Arriving In Medellin
When we were planning our first six months of travel, we knew that we wanted to avoid traveling over the Christmas/New Years holidays. Most locations, especially beach destinations in Latin America, increase their prices considerably for the holidays, so we needed to find someplace that was still reasonably priced during this time. Last year Ian checked out various locations for Christmas 2016 and discovered that Medellin’s prices seemed reasonable. So the plan was set: we would be spending about a month from mid December through mid January in Medellin. As providence would have it, our friends, Steven and Leah from San Diego (now living in Wisconsin), were also planning on being in Medellin, so we decided to book a two bedroom apartment with them for five weeks, December 11th through January 16th. They found us a great apartment between the barrios of El Pobaldo and Envigado in an area called La Frontera. The price works out to be about $18 per couple per day. Medellin’s dry season was starting just as we arrived so it was a chance to remove the mildew that had been accumulating on our bodies after spending the last three months in Central America during rainy season.
Upon arrival in Medellin (our Airbnb host had arranged a private car for us for less than a taxi would have cost: 80000 pesos, $26, for about a 45 minute drive), we really liked what we were seeing on the drive into town; it was definitely a step above some of the other countries we’d visited so far. It was green, the highway was in good shape, the temperature was just about perfect, and we passed a turn off for San Diego! What more could we ask? Arriving at our apartment in a nice building, we discovered an area dominated with condo towers. The only hitch we ran into was that our bedroom had twin beds (not so bad) which could generously described as hard (bad), but we’ve learned to deal. Ah, the glamorous side of this lifestyle…
Medellin sits in an east west valley at 1495 meters (4900 ft) in elevation. Its population is about two and a half million people. Since it’s so close to the equator, the temperature doesn’t vary much during the year. Daytime highs are in the mid 70’s to low 80’s, lows are in the 60’s. The area has two rainy seasons: October-November and April-May. Just about perfect for the weather divas among us.
The city is broken into multiple comunas which are further broken down into barrios (neighborhoods). Most of the poorest neighborhoods are not in the main part of town, as might be expected, but on the hills surrounding the city. Colombia has an interesting way of characterizing neighborhoods, using a system of estratos. Each neighborhood is rated on a scale of 1-6, with 6 being the highest. People living in estratos 5 and 6 pay the most in rent (as expected), but here’s the interesting part: they also pay the highest rate for public services such as gas, electricity, water, TV/Internet/phone services. The extra goes to subsidize the amount paid in estratos 1 and 2. Estratos 3 and 4 are where Medellin’s middle class lives. Most Colombians seem happy with this system. We’re trying to imagine what would occur if a system like this were suggested in the US – it wouldn’t be pretty.
Medellin has an extensive, efficient, clean, modern Metro connecting a lot of the city; tickets are about $.66 cents. Where the metro doesn’t go, smallish city buses do. The city has also set up a series of cable cars (think ski resort), to reach many of the poorer neighborhoods in the hills. A ride to the top of the Metro Cable provides amazing views of the city.
According to Medellin Living (a great site for everything about Medellin), most expats live in El Poblado (28%), Envigado (20%), Laureles-Estadio (16%), Sabaneta (13%), or Belen (9%). We’re spending time exploring these neighborhoods with the exception of Belen, as it’s a rougher neighborhood where being fluent in Spanish would be a requirement. Having at least rudimentary Spanish is highly recommended for living in Medellin and probably most of Colombia: in two weeks we’ve been here, we can count on one hand, other than expats, the number of people who speak more than a few words of English. So far we’ve explored El Poblado and Laureles-Estadio, with a short jaunt into La Floresta, which is adjacent to Estadio.
Medellin Prices – A pleasant surprise
The first night, even though we were a bit tired from having to get up early for our flight, we went to explore the Christmas lights in Envigado. A beautiful display, with lots of street food vendors, where Ian has discovered his Achilles heel in Medellin: empanadas. Much better than any we’ve ever had in the US! Tasty morsels filled with either chicken, or beef with potatoes, and deep fried, at about $.66 each, a hard to pass up bargain.
