I spent November 2022 living in Poblado, the gringo/expat/tourist/rich local neighborhood of Medellín. In my time there, I ate a lot of food, did a lot of dancing, and spent at least a bit of time exploring the city. Upon letting my friends know that I’d be spending time in Medellín, many responded with docs, guides, and recommendations. I decided to add my own to the mix.
In general, I found Medellín to be an incredibly vibrant, livable, and fun city. It’s the greenest city I’ve ever lived in, with jungle trees breaking up the sidewalk and literal rivers flowing between apartment buildings. Medellín is named “The Land of Eternal Spring” because it is temperate year round with lots of rain.
One of the common questions that I got about traveling to Medellín is about safety. My perception is that Medellín is not particularly more dangerous than other cities in the developing world: don’t flash cash around, present an obvious target when walking alone at night, or stray into obviously unsafe neighborhoods. In fact, Colombians have a delightful expression for exactly this type of behavior: “dar papaya” (literally “to give away papaya”), which roughly translates to “presenting an opportunity”. You’ll often see references to the expression “no dar papaya”, meaning don’t let your guard down.
Most Colombian businesses take credit cards these days, often with no additional fees. I still find it helpful to carry around cash because you never know when you’ll want to buy something from a street vendor or smaller store that doesn’t accept your card. As always, I highly recommend Americans traveling abroad to follow my #1 piece of travel advice and get a free Charles Schwab debit card which allows you to withdraw cash from any ATM with no withdrawal, transaction, or foreign exchange fees.
Speaking of money, an interesting thing about Colombian restaurants is how they handle tipping. There’s a standard 10% tip, which waiters will sometimes ask whether you want to include or not. You don’t need to specify an amount; if they ask you whether you want to leave a tip, and you say yes, they will automatically add 10%. Some places add the 10% as a gratuity without asking, especially for larger groups.
An important thing to understand about Medellín is the neighborhoods (or “barrios”). I spent most of my time in Poblado (specifically in the sub-neighborhood of Manila), followed by Laureles, and a bit of time in Envigado. I highly recommend staying in one of these three areas, regardless of whether you’re an expat, a digital nomad, a tourist, a backpacker, or whatever. Here’s my quick summary of the three neighborhoods:
- Poblado: this is the classic part of town for visitors and rich locals. It has all of the best restaurants, lots of amenities, and plenty of accommodation and activities. I chose to stay in this area because it has Dancefree, the dance school that I wanted to learn salsa at
- Laureles: this is where all of the best clubs, especially for salsa and bachata, are. This was a close second for me, but I ended up deciding that I’d be spending more time learning salsa than dancing it in clubs. I still ended up Ubering to Laureles ~3 nights per week. Fortunately Ubers are cheap, plentiful, safe, and easy
- Envigado: this is the new happening neighborhood, especially popular with expats and digital nomads who are planning to stay in Medellín for longer than a couple of weeks. I don’t know a ton about it, but if I was staying in Colombia for something other than dancing, I’d investigate staying there
The rest of this guide is divided into three sections: expat activities, tourist/backpacker activities, and food. Check out whichever sections are interesting and applicable to you.