Colombia

Everything You Need to Know to Plan a Trip to Medellin, Colombia’s Hillside Metropolis

Known as Colombia’s second largest city, Medellin is also one of the world’s most innovative.

Nicknamed ‘The City of Eternal Spring’: the weather is generally good year around. Most travellers fall head-over-heels in love with its perfect climate, friendly locals and offbeat attractions.

On the whole, we found Medellin to be beautiful.

It’s one of the most photogenic cities in Colombia.

Spaniards first arrived in the Aburra Valley in the 1540s, and Medellin itself was founded in 1616.

Is Medellin Safe?

First things first, let’s address a key concern for many visitors- is Medellin safe to visit?

Once known as the ‘murder capital of the world’, the city used to be in constant conflict with Pablo Escobar’s narco-terror regime.

The past 20 years, especially the last 8-10, have seen Medellin undergo a massive transformation, as locals try to shift its stigma to increase tourism.

That said, it’s well known which parts of the city are safe (for expats or locals), and which should be avoided.

Talking to expats during our stay, any who had been victims of petty crime all said it happened during situations that weren’t ideal- alone, late at night or using phones in plain view in the street.

All this to say, Medellin is fast changing.

Now, it’s a digital nomad haven, and somewhere I’d seriously consider living for a while one day.

The community is a big attraction for digital nomads. There’s a huge, and extremely active expat community. And, the Paisa people (Paisa is the term used for people who hail from Medellin) are warm, welcoming, and a lot of fun.

My key tips for feeling safe in Medellin would be: Don’t walk alone at night; don’t pull out your valuables (camera, phone, etc.) on the sidewalk or street; don’t stand near the end of the sidewalk while waiting for a light to change; and don’t visit neighborhoods that aren’t trafficked by other expats, or recommended.

What to Do

I visited Medellin, mostly to work and drink Colombian coffee. But, on a few days, we set out to explore the city.

6 Must-Do Activities in Medellin

Going on a Comuna 13 tour

Just a few years ago, Comuna 13 was considered the most dangerous area in Medellin- itself, the most dangerous city in the world.

Tourists didn’t dare set foot here- they had no reason to- and many locals, our Comuna 13 tour guide told us, were too ashamed to admit they lived in the ramshackle suburbs.

Now, it’s a different story.

Over the past 6-7 years, especially the past few, Comuna 13 has undergone a complete transformation. It’s no longer known for gang violence, police raids, cartels or illegal trafficking.

Comuna 13 rose to notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of Colombia’s drug and gang era. Because of its location on the edge of the city and the way its built, the barrio became a transit point for drug traffickers, guerillas and gangs.

In 2002, a government raid, spearheaded by President Alvaro Uribe, was launched to clean up the area. What unfolded was an incredibly violent assault that saw at least 20 people killed, and almost 250 arrested.

These days, Comuna 13 is more readily associated with graffiti, street art and walking tours. New infrastructure, including a metro cable and six outdoor escalators, has made life in Comuna 13 a lot easier for residents and opened the area up to tourists.

Many people view Comuna 13 as a true sign of Medellin’s transformation.

There’s a misconception that Comuna 13 is one barrio- it’s actually 12 neighborhoods, making up one of the city’s six zones. It’s a huge commune.

Some neighborhoods are okay for tourists to visit, while others should be avoided.

Most tours focus on the Las Independencias and the 20 de Julio area, where most of the area’s street art is found.

One of the most important changes for Comuna 13 came in 2011, when the government installed a series of outdoor escalators to offer an alternative to the 350+ steep steps, making the entire area more accessible.

Modelled after the ones in Hong Kong, the accessibility they offered help reduce stigma over time. Since then, it’s been a slow journey to revitalising the area for the benefit of locals and tourists alike.

There are dozens of large-scale murals, mainly concentrated around the area’s escalators.

One of my favourite graffiti motifs found throughout the Comuna was the presence of elephants- the elephants represent Comuna 13’s pledge to never forget the events of the past.

What’s more, many families have painted their houses bright colours to match the murals, making the whole area feel vibrant.

Graffiti is actually illegal in Medellin. For a local artist to create a mural, they first need to obtain permission from the area’s chief artists as well as the building’s owners. Murals in Comuna 13 aren’t just for decoration- they memoralise the past and express hope for the future.

You can visit Comuna 13 on your own, but it’s better to go with a guide and support the community. Dozens of companies in Medellin now offer tours, we went with Comuna 13 Graffiti Tours.

As more and more people visit, commercialization of the community’s grief is coming to light as a serious issue. It’s something you should keep in mind when booking a tour, and be respectful of while on your tour.

Every family in Comuna 13 has been negatively impacted by violence. By taking a tour, you’re not only supporting the local guides and businesses in financial terms, you’re also helping people shed the stigma.

