The ‘City of Eternal Spring’, or to go by its official name, Medellín, is the second-largest city in Colombia. Today, it’s a hotspot for tourism but for some, the city still has a fearsome reputation. During the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Medellín was the playground for the infamous drug baron, Pablo Escobar and his cartel.
But is that reputation still deserved? Is Medellín safe to visit now?
In short, yes, Medellín is safe to visit. However, as with staying safe anywhere in South America, you’ll need to keep your wits about you and follow some basic precautions to limit your chance of becoming a victim of crime.
This Colombian city stands tall as a success story. It’s an example of what can be done to turn one of the world’s most dangerous cities into one of South America’s most popular and influential tourist hubs!
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Is Medellín Safe for Tourists?
The short answer is yes, Medellín is safe for tourists – as long as you avoid dodgy neighbourhoods and are sensible when out and about in the city.
There is a famous Colombian phrase that you’ll see plastered on posters, billboards and spilling from the mouth of every tour guide you meet in Medellín: “No dar papaya” – don’t give papaya.
This idiomatic expression means ‘Don’t put yourself in a position where people can take advantage of you.’
Essentially, don’t flash valuables or make yourself a target for crime. Blend in as best you can and avoid the more dangerous areas of the city.
Medellín has become a popular spot with expats, digital nomads and travellers in Colombia. The city receives over a million tourists each year, the vast majority of whom never experience a problem. Obviously, as with any major city, you’ll find trouble if you’re looking for it but it’s also relatively easy to avoid. Stick to the safer neighbourhoods and listen to the advice of locals!
Crime in Medellín
While serious crime can and does happen in Medellín, most of it takes place away from the main tourist areas. As a general rule, the further you get from the valley floor and into the hills, the more dangerous the areas become.
Unlike in the days of Escobar and the cartels, the most common crimes affecting tourists in Medellín are simple scams and petty theft. Pickpocketing is common in La Candelaria (aka El Centro) and isn’t unheard of on the Metro. Wear your bag on your front and don’t store valuables in your pockets.
Be careful when receiving a lot of change, or when changing money. Counterfeit notes are prolific throughout Colombia. Only change money from an official location. When buying things from markets or small vendors, try to use small denomination notes, so you won’t need too much change.
Expect to pay inflated prices from market stalls or street vendors. It’s so normal that people rarely even attempt to hide the ‘gringo tax.’ Think sunglasses with a price tag on them costing twice the stated price…
It’s also worth noting that motorcycles in Medellín are a law unto themselves. Red lights appear to be optional if you’re on two wheels. Be aware of this and always triple-check when crossing the road!
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What Neighbourhoods in Medellín Are Safe?
There are several neighbourhoods in Medellín which are safe for tourists. The most popular is El Poblado – which is also derogatorily referred to as ‘Gringoland’ by locals due to the huge numbers of foreigners that frequent the area. The neighbourhood is full of hostels, bars, clubs, restaurants and cafés. While it’s more expensive and more metropolitan than many areas of Medellín, it’s one of the safest places within the city.
As long as you’re sensible, walking around El Poblado is safe at almost any time of day! There are some areas where you’re more likely to find trouble though. Parque Lleras is a popular spot for eating and partying but the area can get pretty rowdy at night – sex workers and drug dealers also frequent the area looking for business.
Laureles and Estadio are two popular neighbourhoods sitting next door to one another. Easily accessible using the Metro, Laureles and Estadio are more residential than El Poblado and because the university is nearby, house a large student population. The area is becoming more popular with tourists wanting a quieter experience in Medellín, so prepare for prices to rise as the area’s popularity grows.
Found to the south of Medellín, Envigado offers an interesting spot for those wanting to get a little further from the bustle of the city. This primarily working-class neighbourhood is a charming escape from the rather intense pace elsewhere in Medellín! The area is safe during the day but as always, you should be cautious at night. Envigado’s popularity with travellers has grown recently, so there are a few hostels and eateries catering to backpackers.
