Risen from the Ashes: Medellín
Medellín. I clearly remember first descending into the valley of this, frankly, infamous city. After spending weeks on the Colombian coast, the freshness of the air in the Medellín valley was surprising & much welcomed. More unexpected than that was the massive scale of Medellín itself. From high points in the valley, you can see the overwhelming sprawl of the city's distinctive red-brick buildings, which cover nearly every visible space as far as the eye can see.
My friends' recommendations led me to find a hostel in the Parque Lleras area of the Poblado neighborhood of Medellín. Poblado is definitely the tourist zone within Medellín & boasts many great (affordable - think $8/night or less) hostels, restaurants & clubs. For hostels, you can't go wrong with the Happy Buddha, Casa Kiwi or Geo Hostel. Happy Buddha hosts a Wednesday salsa night that brings travelers & locals together - an all-around good time. Colombian young professionals also consider Poblado to be a hot spot. The restaurants in the area are fairly eclectic, but a modern “hipster” vibe is pervasive in Poblado & it’s easy to envision the neighborhood as part of many other international cities across the globe.
On top of that, major zones within Medellín are connected via the city's prized Metro. The Poblado Metro station is another reason the area is a prime location to stay in. For its urban & social programs/ innovations (including the Metro), Medellín was even designated the 2013 “Innovative City of the Year” by the Wall Street Journal & Citi. The video at http://online.wsj.com/ad/cityoftheyear gives great insight into what this designation meant to the city of Medellín & its citizens.
If I were to go to Medellín again, one of the first things I’d do would be to book a Pablo Escobar tour. Many Colombians are critical of those who take part in such tours & don’t believe in further supporting the persistence of the drug narrative that destroyed so many Colombian lives & still impacts many today. I personally believe that such tours are beneficial for tourists, as they open up your eyes to Colombia’s horrific drug history. After doing a tour, I realized I had been enjoying all that Colombia has to offer today while largely aloof about the nation’s recent history. And to truly understand & experience Colombia, you have to at least attempt to wrap your mind around its wounds & grasp that the country is still in the healing process. To find a reputable, honest tour operator who isn't profiting from their past misdeeds, book your tour through your hostel.
The free walking tour by Real City Tours is another phenomenal way to get a better understanding of Medellín & the Paisa (this is the name for the people of Medellín & neighboring areas) culture. The tour takes you to areas you’d probably never frequent on your own & gives you an insider’s view of the city, as well as its troubled history. Guides explain how the roots of the Paisa people have led to their strong performance in business & ability to innovate, but also to the rise of Pablo Escobar, for example. You’ll notice that the Paisa people are curious & enthusiastic about having tourists in their city, as tourists are a sign of changing times - it's extremely interesting & eye-opening to truly entrench yourself in Colombia during this unprecedented period of transition. On the walking tour, you’ll frequent Plaza Botero which features the iconic sculptures of famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero. A lengthier visit to the plaza & nearby Museo de Antioquia is something I would highly recommend.
Another highlight in Medellín is Parque Arví, an extensive park accessible by Metro & cable car (teleférico) from Poblado that should not be missed. During the cable car ride to the summit, you’ll take in unbelievable views of all of Medellín & you’ll also see a bit more of what life is like in some of the Medellín barrios that tourists generally don’t venture into. In the park itself, there is a small market, a few typical Colombian restaurants & you’ll be able to either take a guided horseback ride or go hiking (just be careful not to lose your way!). My friend Mike & I ended up going horseback riding & had a really fun, unique experience passing by Colombian haciendas & taking in the sights. Police officers in the area will recommend that you return by Metro to Poblado before sundown.
Pueblito Paisa, a tiny replica of a historic Paisa village, is another Medellín gem. In addition to getting an insight into what life looked like in one of these villages in the past, you’ll enjoy a small market offering everything from souvenirs to traditional Colombian hot chocolate & arepas. The viewpoint at Pueblito Paisa also offers spectacular views of Medellín & the nearby museum is inexpensive & informative.
My final recommendation is that you visit Guatapé, a cute Colombian town a few hours by bus from Medellín. The main draw of Guatapé is the massive rock formation that juts unexpectedly from the surrounding area, which itself is dotted by beautiful waterways. Visitors pay to climb the stairway that has been carved into the rock formation & to take in the impressive views of the area from the top. Before climbing the “stone,” visitors can enjoy a nice lunch or browse what local artisans have to offer at their stalls. Guatapé itself is quaint & probably worth a night’s stay.
All in all, Medellín (& the surrounding area) has a ton to offer. I enjoyed it so much, I returned twice myself! The city has done a complete 180 since the 90s & is nothing like what most people expect it to be when they arrive. I couldn't recommend a visit enough!