Layover Guide South America

Medellin Layover Guide: The Post-Narcos Hipster Destination in South America

September 26, 2018

If there is any good the Pablo Escobar biopic-inspired Netflix series Narcos has brought to Medellin, it is the undeniable fact that it has placed the city in every digital nomad and backpacker’s map. For what once was the most violent city in Colombia, Medellin has emerged into one of the most popular hipster destinations in South America.

Eoin Dolly of Dolly’s Quest spent 8 weeks traveling through Colombia in early 2017, two of those weeks were spent in Medellin and the surrounding area. He is writing for our Airport Layover Series to provide us a glimpse of what can be expected on a short layover trip to Medellin from the José María Córdova International Airport.

  • Medellin is the second-largest city in Colombia and is the capital of the Department of Antioquia.
  • The nearest international airport is the José María Córdova International Airport (MDE) in Rionegro, 20 kilometers southeast of Medellin.
  • Without acquiring a visa, passport holders from 101 jurisdictions are allowed to enter Colombia for a maximum stay of 90 days.
  • Should you need to stay for extended period in the city, here’s a list of recommended accommodations in Medellin (via Claire’s Itchy Feet).
Medellín Metro, Medellin, Colombia

Medellín Metro
Pixabay / Alexandercanasarango/ CC0 1.0

If you happen to be in transit via Medellin and have 24 to 48-hour spare, then you will have just enough time to get a taste of the city.

Medellin is rapidly growing as an expat and tourist hotspot in Colombia. If you only have a few hours it should be enough time to experience the warm culture and hospitality of Medellin’s inhabitants.

Medellin is a large city, the logistics of getting around can be a little tricky. Luckily once you reach the outskirts of the city they have an excellent transport network. I would advise using the metro and avoid cabs as much as possible, the rush hour seems to be perpetual in the city.

El Poblado

El Poblado, Medellin, Colombia

El Poblado, Medellin, Colombia.
Pixabay / USA-Reiseblogger / CC0 1.0

El Poblado is the trendy tourist district of Medellin where I would recommend you look for accommodation if you are spending a night in the city. It is also an ideal place to spend a few hours if your layover is short.

Although on the outskirts of the city it is a perfect neighborhood to get a feel of Medellin life in a relaxing setting. You will find a ton of trendy bars and restaurant dotted around the neighborhood and some interesting street art and public installations to keep you occupied.

If you are staying for a longer period of time, then this is the perfect base to reach a few of the other locations mentioned on this list.

  • Directions: 40 minutes by car from the airport. Transport from here to the airport is quite easy by Taxi. This should be your base especially for those catching an early morning flight.
  • Suggested duration: Four to five hours

Comuna 13 (San Javier)

Graffiti at Comuna 13 (San Javier), Medellin, Colombia

Street Art/Wall Graffiti in Comuna 13 (San Javier), Medellin, Colombia.
Pixabay / ShonEjai / CC0 1.0

Once one of the most violent neighborhoods in Colombia, Comuna 13 has seen a rebirth. This has been brought about by community initiatives and excellent local government involvement.

» Must-read: 13 Things to Consider Before You Book a Comuna 13 Tour in Medellin (via Wander-Lush)

Comuna 13 now showcases some of the most interesting mural and graffiti art in all of South America. It celebrates community spirit, Medellin’s history, and the culture of Colombia as a whole.

This art has led to a huge influx of inquisitive tourists which has been even more beneficial to the community.

An interesting installation in the neighborhood and a now-famous initiative are the escalators. These allow locals and visitors easier access to the highest vestiges of the neighborhood.

The cities unique and modernizing approach to connecting the communities of Medellin can be seen across the city, the escalators are just one example.

The escalators are great for locals trying to get to work and move around easier, while for tourist as it allows an incredible view of the sprawling neighborhoods that make up Medellin.

  • Directions: 1 hour by car from the airport, although I would recommend traveling via El Pablado.
  • From El Pablado, take the metro to San Javier. This requires one change over.
  • Suggested duration: Two to three hours

Ride the cable cars

Medellin cable cars, Medellin, Colombia

The Metrocable. These cable cars are one of the popular mass public transit in Medellin, Colombia.
Pixabay / quinntheislander / CC0 1.0

The second dynamic idea on this list are the cable cars of Medellin. Dotted in three locations throughout the city and integrated into the Metro system, the cable cars are an important part of city life.

The cable cars are yet another innovative social and economic addition to the city. Each day over 30,000 people ride the cable cars getting to work, school, and a host of other amenities that were once difficult to reach.

The cable cars are popular among visitors and locals alike as they provide stunning views of the city and allow access to areas that were once inaccessible.

New health services, stores, and a host of other business and industries have emerged in the wake of the cablers.

  • Directions: You can reach the cable cars by taking the metro from El Pablado to your desired cable car. The line is J, K, and L.
  • Cost: Between 2000 & 4000 COP.
  • Suggested duration: 2-3 hours

Visit Downtown

Fernando Botero Sculpture, Plaza Botero, Medellin, Colombia

One of the 23 popular sculptures of Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Plaza Botero, Medellin, Colombia.
Pixabay / Julianza / CC0 1.0

Like much of the city, Medellin’s center has undergone a rebirth. Of course, the regular tourist will not know this until they go on one of the many walking tours of the city.

I discovered the history of the city, its infamous inhabitants and the efforts to tun the city into the modern economic hub it is today. The walking tour is one of the best I have taken in all of South America, with a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide.

You will discover the beautiful urban art installations, modern high-rise office blocks mixed in with chic boutique cafes and plenty of knock-off shopping opportunities throughout the downtown district.

  • Directions: Pablo metro station to Alpujarra station, 10 minutes.
  • Suggested duration: 4-5 hours

Additional information

For anyone entering Colombia, it is necessary to show proof of onward travel. This is not enforced at all checkpoints, but it is better to have some proof.

Most countries are permitted up to 90-day free travel within the country, but please check with your respective immigration offices before traveling.

I would advise using El Pablado as your base and traveling from here to the recommended locations in this article. Public transport in Medellin is quite effective.

Eoin Dolly is an Irish blogger who writes over at His stories focus on adventure travel and his pursuits of developing an online business. You can usually find him wandering on Facebook and Instagram.




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Medellin Airport Layover Guide
Medellin Airport Layover Guide

Cover photo via Pixabay, stefan17/CC0 1.0

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