Now that Narcos is back (all hail!), I’ve got Medellin on my mind. And contrary to the mess Escobar had the city in at that time, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in a while.
(For those of you not up on the Narcos game, it’s the story of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, leader of the notorious Medellin drug cartel, and his reign of terror on the city—and really the country—and it should be watched).
To be honest, before getting there, I didn’t know much about Colombia’s baddest city other than what Narcos is bring back to life, but Medellin has stepped it’s game up so much, it’s outdoing a lot of major hotspots when it comes to cool.
It’s clean, it’s hip, it’s trendy, it’s innovative and it’s being smarter about offering amenities to its residents than other cities with far less storied pasts. It also beat out New York City and Tel Aviv for the title “World’s Most Innovative City” in 2013, so named by the Urban Land Institute.
Here are five things I didn’t know—and quickly came to love—about Medellin.
1. It might be South America’s next big “foodie” destination
Of course there’s your small local restaurants where the food tastes like a mama’s homecooking (because it is, and those spots are my favorite) but Medellin’s got a lot of gourmet going on too.
Often restaurants are ripe with curb appeal in a Europe meets South America kind of way and many eateries have cute outdoor seating on sidewalks or open-air patios out back.
At Ocio in Medellin’s trendy El Poblado neighborhood, girl chef Laura Londono (who has worked at more than one Michelin starred restaurant) serves up ceviche with avocado mousse and pickled uchuva (a fruit also known as cape gooseberry) to start and slow-cooked pork shank glazed in balsamic and orange and served with creamy mash potatoes as a main.
The best meal I had there, by far, was a plantain-crusted fish of the day served over coconut rice risotto with a baby banana and rum puree at Carmen, a classy but casual hotspot with a lush back patio and craft cocktails to consume.
There’s so much to eat and so little time. But your taste buds definitely won’t tire of trying new things in the city.
Here’s a piece I wrote for CNN on Medellin’s up-and-coming culinary scene in case you want to drool over more food to try.
2. Arts and culture are well celebrated
From the time you see the chubby statues of men, women, heads and horses at Plaza Botero, you can tell Medellin does its art differently.
Fernando Botero, who the park is named for, is an artist from Medellin known for creating obese sculptures with odd and out-of-proportion elements. They are unusual and a little funny and part of a plaza where art, green space and local life blend perfectly. I saw a man on the square (there were a handful of them, but this one was the best) sitting behind his typewriter ready to type up documents, for a fee, for those who need it and he has been sitting in the same spot doing that very thing for 28 years. He has no interest in a laptop.
Beyond the plump sculptures, Medellín’s Museo de Arte Moderno (MAMM), which used to be a steel factory, if you want a look at locals’ take on modern art. The Débora Arango exhibit is among the faves as the artist has been known for capturing the essence of Colombia and the rooftop terrace has an ideal view of the city.
The best piece of art for me though, was the Barefoot Park, which is more like art come to life. The park is meant to inspire zen, and what’s more zen than kicking off your shoes and playing outside surrounded by bamboo? It’s a small park, nothing fancy, not a half day event, but if you’re looking for a spot to read or rejuvenate in the middle of the day, this is a good one. It may be more for kids than adults, but I say adults would be better served to be kids more often.
3. Slum renewal is a serious thing
Part of the city’s effort to nix its Narcos identity had to do with giving its youth and its underserved more to believe in.
One of the locals I met there said the cartel was almost glorified by the poor youth. They’d see these men who used to be without, driving big fancy cars, wearing nice clothes and surrounded by sexi mamis and think that’s what they wanted to be when they grew up. Medellin needed new, real role models to look up to.
So the city started building library parks. Among the best known of these sanctuaries is a three-building structure called the Spain Library (because Spain donated some of the cash to fund it) high up in the hills of Santo Domingo Savio, a barrio once considered one of the most dangerous places in South America. Now the structure houses a library, reading rooms and an auditorium, because, according to the city’s leadership, encouraging education was key to Medellin’s makeover.
Since Medellin is in a valley and the poor often live high up in the hills, the city also built the Metrocable, a gondola lift system that stretches 6,798 feet into underserved neighborhoods to help residents commute to places they can find work.
As a traveler, it’s worth going up for the view, but more importantly, to try to feel what life was like for residents there during Escobar’s cocaine reign.
4. It’s going green
To encourage greener transportation, Medellin’s bike share program, EnCicla, is free. As in zero ninety-nine. (Hear that CitiBike?) The only thing is the bikes can only be borrowed for an hour at a time, so after the 60 minutes, you have to find yourself at another one of the stations that are all over the city to return it. But then you can just take another one right out, so really, it’s no big deal, because it’s FREE.
5. The weather feels like perfect spring all year long
Medellin is called the city of eternal spring which—aside from being a pretty name—means the weather is pretty much ideal all the time. Thanks to its valley location and higher above sea level positioning, the city is cooler than others that are close to the equator. The average annual temperature in Medellin is 72 degrees (F), so no time of year is a bad time to go.