Mixed opinions. That’s what I received when I started telling people – friends, family and some strangers – that I was planning to visit Colombia. The violence and instability that plagued Colombia for several decades is still fresh in many people’s minds, particularly my parents. And to be honest, Colombia wasn’t on my travel radar for awhile – I knew I wanted to go to South America someday, but the beaches in Rio, the magnificent ruins in Machu Picchu and the mountainous terrain in Patagonia seemed far more captivating (and safer). However, the more I started meeting people from Colombia (which isn’t that hard in South Florida!) and the more I started reading about Colombia in travel magazines, the more I became intrigued with this country, and how the people here have and are working to overcome their past and welcome visitors.
Originally, I was hoping to go to Colombia in November 2018 by myself. Unfortunately the timing wasn’t right, so I mentally postponed the trip for sometime in the future. Maybe I would shake Colombia out of my head after some time. That didn’t happen, and I’m glad it didn’t. I keep thinking about Colombia over the next few months, and decided I needed to buy a flight. So I did. And I convinced my newbie-traveler boyfriend to come along (thanks Brandon!).
As recent college grads, we’re both trying to save money (and Brandon recently started more schooling), so I tried to find inexpensive, informative and fun activities. So here are a few ways to explore Medellín on a budget!
Medellín on a Budget
My favorite way to meet people, find excursions to do, and save money. We stayed in Poblado. It is a bit touristy…not in the sense of thousands of tourists walking around, but plenty of international restaurants/cafes catering to hostel guests. Think Dunkin Donuts, chicken wings, hamburgers, Greek, Italian, etc. I recommend walking past the hostels and Parque Llera area to find some local Colombian food. See where the locals are heading too and try those places.
You can’t beat tasting arepas, empanadas, buñuelos and what is known as Colombian’s national dish, bandeja paisa, in Colombia! Even if you have had arepas or buñuelos in another South or Central American country, every country puts their own spin on a dish, making it unique to them.
Oh and the Colombian coffee! Wow. Nothing like a cup of fresh, strong coffee before a day of exploring. Strong and bitter, but quite delicious. Pair with a buñuelo while you people-watch from a sidewalk cafe. Buñuelos are basically sweet, cheesy fried bread balls and they are super cheap (around 500 COP, Colombian pesos aka about 15 US cents). I thought it tasted like a less (way less) sugary plain donut.
Bandeja paisa, what is commonly thought of as the national dish of Colombia, is a huge plate of steak, ground beef, chicharrones, rice, beans, an egg, avocado, an arepa, and plantains. The dish may vary (ours seemed to feature more pork than beef). You can read more about traditional Colombian dishes here.
Much of the food we tried was fried, but still good! The best empanadas we tried were from a window cafe we were recommended while on a walking tour from Real City Tours.
You might have read in my July update that I got really, really sick in Colombia, probably from food poisoning. Some of my plans were postponed – I had to cancel my free walking tour reservation two times before I was well enough to go on it. But I’m so glad I got to do that. I read that Real City Tours offered amazing three hour walking tours. Once I went on it, I can safely say that was my favorite walking tour I’ve done. The local guide will share several great food spots to try when you have a break during the tour…definitely heed their empanada recommendation!
Back to my sickness – since I was sick I didn’t get to try as much food (or eat seconds and thirds haha) of my favorite foods, but the street food is still fun to try. Brandon would come to the hostel with a bag of six arepas he got on the corner for less than a few US dollars. Now back in the US, he bought one arepa at a Colombia vs. Brazil soccer game in Miami that cost $8. Enjoy Colombian prices while you’re there!
Most of the following activities are free, or extremely low cost. Medellín is a young country in terms of travel tourism, so going to the free parks, seeing the art around the city and exploring the different neighborhoods or museums are popular activities. Day trips or short trips outside the city are popular too.
Free Walking Tour:
Walking tours are some of the best ways to get acquainted with a new city, and most are free (tipping the guide is common courtesy). If a city doesn’t offer a free tour, check with local hostels, often they have tours. They’re a great way to learn the history of an area, see some noteworthy sights around town and meet new friends or people to explore with. They also can give you ideas for additional places to visit or activities to do while you’re visiting.
If you can, I recommend doing this tour at the beginning of your trip. That way you can figure out what areas of Medellín you want to visit again or see for the first time. Real City Tours is a super great tour (in English). I learned so much about Medellín’s history from a local who lived there during some of the violent years, how locals are so happy that tourists are here (us tourists were almost nonexistent so seeing so many of us now is encouraging. Paisas, as people from Medellín call themselves, are so proud of their city and really do want the stigmatization and notoriety of their city to be a thing of the past – not to be forgotten, but not to be a part of their future). We had maybe around 20 people in our group, but our leader learned all of our names (which is crazy because I always seem to forget a person’s name right after they tell me, let along 20 new names at once), and talked with us throughout the walk. Don’t forget to tip at the end!
Ride the Cable Car
Riding a cable car may not be a big deal to most people but I loved this! This cable car was built so that people living in the hilly areas of Medellín could have easier access to get to the metro and central Medellín in the valley. It offers great views of the city and if you ride Cable Arvi (Metrocable Line L), you can reach Parque Arví, an ecotourism park, which I strongly suggest doing. If you can time this ride during sunset, it’s so, so beautiful.
Visit Parque Arví
By the time we reached the park, we had less than two hours or so to explore, so we decided to book a bird watching tour. The birds must have been sleeping because we only saw two or three, one being a hummingbird and the other being what Brandon called “a forest pigeon.” However, it was still nice to be immersed in nature after being in the city for several days. You could spend a whole day wandering around this park, but if you only have a few hours, it’s still a manageable stop!
Take in the city view from Nutibara Hill and see a model Colombian town
You can walk up to this hill, but the taxis are so cheap (especially from our hostel in Poblado) that it was more convenient to drive. Lazy? Maybe ;). Food stalls, a museum and picture opportunities await.
Take a Day/Overnight Trip to Guatapé:
Guatapé is a short 2 hour bus ride from Medellín. It’s known for El Peñon de Guatapé, a giant rock that you can climb approximately 600 stairs to the top. There you’ll find beautiful views of the lakes and farmlands. Unfortunately (again haha), I was still sick at this point, so I couldn’t climb the top even though Brandon offered to carry me up the steps. I didn’t even have the strength to hold on! But at least I was able to make the two hour bus ride, which gives you amazinggg views of Medellín as you climb out of the valley. Seriously, I could not believe what I was seeing. Pictures do not do it justice. You can visit this quaint, colorful colonial style town in just a day, but I highly recommend staying overnight for a peaceful, countryside break from the city of Medellín. Read my guide to Guatapé here.
Despite getting sick, I can’t wait to return to Colombia someday. The country is rich with coffee plantations, parks and food I’ve yet to try and experience, so I’m definitely eager to return when I get the opportunity. 🙂