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Authored by Chan Komagan

“You went to Colombia?” “Isn’t it dangerous?” “Are you missing an organ now?” “Did you make any deals with a drug cartel?”

I’ve come across many different people during my travels this year; interacted with both fellow travelers and locals alike. And I’ve picked up on a fairly common theme. A mere mention of Colombia immediately stirs up the stereotypical fear of drug infested, unlawful country that has nothing to offer but cheap drugs and sex. Is Medellin safe for travelers?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Though when a country goes through such a dramatic period in history, filled with drug overlords flaunting extravagant luxury, and sophisticated drug supply chains with the power to control the lives of everyday Colombians, it’s understandably hard to remove that negative image from people’s minds. Is Colombia safe?

But Paisas (this is what they call the people from that state of Antioquia where Medellin is located) wants to put this period of history behind them and move on to greener pastures of their life; one filled with the hope of a better life for them and their future generations. One filled with tourism for this upstart city which is about to take off. Is Colombia a safe country to visit?

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Medellin was the epicenter of drug industry twenty years ago dominated by cartel tycoon Pablo Escobar. The most renowned criminal of all time, “the cocaine king”, Pablo Escobar was Medellin, and Medellin was he to most people outside the country. He was widely feared by everyone throughout Medellin until the C.I.A funded an operation that helped Colombia’s military bring him down. And this was the end of the drug cartels along with him.

Two decades after Pablo Escobar was killed, Medellin is now moving on and reinventing what was once known as the world’s most dangerous and murderous city. It is no longer the epicentre of the global drug war. It is no longer a city which is unsafe for travelers. There has been a sharp decline of homicides in Medellin since the mid 90’s, and the city has been completely transformed. Is it safe to travel solo to Colombia?

Today Medellin is the most vibrant and innovative city in South America. From the mountains that surround the capital of Antioquia you can see how the Medellín River runs parallel to the Metro, which connects various parts of the city. There are an abundance of parks, libraries, museums and public spaces where many Cultural events take place. Flowers have their own fair and in the surrounding villages life is simple with relaxing landscapes and nature reserves. And for international travelers, the city is cheap.

Situated in a narrow valley, the weather tends to be pretty consistent throughout the year too. The temperature hovers anywhere between 65-85 F (18-30 C) which has earned the city the reputation of “City of Eternal Spring”.

Medellin Innovation

Beginning in the late 90’s the city has heavily invested in infrastructure, transportation, parks, educational centers that overall has contributed to a higher quality of life to the city residents. The city has seen many innovative changes that it’s not surprising that in 2013 Medellín was named the most innovative city in the world in the Wall Street Journal. Much of this credit goes to the former Mayor Luis Perez who initiated city-wide reform in 2000 and helped financed the metro cable systems. Solo travel to Medellin

In fact Medellin has one of the most reliable and cleanest metro systems in the world. The locals take great pride in this; is so important to Paisas that it has become a lifeline for them to feel proud of the city; a symbol to helps lift their spirits after having lived through a negative period of history.

The city also boasts the biggest outdoor public escalators in the world. It stretches 28 stories. The cable cars are both efficient and reliable. If you ever visit Medellin take a cable car ride to Arvi, which is located at the top of the hill.

If you ever visit Medellin take a cable car ride to Arvi, which is located at the top of the hill.

As a traveler, free wifi can be found in many metro stations, universities, parks and tourist locations. And biking is a fantastic way to get around. “Encicla” – is a free biking system for both residents and tourists.

The city features many paved bike paths, and there are car free street days every weekend where residents take advantage of the opportunity to go running or biking in the city (New York has this too, though only for 3 days out of each year). How to travel to Medellin safely

Where to Stay

Medellin has many neighborhoods to choose from when deciding where to stay, however my recommendation is to book in Laureles/Estadio. This is a quiet area of the city where you can mingle and interact with the local paisas and experience the true paisa life. Plus, the area is almost flat, so walking or biking is not tiresome as it would be to stay in other barrios like Envigado or Poblado. How to travel safely in Medellin as a solo travel.

