The plane lined up for its approach for landing, flying down through the clouds and into a heavenly mountain oasis. We made it through customs quickly, into a hired car, and soon we were winding our way through the high altitude tropical lushness of the countryside that surrounds Medellin.
Why Visit Medellin?
Not so long ago, Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. So when my son told me more than two years ago, that he was moving there, I was concerned.
Back in the days of the ruthless drug cartels of South America, Pablo Escobar reined as the “King of Medellin” or the “King of Cocaine”. From 1975 to the early 1990s Pablo ruled Medellin with a heavy and brutal hand, netting over $30 billion dollars, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world during his time. During his tyranny of drugs, death and destruction, Medellin became the murder capital of the world until Pablo was shot and killed by the Colombian National Police, one day after his 44th birthday in 1993.
One – It’s safe
Today, Medellin is a very different city than it was back in the days of Pablo. While there are still remnants from it’s troubled past evident and dangers do exist, it is not unlike many U.S. cities in that there are certain neighborhoods that you should stay away from. There is a saying in Medellin, “Don’t give papaya”, which means, don’t do stupid things or put yourself in precarious situations and you will be safe.
On our visit, we walked the streets at night, took the metro, used Uber and taxis, at all hours of the day and night, and other than one night coming back to our hotel from a club at 2 am, I felt perfectly safe. On that one particular drive when I was a little nervous, my son had taken me to a salsa club in a neighborhood that he warned me was “very dangerous” and indeed, it felt as such. I was instructed not to use my cell phone in the taxi as someone may try to break into the car to steal it. We had taken an Uber to the club, got out of the car, went straight into the building, and did the same leaving. No strolling through the neighborhood here.
Two – See What Makes Medellin an Award Winning City for Innovation and Prestige
Take the Metro Cable over the barrios that were most impacted by the civil war. The scenic ride delivers fabulous views of the city, but it also puts into perspective life in Medellin. The Metro Cable public transport system is a government funded and internationally recognized urban regeneration initiative. They were originally designed to allow the local residents to easily travel up and down the steep hills of Medellin – enabling access to jobs, medical care and generally making life a lot easier. Although designed specifically for locals, the cable cars are now Medellin’s number one tourist attraction, giving visitors a view of barrio populares (favelas) from an interesting and up-close perspective.
Three – The People; Survival, Art and Humanity.
Following the tram ride, take the Stairway Storyteller’s tour into the Comuna 13 neighborhood. The tour is a visceral experience of emotions, sights, sounds and tastes. Color is everywhere – on brightly painted houses and on the incredible murals/grafitti that line the walls along walkways throughout the neighborhood. Friendly faces of local merchants and children greet you with a smile or hug. What is so moving is hearing the personal stories of the guides. Our guide, Steven, shared with us his childhood experiences in Comuna 13, growing up in the thick of one of the deadliest drug wars. Each morning as he walked to school, his mother would help him navigate around the dead bodies that greeted him. The child of a single mother, he survived the war, learned to speak english at the local free language school and now he is the embodiment of attainment through an innovative society. His story, like so many others in this neighborhood, is one of trauma, survival, hope and success.
Four – The Beat of the City
Dancing and music play a huge role in the charisma of Medellin, and are two of the characteristics of the city that drew my son in. One evening he took us to DanceFree, a dance school where he takes classes. On Thursday nights they hold a free group lesson which is such fun and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the city.
As uncoordinated as my husband and I are, we had a blast and learned some new moves. The nightlife is in full swing in Medellin with a thriving restaurant and club scene. There is music everywhere – it is as much an integral part of living in Medellin as food and water.
Five – The Food
The food in Medellin is exceptionally good. Whether eating a sandwich or salad at a cafe or going for the full on 13 course experiential culinary adventure as we did at El Cielo, what stands out is the freshness of the ingredients. Bread and pastries are freshly baked throughout the city. They are more in line with French pastries, using butter, not lard, as in Mexico and Spain, and the whole grain breads are amazing. Beautiful tropical fruit is served in abundance at every meal. Many of the fruits and vegetables are not available in the US, but they are delicious, so I pretty much ate everything that was put before me. The water in Medellin is very clean and safe to drink.
