Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia, but it is very different from Bogota. The city is trapped in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, which shape the geography the life in the city. The airport is far from the city and many neighbourhoods are high up the slopes of the mountains.
The city had a really bad reputation of violence and drugs in the second half of the 20th century. Pablo Escobar was one of the main infamous personalities of Medellin in the 20th century. The city only started to recover after his death in the 90s. As a result, until recently the city and the region was out of reach for tourists, but by now it got much better. On the positive side, though, nowadays Medellin has made up its handicap with investment in innovation and art. They have engaged in really innovative urban planning and also placed art works all over the city.
Sightseeing in Medellin
The centre of Medellin is nothing special really. There is a lost of street art all over the city centre, mostly Botero sculptures. The main concentration of them is on Plaza de las Esculturas (Plaza Botero) and Parque San Antonio. Botero sculptures are definitely quite impressive and really nice to see, but there is also a very recurring theme to all his art.
In Parque San Antonio there is, in addition to other sculptures, the famous bird of peace sculpture. The original bird was bombed in 1995 and the artist didn’t want it to be replaced with a new one. So it’s still there along with a new bird sculpture to remind us of the violent history in Medellin.
In addition to the publicly displayed sculptures, one needs to visit the Museo de Antioquia ($18,000), which exhibits an impressive Botero collection along with some other, mostly Colombian, 20th century art.
It is also worth walking and exploring the rather small centre of Medellin. In particular around Carrera 49 and all the way to Parque Bolívar. At the southern end of the centre there is the Plaza de los Cisneros (or Plaza de la Luz), which features the EPM library. Across the street, in the rather depressing Alpujarra local administration complex, is the Monumento a la Raza of Rodrigo Betancourt that shows the history of the Antioquia region in a twisting metal sculpture.
Parque Berrio is the centre of Medellin. It features the “La Gorda” (the fat woman) Botero sculpture and the city cathedral, but apart from that it is not very interesting. The above ground metro also makes the park look rather strange. The rest of the city centre is rather dodgy and, they say, still unsafe at night. So I don’t recommend venturing too much around.
Overlooking the centre, there is a small hill called Cerro de Nutibara with the pueblo paisa, a tourist version of a local Antioquian village, and the Museo de la Ciudad ($2,000). The museum is a bit sad, it features a Medellin photo collection and a small scale model of the city. The best thing here are the views of the city.
Cable cars above Medellin
Medellin is famous for its well integrated public transportation system and the only metro system in Colombia (though not underground at all). There are also cable cars that connect to some neighbourhoods up in the slopes of the city. These areas are mostly poor shanty towns. Medellin is famous for these shanty towns, but since they connected them with cable cars they became a tourist attraction.
The most interesting ride is on the cable car from metro Acevedo metro station on the cable car to Santo Domingo, which is included in the price of the metro ticket. From the cable car you can see the shanty town below, but be aware that this is a regular commuter line of the local inhabitants. On top of the cable car, they say, it is safe to walk around a bit but not deep into the neighbourhood.
From Santo Domingo there is another cable car line going all the way to Parque Arvi, which needs to be paid separately and costs $5,200 one way. It is quite long ride away, but the views from the cable car are really nice. Initially, you can see the whole city and the worse parts of the shanty town below, and then it goes through dense jungle. I think it is worth taking the ride even for the views only.
Parque arvi is huge and can be explored alone, but a lot of time is needed. We didn’t really plan anything and didn’t intend to go there for the park. As we arrived they were just starting a 1h walk through the jungle ($5,000), so we went. It was a nice walk and the guide explained all about the local flora, however there were no animals to be seen.
Restaurants and bars in Medellin
Rocoto: Peruvian restaurant a couple of blocks away from Parque Lleras. The street it is on is very nice, peaceful and full of restaurants. The restaurants has a really nice terrace with relaxed atmosphere. The menu includes the typical Peruvian dishes, such as causas, ceviches, tiraditos and a handful of mains. We had a ceviche and a fish in chilli sauce to share and it was enough food. The food was good and prices acceptable.
Salon Versailles: An old fashioned restaurants in the centre of Medellin that serves menu del día for $15,900. It includes a soup, a main (meat and potatoes), ice-cream and a fruit juice (the lulo juice was really good). The menu was good, simple and a good deal for your money. There is also a bakery selection at the entrance, with some tempting treats.
Carmen: Definitely one of the highlights of Medellin culinary scene (they also have a branch in Cartagena). Nice and modern decor, relaxed atmosphere and delicious food. We had a ceviche and a shrimp chorizo for starters and fish dishes for the main. The desserts were also delicious. Highly recommended.
Parque Lleras: Small park in the centre of Poblado surrounded with restaurants and bars. This is the social centre of Medellin, very nice for an afternoon coffee or drinks in the evening. We didn’t eat there as the restaurants looked very touristy, but nice for drinks. I recommend to get a hotel close to there as it provides all amenities and is also safe.
Zona A: A small hotel a couple of blocks away from Parque Lleras. The hotel looks very clean and new. The rooms are OK, but they lack a lot of details, for example, there is a jacuzzi but nowhere to put your suitcase, sit down or hang your towel. The staff were very helpful, but breakfast was quite bad. It is also on a busy street, so there is a lot of traffic noise at night. At first they also wanted to put us in a room without a window, but then they fortunately changed it. Hotel is overpriced for what is is, and the pictures are a bit unrealistic.
Day trip to Guatape
The main attraction of the region is the Piedra del Peñol – a large monolith stone on the edge of the Peñol lake. It is about 2h drive from Medellin or 1.5h from the airport, so we rented a car at the airport upon arrival and headed there first.
There are 659 steps built into its side of the rock to climb up ($18,000). The climb looks scarier than it actually is, but the views from the top are stunning. On top they have a viewing tower from where you have amazing 360 views of the lake.The lake is strange green colour though, not sure how clean it can be.
The Guatape village is a small picturesque town with a malecón and a couple of nice streets and squares. At the malecón you can rent a boat to take you on the lake. For a small private boat they want $80,000 but you can also get some random people to share and then the price could be $15,000. The streets are worth a quick stroll through the village.
On the way to/from Guatape, next to the modern Peñol town, there is a replica of the old Peñol village. When they flooded the area for the dam and made the lake they had to flood the village and now they made a replica for tourists to visit. The replica is a small complex of houses around a square and a church. All of the houses are basically souvenir shops selling all sorts of trinkets. Rather depressing.
La Fogata restaurant: A decent place for lunch in Guatape, over looking the lake from the terrace on the second floor. The Bandeja Paisa and Ajicaco were quite good, both extremely large and fatty, but it was OK for lunch.
A collection of my pics from Medellin and Guatape in a vlog on YouTube:
Part of a week in Colombia
This was our second stop on our week long trip around Colombia.
We spent two nights in each: Bogota, Medellin, Santa Marta and Cartagena. It was a rushed but well planned trip, and I think we really got a great feel for the country. However, there are many other things to see in Colombia. On future occasions I’d like to go back and see Zona Cafetera, Parque Tayrona (which was closed on our visit), and the Amazon region.
My map of Colombia
I prepared a map with all the places we visited: