Set in a valley in central Colombia, Medellín is famous as the home of druglord Pablo Escobar, but now it's shaking off its troubled past to become South America's latest must-visit destination. Allie Nawrat gives the lowdown on 5 must-do experiences for visitors
Cable car to Parque Arvi (Dreamstime)
Set around Lake Guarne, Parque Arvi sits high in the hills on the outskirts of Medellín. As the city has grown and the metro system has expanded to serve it, the Parque has become easier and cheaper to get to. Simply take Line 'L' to Santo Domingo and catch the metro cable from there. The views back over the city are incredible.
The park is an ecological reserve and is absolutely gorgeous. You can explore the park via the various trails and experience some of Colombia’s extensive and rich biodiversity. It's known for wild flowers and butterflies, and there are around 54 miles of trials to choose from. It's possible to stay overnight either in campsites or hotels, and there are restaurants and a bus that will transport you around the enormous nature reserve.
Parque Arvi is a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of Medellín, and is very popular with locals. It feels separate and peaceful, and a couple of degrees cooler than Medellín.
A school in Comuna Trece (Dreamstime)
Comuna Trece is a poor neighbourhood in Medellín that experienced tremendous violence between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas and the Colombian government around the turn of the 21st Century. The area was one of the most dangerous places on Earth during this period. Thousands of civilians were killed during the conflict, mainly by government forces, and buried in a mass grave that can be seen from the comuna.
In an attempt to overcome the trauma of this period, the Comuna has used the medium of modern art, primarily graffiti, to regenerate itself. The comuna is covered in fantastically colourful graffiti that tells the story of the area and its move towards peace.
Toucan tours organise a guided tour around the comuna, with translators and guides who still live in the area. The tour offers an insight into the conditions of the comuna, as well as the graffiti’s symbolism and the history of the area. Tour prices aren't cheap, but a percentage of the money is ploughed back into the community.
A typical Botero sculpture (Dreamstime)
There is no shortage of museums in Medellín, but the best is the Museum of Antioquia. It was founded by the government of Antioquia in 1882 as a centre of education and knowledge in the city. It was the first museum established in the region of Antioquia and the second in the whole of Colombia.
The museum suffered from funding and staffing shortages in the early twentieth century, which led to its closure the 1930s. It was re-opened to house artistic exhibitions in the 1940s and 1950s, but it was not until the 1970s with the help of donations from local artist and sculptor Fernando Botero that the museum began focussing specifically on art from the region, from pre-Columbian, Colonial and Republic times right up to modern times.
Not surprisingly, the museum has a large, permanent exhibition of Botero’s paintings and sculptures. Botero has his own artistic style, titled ‘Boterismo,’ where figures are painted shorter and fatter (or more ‘voluminous’ in Botero’s terms) in order to give them more ‘sensuality.’
The museum also has an interactive centre for children where they dress up and pose with Botero’s painting of his son, Pedro, on a rocking horse. There's also a collection of Botero’s statues in the square outside the museum.
Dancing the salsa in Medellín (Dreamstime)
Medellín is a salsa town. Every thing moves to the 3-2 beat. And while you'll find plenty of salsa clubs on Parque Lleras, Medellín’s equivalent of a ‘strip’ in European party resorts, it's certainly worth venturing beyond those to find a more authentic and exciting experience.
Son Havana in the centre is famous for its amazing live bands and friendly locals keen to teach you how to salsa properly. Cuchitril-Club in El Poblado, the safest and richest neighbourhood in Medellín, is also worth checking out.
Whichever club you choose, you're in for a treat. In Medellín, entry fees and drinks are cheap and you'll be surrounded by people who can dance and want to share their love of salsa with you.
Puente Occidente (Dreamstime)
Medellín is the capital of Antioquia, a region in the centre of Colombia that is home to Colombia’s major coffee and chocolate plantations and some gorgeous colonial towns. It is cheap and easy to visit these areas from Medellín, especially Santa Fe de Antioquia, the old colonial capital of the region.
When you arrive in Santa Fe, you'll feel like you have been transported back 200 years. The streets are cobbled and predominantly pedestrianised, and the market sells more traditional produce than tourist knick-knacks. The real joy here is wandering the streets and soaking up the characterful architecture.
Having said that, there are other sights you should see. The Museo de Juan Corral chronicles the history of the region, with a special focus on its independence from Spain in the early 19th century. And the Puente Occidente, a suspension bridge built around the same time of the Eiffel tower in 1887, was the longest bridge of its kind in South America when it was opened.
Buses to Santa Fe run roughly every hour from Medellín’s Terminal Norte.
Allie Nawrat is a recent History and Politics graduate of the University of York and spent six weeks living and working in Medellín as part of her studies. You can read more about her adventures on her website, opinionsofanawrat.wordpress.com.
Main image: Looking over Medellín