Medellin: the Captivating City of the Eternal Spring

A lack of standout attractions does not detract from Medellin's charm
Medellin: the Captivating City of the Eternal Spring

Bordered on all sides by the green peaks of the Andes, Colombia’s second largest city offers visitors spectacular views across the Aburra Valley in every direction. Within the city itself, Medellin has everything you’d expect from a bustling urban hub; museums, theaters, public parks, shopping malls, high end restaurants and famously energetic nightlife.

Medellin continues to captivate almost all foreign tourists who come across it

Yet the experience on offer in Medellin is definitely greater than the sum of the city’s various, and undeniably agreeable, parts. While no one particular attraction is an absolute must-see, Medellin continues to captivate almost all foreign tourists who come across it. The city is suffused with an undefinable but distinctive charm, which will immediately grab you. This quality has led more than one foreigner (myself included) to extend a trip of several days to the city, to one of several months.

Undoubtedly, an important factor in the city's appeal is its enviable weather system. Located at an altitude of 1,500m, but within 450 miles of the equator, Medellin has a highly pleasant climate, all year round. Temperatures range between from about 15°C to the low 30s, with an average of around 22°C. At the same time, Medellin’s occasional tropical downpours have served to keep the city, and its surrounding areas, pleasantly green. The combination of the warm temperatures, and frequent absence of humidity, have rightfully earned Medellin the nickname of the ‘City of the Eternal Spring’.

Paisas are famous throughout Colombia for being particularly welcoming and friendly

Another salient feature of Medellin are its 3 million inhabitants. Paisas, as the residents of the city are known, are famous in a country already known for its warm hospitality for being particularly welcoming and friendly. This is attitude is particularly evident in their treatment of foreign visitors who are eagerly welcomed by the city's residents. They have a reputation for being hard working and industrious, are extremely proud of their country and, even more so, their city. They also dedicated to having a good time; something which becomes patently obvious upon visiting any of the city’s numerous clubs and lively bars.

Beyond these attributes, Medellin also boasts a vibrancy and dynamism which give the distinct impression of a city which is going places. In recent years, local authorities have pioneered a number of interesting social initiatives and urban regeneration projects, breathing new life into previously unsavory areas. Throughout the city, and particularly in the more upmarket areas, new shopping malls, entertainment centers and luxury apartments continue to pop up on a near daily basis. Medellin is also the only city in Colombia to have a metro transit system; just one component of its impressive amenities and infrastructure. Such aspects led the Wall Street Journal in 2013 to award it the title of Innovative City of the Year, heading off competition from New York and other global metropolises.

Medellin boasts a vibrancy and dynamism which give the distinct impression of a city which is going places

Such high profile prizes are an acknowledgement of Medellin’s phenomenal transformation from the early 1990s, when the city was a byword for political dysfunction, and widespread drug related violence. Not all the former difficulties have been fully addressed, and issues of poverty and inequality – which were both a contributory cause and effect of the violence – persist to date. Informal and semi-formal housing dominates parts of the city, particularly those reaching up the sides of the surrounding mountains, and some continue to suffer gang violence. All the major tourist attractions however, are located far away from these spots. You are unlikely to go into any such areas unless making a conscious effort to do so.

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Getting your Bearings

Medellin is an urban conurbation and, as such, comprises several originally separate towns which have long since fused together. This means each area of the city has its own identity and distinctive feel. The cultural offering is situated in and around el centro, Medellin’s downtown area. While this is a bustling area, it is not the most affluent part of the city and feels a little dodgy at night. The comparative lack of accommodation and dining options mean that few tourists stay here. The undoubted center for foreign visitors is in the upmarket district of Poblado. This is home to Parque Lleras; a small square around which a multitude of open air restaurants, bars, boutique stores and nightclubs are clustered. For Colombia's upper echelons, "El Lleras" is definitely the place to see and be seen.

Parque Lleras is the place to see and be seen for Colombia’s most affluent demographics

Laureles, a more residential area of the city, is also affluent and benefits from many of the same amenities as does Poblado. The former is less trendy than the latter, for good or ill, and is slightly more spread out, with the main nightlife located along Calle 33. Areas such as Envigado - technically a separate administrative district, but in reality part of Medellin – or Sabaneta are dramatically different in that they retain the feel of a traditional Colombian pueblo (town). A strong sense of community spirit persists here, with much local activity revolving around the main squares and churches.

For something more different still, you may consider day or overnight trips to one of the various pleasant small Antioquian villages in the near vicinity of Medellin. Towns such as Santa Elena, Guatape and Santa Fe de Antioquia are all within 1-2 hours’ journey of central Medellin, and offer a highly different experience of this region. These are great and highly accessible areas from which to enjoy the surrounding countryside, mountain views and traditional Colombian fare.

