The secret’s out about Medellin. The reputation it earned after years of treacherous drug wars and violence has been shed, paving the way for it to become one of the world’s most magnetic destinations and “South America’s Silicon Valley”. Medellin is now commended for its ease of living, affordability, vibrant culture and the remarkable paisa hospitality. Notwithstanding, curiosity persists around the narco-trafficking era. Many visitors are lured to the Colombian city by its checkered past and find themselves on Escobar-centric tours, of which there are many.
While Medellin’s gritty past is not to be denied, many Colombians express discomfort with Pablo Escobar’s legacy being commoditized and diluted into a series of trivial experiences that elevate the drug lord from violent mobster to pop culture icon. There is also the question of who is allowed to profit from narco-tourism, if at all anyone should.
It can be argued that the people that experienced (or partook) in the violence should indeed be the ones to tell the tales – so that others don’t. Shows like Narcos and Patron del Mal on Netflix reignited interest in Medellin’s narcotrafficking era but depicted the events with some factual inconsistencies (Escobar’s son pinpointed several). Narco-tour operators insist they are reclaiming the narrative and telling the truth from the horse’s mouth. However, widespread reports suggest the tour-givers elaborate for shock and awe to give tourists the gory details they came for.
There are several troubling elements about the tours. For one, they have a tendency to trivialize real pain and suffering endured by Medellin’s residents. Secondly, the focus is often the bad hombres, who are elevated to demi-gods and the ludicrous nature of their crimes. Slowly, authorities are taking steps to obliterate the iconic landmarks that make up the tours. The Monaco building, Escobar’s cocaine palace was detonated and the Pablo Escobar House Museum in Las Palmas has since been closed down. It was run by Pablo’s living brother Roberto who once bore the moniker “chief of the hitmen”. During one his now-defunct tours, Roberto Escobar notably stated that “no act of violence is justified” when recounting the tale of his enemies castrating one of his prized racehorses.
Narco-trafficking is indeed a part of Medellin’s history, but not all of it. This guide will help travellers construct an experience in Medellin that celebrates what Medellin is today.
1. Feel the magic at a live football match
Whether you’re a football (soccer) fan or not, catching a live game at Medellin’s Atanasio Girardot stadium guarantees passion, drums, lights and chants. Medellin has two big teams: Atletico Nacional (green jerseys) and Independiente Medellin (the reds). Regardless of who’s playing, you’ll find a palpably electric atmosphere.
2. Meet the world at Parque Lleras
Whether you’re a backpacker, glampacker or newbie expat in Medellin, Poblado’s Parque Lleras is undeniably where travellers convene in the city. Take a magazine, book or soft drink (no alcoholic beverages are permitted) and spark a conversation with someone or literally just watch the world go by.
3. Eat Bendeja Paisa at a traditional restaurant
Bendeja Paisa is a hearty dish loved and consumed in the Antioquia region of Colombia (similar to Venezuela’s Pabellón). It’s usually comprised of red beans, white rice, black pudding, avocado, fried eggs, chorizo and plantains. Sazon Paisa serves up a particularly great one and Mondongo’s in Poblado is another good place to get your hands on it. For a chance to run into reggaeton sensation Maluma, have yours at Sancho Paisa. According to Nexus magazine, it’s one of the Colombian heartthrob’s top four favourite restaurants in the world.
4. Enjoy a free outdoor museum courtesy of Fernando Botero
The whimsical, engorged sculptures by Medellin’s favourite son, Fernando Botero must be admired in Plaza Botero (Botero Square). Fernando Botero is one of Latin America’s most prolific artists and the square is one of Medellin’s top attractions due to the 23 pieces here. Within the square is also the Antioquia Museum and the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, a gothic chessboard-like building towering over the puffy sculptures.
5. Visit a circus-restaurant-playhouse-karaoke joint
What isn’t Fonda Jesus Dulce Mio? Colombia has perfected the art of the multi-sensory nightlife experience. Venues like Andres Carne de Res in Chia (just outside Bogota) and Jesus Dulce Mio (Sweet Jesus of Mine) in Medellin are places where one may dine, drink, dance and bump into characters like evil doctors, Miss Colombia, cartoon characters or clowns who may or may not approach to tickle you, feed you shots or whatever else they see fit. These multi-hyphenate venues cater to all: families, friends, birthdays, retirement parties, you name it. Where décor is concerned, think Chiva party bus meets Christmas lights with a bunch of Colombian flags thrown in for good measure.
6. Take a tour of Communa 13
During the violent era, Communa 13 was one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the world. Today it’s pacified and visitors can go on tours run by locals that focus on graffiti and progress rather than bloodshed. If you’re lucky, they might even throw in an impromptu group salsa lesson. Communa 13 is also a prime spot to appreciate vast views of Medellin and the valley within which it sits.
7. Try a fruit you’ve never heard of
Lulo, Nispero and Cherimoya are just some of the delicious exotic fruits found in Colombia – the second most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil. Buy these (and more) from the fruit sellers pushing their carts around Plaza Botero or in larger supermarkets like Exito.
