A Comprehensive Guide to Medellin: Colombia’s Metropolis in the Valley

View of Medellin from Santa Elena.

Medellin is a city that wowed me from the start.

The surrounding mountains wowed me with the views they provide. Lush tropical vegetation and barrios of brick-built homes cover and accent their slopes. Their towering presence over Medellin offers a sweeping perspective of the city.

The weather wowed me with its enduring spring temperature. When it rains, it pours in Medellin, but I didn’t mind. The rainfall is only a break from a climate that rarely varies through the year.

The Paisa culture wowed me with its exuberance. I found some of Medellin’s best experiences inside compact salsa clubs. They sweltered and made me sweat while offering little room for comfort. But I never noticed this because Colombians mesmerize with their mastery of dance.

But of all the things that wowed me about Medellin, its progress wowed me the most. Medellin’s turbulent history of Narco warfare and guerilla strife is well documented. Yet going there taught visitors like me that much of the city’s worst is in its past.

How I Traveled to and Around Medellin

My journey to Medellin started with a seven-hour flight from San Francisco to Panama City. After a layover, my connecting flight was a straight one-hour shot to my final destination.

Two airports service Medellin. First there’s Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport, which serves only domestic flights from within city limits. Since I flew international, I arrived at José María Córdova International Airport. It’s about 40 minutes from Medellin by car and located in the city of Rionegro.

Lucky for me, my friend’s girlfriend owned a car, so they picked me up when I first arrived. But in following trips, I rode the bus. It costs an affordable $9.500 COP and drops off at Centro Comercial San Diego. For cheap rides to José María Córdova, I departed from San Diego in collectivos. These shared taxis cost $14.000 COP per passenger. Speed is the main benefit of a collectivo since rides are by car rather than bus.

For transportation within city limits, I relied on a combination of the metro, Uber, and my feet.

Medellin Metro Cable

The Metro System

The metro system comprises of streetcar, rail, and gondola service. I only used the latter two options. Rail is easy for travelers to navigate since it runs only north and south. Meanwhile, the gondola system has four lines that scale the hillsides of Medellin. I purchased individual rides at metro stop ticket counters for $2.500 COP a piece.

Uber

Since I had cell phone service in Medellin, I chose Ubers over taxis when traveling by car. I found Uber convenient since I lacked Spanish speaking skills at the start of my stay. But the downside of Uber is that wait times are often long, sometimes lasting more than five to 10 minutes. Short distance fares, like from the barrios of El Poblado to Laureles, cost around $12.000 COP.

On Foot

Getting from neighborhood to neighborhood is easy by public transport or car. But once I arrived in a barrio, I explored it on foot. El Poblado is the only barrio that might give visitors an extra workout. Unlike other popular areas in Medellin, this barrio is built on a steep incline.

Where I Stayed in Medellin

As Medellin’s reputation as a destination grows, so do the places to stay for short and long-term visitors. For the latter types, it’s easy to find housing using AirBnB, Roomster, or Facebook groups like this.

During my first two months in Colombia, I rented a room in an apartment in El Poblado that I found on Roomster. But in my final three months, I enjoyed a long stay at Casa Estudio. It’s a gigantic shared house located in Medellin’s Estadio neighborhood.

Six of Casa Estudio’s eight bedrooms have private bathrooms. Its kitchen comes stocked with cooking essentials and two refrigerators shared among guests. In addition, there’s a housekeeper on site six days a week. She cleans rooms, washes dishes, and does laundry for guests.

Most people visit for at least two weeks, but others come for month. The long-term stays and diversity of guests create an environment for spirited dialogue.

David Dame, the owner of Casa Estudio, is one character who never shies from conversation. Originally from New York, David offers sharp insights into what it’s like living in Medellin. He also shares entertaining stories about his past life, such as his career as a writer in Hollywood.

Casa Estudio

Where I Ate in Medellin

Medellin is not a foodie’s paradise. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good places to eat. There are a handful of restaurants that pack a punch when it comes to value and quality.

