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”.
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.
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
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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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.