While it became well-known after everyone's favorite Netflix series (Narcos) aired, Medellin is actually one of the most interesting and innovative cities in Latin America (and is so much more than just Pablo Escobar's home town). We got to spend a week in Medellin for the first time a few years ago, and then chose to go back (it wasn't a very hard decision) with Unsettled for an entire month this past February. As usual, below is everything you need to know!
Fun fact? Medellin is known as "La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera" or "The City of Eternal Spring" so enjoy their weather. Fun fact #2? Did you know that the popular ".co" domain ending is actually the official country domain of Colombia?
- Main airport is Jose Maria Cordova International. It is a small airport and isn't usually very busy. This makes the process of entering the country pretty seamless and quick. The airport is about a 45-60 minutes car ride and it should cost between $20-$25. PRO TIP: as Medellin is located in the mountains, expect lots of curves and turns and changes in altitude on your way from the airport. If you tend to experience motion sickness, it is worth keeping that in mind.
- Visa: Americans are currently not required to issue a visa in order to travel to Colombia.
- The airport has several ATMs on the first and second floors.
- Getting from airport to your hotel/Airbnb: there will be taxi drivers as you exit the airport—just make sure that you agree on the price in advance. Uber is currently operating in Medellin and is another convenient and cheap option. With that said, Uber is currently experiencing some legal issues in Medellin and several times, friends of ours got pulled over and had to find another car. Nothing will happen to you if you get pulled over (they do confiscate the driver's car, however). That is why we do not recommend using Uber to and from the airport.
- When in Medellin, we recommend staying in or around "El Poblado". It is where you'll find most of the action as a tourist. If you're looking for something a bit more raw, we recommend staying in the beautiful Envigado!
- There is a great Metro system in Medellin. The locals are known for their innovation and one of the examples is that this metro includes cable cars that go up and down the mountainous city. This definitely makes it one of the coolest metro systems we've used and a great tourist attraction. The locals are extremely proud of this system and they keep it clean and well maintained. Don't be surprised if you're questioned by a local about your opinion on their metro. Our tip? Tell them you LOVE it. :)
- As always, it is highly recommended to get a data plan from your carrier or a local SIM with a data plan. It is pretty affordable and helps a lot. Side note: did you know that T-Mobile has a very affordable plan in the US that includes free data worldwide? YES, the future is here people, and we made the switch.
- SUPER PRO TIP: download an offline map of Medellin on the Google Maps App. Click HERE for instructions. If you can't find the download button, just tap the menu button on your Google Maps app, choose the third option ("Offline Areas"), hit "Custom Area" and zoom out and scroll to the area in Colombia you would like to have available offline and hit Download. If you get a message that "the area isn't available offline", zoom out a bit. It should work. What does having an offline area mean? It means that you will be able to see where you are and navigate even without internet connection. Your GPS (that blue dot on the map) works even with Airplane mode turned on and cellular data turned off. Furthermore, you can find museums, restaurants, internet spots, bars, etc, in advance on Google maps and add flags known as "labels" (here is how). That way you will be able to navigate to those places even without internet. Still have a question? Get in touch and I will help. :)
Local currency: at the time of writing this the exchange rate for 1 USD is 2857 COP (Colombian Pesos). Click here for current exchange rate.
Getting local currency: I find it best to withdraw money from the ATM. Usually best exchange rates. Be sure to inform your bank of your travel plans.
Credit cards are widely accepted around the Poblado neighborhood and much less elsewhere. Tips can also be charged to a card. They usually ask if you want to include the tip in the bill, and if you do, it will be 10% automatically. PRO TIP: By law, and in order to decrease fraud, the restaurant employees are not allowed to take a credit card out of the customer's sight. They will always come to the table with a terminal and charge you on the spot. They really take it seriously over there. A nice fact to be aware of so you aren't confused by the somewhat different (in comparison to the US) payment process.
In the more touristy areas, such as El Pobaldo, many people speak English and some restaurants have English versions of their menus. With that said, some level of Spanish is definitely helpful and if you would like to take this travel opportunity to learn/improve your Spanish (which you totally should), here are some tips that can really help:
- Take a few Spanish classes in advance (nothing fancy), an app would do. I highly recommend Babbel. You can also download classes and continue learning offline on the plane or anywhere else! With Babbel you do have to pay a little for a subscription but it is worth it. This app is really awesome and took my Spanish to the next level! If you are looking for a free option, Duolingo is also great.
