A mile high in the Andes mountains of Colombia, located in the Aburrá Valley, lies the city of Medellin. It is somewhere between the size of Los Angeles and Chicago. Some of its neighborhoods are built up the sides of the mountain, but the city center is mostly flat.
Nevertheless, bring a good pair of walking shoes to make you tour around town. Traffic in downtown Medellin can be something close to gridlock in midday. The large number of buses and taxis will not help you get around quickly.
My trip was somewhat of a lark. A longtime internet friend encouraged me to come visit. Although we talked often on Google Hangout and Skype and chatted on Facebook Messenger, we had never actually met. After seeing all the Facebook pictures of friends and relatives, it was as if we were old friends.
The weather there was just about perfect, so I decided to use my few remaining vacation days and hop a plane south.
I was not eager to transit another country, I decided to take American Airlines from Chicago to Miami and then fly directly to Medellin. It would have been cheaper to connect in Panama City, but lacking Spanish, it seemed a better choice to connect in an American city. Besides, the Miami connecting times were shorter.
Columbia’s international airport is in Rionegro, 45 minutes from Medellin. It’s at a higher altitude than Medellin and offers amazing views of the tropical region. Although the airport is the second largest in Colombia, it was closer in size to Sarasota, Florida, though much busier. The airport is modern and efficient. Much easier to get through customs than Miami — a story for another time.
My friend was waiting for me as I came out of customs. From this point on in the trip, it’s a good idea to have someone local with you, even if you speak Spanish, which I don’t. Most signs are entirely in Spanish … which by itself can be a problem for tourists.
I had exchanged currency at the airport in Miami — never a good thing. Rates of exchanges at airports are the worst. Even ATM rates would have been better, but then you have fees, so I suppose it’s a toss-up. I did not see currency exchanges in the city, but there were some large banks in downtown Medellin that might have been able to make the exchange at a better rate.
You definitely need cash. Most stores and restaurants take only cash, even when you see a MasterCard sticker on the door. The only place you’ll likely use plastic is at an ATM.
There are plenty of taxis and buses at the airport, so transportation to the city should be no problem. My friend took us to the taxi line. The first one was for a shared cab to a designated spot in the city. He chose this for economy
We shared the ride with a couple and a single person. A three-way split is very economical. In fact, it was cheaper than from O’Hare airport to downtown Chicago — and O’Hare is actually in Chicago proper.
Road to the airport
The ride down the mountain in the dark was an adventure. The road into the airport is wide and well-lit, but shortly you are on a winding two lane highway. In the mountains. At night.
The driver knows the road well, but racing down was quite a thrill. We would get tossed from side to side like a roller coaster ride. When we arrived in town and dropped off the others, my friend negotiated a rate to his apartment.
At night we visited a neighborhood filled with outdoor cafes and sports bars. A large central square was crowded. You could buy beverages at nearby stores. The square and two streets along it formed an “L” and was like Bourbon Street in New Orleans — one big open air party.
The downtown shopping area the next day was crowded. We went by Metro and returned by taxi. The wide walkways on many streets could accommodate outdoors stands and carts where a variety of goods were available. Tropical fruit drinks (non alcoholic) were everywhere — a good thing when you’re doing serious shopping.
Many stores featured products from the US. We saw one store supposedly selling “USA brand” clothes. My friend said to me, “all originals,” with a wink and a laugh. I decided after a while that I could figure out which places sold authentic goods and high-end merchandise because they had armed security guards at the door. It did not appear the police walking the streets were armed, although I didn’t study them.
Medellin is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” because of it temperate climate. The average annual temperature is 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Most days are in the 80’s all year-long, but since they are in the mountains, it cools off to low 60’s at night.
Upper 50’s would be a cold night. Few places had air conditioning. Restaurants and bars are open air and the climate is perfect for living outdoors. Cool enough for comfortable nighttime sleeping, too. The days were in the upper 80’s, and the cooler nights did not require jackets. Pretty good compared to December in Chicago.
If your knowledge of Medellin comes from news stories from 1993 or earlier, forget it. They have worked hard to live down the past and transform the city into a welcoming place.
If he comes up in conversation, locals will tell you that Pablo Escobar does not live there anymore (died in 1993), just as Chicagoans sometimes have to say that Al Capone does not live here anymore (he died in 1947).
The people are friendly, food is good, climate is great, and the scenery is beautiful. The trip was too short and I wouldn’t mind another visit. Especially in the winter.
Visit the Medellin photo gallery at Sunday Night Blog here.