Posted: 30 Dec 2013 08:29 AM PST
One of my big goals for 2014 is to finally get to Colombia. It’s been on “the list” for a long time. Many of you have asked for information about the country so today I turn the blog over to my friend Dave from Medellin Living. He traded his backpack for an apartment in the city. Dave gives us the ultimate list of things to do to one of the most popular destinations in Colombia.
Once dubbed “The Most Dangerous City in the World” by Time magazine due to the drug-fueled violence of Pablo Escobar, in the last 20 years Medellin has undergone a transformation. In addition to big improvements in public safety, there's been a huge surge in urban development projects, including Colombia’s first metro system and cable cars to service poorer neighborhoods located high on the mountainsides, as well as new parks and libraries.
Now, Medellin is becoming one of the “it” cities in the world, with tons of tourists visiting and foreigners settling and retiring here.
Medellin is one of the few cities I've fallen in love with at first sight. Beautiful mountains, warm weather, friendly locals, and a vibrant culture are just a few of the reasons I’ve spent more than two years living in Medellin. And I’m here to show everyone there are more than enough things to do to keep any visitor busy.
Plus, travel in Colombia continues to be an excellent bargain compared to other countries in South America. While it’s not as cheap as in Ecuador or Bolivia, your money will go a lot farther than it does in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.
Explore the Numerous Parks and Plazas
The pleasant weather lends itself well to enjoying the dozens of parks and plazas to be found in and around the city. Each space offers its own unique design and personality, with all of them being excellent places to grab a seat and watch the locals go about their daily lives.
My favorite places include:
Get Your Adrenaline Going
Pablo Escobar Tours
Curiosity from foreign tourists, many of whom know nothing more of Medellin before they arrive than its association with Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, has led to a boom in Pablo Escobar tours.
A typical half-day tour will include visits to Monaco, the eight story apartment building where the Cali Cartel detonated a car bomb in an assassination attempt, a visit to the building adjacent his final safe house where he was ultimately killed, and his family grave in the city of Itagui, south of Medellin.
Tours are available for as little as 42,000 pesos ($21.75) per person through Zorba. All three sites can also be visited independently using a combination of the metro and taxis.
Take Salsa Lessons
Santo Baile specializes in Cali style salsa, and is run by Mayra Cutiva, a Cali native who’s been dancing and teaching salsa for 15 years. Under the tutelage of her and the other teachers, you can go from wallflower to “So You Think You Can Dance” in a few weeks.
Academia Baila Latino is another popular dance studio, specializing in LA and Cuban style salsa, including salsa casino.
The cost of one hour private lessons has risen in recent years, but it’s still a bargain by Western standards. Expect to pay between 40,000 to 50,000 pesos ($20.75 to $25.95) per hour, with discounts for purchasing four or eight hours at a time. If you want to spend less, sign up for group classes.
Both studios host regular dance parties for students and their friends and partners, thereby allowing them another venue beyond the city’s bars and dance clubs for showing off their new moves.
Sample the World’s Best Coffee
Oddly, for a country so highly respected for its coffee, Colombians don’t seem to have a huge coffee culture. Sure, you’ll see it available everywhere, from vendors selling little cups on the street to small shops and restaurants, but for the most part, they aren’t selling the country’s higher quality, export grade coffee.
To assure yourself of a quality cup, there are a few places you can go. First and foremost, the Juan Valdez Cafes are Colombia’s version of Starbucks. They offer delicious coffee, pastries, and free Wi-Fi. In 2014, Starbucks is finally going to begin making its way into the Colombian market, starting in Bogotá and eventually expanding to 50 cafes nationwide.
If you prefer indie coffee shops, head to Pergamino Cafe in Parque Lleras. Since opening in 2012, it has received rave reviews from travelers and expats and has attracted a strong Colombian clientele too. Pergamino has free Wi-Fi, and they recently finished an expansion.
Discover Colombian Food
More importantly, I’ve tried to find the best restaurants in Medellín, where you too can sample authentic Colombian dishes. Beyond the food, these places all have excellent atmosphere and service as well.
As they say in Colombia, Buen Provecho!
How to Party Like a Local
The local firewater, and favorite drink amongst the locals, is called Aguardiente, or guaro for short. It’s a clear, anise-flavored liquor traditionally consumed as a shot, but don’t be surprised if you see locals drinking straight from the bottle too. It’s often chased with water or soda.
Another locally produced liquor is Ron Medellin Anejo. This rum is widely available and taken straight, on the rocks, or with ginger ale or Sprite. Colombians prefer their aguardiente and rum straight, saying it doesn’t produce as big a hangover the next day if you skip the soda.
There are tons of places to go out at night, but the epicenter of nightlife in Medellin is Parque Lleras, a dense collection of restaurants, bars and dance clubs situated around a little tree-filled park in the upscale Poblado neighborhood. Within a few minutes' walk from most of the city’s hostels and many hotels and apartment rentals, it couldn’t be easier to find a restaurant or bar to your liking.
Beyond Parque Lleras, there are plenty of other places to kick up your heels. Here are just a few of my favorites to get you started:
Visit Nearby Pueblos
Guatape is a colorful pueblo located about two hours by bus from Medellin. It can easily be visited as a long day trip, either independently (it’s safe) or as part of an organized tour. A one-way bus ticket costs about 8,000 pesos ($4.15).
Situated on the edge of a lake, it’s possible to take tours of the surrounding area, either by speed boat or party boat. You’ll see more with the former, including the remains of one of Pablo Escobar’s former homes.
A fifteen minute rickshaw ride from Guatapé is El Peñol, a granite monolith with over 700 concrete stairs etched in its side. For a few thousand pesos (a few dollars), visitors can climb to the top for breathtaking 360-degree views of the region. Rock climbing is also an option, if you prefer a challenge.
Santa Fe de Antioquia became the first capital of the department of Antioquia all the way back in 1584. Santa Fe can be reached within an hour by bus, and due to its lower elevation, it’s noticeably warmer.
And as if this list isn’t long enough to keep you busy, there are a dozen or so festivals in Medellin each year, celebrating everything from Christmas lights and flowers to salsa, tango, jazz, and poetry.
Backpackers and budget travelers who take advantage of the local transport, eat like a local, and don’t go overboard with their partying, can experience the city for as little as $40 a day. Add a few nicer restaurants, salsa lessons, or a tour or two, and budgets should be increased to $55 to $60 a day.
Medellin may lack big landmarks like you’ll find in Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires, but spend a little time here, and you may find the spring weather, mountain views, helpful locals, and relaxed pace of life hard to leave. Combined with the low cost of travel and living, it’s no wonder more and more foreigners are deciding not only to visit Medellin, but to live and retire here too.
David Lee is the editor and founder of two popular travel blogs: Go Backpacking and Medellin Living. He is also author of the Medellin Travel Guide: Insider Advice from an American Expat in Colombia.
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