Anthony Bourdain may have put it best when he said "It's almost ludicrous that this place exists and that everybody doesn't want to live here." Medellin, Colombia -- known as South America's "City of Eternal Spring" -- is the most amazing city you've never seriously considered visiting.
The city itself is bowl-shaped, nestled in a valley surrounded by the Antioquia mountains. The first thing that strikes most North American city-dwellers is how lush and green the city is, despite being a metropolis of 2.5 million, a major technology center, and 2012's Most Innovative City award winner. It's gorgeous and sunny year round, and the locals ("paisas") are warm, friendly, and go out of their way to prove to visitors that their home is paradise on earth.
Instead of recapping the obvious attractions, consider this the down and dirty, local guide that isn't in the travel books.
El Mirador De Los Palmas
Because Medellin is bowl-shaped, there are quite a few scenic outlooks with views of the entire city. Los Palmas is a particularly interesting one, because it's a major thoroughfare know for it's underground motorcycle racing scene late at night. Street food vendors serve beer and local food here as locals congregate to take in the breathtaking views on one side, and watch the illegal street racing on the other.
Envigado Park on a Friday Night
Envigado Park is the social center in the neighborhood of Envigado, where you'll find a more authentic and local experience than the normal tourist hotspots. It's an experience similar to an Italian piazza, where familes mill about, locals sit on the steps of the church and play guitar with friends, and food vendors sell homemade local eats.
La Tienda in Sabaneta
Everyone in Medellin can dance, and they're amazing at it. The music here rotates between salsa, merengue, vallenato, and reggaeton. The locals are friendly, flirty, and eager to teach outsiders how to dance. Bonus: for another local hotspot that's big on dancing, try downtown's El Eslabon Prendido.
Steak Under A Freeway
You could eat affordable fancy food your entire time in Medellin, but you won’t be able to say you’ve eaten like a local until you eat under the freeway at Calle 10 and Guayabal. Under this overpass, two entrepreneurs have set up food stalls selling grilled steaks and pork cutlets with arepas and potatoes for just 6000 pesos per meal (about $3.50).
Don't be fooled though -locals rich and poor frequent this makeshift hub where the cooks have literally just set up a BBQ grill and a bunch of plastic stools. You can expect to see paisas dressed to the 9's, businessmen in suits, cops, cabbies, and day laborers - all drinking beers and eating steaks with their bare hands. It's also the perfect late night drunk food after a night of dancing at La Tienda.
Mahalo is a little cottage half way up the mountain that was converted into an awesome bar. Because of its higher vantage point, it features sweeping views of the city. It's an eclectic spot with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the skyline, a rock climbing wall, a mini-skateboard park with a quarterpipe, and of course great food and drinks.
Tinto Tinteras Language Exchange
Every Wednesday evening at a bar/restaurant in Parque Lleras (the most upscale area of Medellin), there is an English-Spanish language exchange. It's a great place to meet locals who are interested in cultural exchange, learn some Spanish, and make some friends who will act as your personal guides in Medellin (really, the locals are proud of their city and want to show it off!). Having a trusted local to consult with can make the difference between having a "good" time and a "wow that was the best experience of my life" time.
Ciclovia El Poblado
Ciclovia literally just means "bike way". There are several spots in Medellin that shut down for cars on a regular basis in order to make room for bikers and runners. Every Sunday from 7am-1pm join the hordes of bikers and runners who take advantage of the only time when you can ride down Avenida Poblado without dodging cars.
This will sound weird to many, but shopping malls (centro comerciales) are the "place to be seen" in Medellin, and Tesoro is one of the best. Tesoro is an open air mall with a high-end food court, an amusement park for children with a train, mini roller coaster, ferris wheel and seating areas with luxurious couches sprinkled throughout the complex. Some of the malls have multiple nightclubs in them as well, with the daytime festivities spilling over into a night of dancing.
Ajiacos Y Mondogos
Ajiacos Y Mondongos is a restaurant near Parque Lleras that serves high quality, perfectly cooked versions of local stews. There are only 3 menu items: Ajiaco (shredded chicken, potato, and corn on the cob stew), Mondongo (tripe and vegetables), and Cazuelita (beans, crisp pork belly and avocados). They’re not just local favorites, they’re local favorites done right.
Paragliding in San Felix
Okay, this is arguably in the guidebooks too, but it isn't to be missed. About a 30 minute drive up the mountain will take you to San Felix, where people go to spend an afternoon in the sun and watch paragliders fly over the city. Locals will bring a blanket, a bottle of Aguardiente (the local spirit), and bask in the sun for the afternoon. If you're feeling adventurous, it only costs 80,000 pesos (about $45) for a 30 minute flight. Flying above the city is an experience and a view you won't forget.
This guest post was submitted by Eric Liu from Rocket Lease.com, who is currently in Medellin. To escape the Chicago snow, he participates in a “startup founders retreat” every winter. On these retreats, a group of entrepreneurs travels to a new location for 1-2 months to work remotely, collaborate with other founders, and explore a new city.