What to See and Do

In the city center (referred to locally as el centro) there are a number of tourist sites to visit. One of the most famous of these is Plaza Botero, a large square named after Fernando Botero, a renowned local painter and sculptor. On display in the plaza are over 20 of his statutes and sculptures – featuring people, animals and mythical creatures – all in his highly distinctive plump style. A large collection of more than 125 other Botero works are housed in the Museo de Antioquia, located on one side of the square. The museum, founded in 1881, also has a host of other art exhibits and archaeological exhibits on display.

Other museums of note include the Modern Art Museum, which is home to the near complete collection of Antioquian painter Debora Arango, as well as a number of cine-art pieces and projections. The building is located in Ciudad del Rio among pleasant gardens surroundings, containing a climbing wall and outdoor fitness area for public use. Further into the city is the museum of the University of Antioquia, which boasts a huge selection of anthropological items from the pre-columbine era, as well as nearly 5,500 natural science exhibits.

A widely recommended way to see the city center of Medellin is via a walking tour offered by local company Real City Tours. The tours are noted by many tourists to the city, not so much for the sites you visit during the 4-hour tour, but because of the knowledge and enthusiasm of the English-speaking guides. During the course of the tour, visitors are provided with a locals' insight on the history of Medellin and current issues facing the city today. Tours are officially free - though tipping is heavily encouraged - and leave twice a day from Alpujarra metro station.

Parque Explora contains one of the largest aquariums in South America

Slightly to the southwest of the tour route is the Interactive EPM Museum, near Parque de los Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Park), which is a more hands-on affair better suited to children and families. Here, visitors interact with exhibits to learn about the physical properties of water, energy, gas and telecommunications. Parque Explora has a similar hands-on style though it deals with more general interest subjects, such as the earth and space, science and technology, and the human body. The site also contains a decent aquarium, one of the largest in South America, housing species from the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, and the Caribbean and Pacific oceans. Within two minutes’ walk of Parque Explora are Medellin’s botanical gardens, a pleasant green area which periodically hosts to public events and outdoor yoga classes.

In San Felix you can arrange a paragliding trip to soar over the mountains and gain the most impressive views of the city

In addition to these cultural centers another enjoyable activity in Medellin is to scale one of several high points for panoramic views of the city and its surroundings. The highest adrenaline option to do this is in San Felix, located, just on the edge of the city. From here, you can arrange a paragliding trip to soar over the mountains and gain the most impressive views of the metropolitan area. The 20 minute outing costs in the region of 80,000 COP. To get here, you will need to first travel to the Northern Bus Terminal (at the metro station Caribe), and from there catch the Expreso Belmira bus towards San Felix.

Terrestrial options are also available. On the road towards the airport in Las Palmas there are a couple of lookout points, from which you can see the whole of Medellin on a clear day. Slightly lower down, and located more centrally, is the Cerro Nutibara. Views From the top of this 80m hill are particularly impressive at night. The Cerro also houses Pueblito Paisa, a mock-up of a typical Antioquian town around the 1900s, which is of mild interest.

There are several large events and festivals held in Medellin throughout the year. The largest of these is the Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival), held in August every year and featuring a whole host of events throughout the city. The other major event in the city's calendar is Colombiamoda; a huge multi-day event celebrating the latest in Latin American and world fashion.

Where to Stay

Accommodation options have proliferated in Medellin over recent years, and today the city is well supplied with hotels and hostels in the budget to luxury categories.

The majority of accommodation is clustered around the Poblado district, the city’s most affluent area and the site of a large number of restaurants, shops, bars and clubs. Though there are several hotels located in other parts of the city, Poblado’s excellent facilities, wealth of dining options and highly secure environment mean that this is far and away the most popular area for first time visitors to stay.

Hotels in Medellin

The Charlee Hotel has a large gym and spa, and a rooftop bar featuring a glass-sided swimming pool

The city’s hotels range from the mid to high-range, but there are a fairly wide selection in both categories. Many of these are located in or within a few minutes of Parque Lleras in Poblado. (Note: while this Lleras is called a 'park' it is in fact a small concrete area with very little in the way of vegetation). One of the newest additions to the city’s offering is the trendy Charlee hotel, located right on the park itself. The modern building has a first floor terrace restaurant facing onto Lleras, a large gym and spa, and a rooftop bar featuring a glass-sided swimming pool. A few blocks away, located on the area known as the “golden mile” is the Dann Carlton hotel, one of the most highly recommended accommodations in the city. The hotel is famous for its extremely spacious suites and for its revolving restaurant, located on the 19th floor of the building, which gives great views of the city. The nearby Hotel Park 10 is another high-end spot, catering largely for business visitors, which features elegantly decorated rooms.

