Bienvenidos a Colombia!
After three weeks in Medellín, I accumulated quite a bit of local knowledge to share in this well-rounded guide of the city. Before you arrive, there’s a few general points you should remember:
- Everything in Medellín can typically be calculated to about 1/3 the price of what is in the United States. The dollar is very strong. If a price tag says 18,000, divide everything to the left of the comma by 3 and it will be about $6 (as of February 2020). Also, the value of all services is about a third of the price of the USA. I got a gel manicure for $10 USD in Medellín, but would have spent about $30 at home.
- Pablo Escobar is referred to by tour guides as “he who shall not be mentioned,” as in, locals are desperately trying to drop the narcos stigma. It is very frowned upon for tourists to seek out this type of tourism, though very possible to do. His henchman Popeye actually died one week after I left Medellín.
- Don’t give papaya! The locals will tell you that if you get robbed, it’s your fault for not being careful. They call this “papaya” because low-hanging branches on trees in the city usually have their fruit taken first since it is the easiest to grab. The same goes for your negligence of keeping track of your belongings.
- Shut car doors softly. Colombians hate when tourists slam their car doors, as they hold great respect for their personal items. They will yell at you! If you need a reminder, practicing saying “suave” or “softly” to yourself every time you open the door and remind the others around you. Surprisingly, it is as big of a deal as it sounds.
Mercado Del Rio (Poblado)– The food hall that has it all! Mercado Del Rio is a series of food joints that encircle tables and high-tops for enjoying dinner or cocktails inside a hipster warehouse. This is the perfect place for a large group of people to meet up with over 50 food options from Italian to Asian and even American.
Fidelina (Laureles)– Darling, absolutely darling. This 1920s restaurant is a little higher-end, but super quaint. Go for drinks or a whole meal, but find a way to spend some quality time here as it has the best ambiance of about any restaurant in Medellín. Overall, this is a very local, Colombian restaurant with historical vibes.
Restaurante Mondango’s (Poblado)– I had high expectations for this place. It is considered one of the top restaurants in all of Medellín and many celebrities have visited, as is evident on their Polaroid wall. The menu is mostly comprised of authentic Colombian dishes, but in my opinion the prices and flavor reflect the large amount of tourism they receive.
Seré (Poblado)– Seré is a boujee breakfast place with fresh teas, pastries, and açai bowls. Their fabulous bowls would cost an arm and a leg in the United States, but really follow the 1/3 guideline in Colombia. Filled with exotic, native fruits and a detailed presentation, you get more than your money’s worth here. This is the bruncher’s paradise.
Crepes and Waffles– This Colombian chain is exceptionally popular across the country. As of 2020, there are 17 in Medellín alone. Every mall and neighborhood has one. While I don’t usually seek out chains, we ate here at least three times in two weeks because it was easy, affordable, and always a treat. A dessert crepe with ice cream is only about $2.50 USD. Savory crepes with multiple toppings stacked up are no more than $4 USD. Two crepes is a full meal here. It’s also a great place to split and share multiple varieties.
Food Markets- Visit a local food market and try some native fruits, especially a granadilla! For more food ideas, check out my top foods to try in Colombia.
Bird House Kitchen and Drinks– I can only describe this place as eating at your mama’s house. This narrow, galley-styled eatery has your whole meal already picked out- think menu del día in Spain. Upon walking in, you are greeted and told what all your meal will contain. While there is no menu to browse, it is really refreshing to not have choice overload and just trust what the chef has prepared. You get a homemade appetizer, squeezed juice, entree, and dessert, all for around $6 USD, and will likely have leftovers to spare.
La Octava- A bar with an adult ball pit? Sign me up. This place has a swimming pool in the lower level filled with colorful balls for jumping and playing. NO SKINNY DIPPING PLEASE.
Comuna 13- Neighborhood 13 is usually the main attraction for the modern tourist visiting Medellín. Deemed the most dangerous neighborhood in the world just a few years ago, it now showcases amazing street art and outdoor escalators. A guide is a must on this visit and tours fill up fast. Most guides for this neighborhood grew up in the area and have endless childhood stories about the crime and warfare. I went with Ana Zapata (instagram: @fonda.familia13)- she was a fabulous storyteller and by far the most captivating aspect of the tour.
The Cathedral– This is the only Escobar-related item on this list. Now referred to as “The Cathedral” because of its purchase by Benedictine Monks, this was the former 1991 prison that Escobar had built. Today, the site looks nothing like a prison and there really isn’t much to see in terms of Narcos. If you don’t know to expect this, when you get there you will look around and think you must be in the wrong place. While it accessible by bus, we did it on horseback, which made the whole experience more of an adventure than a let down.
