Medellin as a tourist

I was surprised to find Medellin a bit difficult as a tourist. I loved living here, and overall I find Medellin to be a very livable city, but when I played tourist I felt like I was really struggling. To be fair, Medellin’s tourism industry is still very new so it simply doesn’t have a lot of the infrastructure in place yet.

Tourist Bus

One of the things I love to do in any new city is take the tourist bus. It is typically somewhere between mediocre and downright awful, but I love that it gives me a sense of the city and some of the things there are to do, so that I can prioritize what to visit later.

There is one tourist bus in Medellin, and the website is only in Spanish. I didn’t think much of this (it is a Spanish-speaking country after all). The reviews had indicated that there was only an English tour at specific times of the day, and that sometimes they didn’t offer it. This was all giving me some pause though, so I decided not to pre-book my ticket, and instead decided to go to the departure point and purchase in-person. 

I was able to find a timetable for departures – it seems that this “hop on hop off” bus tour was more of a formal bus tour with set times (i.e. no hopping on and off as you please), and you’re given 15-20 minutes at each stop to explore before the bus moves on. Anyhow, I arrived about 30 minutes before the bus was expected to arrive and found someone wearing a branded t-shirt. She didn’t speak English, but I was able to determine that the next bus was in 30 minutes, but they were not offering any English tours. I clarified whether that was just for the day, or every day. She confirmed they do not offer any English tours. Ever.

The online reviews of this bus tour were mediocre at best, and I figured it’d be even worse without any English translations. I opted out of the bus tour, begrudgingly, and instead decided to check out a museum that had been recommended to me.

No tourist bus options for English speakers

Memory House Museum

If there is one thing you must know about visiting Colombia, it is this: do not mention Pablo Escobar. Do you remember how they refer to the villain in Harry Potter? “He who must not be named?” Colombians, and in particular Paisas (the name for someone who is from Medellin) take a similar approach. Don’t get me wrong, there are LOTS of tours capitalizing on his name, but it is considered dark tourism. Paisas are incredibly proud of their city, and where their city is going (Medellin has been named the world’s most innovative city a number of times now), but they do not mention the past. Those wounds are, understandably, deep. To bring more context to this,

“It’s like if members of Al Qaeda gave tours in New York about how they had planned 9/11.”
LUIS FERNANDO MEJÍA, WHO REPRESENTS THE NEIGHBORS OF THE MONACO BUILDING

Understandably, we were told by locals not to go on any Escobar-related tours. If we were interested in learning about the topic, we could visit the Memory House Museum, which is dedicated to telling the history of the conflict from the victim’s perspective, and offering hope and inspiration regarding what the people of Medellin have overcome.

The museum offers free entrance, and is comprised of three floors. It has a variety of exhibits, many were audio or video based.

I arrived at the museum around 1pm on a Saturday, and there didn’t seem to be anyone from the museum around to answer questions. There was a security guard at the door, and a guest book people were signing, but no one to get information from.

I noticed a sign indicating that they had an audio tour on their phone app, which I downloaded. Although I happened to have headphones with me, they were of no use as my phone is one of the many phones these days without a headphone jack. I decided to play the audio guide quietly through my phone speaker in one of the empty rooms. The audio guide gives you a high level overview of each room, but doesn’t really offer specific descriptions of each exhibit or detailed explanations of what you should be seeing. Additionally, many of the most powerful pieces are audio or video recordings, which have no translation or explanation.

There didn’t seem to be any guided tours available, or even docents to help you out (though I later learned they offer English tours on set days/times, which were during my working hours). I wanted to like this museum, but I didn’t feel like I got much out of it given my poor Spanish skills. There was one room where they flashed pictures of victims the dates they died/disappeared, and what happened to them (i.e homicide, disappeared, etc). It was really powerful to see the pictures of people of all ages who were impacted by this terrible time in Colombia’s history.

Gondola

Medellin is really proud of their transportation system. They built this gondola system to connect some of the poorest parts of town, in some of the steepest parts of the city. Prior to the gondolas, people living in these parts of town effectively had no connection to the rest of the city, and working outside of their immediate neighborhood was nearly impossible. These neighborhoods remained extremely poor and crime-ridden until the introduction of the public transportation system.

The gondolas climb some of the steepest parts of the city before fading into the nature reserve at the top of the mountain. They are a scenic trip for the casual tourist, and a necessary form of transportation for the locals. Read more about them here. Board the K line at the Acevedo rail station, then switch to the L line (new ticket needed) at Santo Domingo station.

View from the gondola

Final Thoughts

While I think Medellin’s tourism infrastructure leaves much to be desired (it is, afterall, very much still in its infancy), I do wholeheartedly recommend you visit Colombia, and Medellin specifically.

I think most Americans view Colombia as a dangerous destination, especially given the popularity of the Netflix show, Narcos. Let me be clear – you have very little to worry about in the touristy areas of Colombia. Furthermore, 4 US cities made the 2019 Top 50 Most Dangerous CIties in the World list, while none of the major tourist-cities in Colombia did. I think everyone should see Colombia – the people are phenomenally friendly, the scenery is beyond gorgeous, and everything is super cheap. I encourage you to visit the places you are hesitant to visit, and form your own opinions. Colombia is one of my favorite countries I’ve ever been to, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t make your list too.

Medellin may not have a lot of traditionally touristy things to do, but you’ll certainly find plenty of things to enjoy in the city. It’s also not far from other tourist destinations like Bogota and Cartagena.

Recommendations:

  • Chiva bus: these are colorful repurposed buses known for their use as party vehicles — basically, the bus drives around while you drink and listen to music all night.
  • Tejo: this is a national sport in Colombia and basically involves throwing rocks at gunpowder filled packets, and it’s a ton of fun.
  • Gondola to Parque Arvi: Great views of the city, with nature at the top!
  • Memory House Museum: check website for dates/times of English tours
  • Real City Tours’ free walking tour: while I never got to do this tour, I’ve heard from others that it was really good.