In Laureles, find a place (either an Airbnb or a rental) close to Estadio so you can take advantage of the stadium close to the metro. Many of the services in Estadio like the running track, gym, tennis court and swimming pools are free to use regardless of your resident status. Solo travel Medellin Colombia

If looking for an authentic experience do not stay in Poblado. This is where most of the gringos end up going to live, so you’ll travel to Colombia and end up surrounded by expats as opposed to locals. Parque Lleras is another area to avoid; this is the center of Poblada and where you find drug vendors, call girls and prostitutes. Best things to do in Medellin Colombia

Transportation Tips

If you are visiting tourist attractions in the center of the city my advice would be take the metro after 9 am and return back before the peak time hits at 5 pm. The metro is packed during peak hours, and stops at midnight.

Alternatively, take the taxi to get around the city. Taxis in Medellin are both reliable and cheap. Another alternative would be Uber, which usually has English-speaking drivers that can help you to navigate the city.

It is understandable that solo travelers mat feel apprehensive about visiting Colombia for the first time. Take the free walking tour on your first day to get a feel for the neighborhoods and hear directly from a local travel guide on some safety tips. What to do in Medellin best things to do where to stay in Medellin

What to Eat

Medellin is host to the biggest collection of tropical fruits in the planet, and every lunch meal is served with fresh fruit juice. The typical “Menu del dia” (Menu of the day) comes with a 3-course meal for literally 3-4 USD.

Make a point to stop by either La Majorista (little further from the center) or La Minorista (only a cheap taxi ride from the center) to sample the amazing variety of fruits. The fruits are not only fresh and natural but also very cheap.

Things to Do

Parque Explora: travel guide to Medellin Colombia

This is a science and technology museum encompassing the largest aquarium in Latin America. The botanical gardens are full of exotic plants and trees which provide a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. The outdoor botanical garden is free, though there is an admission fee to enter the Parque Explora aquarium and technology experimental center. This is definitely worth your money and time.

Parque Arvi: Things to know before traveling to Medellin Colombia

Situated in the eastern slopes of Aburra Valley, Parque Arvi is the nearest vacation destination for local paisas. The ride to the top of the hill by cable car ride alone is worth taking this trip alone. Make sure to stop at Santo Domingo and walk around a little bit, though don’t go too deep into the favelas. Try some pastries and the tasty fried Empanadas.

How to get there? Take the metro train to Acevado station and then cable car to Santo Domingo and switch to another cable car that goes to Parque Arvi. Use metro card for both metro and cable car rides.

Feria de Las Flores (Flower festival): Colombia travel safety tips

Every summer (around early August) the city of Medellin hosts a week long festival to display its proud heritage of the variety of flowers that grow in and around the countryside. Usually there are fireworks, exotic flower displays, live music concerts and a road show of old vintage cars.

Santa Fe mall, one of the largest malls in South America usually has an interesting display of the flowers to celebrate this festival.

How to see the flower festival? Check the feria de flores official website for schedule of events and locations.

Guatape/Piedra del penol: How to stay safe in Colombia

These two places are a must visit for anyone who is visiting Medellin. Not only do you get an amazing view when you get to the top of Penol but also you can get a taste of the Colombian way of living while wandering the streets of Guatape. What are the best things to do in Medellin tourist attractions

The climb to the top of Penol is an easy hike if you are in decent shape. I did pass some of the local paisas stopping every 10 minutes to catch their breath, though you will not regret the climb once you get to the top of the rock.

Guatape is a colorful town with each house decorated and painted differently. There is a resoirvoir where you can take a ferry or a boar tide around the lake or take a zip line ride across the reservoir. Medellin tourist attractions

How to get there? Take the metro to Caribe station and then catch a bus from Terminal de Norte (about 2 hours) to Penol. Ask the driver to drop you off at the rock first. To avoid the tourist crowd try to get there before 10 am.

