Escobar, cocaine, and drug cartels were the only things that were spat back at me when I told my parents that I was going to travel to Colombia solo.
What did I think of when I thought about Colombia? James Rodríguez of course.
Besides my overt infatuation for the Colombian soccer player and my minimal knowledge of the infamous drug lord, (yes I did travel to Colombia before watching Narcos), I had no idea what to expect on this trip.
Little did I know that Colombia would be one of the best, if not, the best country that I have ever visited thus far.
I chose to fly with Spirit because it was the cheapest and most economical option from my closest airport in Washington, DC. Spirit airlines offers flights to Bogotá (the capital), Medellín, Armenia, and Cartagena. Out of the four cities, I chose to travel to Medellín and Cartagena because of the warm climate and beautiful landscape.
The hostel I chose to stay in had a taxi service for 65,000 Colombian pesos (~$21 USD), that would arrange for someone to pick you up from the airport and bring you straight to the hostel located in El Poblado. I requested this service because it seemed like the most feasible option to get into the city.
Bienviendo a Medellín
30 minutes till landing and I was getting increasingly nervous that no one was going to be waiting at the airport to pick me up. After getting through customs, there was a sea of taxi drivers holding up signs with people’s names written on them. I frantically browsed through all the signs and started to get a sinking feeling when I thought my worst fears were coming true. Suddenly, I spotted a small index card with the name “Salina” scribbled on it. Success! I was so happy that I ran and hugged my driver (which was probably inappropriate at the time) but I was too relieved to care.
The ride from the airport to El Poblado was around 40 minutes. I was awestruck by the natural beauty of our drive and exclaimed to my driver that I had never seen anything like this before. My driver even stopped along the way so that I could take pictures of the mountains and wildlife, which was a nice gesture for someone who had a long route ahead of him. As we were on our way, my driver asked me “Estas aquí sola?” (are you here alone). I responded “Sí” to which he he exclaimed “Dios mío!” as he shook his head in disbelief. Of course, I started panicking again and wondered what I had got myself into.
Happy Buddha Hostel
I chose to stay at Happy Buddha because of the good reviews it received on Hostelworld and its prime location in the El Poblado neighborhood. Sure enough, it was in walking distance of everything and there was never a shortage of bars or places to eat.
Here is my honest review of my time at the hostel.
Top party hostel in Medellín
Top party hostel in Medellín
Happy Buddha, was to my surprise, where many people from all over town came to drink and party at the bar located outside the hostel. It had some of the cheapest drinks compared to the surrounding bars, and often had open bar specials that left you dead come morning. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend staying at Happy Buddha if you’re trying to meet other travelers to go on excursions or explore Colombia with. If however, you are visiting Medellín just to party or seek out “travel companions”, then this is the place for you! I personally didn’t regret my stay at Happy Buddha.
I didn’t really have anything planned before arriving to Colombia, so I was taking a chance with the hostel to provide me with recommendations on what to do. One particular worker at the hostel, Kevin, was really helpful in setting up all the excursions I wanted to do and made sure that I was able to do it in the short amount of time I had there. I would not have been able to do all the things that I did in Medellín without the organization and connections that Happy Buddha had, and the helpful advice from their staff. Thanks again Kevin!
Day 1-Failed Paragliding and Walking Tour
On my first full day in Colombia, I arranged a paragliding excursion through my hostel with a company called Zona de Vuelo. It was only $95.000 COP (~$30.00 USD) to jump off the mountains of Medellín and possibly live to tell the tale. Me and three other people from my hostel split a cab and went on our way to San Pedro de los Milagros where the paragliding took place. When we arrived there, it started to rain, and we were told we would have to come back another day because the weather conditions were too dangerous.
Real City Tours Medellin
Because of the failed attempt at paragliding, I decided to see if there were any last minute walking tours available. With a quick google search, I was able to find a free walking tour through Real City Tours Medellin.
A 4 hour walking tour in the rain did not sound like my idea of fun, but I was very glad I went through with it because it was the best walking tour I ever had.
Our tour was led by Pablo Alvarez, a native who grew up in Medellín during the most violent times in Colombia. He started the tour by asking us our names and where we were from. There were at least 30 people in the group and he was able to remember all our names. From that point on, he had my complete and undivided attention. He told us to ask him questions we had about Colombia so that he could quickly debunk the myths and stereotypes before starting the tour. Of course the usual questions about Escobar, the drug cartels, and Medellín’s violent history came up.
By the end of the tour, I was finally able to wrap my head around the terror and damage that Pablo Escobar had brought into this city/country. I also had huge respect and admiration for Colombians for all the progress that they had made in only the past decade. What used to be dubbed the most dangerous city in the world had completely changed due to integration and development of low-income areas and innovative infrastructure (see: Metrocable: connecting the most rural areas of Medellín to the city center and Medellín Metro: the only metro system in the country).
The Real City tour really lived up to its name. Pablo took us to the safe and less favorable parts of Medellín. He would always tell us to watch our belongings when we were approaching an unsafe area, as well as give us a historical background on different points of interests. Everything contrasted greatly from the town of El Poblado, which made you initially think that Medellín was just a place lined up with bars and restaurants.
