MEDELLÍN, Colombia — At the beginning of every school year, we were told to put pencil to paper and compose the dreaded “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay. Teachers had the moxie to turn vacation into homework. Even worse, I’d then have to hear how every kid in class had a better vacation than I did.
My essays were inevitably about staying in campgrounds where large families of spiders occupied the coin-operated showers. Pools at these sorts of campgrounds hadn’t been cleaned since the Captain and Tennille ruled the airwaves.
That’s a very long lead-up to explain that this story is an adult version of “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” When I went to Medellín, the second-largest city in Colombia, earlier this year, it was purely for leisure. My trusty reporter’s notebook was back home, and my cerebral cortex was switched to airplane mode.
I was adamant I would not be writing about it.
I didn’t even have a hand in planning the trip. Most of it came together in group text exchanges between my travel companions. When you’re a travel writer who’s going on vacation, the last thing you want to do is plan another trip.
But after vacation, I felt a nagging need to share the experience. I unexpectedly fell in love with Medellín. I went from “How do you pronounce Medellín?” to “Maybe I should write about Medellín.” In case you’re wondering, locals pronounce it “meh-duh-jeen.” It’s hard not to love a city perched in the Andes where every day feels like spring — Medellín is called “The City of Eternal Spring” — the flowers are always blossoming, and the exchange rate is very favorable to the US dollar.
Last month, Avianca brought back its Boston-to-Bogota direct flight. Medellín is a one-hour flight from Bogota. If you opt to fly Avianca, make sure you bring a mask. The airline still requires them. Colombia also requires travelers to show proof of vaccination to enter the country.
Before diving into my halcyon vacation memories, let’s clarify one important issue: Medellín is safe. At least as safe as any other major South American city if you’re a smart, savvy traveler.
Gone are the days when Medellín (and the rest of Colombia) was riddled with warring drug cartels, constant kidnappings, and internal terrorism. The city was the home base of Pablo Escobar, but the most prominent remnant of the drug lord’s reign is the growing herd of cocaine hippos that he left behind. Medellín does not look like the Netflix series “Narcos.” I know this firsthand because I constantly searched for Pedro Pascal while there.
We’ve established what it isn’t. Now it’s time to establish what it is. Medellín is a thriving, bustling, worldly, colorful, inexpensive, easy-to-navigate city with a diverse culinary scene and a lot of nightlife. I learned about the nightlife shortly after our arrival when we checked into the Marquee Hotel Medellín.
Our hotel was in the heart of the very lively El Poblado neighborhood. This particular street was so high-spirited and raucous that I could hear the thump of the music from nearby clubs reverberating inside my sixth-floor hotel room. I liked the hotel, especially the rooftop bar, and pool, but I recommend something quieter if you go, such as the Hotel Poblado Alejandria, Hotel du Parc, or the Somos. You can easily book a room at some of the nicest hotels in the city for under $150 a night.
You’ll want to stay in (or near) El Poblado for convenience. There are hundreds of restaurants and bars here. From traditional Colombian restaurants (try Mondongo’s for the steaks, and, of course, the mondongo) to cool bars where DJs spin old records and mixologists make fancy-pantalones cocktails (head directly to Siete Pulgadas Listening Bar for a Viche Sour and thank me later).
The epicenter of nightlife in El Poblado can be found around Parque Lleras. It’s often referred to as Zona Rosa (the entertainment district) in guidebooks.
There’s also Provenza, a vast pedestrian stretch in El Poblado lined with restaurants and bars that spill out into the street. When I was there, everyone in Provenza was watching the Super Bowl, but I soon realized they were mostly waiting for Rihanna to perform. The burgers, tacos, seafood, and steaks are plentiful here, along with sports bars and coffee shops. It’s a bit like a food hall, except every eatery is full-sized.
