“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
– Nelson Mandela
Medellin was once synonymous with drug lord, Pablo Escobar and the drug cartel. People who are born and raised in Medellin are called Paisas and they are extremely proud people. Sasha and I did the free walking tour by Real City Tours, a company who doesn’t sugar-coat information, rather they tell it like it is. Many people ask if Medellin was a city built off the earnings of drugs, and the answer is, in our guide’s words…”hell no”. The reason people from this city are so proud is because over the past five years, Medellin has become one of the most transformative cities, fighting a past stigma of drugs, violence and terror. Through resilience, they are now a city with some of the most creative and efficient transportation (escalators and gondolas to get to work? Yes please!)
During our time in Medellin, we felt very safe. The main caution (especially as a tourist), is petty theft, so watch your backpacks. In this city there is a local saying called “No dar papayas” which literally translates to “don’t give papayas”. In this saying, a papaya is representative of an opportunity. If you hold out a papaya in your hands, somebody on the street will take it. So in other words, don’t give people an opportunity to take what you are so clearly leaving on the table. Throughout our tour, our guide would give us a “papaya level”, meaning level of danger. There was only time when papaya level was a five (the highest), so we simply turned our backpacks around and wore them on our front.
We were lucky enough to stay with Sasha’s buddy in Itagui, a 20-minute commute via public transit to downtown Medellin and Poblado. His family lives in La Ceja, about one hour drive outside of the city, where produce is fresh and extremely cheap. Every weekend he and his girlfriend go there to purchase their produce for the week. Here was our loot:
Things to do in Medellin
Walking tour with Real City Tours
Fernando Botero is the most famous artist in Medellin where he was born. His work can be found all over Colombia and he is most well-known for his voluptuous sculptures made of bronze. He gifted the city several sculptures which can be seen for free in Plaza Botero.
La Casa de Memoria (Memory House)
Real people telling real stories of growing up in Medellin during the most dangerous times. This is a very somber visit, so try to visit on a sunny day so when you walk back outside you feel happy and uplifted again. Entry is free.
El Jardin Botanico (free admission)
A nice reprieve from the polluted city air, this botanical garden is located near the city center and entry is free. Don’t expect many flowers, but there are some large trees and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot an iguana or two, soaking up the sunshine! There are also lots of feral cats.
Exploring Nearby Cities Via Cable Car
We took public transit during our time in Medellin, which is the city’s pride and joy. You will not see a single mark of graffiti or a speck of trash in, on or around the city metro because this is the symbol of their progression as a community. The metro is super cheap, and if you take a bus in conjunction with the metro, you ask for “integrado” which will include both bus and metro tickets for a lower price than purchasing each separately.
Comuna 13 was perhaps Medellin’s poorest city. However, they received global recognition when they were named the most innovative city. From the metro, exit at station San Antonio and take a transfer to San Javier. From there, you simply board the cable car (metrocable in Spanish) and there is no additional cost. In Colombia (unlike in America), the higher up one lives, the poorer they are. Riding the metrocable was a really interesting experience. We sat in a cable car with all locals – some just checking the area out and going for a nice ride, and others as their daily commute to get home from work. I found it to be such an interesting juxtaposition to have what is now a tourist destination and spectacle, to be another person’s saving grace to get home safely. Prior to the transformation, it would take someone over one hour each way to get from their home at the top of the mountain, to town to work, and it was extremely dangerous for them to walk in between the neighborhoods filled with drug trafficking and violence. Now the cable cars serve as a connecting point for a better life.
Where to Eat in Medellin
One word: POBLADO. This is where the cool, hip kids hang out and is the fancy, ritzy part of town. Poblado is where the party’s at, and is where many hostels are centered around. This area had, by far, the best food in Medellin (which also came with a higher price tag) but was so worth it. Here were some of our favorites:
- Cambria Cafe Resto – French/European. Sasha ordered the ahi steak and I had the Nile salmon with couscous and mango salsa. Ambiance is adorable, service is attentive, and French music is lovely. Their sweets and pastries are the best I’ve had in South America. ($$$)
- Cafe Velvet – a great place to just chill with a lovely ambiance with a live plant wall. Great coffee and fresh juices. ($$)
- Il Castello – Italian food. They make their own home-made pasta and ravioli. Portions are a bit small for the high prices, but very delicious pasta. ($$$)
- Restaurante Delirio Exquisito – Mexican ($$)
- Tabun – THE BEST Arabic food I’ve ever had in my entire life! (And I grew up in the Bay Area, California, O’ahu, Hawaii and Seattle, Washington where ethnic food is ubiquitous). The seating is really fun and the restaurant is huge, so there are plenty of options if you want to sit at a table, on the floor, or outside. ($$)
Day Trips from Medellin
We had a rental car, but it is very easy to catch a bus to neighboring destinations, such as Guatape.
Guatape & La Piedra de Penol (AKA El Penon de Guatape)
Located about a two-hour drive outside of Medellin, Guatape is arguably one of the most colorful towns in the world. This sleepy town is home to a giant rock with 742 steps etched in zig-zags up the side of a sheer cliff, called La Piedra de Penol. Admission is $18,000 CP per person (around $6.50 USD) and the views are out of this world. Be prepared for a good workout, even if you’re in good hiking shape, as the elevation is above 2,000 meters (6,000 feet)!
Take some time to explore the adorable quaint downtown and all the pretty painted houses and buildings. Each building has a painting that represents what the business is. For example, a school will have books and a hostel will have beds painted out front.
Where to Eat
There weren’t heaps of options for good food here, but TripAdvisor steered us yet again in the right direction, to Namaste Cafe, a little vegan gem just across from the water. Owned and operated by two young local Colombians, this place is a real steal for value and absolutely delicious food using fresh ingredients! If you’ve been craving your veggies, this is the place to get them!
NEXT UP: VALLE DE COCORA & SALENTO, COLOMBIA