Medellín is one of those destinations that will make your friends jealous, your parents scared, and your curiosity run wild. A city that tottered a the brink of collapse under Pablo Escobar’s brutal drug war has emerged like a phoenix from the gunplay to become what Citibank is now calling the world’s most innovative city. Add that to near perfect weather, what the locals call an “eternal spring”, and some of Colombia’s most friendly and open people, and you have a weekend to die for.
7pm – Rumba Time
Head out to Parque Lleras, Medellín’s nightlife hub for the young and beautiful. Sure the bars around the park are all a bit gimmicky, but take a seat on the terrace of any of the cookie cutter places that line the square and watch the beginning of what Colombians call “rumba”, and see if you’re overdressed (or overclothed) for the rest of your night out. Or take it easy if you want an early start the next day, a little alcohol plus the altitude will do you in quickly.
Then move on to Calle 9 + 1, where the city’s beautiful and hip will show you the moves you’ve been missing.
10am – Go Tell It On The Mountain
It’s really a shame to come all the way to Medellín and not at least try to get out of your hotel before 10am at least one day you’re there. Why? First, because Medellín isn’t just about partying, but second (and more important), the city’s near-equatorial location means that the sun rises early and sets dreadfully early, leaving your sightseeing DOA by 6pm. Not that it’s unsafe to be in parts of Medellín after dark, but a large part of the city’s charm is in its resplendent natural beauty.
So get up and head out to see the city from above, on Medellín’s innovative and easily-accessed Metrocable system. One of the first of its kind, these cable cars integrate the city’s two metro lines with hillside communities, integrating poor, marginalized areas into the heart of the city’s infrastructure. You can travel on the same ticket as the metro, so head off to see the Parque Biblioteca España, taking in the sights on the way and meandering through the scruffy, but perfectly safe hilltop neighborhood on the way from the Metrocable.
If you’re a nature type, keep going up the mountain on a hair-raising ride to Parque Arví, where Medellín’s natural wonders can be accessed easily in one of the city’s newest parks.
If you’re like me and prefer seeing your nature in the city limits, double back on the Metrocable and metro to the Jardín Botánico de Medellín, right off the Universidad station. Take a break and have lunch at the marvelous restaurant In Situ inside the Jardín. Don’t fall for the small cafe on the way in, keep going until you find the gorgeous restaurant that faces a central pond, and order up adventuresome Colombian specialties like beef rubbed in panela, a type of local sugar cane extract.
Afterwards, stroll around the gardens to get a sense of Medellín’s unique flora, and make a visit to the strange but fascinating butterfly cage, which is a captive home to butterflies from around Colombia. You can get this close.
6pm – Made in Medellin
Head back over to the Poblado and slip into the Rio Sur shopping center. Sure, nobody likes to be cooped up in malls when they’re on vacation, but this collection of small, local designers has great shops like Tebanos, a Colombian Jack Spade and a number of other interesting clothing and footwear options for men and women.
If malls aren’t your thing, stroll the streets surrounding Parque Lleras, particularly Carrera 37, for great boutique shopping. For a great pitstop, grab a late afternoon pick-me-up at Pergamino, Poblado’s coolest café and a hub of local activity.
9pm – Antioquian delights
After recharging your batteries, head up to San Carbon (in a taxi – it might look close on paper but that’s all uphill) for great Antioquia rustic cuisine, including cuts of beef you’ve never heard of but won’t ever forget and live music on the weekends. It’s not the hippest place in town, but with all the places popping up that could be in any big city, this is a little piece of local life worth catching.
11:30pm – Out on the town
While I’ve had my run-ins with rumba, I’m no expert on Medellín nightlife, but David Lee from Medellín Living is. Check out what’s new and exciting in Medellín nightlife on his comprehensive blog – and don’t hate me for being a square.
11am – Round out your visit with Botero
If you haven’t had too much rumba the night before, head over to the Museo de Antioquia, the city’s main art museum starring nearly 100 works by one of the city’s most famous sons Fernando Botero. The museum is also home to a public plaza full of plump Botero statues (this is his hometown, after all). Stop for a coffee in their café overlooking the square. Take in the Sunday hubbub, but keep an eye on your bag.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of Botero, sigh and head back to the airport remembering all your misconceptions about this fascinating city. Contrast them with all your wows over the last 36 hours.
How To Get There
If you’re a masochist or you just generally live and die for bargains, Spirit Airlines now flies to Medellín Rio Negro Airport from Fort Lauderdale, FL. Tickets from $99 one way.
Otherwise, Medellín is amply connected with international cities through direct U.S. and European airline service, along with Avianca (via Bogotá) and Copa Airlines (via Panamá City) flights, or through Bogotá airport just a 35 minute hop away.
The city airport (Enrique Olaya Herrera) has flights from all over Colombia but state-run carrier Satena has a lock on the Bogota-Medellín market. One big plus about flying into EOH is a hair-raising and divine descent from the mountains into the heart of the city on their German and Canadian-built prop planes (they tell you where the plane is from during the flight announcement).
However, whatever you spend more on your flight with Satena is offset by the $4 taxi ride from this airport to many areas of the city (vs. $30-40 for Rio Negro).
How to get around
Unlike in other Colombian cities that won’t be named (ahem, one bigger city in particular), Medellín has a fantastic public transportation system, including two metro lines and several cable cars that serve as integrated connections to the metro system. This allows you to go from point A to point B both up and down the valley, and up and down the mountains. You might not have much reason to go up into the rougher hillside communities, but marvel at the ingenuity of the solution. Otherwise, unlike in other Colombian cities that also won’t be named (ahem, capital city), you can get into most taxis on the street without fear of hassle, ripoff, extortion or fraud.
Also, it’s custom if you’re alone to sit in the front seat with the driver…how democratic!
Where to stay
There are lots of nice options at all price ranges in Medellin, and in different areas of the city to boot. Do yourself a favor on your first visit, though, and stay in El Poblado, where you can walk around to dinner and drinks without getting lost or fearful of your surroundings.
Three great options:
The Art Hotel Medellín is a beautiful, self-described “SoHo-style” group of lofts with an industrial feel, wooden floors in the rooms, a beautiful lobby, and reasonable prices. Rooms rarely exceed $100 when booked on Expedia or Despegar.com.
The Diez Hotel Categoria Colombia is another Poblado gem, with rooms and floors themed after different facets of Colombian natural and social history. Lording over the neighborhood, rooms have excellent views of the valley below and there’s a delightful jacuzzi and massage room on the top floor to wind down the day. Rooms from $100.
Another solid, if more upscale, option is the Medellín Royal hotel. Closer to other spots of el Poblado, the Royal has a pleasant garden in the back with a convenient location near to Rio Sur and Medellín’s larger malls and posher nightlife. Rooms between $100 and $150.