I have never traveled to South America and last month I spent about one week in Colombia, of which three days were in the city of Medellín. Before my trip, I had no expectations since I had nothing to anchor on (maybe besides the Netflix show Narcos, but I knew better than to rely on a dramatized show) so my goals were to see the city and learn the culture, as I do with every new destination. I liked the openness of Latin American culture, hearing reggaetón music everywhere, and learning about the city’s history of politics, drugs, violence and transformation.
First off, flying to Medellín from SFO wasn’t the easiest. We departed San Francisco at 5 PM on Friday and landed in Medellín at 9 AM on Saturday after connections in Houston and Bogotá. From MDE airport, it was another 45 minutes on the Uber through mountainy road to reach our Airbnb in El Poblado.
This is where the Spanish established their first settlement and is also one of the wealthier and more hip parts of town. The middle of El Poblado is a main square/park with the surrounding streets filled with nicely decorated cafes, restaurants and bars. On the weekend, one of the streets even turned into a street festival with vendors and performers! The neighborhood had a really good vibe and I especially enjoyed the liveliness of the streets and the open-air style of the bars and restaurants.
El Poblado is also very walkable and I felt pretty safe. Every night, we would grab dinner and then find a bar to explore – whether it’s a dive bar or a nice rooftop bar. There were lots of locals and foreigners out partying and some of the streets get pretty rowdy! Apparently El Poblado is the place to go out and have a good time!
On my first day, I went to Pueblito Paisa for sunset because it’s situated on a hilltop overlooking the Medellín valley. It was beautiful seeing the entire valley with houses expanding onto to hillsides and stretching into the distance. Right before the sun sets behind the hills, it lit up the entire city of Medellín with all the houses emitting an orange/golden hue. The contrast between the orange houses and green mountains made for a nice sunset shot. The first photo above was taken from Pueblito Paisa.
In addition to the views, Pueblito Paisa also has a plaza with shops and souvenirs. I didn’t browse too much but I noticed all the buildings were very colorful. It felt like we were transported a few decades back to a local Colombian village.
El Centro (Downtown)
We signed up for the Real City Walking Tour around El Centro (aka Downtown Medellín). It was extremely informative, and we learned about Medellín’s violent history and its rebuilding efforts, saw historic buildings and learned about the local culture. Highly recommend if you have time!
Note that while El Centro is filled with tourists and has a lot of foot traffic during the day, it’s still prone to petty crimes such as theft and pick pocketing, especially at night.. Our guide warned us to be more alert in certain areas by wearing our backpacks in the front and keeping valuables out of sight.
After our tour, we took the metro cable up the mountain to Santo Domingo where we saw another view of Medellín from high up. While the metro cable was nice and offered a great view, there wasn’t too much to do up top and to be honest, I didn’t feel very safe. Even our tour guide told us to not stray off the main roads. So we just got some ripe street mangoes and headed back down the metro cable.
This was my favorite neighborhood in Medellín! What used to be one of the most violent parts of down due to its proximity and convenience to the drug routes, Comuna 13 has transformed into a haven for street artists and performers. Graffiti artists and dancers performed on the streets as a way to express themselves through art rather than through violence. In 2011, the government built a series of escalators to connect Comuna 13, located on a steep hillside, with the rest of Medellín.
While Comuna 13 has improved significantly in the past decade or so, it is still advised to stay on the main path by the escalators. We accidentally wandered to a side street and I felt uncomfortable because those streets were quieter and more isolated. Around 4 PM, we even saw a dozen military police come out to patrol the area.
I recommend visiting Comuna 13 to see the edgy part of town, but definitely go during the day time and be cautious of your surroundings.
Paragliding in the Mountains of Medellín
Where do I even start. Paragliding was incredible and I’m so glad I had a chance to do it! We booked a tour with Dream Flying Paragliding where they picked us up from El Poblado and drove an hour to the mountains. They were very accommodating and allowed us to postpone by a few hours until the rain cleared up.
Paragliding isn’t as scary as it looks. Besides the fact you’re high up in the air, there are no large drops or cliffs you need to jump off of. Once I was strapped in, the instruction was to just run, and keep running down the hill. Once the parachute was airborne, the instructor and I lifted off the ground and started flying through the air! It was very comfortable and relaxing gliding through the Medellín valley and seeing all the houses and farms below me. We flew for about 20 minutes before smoothly landing at the bottom of the mountain. 100% recommend!
Medellín is becoming a more popular travel destination and I totally understand. In just three days, I learned so much about the city’s history and the local culture. I explored multiple neighborhoods in the city and even got to paraglide through the Medellín valley! I think three days was just the right amount of time to explore Medellín, but I’m sure there are more to do if you have a few extra day to spare.