Feeling the Vibe in Medellin, Colombia

The first stop on our Colombia trip was in Medellin – a big, modern city.  We didn’t have that much time in the city so we had to make the most of it. Medellin is a very popular city for Digital Nomads, due to the fast internet, ease of getting around, cheap cost-of-living, and diversity of activities available.  It definitely feels the most “modern” of the three cities we went to, and we did quite a few things in the 48 hours we were there.

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View of the city from the top of the escalators in Comuna 13.

Day 1 – December 22nd, 2016

After getting off the plane from Bogota, we wanted to get SIM cards for our phones. We found a little shop in the airport, and paid about $15 each for the card, 1GB of data, and some text/call credit. There are cheaper plans, but that one seemed the easiest. My phone was easy but Steve had some issues. After a bit of Goggling on my phone we solved the problem, and we were both set up with internet for our trip (highly recommended). Afterwards, we grabbed a taxi into the city. The airport is actually quite a bit outside of the city, and you have to wind your way down the hills into the center. It was a good opportunity to see all the greenery and high-rises, quite different from my home in Sucre!

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First views of the city. Definitely a big change from Sucre!

Our cab took us directly to the hotel, and we had money from the ATM so we were all set. We had decided to stay in the Poblado district (because that’s where all the tourists stay), and we chose Hostal Relax 10. It was nothing fancy, but the people are really nice, you can go in and out any time of day, I enjoyed the breakfast, and we had a private bathroom (and a giant bed) in our room. My mom had her own room upstairs.

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Our hotel room had a bunk bed and a giant bed! Sometimes when I reached across I thought Steve was in the bathroom, but he was just further away than my arm could reach.

We were all a bit fried, but we wanted to go out. So I spent about an hour unpacking a bit and showering while my mom and Steve had a few cold beers (it was a hot day). Afterwards, we wandered the neighbourhood. I was able to bring my purse across the street to get repaired (of course it ripped on the first day), and we watched a few buskers from Argentina (which are a common sight throughout South America). We finally settled on a beer and ribs restaurant and were happy to get happy hour cocktails and enjoy the food while my mom watched the fire jugglers at the light nearby.

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Left: Afternoon meal at a rib place down the street from our hotel. Right: Cute sculptures filled the park near our house.

We went back to get my purse (fixed perfectly in just a few minutes for about 2 dollars) and then take a nap at the hotel. We looked at some of the maps in the hotel to think about our plans for the remaining 2 days. We had a bit of trouble orienting ourselves, and weren’t exactly sure what the 2 tours we had scheduled included. Originally, we were going to go salsa dancing nearby but I just didn’t have the energy. So, we just had a few drinks, watched some TV, and then crashed early. It had been a long 24 hours.

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Getting on the cable cars to the top of the hills.

Day 2 – December 23rd, 2016

Friday morning we had breakfast at the hotel (I’m a big fan of a breakfast that includes hot chocolate!).  We didn’t think either tour included the Metro cable cars, so we decided to go do that before our tour started in the afternoon. We walked to the metro station, and on the way we passed a cute little park (Parque El Poblado). The park had free public WiFi and a lot of people were just hanging out. Plus there was a cute little handicraft market that we poked around in.

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Views from the cable car over the city.

Then we continued to the metro and took the train all the way down to where the cable car starts. There are three cable car lines, and two of them are connected (those are the ones we went to). The price of the first line is included in the metro ticket, so it was free to transfer from the metro line to the cable car. In the car, there are two benches facing each other and glass on every side (similar to a gondola you would see on a ski hill). The three of us got in on one bench, and three people got in on the other side who were also tourists. My mom thought she’d be scared (she’s not the best with heights) but she handled it well. It’s not as scary as you’d think because even though you’re high above the city, you’re not very high from the actual ground below the car (since it’s going up a hill).

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The top of the line for the cable car. There’s a small artisanal market and some food.

