Medellín Week 1: Cable cars, bandeja paisa, and more velodrome

by Christina

Once through immigration and customs, we hit up the ATMs at the José María Córdova airport. Weirdly, the first ATM we tried offered to give us USD. Don’t do it! Colombia is not like Panamá and Costa Rica where they will happily take USD. Fortunately the second ATM gave us Colombian Pesos (COP).

We got pestered a bit by the taxistas, but we found the Ombuses shuttle which will get you the 45 minute ride to Medellín city center for $9500 COP (~$3 USD). We found this blog post very helpful, and it gives good details for several different ways to get to and from the airport. Medellín is located in the bowl of a valley, surrounded on all side by mountains, and it was a lovely view during the shuttle ride, with the sides of the mountain lit up like Christmas trees. It’s also relatively high altitude at about 1500 m, so it’s relatively cool. Due to its latitude, it is essentially in a state of year round spring, with an average year round temperatures around 22C/70F.

When we arrived at city center around 10 pm it was sketchy AF, and a local warned us not to be wandering around with our phones out, advice which we heeded. Another passenger from the bus came with us (strength in numbers!) to Hostal Casa Prado, which was lovely. It has limited common spaces, but it’s clean with reasonably priced beds and laundry service, well lit, and nice that the dorms max out at 4 beds. And it’s outside of the city-center-nighttime-sketchiness zone. The staff, Juan Pablo and Natalia, were very kind and helpful. I highly recommend staying there. (Sorry, I didn’t get many pix of it, womp womp).

After our whirlwind trip to Panamá, we took it easy the first few days, but we made it out to sample some of the local fair. If you go to a typical restaurant, you will get a plate of food including a bowl of soup, rice, beans, a salad, meat entree, and a refresco that is usually fruit based, but the oat (avena) one is pretty good too. When you show up and ask for the “menú del día”, you’ll just be asked what soup, drink, and meat you want (with no explanation of the other standard items).

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Another dish that any Paisa (inhabitant of Medellin) will tell you you must eat is Bandeja Paisa. It’s a classic, but it is heavy. Natalia warned us to take Alka-Seltzer before eating it (we didn’t, we just skipped breakfast). This dish has variants, but can consist of the following: red beans, pork belly, white rice, ground meat, chicharon, fried egg, plantain, chorizo, arepa, avocado, and lemon. “Bandeja” refers to the shape of the plate in which it is served (there are lots of different “Bandeja” dishes) and “Paisa” means its from Antioquia, the department of Colombia where Medellin is located. People who are from Antioquia are referred to as Paisas.

Our first big touristy outing on day three was to go to Parque Arví. This is a picturesque spot out in the mountains, reachable by the metro, which includes two cable cars. That’s right: cable cars as public transit. The one way fare for metro is $2300 COP, which will get you on a train and the first cable car up the mountain. You then have to pay another fare of $5200 for the second cable car, which goes high above the trees in a Jurassic Park like experience.

There is a market selling coffee, comestibles, and hand crafts just outside the cable car station. However, entrance to Parque Arvi is not longer free near the station, it’s $5000 COP for a guided group tour. If you want to wander by yourself, you have to walk 30 min to a different part of the park. If we had done more homework, we would have gone in our running attire, taken a run down to Piedras Blancas and then back to the market for a snack before hopping back on the cable car. Oops. Planning fail.

Alternatively, you could just pay the $5200 COP once and ride the cable car all the way around (I think you can do this). The prices in this post are outdated, but its a nice detailed description of a visit to Arví and Piedras Blancas. Note that they shut down the cars when there’s lightning (we found out first hand), and you can get trapped there on a rainy day.

The next day we headed to the “escaleras eléctricas” which are outdoor escalators going up the mountain in what used to be a very dangerous neighborhood in Medellín. Even so recently as a year ago, blog posts we found about the area admonished not going alone to Comuna 13, and that it wasn’t a fully established tourist destination. Well, it’s changed. When I bought tickets to the San Javier metro station I was asked without prompting if we were going to the escaleras, and handed the continuing bus ticket we would need. Exiting the San Javier station, hang a right around the corner and look for bus 225 to the escaleras (it will say so in the window). Someone saw us and our white-ness and again unprompted, directed us to the right spot to board the bus.

