Not very long ago, Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín, was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Shaken to its foundations by Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, the city had an uncertain future. But only a few decades later, the city has completely turned its fortunes around.
Located in the north-western part of Colombia in the Aburrá Valley, the metropolitan area of Medellín has a population of around four million people, making it the second-largest city in Colombia. Nowadays the city is known for many positive traits, most notably its picture-perfect weather, friendly people, gorgeous views, and interesting architecture.
Weather and Geography
Medellín isn’t that far north of the Equator, but the city stands at around 1500 meters in elevation, so the weather is absolutely perfect year-round. Medellín is literally known as “La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera” or the “City of the Eternal Spring”. Most days the only factor that you have to worry about is whether or not it’s going to rain.
The average daily temperature is normally in the mid-20s, and you’ll be surprised how little you think about the weather if you’re from a part of the world where the temperature swings a lot. The weather is certainly one of the major draws for tourists and ex-pats.
The climate is not only friendly for humans, but it’s also friendly for plants and animals. Medellín and the surrounding area is extremely green, being home to an abundance of interesting plant life. It’s very interesting to walk around Medellín and pay attention to all the different types of plants and flowers that grow in the city. What’s also interesting is how the plant life visibly changes as you change elevation. The mountains surrounding the city are very high, and if you take the cable cars to Parque Arvi, one of the city’s bigger tourist attractions, you can definitely notice a difference in the types of plants that are growing there. That’s a good segue into the next section.
Medellín has an extremely efficient integrated transportation system that consists of two rapid transit lines, one streetcar line, five metrocable lines, and two Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines.
The buses, metrocable gondolas, streetcars, and rapid transit trains are all clean and seem to be quite new. The Civica card lets you hop on and off all four modes as well as city-operated buses, and it’s very easy to purchase and top up funds. The BRT lines are cool as the buses have a dedicated lane and feature enclosed stops along the middle of the road where fare collection occurs off-board, leading to faster operation times for the buses.
The only downsides to the trains and buses are the lack of air conditioning and the infrequency of service during non-rush hour times. Sometimes the trains come every seven or eight minutes which can lead to cramped and hot rides. The cable cars are fun to ride and are an interesting experience on their own, as they offer stunning views of the surrounding Aburrá Valley.
But the reasoning behind their existence is very interesting and is a major reason for the city’s changing fortunes. A generation or so ago, the barrios up in the hills were some of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the planet. The crime was rampant and the economies in most of those neighborhoods were horrible. In order to reach the downtown core on public transit, citizens had to take buses which took a long time to wind their way down the mountain, and they were loud and emitted a lot of black smoke.
Public transit officials in the city believed that making it easier for the impoverished people in the city to reach the downtown core was key to the city’s success, so in 2004 the first metrocable system opened. That made it easier for people from the barrios to find and hold jobs downtown, and it helped the economies in the neighborhoods around the metrocable stations.
Santo Domingo for example used to be an insanely dangerous neighborhood, but now it has gotten significantly safer, and the area around the metrocable station has restaurants, artwork, and cool views of the city below. Poorer people in a city are just as much of a city’s fabric as the wealthiest members of society, and city planners knew that their investment in these neighborhoods would pay off both socially and economically.
As you can imagine there are a ton of different neighborhoods that you can stay in or visit when you come to Medellín. Poblado is definitely the most popular for ex-pats or “Gringos” as you will be called if you’re coming from North America or Europe. Poblado and another neighborhood called Laureles certainly offer the highest standard of living, the cleanest streets, Western restaurants, and other ex-pats nearby. However, they don’t offer much of a true Colombian experience, Poblado in particular. Laureles is near the Estadio Atanasio Girardot where the two local football clubs play, and the surrounding area is actually quite nice with green streets, interesting architecture, and a central location near the metro. You’d get a slightly more authentic experience in Laureles than Poblado, but Laureles would get the silver medal for the most “Westernized” area for lack of a better word. I’ll briefly talk about some other areas that you can stay in that would be relatively safe but also give you a more authentic travel experience.
Belén- Belén is a middle-class neighborhood that is mostly inhabited by locals. Parque Belén is a small but pleasant place to people-watch and grab a cheap café. The neighborhood also has a BRT station that takes you directly to Industriales metro station, which is on the mainline. There is a large mall in the area called Los Molinos, and at Christmas time it’s an interesting place to walk around and see the different displays. The architecture in the neighborhood is also quite interesting, as it is in many areas of the city, displaying a quaint Spanish style with interesting plants lining the side of the road on residential streets.
La Floresta/La América- Located in between Laureles and San Javier, where there is a metrocable and the famous Comuna 13 neighborhood, are the adjacent neighborhoods of La Floresta and La América. The area is well-positioned, very close to the football stadium and Laureles, where the famous La 70 party street is also located. There are two metro stations in the neighborhood, Santa Lucia and La Floresta, so the area is well connected to the rest of the city transit-wise. Like many neighborhoods, there is a “quebrada” or ravine that runs through the area. There’s a path along with it and it’s very green, with many interesting plants to observe. It’s also the same quebrada that meanders past the stadium, so it provides a quieter and greener alternative to get to wherever you need to go. The Biblioteca La Floresta is also nice for both reading and getting some work done, and the nearby Parque La Floresta is pleasant, well maintained, and has free wifi.
