Make a Smooth Move to Medellin
This post is part of our Medellin Travel Manual, a collection of blog posts that reveal the real Medellin.
So, you’re thinking about moving to Medellin?
Chris and I just moved here in December. For the most part we love it, but there have certainly been some “adjustment periods” and surprises.
That’s why we thought it’d be useful to compile a list of things to know prior to moving to the land of Eternal Spring.
Some may be obvious to you and some may not apply, but hopefully one or two tips make your transition to the Medellin Expat life a little smoother.
Here, in no particular order, are 22 things you might want to know before coming to Medellin.
1. The Water is Potable
You’ll be happy to know that tap water is totally safe to drink here in Medellin.
Bring a reusable water bottle to save money on expensive and wasteful water bottles and ask for “agua de la llave” whenever you’re at a restaurant or cafe.
2. The Produce is Amazing!
Be sure that your Airbnb or hostel has a blender so you can make some mean batidos (smoothies) because the variety in produce here is unparalleled.
Since moving to Medellin, I’ve realized you can find just about everything. From papaya to mango to more exotic fruit such as “tomate de árbol” (tree tomato), the choice is truly amazing. The same goes with vegetables, as you can find fresh local Swiss chard, spinach, herbs and, of course, avocados. We seem to discover a new fruit or veggie every week.
(Warning: Don’t walk to to the Mercado Minorista. Take an Uber or taxi. Even though it looks close to the other downtown attractions on a map, it’s a long and dangerous walk through Medellin’s skid row that you’ll regret attempting.)
3. Taxis > Uber
A taxi driver once told me that there are over 15,000 taxis in the city of Medellin. And I believe him. There’s one (or five) on every street you walk down.
When it comes to Uber though, you have to be careful. Uber is actually illegal in the Medellin and police have been known to pull over and penalize Uber drivers, leaving you stranded.
We suggest you don’t needlessly break the law. Just take a taxi! We’ve had really positive experiences with taxis and find them friendlier and often cheaper than Uber. Plus, you never have to wait to catch a ride!
(And if you’re not confident with your Spanish, legal apps like EasyTaxi can help you out.)
4. Don’t Flush The Toilet Paper!
Unless unplugging a toilet is your version of a good time, don’t flush anything down the toilet here in Medellin. Toilet paper included. The old pipes in the city (and most of Latin America) are not designed to handle heavy loads.
5. The Internet Can Be Brutally Slow
I feel like this post probably took twice as long to write and publish as it should have because of spotty (and crappy) internet here in Medellin.
If solid internet is crucial for your work, blog, or life in general, make sure you check that the place you’re staying has fast internet before committing.
A couple cafes in the city which we can recommend with decent Internet are: Pergamino in Poblado (order a cold brew), Ocre in Laureles (take some sourdough to-go), and, as much as I hate to say it, Starbucks.
6. Specialty Food Items Are Difficult to Find
You’ll quickly realize that some speciality items are hard to find, expensive or just don’t exist here in Medellin. We’re talking $4 USD cans of coconut milk, very few places with good loose tea, expensive nuts and seeds, and no good maple syrup. Good thing I brought my own maple syrup from Canada, eh?
7. Prepare to Live Off Menus Del Día
Menus del día are the best way to eat well and eat cheap while living in Medellin.
A menu del día (“menu or meal of the day”) is a set menu that is offered for lunch at most restaurants almost every day of the week. It usually consists of a drink (often freshly squeezed juice), soup, and a main dish. Sometimes it comes with a dessert, too.
Prices range from 7,000COP to 15,000COP ($2.50 – $5.25 USD). The menu del día isn’t always publicized at some restaurants, so just ask. You won’t be disappointed!
To find Medellin’s very best menu del dias—vegetarian, Colombian, and international—check out our complete guide. It has a downloadable map, photos, descriptions, ratings, and more.
8. Outdoor Workout Areas Are Everywhere
You really don’t need to worry about joining a gym when moving to Medellin, because every neighborhood in Medellin is sprinkled with outdoor workout areas. Some just have calisthenic machines, some have bars for stuff like pull-ups, and some, like the ones in Estadio and El Poblado even have weights and benches.
If you don’t think you’re self-motivated enough to work out on your own, join me! I lead outdoor high intensity interval training classes in Poblado and in Laureles (see video).
9. Paisas Are Friendly & Polite, So Return the Favor
If you’re lost you’re much more likely to be taken where you want to go than to have your stuff taken from you. That’s because the locals here in Antioquia (the province where Medellin is located), are extremely friendly and polite.
Manners are a big deal here. Paisas (Antioquian locals), will go out of their way to say “buenos días” to you and they’re almost always willing to help any way they can.
Be polite back by smiling and saying “buenos días” or “buenas” whenever you make eye contact with someone on the streets and learning basic phrases such as “como le va” (how’s it going), “todo estuvo muy rico” (everything was very tasty), and “que le vaya bien” (be well).
10. Be Careful Out There!
As polite and friendly as almost all Paisas are, some are desperately poor and will see you as an easy and lucrative target. Everyone has heard of, or experienced, multiple cases of pickpocketing (mostly) and robbery (rarely).
The danger level obviously depends on where you are in the city and time of day. If you stick to busy streets when out at night, dress like a Colombian (see point 17), never walk around with your phone out, and be careful with withdrawing cash you should be fine. Basically don’t “dar papaya” which pretty much means don’t flaunt your stuff and ask for trouble.