8. Be a digital nomad
Medellin is pleasantly digital nomad-friendly. It’s known for having a solid infrastructure which includes tons of free Wi-Fi in malls, cafes and even in some public spaces, so remote workers don’t have to rely solely on the data on their SIM cards. The popular area of El Poblado is full of hostels and hotels for long and short-term living but if being part of a dedicated community of entrepreneurs is more your speed, there are countless co-living and co-working spaces to keep you happy.
9. Find the performers in Plaza Cisneros
Parque de las Luces or Plaza Cisneros is a stunning square with 300 large light poles. In the afternoons, there are often performers and singers waiting to entertain tourists for tips while also lamenting about social injustices.
10. Experience all that is the Chiva party bus
Your hotel or hostel can help you book one. These music-blasting, disco light-flashing party machines just have to be done at one point or another. Sure, the buses are old and might break down en route to party heaven, but you’ll never forget the day you got on it.
11. Day trip to Santa Fé de Antioquia
The province of Antioquia is rich with beautiful landscapes and quaint heritage towns. Day trips from Medellin to nearby Guatape, Jardin and Santa Fé de Antioquia promise adventure, culture and culinary contentment.
Santa Fé de Antioquia is about two hours outside of Medellin. Visit it to see the colonial buildings, cobbled floors and most importantly, The Bridge of the West (Puente de Occidente), which was the world’s 3rd largest suspension bridge at the time of its inception. It’s also fondly referred to as Colombia’s Brooklyn Bridge and it connects Santa Fé to the town of Olaya.
By no means may you leave Santa Fé without paying a visit to Portón del Parque, a gallery masquerading as a restaurant. On the menu here is traditional Colombian food in a colonial mansion with high ceilings. The biggest draw, however, are the dozens of Modigliani-style paintings on the walls.
12. Grab a beer at the top of Pieda El Peñol
El Peñol in Guatape enthusiastically describes itself as “the best view in the world”. This trip involves taking a 2-hour bus from Medellin to Guatape and hiking up 650 steps to reach the incredible viewing tower overlooking Guatape’s man-made lakes.
13. Make a splash at a fabulous rooftop pool
Situated on the 18th floor of the Charlee Hotel in Parque Lleras, Envy Rooftop is one of those places you put your glad rags on for. There are regular pool parties, fashion events and a delectable Sunday brunch.
14. Enjoy the view from San Antonio Station
San Antonio station in downtown Medellin connects you to Botero Park and Parque de las Luces as well as the cable cars that go to the top of the city. What many people don’t know is that right from the station’s platforms, you’re already granted an amazing view of the mountains, the cityscape and even a large Botero painting in the distance.
15. Know that Thursday is ladies night
It pays to be female on Thursdays in Medellin. Bendito Seas runs a legendary ladies night where the first 100 chicas enter and drink completely free of charge. Take this as an opportunity to try guarro or aguardiente, the go-to spirit of Antioquia. The area around Poblado’s Parque Lleras comes alive when the sun goes down and nightlife choices are plentiful.
16. Go on one of the best free walking tours
You’ll keep hearing Real City Tours splashed about when in Medellin. It’s undeniably the most popular tour aand with good reason. The guides are incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, the tour is conducted in English and it crams in a lot of history and sights within 3 and a half hours. Booking is absolutely required and the meeting point is either at Poblado station or Alpujarra station.
17. Decipher the menu at a hilltop restaurant overlooking the city
MiCebichela is a very low-key restaurant that you probably wouldn’t visit unless expressly instructed to do so. To get there, take the Metrocable from Acevedo station to Santo Domingo. Look for this restaurant which depending on the Facebook page you check, is called “Mi Cebi & Chela” or “Mi Cebi Chela”.
And why should you make the trip? For the incredible English menu which lists items like “trout house”, “lunch with sweaty crappie”, “dangerous soup” and “special pump”. Heaven knows what those dishes are but when next will you be able to say you dined on “buffalo meat boy” in the City of Eternal Spring? Grab one of the bar stools on the edge of the restaurant to watch the cable cars and enjoy breathtaking views over Medellin.
Places to stay in Medellin
Mid-range: Hampton by Hilton Medellin, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Medellin, Terra Biohotel, Hotel Estelar Square, Soul Apartamentos, Hotel Dorado La 70, Hotel & Apartasuites Torre Poblado, Hotel Seven Inn.
Five Star: Café Hotel by Lars, Diez Hotel Categoría Colombia, The Click Clack Hotel Medellin, Hotel Dann Carlton Belfort Medellin, Hotel Dann Carlton Medellin, Sites Hotel, Novotel Medellín El Tesoro, NH Collection Medellin Royal, Medellin Marriott Hotel, Hotel Intercontinental Medellín, Hotel Poblado Plaza, Hotel San Fernando Plaza, Hotel du Parc Royal.
Rosie Bell is an international travel writer, author of the book “Escape To Self”, and content editor for Club Elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @TheBeachBell.