Santafé Mall– Shopping is incredible in all of Colombia. Depending on the neighborhood, women are known for being totally decked out, so there is high demand for fashion. Therefore, that makes Medellín a great place to shop, where South American culture meets European style. The Santafé Mall is enormous and is also home to South America’s largest department store, Falabella. I could have spent DAYS in this mall. Chevignon, Stradivarius, Maaji, Tenis, and GEF, were a few of my favorite stores. If you are looking for a ritzier mall, El Tesoro has a few more upscale places.
Jardín Botánico– Medellín is known for its pollution problem, so a break in the gardens can be a nice retreat from the city. I didn’t find this place to be overly “cool”, but there are giant iguanas running around the park which are kind of neat to see. Otherwise, this isn’t really much of an attraction. WARNING: The online hours are rarely correct for this place. Go earlier rather than later.
Real City Walking Tours– Free walking tours are my favorite way to start exploring any city. They introduce you to the area, help orient you with the major highlights, and give you the opportunity to get local advice on day one. There are just a few tours with this company and I did most of them- all were excellent. If you don’t know where to start, sign up for one of these early on rather than at the end of your trip.
Metrocable– Take the cable car up to Parque Arvi for just $2. The park at the top is so-so but the views on the way up are incredible. Plus, it’s a fun little ride, especially if you have spent most of your days doing a lot of walking. It’s an easy highlight and there is a small market at the top.
Dancing- Dancing is a huge part of Colombian culture. Salsa, bachata, tango, cha cha- there’s a place for everything. There is free dancing to be had every night of the week if you know where to look. Most places offer free or affordable dance classes prior to open dancing. I definitely recommend taking a few private classes. Colombians like to dance and they don’t like to dance with bad dancers. There are reggaeton clubs, as well, but salsa clubs are a must. If you are there a while, you will start to come across the same people over and over as you get on the same evening dance schedules. Also, people wear a little bit of everything to dance. Women take the dancing seriously and often wear sneakers for comfort, rather than “club attire.”
- Sky Bar: This is a small venue for dancing. It is great for one of their dance classes to start the night, but not my favorite for sticking around to open dance due to the small size.
- Club Havana: Wednesday nights were poppin’ off when I was there. Every Wednesday we danced for about two hours and went home, exhausted, dizzy, and sweaty. It gets packed in this little place, but it has a great local vibe as an older bar.
- Dancefree: This is the largest area of the dance halls, which is really refreshing to have some extra dancing space. Their system for getting in is a little annoying (they just started doing email verification). This place is hit or miss.
Teva Glamping- Glamping in Colombia is awesome. These are decked out tents with plumbing, electricity, and relaxing hobo vibes. As awesome as they are, they don’t abide by my 1/3 rule and are usually quite pricey. One night at Teva was around $200 USD. I wouldn’t stay here long term and there really isn’t much to do other than spend the night.
Hostel Viajero- This hostel was brand new in the area and I did not stay in it, however, I did stay in their sister hostel’s in Cartagena AND Santa Marta. Hostel Viajero is in my top 5 favorite hostels for sure, so I would not hesitate to book with them in Medellín.
Locals- When I stayed in Colombia, I was fortunate enough to stay with an American friend in a house with people who rented from all around the world. They constantly had roommates rotating in and out. If you are staying for an extended period of time, I would definitely recommend finding some other travelers or locals to live with and pay rent.
Metro- I am a metro queen. Public transportation and I get along very well. The Medellín metro system was another story. I found it to be very difficult and never fully oriented myself. I prefer to walk in most cases and taxis are so cheap, it just wasn’t worth the headache for me unless I was with a local who could do the decision making on my behalf.
Uber- Not to be “that white girl”, but Uber was a God-send. This is also coming from a rural Midwest girl who has never used Uber in the United States. Uber supposedly ended the last day of January 2020 after six years of service to the area, but I saw an email recently that it might be back. What is nice about Uber in other countries is that you know the price up front and a driver can’t take advantage of you. It was also extremely affordable (literally $1-2 USD for a 10 minute ride).
Taxi- Taxis are fairly cheap and don’t usually give you grief. I did have one bad taxi experience where we kept going around in circles, so eventually I just got out out of the cab, but usually they are quite trustworthy. The most challenging part of taking a taxi is giving them an address if you aren’t centrally located to a defined, popular location.
