In my head I know that Winter only lasts a few months, but after the haze and flurry of Christmas it feels like a lifetime before we get to have sunny warm days again. If I can get my act together, I usually try and plan a little getaway between January and March so I have something to look forward to during those never ending cold months.
So, when the opportunity came up to go to Colombia during a casual get together with friends, I couldn’t turn it down. As I’ve started to think about how I want to spend my vacation time this year, I’ve consciously decided that I want to make sure I prioritize places that I haven’t been to before. My bestie and I have a mutual friend who lives in Medellin for part of the year, so we figured it would be a perfect excuse to visit him, see a new place and take our annual trip together.
This was my first time in South America and I had no idea what to expect. As I started to read about Colombia and its rich history, I started to build a framework in my mind of what I would experience. All I can say is that my expectations were completely blown away.
A Little Background
Colombia is divided into 32 departments and one capital district, which is treated as a department. Departments are subdivided into municipalities and municipalities are in turn subdivided into corregimientos in rural areas and into comunas in urban areas.
Medellin is the capital city of the department of Antioquia and is the second largest city in the country. It is located in the Aburra Valley with a narrow section that borders the Caribbean Sea. Most of its territory is mountainous with some valleys, much of which is part of the Andes mountain range. Medellin has been recognized as one of the best places to live in South America sharing the spot with Santiago de Chile, Barcelona and Lisbon.
There are no direct flights to Medellin. For us here in Toronto, we had to fly through Miami where we had a 2 hour stop over. You pretty much have to set aside a day for travel there and back. Our flight left at 1PM and we arrived just after 10PM.
The Medellin International Airport (MDE) is located in the municipality of Rio Negro and will more than likely be the airport you come through. It is quite small and upon arriving you need to go through customs which even at 10PM took us about an hour to get through.
As Canadians you have to pay a one-time tax of about $85 CAD when you enter the country which is known as a reciprocity tax levied in response to costs imposed on Colombians wishing to travel to Canada. Children under 14 and adults over 79 are exempt. You can pay in Colombian Pesos (160,000 pesos) or by Credit/Debit.
Once you are through customs you will be directed to the area for ground transportation. This is also a good opportunity to use the ATM should you need to take out any Pesos.
I unfortunately don’t have a ton of insight into the ground transportation options as our friend arranged a car to pick us up. But after doing some research I discovered that it’s quite a popular option since you can book it in advance and have the convenience of a bilingual driver. Click here for an option to book a private driver.
The only other (and seemingly safest) option is a Yellow Taxi where the rates are fixed.
Where to Stay:
We stayed in El Poblado which is located South of Medellin’s city centre and is considered to be one of the wealthier, prestigious and safest neighbourhoods. Some other reasons to consider staying in this area:
- Most of the hotels/accommodations are located here
- Safe, clean and well developed
- The streets are lined with indie cafés, bars and boutique stores which make it the perfect spot to wander around or just people watch
- There are trees and freshwater streams – you can find real jungle in the middle of a concrete jungle
- Home to a thriving expat and traveler community so you’ll have absolutely no problem meeting people
We didn’t stay in a hotel as we were fortunate enough to have a friend who lived there but there are so many hostels/hotels ranging from luxury to budget friendly that you shouldn’t have trouble finding a spot. A few that came up during some research I did:
- Hotel Du Parc Royal
- Happy Buddha Hotel
- The Charlee Hotel – we actually popped up to their rooftop for a drink – so beautiful and the views are breathtaking!
- The Art Hotel
- The In House Hotel
What to Do:
In El Poblado alone there are tons of things to do, I literally felt like I could have spent days just bar hopping or trying out the different restaurants and cafes. Here are some suggestions specifically in this area:
- Parque Lleras – the main square which is surrounded by all the clubs, restaurants, cafes and bars
- Dining & Drinking– the amount of coffee that I had on this trip was downright outstanding but when in Colombia! We went to some seriously adorable spots and like I said, I could have spent days just exploring the dining and drinking scene. Some of the spots we visited:
- Café Velvet
- Al Alma – can also get food here
- Delerio Exquisito
- Ganso & Castor
- Park 37
- Panorma Rooftop Bar
- The Gin Palace
- Casa Comedor
We spent one afternoon taking the Cable Cars all the way through the valley and into the hills. From where we were staying, you could see a very dense city scape with tiny houses very close together and then the mountains/valleys on the outer side. When taking the cable cars up the hill the views you get are unreal and it’s really interesting to see how the landscape changes along the way. The area at the top to the hill is also where you will get a more local/authentic feel to the city.
My favourite part of the trip and by far the highlight, was our day excursion to Guatape. It will take about 1.5 to 2 hours to get there by car. It’s known as a little resort town east of Medellin and is known for colourful houses, city squares and markets that run across a reservoir. The highlight of the area however is The Peñol Rock, a rock formation that borders the lake formed over 70 million years ago. 2/3 of its height is actually below the ground and what you see above ground is about 200 meters high. As a visitor, you can climb all the way up through an enclosed staircase that was built on the outer side – almost 700 steps to the top! I didn’t think that I would make it but I actually did and the views were worth every step and short breath. This is also a great area to buy souvenirs, try some local eats and take in the sights and sounds of the city.
I can’t say enough about my experience in Medellin, let’s just say I’m already thinking about going back. Being my first trip to South America, I was astounded by the culture, history, hospitality and beauty that surrounded us. I can’t wait to go back and explore not only more of Colombia but more of South America. Time to brush up on those Spanish skills!
A few smaller travel tips if you should ever find yourself in Medellin:
- Their local currency is Colombian Pesos
- Good to have some cash on for smaller expenses/cabs etc but most, if not all places will accept your Credit Card
- Food and drinks were super affordable if not cheap, I brought about $200 in cash and probably spent another $100 or so on my card.
- Uber is available
- Pack breathable clothing and comfortable shoes. The vibe there is super chill, even at night. We’d get dressed up to go out for dinner and people were in sneakers and jeans
- Despite feeling quite safe wherever we went, always exercise caution and stay aware of your surroundings
- Thieves know that most foreigners stay in El Poblado therefore it can sometimes be a target
- Exercise common sense especially at night time – don’t walk alone, take a taxi where possible and always know where you are going