Pablo also highlighted staple dishes to try (bandja paisa), famous Botero sculptures, and places he hung out in when he was a child. Pablo’s comprehensive tour of what Medellín used to be and what it is today was a great way to start my visit to Colombia and I highly recommend anyone visiting Medellín to take a tour with him.
Day 2-Pablo Escobar, Paintball, and the Rock (Guatapé)
After another night of debauchery in the never ending night life of El Poblado, I managed to get up at 7am to head for a day tour to Pablo Escobar’s house, paint-balling, and Guatapé. Guatapé is a small town of about 5,000 people on the eastern side of Medellin, which was about an hour and half commute by car.
Our first part of the tour was to see Pablo Esobar’s house (or lack there of), and we got there in the most fashionable way possible-by being transported on the roof of a jeep.
When we arrived to Escobar’s house, it looked like a prop out of a Hollywood set. A rundown house filled with graffiti, running up against a backdrop of palm trees, mountains, and a river.
After touring the derelict mansion, we were given paintball equipment and were told that this was also where the paint balling would take place. I wondered what the former narco-terrorist who made 60 million dollars a day would think if he knew what his property had been reduced to, but had great joy knowing it had been turned into a paintball complex instead of a memorial site.
As everyone else lived out playing narcs and narcos (I opted out because I didn’t pack enough clothes to afford destroying any:( ) I explored the property even further. I found an odd sense of tranquility when I was walking around the decaying complex. Maybe it was because I was in the epicenter of a place that housed one of the most violent criminals in the world; and here I was, alone, walking through the rotten rubble without a care in the world.
After paintball, we were given a delicious lunch at another property where Escobar used to throw lavish parties in.
We then took a boat across the river to explore the beautiful, colorful town of Guatapé. During the ride, our guide pointed out James Rodríguez’s house and I nearly jumped off the boat to swim over. So close, yet so far… When we arrived to the city center, we stopped and sat down for a coffee in a beautiful plaza where kids were playing and locals were strumming their guitars. I was falling in love with Colombia.
The last segment of the tour consisted of climbing El Peñón de Guatapé, or the rock of Guatape. 650 steps zig zagged all the way to the top of the 10 million ton rock and I was racing everyone to the finish line to see what lied above. The views were priceless.
Day 3-Paragliding- Take Two and My Last Day in Medellín.
I had a plane to catch to Cartagena at 1pm, but there was no way I was leaving before trying to fly above beautiful Medellín one more time. The weather conditions were perfect this time, and I was on my way to jump off a mountain.
Paragliding was probably the most surreal experience I ever had. My guide was very professional and we even did some tricks in the sky when I requested it. By tricks, I mean free falling while feeling the g-force go against you as you’re screaming hysterically.
I was only supposed to be in the air for 20 minutes…but had to wait another 30 min to land because of the lack of wind. I was going to miss my flight.
When I finally reached the ground, it was 12pm and I was at least 40 minutes away from the airport. Praying the airlines worked on Spanish time, I hopped into the taxi and we sped away through the winding mountainous roads. My driver, Yovanni, drove as fast as he could so that I could catch my plane and…..I did! No stranger has ever put in the effort that Yovanni did that day to help me catch my plane. Thank you, thank you, thank you Yovanni!!!
Next stop-Nos vemos en Cartagena!
Overall Thoughts on Medellín
I love, love, love Medellín. Medellín is nicknamed the “City of the Eternal Spring” for its warm -spring-like climate. The natural beauty of the city’s mountains and valleys always gave you something to gaze at and left you with plenty of outdoor activities to do. To add on to Medellín’s beautiful landscape was its beautiful people. Everyone I met was so friendly and receptive, and always went the extra mile to help me out whenever I needed it. So many people told me negative things about Colombia before my visit, but there was never a single moment when I felt like I was in trouble. I hope people will think twice before labeling Colombia for things that happened in the past, and take the time to discover what a remarkable place it is today.
- Colombia uses the Colombian Peso (COP) for their currency. Always try to go to an ATM that is located inside a bank when withdrawing money to avoid receiving counterfeit bills. There was only one instance when I received a counterfeit bill in Cartagena. I was receiving change from a street vendor and recognized the bill was fake because it was tapped in the middle from being ripped in half. Luckily, I wasn’t too far from the guy who gave it to me to locate him again, and he exchanged the bill without me having to say a word to him because he knew what he did. This article provides a good description on how to spot counterfeit COP.
- There are many options for lodging in Medellín. I recommend staying in the town of El Poblado because it’s quite central to many parks and attractions, and also a safe area for tourists. There are many hostels located in El Poblado and you won’t have a problem finding a place to stay last minute.
- Bartering is normal in Medellín so don’t be afraid to negotiate with street vendors and taxis.
- If you choose to take a free walking tour, don’t forget to tip!!
- If you want to talk about Pablo Escobar to the locals, do it in a respectful way. Remember this was a guy who was responsible for the lives of thousands of people and not some glorified drug trafficker as displayed on Narcos.
- Even though I said I never felt like I was in any danger during my solo trip, I also used a lot of common sense. Just like any major city, there are definitely places you should avoid altogether or travel to only in the daytime, so just do your research before going.
- Drugs: Yes, there are a myriad of drugs in Colombia but there are also laws. I think there were many tourists who believed they were above the law because they were just visiting, but ended up being extorted or making themselves an easy target for robbery and other crime when purchasing or using drugs. So once again, just use common sense.