Motorcycle- I don’t want to include this (because I do not encourage this option) but I have to include this. Motorcycles are popular. South American countries tend to be a little lawless in their manner of driving. This is can be really fun, but also really dangerous. Traffic is a lot of stop and go and the hills are quite steep to get over. This is not for an amateur motorcyclist. I would not go to Colombia and attempt this.
In general, I would never count on these flights to leave on time. The South American attitude rarely abides by a schedule, and it seems the airlines don’t either. Also, it’s really hard to get updated information at the airports. They almost have an expectation that you will watch the gate attendant and know when it’s your time. Announcements are rarely made in the airports, so be alert. Most of these flights are also very budget-friendly, as long as you take no belongings.
Latam- This Brazilian company was our vehicle to the Amazon. We did have issues with our flight being very delayed to Bogota and should have missed the last connecting flight to Leticia, however, that flight was so small and there were about 10 people in the same situation, they personally escorted us from the plane to our gate and waited on all of us. The flight itself was fine but I would not bank on taking the last flight out of a city if you are in a rush.
Spirit- This is the most common company to fly back and forth from the states, and therefore has the same complaints as domestic US flights- maybe even a little stricter. When I dropped Chloe off at the airport in Santa Marta, she had to check a bag and they didn’t want to bother translating so badly, that they checked it for free at baggage claim. When I took my duffel to the gate in Medellín, they slapped me with the $65 fee. The airline is fine if you have absolutely no belongings.
Viva Air- This airline is Colombian based but does have flights to Florida. Compare flight prices between Viva and Spirit if you are flying from the United States.
Colombia is pretty hot year round, some seasons just rain more than others. The western side of Colombia is actually one of the wettest places in the world. If you are looking to do some Amazon rain forest activities, your packing list will look slightly different. In general, plan to be in a high UV index during the day and chilly temperatures at night.
MEN: AVOID SHORTS AND/OR FLIP FLOPS. I know it is so hot. Try to find a cool alternative. It is frowned upon for men to dress like this and tourists are laughed at for this choice of clothing (women are fine). If the looks don’t bother you, then dress how you want! This might just be nice to know ahead of time. This list is just a few things aside from the obvious that need emphasized.
- One pair of sandals (dress up or down, but great comfort- I loved having my Saltwater Sandals)
- Tennis shoes
- Pants (1 pair)
- sports bras (plan to be sweaty)
- Hair gel/ hairspray travel-size (hair products like this are very different and hard to come by, so if there is a mousse you can’t live without, bring it).
- Meds (pharmacies are fairly good in Colombia but it isn’t always easy to describe what you need or find name-brand).
- Contact solution
- Camera and extra memory cards
- Cross-body bag
When in doubt, shopping is SO GOOD in Colombia, you can find just about anything. I would even recommend bringing less and do some shopping that you can’t do in the US. I miss those malls everyday.
Guatapé– Guatapé is the little town, but El Peñon is the iconic rock that you are probably the most familiar with. Absolutely climb it. While it looks quite daunting, it really only takes 15-20 minutes to climb if you are relatively in shape. Maybe double that if you decide to stop occasionally. Many people go for a one-day excursion, but there are places to stay and many fincas to rent on the lake. It’s only about $7 USD to climb.
Cartagena- At first, we were not in love with Cartagena. Medellin really takes the cake of all the cities in Colombia. Cartagena is hot hot hot. I recommend staying in the old city where it’s a little more historical, but with that comes tourism, as this is a huge cruise port. The beaches are really bad here, too, so you have to find some way to beat the heat. We ended up doing a day pass at the Hotel Caribe and it saved our trip. For $40 per person, we got all day pool access, lunch, a drink, spa access, and towels. We lived large at this beautiful hotel during the day and then spent the night in our $12 hostel. Three days here is more than enough!
Santa Marta- We took a 5 hour bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta and hated every minute of it. We thought it was hot in Cartagena, but Santa Marta was like a desert. Luckily our hostel was beautiful and had a pool. Otherwise, it would have been a terrible end to the trip. People typically go to see the Lost City or Tayrona National Park, but the timing and season were bad for us to go.
Amazon Rainforest- I did not realize this until I got to Colombia, but one of the best places to enter the Amazon is in the southern finger of Colombia in the town of Leticia, where the country meets at a point with Peru and Brazil. I would recommend having 4 days in this town, as most Amazon overnight excursions are three full days, which is really the perfect amount of time. You can also walk across the border to Brazil here for authentic pão de quiejo and Brazilian steak houses!
Please comment or message me on Instagram (@_madmay) if you do any of these activities! I would love to hear your adventures!