Sabaneta, just a little further south of Envigado, is separate enough from the bulk of Medellín that it feels more like a small town in its own right. With lower prices than the city, Sabaneta maintains its town-like feel, without being too far from the action. It’s Medellín’s answer to towns like Jardin or Salento. Small cafés and restaurants line the streets but don’t expect to find a raucous night out – for that, you’ll need to head to the nearby El Poblado!
Comuna 13 used to be one of Medellín’s most dangerous areas. Blood literally ran in the streets as government forces and cartels wrestled for control of the area. But today, Comuna 13 is one of the most visited parts of the city. Vibrant graffiti adorns almost every building. Bars and restaurants spill out into the streets and a bunch of escalators have been installed to make getting around the comuna easier.
Located high on the steep sides of Aburrá Valley, Comuna 13 offers incredible views over the rest of Medellín. Take a guided tour if you want a local take on the history of the area, or explore by yourself for a more immersive look. Be aware, Comuna 13 get super busy at weekends and during public holidays! There are some hostels in Comuna 13 but most travellers just visit for the day.
During your trip to Medellín, you’re bound to visit La Candelaria (aka El Centro) at some point – even if it’s just to marvel at the sheer quantity of knock-off goods available on the neighbourhood’s market stalls! La Candelaria is also where you’ll find a bunch of museums and art installations including Plaza Botero, home to a bunch of Fernando Botero sculptures!
While exploring El Centro, keep your wits about you. Pickpocketing is super common and more violent crime isn’t unheard of. The area is super crowded, so ensure you keep your backpack on your front and don’t carry valuables in your pockets.
Are Taxis Safe in Medellín?
Taxis in Medellín are relatively safe but using a ride-sharing app like Uber or InDrive is better. Taxi drivers are known to take longer routes or take you around in circles to push the price up. There are also semi-frequent reports of taxi drivers robbing or assaulting their customers. If you need to get a taxi, it’s best to ask your accommodation to book one for you rather than flagging one down on the street.
Public Transport in Medellín
Public transport in Medellín is dominated by the Metro. Relying on two train lines, several cable cars, a series of buses and a tram, the Metro is the epitome of a modern and changed Medellín. It means everywhere in the city is accessible in a fast and efficient manner – it’s much quicker than using taxis!
Be aware though, the Metro is well-known for pickpocketing. Take the usual precautions, bag on your front, nothing valuable in your pockets, etc. This is especially true around rush hour when you’re crammed in like tinned fish!
Is Medellín Safe for Solo Travellers?
Yes, Medellín is safe for solo travellers. As with many South American cities, solo travellers will need to be on their guard in Medellín but as long as you’re in a good area, not giving papaya and not walking too far at night, you’ll likely be fine.
Always be careful when out partying in Medellín. Try to make some friends at your hostel before heading out to the bars and clubs. Avoid walking home alone at night, especially when intoxicated!
Is Medellín Safe for Female Travellers?
Medellín is just as safe for female travellers as many other South American cities. You’ll see plenty of women walking around by themselves during the day but you should be cautious at night – even in the safer areas. Macho culture is alive and well in Colombia, so expect catcalling or lewd behaviour. This is worse after dark, especially in and around bars and clubs.
If you’re out after dark, try to buddy up with someone you know. It’s also sensible to use Uber or InDrive to get around, rather than relying on taxis. If you’re out partying, never leave your drink unattended and don’t accept drinks from strangers – spiking is an all too present threat in Medellín’s bars are clubs.
Is Medellín Airport Safe?
Medellín has two airports; José María Córdova and Olaya Herrera.
José María Córdova is the main international airport and the second largest in Colombia. It’s actually located in Rionegro, around 25km from Medellín proper. Getting from the airport into the city takes 25-40 minutes depending on the time of day.
The area around José María Córdova is safe enough but there is little reason for travellers to leave the airport by foot. You’ll want to get a bus or taxi into Medellín. Buses are available outside the airport – this area is well signed – and drop you off in Downtown Medellín.
