Medellín, Colombia: A Cheap Break From Panama City’s Heat
Medellín, Colombia is no longer the dangerous playground of drug lord Pablo Escobar. Fast forward to today and it’s now a world-class city that has been voted as The Most Innovative City Of The Year. It’s filled with culture, great food, super-friendly people, and year-round perfect weather.
I recently returned to Panama from my 4th trip to Colombia and it was my 2nd time going to Medellín. I first visited this city in 2013 and I’ve been wanting to return sooner but ended up doing two trips to Bogotá last year instead. After spending a lot of time in Colombia’s two largest cities I’ve decided that I like Medellín just a little bit more but they are both worth a visit.
Why You Need To See Medellín
- Really beautiful and pleasant city to spend time in. I’ve never seen a major city covered in so many trees!
- The year-round springtime climate with an average high of 28°C (82°F) and a low of 17°C (63°F) is a nice break from Panama City’s heat and humidity
- Extremely affordable compared to Panama City because of the current U.S. Dollar – Colombian Peso exchange rate
- Excellent nightlife, restaurants, and shopping
When To Go
There are two times of year that are really special to go to Medellín: The Flower Festival (July 26 – August 9) and The Festival Of Lights (November 29 – January 12). Unfortunately I haven’t been during these times yet, but it’s on my bucket list.
There isn’t really a bad time to go to Medellín. But similar to Panama, you might want to avoid weekends that fall on national holidays because many people leave the city to go their fincas and you may find several businesses closed. If a holiday falls during the week it is moved to the following Monday to allow a long weekend. Visit THIS LINK for a full list of holidays.
Several airlines including Copa, Avianca, Air Panama (from Albrook Airport), and Viva Colombia (from Panama Pacifico Airport) offer direct flights to Medellín so you have to shop around for the best price because they can vary drastically. For my recent trip I used Viva Colombia because they had round trip tickets for the bargain price of $120, while the other airlines were priced around $350 for the dates I needed to go.
$120 is the base price and only includes a small bag under the seat, so if you want to check in luggage or have an overhead compartment carry on, it’s an additional $40 (which still isn’t bad).
I’ve used Viva Colombia three times and I often get asked about my experience. It’s a budget airline and they charge for every little extra thing, but I’m in my 20’s and always on a budget so for me the price is worth any inconveniences. If money isn’t an issue for you then go with one of the other airlines because the experience will be better.
Heads up! December 2014, Colombia began imposing a $15 tourist entrance fee. I had to pay this at the Viva Colombia counter before boarding the plane but the other airlines may work this into the ticket price. Also, if you are Canadian it kind of sucks for you. Colombia also recently began charging Canadians an $80 entrance fee in response to Canada making Colombians pay an $80 entrance fee when entering the country.
The official currency of Colombia is Colombian Pesos (COP) with a current exchange rate of 2,700 COP = 1 U.S. Dollar.
Do not exchange your money at the airport! Well seasoned travelers know that airports almost always give you a bad exchange rate. My go-to spot for exchanging money before a trip is at Veneto Exchange on Via Veneto. They give you pretty much the same rate that you will find on the Internet.
Or if you have a debit card that doesn’t charge ATM or international transaction fees it’s better to take money from the ATM once you arrive to Colombia.
Taxi: A taxi from the international airport to Medellín takes around 45 minutes and is at a set rate of 60,000 COP (approx. $22). The nice thing about Medellín is that it actually has proper street names and addresses so you can give the address of where you are staying to your taxi driver and he will know where to go.
Shuttle: If your traveling solo and want to save a bit of money there’s also a shuttle bus option that runs until 9PM. The cost of this is 7,000 COP (approx. $2.55) and will drop you off near the San Diego mall. From here you can take a cheap taxi to where you are staying.
Uber: Uber also works in Medellín and they usually have a few cars waiting at the airport. There is free wifi at the airport so you will be able to call a driver with your smartphone. New Uber users can use discount code uberptylife to save $10 on your first ride.
Where To Stay
For a first visit to Medellín I think El Poblado is the best neighborhood of the city to stay in and it’s where you will find the lots of great restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. Specifically somewhere near Parque Lleras is where a lot of the action is.
Hostels: I stayed at a new hostel in Parque Lleras called Garden of Blues for around $10 a night – breakfast included (normally eggs, toast, and coffee). I would definitely stay there again because the location was central, beds were comfortable, friendly staff, and everything was clean (they even made the beds everyday). A few other good hostels to check out are Happy Buddhah Boutique Hostel, Geo Hostel, and Hostel Lleras Calle 8.
