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Medellin (med-uh-jean) is a city in Colombia. You can fly there directly from overseas, jump on a domestic flight or hop on a bus, and since I don't do well on long bus rides I chose the middle option, getting a return flight from Bogota for about £70 return. I justified this expense because I only had limited time (I work until 1pm on Saturdays, and am then back in at 6.30am on Tuesdays) and the flight takes less than an hour.
Flying into Medellin you arrive at either the big, international airport or the smaller, more central one. I was on a domestic flight but still arrived at the former, so jumped on the bus into the centre. This costs $7000, takes about an hour, and stops near the Prado metro stop. Busses leave once they're full, and at least every 15 minutes from what I could tell. The return trip leaves from the place where you're dropped off, handily outside a yummy Panaderia and also near an excellent pizza place, so take your pick if you've time to kill before your bus back.
When Climate Change Is A Good Thing
If your idea of South America is hot, sultry landscapes, then Medellin is the place to be. The contrast between here and Bogota is extreme - one is sunny and warm, the other cold and wet. I was a little caught out by quite how hot it was, and having caught the sun on my first day, resorted to slathering my SPF face cream on my arms for day 2, but this was a changing climate I was thrilled about. It's perfect sightseeing weather, and I took advantage of it by walking to most of my destinations. The city is reasonably compact and although the metro is cheap, if you're willing to stroll a couple of kilometres in the sunshine, you can easily do without it for all but the most far flung destinations.
It's The Journey....Not The Destination
One of the unintentional highlights of Medellin has to be the MetroCable - the part of the public transport system where the normal metro turns into cable cars that whizz up above the poorer, hilly neighbourhoods. You can get on without buying a new ticket if you're already in the system, and the views are amazing. To the north there are several stops, or you can stay on and transfer to the second stretch that goes over to a nature reserve for a small supplement. There is another line in the west with similar views - I did both but then I really do like cable cars. It confuses me that some people don't. After translating for a monolingual but vaguely cute American at the Museum of Modern Art, he turned to me and asked what else I would recommend. I said a trip on the cable car and he pulled a face and said "Er, no". After that he didn't seem so cute any more.
I T'ought I T'Aw A Tubby Tat....I Did! I Did!
I went to the Museum of Modern Art even though it cost a relatively extortionate $7000 and even though the Bogota version was a let down. Unfortunately this one was too, and I would find it hard to recommend it. There are only 3 rooms in use at present, and the work is vaguely modern but not really art. If you're after some pretty things to look at, I would recommend either the (free) Museo de Antioquia or the (equally free) Sculpture Park right outside. Both show Botero's work (weird Colombian artist who likes things fat - chubby horses, tubby cats, rotund women, even a rounded Mona Lisa) though the museum features others' pieces too including some fabulous murals, and photos (without flash) are allowed.
The Cerro de Nutibara is a short walk from the metro. It's a small hill you can climb, with a sculpture trail on its slopes, and the Pueblito Paisa at the top. This is a sort of recreated old fashioned village - a bit cheesy but still a nice representation of what the city might have looked like before Dunkin Donuts and Dominos arrived. Entrance is free and prices for food and drink are only a little inflated, though choices are limited (they don't run to diet drinks). The view from the top is also lovely if you don't fancy the cable car (or want to see things from a different angle). There's also a tourist bus that circles the hill, and taxis loiter at the top, but I enjoyed going both up and down by foot.
Footloose and Fancy Free
I asked one of my classes what they would recommend doing in Medellin, and several students mentioned Parque de los Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Park) an 'innovative' attraction in the city centre. There is very little information about it online, and it was hard to find a confirmed address or the opening hours, but I knew it was free and decided to see if I could find it. The Metro in Medellin has announcements in English and Spanish, and tells you where to get off for key attractions. However, the stop marked for Barefoot Park is not super near it, and I wandered aimlessly for a while as it's not signed either. When I got there I was quite disappointed. The idea is to have a space with different textures underfoot which let you reconnect with nature when you shed your shoes. While this sounds ok in theory, I wasn't bothered about the sand or the fountains (which were overrun with children anyway) but since I couldn't find the bark areas (the park is quite spread out over several areas) I ended up walking over pebbles which couldn't have been more painful if they were hot coals. It's a nice idea, but in reality it was a bit of a letdown and I wouldn't recommend unless you have a ton of time to kill.
Where is all the knowledge we lost with information? - T.S. Eliot
The main Tourist Info office is not open at weekends. There are a few satellite ones, including one at Cerro Nutibara, but the staff weren't super knowledgeable: one told me the museum I wanted to visit was shut on Mondays, which was not the case. As with lots of Latin American cities, attractions in Medellin tend to shut on either Monday or Sunday (meaning a Saturday afternoon to Monday evening stay requires clear planning in advance). Lots of the attractions in the city lack websites, so a well-informed tourist office would be a great asset. They also don't run to leaflets for places - a shame if you like to collect them for scrapbooks.
The Bare Necessities Of Life
There are numerous places to eat in Medellin, though most of the nicer restauarants are together in El Poblado. Staying further north I made do with tiny places, generally clustered round metro stations. The bakeries are especially excellent and most have seats. They serve all day, and do drinks and yogurts as well as cakes, pastries and pasties. The city is also packed with supermarkets - Exito is cheapest and the one near El Poblado metro is huge, with two floors and an attached food court.
The city has hundreds of hotels, but most are not found on the main booking websites. I only found expensive ones or hostels, but once I got off the bus I saw there were dozens of cheap looking ones right there. I imagine you could get a walk up room at most, so you could chance it if you're not too fussy. Alternatively I would highly recommend 61 Prado where I stayed (reviewed separately).
Every second building in Colombia seems to be a centro commercial, and Medellin is no exception. Some of these are small precincts, others are tiny mini-malls, and a few are full blown shopping centres. I like these because they always have good food courts (a cheap way to eat when you're having 3 meals a day out and about), free toilets and 'interesting' events - I went to one that had a church service happening in the centre, and an impromptu dance class round the corner, while a second was hosting a dog show while I was there.
Medellin is a pretty, green city with lots of plazas and parks, and with the weather you could easily spend a day or so just relaxing outside (something that is not an option in Bogota). It also seemed much cleaner than Bogota, both the air and looking at the streets. It has some very interesting, modern architecture too - I took pictures of all sorts of buildings without knowing what they were.
Lots of people speak English, lots don't - there was no discernible pattern, though I did have one adorable taxi driver who was thrilled to be able to practice his "Good Morning, pleased to meet you" which I graciously accepted even though it was approaching 6pm.
From Europe you'd be more likely to visit Medellin as part of an extended trip to the region. It doesn't really have enough going on to warrant a dedicated trip from so far afield, but as a Colombian or South American multi-city break, or an addition to a cruise, I think it's definitely worth a visit. The climate is good, there is a nice range of attractions and you can sleep well and eat well for a fraction of the cost of doing so in the USA or in fact most of the world.