You can take the same bus from the Penol to Guatape. It takes additional 20-30 minutes. What to know about travel to Medellin tourist information

Paragliding: Am I safe traveling to Medellin?

Perhaps one of the best places to experience inexpensive paragliding in the world is Medellin. A 20 minute ride would cost you $35 including renting a GoPro camera + SD card. The view is breathtaking when you are almost 3000 feet above the valley. Medellin travel guide

How to get there? Take the metro to Caribe station and bus from Terminal De norte to San Felix. It takes about an hour to get there.

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Chan is an avid traveler and a tech enthusiast who has traveled to 5 continents and 40 countries in his lifetime. He quit his job last December to pursue his dream of traveling to the far corners of the world.

Based in New York, while traveling he does stock trading and blogging at Tayora.com. You can connect with Chan on Facebook and Twitter. You can read more of his guest posts on this blog on his author page.

Photo credits: Featured sunflowers by Luz Adriana Villa. Cruce de la Oriental con Ayacucho (first appearing Pinterest photo) by Iván Erre Jota. Cable cars by Marcelo Druck. Remaining photos by Chan Komagan.

    23 Comments

  1. I went to Medellin a couple of years ago, with similar comments from my friends of ‘isnt it dangerous’. It was an awesome and highly recommended experience.

    • So glad to hear that you had a fabulous experience too Wai. Amazing how much of a discrepancy there can be between the reputation of a place and reality!

  2. I’m saving up for a big Central and South America trip next year and Medellin is one place I’d really love to go. I hope to stay a month or more to study Spanish (one of my big life goals) and Medellin seems to be a popular choice for Spanish students. It’s nice to know that it’s not as unsafe as it sometimes is made out to be.

    • I’m sure you’ll have an absolutely fantastic time Natasha.

      Spending a month to study Spanish sounds great! I studied Spanish a little bit in Costa Rica, and it’s so much more effective learning a language when you’re in a native speaking country. Forces you to actually learn in order to communicate about day to day things :)

      Have a wonderful trip!

  3. I have not been to Medellin but would like to go – this looks fantastic. Guatape would definitely be on the list as well, it looks very bright and cheery.

    • I’ve been to Medellin twice and really love it there. The transportation is inexpensive so you don’t need a car but just be careful crossing the streets as the motorcycles come out of nowhere. I’d also recommend a trip to the coffee triangle (eje cafetero) which is about 3.5 hours from Medellin in one of the many comfortable regional buses.

    • Thanks for the tips Max – the coffee triangle sounds like a great day trip!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post. I grew up, like many, associating Colombia with the drug cartels only and, to my shame, until recently I never spent any time challenging what I knew about it. Then I saw the tv series ‘Narcos’ and somehow realised I hadn’t updated my brain for over 20 years! Now thanks to this post I also know how vibrant and innovative the city is – it sounds like a fantastic place to visit. Also, I keep saying to myself that one day I must try paragliding: wouldn’t it be great if I could associate Medellin with that, instead of its sad recent history?

    • So happy to hear that you enjoyed the post Marta and that we could update your perception of the city. It’s the way the human brain works I think, that once we have a negative stereotype in mind it’s very difficult to associate something with anything else.

      Crazy that one man could bring down the international reputation of a whole city, but Medellin has been working really hard to change that, and I do think they’re succeeding! Now we just have to spread the word!

      Hope you have the chance to visit in 2016, and hope you have the chance to try your hand at paragliding while there. happy travels!

  5. Incredible! I went to South America 10 years ago and back then it was unheard of to go to Columbia unless you were one of *those* travellers. Whether I was or not, my insurance didn’t take too kindly to it.

    We are planning our next big trip to Latin America for 2016 and this time round it’s a whole different kettle of fish as you pointed out. Columbia is HIGH up on my wish list. Annoyingly this time, it’s Venezuela the one to avoid.

