Our four days were up in Bogota and we were on to our next destination – Medellin. After reading about Medellin and all that it had to offer, we had decided that we were going to rest our weary travellers feet here for a bit. Our options to arrive in the city were to take a one-hour flight or a 9-hour bus. Trying to keep things cheap and wanting to see the country side, we opted for the bus. The windy roads through the mountains and jungle views did not disappoint. Read more about the bus from Bogota to Medellin here.
Coined by Time Magazine “The Most Dangerous City in the World” in 1988, Medellin wasn’t a place people wanted to travel to. It was headed by the world most notorious and violent drug cartel, controlled by (one of) the world’s most notorious and violent drug lords, Pablo Escobar. In 1991, there were 17 murders a day in Medellin, the city was named the “murder capital of the world”. Fast forward a couple of decades, Medellin has taken a huge leap from murder capital to model city, now named one of world’s most innovative cities. Medellin is known as “The City of Eternal Spring”, as the weather is a perfect 20-23 degrees Celcius all year round.
We arrived in Medellin at dusk, and shared a cab to the area of El Pablado with another traveller. El Pablado is said to be the backpacker area of Medellin, but in our opinion is more “flashpacker”. Boutique-y and upscale, fancy hostels, restaurants, and bars line the streets. We had booked our first three nights at a hostel notoriously known for its party vibe, the Happy Buddha. Or so we thought. After another look at our booking confirmation, it wasn’t the Happy Buddha we had booked into, it was simply Buddha Hostel, which was a 15 minute cab ride away in the neighbourhood of Laureles, a much quieter area popular among expats and working professionals. A tad disappointed, we checked into Buddha and were pleasantly surprised to find our private room housed a king-sized bed with a memory foam mattress, by far the comfiest bed since Banana Azul in Puerto Viejo. At the reception desk was a fridge stocked with beer that ran on the honour system. Maybe Buddha Hostel wouldn’t be so bad after all…
We decided to make the best of our time at Buddha Hostel, and spent our days wandering around the area of Laureles, and taking a couple yoga classes at Flying Tree Yoga, a studio that Britt had read about months before travelling to Colombia and was conveniently located a five minute walk from the Buddha. Meant to be! We found Laureles had a lot to offer as far as bars and restaurants, but not much else. It’s a good neighbourhood to wind down and relax in. Our time here concided with the 11th anniversary of when we became an item, so keeping with tradition we decided to check out Chef Burger, which claims to serve the best burgers in the city, which was also convieniently located a five minute walk from Buddha. Now it was really meant to be!
A must-do activity while in Medellin is to see a football game, which wasn’t on our radar initially as neither of us are huge sports fans. Forgetting our lack of knowledge of soccer and deciding to take it as an experience, we decided to go with our friends. And an experience it was! Read about how to survive a football game in Medellin here.
Our three days were up at the Buddha Hostel and it was time to move on. We wanted to be a little bit closer to El Pablado, so we checked into Montanita Hostel. A decent, cheap place to lay your head. Not much in way of common space to hang out it, no breakfast and our room didn’t have an outside window, just a window into the kitchen where the light would shine in every time someone went for a late night snack, which was pretty much 20 times a night, but the bathrooms were clean and the showers were hot.
Medellin has an impressive metro and cable car system, and the residents of the city are very proud of it. You’ll never find any graffiti on the walls or litter on the ground, there is a common respect for the systems. The MetroCable attaches to the metro system and was built in 2004 as a way to connect some of the cities poorest residents to the main city below. Not just an innovative mode of transportation for the locals, the MetroCable has become a great way to see the city and the neighbourhoods up the mountain. We took the cable car up to the area of Santa Domingo, which before the MetroCable was a serious no-go. We paid the fare, hopped in a cable car, and began the ride up the mountain.
The day we visited Santa Domingo was the day before St. Joseph’s Day, a national holiday in Colombia, and there was a carnival going on in the neighbourhood. We exited the cable car to find families enjoying food and activities, a bouncy castle for the littles, and a spectacular view of the city below.
The following evening we had to say goodbye to two of our friends, so we celebrated with a fancy dinner out.
By this time we were ready for an excursion out of the city, and Guatape seemed to be the ticket. Guatape is a colourful town about an hour and a half outside Medellin. We decided to twin it in with a tour, which included paint balling, lunch, a boat ride to the town of Guatape, a ticket to climb the lookout rock, and a bus back to town for about 160,000 COP a person. A bus took us about an hour out of town to a little tourist service stop with a beautiful view of the lake below. At this point we were instructed to pile into Jeeps, our crew decided to ride on top – not a great idea on bumpy roads, but we managed.