The next day our friends took us exploring, to Centro Comerical Oviedo, an upscale mall about a 15 minute walk from our apartment, towards El Poblado (the priciest area) for a $1.73 iced latte at Pergamino, one of the best coffee shops. In this mall, we were also introduced to the Menu del Dia, a fixed-price super bargain lunch: soup, meat/chicken/fish, rice, fried plantains, salad, and fresh fruit juice for $4. Later that afternoon, Leah and Ann went for a manicure/pedicure for $10. Detecting a theme yet? The prices in Medellin are the lowest we’ve seen so far on this trip, except maybe Guatemala, but with first world infrastructure. The prices have held steady during the two weeks we’ve been here. So far our costs are averaging $58 per day total, excluding the airfare to get to Colombia, but including the $18 for our apartment. We generally eat out one meal a day, and in the apartment are drinking wine, rum, coffee, eating chocolate. But of course we aren’t at the beach.
Medellin at Christmas
Medellin goes all out with Christmas decorations, and most areas have decked-out parks and/or streets. The granddaddy of them all takes place in Parque Norte, a beautifully laid out amusement park, that is right next to Parque Explora, which includes a science museum and aquarium . Wow! What a display, with food, and an overall very festive environment. We enjoyed a wonderful evening, alongside Colombian families, strolling around the lake and admiring the numerous decorations.
All of these displays are sponsored by the power company, EPM, which has been doing these lights for 50 years.
A Trip to the Dentist
Full-time travel requires taking care of mundane necessities, like having one’s teeth cleaned. As both of us were due (or overdue), we asked the owner of our apartment for a recommendation. He actually contacted the dentist that evening and made appointments for us for the very next morning. (Hmm…so soon….yes, we have noticed quite a lot of various and sundry dental offices while exploring the different neighborhoods.) We had our teeth cleaned not by a dental hygienist but by friendly and efficient Dr. Gomez himself, apparently quite common here. And the cost? $25 each! Of course, that was with the “friends” discount.
The most exclusive address in Medellin and where most expats live. All housing is condo/apartment towers; what’s surprising is how close together the towers are, so there isn’t a lot of green space, although there is some. Most towers are gated with a guard, have pools, gyms, etc.
Every Sunday morning, the main street, Avenida Poblado (Carrera 43), is closed to traffic in one direction, so the neighborhood comes out to walk, run, bicycle, walk their dogs, etc.
Since everything is towers, with large malls and large grocery stores, restaurants are mostly located in food courts attached to the malls or the grocery stores. Some of the food courts are like in the US, but some are different, with waiter service and higher end food.
The downsides of El Poblado have to do with the roads. Since most of the area is not flat, sometimes getting back and forth to buildings requires a slog up the hill. Then there’s the traffic: bad, fast, noisy, polluting, and most drivers do not respect crosswalks, most of which are protected by a traffic light, but some aren’t. An area where diligence when crossing a street is required. On the way home from our Christmas Eve dinner with some expats, our taxi driver went through a red light, and when questioned by us, simply replied that it was late at night and no cars were coming. BTW, a taxi ride just about anywhere in the city costs $3-7. If you don’t want to be up all night partying, make sure that your accommodations are not around Parque LLeras. However, the area around the park is very nice and quiet in the middle of the day for a cup of coffee or a meal.
More of an older neighborhood than El Poblado, with most of the buildings being low-rise, two to three stories.
There are a few towers, but not many. Lots of neighborhood restaurants, smaller groceries, green grocers, bakeries, etc.
The area has a few main streets that are very busy and hard to cross but most of the streets have far less traffic than in El Poblado. Laureles proper is more upscale with more towers than Estadio. The Estadio side reminds us of North Park in San Diego, the Laureles side more like some neighborhoods in West LA. Prices are probably about 10-20% less than in El Poblado.
We will cover the barrios of Envigado and Sabanata in a future post.
Next up: Guatape, Colombia.
Ian & Ann