One of the most highly recommended options in the mid-range category is the relatively new Acqua Express hotel. Also located in Poblado, Acqua is a bright and clean place, with friendly staff, decent facilities and is within easy reach of shops and entertainment. The Hotel Habana Vieja, situated just behind Santa Fe, Medellin’s largest shopping mall, has similarly priced rooms. As its name suggests, the hotel has a Cuban theme and each room is decorated with vintage furniture and a large number of plants. Another decent option in this price range is the boutique In House Hotel. Rooms are decorated in a fairly minimalist fashion, and are very bright as a result of the liberal use of floor-to-ceiling windows.

Hostels and Budget Hotels in Medellin

Hostels and budget accommodation options in the city have mushroomed from just a small handful around 10 years ago, to over 25 today. Increased competition means the facilities available at some of these hostels are really excellent for the price. Much like the higher end options, most of Medellin’s hostels are located in the Poblado district.

The facilities available at some of these hostels are really excellent for the price of accommodation

One of the best decked out is the Pit Stop hostel, which has a swimming pool, basketball court, pool tables, widescreen TV and separate bar. Casa Kiwi, one of the city’s most notorious party hostels, has a large and tastefully decorated outside terrace (with barbecue), and hosts live music and events at the weekend. Another recommended option in Poblado is the Happy Buddha Boutique Hostel (not to be confused with the less impressive and less conveniently located Secret Buddha Hostel in the Laureles district), which is elegantly designed with a number of useful facilities for backpacker travelers.

A few blocks away, but still within easy reach of Parque Lleras, is the Black Sheep Hostel, a well-serviced hostel with a large number of private rooms, located in the pleasant Patio Bonito neighborhood. This option has an in-house Spanish school, which receives rave reviews from students, and is a better choice for those seeking a degree of tranquility during their stay.

Getting Around Medellin

The easiest way to get around Medellin is via the ubiquitous yellow taxis, which are reasonably economical and can be hailed on the street from almost anywhere. Journeys within the city are always charged according to the taxi meter – you will not have to agree prices in advance (the system is slightly different if you are travelling to the airport at Rio Negro).

Metro stations are kept clean and secure, and trains pass at regular intervals

A number of public transport options are available. For central destinations you can use the metro; an overhead train service running the length of the city. Though the network is not extensive, the service is good on those parts of the city which are covered. Stations are kept clean and secure, and trains pass at regular intervals from 5am until either 10pm or 11pm. A single journey costs approximately 1,600 COP and must be bought before travel at the ticket window within the station.

In some areas the bus network is integrated into metro routes, allowing you to easily switch from one mode of transport to another to reach your destination. These metro buses are generally green colored and say ‘metro’ on the front. The system can be slightly confusing at first for visitors, so ask transport staff or other passengers if you need assistance. If you wish to travel along the integrated routes, make sure you buy the integrado ticket, which works out substantially cheaper than buying the component parts separately.

Linked into the metro network is the metrocable; a transit system similar to a ski resort gondola lift

Also linked into the metro network is the three line metrocable; a transit system similar to a ski resort gondola lift. Routes take passengers from the low lying areas of the city to the less affluent areas located higher up the mountainsides. Visitors are unlikely to use this as a regular method of transport mainly because the areas served by the metrocable are not big tourist sites. However, it is certainly worth the trip, both to enjoy the ride and to experience a side of the city that is very different to that of Poblado and other upmarket areas. Use of the metrocable is included in the normal metro ticket price.

Getting to and from Medellin

Most national and all international flights arriving or leaving Medellin use the airport at Rio Negro, which lies approximately 45 minutes outside the city in taxi. Domestic flights with a few select airlines make use of the more conveniently located Enrique Olaya Herrera airport in the city center (adjacent to the southern bus terminal). Flight operators who run services from this site include Aerolinea de Antioquia, EasyFly, LAN and Satena. Flights go to cities including Armenia, Bogota, Bucaramanga, Cali, and Pereira. Long-distance buses leave from Medellin to a wide range of destinations in Antioquia and to most major cities in the rest of the country. There are two main bus terminals, with buses to Bogota, Cartagena and the Caribbean coast leaving from the northern terminal. Those travelling to Cali, Buenaventura, Jardin, Pereira, and Popayan, and other southern destinations should use the southern bus terminal.

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