Families from Comuna 13 were openly discriminated against in the past. That reputation changes with every tourist group that visits.

Some of the best views of Medellin can be found in Comuna 13- the higher you go on the escalators, the better. At the very top, the ground evens out, offering a short walk with a beautiful view.

While you’re in the area, don’t miss trying mango street popsicles- served with a bit of lime juice, they’re a must eat.

Our tour to Comuna 13 included a ride on the Line J metrocable, which offers spectacular mountain views.

When you ask locals when things across the city really started to change, they all say the same thing- it wasn’t really Escobar’s death. It was the building of public transit across Medellin, specifically the metro cables connecting hillside communities.

We couldn’t believe how high the cables go.

When people talk about Medellin’s transformation, they talk as if it happened so many years ago. But in parts of the commune, ceasefire was only two years ago.

Floating high above the villages in cable cars, you’re able to see the stark differences between villages. Ones like the village shown above still have ramshackle homes. It’s only the villages that have been rebuilding for longer that have newer housing and amenities (running water, electricity).

If riding Line J, I’d recommend getting off at the Popular station for photos- it has the best views on this line.

Taking a free walking tour of downtown

Book with Real City Walking tours- they’ve got multiple tour options daily. During the tour, you’ll learn more about Medellin’s history, and see some of the downtown area’s key sights, including Plaza Botero and Parque de Las Luces.

Riding the metrocable to Parque Arvi

Arvi is a gorgeous, expansive park. To get there, you’ll take the Line K metrocable, which boasts some of the city’s best views. Once at Arvi, go for a hike, enjoy a picnic, or try to sign up for a guided walk (check the schedule before going for ones offered in English, as they don’t always occur).

Watching the sunset from a rooftop bar

We weren’t surprised to find swank rooftop bars with insane views and a packed pool in El Poblado. Envy’s Rooftop has gorgeous views of the area, and is best visited for sunset.

Trekking to Guatape for a half day tour

We weren’t able to do this, because of conflicts with tour departure/return times and work schedules, but I would have loved to go with Toucan Tours.

Their excursion to Guatape, includes a stop at El Peñol. At El Peñol, you’ll climb 700+ steps to the top of the rock for one of Colombia’s most iconic views- of an amazing, man-made lake. From there, you’ll head to the nearby town of Guatape, which is adored for its colourful zocalos that adorn the local houses.

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Image credit for Guatpe: link

We made a conscious choice to note partake in any Pablo Escobar branded tours

Colombia’s own brand of dark tourism, ‘narco tourism’, is becoming a thriving industry.

What many partakers don’t realise though, is just how offensive locals find it. For many, the pain and terror is still raw. Going on a tour that amplifies and capitalises on those events and emotions felt unimaginable to us. There are other ways to learn about the city’s past.

Two other activities to enjoy while you’re in Medellin- the city’s lively salsa culture, and a bustling, football game. There are regular afternoon matches, especially on Saturdays.

Where to Drink Coffee

In Medellin, it’s not a question of ‘where can I find the best cafe’. The question really is – ‘which one should I choose?’

Coffee shop culture has well and truly taken hold in Medellin. With locals and visitors drinking it so reliably, Colombia’s coffee industry is no longer just about export.

Many of Medellin’s cafes offer great, local speciality coffees, delicious snacks, and WiFi stable enough to work. 

At newer cafes, you’ll find a handful of power outlets scattered throughout, and a space designed with ample seating in mind.

Over the course of our two weeks in Medellin, we visited a bunch of cafes. Inevitably, there were favourites, which we returned to time after time.

Whether you’re in Medellin to live and work as a digital nomad, or there for a visit, these cafes are perfect for getting a bit of work done, or just chilling out with a cup of good brew.

EL POBLADO

Hija Mia: Tucked away in Manila, one of the fastest growing areas of El Poblado, Hija was a 2 minute walk from our Airbnb. It’s the greatest bits of Aussie cafe culture with awesome flat whites (plus nitro cold brew) and heaping portions of delicious avo toast. 

Pergamino: Hailed as the best coffee in El Poblado, Perg quickly became our afternoon spot. Pergamino is huge- there’s upstairs, outdoor and communal seating. Power outlets are scarce, but you can find one to use in a pinch.

The WiFi was stable enough to see us stop in just about every day, but the main reason we rated Pergamino was for their extensive coffee, tea, juice and cake menu.

Botanika Lounge: We didn’t dislike Botanika, but we also didn’t love it.

The best part, in our opinion, was the vibrant, leafy decor, and the fact there was great WiFi and power outlets under every table.

