Medellin, Colombia may not be the first destination you have in mind when it comes to Spring Break or a family vacation. The city is practically synonymous with the drug cartels and violence that peaked in the 1980s and 1990s.
Over the last two decades, however, the city has undergone a remarkable physical and cultural transformation.
Friends of ours spent a summer in the “City of Eternal Spring” in 2019, and one of my best friends from residency is building a home there for himself, his Colombian bride, and their baby.
Having heard good things about the city from friends I trust, I did not hesitate to book flights for a week-long getaway in Medellin.
Why Colombia for Spring Break?
Since we do some combination of homeschooling and worldschooling — more of the latter in 2022 — we don’t necessarily have a defined spring break, but this trip happened to take place in early-to-mid-March, which is prime spring break time for some states.
We had already planned to be in Florida for a month. We had a cruise scheduled for late February, which was canceled. Later in March, we had the DLP Prosperity Meeting starting on St. Paddy’s Day and a few more days at Universal Orlando toward the end of the month.
As we often do, we pulled up Google Flights to see where we could go with some open time on the calendar. I found round-trip tickets to Medellin for $208 apiece on Copa Airlines out of Orlando. The flight times were pretty good with a 70-80 minute layover in Panama City each way.
For $832, my family of four was able to visit a country we’ve never been to in a continent by boys have not yet seen. No, we were not persuaded by Encanto, although we did watch the movie together after booking the trip.
An Exceedingly Brief History of Colombia
Colombia has been a nation for just over 200 years. Simon Bolivar freed what is now Colombia and several other nations, including Bolivia (which was obviously named in his honor) in 1819.
What started as the Republic of New Granada became the Grenadine Federation, United States of Colombia, and finally the Republic of Colombia in 1863, and the name remains.
In 1903, Panama seceded and formed its own country, claiming the Panama Canal, which was under construction at the time.
On our walking tours, we learned a bit about the decades of turmoil over much of the last century, with guerillas versus the paramilitary, narcos versus the state, odd alliances among these groups, and much of the population caught in the crossfire.
The last 15 to 20 years have been a time of relative peace and tremendous progress, all of which was quite evident in Medellin.
The Medellin metro area is nestled in a valley of the Andes mountains. With a population of about 3.7 million, it’s the second largest city in Colombia at about 1/3 the size of Bogotá and with 10% more people than Cali, Colombia.
With its elevation nearly a mile high and its proximity to the equator, temperatures don’t vary much throughout the year. Expect highs around 80 degrees Fahrenheit and low-to-mid 60s overnight. Their “eternal spring” is hotter than July and August in northern Michigan, and a bit warmer than I like it.
It rains in Medellin, peaking with an average of more than eight inches a month in May and October. The dry season is in January and February with two to three inches of rainfall per month.
This climate creates a lush, green environment with ideal growing conditions year-round. It truly is a beautiful, green city.
Pablo Escobar has been dead for nearly 30 years, and he is not looked upon favorably at all by most locals. Most will discourage you from participating in any Escobar tours or buying souvenirs bearing his likeness, which, of course, are available.
I haven’t seen a single episode of Narcos, but I’ve heard it’s good. An Australian mate I met in Medellin told me to watch Netflix’s Pablo Escobar, El Patron Del Mal, which, in his opinion, is more accurate and tells a more complete story in 74 episodes.
Medellin has spent significantly on infrastructure in the last 20 years. They’ve built Colombia’s first Metro system, installed escalators on hillsides, and built plazas with public art installations throughout the Centro.
It went from one of the world’s most dangerous cities in the 1990s to one in which an American family can feel comfortable traveling as tourists.
Practical Tips for Tourists in Medellin
Transport is Easy; Driving is Not
We took a taxi, arranged by our Airbnb host, to and from the airport. We also took a taxi to and from a restaurant far above the city. Rides are surprisingly cheap, costing anywhere from $2 to $20 USD.
The Metro was our main mode of transportation around the city. It’s all above ground here, and rides cost about $0.70 cents per person with free transfers. Being one of the newest systems worldwide, it’s also one of the cleanest. It’s busy, but not as crowded as the Metro in Mexico City, and we never had to wait more than about three minutes for a train.
The national currency is the Colombian Peso. As of March, 2022, one U.S. Dollar buys about 3,800 of these. ATMs are easy to find. Many places take credit cards, but street vendors and some small restaurants are cash-only.
Even though this gringo felt it was quite warm there, the locals generally wear long pants. If you want to stand out as a tourist, wear cargo shorts and flip flops.
Jeans or pants and a tee shirt or short-sleeved collared shirt is standard fare for men. Dress varies quite a bit for women, of course.
One of our first stops in any country is the grocery store. While we do enjoy eating out and enjoying local foods, we like to have staples like fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, crackers, cheese, breads, lunch meat, etc…
As is common in Latin America, we found produce to cost quite a bit less than it does in the states. Other packaged goods at the supermarket (we primarily went to Exito) were more or less comparable to U.S. prices.
