Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia, but with a vibrant life that feels even bigger. Still, at around 3 million people, it’s no small city to begin with. Nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, it sits in the central region of the Andes mountains giving it a warm, yet cool climate that matches its personality. Medellin has one of the more picturesque mountain backdrops around, but the beauty doesn’t stop there. From the neighborhoods to the people to the cable car views, Medellin is easy to fall in love with. In my opinion, it’s a top 3 city in South America, especially to live, which seems to be backed up by all the expats moving here. And to top it off, it’s gone from one of the most dangerous to one of the safer major cities you’ll find in Latin America.
So here are my first impressions of Medellin, from my personal Street Photographer perspective…
7 First Impressions of Medellin
(From a Street Photography Perspective)
1. Beautiful City, Beautiful People
Medellin is a beautiful city, especially compared to most other large Latin American cities. You have the mountainous backdrops surrounding you with plenty of green space to enjoy within. If you like to mix park life with the concrete streets when out shooting in the city, then Medellin has you covered.
The most famous park is the massive Parque Arvi. The long metro cable car journey up out of the city and over the valley to get there is beautiful enough, but once you’re there, you have 16,000 hectares of ecological nature preserves and archeological sites to explore. In the center of the city you have Jardín Botánico, which is a beautiful and popular place to relax and enjoy some wildlife. Some others parks to check out include Parque Bolivar and El Salado. And of course there’s Parque Lleras, which is most known for its surrounding clubs and nightlife, but provides a picturesque little oasis within the city during the day.
Walking around Medellin with your camera is an enjoyable experience due to its urban beauty, but the people supply plenty of beauty themselves. Medellin is famous for the beautiful paisa women and it’s as noticeable as about any city I’ve been to. People here take very good care of themselves and looks, fitness, fashion and image are all very important. Medellin might come from a rougher past, but today it’s very easy on the eyes.
2. Feels Safer, especially in places like Parque Llerra
What once was called the most dangerous city in the world 20 years ago, can feel like the safest city in Colombia today. Pablo Escobar is long gone and the city, and country, has made a strong effort to clean up crime. After Bogota and some other cities in Colombia, walking around Medellin gave a very different feeling when it came to safety. The local warnings were much less extreme too. While I still wouldn’t call it safe compared to cities outside Latin America, there are many areas you can around without much worry.
One of the safer feeling areas is Parque Lerra. Also known for its nightlife, people freely walk around this beautiful area in El Poblado from day to night. The large neighborhood of El Poblado in general feels pretty safe too, while Laureles-Estadio and Sabaneta are a couple mores neighborhoods that give off a safer vibe. As for the rest of the city, while you will find some dangerous and sketchy areas, it’s still an overall safe feeling compared to the rest of Colombia city life. Even many of the favelas here have been noticeably cleaned up and made safer today.
3. Love the metro system, take the cable cars
Medellin has one of my favorite metro systems in the world. It’s definitely the most modern and one of the best you’ll find in South America for getting around the city, but what makes it one of my favorites in the world are the cable car sections. The continually expanding system of cable cars takes you on scenic trips over the city for the low price of a metro ticket. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere.
Medellin is filled with favelas covering the mountainous city. While transportation used to be a nightmare for locals living here, the city has completely changed this. Now, you have brand new, top of the line cable cars crossing up and over everywhere in Medellin. And some of these lines go on forever, making it an incredible ride above. I highly recommend taking all the cable lines for the ride, views and to see the colorfully vibrant sections of the city you wouldn’t be able to see in any other city like it.
4. Plaza Botero is an interesting area of juxtaposition
Plaza Botero centers the most active part of the city in the heart of the Old Quarter. This 7,000 meter outside park is always filled with people and is most known for its 23 sculptures by Colombian artist Fernando Botero on display. Not many cities are connected to an artist like Medellin is, but Botero’s full-figured, and sometimes cartoonishly fat, sculptures have become a symbol of the city. You also have the Museum of Antioquia here, so this area is a top destination for tourists, but the location and Parque Berrío Station brings a ton of local foot traffic too.