La Migueria

There are panaderias in Medellin and then there is La Migueria. This bakery stocks a variety of sweet and savory pastries, cookies, cakes, and bread. Lucky for me, their flagship bakery was right around the corner from Casa Estudio. They have four other bakeries around Medellin.

I often ordered pasteles, the Colombian take on croissants. It’s hard to go wrong when I had my choice of guava, chocolate or arequipe (Colombian for dulce de leche). I’d also pick up a loaf of their chocolate bread, which is addicting when toasted. A usual haul from La Migueria cost as little as $6.000 COP and no more than $15.000 COP.

Things to Do in Medellin - La Migueria

Cafe Zorba

Pizza is popular around the world and that’s no different in Medellin. I found the best pie at Cafe Zorba. This restaurant sits in a nondescript alley right off Avenida Las Vegas in El Poblado. Zorba doesn’t cater to meat eaters like me, but I left pleased by their vegetarian options.

Zorba makes pizzas either red with tomato sauce or white with an olive oil base. They serve their thin-crust pizzas Italian style – whole and unsliced. Zorba bakes their pies, all priced under $30.000 COP, in artisan-built brick ovens. I enjoyed their arugula as well as spinach pizzas the most.

La Esquina Gourmet

Like Cafe Zorba, I found La Esquina Gourmet in an unassuming location. This restaurant, footsteps from Floresta Metro Station, became one of my lunchtime favorites. La Esquina Gourmet caters French-inspired cuisine at Colombian prices.

The kitchen is a one-man show ran by a French chef. He impressed me with his meticulous preparation and timely service. For about $10.000 COP,  a meal would include a main dish served with roasted potatoes and a small salad. A choice of soup and mixed juice came standard as well. I recommend the BBQ chicken and lentil soup.

Padre Nuestro

Things to Do in Medellin: Padre Nuestro

Padre Nuestro isn’t found on Tripadvisor and it’s not on Google Maps. The only way to discover Padre Nuestro is through word of mouth. It’s the definition of a Medellin deep cut. Located a five-minute walk from Casa Estudio, Padre Nuestro sits across the D1 grocery.

Padre Nuestro is a no frills place to eat that offers large serving sizes at an affordable price. For roughly $9,000 COP, its lunch menu is enough to keep your stomach pleased through dinner. A meal includes soup, drink, and a main dish sided with avocado, coconut rice, and plantains. In particular, I appreciated their fried chicken and BBQ ribs.

What About Cafes?

Pergamino often receives the most attention. Visitors can find the flagship cafe in Parque Lleras. But, two other locations exist – one in Oviedo Mall and the other in Jose Maria Cordova Airport. Pergamino is a hotspot for digital nomads, who occupy most of the cafe’s seating (and Wi-Fi) during the day.

But, there are three other cafes in Medellin worth mentioning, too.

Cafe Velvet sits across the street from Pergamino. It offers a comparable selection of coffee and pastries plus food and alcohol as well. Velvet has a similar modern ambiance as Pergamino, but with half the crowd.

Hija Mia is a 20-minute walk to the Manila zone of El Poblado. Seating is much more limited than Velvet and Pergamino. But, the intimate space makes Hija Mia a good place for laptop workers or one-on-one hangouts. Hija Mia also sells a delicious homemade peanut butter called Mani Bros. I recommend buying a jar or two if you stop by.

Laurales is a popular neighborhood to live for foreigners. There I found Rituales Cafe, a small cafe nestled off Avenida Nutibara. Although it’s tiny, Rituales is hard to miss because of the giant sign plastered outside. They specialize in tinto, a kind of coffee popular among Colombians. It’s served without cream and brewed in close contact with water.

Things I Did in Medellin

Boredom is never an issue for anyone visiting Medellin. Whether nature or nightlife, there’s always something to do. Medellin is a city with plenty to offer.

Outdoor Activities

Parque Arví is a 16,000-hectare nature preserve in Medellin. A group of friends and I traveled by metro and gondola to Arví one weekend afternoon. We spent part of it exploring La Mariposeria. This greenhouse exhibit highlights all the species of butterflies inside the park. Afterward, we went canoeing for free on the park’s small lake.