Short-Term Apartments: Staying in an apartment in Medellín is another accommodation option and comes with a few perks like privacy, a kitchen, and you get a more local feel to what it’s actually like to live there. Airbnb and The Apartment Medellín are full of short-term apartment rentals.
Things To Do In Medellín
Free Walking Tour: Real City Tours provides a unique and local experience of Medellín through storytelling during the Free Walking Tour (based on tips) through El Centro. I really wanted to go on this tour during my visit but it was fully booked so be sure to reserve your spot as soon as you can!
Pueblito Paisa: This provides a glimpse of what a traditional Antioquia village looks like and a good spot to get souvenirs and try traditional street food. But the best part is the panoramic view of Medellín.
Metro Cable: The Metro Cable is a gondola lift system that connects some of the poorer areas of Medellín located at the top of the valley to the center and is one of the reasons Medellín was voted Innovative City Of The Year. It also makes a cheap tourist attraction because you can ride it to the top and get a great view of Medellín. Take the Metro in the direction of Niquía, get off at the Acevedo stop, and transfer to the Santo Domingo Metro Cable.
Plaza Botero: View 23 sculptures by one of Colombia’s most famous artists – Fernando Botero. Accessible via the Parque Berrio Metro Station.
Pablo Escobar Tour: This is an intense tour and it’s not something that you want to mention to locals that you are going on. Pablo Escobar reigned terror on the Colombian population and they do not like to be reminded of those times. But as an outsider I think it’s important to learn the history of where you are visiting (whether it’s good or bad) so this is a tour worth going on.
Jardín Botanico: Take a relaxing stroll through Medellín’s botanical gardens. Accessible via the Universidad metro stop.
Shopping: El Tesero, Santa Fe, and Oviedo located in El Poblado are home to some of Medellín’s best shopping.
Ciclovia: Every Sunday from 7am to 1pm the main road in El Poblado is closed to allow people to bike, run, or do anything else they want. There are a few places to rent bikes along the road so you can do that or just go for a run.
Have dinner at El Mirador De Las Palmas: Take a taxi ride up to El Mirador De Las Palmas at night for an amazing view of the city and lots of street vendors selling delicious and affordable food. I had a large steak, arepa, potatoes, and a beer for under $5.
Picnic at the park: Grab a bottle of wine, snacks, and a few friends and spend a Saturday afternoon at one of Medellín’s beautiful parks. During my recent trip I went to the park at Ciudad del Rio and it was a fun way to pass the day and be surrounded by locals.
Medellín Bike Tour: This bike tour is a great way to cover visiting several of the above activities I mentioned plus you will get to visit several other sites while having a guide explain everything to you. Visit their website for more details.
I found eating out to be extremely affordable compared to Panama City. For example, one night I ordered a gourmet burger, fries, and a beer at a trendy Parque Lleras restaurant called Vintrash for $8.60 – and that includes tax and tip. A gourmet burger and beer at a trendy restaurant in Panama City can easily cost $15 – $20 after throwing the tax and tip in there.
I also ate at a new (and really good) pasta place that a few Italian guys opened next to my hostel for $3.30 – that included a good portion of pasta with fresh ingredients and a drink. You can’t even eat at a fonda in Panama City for that price anymore.
For restaurants, Parque Lleras is covered in them so you can walk around until you find one you like. For more high-end dining options check out the restaurants in Rio Sur (also located in El Poblado).
Drinking in public is legal in Colombia and everyone does it, so the best way to start the night is to do it like a local. Go to your nearest liquor store and buy a bottle of booze or Aguardiente (if you want to really be local), mixers, cups, and a bag of ice then head over to Parque Lleras and pick a spot on the steps to drink. After a few drinks head over to one of the many surrounding bars.
Cover charges at a current hotspot typically cost 15,000 – 20,000 COP ($6-$7). Comparing this to Panama City a new bar or nightclub will usually charge $10-$20 to enter.
If you like electronic music Salón Amador in Parque Lleras is one of the current spots to go. My friends and I went there on Friday night and the DJ played a good set of deep house music and it was packed with a good crowd. For high-end partying and some of Medellín’s best nightclubs be sure to check out the nightclubs at Rio Sur. Medellín Living also offers a good comprehensive list of all the nightlife options.
Have a good trip! If you have any questions about Medellín or any tips you would like to add, leave a comment below.