    • So glad to hear that Colombia is on your list for 2016 – times really have changed, and it’s such a beautiful and diverse country to explore. I have a feeling that in the next 10 or so years it’s going to become very touristy as people realize how much of a gem it really is, so definitely recommend getting there while it’s still authentic and considered off the beaten path :)

      Hopefully Venezuela will come around soon too.

  6. Around 9 years ago when I was planning my first big solo trip, I decided to avoid Columbia and Honduras. There had been a lot of conflict and backpackers had been caught up in some of the issues (drugs and gang violence). It does seem to be much safer now or I’ve got more experience in travel so I would like to go. The buildings look so colourful, I love that South American culture and then there’s the stunning nature and delicious food. This post makes me feel like it would now be a place on my list. Thanks for the tips

    • Definitely much safer now – Medellin in particular has worked really hard to put that whole period of history behind them, and the violence is very much in the past.

      There is so much opportunity for an authentic experience of South American culture, of nature and of food, so it would be a shame to miss out because of negative misconceptions from 20 years ago.

      So glad to hear you’re planning a trip!

  7. I hadn’t previously been considering Medellin as a destination, and now after reading this, it’s on my radar. There is no higher compliment that I can give to a travel blog post. It’s reassuring to hear that travelling there would now be safe, and I had no idea that Medellin was such an interesting place with so many things to do (the “most innovative city” accolade is pretty cool too). And the airfares to get there from my home base of NYC are pretty cheap, providing me with a further reason to go; I also think that it would be nice to double-up and combine Medellin with Bogota in a visit to Colombia. I think I’ll skip the paragliding, though, as I’m afraid of heights. :) (for the same reason, the 28-story escalator would scare me). But I do think that it would be fun to climb to the top of Penol; I like places where you can get a commanding view of the city.

    • Thanks for reading my blog post Harvey.

      If you are afraid of paragliding you may not be interested in bungee jumping? :) In any case Medellin has a lot to offer. I might go back to Medellin next year. Bogota is not as good as Medellin in my opinion. Climbing up Penol was great although I didn’t like the traffic along the road (cars, tuk tuk etc) to the base of the steps. If you are going there make sure to leave early in the morning.

      If you want to explore Colombia more you should explore the northern coast. I plan to do another follow up post on the northern coast of Colombia like Santa Marta, Parque Tayrona and Cartegana. Stay tuned!

  8. I’m planning a solo trip through South-America as we speak. I’ve just started planning so nothing is decided yet, but people are already looking at me as if I were a crazy woman when I tell them about my plans in general. You’re so right for not letting comments like those stop you, I know they won’t stop me either!!

  9. Chan, thanks for all of the great info. Though I will say, after visiting Colombia, I didn’t have any organs. Or pianos. But in all seriousness, Colombia is one of my favorite countries, and Medellin is definitely my favorite city in Colombia. Thanks for spreading the word!

    • Glad to hear Colombia is one of your favorite countries Dan! And that Medellin is up there as your fav city too. I think if more people looked past the stereotypes the world media has given the country, they may just be surprised to find it’s one of their favorites too!

      Happy travels :)

  10. It is so good to be able to see a healthy, thriving city in a place that was one plagued with extreme violence. Thanks for sharing these tips and photos!

    • Absolutely Mary – hopefully the world can start to see the healthy, thriving city in place of the preconceived notions we’ve held onto from the past.

  11. It has to be my top travel destination for 2016, because I have been watching Narcos and I’m fascinated by this city. Today I´m most fascinated about how Medellín has emerged from its own ashes – reborn and released from the sentence of death and are now able to live on and competing with New York and Tel Aviv about being the most innovative city in the world. This I why I want to visit Medellín and to see how the Phoenix emerged from its own ashes.

    • I hope you do have the opportunity to visit in 2016 Pauline. It really is a city with such a phenomenal story of rebirth, and it’s fascinating to visit and witness what the city now is, knowing what it once was.

      Happy travels – enjoy your time in Medellin!

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