I didn’t spend my entire trip eating and drinking (stop judging, it was vacation); I also partook in the culture. One of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of Medellín is to ride the urban cable cars. These were not designed for tourists. Medellín is a hilly city, and traditionally, poorer residents lived in barrios in the hills. The Metrocable system was built to allow residents who live in areas that were previously not served by public transportation an opportunity to reach the city center where more job opportunities exist.
For visitors, these gondolas offer stunning views on the cheap. The most popular brings you up to Comuna 13. This was once Medellín’s most notorious and dangerous neighborhood. People were afraid to leave their homes because the area was occupied by Escobar loyalists and violence was common. The military conducted the controversial Operation Orion in 2002, sweeping out the rebels that dominated and terrorized the area.
Two decades later, thanks to the cable cars and a series of covered escalators that take people further up into the hills, the area is now a tourist attraction. It’s gone from the most dangerous to the most Instagrammable neighborhood. Hip-hop culture is one big reason for the change. A community center, called Casa Kolacho, offers free classes in rap, graffiti art, breakdancing, DJing, and English for kids in Comuna 13. Now, tens of thousands of tourists make the trip to see the street art every year and listen to locals perform hip-hop.
This is a trip you can easily make yourself by public transport for under $2. The majority of people I saw the day I was in Comuna 13 had hired guides, which are easy to find on sites such as getyourguide.com, tripadvisor.com, or viator.com.
For more traditionally-minded al fresco art enthusiasts, there is Botero Plaza. The square is home to nearly two dozen bronze sculptures by Colombia’s best-loved sculptor, Fernando Botero. The sculptor, who turns 91 this month, playfully supersizes his subjects, making even cats, horses, and Roman soldiers look voluptuous. The next time you see a friend who may have gained a couple of pounds, tell them they have an air of Boterismo about them.
The Museo de Antioquia faces the plaza, and houses more of Botero’s artwork, as well as other Latin artists. Entrance is free. I also visited the very minimalist Museum of Modern Art (Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín), and the kid-friendly Parque Explora, which contains an aquarium, planetarium, and science museum. Next to the Parque Explora is the city’s botanical garden (Jardin Botanico), which offers a sliver of serenity.
There’s more serenity at El Castillo Museum and Gardens. The European-style Gothic mansion was built in 1930 and houses a jumble of objects ranging from paintings by Colombian masters to china and porcelain from European manufacturers. Also, a lot of creepy old dolls. But the finest feature of El Castillo is the gardens. Grab some food in El Poblado and take an Uber to El Castillo for a picnic. Using Uber in Colombia is incredibly inexpensive compared to in the United States. The 10-minute ride from El Poblado to El Costillo will cost around $2.
There is plenty to do in Medellín proper, but if you’re here for three or more days, make sure you take the roughly two-hour trip to Guatapé and El Peñól. Guatapé may be the most colorful small town in Colombia. Every home and business is painted in vibrant hues. The bottom panels along the exterior walls — called zocalos — are friezes that depict animals, symbols important to the region, landscapes, or serve as advertisements of what a business sells. No one seems to have a clear idea of how this tradition started. So I stopped asking and simply enjoyed the artistry.
About 15 minutes from the center of Guatapé is El Peñól de Guatapé. El Peñól, which means the peak, is easier to explain than the zocalos. It’s a 656-foot high granite rock that offers some pretty spectacular views of the nearby reservoir. In order to get to those views, you need to walk up 700 steps. It’s a good workout for indolent vacationers such as myself.
By the time I huffed and sweated my way to the top, I could justify that evening’s Arequipe crepes (Arequipe is dulce de leche’s Colombian cousin) and perhaps the second glass of wine. Between climbing the 700 steps up El Peñól and the wine, I had no trouble sleeping that night, even with the bass from nearby clubs thumping through my hotel room at all hours.
And now, I can proudly say, that’s how I spent my vacation. For some reason, this assignment was much more fun to write as an adult than it was when I was in school. Perhaps because, unlike my childhood vacations, there were no spiders in the shower and hotel pools were much cleaner.