Medellin, between the terrifying past and optimistic future

Medellin is one of the most innovative cities of South America; in the last years it has changed and improved a lot. For me it was a very inspiring and optimistic place. You can see here how local authorities and citizens working together in a short time can make their city and their lives so much better.

Medellin is located in Paisa region and has interesting and sometimes tragic history, great food and amazing people.

History of the Paisa region

The region includes departments of Antioquia, Caldas, Risalda and Quindio, the main cities are Medellin, Manizales, Armenia and Pereira. Who are the Paisas? Paisa, from Spanish “paisano”, person who lives in the country. Mostly descendents of Spaniards (Basks, Galls, Andalusians) and Sephardi Jews mixed with local Indians, inhabited the area about 200 years ago. Hardworking and smart very soon they converted Paisa region in one of the most successful and prosperous regions in the country.

What did the Paisas do? They did basically everything from farming to trading, from manufacturing to mining. First railway, first machines, innovations, even new European fashion came to Paisa region and then spread around the country. For many years Paisas worked hard and lived happily.

Medellin in the 20th century

Last century  Colombia in general and Medellin particularly experienced tragic events impacting the lives of all citizens. Revolution and civil war brought about radical and dramatic changes, resulting in death and destruction. The civil war between the supporters of the Liberal and Conservative parties, a murder of a presidential candidate J.Gaitan, a leader of the Liberal party, oppression from the official authorities against the opposition etc. As a result at the end of the 50s beginning of 60s two illegal groups M-19 and FARK were formed. It was beginning of the war between them and the official authority.

It was a good chance for infamous Pablo Escobar and he took it. Originally FARC had only political purposes and had nothing to do with drug traffic. But civil war like any other requires a lot of money and Escobar had this money. In exchange for the help in his “business” Escobar promised FARC unlimited source of money. Medellin became a “residence” of one of the biggest drug cartels headed by Escobar. For a long period Medellin considered to be the most dangerous city in the world. Chaos, blood and fear reigned here. Escobar and his allies had so much money that they didn’t know what to do with it! They gave them away to the poor on the streets of Medellin belied themselves modern Robin Hoods.

Medellin nowadays

Step by step Medellin is recovering from the decades of war and chaos. It has all the chances to become one of the favorite tourist cities in South America. Hospitality of locals sometimes astonishes, not in many places people come to tourists on streets to say “Thank you for coming”. For Colombians increasing number of tourists is a symbol of peace and stability if people aren’t scared to come to their country Colombia is not that dangerous any more.

Colombians are very positive and optimistic people. For example a National football team game is always a fiesta, doesn’t matter if they lose or win. Any sport achievement of a Colombian sportsman is a success, even if he arrived forth, people will remember about it for years. That’s a real sport spirit!

Library parks

Medellin authorities have done a lot to improve the situation in the city especially in the disadvantaged areas. As part of the program they opened 10 Library parks in the less developed areas of Medellin. What is Library park? Modern buildings hosting a library, computer center, classes and courses for children and adults, surrounded by green area. Every day thousands of people use Library park services. All centers are free to use, equipped with modern computers and everything necessary for studying. Except for library there are language, drawing, music courses for children and evening classes for adults. In the beginning there were some worries about safety of the expensive equipment in the disadvantage areas but in last 5 years there hasn’t been one break in or stealing. The Library parks are never empty it was a very good investment in the future and a big impact on the community.

Things to do in Medellin

Free walking tour

It is highly recommended and a “must do” in Medellin. All guides are real professionals, they know a lot about the city and Colombia in general, speak very good English and are fun and artistic. They went through careful selection, no random people work here. The tour goes through the central areas with several stops in symbolic places, after the tour you not just know better Medellin but you get an idea of the Colombian history in general.

At the end of your two-hour tour you supposed to give a tip, it’s all up to you how much to give. In my experience it was the best walking tour I’ve ever done.

Botanic garden

Huge area, 14 acres, many different plants, palms, flowers, a big artificial lake and a butterfly pavilion. The garden is open from 9 am to 5 pm, no admission fee except for the days of the Flower Festival.

Museo de Antioquia

Collection of art 18-20th centuries, a big part of it was donated by the famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Medellin is his home town everywhere on its streets you can find Botero’s sculptures. The collection includes Botero’s sculptures and paintings as well as several works of his friends e.g. Picasso. Museum opened Mon-Sat from 10.00 am to 5.30 pm, on Sun closes at 4 pm. Entrance fee 10 000/$3,5; 5000/$1,7 for students.

Pueblito Paisa (Paisa village)

Copy of a typical Paisa village built in the city on Nutribara hill from where you can have a panoramic view over Medellin. The village is very small mainly consists of souvenir shops and restaurants, 30 min. is enough to walk around.

Cable car and surrounding hills

Go to the top of the hill, Santo Domingo station, from where you can see the city like in the palm of your hand. The cable car is a part of the public transport system; thanks to it people from the outskirts on Medellin got a fast and easy access to the city center.

