Things to Do in Medellín
You’ll see his art everywhere around Colombia: large women, round-faced children and wide-eyed animals. It’s the life work of Fernando Botero, the beloved Colombian artist famous in his home country and around the world.
A visit to Medellin, where Botero was born, provides the chance to see these works in larger-than-life surroundings. The appropriately named Botero Plaza, opened in 2002, is an outdoor park that forms an important cultural space in the city. It’s also close to other important museums, like the Museum of Antioquia with art from all over Latin America, and the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, where exhibitions and concerts are held.
Begin in Botero Plaza, the statue studded central park that fronts Medellin’s most popular museum. The plump proportions of these enormous pieces by Colombia’s best beloved artist, Francisco Botero, are instantly recognizable, and attract snap happy parents posing their children all over the thickly proportioned works of art.
The entire top floor of the Museo de Antioquia is also dedicated to Botero, and includes some of his most controversial pieces, depicting bull fights in all their gore and glory, and the “Death of Pablo Escobar,” a well known painting that marks the end of an era that this city must someday come to terms with.
Other excellent exhibitions include a solid collection of modern art, by both international and Colombian masters. A gallery of Independence-era oils, surrounded by period pieces, includes one of the nation’s most famous paintings, Francisco Antonio Cano’s “Horizontes,” portraying settlers—new parents.
Medellin, birthplace of Botero, loves modern art. And though the tiny original museum (which still hosts some exhibits) was nice, in 2009 the city decided to remodel the fashionably industrial Talleres Robledo Steel Mill in Ciudad del Rio, near the posh Poblado District, as the new and improved home of the Medellin Museum of Modern Art.
The cement-floored structure offers significantly more space to show off the museum’s growing collection, and also holds a small cinema and event space. The new building, however, will soon be augmented by an annex, designed to resemble a challenging game of Jenga. The gift shop is inspired and surprisingly affordable.
Visitors to Poblado, a wealthy area in the green hills of Medellin, are in for a surprise. Behind heavy iron, Gothic gates and amid trees covered in Spanish moss, there’s a 17th-century castle in the style of those in France’s Loire Valley.
Built in 1930, it was later bought by Diego Echavarria and his wife. This wealthy family’s passion for art and culture is obvious in their home, where French and Spanish artwork lines the walls. But the story behind the castle is even more interesting than the building itself. On free tours you will learn about the family’s history, including the death of their daughter and the kidnapping and death of Echavarria himself shortly after. After these tragic events, the house and possessions were donated to the city of Medellin, and the castle was opened to the public as a museum in 1971.
The absolutely adorable Spanish pueblito (“little town”) of Paisa, founded in 1978, crowns 80m (262ft) Cerro Nutibara, a natural landmark named for legendary Cacique (Chief) Nuibara. It would worth climbing just for the views. Today it is home to a perfect central plaza, surrounded by colonial adobes rescued from an actual Spanish outpost since flooded by the Penol-Guatape Hydroelectric Project. The beautifully restored buildings, complete with flower-draped wooden balconies and ceramic tejas tiles, is centered on the single cutest Catholic chapel you’ve ever seen.
While originally designed to depict businesses you’d find in a typical rural community—pharmacy, tobacconist, barber—as well as a school and city hall, have been largely replaced with souvenir shops, and the place is populated by a surprising number of mimes and living statues, especially on weekends.
Hidden among the mountains about 50 miles (80 km) from Medellin is the beautiful town of Guatapé. Founded in 1811, this town is now situated on the reservoir of a hydro-electric dam that was built in the late 1960s, when more than 7.5 square miles (2,000 hectares) were flooded to create the dam.
The incredible beauty of the reservoir and the views of the lush vegetation on the lake are unforgettable. Ferries on the lake take visitors to recreational areas on nearby islands and to see Pablo Escobar’s former mansion. The boardwalk by the water fills with vendors selling regional food and crafts.
The town is famous for zócalos, decorative tiles along the lower part of the facades of the buildings in the historic center. These tiles in bright colors and patterns are connected to life in the community, telling the history of the town and the beliefs of the people.
Medellin is certainly marvelous, but there may be times when you just want to hop into a gondola and float above the urban jungle and into the untamed mountains. Happily, this is one city where that’s not only possible, but also easy and inexpensive.
The Medellin metrorail system connects directly to the Arvi Cable Cars, which soar right from the train station above some of the city’s rougher neighborhoods, stopping briefly close to the ultra-modern Spanish Library. The final leg of the photogenic journey crests a misty ridge high above town, then delivers you quietly to a new brand-new conservation area.
This expansive park of beautiful wildflowers and lush premontane forest is crisscrossed with several kilometers of hiking trails. Hire guides or pick up a free map at the stand next to the cable cars. An adjacent private reserve, operated by architecturally striking Piedras Blancas Ecological Hotel is part of the project to return this region to the wild.
Though the residents of Medellin love their sophisticated, urban lifestyle, there must be something inside each that longs for a simpler era. This park, billed as a natural foot massage, is perfect for kids and a fun destination for everyone.
