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Medellin

Introduction: Medellin, is Colombia's second largest city, at 2.5 million in the municipality, and 3.6 million in the metropolitan area. It's the capital of the extensive Antioquia department, which stretches from the Caribbean coast in the north to the Coffee Zone in the south. Famed for Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel, and its impossibly gorgeous women, it is a city of hard-working, industrious people who play as hard as they work. Often called the city of perpetual spring, with its wonderful climate and equally agreeable people, it's no wonder that so many foreigners fall in love with it and end up staying.

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Orientation and Location: Medellin is located in northwestern Colombia; it's fairly equidistant from both Bogota and Cali; either a 10 hour bus ride, or a 1 hour plane ride. Indeed, these three cities, Colombia's largest, make up an equilateral triangle in the country's center. Medellin is also very close to the Coffee Zone and it's three big cities: Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia. Paisas, those from Medellin, exert a great regional and cultural influence over this area.

Within Medellin, most tourism centers around an area in the center-south of the city called El Poblado, where you'll find the famed Parque Lleras and the best nightlife and dining options in the city. There are several interesting attractions outside of the city, including Santa Fe de Antioquia and Guatape, where you'll find the spectacular Penon de Guatape, an enormous stone rising up over Lago de Guatape.

Medellin occupies a long and narrow valley that runs from north to south. High rise construction projects are booming everywhere, filling up the sides of the valleys; just one more sign of Colombia's economic, political, and cultural resurgence.

Medellin and Bogota are typically seen as the nation's great rivals...in sports, government, the economy, culture. They also speak Spanish quite differently.

How to Get There: Medellin is one of the most accessible locations in Colombia, served by a major international airport, Jose Maria Cordova, and excellent highways.

If you're flying into Medellin, remember that there are two airports. Jose Maria Cordova is located about 40km southeast of the city. All international and most domestic flights arrive here. There's also the smaller Olaya Herrera Airport, which is just 4km west of El Poblado; some domestic flights arrive here. Both jetBlue and Spirit offer direct international flights to Cartagena, as well as Avianca (Colombia's national airline), Copa, and LAN. For domestic flights, Viva Colombia, Colombia's new low cost carrier, is also an option.

From Jose Maria Cordova, a taxi to downtown is expensive at $50.000 or $60.000. A better option is to take a bus to downtown for $7.000, and then walk or take a taxi from there. The taxi will drop you off at Centro Comercial San Diego. From Olaya Herrera Airport, a taxi should be just $5.000 to El Poblado.

If you are arriving or departing from Medellin by bus, remember that there are two bus terminals: Terminal de Norte y Terminal de Sur. If you're heading to Bogota (10 hours/$60.000), Cartagena (13 hours/$100.000), or Santa Marta (18 hours/$120.000) go to the Northern Terminal, which has its own metro stop.

If you're heading to Cali (10 hours/$60.000), Manizales (4 hours/$30.000), Pereira (5 hours/$30.000), or Armenia (5 hours/$30.000), use the Terminal de Sur.

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What to See: Medellin can essentially be divided up into three areas: El Poblado and nearby Barrio Colombia/la Strada/Milla de Oro, downtown, and the southern neighborhoods of Envigado, Sabaneta, and Itagui.

Centro/Downtown:

While you may often hear from locals and tourists alike that there is little to do in downtown Medellin, Colombia Backpacking begs to differ. Get off at the Parque Berrios or San Antonio metro station and have a walk around. You will find plenty to like. Start out by heading to the Palace of CultureFernando Botero is famed worldwide for his unique depiction of animate objects. His statues surround the Palace of Culture, making for fabulous photo opportunities. You'll want to check out all of them! The impressive Museo de Antioquia should be one of your first stops. Its three floors feature modern and traditional art, and a large section is devoted to Medellin's favorite son, the painter Fernando Botero.