You may need to get onward transport from the drop-off point. The Metro is only two blocks away and Uber is operational in Medellín. Be aware, the area you get dropped off by the bus is a well-known location for pickpockets, so keep your wits about you if you’re travelling with all your stuff!
It’s also worth noting that there are multiple reports of the money changers in José María Córdova Airport short-changing customers. Avoid changing money if possible. If you need money, opt to use the ATMs on-site.
Olaya Herrera Airport is located more centrally but only serves domestic and regional flights. It’s a much smaller airport but is very well-equipped. Getting from the airport is simple, with buses and taxis available outside. The Metro is also close, just a 20-minute walk away. If you arrive during the day, walking to the Metro is safe enough but if you have a lot of bags or it’s dark, taking a taxi is recommended.
Is Medellín Safer Than Bogotá?
Medellín, being smaller and more popular with tourists, is slightly safer than Bogotá. However, both cities can throw up safety issues, so don’t base your decision to visit one over the other just on their crime rates!
Safety Tips for Visiting Medellín
Although Medellín has outgrown its old reputation as one of the world’s deadliest cities, it’s still not like wandering the streets of Geneva or Chiang Mai. Travelling in South America is all about mitigating risks – and a visit to Medellín is no different. Follow these tips to reduce your chances of being a victim of crime in Medellín.
1. Avoid Walking Around at Night
It’s common sense. When darkness arrives, so do the baddies. Try to avoid spending too much time on the streets after dark – especially if you’re alone.
2. Do As the Locals Do
If you see a lot of locals wearing backpacks on their front, or moving items out of their pockets, you should do the same. Yeah, wearing a backpack on your front looks a bit lame but it’s better than having your stuff stolen!
3. Take a Walking Tour
Walking tours are common throughout South America – and Medellín has multiple companies offering tours around various parts of the city. Guides are always quick to let you know where is safe and where to avoid. Heed their advice!
4. Ask at Your Hostel
It’s always worth asking at your accommodation to see if there are any dodgy areas nearby. Anyone working at a hostel will be able to tell you where to avoid.
5. Be Cautious in El Centro
El Centro, or La Candelaria as it’s actually known, is the beating heart of Medellín. You’ll find absolutely anything you need there – but unless you’re careful, your belongings might end up on a market stall too… Pickpocketing and bag thefts are common in El Centro and more nefarious crime isn’t unheard of. Avoid taking anything valuable when you visit and always wear your bag on your front.
6. Some Subjects Shouldn’t Be Talked About
Plenty of contentious talking points should be avoided when chatting with Colombians. Unless they’re brought up by a local, you should avoid discussing Pablo Escobar (often referred to as “he who shall not be named”), FARQ, paramilitaries or cocaine. While these aren’t the only talking points that may offend, they are by far the most common!
7. Avoid Drugs
Colombia is a cheap place to buy drugs. And drugs are rife. But this doesn’t mean you should partake. Many Colombians find drug-taking backpackers insulting. The reign of Escobar is still within living memory, so many Paisas (people from Antioquía) have seen the damage drugs can do to their home. Plus, a lot of the drug trade in Colombia can still be linked with cartels – any dealings with gangs have the potential to end badly.
8. Learn Some Spanish
Knowing some Spanish is super helpful when visiting Medellín. Whether it’s for navigating public transport or asking directions, being able to speak to locals will help you avoid trouble – or if trouble is unavoidable, help you get out of it!
There are a bunch of great Spanish schools in Medellín, so you have no excuse not to learn a few words at the very least!
Safety in Medellín – A Round-Up
While it’s far from the safest city in the world, Medellín is much safer than it used to be. Travellers flock to the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ to experience the excellent weather and fascinating culture.
Some areas should be visited with caution and others should be avoided altogether. Always ask for safety tips from tour guides or in your accommodation – no one knows the city like those who live there!