We didn’t care much for the menu- it was on the trendier edge, and more expensive in comparison to Poblado’s other cafes. Also, as the evening drew closer, it got decidedly scenier. If you’re down to have a cocktail while working, you may enjoy Botanika. We usually prefer to work from chiller spots, where the focus is more on great brew and less on a trendy space.

Cafe Velvet: It’s not hard to see why Velvet is popular with nomads. It’s a bit dark and moody, but in a cool way. 

As with many places in Poblado, we enjoyed the dual indoor/outdoor aspect of Cafe Velvet. Especially since here, the outdoor portion has tons of plants and mountain imagery- it’s easy to feel as if you’ve escaped the city for a bit.

Al Alma Coffee Roasters: A Colombian coffee chain, we liked Al Alma more than Juan Valdez because it felt smaller and more personal. It’s a popular spot with locals and visitors for Western-inspired brunch. 

A few other spots in El Poblado we liked:

  • Juan Valdez in Parque Lleras (Colombian Starbucks)
  • Como Pez En El Agua (go for brunch)
  • Urbania Cafe (good breakfast and nice coffee menu, a bit further away from the main bits of El Poblado, which kept us from visiting more than once)

Coworking space wise, there are tons of spots in El Poblado. We only checked out Selina, a hip hostel that doubles as a coworking spot. We liked it, but no more than our favourite cafes in the neighborhood.

LAURELES

Semilla Coworking: Looking for a cafe we didn’t realise had closed, we stumbled upon Semilla. From the outside, it looks like a trendy cafe with minimalist, Scandi-inspired design. Inside, you’ll discover it’s built for those who need a remote office. There’s loads of spaces to sit or lounge, enclosed conference rooms, lockers, a kitchen with coffee and food, plus fast WiFi.

Cafe Revolucion: Located on the main road, it’s a popular spot for all day brekkie. There’s your usual coffee fare, plus loads of fresh juice and smoothie options. 

Cafe Zeppelin: Although it doesn’t open until noon each day, I loved Cafe Zeppelin so much, I’d consider moving to the Laureles ‘hood if I lived in Medellin just to have continual, easy access. The cafe is huge- there are tons of corners to curl up in with a good book, or post up at with a laptop. There are two outdoor areas, in the front and back, which lend different vibes to your experience. I really enjoy this aspect of places, as it means they pretty much always feel fresh.

Best yet, the non-coffee options. I love brew, but sometimes, need a break- especially mid-late afternoon, as I’m starting to wind down for the day. We had incredible limonada de cocos at Zeppelin- in fact, we agreed they were the best we’d had in all of Colombia.

Two other cafes we liked in Laureles, less for work and more for hanging out:

  • Cafe Tales (tiny, quaint cafe)
  • Cafe Cliche (French owned, quirky mismatched furniture)

CIUDAD DEL RIO

Cariñito Cafe: Lured here by the promise it’d be quieter than Poblado cafes, we were impressed with the size of Cariñito- ample indoor seating, plus a huge terrace, and with the abundance of in-floor power plugs.

Not in the mood for coffee? Big fan of the limonada de coco here.

// The Best Cafes in Medellin for Digital Nomads & Bangin’ Coffee //

Where to Eat

Most days, we worked, and ate a cafe brunch (see above recos :)). We also budgeted for 2-3 coffee/juice drinks daily, and a mid-afternoon snack.

Dinner was usually street food and fresh fruit.

We saw very few vegetables during our time in Medellin, sans grocery stores where they were fairly expensive. Colombian fare is definitely meat and bread heavy, with tons of tropical fruit sprinkled in.

We didn’t eat at restaurants, per se, much, but felt that was the best way to experience both of Medellin’s worlds – it’s upscale cafe scene, and delicious street food.

Arepas were our favourite things to eat for dinner, we thought the style of them was much better in Medellin than in Cartagena. Thicker shell, saliter cheese- just delicious.

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Arepitas Pa Mama was our favourite place for savoury ones, and Las Chachas had the best sweet arepas, or arepa de choclos (corn shell with creamy cheese).

In Poblado, we also liked Veg Station, Marietta and Helecho Cocina Viva for their healthy vegetarian and vegan offerings.

Also recommended to us: Cafe Zorba for a pizza fix.

Where to Stay

With tourism increasing, both of the digital nomad relo variety and holiday-goers, hotel builds are fast popping up. And, like other places in South America, there’s a plethora of Airbnbs available.

The most popular neighborhoods for digital nomads to live are to the south and west of the city- El Poblado, Envigado, Ciudad del Rio, Laureles, Floresta and Estadio.

El Poblado is the most developed, and thus the most popular for vacationers and nomads.

We stayed in El Poblado, which gets flack for being too developed- even the Paisa population that lives here is fairly affluent. Of the areas to stay in Medellin, Poblado has the highest concentration of bars, restaurants, cafes and shops.