Each morning we made our way up to the main drag of the El Poblado neighborhood to have a decadent pastry and coffee at Pergamino Cafe, which became our go to coffee shop and meeting place. Sitting on the patio of the cafe you will hear a number of languages being spoken as this is where a very international crowd lives and gathers. Walking through this area at night one sees the life of the community. Open air restaurants are teeming with beautiful people of all ages – more music, and dancing, people strolling, and sitting in parks – it is a lively and fun atmosphere.
Ultimately, any reservations I had felt about traveling to Medellin was due to old ideas running in the back of my brain which told me that this was a scary place where the drug cartels ran wild and killed randomly. Those old stories could not have been more incorrect. That was then and this is now – Medellin is a fascinating and thriving city, world renowned for its innovation and revitalization that is hard to match, especially considering the time frame in which the city has accomplished all that it has.
Looking for a place to retire
For expats looking for cities to consider living, this is a wonderful location. The cost of living is relatively low,and since it is known as the “city of eternal spring”, the weather is about as good as it gets. There is a large international community living in the El Poblado area, where crime is very low and the standard of living is high.
Medellin is divided into six major zones that lie along the axis which is the Medellin River. These six zones are further broken down into sixteen “comunas” (communities). Taxis are abundantly available, Uber is a great way to get around, and the Metro is wonderful. One note about Uber – it is customary for one person to always sit in the front seat during Uber rides but not in taxis. To get to and from the airport prearrange a car service. We used Medellin Transfer Service. The cars were nice and the drivers were friendly and courteous (but spoke little English).
What to see and do
Stairway Storytellers – Tours guided by residents of Comuna 13, the community that was most impacted by the civil war. This is a gem of a tour that I highly recommend. See the amazing street art/graffiti, get to know the area with locals, listen to their personal stories and support the transformation of what was Medellín’s most dangerous barrio.
Metro Cable – The Metro Cable public transport system is a government funded and internationally recognized urban regeneration initiative. They were originally designed to allow the local residents to easily travel up and down the steep hills of Medellin – enabling easier access to jobs, medical care and generally making life a lot simpler. Although designed specifically for locals, the cable cars are now Medellin’s no.1 tourist attraction, giving visitors a view of barrio populares (favelas) from an interesting and up-close perspective.
DanceFree – free intro group dance class on Thursday nights. As one testimonial says, “Great Latin dance school for any level. Their pros are highly accomplished and really personally invested in helping your body and mind achieve whatever rhythm you can reach in the time you put in. The group classes are great socials, about half foreigners and half Colombianos . This place has a great Medellin vibe – friendly and energetic.”
Restaurante El Ceilo – Experiential dining at its best! The Medellin Bureau named El Cielo a must-visit destination for tourists and has received for several years the Certificate of Excellence by TripAdvisor for its gastronomic offer, the multi-sensory experiences that surprise the diner.
El Poblado – An upscale neighborhood with a relaxed international vibe. El Poblado is home to nice boutique shops, trendy restaurants and cafes. Check out the lively nightlife and weekend street markets.
Antioquia Museum – Spend a few hours wandering the Botero exhibit and plaza at this lovely museum. It houses a large collection of works by Medellín native Fernando Botero and Pedro Nel Gómez. It was the first museum established in Antioquia department and the second in Colombia. The museum is located in the center of Medellín on the Botero Plaza near the Berrío Park metro station.
Medellin Coffee Tours – explore a traditional family-run coffee farm to see first-hand the hard work that goes into producing the world’s most popular beverage.
Chocolate Tours – Tour the Origen factory and eco-resort is located in Barbosa, just outside of Medellin.
Market and Exotic Fruit Tour – Take a stroll through Medellin’s most authentic local market, a place where Colombian culture collides into a full-on sensory overload of sights, sounds, colors and flavors. Interact with the locals & experience the friendliness of the Paisa people. Discover a variety of unusual produce and of course taste delicious exotic fruits along the way.
- Leave really nice jewelry at home. Wear a simple wedding band – no diamonds and leave the Rolex at home. We never felt threatened but we also weren’t wearing anything that anybody would want to take.
- Leave your passports in the hotel safe and carry a driver’s license with you as ID.
- Wear a small cross body handbag and keep just what you need in it.
- Wear comfortable shoes – you’ll probably be doing a lot of walking.
- Wear a hat and/or sunscreen. You are at a higher altitude and the sun is deceptively strong.