When grabbing fast food or sit-down meals, you can expect to spend anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 what you would expect to pay for a similar experience in the U.S.
A nice little indoor / outdoor restaurant on a pedestrian-only street two blocks from our Airbnb (yes, our place had sharp knives!) had discounts on different days of the week. One day, we all got pasta dishes and shared a brownie and ice cream dessert. Another night, we got 4 malts, a limonada de coco (frothy coconut limeade), a pizza, a salad with a hunk of baked salmon, and a charcuterie plate. In both cases, the cost was about $20 after a generous tip.
Speaking of tipping, a 10% service fee/tip is normally included. I was told it’s not customary to tip above that unless you receive exceptional service, but we always added another 10% to 20%.
Our favorite meal was at a traditional Colombian restaurant up the mountain called Marmoleo. My wife and I fed the kids at home before going out with my new Australian friend who works in Medellin with FarmFolio, and his Colombian fiancée. Over a nearly three-hour meal, we enjoyed appetizers, amazing entrees (I had a rare tuna steak over pureed sweet potato), and two or three beers apiece. The grand total was about $100 USD.
Speaking of beers, local lagers can be found for about $0.40 to $1.00 USD in stores and usually $1.50 to $2.50 in restaurants.
I only managed to visit three craft breweries, although there were quite a few more. This was a family trip, and I wasn’t comfortable venturing far from home after dark. Cervezas artesenales (craft beers) were $3 to $4 USD a pint, and at two of the three breweries, were quite good. I can recommend Bipolar Brewing and the Colombia Craft Brewing Company.
I was hoping to get to 20 Mission, which came recommended, but elections took place while we were there, and that meant no alcohol sales in the city for 36 hours starting Saturday evening, the Ley Seca. We simply ran out of time.
The price of wine was similar to that of beer, and I can’t comment on cocktails, as I rarely drink them, but I would expect they were also quite a bit cheaper here than in the states. I won’t apologize for the incompleteness of this overview; this is my blog, not Lonely Planet, and I’m more of a beer guy.
Most tourists stay in the neighborhoods of El Poblado and Laureles. In general, the south side of town is newer, wealthier, and safer.
El Poblado is a fairly large area with sub-neighborhoods. We found a small 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom in Manila (northwest part of El Poblado) for $60 a night. It was not an amazing place by any means, but it checked the most important boxes and was close to the El Poblado Metro Station.
We walked all around the area, and if I were to return, I might try to stay closer to Provenza, a neighborhood within Poblado with upscale restaurants and impressively lush vegetation. It’s a bit further from the Metro, but it seems like a fun place to be.
Highlights of our Week in Medellin
This is, hands down, the best science museum we’ve visited, and we’ve seen quite a few. B.C. Krygowski wasn’t kidding; this place is amazing.
There’s an aquarium, vivarium (frogs and snakes), planetarium… they pretty much have all the -ariams.
There’s also an area for music exploration, a building all about time, one focused on the mind, and dinosaurs scattered around outside. Also outside are huge physics-based exhibits to teach concepts like leverage, centripetal force, gravity, and more.
Visiting on a weekday, we bought the two-day pass that included the planetarium, and they happened to have a 2-for-1 promotion, so this cost us about $25 in total. My boys, now 13 and 11 years old, absolutely loved it here, and my wife and I found a lot of it interesting, as well. There was more than we could see in a day, so we were glad to have purchased the two-day pass.
El Centro Walking Tour
Freetour.com is a great resource for connecting tourists with “free” and paid tours. Most of the walking tours in Medellin had a suggested tip of about $10 USD. We took two of them.
The first was a cultural tour of “El Centro,” the historic downtown. It was led by Daniel with Beyond Colombia. He was an energetic, 35-year old man who had spent about 7 years living in the United States in his 20s.
We started in Plaza Botero, where many of the namesake artist’s rotund bronze sculptures reside. The tour took us through several other plazas, including San Antonio plaza where the Birds of Peace sculptures reside. One was heavily damaged in a bombing in June of 1995; its twin was placed alongside it in the year 2000.
This is an area that is quite busy and generally considered to be safe during the day, but it’s probably not the best place for a tourist to visit at night. We did see blatant prostitution (it’s legal there, but pimping is not) and drug use in plain sight. There are homeless people around, and plenty of vendors who want to sell you something, but they weren’t particularly pushy.
Taking this tour gave us some perspective as to the city’s troubled past and the impressive improvements that have been made in this century.
Comuna 13 Walking Tour
Medellin is divided into 16 sections, or comunas, and Comuna 13 was once the most dangerous. According to James, our tour guide, cops wouldn’t even go up the hill to deal with their issues.