It’s one of the best areas for street photography in the city if you want activity, but it also provides in an interesting mix. While the Plaza is very nice and you’ll see plenty of families and tourists, you’ll also see plenty of prostitutes throughout. To one corner by a church, you’ll run into a red-light district too, where it can feel seedier, but not dangerous. Police are everywhere here, but you don’t want to take photos of certain people. There’s a mix of character in this area that is interesting for exploring with your camera. Some of it is really nice, while other areas are a little edgy. With endless shopping streets and attractions, it’s kept relatively safe for the many visitors too. And for street photography, starting at Plaza Botero and exploring around down to San Antonio is one of the most interesting walks you’ll find in Medellin.
5. Comuna 13 is one of the more unique spots you’ll find anywhere
Comuna 13, also known as San Javier, was once known as arguably the most dangerous community in the world. The poor, over-populated favela stacked up Medellin’s west hills by the main highway was a perfect location for drug trading and gang activity. Since the days of Pablo Escobar, this was the center of drug cartels and rebel forces in Colombia. Today, though, it’s seen a dramatic and successful push for urban renewal. Over the last decade, Comuna 13 has transformed from a place no one would dare come to into a popular tourist attraction. A center for creativity now, the walls are covered in street art and the crime has dropped significantly. Even more unique is how the city built a continuous set of outside escalators up the hills, making the residents commute much easier. It’s not like anything you’ll see anywhere.
The area is still not completely safe, but around the escalators there’s always security for the many visitors. You can explore the nearby streets here without much worry, although most travel here in groups. I came alone and explored much further, around and to the very top. It’s a very interesting, character filled area to explore, along with some of the most incredible views of the city you’ll find, but I wouldn’t recommend exploring as much as I did. I did run into some trouble at the top with a local gang. I got away, but I was lucky enough to be a step ahead or it could have been different. Still, staying near the escalator provides plenty of interest for street photography on its own, while being safe, and is a must visit in Medellin for its uniqueness.
6. Take a quick trip to Sabaneta on Sunday
With more and more people moving to Poblado, Medellin’s southern valley is quickly growing. If you want to escape the city without really having to leave it, Sabanata makes for a quick and easy metro ride. This small municipality is very compact and makes for a nice change of scenery that is easy to explore with your camera. It has more of small town feel and while there’s not too much to do, the center around the main square contains some nice character worth the short trip down here. And Sundays are the best day to come. On this day, many locals come to enjoy their time with friends and family and the center really livens up with activity..
Parque Principal fills with life by Igelesia de Santa Ana, while the surrounding area is lined with cafes, bars and restaurants. There’s even a very small amusement park for the children. In a few block radius you’ll have streets full of activity that are great for people watching and street photography. It’s also very safe here and you can explore further without worry. While spending time in the big city life of Medellin, Sabanata provides a refreshing change of pace and small town atmosphere great for a quick metro ride south on Sundays.
7. A City for Living
From years of travel and city exploration, I find I enjoy different qualities in a city. “What’s your favorite city?” is the most common question I get, but the answer really depends on what you’re looking for. Some cities are amazing to visit, but I’d never want to live in them. Some cities would be great for living, but not the most exciting to visit. And then there’s a few very special cities where it’s great for both. For me, Medellin is great for both, but even greater for living. If you’d ask me the best city to live in South/Central America, Medellin would be a solid top 3 pick for me.
When living in Latin America, you’re dealing with a few issues, but Medellin is like an oasis within. You have absolutely everything you could want, except the ocean. Known for eternal spring, you have one of the best climates. You have a big beautiful city full of parks set inside scenic mountains, and filled with beautiful people. You have modernities you won’t find in most other latin cities, while still keeping a vibrant culture and history intact. You have a passion for art, and nightlife. You have some of the friendliest people around that help give the city a positive vibe. All in a city that continues to strive for improvement and growth. It’s no secret, though, as it already started becoming a place for expats to move to years ago. But it’s not to the point where it’s any less great yet, so don’t let that stop you. It’s an amazing place to be. And live.
One of my new favorite cities
If it’s not clear already, I love Medellin. Much of my love comes from a non-photographic place, though, as it has so much going for it as a place to just be in, but it still makes for a good city to explore for street photography. From the friendliness of the people to the positive vibes of the city, Medellin has an atmosphere that makes you not want to leave. The safer feeling walking its streets compared to much of South America is a big plus too. It’s a fast changing city that you’ll want to visit sooner than later.
If any of you have been to Medellin before, tell me about your experience and impressions of the city and country in the comments below! And stay tuned for more on Medellin, including some of the best Street Photography shots I captured while there.
(from a street photographer’s perspective)