Envigado- Technically a separate city from the city of Medellín, you would never know that Envigado is administratively a different city, as it’s easily reachable in a short period of time from other areas of Medellín . Envigado has its own rapid transit stop and residents of Envigado and separate surrounding cities like Itagüí and Sabaneta are very much a part of metro Medellín. These areas are great options for short or long-term stays as they are often quieter, slightly cheaper, and provide a different lifestyle than other areas of the city. Envigado has fewer foreigners, fewer tall apartment buildings, and has more of a neighborhood feel. It’s certainly a very underrated place to live for ex-pats. Envigado is also home to the largest mall in the country, which only opened in 2018. Called Viva Envigado, it’s absolutely gargantuan, and it’s very cool to walk around, especially during the holidays.
Prado- Unlike a lot of cities where tourists and foreigners want to stay or live close to the downtown core, Medellín is a different story. The downtown is extremely busy, noisy, and lacks anything that would make you want to stay for longer than what you planned on doing. However, for those that want to stay close to downtown, the neighborhood of Prado is a solid choice. Prado is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, and the heritage architecture of many of the buildings reflects that. Walking through Prado takes you back to a bygone era, and it truly is fascinating to admire the architecture of the buildings in the neighborhood. Being so close to downtown though, you do have to be on your toes when it comes to crime and homelessness, so don’t expect Prado to be as clean and safe as some other neighborhoods.
A small town located a few hours south-west of Medellín, Jardín is famous for the brightly painted houses that decorate the town. While the town itself is interesting and has a pleasant central square, the surrounding landscape and wildlife is absolutely breathtaking. Mountainous, extremely verdant, and with a number of interesting hikes close by, the area surrounding Jardín is unbelievably picturesque. It’s certainly worth staying outside of town and then going into town for sightseeing and food. Birds will accompany you on your walk, as will cows in their pastures who probably don’t understand how stunning the landscape is.
Only a short drive east of Medellín is the small town of Guatape and the famous El Peñón de Guatapé rock. Guatapé is a popular resort town, and many locals from Medellín own vacation homes in the area. One of the two main features of the area is a man made lake that was dammed in the 1970s. The lake has a seemingly endless amount of arms and bays, allowing for a vast quantity of lakeside properties. The other major feature is the aforementioned rock formation, which is a giant granite dome that rises over 200m above the ground, and it dominates the surrounding area. Visitors can climb 649 steps to the top to enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding area.
Parque Arvi- Accessed via metrocable, Parque Arvi is a massive ecological park that contains hiking and cycling trails, an environmental center, and a camping area next to a river. Other activities include horseback riding and tours. The park is over 15,000 hectares in size and is significantly higher in elevation than the neighborhoods of Medellín, so you can definitely notice a difference in the surrounding plant varieties. You can take a metrocable right to Parque Arvi, but it’s slightly more expensive as the ride is quite long. The ride to Parque Arvi is stunning though and is an attraction in itself.
Plaza Botero- Located adjacent to the Museo de Antioquia, an art museum that is also worth visiting, Plaza Botero is one of Medellín’s most well-known attractions. The plaza contains
over 20 sculptures that were donated by famous Colombian sculptor and artist Fernando Botero. Botero was well-known for painting and sculpting people who were slightly more rotund than normal, and his bronze sculptures in the Plaza Botero reflect this style.
Parque Explora/Jardin Botanico- The Parque Explora and the Jardin Botanico are located right next to each other and are easily accessible by Metro. On a nice day, a trip to the Jardin Botanico is a pleasant way to escape the noise of Medellín. There are a wide variety of plants and flowers, a small lake, and a desert garden among other things. It’s definitely an oasis in the middle of the city. Parque Explora is a science museum that is easily recognizable by its architecture. Home to a planetarium, terrariums for reptiles and frogs, countless interactive exhibits, and even South America’s largest freshwater aquarium, Parque Explora is a source of pride for many in the city, and rightfully so.
Comuna 13- Before Medellín’s transformation, Comuna 13 was one of the most dangerous areas of the city. The city built escalators to help locals in the area get up the steep, hillside streets, but at this point, it seems to be serving more of an economic function, as the area is a buzzing tourist attraction during the day. Music, street art, dancers, amazing views, you name it. No walkthrough Comuna 13 is ever the same, and the area is well worth a visit.
Fantastic weather, kind people, gorgeous nature, and a relatively stable economy have all combined to make Medellín one of South America’s most popular cities. The cost of living is also an attractive factor for many ex-pats and tourists, and unless you’re buying electronics or imported goods, you can really stretch your money if you need to. It’s truly remarkable to think that a city only a few decades removed from being one of the world’s most dangerous has transformed into being such an attractive tourist location. But that’s a testament to the city planners, the beauty of the area, and the people that live here.
Connor Dobos is an avid traveler, sports fan, and geography nerd. Growing up in Ontario, Canada, Connor graduated from university in 2019 with a degree in Sports Media. However, his interest in learning about different cultures and regions of the world caused him to rethink his future career path. Connor is fortunate enough to have visited over 40 countries, 40 of the 50 U.S. states, and all 10 Canadian provinces. He has a geography and travel podcast called “Through the Rabbit Hole”, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.