Paisas (as residents of Medellin are known) will tell you that Torre Coltejer, Medellin's tallest building, looks like a milk carton. You may not exactly see the resemblance, but it is an interesting building nonetheless. South America's streets come alive with rich murals and graffiti, and Medellin is no exception. A block from the Palace of Culture, you'll find a seedy tribute to drug entrepreneurs and their voluptuous female sidekicks.

Virtually every city in Colombia features a statue of Bolivar, usually on horseback. Parque Bolivar, downtown, is a great place to come and see a more authentic side of Medellin. Here you'll find Bolivar's moving tribute to the people he so loved. Bolivar is not just a hero in Colombia, but in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru as well. He is so revered that Venezuela (the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) and Bolivia are named after him. Itinerant street musicians entertain crowds throughout with a mix of Latin American music. In this photo, he is playing a ranchera song, Mexican folk music that is wildly popular in Colombia. Grab a seat on the steps of the Bolivar Monument, have a listen, and give him 1.000 COP for his troubles!

El Poblado/La Strada/La Milla de Oro/Barrio Colombia:

If you're going to be staying at a hotel or hostel in Medellin, you are very likely to be in this part of Medellin. The main drags of this ritzy area are Calle 10, which runs east to west through the heart of El Poblado, and Avenida el Poblado, which runs south through La Strada and La Milla de Oro. The center of nightlife here is Parque Lleras, just a block from Calle 10. The party lasts all night long here.

Along Avenida el Poblado you'll find the most expensive real estate in all of Colombia: it's an area teeming with glitzy casinos, spectacular high rises, expensive shopping malls, and fine restaurants. Here you'll find the shopping malls la Strada, Rio Sur, Santa Fe the Hard Rock Cafe, the Dann Carlton Hotel, and the Casino San Fernando. This area best corresponds to the section of Bogota found between Calle 72 and Parque 93: it's both the entertainment and financial center of Medellin.

Just a little north you'll find Barrio Colombia, where there are many large scale clubs.

Envigado/Sabaneta/Itagui:

Just south of El Poblado you leave Medellin and enter the department of Antioquia, where you'll find these three neighborhoods. Envigado, Sabaneta, and Itagui are large impressive cities in their own right: both Envigado and Itagui have their own soccer teams in the Liga Postobon's Liga A. These areas are also a big entertainment and nightlife draw. Many tourists like to head south precisely because it's less touristy. You won't find the deluge of gringos that has now become characteristic of Parque Lleras during high season.

Medellin's truly impressive Metro system puts Bogota's Transmilenio to shame. Basically it consists of a 23km long north/south route, supported by metro cable cars that carry passengers to steep neighborhoods up hill. Head up to Santo Domingo or Parque Arvi from the Acevedo station for a truly unforgettable experience.

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Ambience: Medellin, perhaps more than any other part of Colombia, has improved drastically in the latest generation, thanks to serious improvements in safety and security, and the aggressive tackling of Pablo Escobar's powerful Medellin cartel. 

After a 499 day manhunt by an elite squad of the Colombian army, drug lord Pablo Escobar finally met his end on a Medellin rooftop on December 2, 1993. Today visitors flock by the hundreds to experience a guided tour of his life hosted by various members of Escobar's family.

Colombia is still technically in the midst of a civil war between the government and two left-wing guerilla groups; the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC) and the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN). This piece of artwork was made by a noted Colombian luthier and is a call for an end to armed conflict and progression in the peace process.

Aguardiente, or guaro for short, is an anise (as in the flavor of licorice) flavored hard liquor that usually contains about 20% alcohol. It is by far the most popular beverage throughout the country, and should be handled in moderation. It is also famed for a rather nasty hangover, or guayavo, as Colombians say. If you're worried about this, pick up some guaro without sugar.

Medellin might be summed up in one phrase: high quality of life. However, while the area around El Poblado is attracting visitors and investors from all over the world, remember that Medellin, especially in the comunas dotting the hillsides away from the city center, still has major social problems to address. All in all, though, Medellin should be at the top of your list if you're planning a visit to Colombia.

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