Throughout my travels in Colombia, if you were to ask me what my favourite stop was, I would say without question, Medellin. The second you arrive, you're captivated by its expansive hilly landscape, variety of foliage, and modernized highways and tunnels. Medellin has a troubled past, some incidences as recently as 2016, but the city has flourished into what I can only describe as a Colombian haven. I would suggest giving yourself at least a week here if you can, but you can still see and do a lot if your time is limited.
Take a Free Walking Tour
Many hostels offer free city walking tours (it is customary to offer your guide a tip at the end of the tour), and I highly suggest booking yourself one. The tour takes about 3-4 hours and you get to experience everything from the catastrophic history of Medellin in the 80s/90s to its modern-day resurgence, stunning examples of colonial and Latin architecture, as well as experience public transit to get a truly local experience. Some highlights of the walking tour for me were Plaza San Antonio with the Fernando Botero sculptures, Plazuela San Ignacio, and Botero Square with the Palace of Culture (pictured below).
Visit Communa 13
No trip to Medellin is complete without a visit to Communa 13. Once one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods on earth, Communa 13 is now a bustling art district, with a focus on street art, rap, and break dancing. The energy that coats the streets is electric - this is an activity that I 100% say to get a guide for, specifically a local guide who is born and raised in the communa (Sergio on Air BnB experiences was FANTASTIC). This way, you get an in-depth look into how Communa 13 has grown over the years, and you also get to visit your guides friends' shops along the tour and support local - we visited a coffee shop, had a custom freestyle rapping experience, tried the local sherbert ice cream, and even got an opportunity to add our own graffiti onto a wall.
We even got to meet and speak to a local woman who, now in her 70s, has been born and raised in the Communa and has seen the rise, fall, and rise again of the area. In addition to amazing views in both the cable car and walking the district itself, it's humbling to witness so much strength from the locals and see the neighbourhood that they have been able to revive after such devastation in the years before.
Day Trip to Guatape
Guatape is another MUST if you are staying in Medellin. If you can, there are lovely cottages you can rent on the lakes to stay a night or two, but a day trip will suffice as well. Our day started early and we first visited a replica of the town of Penol. The town was flooded to make way for a new dam system and left many residents displaced. The flooding to build the hydro system is what has resulted in the lakes Guatape has today. While the story is devastating in and of itself, you can't deny the beauty that the lakes now possess over the landscape.
After Penol, we vistited the town center of Guatape. This little rainbow town is filled with shops, cafes, and artwork. I don't think I've ever visited a place as unique and ornate as this. The locals are also all extremely friendly, and my walk around Guatape really was a highlight of my time in Medellin.
Next, we boarded a boat and went and visited one of the native clay islands. We learnt about some of the unique flora on the islands since they house their own subtropical climate different from the rest of the area. After some time to relax and take a dip in the lake, we headed back to the mainland for lunch.
We got to enjoy a 15-course meal (yes, literally) at a locals home. I'm talking everything from chickpea salads, to tuna ceviche, to beef and rice and everything in-between. How this woman was able to prepare such an expansive meal for a group of us on her own is beyond my own scope of understanding, but it was delicious and a unique experience I will not forget.
Naturally, after any 15-course meal, we then proceeded to a hike (cue cramp city). Our last stop on the tour was to the infamous La Piedra rock. Standing 200 mts tall at 2137mts above sea level, the stone is comprised of granite, quartz and feldspar, and is a whopping 700 steps to the top. While it is a bit of a challenge, the views from the top are absolutely worth it.
You get a panoramic view of the lakes that surround Guatape, the stunning cottages, and eagles soaring about. All in all, a day trip or a stay in Guatape should be on everyone's Colombia bucket list.
El Poblado District
I stayed in El Poblado during my stay. It's popular among tourists and therefore hosts many hostels, bars and restaurants. There is something so unique about this neighbourhood that's unlike anything I've ever seen. There is such a variety of trees, flowers and plants, meaning naturally it is engulfed with butterflies and different insect and bird species living harmoniously together. It's clean and charming and surrounds the stunning Ballerina Park, with rivers, outdoor gyms, and shady areas to sit and watch the day pass by. El Poblado feels like an oasis in the middle of a big city, and there are many rooftop bars where you can visit and really marvel at the views of Medellin valley and the mountain peaks that surround it.
Hija is a fantastic breakfast/lunch spot (the avocado toast was *chefs kiss*), and Mamacita has the best bandeja paisa in town. Bandeja Paisa is a local dish comprised of beans, rice, arepa, potatoes, beef, avocado, sausage and a fried egg on top. Honestly, I'm probably missing some ingredients as well because this dish was stacked, so be prepared for a food coma afterwards. I also went a couple of nights to this great taco joint just left of Los Patios Boutique Hotel, but I never wrote down the name of it *punches air*.
There is so much more that you can see and do in Medellin, but if you are limited with time, these experiences are my top recommendations.