Medellín, Colombia is a true gem for those who can have to wisdom to not judge it by its sordid past. Casual observers often associate it with drug lord and narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar, who grew up in Medellín and based his operation there in the 1980s and 90s. Despite all that has changed since that bloody period, Medellín’s reputation is still (unfairly) tainted for many. The city has made a remarkable recovery and is now statistically safer than Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans.
A sequence of innovative and progressive local governments hastened the turnaround by investing in public transit, ecological parks, and other projects. Today, this city of 2.4 million people is one of the top digital nomad destinations in the entire world. Savvy travelers are attracted to Medellín because of its dynamism, affordability, exciting nightlife, and perfect climate. We spent over 2 months living there and liked it so much that we named it one of our top 4 best-value cities for long-term travel in 2020.
This article will cover what to know before you visit Medellín. We also made a handy visual map showing you a lot of the places mentioned in this series:
Why Stay in Medellín?
There are nearly endless reasons to visit Medellín. One of the first things that attracted us to the city was the strong digital nomad community there. Now, if you only have only a week or two to visit, this probably won’t matter to you. But for long-term travelers like us, finding a place to connect and socialize with other nomads is a rare opportunity. Medellín frequently ranks as the top digital nomad destination in the Western Hemisphere.
Medellín’s climate is perhaps the best we’ve experienced in the entire world. It’s called the “City of Eternal Spring” for good reason; the average temperature for each of the 12 months of the year is between 21.8°C (71°F) and 23.1°C (74°F). This is only possible because Medellín is situated at 1500 meters above sea level, yet very close to the equator. While this might get boring if you crave distinct seasons, it’s quite wonderful to be able to go out in practically anything and know you’re going to be comfortable.
There is a sense of optimism in Medellín that is infectious. The city has a lot of youthful energy and determination to overcome its tragic reputation from the cartel days. The locals really know how to party – the nightlife is truly world-class. The city is also a hub for tech startups and new coworking offices.
Finally, Medellín makes a good base for day trips and weekend getaways to nearby destinations. The watery paradise of Guatapé is an especially popular day trip just two hours to the east. This area was flooded in the 1970s as part of a hydroelectric dam project and today is sprinkled with beautiful (albeit artificial) lakes that you can explore and kayak. The famous coffee-growing region of Colombia is also close and makes an excellent weekend getaway.
The easiest way to get to Medellín from pretty much anywhere is to fly in. The mountains surrounding Medellín make it difficult (though not impossible) to approach by bus. If you want to get there overland, buses from the nearest large cities look as follows:
- Cali: 8.5 hours / $19-25 USD
- Bogotá: 12 hours / $18-27 USD
- Barranquilla: 14 hours / $18-50 USD
Prices from Rome2Rio, checked January 2020
Keep in mind, all of these involve navigating through winding mountain roads. Further, there is no overland connection between Panama and Colombia, which can be problematic if you are coming from the north.
If you decide to fly in, the easiest direct connections are from Miami, New York City, Lima, and Madrid. Most of these flights are on the airline Avianca. If you fly through Bogotá first, you can get to Medellín from many more cities.
Be aware that nearly all flights to Medellín arrive at José María Córdova International Airport in the neighboring town of Rionegro. This airport is about a 45-minute taxi ride away from the city center. This trip is not cheap on official taxis (fixed fare of about $25 USD). You can also take Uber for a slight discount (about $18 USD).
There is no functional rail system in Colombia.
As I mentioned earlier, the near-perfect tropical climate in the “City of Eternal Spring” is a big draw – especially if you are staying long-term. Not only is the average temperature in the 21°C-23°C range, but the daily lows and highs remain within a comfortable range. Lows only drop to about 17°C, while highs typically peak at 28°C regardless of the month of the year.
Medellín has a very green feel, which was refreshing to us coming from elsewhere in South America with very dry climates (Chile, Peru). Certain neighborhoods such as Laureles were covered with beautiful trees and lovely shade. We really appreciate city planning that incorporates nature. It helps our daily mood, we’ve found.
Of course, all this greenery wouldn’t be there without a healthy amount of rainfall. Medellín has quite a rainy climate with 1612 mm (63.5 inches) of annual average precipitation. The wettest months are May and October, while the driest months are December – February. We happened to be there throughout October and I remember many extremely heavy downpours.
Unfortunately, air quality is a problem in Medellín due in part to its geography. Being in a valley surrounded by mountains, pollution tends to stagnate in the city. In fact, Medellín ranks as the 9th most polluted city in Latin America according to the World Health Organization’s 2018 Ambient Air Quality Database. While not as bad as many other cities in Asia, this is something to consider if you are sensitive to air quality.
