colombia, that most Paisas view him as a criminal who caused endless violence and heartache for Colombians. Personally I wouldn’t waste my time.
We only went outside the city once, and that was to Guatape. So this is a beautiful lake out in the country with this giant rock, or piedra, that you can climb. You can take the city bus or a cheap group tour bus to Guatape, but on the recommendation of our friend, we hired a private driver and man, was it worth every penny. If you take the group bus ya’ll it’s kind of a sh*tshow. It is super crowded at La Piedra, like, one way in, one way out, so expect to sit in traffic and when you get there it will be totally jammed with people going up and down the rock, kind of like waiting on line for the Scream Machine at Six Flags if you feel me. And I think the group tour ends up being like 11 hours which is way, way too long. So unless you’re trying to travel on the cheap, hire William. Trust me! My girlfriend there has known him for years and he is totally amazing. In fact, anything you want to do in Medellín, hire William, like if you need a translator, whatever, he is super super nice and he is a solid and honorable Paisa. Tell him I sent you lol.
This is the view from the top of La Piedra so clearly it’s totally worth it, but then this is the parking lot and you don’t actually rock climb the rock, you walk up a million, zillion steep steps. My husband is older than me and I had a mini panic attack about a third of the way up that he was going to stroke out, and there were no hospitals for miles and absolutely no one spoke English. So. We made it, clearly, but I had a moment where I was like, “Shari, this is one of the dumbest things you’ve ever done.”
And then we went down into the town of Guatape, which is just a really cute little town, lots of paintings and bright colors, very country. Because we were with William and his lovely daughter Isabel we had a fabulous time and he had it all arranged so we didn’t get in like a big traffic jam, he’s a bit pricey but this time worth it. Another expat also told us that Real City Medellín tours are fantastic and worth every penny.
The rest of the trip we just visited with our friends and hung out in Poblado. The Santa Fe mall is my new favorite mall, I love that mall! It’s huge, crowded and has really good shopping. And then there’s another nice outdoor mall across the street. This is a modern country, it’s not ass-backwards. And it is soooo cheap! For now. The exchange rate on the peso was really good, about 3 pesos to the American dollar, so we got to have lots of nice meals and when I came home and looked at my Amex bill I was like, my God, that was a hundred dollar meal and it cost me $25!!! My girlfriend has housecall mani/pedis for like $15. It is so reasonable. It’s also known for the general intelligence level of the people and excellent medical care so it’s a really, really good option, at least right now, for retirement. If you’re not into cities you can do the Finca thing and get a lovely home out in the country, but I for one would want a condo in the city. But if you’re interested you can view some gorgeous fincas here.
Some other basics: Don’t slam your cab or car door. This is very much frowned upon. Do not expect anyone to speak English. This is NOT an English-speaking country. Really the only people who spoke English outside of the tour guides who do have marginal to good English were the front-desk staff at the hotel. Servers, drivers, retail workers, etc., do not speak English. Like, none! So be very, very prepared for that, it’s not like when you go to France and people will at least attempt to speak English to you (some of them at least, lol). The signs aren’t in English either. You really need a little Spanish to get along here.
The people are extremely friendly though! Truly, they are really warm and friendly and I think they just aren’t quite used to tourists yet but they were so welcoming. I just loved it. I worry a lot about retirement and I was really excited to stumble upon Medellín. I can’t wait to go back. It’s so cheap and easy to get to for us, I think we’ll be there a lot. There’s also a really good blog for expats called Medellín Living if you want to do further research, and then I also recently found a great post by an expat about her experiences living in Medellín that is super informative and interesting as well.
And that’s about it! I know I just wrote a novel but when we were researching our trip there just weren’t a ton of resources about Medellín. Keep in mind I was there 5 days. Most of what I learned was from my expat friends there and I’m just passing along their knowledge. So if I made a mistake please forgive me, I certainly don’t claim to be a Paisa or expert on Medellín, but if you’re thinking of going for a short trip to check it out, this should get you started on the right foot! If you have more questions leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction for correct answers! Muchas gracias!