The park is divided into sections, all of which can be experienced without shoes: “Sand,” basically a huge sandbox with rocks and sculptures for texture; Forest, threaded by bamboo-shaded trails lined with pleasant benches; and “Water,” with wading pools, waterfalls, and dancing fountains where everyone is welcome to get wet. It’s good, clean fun.
The area is home to other kid-friendly attractions, such as the EPM Interactive Museum nearby, and the plaza is lined with wide-open places to eat. Adults may also want to check out the neighborhood’s architectural gems, including the National Theater and the “intelligent,” fully automated Public Utilities Building (EPM), an ultra-modern Medellin landmark.
The beautiful city of Medellin has an efficient metro system that runs north-south along the valley, but for many years the neighborhoods in the surrounding mountains found it difficult to get to the public transportation routes. It was difficult for buses to get up the steep roads leading up to the barrios in the hills, and it would take residents hours to get down to city to work or study. These transportation difficulties increased social problems in these communities.
But in 2004 a new, ingenuous new cable car system came into use. It is part of the public transportation service from the neighborhoods in the mountains surrounding the city to the metro system in the valley.
This cable car carries tens of thousands of passengers each day in a system that has changed the lives of those who live in these neighborhoods, giving them access to work and study opportunities they didn’t have before. The trip to the city that once took hours now takes just 15 minutes.
More Things to Do in Medellín
In the heart of Medellin, the Medellin Botanical Garden is the city’s green lung and a living museum with plants from around the country as well as birds, turtles, reptiles, insects and fish.
At the end of the 19th century, the area was a private farm used for recreation. In the late 1960s, the idea of a botanical garden began to take shape, and by 1972 the Botanical Garden was established as a place for investigation and education and to exhibit Colombian plants. Part of the Cultural Patrimony of Medellin since 1985, the botanical garden works with other worldwide organizations such as WWF and UNESCO to conserve and manage plants for a sustainable future.
About 40 acres (0.4 hectares) of outdoor park with 5,000 plants and 1,000 different species provides ample space for recreation. As part of a major renovation in 2005, the Orchideorama, a graceful wood structure that houses orchids, bromeliads, ferns and other species, was built.
While visiting Medellin, don’t forget to stop by this unusual museum—a living museum, in a cemetery. San Pedro Cemetery Museum is an unusual open-air museum of funeral art, filled with beautiful sculptures, monuments and mausoleums in marble and bronze. Much of the work was done in Europe by talented artists and brought to Colombia.
The cemetery got its start in 1842 when 50 wealthy families from Medellin wanted to have a private cemetery for their loved ones. Over the years, many famous people have been buried here, including politicians, businessmen and artists. Due to its artistic richness, San Pedro Cemetery was declared a museum in 1998 and Cultural Heritage of the Nation in 1999. It’s a cultural experience to see the historical and artistic content of its mausoleums and all of the art designed to honor the dead.
Medellin has been declared one of the most innovative cities in the world, and a project that demonstrates that innovation is the Santo Domingo Savio Library.
North of town, up in the hills, a neighborhood called Santo Domingo Savio experienced an amazing change from one of the most economically depressed areas of the city to a prospering one, all because of a project to build a library.
More commonly known as the Spain Library (Biblioteca España), because it was built with a grant from the king of Spain, it is composed of three modern, black cubist buildings. Inside, the library not only has books but also computer rooms with free Internet and library assistants to provide help. This has given the local residents a space for social gatherings and access to information that was formerly unavailable.
Medellin’s main Cathedral, along with thickly shaded Parque Bolivar—once Medellin’s most important plaza—now seem suffocated by the claustrophobic urban chaos that is downtown. The narrow streets and gritty scene make it a bit difficult to appreciate this amazing structure from up close.
Officially called the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Contraception of Mary, this is the largest brick building in the world, and largest cathedral in South America. Designed by French architect Emile Charles Carre and completed in 1931, the tawny towers took 56 years, all total, to build. Look for it as you zip past on rapid transit, with a vantage that allows you to appreciate the enormity of its construction. The cavernous interior is a bit spare and spooky, but the epic interior arches are well worth a look. This area gets seedy after dark (Bolivar Park, out front, isn’t exactly wholesome even at noon), so stay alert if you’re here for evening Mass.
This immense plaza was inaugurated in 1994 as a recreational and cultural center in Medellin. The plaza has a landscaped park, is home to the beautiful San Antonio Church (located at the southwest corner of the plaza) and offers free concerts in a crescent-shaped amphitheater.
This plaza’s claim to fame is one of Fernando Botero’s bronze sculptures. Botero, a Colombian artist born in Medellin, is the creator of oversized sculptures that have become world famous.
Botero’s Bird of Peace (Pajaro de Paz) statue located in the San Antonio Plaza was destroyed by a bomb in 1995, allegedly due to FARC activity. The bomb not only destroyed the statue but also killed innocent people nearby. Several years later, Botero placed an identical sculpture beside the original one, which has become a symbol of peace as well as a memorial to those who died in the bombing.
Jardín, a town in the mountains just four hours to the south of Medellin, preserves a colonial appearance that seems unchanged by the modern advances of this century.