There are a total of 6 sets of stairs going up the hill (for free!), but the real draw is the street art. There’s lots of super cool murals all over the place. This is actually true of Medellín in general, but they are extra dense and elaborate at the escaleras. After our visit, we just walked back to San Javier.

Sadly, after a few days yours truly then proceeded to come down with a cold (wahhhhh). So while I made it out of the house while I was sick, it was lazy stuff like picnicking in the Jardín Botánica, which is free for entry, and a popular hang out spot. Bring a blanket and some snacks and come chill! Unable to resist dairy at any point, we picked up yogurt drinks that come in bags. In fact, a lot of things, including milk and water, come in bags instead of jugs here.

On the subject of colds, I sadly ran out of the Sudafed, and had to go to the pharmacy to find some other decongestants. What I discovered was both surprising and a little frustrating: there were no single-ingredient cold medications. The simplest one I found contained a pain killer, decongestant, and antihistamine. I also couldn’t get anything with pseudoephedrine (the good stuff, but also the stuff you can use to make meth, I think?), just phenylephrine (the passable stuff, that you can’t make meth with, idk). I also couldn’t find anything with guaifenesin (active ingredient in Mucinex). I ended up just getting the cheapest option, which was four doses of something called Naproxeno, which had pain killer, antihistamine, decongestant and caffeine in it for $2400 COP. (Caveat: I only tried one pharmacy).

Something I was shamed (by a Bolivian) for being an ignorant American over is the sculptor Fernando Botero. He’s a BFD especially in Medellin, with many of his sculptures throughout the city. The Plaza Botero is the big one (left below), but in Plaza de San Antonio there are more, including one that was damaged by a bomb in 1995, killing and injuring a bunch of people during a music festival. The damaged statue (below right) was left in place and now serves as a memorial for those who died, one of whom couldn’t even be identified. It’s an intense visit.

I also got my second haircut of the trip. I stopped into a small one-chair neighborhood shop and paid $10,000 COP, which is a little over $3. She went… a little wild. It’s a tad more punk than I was planning for, but hey, it’ll grow out.

After six nights at Hostal Casa Prado we decided to venture to a different part of the city, and went to stay a Hostal Ondas, near the Floresta metro station in the Velódromo neighborhood (you can see where this is going, right?). Hostal Ondas was… not great. With me recuperating from my cold, I had to ask to move rooms due the enormous patch of black mold growing in the corner on the ceiling (blahhhhh!). It had pretty common spaces, but it wasn’t very well kept or clean in general.

However, it’s right next to the velodrome. And the crazy thing about the velodrome? It’s just free and open to the public. There are cycling classes on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 to 7:30 pm, and they lent Dan a bike for free to ride around. He did an hour record round the ‘drome, finishing at 33.4 km, very close to his last record in DC, but with almost no training since, so he was pretty happy. I hung out, worked on my handstands, journaled and took pictures while he rode.

Then it was my turn for fitness-y stuff. We headed over to the stadium complex, where we had gone for a run earlier in the week, and headed to the track, which is free and open to the public for a good portion of the week (so sporty Medellin! Good job!). Now it was Dan’s turn to hang out and watch me while I did a sprint work out on the track, which I both love and hate, but either way, it was lovely to be well enough to get back in action after my cold.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the awesome food we’ve had from street vendors and small shops. There are a lot of delicious and weird things about! These include fried trout (trucha), stuffed arepas, sweet parfait type things topped with tangy cheese (no idea what they’re called), salpicón (marinated fruits topped with condensed milk and ice cream), bruñelos (cheesy spherical baked goods) and fresh juices (blended with milk), sausages, empanadas (not pictured), and more!

Next up: Guatapé and more Medellin!

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