Best Time to Visit
Medellín, Colombia is one of only a handful of places in the world where the weather is perfect pretty much all year round. From a comfortable temperature perspective, it makes no difference which month of the year you choose to visit. However, staying in the December – February period is great because there is less rainfall and it makes a welcome respite from the winter cold of more northern countries. If meeting other foreigners is important to you, this is a good time to visit as well – it’s the most popular time of the year for nomads. As a bonus, you’ll get to experience the world-famous Christmas lights throughout the city, called El Alumbrado!
As the second largest city in Colombia, Medellín isn’t particularly sensitive to high and low tourist seasons. In fact, Medellín’s tourism isn’t a major part of Medellín’s economy. We enjoy traveling to such places as it is easier to blend in and live like a local.
Safety is Medellín is controversial. It’s hard to argue with the direction of the trend, however. According to Medicina Legal, Medellín had the largest drop in homicide rate of any city in Colombia from 2009-2015. During the 1990s, while Medellín was known as the murder capital of the world, the homicide rate was 375 per 100,000 residents. As of 2019, that figure is down to 24.75 per 100,000 residents – a remarkable improvement.
While violent crime is very unlikely, petty theft is more of a problem. Actual statistics are hard to come by, but there are plenty of stories of pickpocketing if you ask around. Still, if you practice common sense, you shouldn’t have any problems. Exercise the Colombian saying no dar papaya (“don’t give papaya”), which basically means that you shouldn’t make yourself an easy target for an opportunistic thief.
Subjectively speaking, we felt quite safe overall while living in Medellín. Linda reported a few “bad vibes” sort of situations, especially while she was out by herself. Colombian men seem to have a lot of horniness/machismo and have no qualms eyeing up solo female travelers. For this reason, we usually went out together. Our friends who were solo female travelers chose to stay with other expats and went out with them as well. They often chose not to go out alone at night.
Where to Stay
Medellín, Colombia is a massive city, and your experience there could either be fantastic or miserable depending on the part of town you choose to live in. Picking the right place to stay is probably more important here than it is for any other city we’ve written about.
Medellín is divided into 16 comunas (districts), which people often confuse with “neighborhoods.” These comunas are much larger than neighborhoods; in fact, each comuna is practically a city in and of itself. The largest, Robeldo, is home to over 175,000 people! The point is, if someone simply recommends staying in “El Poblado,” that’s not very specific. There are many smaller barrios (neighborhoods) within the comuna of El Poblado. In total, there are 271 official barrios in Medellín!
To be honest, we don’t really have the breadth of experience living in many different neighborhoods in Medellín. I can say with confidence, however, that we loved living in the Bolivariana neighborhood of the trendy Laureles-Estadio district. We stayed there for the entire 2.5 months of our time in Medellín. This area offered a good balance of excitement and practicality. There were numerous supermarkets, bars, and cafés nearby. It had the best of Laureles within walking distance while also being within walking distance of the Estadio Metro Station and the Estadio Atanasio Girardot complex itself (for exercise).
We really liked the Laureles comuna overall because it was flat (easy for walking), green, safe, and relatively quiet. Some neighborhoods in Laureles further south and west of Bolivariana were a bit far from the metro line, though they would otherwise be great for living.
The other comuna you’ll hear mentioned often is El Poblado. This is historically the epicenter of tourist/expat community in Medellín. If you want to rub elbows with other foreigners, El Poblado may be for you. The most popular specific barrio is also called El Poblado (or El Pobablo Central), and Parque Lleras is its focal point. All the most trendy bars, clubs, and restaurants are located here.
There are a few downsides to living in El Poblado. For one, it is very hilly, which makes walking around on a regular basis a chore. Second, as the main expat area, you do tend to get hassled more by street vendors and buskers. We’ve heard that pickpocketers like to target foreigners in this area as well. Finally, it is easily the most expensive place to live in Medellín. If you’re on a budget, your cost of living will be substantially lower elsewhere in the city.
We visited El Poblado often while living in Medellín. The nightlife and restaurants there are indisputably the best in the city. However, we were happy to be based in Laureles and just pop into El Poblado occasionally.
La Candelaria (Downtown)
Normally, the downtown area of a city is a rock-solid choice for living. In Medellín, though, it’s best to be based elsewhere. The downtown district, La Candelaria, is the least safe comuna by far in all of Medellín. It’s a shame because there are many interesting landmarks and museums downtown. It’s certainly worth checking out (in the daytime), but for accommodation, we highly recommend looking elsewhere.
Technically an entirely different city, Envigado has been swallowed up by Medellín’s expansion over the years. This is a popular place to live for foreigners who want something quieter with a smaller town feel. While not as “sexy” as Laureles or El Poblado, it is definitely safer and more affordable. Crucially, it’s still connected to the other parts of Medellín via the metro line. We did not end up visiting Envigado ourselves while living in Medellín but heard good things about it from others.
There are actually many distinct neighborhoods within Envigado: El Dorado, Northern Envigado, and Central Envigado. For a lot more detailed information on these neighborhoods and others in Medellín, check out The Unconventional Route’s excellent neighborhood guide.