The town’s name is no mystery—its beautiful garden-like atmosphere and lush green landscapes enchant visitors. Enjoy the peace and calm in this laid-back town that is not on the typical tourist trail. The beautiful tree-lined plaza is perfect to relax and observe daily life. The main square is lined with cafes and restaurants with colorful tables and chairs, and the striking neo-Gothic Basilica Menor de la Inmaculada Conception is close by. Whitewashed colonial houses in town have brightly painted doors, balconies and hanging baskets.
There’s also plenty of scenery to take in. There are trout farms for fishing and an old-fashioned cable car above the river that extends across the valley and up into the mountains. At the lookout point there are views of the town and a café to have something to eat.
North of Medellin, in the mountains, there’s a little piece of the past that seemingly hasn’t changed in centuries. Santa Fe de Antioquia, founded in 1541 as a gold-mining town, seems to have changed little since then. In fact, due to its perfectly conserved colonial architecture, it was declared a national monument in 1960.
Many of the local residents make their living farming corn, beans and coffee. The town comes alive with frequent festivals and tourists who visit to see the town’s living history and the perfectly preserved architecture that gives it the feeling of being suspended in time. Cultural activities abound, such as food tours that introduce visitors to staples of the region like guandolo, orchata, tarmarind, tamal, arepa and empanadas. The Metropolitan Cathedral, the Archiepiscopal Palace and small museums also draw visitors. In addition, there are nearby vineyards and waterfalls as well as the fascinating Bridge of the West and Plaza Mayor Juan de Corral.
Eje Cafetero, also known as the Coffee Triangle, famously produces some of the best coffee in the world. Running through the center of Colombia on the western end of the Andes Mountains, Eje Cafetero comprises the three departments of Caldas, Quindíó and Risaralda, all known for their unique hacienda architecture and friendly locals. The verdant, steep-sloped valleys of the region make it visually stunning as well.
Medellin serves as the gateway to Eje Cafetero, and while Pereira, Armenia and Manizales are the three big capital cities of the region, it’s in the small towns and villages, like colorful Salento, scattered throughout where visitors get a true look (and taste) of the distinctive culture. The landscape makes Eje Cafetero popular for outdoor adventure sports, but the real reason to visit is to tour the coffee farms to see firsthand how the beans are grown, processed and transformed into that warm cup of joe.
Carlos Gardel was a famous tango musician whose music and voice thrilled lovers of tango all over the world. In 1935, while touring Colombia, he was involved in a tragic airplane accident in Medellin that took his life. That event sparked the love of tango in Medellin, and to this day that love is kept alive.
One of the places it lives on is at the same airport where Gardel lost his life, the Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport. A plaza and sculpture were erected in 2003 to remember Gardel, his life and his works. The statue, made by artist Salvador Arango from the state of Antioquia, shows the elegantly dressed Gardel singing and playing the guitar while a couple dances tango behind him. Tango events take place at this site during the year, and visitors come from around the world to appreciate the art of this beloved singer and musician.
Surrounded by the green mountains and the bright blue skies of Antioquia, the 984-foot (300-meter) Puente de Occidente, or the Bridge of the West, spans a vast river that once divided the region and tells a story of ingenuity, creativity and the strength of the human spirit.
The Cauca River divides the area and impedes access to other parts of the country, long isolating the inhabitants of the area. In the late 1800s, the need for a bridge was obvious, and the suspension bridge that was built over the river is considered one of the most important civil engineering projects in America at the time it was built.
Colombian José María Villa studied engineering in the United States and later participated in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. In the early 1880s, he returned to Colombia and decided to take on the task of building a series of bridges. One of those was the Bridge of the West. Construction started in 1887 and lasted five years.
In Medellin, the magic and sensuality of tango comes alive on the weekends at restaurants like La Rueca that combine a mixture of tango and Argentinean grill.
Located in El Poblado, one of the nicest neighborhoods of Medellin, every weekend La Rueca transports visitors to the streets of Argentina to enjoy the best tango show in the city. The live tango shows are performed by the best professional tango musicians, singers and dancers in the city.
Specializing in Argentine barbecue, some of the specialties are chinchulines (chitterlings) and churrasco. They also have grilled chicken and seafood and a wine cellar. In addition to the indoor dining area, the restaurant also has a lounge and balconies to enjoy the mild temperature of a Medellin evening.
Medellin is the second world capital of tango (after Buenos Aires), and tango music can be heard throughout the city. This is due in large part to Carlos Gardel, a famous tango musician who died in 1935 in a tragic plane accident in Medellin while touring Colombia.
Gardel’s death spurred a movement that lives on to this day. In fact, the International Tango Festival, held in Medellin every June, commemorates Gardel’s life with dancers, singers, musicians and faithful followers of this musical expression.
To celebrate the music of a man who changed Medellin, the Casa Gardeliana Museum opened in 1972. Dedicated to tango, this museum has projects, programs and services that are all about teaching tango dance, singing and music. They have collections that include photos, recordings and documentaries about how tango has influenced life in Medellin. There are guided tours and special day and evening performance programs.
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