This neighborhood has been a focus of recent improvements, and a series of escalators, street art, and enforcement have transformed it from a den of danger to a lively, colorful party. We toured it on election day, and we saw breakdancing, musical performance, vendors selling everything under the sun (including alcohol, which was supposedly not for sale that day), and it felt very safe.
Our tour guide said you could wave around the latest iPhone or carry a $5,000 camera around your neck, and no one will even think of trying to rob you. Why? The neighborhood has eyes and ears, and if someone steps out of line in the barrio, they’ll have to face a vigilante justice system that doesn’t offer the same protections as the official one.
As James said, if a perpetrator attempts or completes a robbery or rape, that person is “effed.”
It sounds a lot like the mafia situation that was described to us by friends in Sicily. The local version, like that in Sicily, also collects protection money from those in the neighborhood. The Medellin version, according to our guide, is much smaller and fragmented, with no more than about 10 guys colluding to keep a given neighborhood safe.
Museo Casa De La Memoria
This small museum up the hillside, which is free to enter, attempts to connect the violent past with the more docile present. Victims of violence and kidnappings are memorialized, and large video kiosks allow survivors to share their stories.
For Colombia to have a vibrant future, it must remember its past. You can learn a bit about Escobar and the Medellin Cartel here, but there’s much more to it than that.
You’ll get the most out of the museum if you are fluent in Spanish, but many of the exhibits featured English and French translations in writing. Videos had English subtitles.
Since we are worldschooling, we always attempt to learn more about the history and culture of the places we visit, and this museum gave us a taste of both.
If We Had More Time
One week never seems to be enough to truly take in a city, especially one as large as Medellin. We prefer a slower pace of travel, but after having our prime time for family travel essentially cut in half by COVID — sometimes a week is all we get.
There are several day trips or overnight trips that one can make from Medellin. The most popular seems to be a trip to Guatapé, a colorful small town a little over two hours away.
Aside from the natural beauty of the lakeside town and its brightly colored buildings, there is a massive rock (El Peñón de Guatapé) that one can ascend via a series of 649 steps.
I found an excellent guide to taking a public bus to reach the town for about $10 USD round trip, and you can also book tours for under $100 per person. If I find myself in Medellin again, I would like to make that trip.
Another highlight that we somehow missed was traveling up the hillside by cable car. These are part of the Metro system and as such, cost next to nothing while offering panoramic views of the city all around.
We queued up to take one of the cable lines up towards Parque Arvi, but the line was quite long, moving slowly, and it was getting near dinner time on our last evening. Now I’ve got another good reason to come back!
Notes on Safety
Before we left, my wife and I read an alarmist blog post that discussed how the city had become significantly more dangerous, especially for tourists, due to the economic toll of the pandemic.
When I read stuff like this, I’m reminded of Go Curry Cracker’s “They Wiill Kill You for Your Shoes,” which details how the dangers of a foreign place are often exaggerated.
I won’t link to the article about Colombia, because after speaking to people who have lived there for years and having experienced many parts of the city myself over the course of a week, I think the alarm bells were rung way too strongly. The article did have some useful tips, though, and I’ll share the best ones. Some of these aren’t necessarily specific to Medellin, and a savvy traveler probably knows most of them already.
To the extent that you can, try not to stand out as a tourist. It’s almost unavoidable when you and your pale-skinned family are partaking in a group tour on a Tuesday morning, but do what you can. The less you stand out, the less likely you are to be targeted.
Colombians have a phrase, “No dar papaya,” meaning “don’t give papaya.” The idea is that one should avoid wearing expensive jewelry and watches and shouldn’t flash their phone. Nomadic Matt was actually knifed when he fought back against a teenager who tried to snag his phone in the capital city of Bogotá.
Beware of pickpockets. Don’t have your wallet hanging out your back pocket, and only carry the cash and cards that you need for that day.
Be friendly and try to speak the language. As our tour guide Daniel explained and demonstrated, a friendly but clear “No Gracias” is generally understood and accommodated.
Avoid certain areas, especiallly at night. Even the public squares downtown should be avoided at night. I was told the same of Parque Lleras in El Poblado. It’s a ritzy neighborhood, but sex and drugs are for sale at night, and that obviously attracts what most would consider to be a bad crowd.
I say these things not to scare you; any big city has issues like these and sketchy neighborhoods that tourists (and most citizens) should avoid. We will gladly return to Colombia in the future. In fact, we’ll be spending a day in Cartagena later this spring.
In summary, my family and I thoroughly enjoyed our week in Medellin. The tourism industry is young, and the friendly Colombian people made us feel quite welcome to be there.
I would encourage you to visit and to do so with an open mind. It is a lovely modern city with a comfortable climate and a budget-friendly place to spend some time. My main regret is that we only had a week to enjoy it.
Have you been to Medellin? What was your impression? What other must-see sites did we miss?