11. Beauty Services Are Plentiful and Cheap
If you didn’t know already, beauty is a big deal in Colombia. Because of this, you’re bound to find a nail salon, hair parlor, or waxing place almost every block. Men get manicures here too!
Competition is high, so prices are very reasonable. And based on my experience, the quality is comparable to back home in Canada and are less than half the price.
12. Beware of the Pollution
Since moving to Medellin, I’ve noticed that the air isn’t always easy on my virgin “Super Natural British Columbia” lungs. I’ve gotten cold-like symptoms a couple of times since moving to Medellin because of it.
Medellin is in the middle of a valley and can often be highly polluted especially when it hasn’t rained in a while. If you have asthma or other respiratory conditions, you may want to look into finding accommodation further up the hill in areas like Poblado and Envigado, and away from the city center where air quality levels are the worst.
13. Don’t Trust the Weather Forecasts
Google “Medellin weather” and you’ll likely see day after day of rain showers and thunder storms. Don’t worry.
Medellin’s weather is not nearly as bad as it looks online. It’s just highly variable. At any given point of a day, one part of the city is flooded by a huge storm, while another is hot and sunny.
Some people carry umbrellas but in my opinion, it’s not necessary because it never rains for that long. If you do get caught in a downpour, just tuck into a cafe or bar and wait it out. Apart from the heavy downpours, you’ll be enjoying temperatures in the mid 20s and a lot of sun, all year round.
14. Dryers Are Uncommon
Of the close to ten different places we’ve stayed at since moving to Medellin, we’ve yet to come across a dryer.
That’s because, with the weather being so warm and relatively dry, it never takes more than half a day for your clothes to dry outside. Don’t be lazy and wait too long, though. If don’t take down your laundry in time, a rain shower will undoubtedly soak them all over again.
15. Tourists Are Exempt from Hotel Tax
Foreigners on a tourist visa DO NOT need to pay the 19% hotel tax. Quite a few hotels will try to pull a fast one on you. Don’t let them.
Check out Nomadic Niko’s post for more info.
16. How to Extend Your Colombia Tourist Visa Without Extending Your Patience
If you’re moving to Medellin on a tourist visa, you will be given 90 days upon entry in the country and you can extend another 90 days online.
It’s not as simple as it sounds though.
Our experience was a debacle of multiple application denials and an unfortunate visit to the immigration office. Let our experience guide you from having the same by reading our important tips for extending your Colombia tourist visa.
17. “Spicy” Isn’t Really Spicy
Back in December when Chris and I just moved to Medellin, we ordered a patacon pizza loaded with cheese, meat and avocado. As Chris always does, he asked for it extra spicy, so the lady making the pizza added some powdered chile. Chris said, “más por favor,” and she hesitated. She whispered to her colleagues that Chris must be crazy, warned us, then added more spice.
Chris could barely even taste the spice.
“Spicy,” or “picante” or “con ahí” just doesn’t mean the same thing here in Medellin than it does in Mexico or Thailand.
If you’re looking for good spicy hot sauce, go to Zacatecas in Envigado (their tacos are tasty!) and ask for their spiciest hot sauce. La Jalapena in Belen also has some great habanero hot sauce they bottle and sell in their restaurant.
18. I’m in Love with the (Limonada de) Coco
A popular drink here in Medellin, “Limonada de Coco” (coconut lemonade), is made with sweetened coconut cream and lime juice. It’s blended with ice for a frothy and refreshing non-alcoholic drink. Sometimes you can ask for it without sugar but I’m pretty sure there’s always a way for sugar to sneak its way into the drink regardless.
Most people moving to Medellin have never heard of limonada de coco before arriving, us included, but it’s a staple that you’ll find almost everywhere and is well worth having regularly.
19. Don’t Dress Like a Gringo
As much as wearing flip flops and shorts would make sense in the middle of the day when it’s 28-degrees celsius and sunny, nobody who lives in Medellin does. Medellin is a city in the mountains, not the beach, and people dress accordingly.
Only “turistas gringos” here in Medellin will be seen Birkenstocks and shorts, so stick with pants and shoes to blend in as much as you can.
There is one trick to avoiding pants though: Wear athletic wear. If you look like you’re going to or coming from the gym, you’ll still look local and won’t attract any unwanted attention.
20. Ask for “Integrado” Bus Tickets
If you’re going to take the bus and then the metro, make sure you ask for an “integrado” ticket. This allows you to do the whole trip on a single fare. We didn’t know this before moving to Medellin and double-paid a few times before we learned about this.
Speaking of metro tickets, make sure you buy a 10-ticket loaded card. You can buy these from the ticket booths which are located at every metro station. If you don’t, you will likely find yourself having to wait in ridiculously long lines to buy your next ticket.
21. The Difference Between a Plantain and a Banana
I’m pretty sure they’re trying to screw with us.
There’s no other explanation for why all supermarkets in Colombia put bananas and plantains beside each other in supermarkets and call them both platano. I have no foolproof solution for telling the difference. When in doubt, don’t be shy to ask. It’s better than taking a bite of a bitter, starchy plantain thinking it’s a banana.
22. Medellin = City of Avocados
Avocados here in Medellin are found on street corners, markets, and at every grocery store all-year-round. There are at least 3 types you commonly see here, and at less than $1.50 a kilo, you can, and should, have avocados with every meal. Get ready to be spoiled.
Thinking of Moving to Medellin and Have More Questions?
For WAY more tips and info about traveling to Colombia, the best overall guide we’ve found online is this one by Tom Plan My Trip.
And for every ingredient you need for putting together a magnificent Medellin trip, head to our Medellin Travel Manual.