Medellín Beyond El Poblado
Beyond El Poblado
A neighbourhood guide to Medellín
The slick nomad cafes, colourful tattoo parlours and East London style eateries of the jungle strewn streets of El Poblado are often the only part of Medellín that tourists see. Maybe they’ll take a day trip out to tour the street art in Comuna 13, or a sketchy narco-tour through Barrio Pablo Escobar, but the heartlands of the city are often skipped. They’re dirtier. They’re more dangerous. You’re more likely to see prostitutes languishing in doorways or to be offered cocaine when you’re trying to buy a pair of socks. You can’t deny, she’s got character.
Medellín is my favourite city in the world, and I do love the ease and the aesthetic of El Poblado (otherwise referred to as gringolandia). Yet, if you want to understand the city, you need to move further out. Working in a hostel far from the tourist centre meant opening the door to find tiny salsa bars packed with dancing locals, street food vendors scattered along the pavements, bustling panaderías favoured by born and bred paisas. If you’re interested in getting of the well weathered tourist trail, venture slightly further out.
Staying at Paisa City Hostel, with its 24 hour bar and slightly wild reputation, I lived on the same street as Medellín’s Atanasio Girardot Stadium, home to both Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellín. I arrived on a match day, meaning the streets were teaming with excitable football fans and police in full riot gear loitered on the sidewalks, just in case. The spectators were sufficiently impassioned that they were literally hanging off the edges of the, very high, stadium railings, and touts were fighting each other to approach us with their offerings. When it isn’t a match-day, the district is very different.
When the stadium isn’t overrun with clamouring fans, the area around it is a hot spot for free recreational activities in Medellín. Open to the public, you can find basketball courts, a swimming pool, skate park, and various pieces of open-air exercise equipment. If you didn’t spend too much time in the district’s many cool bars the night before, you can start your day the right way here.
If you’re far more interested in those bars and the many eateries in the area, your choices aren’t at all limited. From the classic backpacker staple of Colombia menu del días, to varied treats in the local panadería, to cheap sushi, genuinely nice pizza, fresh fruits and juices from street vendors, to Mexican ice creams. The bars are equally enticing, blaring loud local music and teaming with pasias or tourists from other parts of Colombia. We were consistently the only gringos in any bar in the area, unlike the overwhelmingly English-speaking crowds that inhabit the bars in El Poblado.
There’s also market stands set up along the streets all day long, and often all through the night too. Most sell a variety of trinkets, many with whole tables dedicated to marijuana paraphernalia and quirky pipes. We found a glass pipe in the shape of a dragon, spitting smoke from the mouth. Nothing if not creative. Browse for some cheap souvenirs and whip out your best Spanish haggling vocab.
Sometimes coupled together as Estadio-Laurales, these neighbourhoods sit side by side. A favourite locale of expats, students and the middle class communities that have long inhabited the area. Lacking in the steep hills you face in Poblado, but home to a nightlife and food scene that can really compete, Laurales is a great option for those looking to live a more local lifestyle while staying in Medellín. You’re unlikely to find too many native English speakers, unlike the tourist traps littered across ‘gringolandia’, which is much better for those of us trying to practice our Spanish skills.
Find a shady spot to nestle under the tall trees in Primer Parque Laurales, where you can watch local boys playing football or attempting to be surreptitious whilst smoking their weed. Away from the hectic, somewhat sketchy crowds in El Centro, and the lively hubs of El Poblado, Laurales offers a recluse for the backpacker crowds.
El Centro – San Antonio
As I say, things can get a little sketchy round here. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to see it. Away from the clean and the calm of the suburbs and the tourist spots, lies the energy of Medellín. Stepping out of the metro station, you’re immediately hit by the rush of people. Milling in every direction through the dotted market stands, the scene can be overwhelming. Largely filled with knock-off clothing and shoes, general tat, household objects, and eclectic collections of anything the vendor could string together, the market stands offer very cheap options for those in the market for something new to wear. Attempting to buy socks in one of the spacious but silent stores along the sides of the street the shop attendant did also attempt to sell us cocaine, so you really can buy anything there. Alongside unsubtle drug dealings, you’ll find Medellín’s ‘red light district’ here. I use the term loosely, since these scenes can often be pictured as classier establishments in cities like Amsterdam. In El Centro, it’s mainly women loitering in door frames, calling out to passing men, and seeming inebriated at around midday. While I would never condone shaming sex workers or their conditions, I would also advise caution when visiting this district. Pickpockets and muggers, occasionally armed with knives, are rife in this area. During Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror in Medellín, this area was particularly unsafe, taking it from the economic centre of the city to the grungy hubbub it is today. You can’t deny, though, it’s got personality. It’s got life.
Visit Parque Botero to see sculptures made by one of the city’s most beloved artists, or explore more of his work at the Museo de Antioquia right next door. See the famous light fixtures in Plaza Cisneros, where you can see pictures hanging that show some of the more violent moments in the city’s history, a tribute and a reminder of how Medellín has recovered and transformed since the dark days of the civil wars and cartels.
El Poblado is a beautiful area, and I won’t deny loving it there. There’s lots to see, do, eat, drink, lots of places to dance and people to meet and quiet spots to wander. Nonetheless, if you’re planning on staying in Medellín for more than a couple of days I strongly recommend you venture out of the area, and get to know the city’s many, varied personalities. It’s my favourite city in the world, and it’s worth your time exploring.
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