- Take the gondola up through the hillside barrios (neighbourhoods) of Medellin where you'll have the best panoramas of the city. (These neighbourhoods aren't the safest to walk around on foot FYI.)
- Admire the one of a kind work of Fernando Botero in the Plaza Botero.
- Relax in the Jardin Botanical (Botanical Gardens). There's a butterfly farm and a cactus park!
- Visit the Planaterio (Planetarium), just near the botanical gardens. There are usually special shows or events going on just outside of the planetarium. Entrance is COP 12,000 or $6.50 USD.
- Take a day trip to the colourful town of Guatapé and walk to El Peñol de Guatapé (La Piedra) to get a great view of the lakes.
- Educate yourself on the history of Medellín's drug trade and take the Pablo Escobar tour. It's eye opening and pretty full on.
- Get involved in the culture of the city and pick up tickets to a soccer match.
- Take advantage of the free walking tours! The tour is really informative and you'll learn so much about the city that you wouldn't have otherwise. Real City Tours is a great company to use. Just make sure to book way in advance as spots fill up quickly.
- Walk around with valuables. While this isn't the world's most dangerous city, there is still crime.
- Forget a rain coat as the rainy season lasts from March-October/November. The best time to visit is definitely December-February.
- Get into arguments with street vendors.
When my friends and family back home heard that I was traveling parts of Colombia on my own, the reaction I received was "are you out of your mind?" At first I wanted to fight back with "Things can happen anywhere!" but instead I assured them that I was ok and everything was fine. These questions of worry and fear were not new to me after traveling Central America for 4 months. Plus maybe I'm a bit out of my mind but that's neither here nor there.
I took a long 14hr overnight bus ride from Cartagena to Medellín, and let me just say, you're better off booking a flight. Do yourself the favor. While the bus ride is doable (I survived), I began my journey stepping on a vomit covered floor, having no idea that I had a pretty curvy road ahead of me so people would be throwing up left and right. It's just not an ideal way to spend your night. Needless to say, I was more than ecstatic to get off the bus.
After arriving at the bus terminal in Medellín, I made my way to the metro to get to my hostel. As I was lugging my surfboard and huge backpack down the set of stairs, I had the moment I had been waiting for since I began my trip 4 months prior. Except it was a bit more odd and uncomfortable than I imagined it would be. I finally had a culture shock. As I made my way down the stairs, every single person waiting for the metro had turned to stare at me. Hundreds if not thousands of eyes focused on me. Someone even asked if they could take a photo with me. Maybe this wasn't the culture shock I was looking for, but I was definitely beginning to feel like I was far away from home.
I arrived at the hostel Pit Stop, which is an awesome place to stay especially if you're a solo backpacker. Luckily, I was meeting up with friends I had traveled with in Central, but this hostel has great common areas like a bar, a badminton court, a swimming pool and a TV room (careful not to get sucked into this room for days) which gives you great opportunities to make some friends.
Now I got pretty comfy/cozzy in Medellín but I've also met people who have gone through the city in 3-4 days.
IN THE CITY
One of the first things I did in Medellín was take the cablecar ride. This gives you a chance to see some of Medellín's barrios that you wouldn't necessarily explore on foot, and at the top you have a ridiculously cool panorama of the city. It's amazing how large Medellín actually is. The brick houses and buildings cover the mountains for as far as the eye can see.
Whether you take the free walking tour or not (you really should), you're going to want to check out Plaza Botero. Within the plaza are 23 of Fernando Botero's sculptures, each one more peculiar than the other (but in a good way). While you're snapping photos and admiring the sculptures, beware that this is unfortunately a center for pick pocketers. Also, I advise you to only come to this area during the day as it starts to get really dodgy at night.
While you're in this area, don't forget to check out the Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe. The Palacio's checkered gothic architecture is stunning and unique among all the brick buildings in the city. You almost can't miss it.
Another tour to consider is the Pablo Escobar tour through Casa Kiwi, another great hostel for your stay in Medellín. Honestly, this is one of the most intriguing and informative tours I've been on. Not only does it educate you on Escobar's life, but it gives you a greater insight into Medellín's dark drug history and the aftermath of it all. As controversial as it is, the guides do a good job at telling the story and passing along their passion for the city.
If you have a few extra days, spend some time at the Botanical Gardens and check out the Planetarium. We saw a show called "Stars at Night" and even though it was all in Spanish, it was really cool to see. If you're not into astronomy, there's a big square just outside called, Parque de los Deseos, where there seems to always be a crowd or something going on.
Last but not least, get yourself to a soccer match. There are two local teams (Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellín) with some die hard fútbol fans. The fans sit on opposing sides of the stadium, shouting and singing for the ENTIRE game. They don't sit down once or miss a beat. It's definitely an experience and one of the more lively games you'll attend. A ticket is anywhere from $20 USD, depending on your section. You can organize it through a hostel or on your own, and beware the crowds can get rowdy!
NECESSARY DAY TRIP
From Medellín, you can take a 2.5hr bus ride to Guatapé, a colourful pueblo (small town) providing the perfect day trip for visitors in Medellín. Before heading into the main part of town, hike up to El Peñol, where you can see breathtaking views of the rolling hills and man made lakes. You can walk up several flights of stairs to get to the top of the rock, but honestly the view from the bottom of the rock is just as nice, so I found it unnecessary.
From El Peñol you can take a short tuk-tuk into Guatapé or you can walk there. We of course chose to walk, which allows you to explore the area at your own pace. Once you arrive in the little town, your eyes will be glued to the ornate and brightly coloured houses and buildings. The little details along the houses tell stories of the local culture. Definitely explore this tiny town before heading back to the city!
EATING AND GOING OUT
You can live really cheaply in Medellín if you buy groceries and cook your meals yourself. Otherwise, take a stroll down the posh Carrera 35 where there are a bunch of cafes and restaurants to choose from. You could find me at Mezcla Juice Bar, an amazing vegan/veggie place for smoothies, juices, sandwiches and yes you've guessed it, açai bowls.
For going out, head to Parque Lleras where a large concentration of bars and night clubs are. Personally, I wasn't a huge fan of the nightlife in Medellín, but if you walk around the park you're bound to find something that suits your mood. Places tend to be good Thursday-Saturday. Don't forget that while going out you should never leave your drink alone nor walk home alone as you can be a target.
Overall, Medellín has a lot going for itself and is definitely one of the more livable cities in South America. With great food, a lively culture, and an interesting history, you may find yourself in Medellín for longer than expected!