I spent a month living in Medellín and would have stayed longer if not for the cornovirus outbreak. Despite my limited time there, I surprised even myself with the speed with which I was able to settle into a routine and surround myself with a good group of friends.

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Medellín Basics

First, some basics. Medellín is a city of approximately 2.5 million people nestled in a mountain valley which runs north to south. The city sprawls along this axis, tracking the river, creating a “spine” that consists of industrial and commercial development on either side the main highway and an adjacent metro rail line. Following this line south leads to Envigado, a wealthy suburb. Up on the hills surrounding the valley are various barrios that tend to be lower-class.

All of Colombia is on GMT-5. You can think of this as Eastern time if Daylight Savings didn’t exist (remember, Colombia is on the equator so the length of days doesn’t change much!). This makes coordinating with US-based co-workers while working remotely a breeze.

Why Medellín?

Some places are attractive because they’re dirt cheap. Others are well-renowned for their party scenes. Still others have unbeatable weather. Very few places have all three. Medellín is one of them.

Medellín is typically 70°F year-round, with little humidity. In the early parts of the year (Jan-March), the air quality tends to be very poor due to inversion, which traps air pollution within the valley. At other times of the year, the air is extremely crisp and clean. Days tend to be sunny and clear.

The dollar is at a record high against the Colombian Peso (COP). One USD tends to fluctuate between 3500 and 4000 COP. I paid 800,000 COP (approx. $240) for a bedroom in a shared luxury apartment. A cup of coffee is $1.50, a craft beer is $2.50. A typical meal costs between $3 and $10, depending on the type of cuisine and how fancy the restaurant is.

Colombia is a great place to practice Spanish. The Spanish here sounds more “neutral” to foreigners becuase it’s notably less accented than other countries. Anecodatally, I found the pace of speech to be slower. Bogotá is probably the best place for gingos in this regard as it’s home to the “rolo” accent, where all sounds in a word are pronouned giving it a “clearer” sound. Medellín natives tend to have a different accent but the Spanish is still quite comprehensible even for newbies or folks who are a little rusty.

Of course, many people also come to Colombia for the women and drugs. I don’t really have a lot to say about this except that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to come to your own conclusions — you’ll never stop getting offers as a foreigner.

Who you’ll meet

Meeting new people is one of the great joys of traveling. It’s a necessary part of building a support network which will help an unfamiliar place become home. The multi-faceted appeal of Medellín means that it attracts many different types of people. In my mental model, I separated gringos into three main groups: the partiers, the digital nomads, and the escapists. The first group tends to stay only in the city for just a few days, often right after disembarking from their flight and before they travel to other cities. The digital nomads tend to set up shop for a slightly period of time, typically on the order of several months. The escapists are retirees or people who are taking a year from the rat race.

I considered “ex-pats” to be someone who has spent enough time in the city to have set down roots. Good heuristics for this: own a local business, have a native spouse of similar age, work for a local branch of a multi-national corporation.

I think one of the first objectives of any savvy traveler should be to establish a relationship with one or two ex-pats. A well-networked ex-pat friend can help you avoid scams, connect you with vetted professionals (doctors, lawyers, notaries, etc.), and introduce you to locals.

Places to live in Medellín

Broadly speaking, most ex-pats live in one of three areas: El Poblado, Laureles, and Envigado. Each tends to attract a different type of person.

El Poblado is the canonical touristy neighborhood with prices to match. It’s home to cocktail bars, fancy restaurants, coworking spaces, hostels, discotecas that run all night, and trinket sellers. This is your best bet if you’re only in town for a few days or your top priority is partying hard. Otherwise, I would avoid it.

I lived in Laureles. This tends to be the pick of digital nomads and escapists. It’s a leafy, residential neighborhood that tends to be a lot quieter. This neighborhood is significantly less touristy and there are noteably fewer foreigners. There are plenty of restaurants, gyms, and cafes with some bars and discotecas along La Setenta if you’re looking for something a bit livelier. I found the neighborhood to be quite safe — I regularly ran around Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (a college with a circular campus whose circumference is roughly 1 mile, perfect for pacing out workouts) after dark with headphones in and never had any issues.

Envigado is the pick of ex-pats. Unforatuntely, I didn’t get to spend a ton of time here but the vast majority of ex-pats I met lived in this area and loved it. There are some great restaurants and bars here. My impression was that Envigado is a great choice if you’re settled into the Colombian lifestyle and have a solid group of local friends. I do think it’s an underrated choice among foreign travelers.

No matter where you live, it’s easy to get around. It never takes more than a minute to hail a cab, and they’ll take you anywhere in the city for 15,000 - 20,000 COP (approximately $5). My recommendation is to try to maximize the amenities within walking distance and take a cab on the rare occasion you need to head to another neighborhood.

