I cannot say enough good things about Medellin, Colombia! I am head over heels in love. I had been hearing some buzz about Medellin ever since I started traveling and that buzz is very well deserved. I can absolutely see this become a top travel destination in South America over the next decade and it's definitely a place I'll be coming back to over and over again. It's only a 3 hour flight from Miami and it's serviced by Spirit Air now, meaning cheap flights are easy to get.
Medellin has an extremely recent, very bloody history. Boasting 500+ homicides per month in Medellin alone just over a decade ago. You wouldn't really know it by walking the streets today, the city is extremely charming. To be honest, I think the horrifying history and recent drug wars somewhat adds to the romantic appeal of Medellin. Everyone else can talk about the history, I want to talk about what's going on today!
So what exactly is happening in Medellin?
- A vibrant bustling city masked with a serene casual pace of life.
- No shit... Some of the most beautiful people in the world.
- A food culture to rival anywhere. I have never eaten better and it's typically very inexpensive. Big portions are a norm.
- Comfortable spring like temperature... ALL YEAR
- Inexpensive cost of living.
- All of the lame nature related stuff that you can sink your hippie teeth into.
One of the first things I was reminded of walking around Medellin was San Francisco. Probably because I'm ignorant about how climates work. But my understanding is that SF maintains it's relatively cool year round temperature because of being down by the bay, with a valley or something happening near it. Medellin is different. It's kind of high altitude but it's enveloped by a circle of mountains. However this magic climate happens, any location where you can comfortably sport your entire wardrobe year round is worth spending some time in. This awesome climate might very well be why Medellin is the fashion capital of Colombia.
It's a quick 3 hour flight from Ft Lauderdale via Spirit Airlines. The airport you fly into is actually about an hour away from Medellin by car. What I recommend doing is arranging a taxi to pick you up at the airport through whatever hotel you're staying in the first night. Taxi will cost about $45. You could also take the bus into Medellin which costs about $5, but I haven't done that and can't advise on any specifics.
Where to stay
Short term: El Poblado, near Parque Lleras.
Poblado is the "nicest neighborhood in Medellin" though there's some debate about that. I don't care, Poblado rocks! Awesome shopping, super safe, and it's where pretty much all of the best restaurants and prettiest girls are.
Parque Lleras is a big park in Poblado. Drinking in public is legal in Colombia and many people opt to buy some drinks from one of the convenience stores and hang out in parks to get their drink on. This is seriously awesome! Skip the lines and cover charges at night clubs and buy big bottles of beer for about $2 US and find a place to park your rear in the park. Every night of the week you'll find lots of locals and a few gringo's hanging out in the park. The park is surrounded by awesome food and cool bars if you want to pop into any. I'd definitely check out Hooters :). This area is the main Zona Roja (night life district) in Medellin.
Poblado is full of action. There is cool stuff going on all the time. This is where you should stay.
Nice Stays: Use Airbnb.com to find a room if you want a nice place with an experienced local host. $50/night will probably get you a private room in a nice apartment. Using airbnb has the added benefit in the person hosting you either being an expat or a local in most cases, both of whom tend to be a wealth of knowledge about the city and if they're using Airbnb they're probably pretty cool.
Backup Option: Stay at Casa Kiwi. It's a short walk to Parque Lleras. This is a party hostel, good place to meet other travelers. Private rooms with bathrooms start at $30. Dorm rooms are $10.
If you're just going to party and have fun I'd opt for the hostel. If you're going for an extended vacation or working vacation then it will be better to stay in an apartment using AirBNB.
Long Term Staying:
Half of the ex pats would say Poblado still as the place to stay. The other half would say Laureles. I stayed in Laureles for 10 days while I was in Medellin and had no regrets. It's about a 10-15 minute taxi ride from Poblado which costs about $4 US.
Laureles is flat which makes it nicer to walk around and it's less expensive. You also see a lot less foreigners in Laureles so people think it is "more authentic." I don't care about authenticity one bit and I think people who do are lame. That being said, Laureles is awesome. If I was staying for 30 days + I'd probably find a place here to stay and take taxi's to Poblado often. If I stayed in Poblado I probably wouldn't take taxi's to Laureles that often for some reason, and I'd regret not doing that.
Where to eat
#1. Anywhere and Everywhere
This is not the name of a hip restaurant in Poblado. I mean that literally. I did not have a single bad meal my entire time in Medellin and I ate out for almost every meal. If you like meat, you'll love Medellin. Vegans and Vegetarians will find some fine options, but as usual they'll miss out on the fun.
This really is a city that LOVES food! One of the most enjoyable things about the slow pace of life is the slow pace of meals. 2-3 hour long meals are perfectly normal and extremely enjoyable. While I was there a typical dinner started at around 6 and easily lasted until 9. Get an appetizer and a drink, enjoy it, socialize, then have a main course with a few more drinks, then dessert and some coffee.... Ecstasy.
But advice should be specific, so here are the places I enjoyed eating at the most.
- El Cielo. I read this post from Medellin Living and had to try it. It was exactly as good as Dave described it to be.
- The Grill Station. I had several burgers in Medellin, this was the best.
- Delaire Sky Lounge. I ate here with Dave from Medellin Living and some of his friends one night. Awesome setup, great food. The pizza kicks ass.
- Carmen. Pricey. But if you want high end dining this place doesn't disappoint. 5 stars.
More important, but impossible to recommend specifics for, are the street food. Street meat in Medellin is amazing. Huge Chorizo sausages for about $1, random pig parts for similar prices. The simple rule for when you see someone grilling meat up on the street: buy some!