- Download the Google Translate App and then be sure to download the offline Spanish dictionary in advance. You will be able to translate even without internet! Here is how.
- Be patient, positive and keep an open mind. Find the fun in miscommunication. It's bound to happen.
BEST AREAS TO EXPLORE AND STAY AT IN MEDELLIN
- El Poblado - We recommend staying in the Poblado neighborhood, it is within distance of where all the "cool (Colombian) kids" hang, and where most of the best restaurants and bars in Medellin are located.
- Envigado - This is the next best place to hang out and possibly stay in. It features more of a local look and authentic feel.
Where to stay
In our humble opinion, this is the best (style+location) place to stay at in Medellin. This place is also awesome for when you travel with friends and family, as it has amazing options in the form of apartments with large common living and dining spaces and multiple bedroom suites with a bathroom and shower in each.
At times, while sitting atop Charlee's rooftop bar and sipping a cocktail, you'll forget that you're in Colombia and instead, feel like you're grazing a skyscraper in NYC...Until you raise your gaze and spot the lush mountaintops that is... The Charlee hotel is the place to be if you don't mind spending the extra $$$ the hotel rooms are a nice way to roll.
Best. Pizza. Ever.
Zaaika - $$
Located right next door to Zorba. Nothing fancy but surprisingly good Indian food.
Natto - $$
In a country where so much of the food is heavy/fried, this place is like a breath of fresh air. Clean flavors with fresh and healthy ingredients, Thai influenced.
Lenteja Express - $
Strictly vegetarian. Very good burritos and veggie burgers.
Marietta - $
Located across the street from Lenteja Express and also 100% vegetarian (maybe even vegan), this place is an awesome choice when you want a quick and cheap meal. Their "menu del dia"* (delicious juice, soup, a full meal and a dessert for around $4) will not disappoint anyone.
*Speaking of menus del dia, if lunch specials are your thing (and they should be!), check out this comprehensive guide!
Subula - $$
Jumping back to the side of the street of Lenteja Express (what can we do, Carrera 35 is pretty awesome when it comes to food options). This joint is being run by super cool bogotanos (peeps from Bogota). Think Colombian Johnny Depps. Quick service style greek food, really delicious. Try the chicken salad!
Pergamino - $
This is the most talked about coffee shop in a country where coffee might be the most talked about subject.
Botanika - $$
While the service can be a bit weird (not bad, just a little off) this is a beautiful coffee shop/restaurant with good food. Give their burger a try. It is also a good and quiet place to write/work.
Romero - $$$
Another Italian place in a more fancy (than Toscano) setting. We love the salmon fillet with the fehttuchini in Alfredo sauce. Yum.
Oci.mde - $$$$
While it looks like there was a change in ownership since we last visited (it was called Ocio and was absolutely our favorite place), and they came a bit short(rib) this time around, it still deserves a spot in this list. It is one of the "fancier" places to dine in while in Medellin and is worth the experience.
Carmen - $$$$
Another fancy schmansy joint that is definitely worth a visit. We highly recommend to opt for the tasting menu with wine pairing! At around $45 a person, even as one of the most expensive restaurants in Medellin, it is still a steal compared to what we would pay in a western city.
What to do
This is a great experience and another awesome way to see other parts of the city.
- Approx. $75 for 20 minutes.
This is kind of a must when in Medellin, the land is so beautiful that seeing it solely from the ground is just not enough...
- Approx. $45 for 20 minutes. Tip: Take a sweatshirt. :)
The 3 hour street food tour in Envigado by La Mesa is amazing. Best empanadas, best arepas de chocolo, best... well, just go and find out yourself.
- $45 per person
With all due respect to Medellin, the real magic of Colombia lays in its smaller towns and more rural areas. if you take our recommendation to visit this beautiful finca/coffee plantation (linked above, about 3 hours drive from Medellin), be sure to also spend a night in Jardin. Unbelievable views and a michelada anyone?
About two hours drive from Medellin, there is an area called Guatape. Why are we telling you about it? Because there you can take your Narcos obsession to the next level and play some paintball in Pablo Escobar's old mansion, you can feel like iron man in the water with that thing, and you can (should) climb 750 stairs to the top of this incredible rock.
Seriously, what's so special about a subway ride? Well, the fact that we are not talking about the subway part but the CABLE CAR part. Comically known as "the cheapest sightseeing tour in the world", this ride will allow you to capture the views and local life of Medellin from a whole different angle, literally.