Why You Should – and Shouldn’t – Check out Medellin, Colombia

A landscape view of the popular Poblado area in Medellin, Colombia.

Pronounce it Meh-deh-zheen.

It’s not the biggest city on the continent – or even in Colombia – but it definitely wins the ‘Most Improved’ award. Decades have passed since Pablo Escobar’s reign of cocaine ended violently in December 1993, and folks here have a complicated memory of him. Since then, however, the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ has transformed itself into a modern and metropolitan city safer than major US cities (you can even drink the tap water).

My wife and I spent five months in Medellin, enjoying the laidback life of a (mostly) first-world city that makes for an excellent introduction to South America. Head to the Éxito for the typical big-box department store, Consumo for the typical modern chain grocery store, or any supermercado for the more traditional (read: limited) selections. Eating out is a highlight, with everything from top-shelf liquors and steaks in Poblado to humble almuerzos (lunches with a set menu) across the city for more authentic grub. As alcohol goes, Aguila is a decent lager, while Pilsner is another easy-to-find and drinkable lager. Club Colombia is around and worthwhile, but be careful with aguardiente, the local firewater.

The ‘shoulds’

Medellin has plenty going for it. A still-shiny two-line metro and cable car system connects the city better and faster than the endless and colorful collectivo buses, yet both systems manage to coexist. (Both are similarly priced, though the official system has fewer annoying sellers that board the bus to sell snacks or rap to a portable sound system.) Once you’re familiar with the official system, allow yourself to try the collectivo buses to see if they’re faster or more direct.

Some street art seen in Medellin, Colombia.

Medellin’s street art scene is scattered, but brings a lot of color to a fairly drab color scheme. There’s more to see in Bogota, but a half-day “graffiti walking tour” is a worthy way to see Medellin’s ever-changing scene.

Pablo Escobar's gravestone and final resting place, Medellin, Colombia.

I’ve written a three-day itinerary on what to see in Medellin, but Pablo Escobar’s gravestone is one of my favorites in the city. It’s surprisingly low-key considering his riches, and though it takes some time to reach it’s one of the more interesting things to see.

Another favorite is the Metrocable – a wonderful reminder that sometimes, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Take the metro to the Aceveda station on line A, then transfer to line K, the cable car line. From here you can meander around the Santo Domingo area for a neighborhood removed from Medellin’s skyline, or continue further on the cablecar to reach Parque Arvi, a great spot for hiking trails and nature.

Speaking of the outdoors, did I mention the weather? Being near the equator has some advantages – it’s a spring-like 27 or 28 degrees Celsius (81-83 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round, with rainy seasons limited to the April, May, September, and October months.

The ‘should nots’

An intersection showing street signs in Medellin, Colombia

Despite the appearance of a grid system, it’s anything but – the calles and carreras do criss-cross, but there are also plenty of exceptions to make a driver’s head spin. Avenidas are larger and typically named, while Transversales are wide streets in the mountains of the Poblado neighborhood. An address may read ‘Calle 32, Carrera 76, #28’ or ‘Calle 32 #76-28’ – in each of these cases, the building you’re looking for is 28 meters from the intersection of Calle 32 and Carrera 76. It’s reasonably logical once you get the hang of it, but you’ll need to give it some time to sink in.

Medellin’s focus over the last couple of decades has been to recover its economy and begin the healing and learning process, almost from scratch. To that end, the libraries are some of the grandest, most modern buildings around, the government buildings are still shiny… and tourism, while present and growing, has seemed almost an afterthought. I cannot recall picking up more than a handful of brochures or maps produced by the government, and got most of my information on the city from the excellent MedellinLiving.com blog. That was surprisingly commonplace throughout South America – unless you’re at the biggest and most expensive sort of attractions, there’s little official information to speak of, forcing you to get into the habit of researching things for yourself.

As a gateway to both Colombia and South America, Medellin is a bright, modern city to see. It’s worth spending a few days (or a few weeks) to take in a different slice of life, especially as an introduction to a longer trip on the continent.

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