I've been traveling through Colombia for several weeks now and I'm confident enough to say that it is the most beautiful country I have ever visited. From its lush, rolling, green mountains to its booming cities and incredibly welcoming people, Colombia has something to offer anyone.
To make things even better, the peso is incredibly weak compared to the dollar right now, so traveling on a budget is easier than ever. Emily and I have averaged under $40 USD each per day here and that includes lodging, eating out, tours, and even transportation for traveling around the country.
Although it's tough to describe in words how incredible this country is, I can give you an overview of some of the main concerns you may have about traveling to its most popular tourist destination, Medellin.
The number one concern I hear from foreigners thinking about traveling to Colombia is safety. I believe this is because they associate Colombia with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel that once ruled the country in the 1980's. The issue of safety, however, is no longer a concern in this day and age. Medellin is not the cocaine-infested bum zone that people imagine in their heads. It's been nearly 30 years since the cartel roamed the streets of this city and a lot has changed since then. Contrary to popular belief, you won't be held at gunpoint and kidnapped for taking out your flip phone... Of course that's a bit dramatic, but you get the point.
The safety system of Medellin works like this: every "zona" or zone of the city is given a rating from 1-6, with a 6 being the safest area. For reference, I would consider cities such as Madison, WI and Ann Arbor, MI to be a 6. I'd consider most large metropolitan cities around the world, like Paris and NYC, to be a 5.
The most popular area of Medellin, and the one we stayed in while traveling is called Poblado, which is in zona 6. Poblado is the most popular tourist destination and the one you should consider traveling to if you are visiting. In all my years of traveling, I'd have to say that I've never felt safer walking through the streets of a city (especially at night), than I do walking through Medellin. I'd even venture to say that Medellin is one of the safer cities to travel to in all of South America, if not the world, and this includes many US cities.
Just like you'd bring a laptop, your iphone, or an ipad into a cafe in the states, you can do the same in Medellin without any concern. And just like you wouldn't leave your most treasured belongings laying out for all of New York City to see, you should be careful with what you show in Medellin too.
Another concern one of our friends expressed before visiting us here was the issue of pickpocketing. I too had that concern, but I always chuckle when I hear that question now. Medellin is really just like any other big city in America, except (in my opinion) more beautiful, welcoming, and truly... safe. I would be much quicker to advise you to wear a money belt in Paris, France than here in Medellin. Of course, the number one thing you should bring to ANY big city is... drum roll please... COMMON SENSE. If a dark alley seems sketchy, don't go down it. If you're getting weird vibes from someone and he or she doesn't seem trustworthy, follow your instinct.
One of the reasons the city has blossomed so much in the years since the cartel is....
2. The People
The people of Colombia, and specifically of Medellin, are some of the most kind-hearted, generous, and compassionate people I've ever met. This proved to be true even before I stepped onto the plane departing for Medellin in the Fort Lauderdale airport. At the gate, a gentleman named Ian started a conversation with me about my travel plans. I came to find out that he was originally from Florida, but had moved to Medellin a few years ago because of how much he loved the country. Within the first three minutes of our conversation he offered to drive Emily and I from the Medellin airport to our hostel in the city. Before we even entered the country we had made a friend.
Once we arrived to the airport in Medellin, Ian was greeted by his girlfriend and together they took us by car to the city. Ian even gave us a tour of the city and then took us out to a restaurant for an awesome dinner. Although having an encounter like this may seem like blind luck, every interaction we've had with the locals has been just as pleasant. We were treated to meals several times within the first week of arriving to Medellin and were always amazed by how generous every person we asked for help was. Even the employees at Claro, a cellular store in Colombia, took over an hour of their day to help us set up our phones and translate everything to English for us.
If you don't speak Spanish, you can approach almost any person on the sidewalk and he or she will gladly spend time giving you directions or guidance. You'll find hundreds of people roaming the streets of Medellin at all hours of the day and night, so you'll never feel threatened to go out. Even Emily admits to feeling especially safe when walking by herself in the city.