Empanada's are big here, there are lots of little shops selling them, made to order. Delicious
One thing I noticed is that breakfast doesn't seem to be as huge of a deal here, which surprised me, maybe I just overlooked it. I was waking up at 7am when I first arrived and found that there weren't a lot of breakfast joints open though there were usually some street vendors around which wasn't so bad. I quickly remedied this and adjusted my sleep schedule so that I could begin the day with a long lunch.
Just be an explorer with the food. Medellin is full of hidden gems.
Just take taxi's. They are cheap and everywhere. If you're going from one end of the city to the other (north to south) you can take the metro line which is really cheap I hear, I never took it.
It will take me another trip or two before I can really publish an in depth nightlife guide. But here was my experience, for what it's worth.
First, it seemed to me that for the locals there were basically two options. Either they went out to parks/bars within walking distance of where they lived or they went near Parque Lleras in Poblado. I am sure there is more to the story, but I think this is a fair assessment. This leads to two cool things.
#1. Parque Lleras and the bars/clubs/restaurants around it are always busy and a lot of fun.
#2. There are dozens of cool little neighborhood hangout spots full of locals drinking cheap beer and Aguardiente. These are absolutely worth exploring and aren't hard to find. Just walk around the city with a beer until you see a big group of people and then start hanging out. Note: I do mean big group like 50-100 people. A group of 10-20 people are probably just some friends hanging out and might get weirded out if you just stand a few feet away staring at them.
Aguardiente: This is the national spirit of Colombia. It's not really in my preferred taste range as it's basically just anise flavored liquor (think black licorice or Jagermeister) but, when in Rome.
I didn't actually go to a lot of night clubs and bars while I was there so I can't give a great list. However, I can give one very specific recommendation that anyone who tries will probably thank me for:
Go to Club Envy @ Charlee Hotel. The piece of advice a friend gave me before going was spot on:
"Dress nice and bring lots of cash."
I don't think anyone is challenging this place as the nicest club in Medellin. If you want to sip top shelf liquor and chat with Colombian super models this is the place to do it at.
I was not in Medellin for any nefarious activities regrettably. The whole time I was there I was never offered drugs or solicited by working girls. That's strange...
Since I didn't take an active part in any vice activities, I am no authority on this subject. That being said here is the intel I gathered.
#1. Prostitution is legal in Colombia.
That is usually a good thing. As legalized prostitution leads to less crime associated with it and better protection for sex workers.
There are some problems with human trafficking, sex slavery, and child prostitution in Colombia. I heard that it's not so much in Medellin but the people who would really know don't tend to speak on the record about it. As always you should avoid taking part in any shady sex dealings.
The skin trade in Colombia is nothing like it is in Southeast Asia. There are not "bar streets" with brothel after brothel lined up, full of old white guys, with pretty girls trying to drag you in. Most of the brothels are geared towards locals, not foreigners. Many of the brothels are ran by organized crime networks still. For that reason, I'd recommend avoiding them.
The reconnaissance I did led me to be not overly excited about suggesting Medellin as a sex tourism destination. One could make it work, for sure. But I think there are way better places for that (just go to Rio).
There is a stark difference that I want to mention in looking at somewhere like Thailand vs Medellin. Sweeping over-generalizations to follow.
In somewhere like Koh Samui, Thailand the best looking, most easily accessible girls tend to be sex workers. They are easy to find, easy to get, inexpensive, and tons of fun. All of the major night life areas are filled with working girls. There are some non working local girls that go out too but the impression I always got was that they viewed all white guys as sex tourists and held little regard for them (they have good reason to think this way). So in Thailand if you want to have sex with beautiful girls, prostitution is the path of least resistance and most fun.
I don't think the same can be said about Medellin. There are just way way way too many beautiful women not at all affiliated with the skin trade. Yes... I used 3 ways there. In Medellin you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a dozen super model quality women. So I think going there for sex tourism will cause you to miss out on a lot of the value this city holds.
#2. Drugs are very illegal in Colombia.
Our first thought about Colombia in the US tends to always be cocaine. That's what all the bloody history is about, and that's the only reason we ever used to hear about it in the news. The logical step would be if you want cocaine, go straight to the source, Colombia, and get it there.
This is only a little bit true. Cartels are in the exporting business. The cocaine they produce is sold mainly in other countries. That's where the market for it is.
Colombian people in general seemed to be very adamantly anti-drug. Almost everyone has lost loved ones due to the drug wars in Colombian and many have been displaced and had their land ceased by cartels in the past. The tremendous suffering that the majority of the population has lived through as a result of cocaine leads to a culture that doesn't in any way see drugs as cool. They hate it.
Does that mean there aren't any drugs? Not at all. Drugs are everywhere, and will always be everywhere. You can get super high quality cocaine for very cheap in Colombia. But this will end up associating you with a group that you'd rather not be associated with while in Colombia.
There is still very much a culture of violence in the drug industry. They didn't just retire when Pablo Escobar died. Which leads me to my final point.
I'm not really going to touch on the danger side of things. I found Medellin to be super safe and never had any issues. But everyone I talked to that had spent any time there had been robbed at gun point at least once. So keep your wits about you, don't carry more cash on you than you can afford to lose (basic travel habit) and keep your Iphone in your pocket.
I recommend avoiding drugs here simply as a means of not mixing yourself up with any cartel types. They are still there and they will kill you if you give them the proper motivation.
Don't let a bit of street crime deter you too much, everywhere cool has some crime associated with it. I'd wager that you still have less than a 1% chance of being robbed at all. If it happens, just go with the flow. The criminals don't really want to hurt you, they just want your valuables. Smile and give it up freely and they probably won't kill you.
Or they will... And that will be the end of the story.