We also loved Laureles- it’s green, flat, and has a more chill, residential vibe. There are still plenty of places to eat, drink and party, but it’s much less chaotic than Poblado.

If I were coming to Medellin for holiday, I’d stay in El Poblado. And, if I were moving to Medellin, I’d probably start my trip in Poblado, and likely look to move flats mid-way to experience living in Laureles as well.

Extra Colombia Travel Tips

Language: Transactional English is spoken at upmarket stores and restaurants, but expect it to be limited.

Throughout Colombia, and South America and Latin America, you won’t find many people who are fluent in English. With Spanish as the national language, it’s best to pick up a few key phrases, or have Google Translate at the ready.

Currency: Colombian Peso

I withdrew from bank ATMs. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- some purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards.

Budget: We were surprised by how affordable Medellin was- we knew it was oft hailed as a budget destination, but couldn’t believe just how well we could live for such a low cost. 

Our Airbnb was $13 USD per night per room in a shared space (four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and balcony). We rented two rooms, so we’d have space to live and work. We were in the Manila neighborhood, which is a newer part of El Poblado. Other rooms we found on Airbnb started at $30-35 USD and up per night in El Poblado. For how nice our space was, the cost was a good deal, and why we decided to rent two rooms. We visited during the high season for tourism, and so, two rooms in a shared space was still cheaper than getting our own place.

Accommodation covered, we had no issue living very nicely on $12-15 USD a day to cover coffees, juices, fresh fruit, brunch and dinner.

We walked everywhere for the most part- especially in El Poblado and Ciudad del Rio. Whenever we took taxis, it was always under $2-4 USD per ride, and metro tickets were even cheaper (under $1 USD per ride, ~$0.70).

Getting There: Unless you’re flying direct from Orlando, Miami or Fort Lauderdale, you’ll likely layover in Florida or Panama en-route from the northern hemisphere. 

Heading to Medellin, I flew from Orlando via Spirit direct.

Once at the airport, you can grab a taxi to wherever you’re staying in town. The construction of a new tunnel through the mountains makes the drive easier than ever, only taking ~30 minutes, instead of the usual 60+.

There’s also a shuttle bus that drops off at a mall, and I’ve heard there are oft taxis waiting around the area to take visitors to their final destinations.

We chose to have our Airbnb host arrange a taxi for us both ways, as it was slightly cheaper than taking the official airport ones (~$15-17 USD each way), and easy.

Getting Around: We walked everywhere in Poblado, and even to Ciudad del Rio (~20-30 minutes from Poblado).

To get to other parts of the city, we took a taxi, which you can hail via the Cabify app, or the metro.

Our taxi rides were usually $2-4 USD, and when we used the metro to cover longer distances, tickets only cost under $1 USD.

The metro is modern, but be careful with your belongings- it can get crowded and pickpockets are notorious. If taking the metro from a popular station, like Poblado, during rush hour, come early. The ticket lines are looooooong.

When to Visit: We visited in early February, when temps are warm, but not too hot. Most days, it was 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, it was often 50-60 degrees, which was perfect for sleeping comfortably. 

Most Airbnbs unless they’re newly renovated won’t have air-conditioning- ours didn’t. We felt fine with the fan we had, but the city can be hotter at other times of the year. If you’re the kind of person that absolutely needs air-con, I’d look at newer hotel properties- there are loads of trendy, modern ones popping up across the city, especially in El Poblado.

Tipping: Tipping is common practice in Colombia. Be prepared to add ‘con diez’ or ‘con quince’ to your bill. 

Wifi Access: Most cafes had free WiFi, and of good quality. Although we had Tigo SIMs and weren’t too worried about being connected. 

SIM Card Options: There aren’t official sellers in the airport, but a friend tipped us off that we could buy one from a convenience store on the second level of arrivals, across from the ATMs.

We went with Tigo, which cost $6 USD for 2.5 GB of data. Not super cheap, but also not too expensive, and much less hassle, buying at the airport, than trying to find a seller in the city.

Have you ever visited Medellin? Is it a destination on your list of places to visit one day?Would you add anything to this guide to Medellin?

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2 comments

  1. Wow, such a colorful city! Love the colorful walls and street art. Looks like there aren’t any bad views of the city, especially with the sprawling buildings on top of the hills. It’s good to hear that Medellin has gone through drastic transformation over the years, and I’m sure it’ll become an expat’s haven as the stigma clears over the years. Thanks for sharing your adventure!

    1. There’s no doubt it’s a beautiful place, Medellin is absolutely somewhere I could see myself living for a while. Would recommend a visit for anyone, nomad or not 🙂

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