Medellin has made massive progress in both public safety and tourism over the past decades. However, as the city slowly becomes a recognizable tourist destination, there are plenty of places a traveler should not wander either for his own safety or to avoid wasting his time.
Some of these places are the stomping grounds of prostitutes and drug addicts; others are where pickpockets and thieves congregate, or the places embroiled in gang-related violence. There are also places that are blatant tourist traps simply not worth the bother.
This arbitrary list should not be interpreted as a travel warning, but rather an invitation to explore the parts of the city not mentioned below.
The 13th District, locally known as the Comuna 13, is known to be one of Medellin’s most troubled and dangerous districts, and is continually suffering from gang warfare and violence.
In 2011, the city installed outside escalators onto the mountainside. The six sections of escalators give residents of Comuna 13 free access to 1,260 feet of movable stairs – the equivalent of about a 28-story building – and make the journey up and down the mountain both quicker and safer for locals.
However, the escalators are not to be thought of as a tourist destination. The area around them is frequently disputed by gang members who are often responsible for murders, and it is highly unsafe to wander around the upper regions of Comuna 13 – particularly alone and as a foreigner.
That’s not to say that the neighborhood is entirely off limits, as the 13 the district has a fascinating culture and sparkling nightlife of its own. Particularly the area close to the metro station is worth a visit if you want to see what the real Medellin is like. Just be aware that the higher up the mountain you go, the more danger you will potentially face.
- Comuna 13 (the lower part of the district)
Parque Lleras, in the upscale Poblado neighborhood, is filled to the brim with restaurants, hotels, bars and clubs. Almost without exception, these places are expensive, pretentious, and utterly non-Colombian.
The park is widely promoted as the place to go when visiting Medellin for the first time which consequently made it the preferred area of most travelers visiting Medellin when it comes to nights out. Hostels seem to consistently recommend Lleras and Poblado to their guests as the best area for nightlife, meaning that the park and its surrounding streets are populated by wandering backpackers, often tailed by eager cocaine dealers looking for an easy sell.
You’re more likely to bump into a foreigner than a local when spending time in Parque Lleras, unless you’ve attracted the attention of female “gringo hunters” who also spend their time here.
Lleras has created an impression of being the “upper class” area of the city, but there are much more authentic experiences in this vein to be had in other parts of the city.
- Parque Poblado
- Rio Sur
- La Strada
- San Fernando Plaza
- Las Palmas
- La 33
Parque de las Luces
Tourists would never have dared venture to the modern-day Parque de las Luces when Pablo Escobar was still alive. A building on the plaza, then called Plaza Cisneros and located across the street from the city hall, used to house the drug kingpin’s cartel headquarters.
That same building is now the Ministry for Education, and the newly renovated plaza contains dozens of huge white vertical poles fitted with lamps that are lit up at night – a controversial project called “Medellin is light” from architect Juan Manuel Pelaez.
The plaza is now used as a public space for markets and city events and borders Medellin’s administrative center, but problems still persist.
The plaza is a magnet for drunks, drug addicts and the homeless, and the level of street crime here is rife. Knife attacks are not uncommon, and it is recommended to never visit the plaza after dark.
- Anywhere else
Parque San Antonio
In 1995, a guerrilla planted a bomb at the base of a bird sculpture in Parque San Antonio – one of many larger-than-life sculptures from artist Fernando Botero that are scattered throughout Medellin.
The resulting explosion killed 23 people and injured a hundred others, but Botero refused to have the ruins of his sculpture removed. Instead, he sculpted a second bird, taller than the first, and placed this ‘Bird of Peace’ sculpture beside the original, damaged piece.
Sadly, the park is known for pickpocketing and the theft of phones, wallets and loose change, particularly when there are less people around or when it gets dark. It’s particularly not recommended to walk through the park alone.
- Anywhere else
This bohemian central square is a prime student hangout and often features a hefty amount of marijuana smoking, which police seem to turn a blind eye to. There are often drug deals taking place in the square and occasional shootouts when those deals go awry, or when competition between local dealers gets too fraught – particularly at night.
Parque Periodista has a variety of rock and alternative bars surrounding it, which are usually pretty empty during the week but spring to life from Thursday to Saturday, when the atmosphere is a great taster of the underground scene in Medellin. The vast majority of people sit outside in the park on weekend nights, drinking beers and smoking marijuana, in amongst spontaneous freestyle performances from guitarists, rappers, and anyone else who fancies taking a turn in the spotlight.
A visit to Parque Periodista is guaranteed to be an insight into Medellin’s more alternative side, but it’s worth being aware that the area is well known for breakouts of danger.
- Carlos E. Restrepo park
- Poblado Park
Atop a hill in the center of Medellin sits Pueblito Paisa, a reproduction of a small Antioquian village typical to the region.
If you don’t have any chances to journey outside of the immediate city during your time in Colombia, then you might gain some enjoyment from a visit to the fake “village” – otherwise, don’t bother. There’s something rather sad about a fake village filled with vendors desperately trying to flog their wares to tired tourists.
Truth be told, the site does offer a spectacular view over the city.
- Mirador de Las Palmas (for the amazing view)
- A real village (for the authenticity)
Prado, located downtown on the northern side of 10th district, is the old residential neighborhood for the city’s wealthy. The neighborhood has been deemed cultural heritage because of its spectacular architecture.
However, the neighborhood is also a hotspot for crack cocaine dealings and child prostitution. The area around it, known as La Candelaria or El Centro, has the highest homicide rate in Medellin.
During the day, El Centro is also filled with bankers and business people hard at work in office buildings, but between 6PM and 8PM all commuters and cops go home and the downtown area becomes one of the most desolate districts of the city. Prado even more so.
While Prado makes for a good walk, this is only recommendable when in a group.
- Bombona (which also has some pretty cool architecture)
- Bogota (Colombia’s capital city)
Barrio Trinidad, a.k.a. ‘Barrio Antioquia
When anyone in Medellin is looking to buy drugs, Barrio Trinidad is where they go.
If you live in the city and know how things work, then you’ll probably be fine — but if not, it’s a minefield of unsavory experiences.
Quite apart from the possibility of a drug deal going wrong and putting you in danger, there’s also the prospect of policemen waiting to arrest you.
- House of Memory (a museum dedicated to victims of Colombia’s drug-fueled armed conflict)
The 8th is a district full of cluttered houses on the slopes of Medellin’s eastern hills. The “La Sierra” neighborhood sits between Medellin and northeastern Antioquia‘s coca and marijuana fields, making Comuna 8 a crucial element for whoever wants control of the city’s underworld.
Two powerful crime networks, the Caribbean-based Urabeños and Medellin’s own Oficina de Envigado crime syndicate, have vied for control of the neighborhood for years, causing repeated territorial wars in the streets of Comuna 8.
The neighborhood received some international fame after a 2005 documentary about the neighborhood aptly called “La Sierra.”
- Buenos Aires (a nearby neighborhood with an amazing nightlife)
- Stay home and watch the documentary
Museum of Antioquia
The Antioquia Museum is counted as one of Medellin’s main attractions, but the vast majority of works inside the museum are the hundreds of pieces Colombian artist and sculptor Fernando Botero donated to the city. It’s much more interesting to happen upon his statues that are dotted around outside, in the city’s parks and plazas, instead of actively wandering through rooms of his work that fill the entire third floor.
The museum also features collections of Colombia’s religious artifacts and paintings of Colombian independence heroes, plus a modern art exhibition. None are very impressive.
- Medellin’s modern art museum MAMM
- Botero Museum in Bogota