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Why Medellín Will Become Your Dream City

Anyone with a smidge of intuition would quickly realize that the paisas (the locals) are on a mission. They’re determined to transform the image of what was once one of the world’s most dangerous cities into one of its most innovative.

Iulia Hau
Iulia Hau

As I wandered its streets, trying to articulate what this city evoked in me, a young Camel (cigarette brand) employee approached me. Our conversation was interrupted by a passerby who, hearing my accent, stopped and candidly asked, “You’re not from here, are you? What do you think of Medellín? Isn’t it different from what people say?”

This travel journal snippet captures the essence of arriving in Medellín. Anyone would quickly realize that the paisas (city’s residents) are eager to change the city’s image, once considered one of the most dangerous in the world, to now one of the most innovative. The increasing number of travelers is proof to locals that they’re on the right track.

Being in Medellín, you’ll undoubtedly draw envious glances. The real challenge arises when you start contemplating how you can stay in this city forever.

1. Rumor Has It: Colombia's Smartest City

Once a notorious and shady place, Plaza de las Luces is now a prime example of urban transformation. The term “smartest city” doesn’t refer to the average IQ of its citizens or students’ PISA scores. Instead, it’s about the palpable innovation and the city’s drive to catch up with developed nations. Medellín exudes a passion to overcome its challenging past and embrace modern civilization.

Medellín is Pablo Escobar’s birthplace, which speaks volumes about its violent history and the terror older generations experienced. But it also highlights the collective consciousness and individual ambition of Colombians to transform the city they call home.

Among many initiatives, they’ve created an online platform for residents to suggest solutions to various issues and propose city needs. By July 2017, the platform already had 11,000 initiatives.

2. The Metrocable: More than Just Transportation and a Tourist Attraction

For many city residents, this is the only way to reach the city center. Any paisa you ask for tourist advice will direct you to this cable car system, a local pride. As you ascend, leaving behind the city center nestled in the Aburra Valley, you’ll see the vast urban sprawl covering steep hillsides, areas inaccessible by other public transport.

The ride offers glimpses into the city’s most dangerous and impoverished areas. The hillside settlements and lack of infrastructure reveal why they are disadvantaged neighborhoods where police presence and safety are luxuries. Realize the significance of this metro cable system, providing marginalized neighborhoods like Santo Domingo access to central areas without an entire day’s journey. This is yet another testament to Medellín’s innovative spirit.

At the journey’s end, atop the hill, you’ll be greeted by a bustling artisanal market, inviting you to savor Antioquia flavors before embarking on an eco-tour.

3. The Metro's Story Will Bring Tears to Your Eyes

Colombia’s only metro and Antioquia’s national pride. The metro, inaugurated in November 1995, quickly became a unifying factor for residents. Why? Because it was built during the darkest times, amidst the violence of drug cartels, when bombings, gunshots, and daylight terror were the norm.

This metro has always symbolized the residents’ resilience and determination to move forward despite adversity. In the Medellín metro, you won’t find any graffiti or signs of disrespect. It’s a place where people stand up for the elderly or women with children. The metro symbolizes the city’s ability to rise and fight against its darkest times. You’ll often hear announcements encouraging citizens to behave everywhere as they do in the metro, emphasizing collective responsibility. Locally, this is termed “metro culture.”

4. Real City Tour - Free Walking Tour

By far, the most impactful free walking tour ever! Words can’t describe the profound impact of this three-hour tour. It’s one of the highest-rated tours on Trip Advisor, with countless rave reviews. I’d argue that if every city had such a tour, the world would be a better place. Start your Medellín exploration with this experience to truly understand the city’s transformations.

5. The Story of Moravia Neighborhood

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A bird’s-eye view of one of Medellín’s poorest neighborhoods. This story was shared by a young guide from Real City Tour, a native of Moravia. Some claim it’s the best tour they’ve experienced in Colombia, likely those with strong, alternative viewpoints.

Moravia offers a different side of Medellín, not showcased in every tourist brochure. It’s a testament to the city’s relentless drive for progress and betterment. Moravia was built on the city’s former landfill, later used as a dumping ground for bodies during the height of drug trafficking. In 1990, it was declared a special intervention area, and 15 years later, a public calamity zone due to soil instability and toxic gas emissions.

This is the backdrop. The gravity of the situation is clear, right? This was the starting point for the area’s restoration. While there’s still a long way to go, Moravia is now brimming with urban art, attracts 3,000 tourists annually, and the toxic gas issue was addressed by building the city’s largest garden.

6. Comuna 13: A Symbolic Tale

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Comuna 13 is not just another example of transformation; it’s THE example! This district was once one of Medellín’s most dangerous areas, reflecting the city’s violent past. Just a few years ago, tourists wouldn’t dare approach it. Now, it’s synonymous with urban art, street performances, and guided tours.

Despite its transformation, it still faces challenges, making it essential to visit with a local guide. The tours focus on hope, looking forward to a brighter future and transformation. A portion of the tour fee goes back to the community.

7. El Parque Periodista in Medellín

After spending a few days here, your Whatsapp will likely be flooded with new contacts. This park is the epitome of bohemian, authentic, and diverse Medellín. On weekends, it’s bustling, and during the week, it’s filled with the sweet sound of guitars and a familiar, albeit forbidden, aroma. The student-like atmosphere will remind you of youthful days when everything seemed possible.

8. Day Trips Outside the City

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The view from Piedra de Peñol (Guatapé): a giant monolith attracting thousands annually. After a wild night, you might crave some purification. Guatapé, just two hours by bus from Medellín, boasts vibrant colonial architecture that reminds you you’re in Latin America. Indulge in a hearty bandeja paisa and then hike to the base of Piedra de Peñol. Many tuk-tuk drivers will tempt you with a ride, but resist. Not just because you’ll need one for the return trip after climbing the monolith, but because the journey itself is a romantic adventure.

9. Barrios Laureles and El Poblado

Undoubtedly, the city’s pampered areas.

Many accusations are constantly thrown at these two neighborhoods: that here you can’t find the true Colombian essence even with a magnifying glass, that you constantly encounter Americans, Europeans, and blond heads, that these are places that belong to tourism and nothing more. Don’t expect me to deny it, it’s true, but that doesn’t detract from their beauty and charm in the slightest.

Most likely, you’ll stay in one of them, but whatever you choose, make sure you don’t miss the other. Being areas that have bet on tourism, here you can expect a culture of modern cafes, colorful bars, vegan and vegetarian food, lush vegetation, and lights that shine all night in the urban trees. Pleasant and safe walks at any of the 24 hours and endless opportunities to meet travelers from the same story as you, eager to offer recommendations and chat about anything and everything.

*Other evidence of innovation and rebirth is represented by the works of urban architect Felipe Uribe de Bedout, who transformed Plaza Cisneros (also known as Plaza de las Luces, or the Square of Lights), along with the EPM Library, from a dark area belonging to prostitutes, traffickers, and junkies, into a cultural and architectural creativity zone.

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