We took lots of pictures along the way and enjoyed the view over the rooftops. It was interesting to see all the different communities, and you can definitely tell there’s a lot more poverty the farther you get up the hill. Once we were at the top of the first line, we decided to pay for a new ticket to take the second line even higher up the hill. This ride seemed to go on for a long time. We originally thought that it would stop right at the top of the hill and we’d get an amazing view over the whole valley where the city is located, but we were totally wrong. After passing the top of the hill the car continues for quite awhile over flat ground with no houses (all trees). So if you want a great vantage point for pictures and stuff, it’s best to do that from the actual cars or from the top of the first cable car route.  Once we’d gone over many minutes of parkland, we eventually got tot the end of the line. We were debating just staying on the car, but decided to get off and explore a bit. Note: If you stay on you don’t need a new ticket but if you get off you’ll have to pay again. It’s only a buck or so anyway, so we weren’t too worried about that.

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Loving the translation on this sign in the cable car! No prancing for us… 😦

At the top of the hill there’s a park (Arvi Park), so you can go on hikes, or there’s some restaurants down the road.  There was a farmer’s market set up selling local produce, but also local crafts like scarves and jewelry, and artisanal foods like jelly, wine, etc. It was mid-morning so we weren’t hungry, but if you went at lunch time it would be the perfect place to try a whole bunch of local, artisanal foods (they have both packaged foods like preserves, and fresh food to eat as well). After about 30 minutes of poking around, we bought new tickets and headed back down both lines to the metro. We decided to continue by metro to our destination and find lunch there instead of paying again. So, we hopped on and took the train back to where the tour would be starting in the afternoon. We still had about an hour and a half to kill so we wandered around and shopped a bit. Eventually we stopped at a local restaurant right under the station. It was a lot of local people on their lunch break and a set lunch menu with 2 main plate options, 2 soup options, and 2 juice options. I think the whole thing was about $5 per person and was A TON of food.

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Really cool to see the city on the hills from above.

That afternoon, we had signed up for a free city tour with Real City Tours – highly recommended!  Booking was a bit weird because it does fill up and you can only book 1.5 days in advance. Totally worth it though.  They’re extremely organised, especially compared to other tour groups in South America. Everyone meets at the designated spot/time. There are a bunch of guys wearing t-shirts and caps with the tour company logo. They sign you off on a list and you’re sent to meet a group in the building. Once you have about 25 people you get started. The tour is offered everyday, twice a day I believe. When we went, there was about 3 different groups of over 20 people each – so they definitely have experience doing this type of thing!

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Left: Lunch is really cheap at the local places. I think about $5 or less including bread, soup, drinks, chicken, and rice. Plus the service is very quick, but there’s not a lot of options, so I hope you like what’s being served. Right: There are payphones everywhere in Colombia, and people actually use them. They’re the most affordable way to family in other countries and charge affordable rates for international calls.

Our tour guide was really great. He was local but had perfect English. He went into the history of things without being boring, and had the perfect mix of telling us everything great about Medellin, while not lying about it’s sordid history. There was a good balance of touristy sites and more authentic local experiences. I also enjoyed the fact that the whole tour wasn’t just walking and trying to stay together, but also included some spots to sit down for a longer story, and places where we could break up to buy snacks or look around. Some of the highlights of the tour included the “square of lights” Parque de La Luz (interesting social change architetcture), Botero square – Plaza Botero (an amazing collection of Botero sculptures), and Bolivar Park – Parque Bolivar (with an interesting history about art and rebellion).

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We absolutely LOVED the free walking tour in Medellin – we learned so much!

After the tour we asked the tour guide for a bar recommendation. He was super helpful and assisted people trying to find the subway, looking for food, wanting to know good salsa bars, etc. The bar was really interesting. The music was loud, but it was also really bright – which is something I’m not used to in most pubs. The weirdest part was that there are saloon style doors for urinals that male customers can use – so you can still see them from the chest up while they’re going – very strange…  After about an hour and a few new beers, we went back to see the plaza of light (Parque de la Luz).  I think we were a bit confused because we thought the lights would be colourful but they were just white, kind of disappointing but still nice. We were exhausted so we found the metro station, grabbed a train to our stop, and then walked the 20 minutes back to the hotel. On the way back we stopped at the park from earlier (El Poblado), which was lit up with beautiful decorations – very cool. It seemed like a popular spot for local young people to hang out with a few beers as well. We were feeling lazy so we picked up Subway sandwiches by our hotel for dinner and ate in the room watching TV before crashing for the night.

