Photo Courtesy of Alex Palomino
The secret is out: Medellín is one of the most desirable cities to visit in South America. A winding descent from the mountains offers a first glance at the city’s beauty. Once in its depths, visitors are seduced by the locals' (known as Paisas) passion for music and dance, as well as their sincere …kindness and affection. In the daytime, the temperature tends to be comfortable, so take time to wander through diverse neighborhoods, sample local cuisine, and sip on exotic fruit juices. Then when night comes to the streets, dance to the beat of salsa, vallenato and reggaeton.
What to know before you go to Medellin
There is much more to Medellín than meets the eye. The warmth and generosity of its people makes visiting a pleasure. To get in the local groove, spend time in one of the many downtown parks during the day and at night head to Parque Lleras and Parque Poblado, where dancing and rum cocktails make for an infectious night out. Delve into the "Boterismo" world created by famed local artist Fernando Botero, and visit the city's very own fairytale castle. For an alternative Colombian experience, head out of the city to the traditional town of Santa Elena, or farther afield to the caves at Rio Claro or the lake at Guatapé.
While traditional foods such as beans, rice, avocado, and arepa (a flat cornbread) are still the basics of Medellín cuisine, outside influences have begun to make an impact over the last couple of decades. Many areas have stuck with the old favorites bandeja paisa and menú del día, both of which are based on grilled meat, rice, and beans, and are typically washed down with a fruit juice or tinto (black coffee). In areas such as Poblado and in the adjoining town of Envigado, however, you can find restaurants carrying a selection of imported food and wine. Try aguardiente (firewater), a popular drink with a licorice flavor.
There are two options when it comes to shopping in Medellín. The first is to head downtown to the sprawling markets at Parque Berrio metro station. Here you can find local traders peddling everything from electronics to trainers and dresses to soccer jerseys. For those who prefer calm to the chaos of a thriving market, one of the many swanky malls is the best option. While most have an abundance of famous retailers, Oviedo and El Tesoro also have independent boutiques and gift shops where traditional clothes and souvenirs can be purchased. Upper Parque Lleras is home to two streets of chic stores where locals sell handmade clothes and jewelry.
As most locals will tell you, Paisas are the friendliest people in Colombia. Colombians in general are immensely proud of their country, and none more so than in Medellín. Here, residents are practically clamoring to talk with foreigners and you'll be even more popular if you can speak Spanish. If not, you can make friends easily by trying their beloved aguardiente (firewater) and arepa (cornbread). Locals like to unwind by heading to the dance floor and you will not be left wanting for a salsa partner—or instructor, if that's what you need—with whom to brush up on your skills.
Medellín is accessed via its international airport at Rionegro, which is a 45-minute drive from the city. Direct flights are available from many U.S. cities, with more opening up all the time. Once in Medellín, the best way to get around is on the Metro or by cabs, which are plentiful and inexpensive. The currency is the Colombia peso, and the language spoken is Spanish. Few people speak English, so it’s worth arriving with at least some essential phrases to get around and meet people. While Medellín is a lot safer than it was 15 years ago, certain places—like the neighborhoods surrounding the city, and downtown at night—should still be avoided unless accompanied by a local.
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Simon Willis is a travel writer and freelance journalist flirting with both South America and Europe. He has contributed to the Washington Post, Independent, Yorkshire Post, Colombia Reports and Argentina Independent, among other publications. Simon is a sports nut, and when he is not adventure-seeking he is following his beloved Barnsley Football Club.