Finding a place to live

There are plenty of furnished rooms and apartments targeted at foreigners. My recommendation is to find a one-month lease to get yourself acquainted and use that time to find a more suitable place to live. I’d avoid Airbnb, you will get hosed. I had decent success with Vico. Facebook groups, like “Medellín Ex-Pats”, can be hit-or-miss. Really, your best bet is to befriend some locals or ex-pats and tell them that you’re looking for a place to live. They’ll know of situations that will not only be cheaper but also help you accelerate your cultural immersion.

Favorite Places to Go

Don’t use TripAdvisor or Yelp or Google Maps, you’ll just wind up with all the other tourists. Here’s a battle-tested list of places to eat, drink, hang out, and be merry:

  • 20Mission—this is the closest you’ll get to an American brewery vibe. Started by a couple of Americans and named after a well-known co-living space in San Francisco, it’s one of the few craft breweries in Medellín that you can actually visit. Darby runs the kitchen and turns out some mean ribs. Great events, including regular live music. Great place to meet well-networked locals.
  • The Corner Bar—the owner, Alex, traveled the world before deciding that there is no place better than Medellín. Has a secret menu with biscuits & gravy and this amazing BLT with homemade bacon. A great place to watch American sports with other foreigners as they have all the sports packages. His staff is excellent, too. Great craft beer procured from throughout Colombia. In a bizarre coincidence, I learned his wife is from McLeansville. District 59 is well-represented around the world!
  • Dimeli Café—run by a really cool Dane named Joel, it’s unbeatable for breakfast. You can get a delicious main course and a drink for 9000 COP ($2) anytime before 1p. They have a ton of fun events, like language exchanges, open mics, and movie nights, where you can meet other foreigners.
  • La Migueria—an amazing upscale bakery. It’s off the beaten path so it’s not as well-known by foreigners, but don’t sleep on it. Try the chocolate bread.
  • Café Cliché—super-quirky cafe that’s a favorite hangout of ex-pats. Good for meals or for chill beers in the evenings.
  • Verve Sano—not a physical location, but these folks used to run a hostal+small farm up in Santa Marta before moving to Medellín. They make really delicious food from quality ingredients and deliver it to your door for a price comperable to restaurants. Highly recommend placing weekly orders
  • El Café de Otraparte—cool cafe tucked behind the historic house called Otraparte (now a museum) of Fernando González, a famous writer and philosopher. It’s a cool stop, a lush oasis tucked away from the hustle and bustle.

There are a couple of places in Envigado I wasn’t able to get to before COVID hit but came highly recommended:

  • El Mordisco—ceviche made by a half-Japanese, half-Peruvian chef so you know it’s going to be legit.
  • Tepito Tacos y Tequila—Good Mexican food is surpisingly hard to find, but Tepito does the job. Great burritos.
  • Apparently there are a lot of small bars, each with their own unique theme, around the Calle 39/Carrera 42 intersection in Envigado. I always wanted to make a bar crawl out of this.

Potpourri

Here’s a random collection of things that can be confusing if you don’t know to be on the look out for them.

  • Menú del día—generally, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. A menú del día is a fixed meal served a set price. It generally consists of several components: a soup (typically beans) and a main with rice, a side vegetable, and a meat. A drink is usually included. This is the best deal you will find. A typical menú del día will give you more than enough food for about $4.
  • pago diferido—sometimes, you’ll be at a restaurant or a random boutique and when you pay for a purchase with a credit card they’ll ask you if you want to “difera su pago” or something similar. They’re asking you if you want to split the bill into installments. It’s a pretty popular feature in South America but I never take them up on it.
  • Consider getting a coworking space outside of the main foreigner areas. I went to a startup event at a coworking space called NEWO - La Frontera and it was a really cool vibe. Instead of a bunch of foreigners doing Amazon dropshipping, there were a bunch of locals working on super interesting ideas.

No dar papaya

«No dar papaya» is a common phrase in Colombia, which means don’t make yourself a target. This is doubly true for foreigners. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Don’t be an idiot. Get second opinions. Recognize that if things go sideways, you probably won’t get your money back or get help from the police.

All that being said, don’t be stand-offish by default! The people who live in Medellín and the surrounding area have a reputation for being super friendly and hospitable. The more you give to people you meet, the more you will receive in return.

Other places to go

There are some really great day trips that you should check out if you’re in the area. Guatapé is the most famous. There is a big rock with stairs that can take you to the top, giving you incredible vistas of the surrounding lakes.

Santa Elena is a chill little town outside of Medellín. It’s a great place to go to get out of the city and into nature for a bit.