The Jeeps took us to La Manuela, what used to be one of Pablo Escobar’s over five hundred homes, which now consists of overgrown foliage and decaying structures. In 1993, the property was destroyed by a vigilante group called Los Pepes, eight months before his death. At the time of Pablo’s death the property was turned over to the gardener, and is now a popular visiting spot for tourists. The property has a paintball field, which is located in the area of the guest house and stables. We were all given suits, guns, and paintballs, and the fun began.
After paint balling we had time to explore the property. When it was in it’s glory, species of trees and birds from all over the world thrived here. It is clear that the property was once a luxurious space. Now however, it sits as a somewhat eerie reminder of Colombia’s dark past. The main house and outbuildings are barely standing. Covered in graffiti, with some parts of the roof collapsed. The pool is green with algae, little fish inhabiting it. The only structure of the property that is still usable is the bar.
After lunch in the bar, we were loaded onto boats and driven across the lake. We arrived in the town of Guatape, and were given an hour to mosey about. We walked through the quaint streets and stopped in a couple shops before we met up with the rest of the group to go to the rock.
El Peñon de Guatape, or the Rock of Guatape in English, is a 10 million ton rock rises 200 metres and is visible for miles. Just a small staircases of 650 steps will bring you to the very top of the rock, where you can take in the view of Guatape Lake and the surrounding countryside. The views are gorgeous, if you are able to make it to the top without passing out!
The following day we were checking out of Montanita Hostel and checking in to our Airbnb, where we were going to be spending the remainder of our time in Medellin. We were longing to do some cooking and relaxing, and we figured this would be a great spot to do it. For $22 bucks a night we got a room with a private bathroom in an apartment that we shared with four other guests. The apartment had a kitchen, laundry, a living room and a balcony to chill on. Great value for sure!
We had read all about “The Real City Walking Tour”, and after our awesome experience in Bogota with GranCol Tours, we decided to check it out. The walking tour was free (donations accepted), and took us through downtown Medellin, an area of town travellers don’t typically visit. Our guide gave us a code to talk about the different levels of safety which he called the Papaya Level. Papaya level 1, totally safe, no need to worry much about your belongings or well being. Papaya level 5, keep your shit on lockdown, wear your backpack on your front, keep things out of your pockets, etc. We learned a lot of Medellin’s history, and found out some of the places to eat if you want good, traditional Colombian fare.
We visited Iglesia de la Veracruz, a Catholic church, one of the oldest in Medellin, and were surprised to learn it was a popular hang out for the local prostitutes. The explanation our guide gave us is some of the seediest behaviours happen close to a church, as forgiveness is not far away. Another example would be the Colombian Narco hitmen, most being religious, would justify their killings by saying “I only pull the trigger, God decides if they live or die.”
Our last stop on the tour was to Parque San Antonio (Papaya Level 5). In June of 1995, during a music festival, a bomb was placed in a sculpture of a famous Colombian artist named Fernando Botero (his work is all over Colombia, and his sculptures depict people and animals in large, exaggerated figures). No one ever claimed responsibility for the bombing that killed 30 people and injured more than 200, but the Cali cartel and the rebel group FARC were suspected in the bombing. In the year 2000, Fernando Botero created an identical sculpture and placed in next to the one that was destroyed, as a symbol of peace and to honour those who lost their lives. The damaged one was left as a reminder of the hard times that Medellin has been through. A plaque with the names of the people who were killed is displayed on the damaged statue.
The following day, this time on our own, we took the metro back downtown to a restaurant that is famous for its Bandeja Paisa, a traditional Colombian meal that consists of fried pork belly, blood sausage, rice, beans, powdered beef, a fried egg, chorizo, an arepa, and an avocado. And while we were on the topic of traditional food, we also tried a Colombian dessert, which was kind of like a fruit cake with icing. Delish!
And the last, but definitely not least activity was took part in in Medellin was paragliding. We booked through Latin Hosts, and for about $80 bucks a person we were picked up at our apartment, driven the hour outside town to the flying site, and were given all the gear we needed for our flight. The flights are tandem (you are strapped on the front of someone, and they do all the work). When it was our turn, we walked to the take off point, put on the gear, and were instructed to start walking, then running, and all of a sudden you are in the air. You are flying through the clouds, up with the birds, and everyone and everything on the ground keeps getting smaller and smaller. It was an amazing experience, definitely worth the money! You are in the air for about 20 minutes, which in our opinion was plenty. Watch the video below.
Holy, that was a wordy blog! We figured Medellin deserved a long one, considering we were there for almost two weeks and accomplished so much. Medellin has so much to offer, and if you are in Colombia it cannot be missed!