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I love how the parks are all lit up at night!

Day 3 – December 24th, 2016

On Saturday, we woke up excited!  We were going to explore the Comuna 13 area of the city.  Historically known for a lot of gang violence and the drug trade, it had recently been the beneficiary of many social programs aimed at improving the area.  One such project were the escalators.  Similar to the cable car system, the elevators were installed in a poor area where the houses are all built up into the hills.  This would provide a free and convenient way for the citizens higher on the hills to get into the city for work and school. The project is still being worked on, but the first phase is complete and it’s a very cool site to see.

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Graffiti and escalators in Comuna 13.

Originally, we were supposed to have a tour with an agency at 10am.  We were told to meet at the metro station by our house, and we were there 10 minutes early.  We waited and asked around, but the guy never showed.  Eventually, I emailed the guy (we didn’t have a phone number for the company) and they said the guy had accidentally left with different tourists and was now impossible to reach.  Sounds suspicious to me, and we were quite disappointed at how unprofessional it was, seeing as I had booked it, and the time/place/etc. was confirmed. I DO NOT RECOMMEND booking with them (Comuna 13 Tours), since there’s no point in booking a tour that won’t actually show up…

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Graffiti and escalators in Comuna 13.

I was very frustrated, but my mom insisted we should go anyway. We had already done the cable cars (which was a part of the tour), so we skipped that part and headed right to the area. From Poblado you need to take 2 different subway lines, but if you have Google Maps (or any sort of GPS) it’s no problem at all.  We decided to walk about 20 minutes from the subway station to the escalators. It was really hot but we had no problem finding it. If you don’t have a phone however, I would recommend taking a taxi or Uber so you don’t get lost (it’s not super direct). We’ve heard that the Comuna 13 area is definitely not safe, and had decided in advance that we would leave right away if we felt worried about our safety. Although we got a few looks from members of the communities, we had absolutely no problems and felt safe the entire time. We’ve heard from others that even a few years ago it was very unsafe (even for large men) and that the guards needed heavy machine guns. Conversely, when we were there, the “guards” were teenagers just chatting and giving directions. However, I probably wouldn’t go at night.

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View of the city from the top of the escalators in Comuna 13.

Once you arrive, there’s lots to see! It’ll take you less than an hour total, but I really enjoyed it, and can’t wait to see what it will look like after the next phases. Basically the escalators are right there in the poor neighbourhoods, in between the small concrete houses. They’re free. run 24/7, all year round, and are covered with an orange, metal design to protect the electronics and people from the elements.  Local and international artists have also been invited to paint a lot of the surfaces around the escalators, leading to a lot of really cool artwork. Apparently, they also run workshops and other programs for youth in the area to promote art and reduce violence from boredom. At the top of the escalators, there’s also a great view over the entire city.  There’s also little local stores where you can buy ice cream, beer, or pop on a hot day (we were sweating by the time we got to the top from the sun).

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Left: View of the city from the top of the escalators in Comuna 13. Right: Delicious lunch near our hotel before our flight home.

We poked around, got some drinks, took some pictures, and headed back down to the metro station. There was a ton of people in line to buy tickets, so we waited. Eventually we got on the train and took it back to the Poblado neighbourhood. We wandered around until we found a new restaurant with a patio. We ordered a pitcher of sangria, some local dishes, and had a nice time just chilling in the sunny day on the patio. We had already packed up and checked out in the morning, but the hotel kept our bags for us behind the counter.  We headed back to the hotel to relax, drink the remainder of our wine, and ordered a taxi. The cab arrived very early but we were just hanging out on our computers in the common room, so we packed everything up and headed to the airport for our next trip to Cartagena!

Check out the rest of our Colombian Christmas Adventures, including:

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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