A big reason the residents of Medellin are so compassionate is because of their wholehearted love for their country. They LOVE showing people around and making them feel at home in their city. When you visit this city surrounded by mountains, sunshine, and beautiful people, you'll too find out why.
3. Internet, Wifi, and Phones
One of my major concerns before coming to Colombia was communication. I had no idea how I would be able to chat with friends and family back home when I got to Colombia. I quickly found out, however, how easily I was able to communicate both within the country and with friends and family in the USA.
There is wifi here, EVERYWHERE. Almost every single cafe, restaurant, park, mall, or shop has wifi for free; the wifi in Medellin is more accessible than it is in the states. I brought my iPhone 5 with me and haven't even had to set up a Colombian phone plan yet. With wifi being so accessible, I just use Whatsapp and Facebook messenger to stay in contact with my friends and family back home. If I ever need to make a call, check email, or post something to Facebook, I simply walk into a cafe or use the wifi in my hostel.
Another perk of the city is that they have signs labeled "Minutos" at every corner. These are spots where you can use the phone provided by the shop to call anybody you want. The cost to use these phones is less than 10 cents a minute. No matter where you are in Medellin, you'll be able to make a phone call or access the internet in minutes if needed.
If you are adamant about getting a phone plan however, you're in luck. A SIM card here costs around 3,000 pesos (less than $1 USD), and if you have a Verizon iPhone 4, 5 or 6, all you need to do is replace your SIM card with one from Colombia. Go to any major phone company like Claro or Taiga, and they will happily help you out. All Verizion Iphones are unlocked and will work with a Colombian SIM card with no problem. Don't listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.
4. Exchanging Money
Right now, the dollar is the strongest it's been in over ten years in Colombia. For $1 USD, you get nearly 3,400 Colombian Pesos. To put this into perspecitve, just under a year ago you could only get around 2,000 Pesos for a dollar. This is good news for anyone traveling on a budget.
A word of caution; DO NOT exchange your dollars at the airport, unless you want to get ripped off. They will tell you that it's the best rate you can get in Medellin, but after they take their commission, you'll be left wondering what happened to all your money. After their fee was applied, they were offering me only 2,500 pesos for a dollar. Instead, you can exchange your dollars at almost the full rate with very low commission at an exchange shop in the city. Just take your passport and some cash, and you're good to go. In the city I was able to get over 3,100 pesos for my dollar. If you are planning on bringing cash, don't bring much. A hundred bucks goes a long way in this country, but more on that later.
Additionally, almost every shop in Medellin takes credit card. If you're traveling from the US for a long period of time, I would suggest getting a credit card with zero international fees like Chase Sapphire Preferred (read more about the benefits of this card here). This way, you'll be able to make all of your purchases with the full exchange rate with no international fees. This brings me to my next point...
5. The Cost of Living
Like I mentioned in my previous point, the exchange rate as I'm writing this article is around 3,400 Pesos for $1 USD. This is incredible news for you as a traveler because everything is going to be insanely cheap when you arrive to Medellin. A typical hostel will run you about $8 USD a night for a dorm and around $20 a night, or $10 each for two people, for a private room with a double bed. Breakfast and lunch will range from $3-$4 and dinner will run you anywhere from $4-$7, depending on how fancy you want to eat. A beer in Colombia is less than $1... be careful not to use this as an excuse to over-indulge!
We are looking at some places to live longer term in Colombia and have heard that a typical one-bedroom apartment in Poblado (the nicest and safest part of town) runs about $250 a month. Emily and I are spending under $40 USD a day each to live here. This includes lodging, eating out almost every meal, tours, and travel within the country.
6. Uber and Cabs
Colombia offers Uber, and it is just as safe as taking an Uber in the states. They even have an option here called Uber English which gets you a certified English speaking driver for an extra dollar or so. The beautiful thing about Uber here is the insanely low price per ride. We took a 15 minute Uber to a yoga studio across town and it cost us $6,000 pesos, or less than $2 USD. And that was Uber English; a standard Spanish speaking Uber would have been even cheaper.
