Where is it?
Medellín is located in the north of the western of the two mountain ranges that run almost the length of Colombia, in the Valle de Aburrá or Aburrá Valley. The location is beautiful, especially at night, and the city is surrounded by lush forests and spectacular scenery.
What’s it all about?
Times have changed in Medellín. Once the stronghold of Pablo Escobar and the city with the highest murder rate in the world, its now difficult to imagine how that was even possible. Yes it can still be dangerous, but so can any big city. People mostly don’t like to talk about Pablo Escobar, but get in a taxi and start talking about what life was like 20 years ago and they will be happy to tell you how much the city has changed.
Medellín’s climate is a definite highlight from living in the city, and I would say it has the most perfect weather anywhere in the world. Known as la Ciudad de Primavera Eterna (City of Eternal Spring), with temperatures generally between 25°C and 30°C every day of the year, you can nearly always go out at night in short sleeves, and it is nearly always bright and beautiful. There are rainy seasons, although these are more difficult to predict nowadays, but the bulk of the rain tends to come at night leaving the days relatively bright. Even more so than Bogotá the weather changes all the time. Just as you can be getting soaked one minute and sunbathing the next, so too can you be out in the street enjoying a BBQ and running for cover half an hour later. No use looking at the forecast, as it will doubtless say sunny/rain/lightning for every day of the week.
People from Medellín, or paisas, tend to be very regionalist, especially compared to the rolos from Bogotá. They are extremely proud of where they are from, and even more proud that they are not from Bogotá. If you ask a paisa what they think of Bogotá they will usually tell you it is cold, unfriendly and the girls are ugly. Often these people have never been to Bogotá, or even left Antioquia (the departamento in which Medellín is located), but the little brother city mentality runs deep. That said, you would be hard pushed to find a more open and vibrant people than the paisas, nor more attractive. You can meet people on a night out and the next day they will be driving you round a city, or taking you to a finca (a country house that every extended family, if they can afford it, has), or introducing you to their friends.
One thing any visitor will notice almost as soon as they arrive in the city is that the girls really are beautiful. Extremely beautiful. However this beauty comes at a price. Colombian women are very vain in general, but paisa girls take it to another level. Medellín is a global hub for plastic surgery tourism, and this is reflected on almost every street and every neighbourhood, regardless of location or estrato. It is not uncommon for parents to buy their daughter breast enlargements for their quinceñera (fifteenth birthday celebrations!), something that would be unthinkable in most cultures. The general thinking is not ‘be happy with what you have got’, but ‘don’t be happy until you look exactly the way you want’, which is more often than not big chest, small waist and big booty. It would be unfair to say that all of the women are like this in the city, but compared to most places in the world, vanity reigns.
How do I get there?
Medellín has two airports: Olaya Herrera for small, domestic flights, and José María Córdoba for domestic and international flights. Olaya Herrera is right in the middle of the city, but you will hardly ever use it. José María Córdoba is located in Rionegro, about 40 minutes outside the city, and is easily accessed by regular bus service costing $8,000 pesos. If you don’t want to take the bus a taxi to the city will cost you around $50,000 to $60,000 pesos. If you want to get to the airport the best option is to go to the bus stop of san Diego with Las Palmas and get in a colectivo (taxi group share) – there will nearly always be some guys shouting ‘colectivo, colectivo’ there and you’ll never have to wait that long. A colectivo to the airport will cost you $12,000.
Medellín has 2 bus terminals – Terminal Norte and Terminal Sur. Roughly speaking buses going North depart from Terminal Norte and buses going South depart from Terminal Sur, however Terminal Norte is the main bus terminal and if you arriving from a major city you will probably arrive there.
Where to live?
For the vast majority of foreigners that come to the city there is only one place to live, work and go out, and that is El Poblado. Although Envigado is catching up, Poblado remains Medellín’s most affluent neighbourhood. Almost all of the hostels in the city can be found here, and it is where 90% of people who choose to settle in the city decide to make their home.
The mistake a lot of visitors make when coming to Medellín is thinking that the rest of the city is like Poblado, with its very North American feel. But if you drive just 5 minutes from Avenida Poblado, the central street in the neighbourhood, you will find yourself in a vastly different Medellín. Rich Colombians are no different – they live in gated complexes with tight security, drive everywhere and only leave the safe confines of Poblado if they either absolutely have to, or are leaving the city.
That said it is a great place to live. The Zona Rosa, the going out area with the biggest concentration of bars and clubs in the city is there, as are most of the good restaurants and shops. It is safe and leafy and if you don’t want to stray too far from your comfort zone, then this is the place to be.
However there is life outside Poblado, and a lot of it. Quite similar, and not too far away is Envigado. Not technically Medellín but its own municipality, Envigado has plenty of nice neighbourhoods, restaurants and bars to be a good contender to Poblado in pretty much every way. If you want a more Colombian and local experience, then a great alternative to Poblado and Envigado is Laureles and the surrounding neighbourhoods close to Universidad Pontífica Bolivariana (UPB), in the North West of the city. Accommodation is considerably cheaper and there are way less foreigners and tourists.
Where to work?
Lots of businesses are based in Poblado, as are most language schools that soak up the majority of foreign labour.
Unlike Bogotá, which has a business district and no shortage of office blocks, a lot of businesses in Medellín are located in shopping and leisure complexes; they often have offices attached to them somehow, either in the car parks or in adjacent offices.