Flower festival

It takes place in Medellin every year on the first week of August and attracts thousands of tourists from around the world. If you decide to come here for the Festival book accommodation months before otherwise it’ll be difficult to find any. On the final day of the Festival there is a big flower parade on the streets of Medellin. Platforms decorated with flowers, music, dancing a real flower carnival!

When did it start?

In 1957 Arturo Uribe, head of The Department of Tourism, suggested to start a flower festival in Medellin to attract more tourists to the city. First couple of years the Festival was in March and most visitors were Colombians from other regions, it wasn’t an international event. Later the festival became famous outside the country and people from all over the world started coming to Medellin. By the way Colombia is the second largest flowers exporter in the world after Holland.

Where to stay in Medellin

Our first night we spent at Medellin airport. We arrived late, missed last bus to the city, didn’t want to pay for the taxi and didn’t have any booking, so the airport was the easiest and the cheapest option. We found comfortable benches, accommodated ourselves and fell asleep. The airport is new, has ATMs, many food and coffee places, wi-fi, good enough to spend a night. Next morning we took a shuttle bus to the city. Buses leave every 20-30 min. from 6.00 am to 9.00 pm. They make two stops at shopping center San Diego (metro station) and at Nutibara hotel.

The main tourist area is El Poblado, here you can find most hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars etc. It’s one of the most modern and fast developing areas in Medellin. It has good transport system; many buses and metro (land line), the nearest station has the same name El Poblado.

We stayed at Tamarindo hostel, 22000/$7,5 for bed in dormitory. Good place, clean, hot shower, comfortable beds, lockers, good wi-fi, kitchen with all necessary for cooking. The staff is very friendly, many shops, bars and restaurants nearby. Next to our hostel there was Casa Kiwi hostel, recommended by Lonely Planet, we were not inside but from the outside it looked nice more like a party hostel.

Food in Medellin

We usually cook for ourselves, it works out cheaper and  when traveling for a long time it’s nice to have some home cooked food. Average on food we spent between 8000/$2,7 and 14 000/$4,8 per person per day. You can have a set lunch in a local place for 9000/$ (complete meal with drink). If you want more sophisticated food prepare to pay 12 000/$4 for lunch in a restaurant.

Bandeja Paisa

A traditional dish of Paisa region in Medellin you can find it in many restaurants. It’s a typical Paisa weekend family meal. Bandeja Paisa is a big platter full of food, different food; all sorts of meat and sausages: chorizo, chicharron, fried pork, ground beef, black pudding. All these accompanied by stewed red beans, white rice, fried egg, fried plantain, arepa, avocado and lemon. Cholesterol full and unhealthy but delicious meal! Highly recommended to try and hope you will be able to digest it!

Medellin transport system

Land metro line is the pride of Medellin, it is the only Colombian city with a metro system. In the beginning nobody believed it would succeed, there wasn’t enough money and the situation in the city was very unstable. But the metro was built and till now 10 years later the citizens are very proud and appreciate it a lot. There is no graffiti or rubbish even on the outside of it.

The metro is modern, fast and safe. It’s very easy to use it, you just need to buy a plastic card (several persons can use one) for 4000/$1,3 and put some money on it. One trip costs 2000/$0,6. Cable car is a part of the public transport system; you can switch to it at one of the connection stations without paying extra.

Is Medellin dangerous?

Many tourists ask this question and it’s normal to have a security concern in the city that used to be the most dangerous in the world. Luckily things have changed since those times. If you take normal precautions you won’t have more risk than in any other big city of South America. Don’t walk late night alone, look after your belonging (bags, wallets etc.) and don’t wonder in dodgy areas of the city. How they say in Medellin don’t “dar papaya”, which means don’t give a chance.  From our experience we never felt any danger or unsafe on the streets of Medellin.

Guatape and El Penon

Small town a couple of hours by bus from Medellin, located in a picturesque place at the lake. On holidays and weekends gets a bit crowded but in a lovely way, many locals from around, stands with Colombian food and sweets, carousels for children, music and dancing everywhere, nice Colombian vibe.

The town is famous for its facades; all houses in the center have some bright colorful tiles along the facade’s lower walls, it makes them vivid and gives personality to each house.

What to do in Guatape

The main attraction is a huge rock El Penon at the lake, about 3 km from the town. You can get to the top of it but it’s a bit challenging (steep steps) and expensive. To get there you can walk direct along the road from Guatape, take a bus or do a 2 hour hike from the town through the rural area. The hike is beautiful, on the way you can visit a monastery of the Benedictine monks, about an hour away from Guatape. The walk is mostly on the gravel road with very few cars, through green hills, small rivers and villages.

If you like water activities you can rent a boat, catamaran, jet ski etc.

How to get to Guatape

From Medellin North bus terminal (Terminal Norte) buses to Guatape leave every 30 min., takes about 2 hours, cost 12 500/$4,3.

Accommodation in Guatape

We stayed at Lake view hostel, prices from 23 000/$8 per person. It’s located right at the lake, not far from the center, on a quiet street. Nice place, clean, good kitchen, wi-fi, bike rental, info, maps etc. It was the cheapest option we could find.

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