Things to do in Medellin, Colombia
You might only know Medellin from watching Narcos on Netflix and to be honest, that was one of my main reasons for visiting Medellin. I didn't know much else about the city outside of Pablo Escobar, Narcos, and Cocaine. But was I pleasantly surprised! This is an absolutely amazing city. They have done a lot in the last 15 years to turn this place around, changing it from the most dangerous city in the world to a clean, pristine, and tourist-friendly city. If I wasn't on a time limit, I would have stayed much longer than a week. It's a city that really has everything you need and more. I hope you fall in love with it as well! Here are the top things to do while on your visit to Medellin, Colombia:
1. Ride the Cable Cars
The tram and cable cars have been a branch of hope for the people of Medellin, especially during time of turmoil. They looked at it as being something that connects the city and something that moves them forward (puns definitely intended). So when you ride them, you will notice that they are spotless. There isn't one scratch on the windows, any graffiti on the walls, or trash on the ground. They helped reduce crime and violence in the city and they are damn proud of it. The cable cars ride along the outskirts of the city, towards the poorer parts of town. They are connected to the tram so with one entrance ticket you can ride on both.
2. Visit Comuna 13 escalators and see all the amazing graffiti
A true ugly duckling turned beautiful swan is Comuna 13. In the past few years, there has been an overpour of efforts by the government to turn this area of Medellin around and reinvent itself. It's quite remarkable! This area has the most tumultuous history due to its astronomical homicide rates and forced displacement of thousands of residents, once labeled as the most dangerous community. Located on the west hill, it has the ideal location for crime, as it leads directly to the main highway, providing easy transportation of guns, drugs, and money.
The Change: Residents voiced their discontent and anger with the violence that occurred in 2002 through art and community events. Striking street art around the neighborhood depicts scenes with the white rags raised for peace and solidarity. Today, residents are no longer afraid to leave their homes and their quality of life has changed positively. I walked through this neighborhood by myself, a female foreigner, and I felt completely safe. There is still a lot of work to be done, but seeing how much has changed over the years, I'm extremely excited for the members of this community to finally have a safe place to call home.
Getting here: Take the Metro to the San Javier station. Then the cable cars heading to the west and get off at the last station. From here you can either take a bus going towards 20 de Julio (ask for the escalators or "escalera" in Spanish) or walk about 0.7km westbound.
3. Get lost in Parque Explora
This place might not be for everyone but this place stole me for 7 hours. Parque Explora is an interactive science museum with many different activities to entertain every age group. From outdoor structures to buildings about physics, sound, film, and many others there is bound to be something for everyone. I was in love with this place and enjoyed every exhibit and interactive game. I think the average time needed for this place would be about 4 hours. Don't go on a weekend because it will be filled with families and kids so you won't have the chance to check everything out. I went on a weekday so I basically had everything to myself and could do activities multiple times, I guess that's why I was there for 7 hours... This is a perfect spot to be on a rainy day in Medellin. The entrance is 24,000 COP ($8) and so worth every penny.
Getting here: Take the A metro and get off at station Universidad
4. See the city from a different perspective and go paragliding
Get high in the sky and see the city from above with 10, 20, or 30 minutes of paragliding. This is one of the cheapest places to go paragliding so take advantage of it! For only about $40, you can go tandem with a guide for 20 minutes seeing a totally different side of the city. It was absolutely amazing! There are tons of companies running this tour and I went with Paragliding Medellin (Read: Tripadvisor). They answered to me immediately and allowed me to change my reservations multiple times. I felt safe the entire flight and would go with them again!
Getting here: There is the (a) cheap long way or the (b) expensive easy way. I opted for getting there via (a) because I'm a backpacker so I wanted to save money anyway I could.
a) This required walking, taking the metro and bus and took about 1.5 hours. Will cost about $3.5 one way.
From Poblado area, take the metro towards Caribe Estation.
Go to the bus terminal to office #11 expreso Balmira and buy a ticket for San Felix
Tell the bus driver to drop you off at Restaurante El Voladero
b) You can pay $20 for them to hire a driver to pick you up from your accommodation then wait for you to bring you back.
5. Visit small towns around Medellin (Guatape)
There are a lot of great small towns around this city that you can do a 1 or 2 day trip to. I only had time to visit Guatape and it was amazing. This is a really cute little city on the edge of lakes so it can be a great relaxing getaway from the craziness of Medellin. The town is known for the fresco-like images depicting daily farming life which adorn the lower portion of most buildings. The city is one of the most colorful ones in Colombia and you could get lost walking around admiring every building and doors, maybe the perfect place for a photo op. I went only for 1 day but wanted to stay for 2 then changed my mind at the last minute so that I could have a Saturday night in Medellin. However, if you are on a time crunch you can squeeze everything into one day.
Climb La Piedra del Penol
Known simply as La Piedra (The Rock) this massive monolith towers some two hundred meters over the countryside just outside of Guatape. Entrance is 10,000 COP ($3.52) and you get to climb 740 steep steps to get to the top, but it’s totally worth it. Oh the views you will take in! There are a couple of small shops at the top to buy a beverage or a snack and just hang out watching hawks swoop around the valley and out over the lake. If you visit Guatape you simply MUST do this. Period.
Explore Pablo Escobar’s Mansion…and Play Paintball
Again, one of the main reasons for people coming to visit Medellin is to learn more about Pablo Escobar and what better way than to pretend to either be a Narcos or Police Officer shooting at each other in one of Escobar's estate? You will get a tour of a few of his estates, admire it all, then go live action in one of the funnest activities in Colombia.
You can either book it as a tour from Medellin (book from Happy Buddha Hostel) or when you get into Guatape from Lake View Hostel.
Explore the town
Like I mentioned, this is a very colorful town so it's very pleasant to walk around admiring all of the artwork of every building. The perfect place to take some pictures, people watch, and enjoy some Colombian cuisine.
Visit San Rafael
San Rafael is a small town located some 25km east of Guatape. Since its elevation is 1,000 meters lower it is far more tropical in nature. Jungles, waterfalls, and swim holes are all within walking distance from this quaint town, which is only now starting to experience international tourism. A great day trip from Guatape, you can either take a bus there or rent a bike and try your hand at the steep (but paved) descent into the jungle. The last bus back to Guatape leaves at 5 and costs 5,000 pesos ($2 USD).
Getting here: You can take a 2 hour bus from Medellin for 12,000 COP ($4USD) that leaves very frequently from the main bus station or do what I did and book a day tour that will include transportation.
6. Get to know the city and learn the history through the Free Walking Tour
4 hours of walking under the sun does not sound that pleasant but definitely worth it to learn more about the city and its history. Real City Tours does a great job at organizing a very informative tour and their guides all love their jobs and you can tell. I had Pablo and he was an amazing story teller, make us all engaged, with passion for his city. You will walk through the main areas of Medellin, even though I wished we saw a bit more, but you will be filled with past and current news from everything Escobar to the politics happening now. You have to book the tour ahead of time because they only have a limited space but there are always no-shows so you can try to just show up the day of and see if there are any spots open.
7. Learn how to Salsa
Every Thursday, DanceFree, a dance studio, hosts free salas lessons. Although I can never be as good as a Colombian, it was a nice taste of how they interact when the music comes on. Give it a go and maybe you might find a hidden talent, or be like me and move to the sad of the room because you don't want to embarrass yourself.
Getting here: Cl 10A #40-27, Medellín
8. Enjoy the night out in Medellin
A major city is not completely without hitting the bars or clubs and Medellin is no different. There are an abundance of places to visit, especially on the weekend. I will let you ask around for the best places for your music interests.