Tres Cruces is a hiking trail found in the Belen neighborhood of Medellin. One morning, three of my housemates and I hiked the steep, 45-minute climb to the trail’s peak. The reward was a panoramic view of Medellin and its rustic mountainside. If the uphill climb isn’t enough, visitors can also enjoy working out at Tres Cruces’ free outdoor gym.

Things to Do in Medellin - Tres Cruces

Spanish Classes

During the second half of my stay in Medellin, improving my Spanish became a must. Knowing the language is ideal for anyone staying in Medellin long-term. The warmth of the Colombian people only got better when I could carry a conversation.

Around the corner from Casa Estudio is OLSA, Official Language School of the Americas. For one month, I studied there five days a week with each class clocking in at about two hours per session. These classes were small, too. Most times, classes comprised of three people – two students and the instructor. Because of their conversational nature, classes feel more like a get-together among friends.

Shane Keeley founded OLSA after building a 17-year career in education in the United States. He intended Colombia to be the first of many stops in a long journey through South America. But after he arrived, Shane fell in love with Medellin and decided to stay.

Day Trips

If you have a sweet tooth, you should make a point to visit San Antonio de Pereira. The pueblo is known for its selection of dessert shops and food carts near its main square. I made the less than one-hour trip by car with two housemates from Casa Estudio. When we arrived, we went straight to work, first stopping in Dulce Contigo. The shop offers a massive selection of delicious flans and cheesecakes.

Many people who visit Medellin also stop by Guatape. A few friends and I made the short-two hour drive to the quaint town known for its colorful architecture. Buildings are painted in vibrant hues and feature fresco-like murals on their walls. On the way to Guatape, we also stopped at El Peñon, a 650-foot rock that towers over the pueblo. Climbing the roughly 650-step staircase to the top treated us to views like this.

Things to Do in Medellin - View from El Peñol, Guatape

Salsa Dancing

Medellin’s nightlife is best enjoyed dancing, and the top places to go to are the salsa bars.

El Centro isn’t one of the safest neighborhoods to explore at night. But, Tuesday evenings at Eslabon Prendido, make it worth the adventure. A live salsa band takes over the stage and is a treat for everyone. This includes novice salsa dancers like me who preferred watching from the sidelines.

Besides Eslabon Prendido, Son Havana is another popular salsa club I tried in Medellin. Located in Laurales, it offers a free class every Wednesday night. In Parque Lleras, SkyBar is one of the most popular places for salsa and other kinds of music. One of the evenings I went, a dance troop took over the floor for an incredible performance.

Tejo

I had never wondered what cornhole would be like if played with explosives. But I found that answer out anyways while in Colombia.

Tejo is a target sport created by the country’s indigenous people. The object of the game is to throw a lead puck onto a square-shaped platform covered with mud. On the platform are targets called mechas. These small packets filled with gunpowder give the game its explosive quality.

Chris Cajoleas, an expat from Florida, shares his love of Tejo with visitors to Medellin. Five friends and I enjoyed Chris’ Tejo tour, which he hosts in the neighboring town of Envigado. The tour includes a history lesson about the game as well as instruction on how to play.

History Lessons

Medellin seems to be intent on distancing itself from its troubled past. But one place accepts the challenge to explain Medellin’s struggles with violence.

Opened in 2006, Casa de la Memoria offers sobering insight into Medellin’s armed conflicts. Visitors learn about the embittered war between government, paramilitary, guerilla, and drug-trafficking factions. A visit to the museum evokes a feeling of solemn reverence. Powerful pictures of people lost due to careless violence reminded me of how fragile life is.

Casa de la Memoria allows the people of Medellin to honor those who fell victim to tragedy. The museum is also a place to acknowledge Medellin’s mistakes and show how it can build a better tomorrow.

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Jonathan is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jonathan on Twitter or Instagram.

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