If you aren't comfortable with Uber, you can wave down or call any yellow taxi in Medellin. They are all safe and their rates are very reasonable. There is no need to tip the drivers, but if you feel especially connected to one of your drivers, go for it!
7. Health, Fitness, and Water
If you are a fitness freak like I am, you're probably more concerned about how accessible the gyms, fields, and studios are more than anything else. Medellin has everything a big city in the states would have, and the fitness scene here is growing daily. There are Crossfit boxes, gyms, yoga studios, soccer fields, basketball courts, and dance studios all within walking distance of the city center. If you are into more adventurous sports, the adventure capital of South America, San Gil, is only a short (and inexpensive) trip away.
One of the things we love the most about the health scene in Medellin is that GMOs are practically non-existant. The farmers here don't like spending money on pesticides so whatever you buy, you are getting completely organic and fresh. It's not unlikely that you'll find a small bug or snail in the head of lettuce you buy at the local farmer's market but all that means is that the vegetable wasn't treated with anything to kill the bugs. When was the last time you found a bug in the produce you were buying in a supermarket in the states?
As far as the water is concerned, Medellin has some of the cleanest tap water in the world. Emily and I even took a trip down to the Medellin Water Museum to learn more about where the water comes from and how it's treated in Medellin. You'll be able to drink the tap water from any restaurant, hostel, or shop here with absolutely no problem.
If you're a health or fitness fanatic, Medellin is the place for you. There are few places in the world you'll find where the food is fresher, the water is cleaner, and the people are more fit.
8. Places to Stay and Things to Do
Ready to travel to Medellin yet? It will undoubtably be one of the most incredible and surprisingly beautiful experiences of your life. Medellin is a big city with a small town feeling that is surrounded by gorgeous mountains and stunning landscape.
If you are embarking on this journey, we encourage you to spend your first few nights at Arcadia Hostel. This is a fun little hostel located about a five minute walk from the city center where you'll meet the most down-to-earth backpackers and will be able to get a good night of sleep. Since Medellin is a big party city, it may be hard to get a good night of sleep in a hostel closer to the city center. Arcadia offers a host of activities and perks, like free pancake breakfasts and Sunday BBQ's, but also has a way of drawing in the most diverse and friendly travelers. From solo women travelers in their early 20s, to men in their 70s exploring the world, this hostel has it all. There is a lounge with nice couches and a TV, great happy hour specials, a balcony with chairs and a hammock, dorms, and even private rooms for those who want a little privacy.
Emily and I stayed at Arcadia for a week when we first got to Medellin and we plan to return for a longer stay in the future. Once you settle in and get to know the city a little, go explore. You can take a gorgeous cable car ride up the mountains to Arvi Park for just a few bucks. You can spend a day in Arvi Park alone walking around and exploring. We haven't done this yet but one of the best things to do ASAP in Medellin is the free walking tour. It's offered daily from Monday to Friday and is apparently the number one tour of the city available. If you're adventurous, you can try one of the many adventure sports that Medellin has to offer like paragliding or mountain trekking.
Another day trip that I'd recommend everyone do is of the charming city of Guatape. In Guatape you'll be able to climb the second biggest rock in all of South America, Piedra del Penon, tour one of Pablo Escobar's old country homes, and explore the beautifully colorful town of Guatape.
Medellin seriously has everything this planet has to offer, but for a fraction of the cost of any other large city in the world. The people are beautiful, the mountains are gorgeous, the food is fresh, the streets are safe, the wifi is literally everywhere, and the cost is insanely cheap. Oh, and did I forget to mention the weather? It's absolutely perfect. Check it out for yourself.
If you still aren't convinced that Medellin is the perfect travel destination for you, please feel free to contact us with any questions. We love giving people like you the extra boost of confidence they need to take a leap of faith and book a flight to a foreign country. Feel free to shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or simply reply in the comments. We'll be waiting for you in Medellin.
Alex & Em