Centro houses most businesses in the city, especially local ones. It can be a crazy, and sometimes shady, place – teeming with office workers, vendors, homeless people, pedestrians and of course traffic. Medellín’s premier language academy, and the holy grail of language jobs in the city – Blendex – is based in Centro.
How to get around
One thing that Medellín has that no other city in Colombia does is the Metro. Unlike what you are thinking it isn’t an underground metro, but an overground mass transport service that runs from Niquía in Bello, a municipality North of the city, to La Estrella just south of Envigado (Línea A), with one main offshoot servicing the North West of the city (Línea B) from San Antonio in in Centro, to San Javier in the West. It also has the Metrocable: two cable car lines, Líneas J and K, which are part of the metro system and included in the price of one journey. Not only are they have spectacular views of the city, but also serve a valuable purpose of connecting the poorer neighbourhoods to the rest of the city. Check the metro map here. For an extra $3,000 you can take the Metrocable one stop more up and over the top of the mountain all the way to Parque Arví, the closest national park to the city. The journey is very scenic and takes about 20 minutes. Standard price for a Metro ticket is $1,900, and you can check the Metro website by following this link.
Similar to the TransMilenio in Bogotá, the Metroplus is a network, albeit a rather small one, of articulated buses with dedicated lanes and raised platforms. On the map these lines are 1 and 2, both running from the Universidad de Medellín in the West of the City to Parque Aranjuez in the North, but taking different routes through Centro.
The cheapest way to use the Metro and Metroplus is to buy a Cívica card which will cost you $3,000 from any of the stations. Similar to the Tullave card in Bogotá this gives you discounts on each journey, with each trip costing $1,700.
Also like Bogotá are the rutas integradas or integrated bus routes, which cover the Metro and the green Metro buses in one charge. Unfortunately you can’t use your Cívica card, and can normally only buy an integrado ticket from Metro stations, however you can buy them on some buses. Tickets are valid for a month, so remember to stock up on them – queues can be ridiculous at some stations at peak times.
Just like Bogotá the majority of the city is served by a host of private bus companies, each with several routes around the city. Each operator tends to be concentrated in one area, but a few branch out across more of the city. Again, you will just have to ask locals or the bus drivers to find out exactly which bus company you will need, but they will generally be more than happy to help.
Some useful routes to know are the Comercial Hotelera 304 and 305, which is the only service to connect Poblado and Laureles:
And also the Circular 303 and 302, which cover almost all of the city:
Unlike Bogotá all the taxis in Medellín have meters, so you don’t have to worry about people trying to swindle you to go round the corner. But what you do have to worry about, the same as anywhere in the world really, is the drivers taking you the long way to charge you more. For this reason it is best you have an idea of where you are going before you jump in. Another reason to do this is to avoid a blank expression from the taxi driver when you tell him the address, as for some their knowledge of the city leaves a lot to be desired.
Taxis are very cheap in Medellín, and its more often that not easier, cheaper and faster for a group of you to hop in a taxi rather than brave the metro or bus. They are also everywhere. One fantastic company that was born in Medellín and is now spreading to other cities is FemTaxi, a service exclusively for women so they can feel safe when traveling alone. Taxi fares are identical to normal yellow taxis.
What to do in your free time
Medellín is close to a wide variety of things to do when you have some free time. Within the city you can do the Tres Cordilleras brewery tour. Bogotá have the Bogotá Beer Company and Medellín has Tres Cordilleras, craft beer brewed right in the centre of the city. You can go on a tour of the brewery every Thursday from 5.30pm to 9.00pm. As mentioned before you can take the Metrocable to Parque Arví where you will find miles of paths to walk or cycle through the beautiful national park.
Possibly the best attraction close to the city, and one you will no doubt hear about within days of arriving in the city is Guatapé and La Piedra del Peñol. Guatapé is a pretty Colonial town about an hour and a half bus ride from Medellín, but what really draws people to the area is the lake and the view from La Piedra, a huge rock which towers 200 metres over the lake. If you pay the $10,000 to climb to the top you will not be disappointed, as the views are absolutely spectacular. A lovely hostel to stay in located right at the base of La Piedra is Mi Casa Guatapé.
Without a doubt the best place to go out in Medellín is the Zona Rosa or Parque Lleras. Its about 5 square blocks of bars, clubs and restaurants and is where all the beautiful people go to hang out. Sometimes more fun than going into a bar, where the music can be too loud to talk, is to take the cheaper option and buy a few drinks from the licorera on the park and just sit and people-watch. Within a few minutes you’ll be chatting to some locals who can tell you where the latest cool place to go is. Alternatively, and more pricey, is to go to one of the complexes on Avenida Poblado: Río Sur and La Strada. These are basically malls full of bars and clubs instead of shops, and are where Medellín’s elite (some would say stuck-up) go to drink. Be warned, these places can be very expensive.
Over near Laureles is La 70 or la setenta, known as the ‘local zona rosa’, and which offers a number of places to eat, drink and dance. La 33 (treinta y tres) is also a good option for going out, but only if you like reggaeton, a repetitive form of dance music favoured by Medellin’s younger generation. This area of town is a lot more local and has a more authentic feel to it, as well as being a considerably cheaper night out than El Poblado.