Medellín: A Metropolis In The Mountains
About a month ago, I decided to do something kind of crazy and booked a two-day weekend trip to another continent! I came back to work exhausted on Monday thanks to a red-eye flight, but it was totally worth it: I can finally say I’ve been to South America, and I was totally blown away by what I found there. I ventured to Medellín, the second-biggest city in Colombia after the capital of Bogotá. Just take a look at this incredible city!
Medellín is truly atmospheric in every sense of the word. The beauty of the city almost feels surreal, and the breathtaking views are impossible to miss because the center of town is located in a valley surrounded by lush mountains in all directions. Most of the buildings are made of brick, which blends in beautifully with the surrounding greenery.
So what is there to do here, you ask? Well, I don’t really have a recommended list of activities. While I’m sure there are fun things to be found in Medellín, I honestly recommend coming with a light schedule (or nothing planned at all, like I did). This will give you the freedom to explore the city at your own pace. There is one activity you have to do before you leave, and I’ll explain exactly how to go about it in a little bit. Here’s a sneak preview:
First, let’s start with a recommendation for the best neighborhood to stay in.
Find an Airbnb or Hotel in El Poblado
Medellín is a sprawling metropolis with numerous residential areas overlooking the city from steep mountainsides. As such, you’ll have a bunch of options for lodging, but I recommend the neighborhood of El Poblado. It’s an upscale neighborhood that is safe, conveniently located, and packed with cafes, bars, and restaurants.
See if you can find an Airbnb or hotel within a twenty-minute walk of the El Poblado metro station (shown below).
Ride the Metrocable (Cable Car)
This is the one activity every visitor to Medellín should do before leaving! Taking the cable car up the mountain will make you feel like you’re in Europe and the views are even more spectacular from above! From start to finish it will take you about two or three hours depending on how much time you want to spend at the top.
The journey will take you from the Acevedo metro stop to the cable car stop at Parque Arví. From the El Poblado station, Acevedo is about a half-hour ride away on the system’s central blue line which runs north to south. Once you board the cable car at Acevedo, there is a transfer at Santo Domingo (be sure not to get off at Andalucia or Popular). Bring some small bills or coins to purchase the metro tickets (I’m not sure if they accept credit cards).
It’s important to realize that the cable car from Acevedo to Santo Domingo is a mode of public transportation for local residents. (In fact, the metro and the Metrocable are often given credit for transforming Medellín from a dangerous place in the 1990s to a thriving one by providing affordable transportation and economic opportunity to all residents. You can read more about that fascinating topic here.) You’ll probably be sharing your pod with both tourists and commuters, so I would recommend continuing to keep a low profile even on the Metrocable.
After arriving at the Santo Domingo station, you’ll get off and purchase a second (slightly more expensive) ticket to Parque Arví. This last leg of the journey is clearly more of a tourist attraction, but it offers the best views so don’t skip out if you’ve made it this far!
Once you arrive at Parque Arví, you’ll have to get off and purchase a second ticket to come back down. There is a little market right outside the station, which is a great place to get a little snack or souvenir. When you’re ready to go back, the exact same route will take you back to Acevedo, where you can transfer back to the dark blue metro line.
Notes About the Metro System
You’ll realize this as soon as you take your first metro ride, but because the train is above-ground, it’s actually another great way to get some amazing views of the city. It’s definitely a more scenic mode of transportation than any taxi or Uber drive!
All of these pictures were taken directly from various metro station platforms.
The metro is also modern and safe, although it can be crowded. I wouldn’t recommend pulling out a camera on the train, but if you keep an eye on your pockets and bag you should be fine.
Other Places to See
Parque de Berrío
The other place besides Parque Arví that I recommend checking out is Parque de Berrío and the surrounding area. You’ll get a view of both the Basílica Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, a beautiful white church as well as the Coltejer Building, the tallest building in the city.
Cross under the metro though and be sure not to miss the Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe, a stunning piece of architecture surrounded by an interesting and quirky sculpture garden.
The Residential Streets of El Poblado
You should also take an hour or two to explore the residential side streets of El Poblado further up the hill. There are bamboo groves and little streams as well as plants that I’ve never seen before in North America.
I’m no botanist, but much of this neighborhood feels like a fusion between suburbs and rainforests, which is really cool.
There is also one very interesting and famous building located here called Energy Living. You’ll work up a sweat if you walk because it’s high on the hill, but it really is an interesting piece of architecture.
I will be upfront and honest and say that food in Medellín wasn’t as impressive as the views. It’s not as spicy or fragrant as Mexican food, but it is quite fresh and filling. With that said, it was still a valuable experience to try some traditional Colombian dishes. There were a few restaurants recommended to me by a coworker (thanks Ana!) which I will be passing on to you. Each restaurant mentioned below has multiple locations throughout the city.
This was probably the most interesting place I ate at while in Medellín. If you go, you have to order mondongo, which is a traditional tripe soup. As you can see in the picture below, it’s served with some interesting side dishes: banana and avocado. It may sound unusual, but both fruits actually pair really well with the stew! This is definitely a dish for adventurous eaters, but I would recommend it!
I saw this dish on menus at other restaurants as well, but why not try it at the place that’s most famous for it? They have one location right on Calle 10, the main street running through El Poblado. If you happen to live in Miami, I saw online that they also have a location there.
You’re likely to end up eating an arepa whether you come to this restaurant or not, as they’re a very common side dish originating in Colombia and Venezuela. J&C Delicias specializes in arepas with toppings, and there are a bunch of different options on their extensive menu. Because arepas are like a flat yet dense bread made from maize flower, the dishes at J&C’s end up a bit like a flatbread.
Mine came with steak and shrimp, which ended up being delicious!
This was a good restaurant to try another very traditional dish called bandeja paisa. This dish is a specialty of the Paisa Region of Colombia which includes Medellín. The dish includes a huge portion of red beans as well as a bunch of other protein, so save it for when you’re craving a huge meal!
If none of these restaurants appeal to you, another way to find great cuisine is to just keep an eye out for restaurants that are busy. That is how I ended up at one next to the Palacio de la Cultura, where I had the following dish: parrillada mixta, which means mixed grill. It ended up being really good!
If you’re looking for a drink, consider San Carbón in El Poblado. You could also have a full meal here, but it’s also great for a cocktail and some live music!
And of course, don’t forget to try some coffee and an empanada! This is Colombia, after all!
This trip was possible because Aeromexico operates a direct route from Mexico City. The flight took about four hours each way. In order to maximize my time in Medellín, I landed there around 11:00 p.m. on Friday night and departed around 1 a.m. on Monday morning (arriving back to MEX around 5 a.m.). If you live in South Florida, you might be able arrange similar flights, as multiple airlines appear to have direct flights from Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
Residents of other parts of the United States should still consider Medellín for a four-day weekend or a full vacation. It is beautiful, navigable, and closer than you might think.
While I didn’t encounter any dangerous situations here, I did have issues with two Uber drivers. In case you get taken the long way around and end up paying more than you were expecting to, just report it on the app after the trip. If there was an obvious attempt to swindle you, the app will automatically reimburse you the difference (as is the case anywhere).
For this reason, I would also purchase a local SIM card or use roaming data if you can to track the progress of your trips relative to the proposed route. If you are traveling alone, you can also share your trips with friends and family, which will show them your journey in real-time.
Other than this little hiccup, the trip was a success and I can’t wait to go back to Colombia! At various points during my trip, I was reminded of a bunch of other cities I’ve been to, but the overall vibe of Medellín is truly unique. I fully recommend taking the plunge and seeing for yourself why Colombia is the latest craze to sweep the travel world!