Explore Outside of Medellín
Medellín is a thriving city (Colombia's second-largest) nestled at the base of the Aburrá Valley amid the lush and muscular Andes Mountains. As such, it's filled with all the attendant nightlife, multi-cultural restaurants, and varied museums any respectable metropolis is known for. But burning through a week or two in this city, while rewarding, can leave you craving some relaxation. The best remedy? Recharge those batteries with a day trip.
Medellín's surrounding Antioquian countryside is breathtaking—the stuff of postcards—so you won't lack for epic scenery. There's also no shortage of attractions, quaint colonial towns, and natural parks to keep you occupied. Here are our picks for the best places to go when you need to get out of the big city for a day or two. And for the best things to do in town, check out our ultimate guide to Medellín.
Río Claro Reserva Natural
On weekends, many Paisas (those from Medellín and Antioquia) make the three-hour journey southeast on the Medellín-Bogotá highway to the Río Claro Reserva Natural. Here you're treated to pure refreshment in this natural park's crystalline waters. The winding snake of a river isn't just something to marvel at either—there's a host of activities in and around the Río Claro. You can grab a beer and go inner-tubing, or take the family on a gentle Class 1 river-rafting trip under hanging vines while being watched by curious howler monkeys on the banks. You can even indulge your inner spelunker and take a hiking/caving tour to the Cueva de los Guacharos, where you'll see countless nesting Guácharo birds as you swim from one underground pool to another.
The reserve features three lodgings of varying comfort levels, including a fort-like refuge, ecolodge, and a family-friendly hotel with a playground for kids. Know that the environment here is refreshingly free of creature comforts like wifi and televisions. This is because Río Claro has been privately owned for many generations, and the current owners fiercely protect their pristine oasis while promoting conservation and a back-to-basics nature experience. That said, the big hotel chains have already come calling with exorbitant offers to buy the place. Combine that with nearby mining projects that involve dynamiting entire sections of pristine marble cliffs and there's a real possibility Río Claro won't remain untouched forever. So get there while the gettin' is good.
Buses to Río Claro Reserva Natural leave from Terminal Norte (at the Caribé Metro stop), one of two principal bus terminals in Medellín.
In one day you can combine the Río Claro with a jaunt to Hacienda Napoles, the former estate of notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar. Bathe in the clear river waters in the morning and then travel by bus just a few miles up the road to see the sprawling manor where Escobar used to party and do business. But this is no homage to Antioquia's violent past—today it's a restored property that doubles as a theme park and zoo. It makes sense since Pablo was famous for his prized collection of exotic animals. Once the police punched Escobar's ticket, the animals took to the countryside; African hippos even started breeding and are now thriving along the nearby Magdalena River.
You can see some of these hippos in the official zoo, plus giraffes, Bengal tigers, zebras, and rhinos. They even added their own "Jurassic Park"—Aventura Jurásica—on the grounds, which features recreated dinosaur exhibits. Still, it's impossible to completely erase Escobar's legacy. You see it in the single-prop Piper aircraft perched atop the front gate, and even in the swimming pool. Look at the bottom and you'll see where the tile has been smashed by amateur treasure hunters looking for one of Pablo's mythic buried stashes of narco-dollars.
There is no shortage of well-preserved colonial towns in Colombia, and especially in the Antioquia region. At the moment Salento, in the coffee triangle, is all the rage—and rightly so because it is picturesque and offers great nature excursions. But if you want to spend a day in a relatively undiscovered pueblito, make sure to visit Jardín. Located three hours south of Medellín (buses leave from Terminal Sur at the Poblado Metro stop), you'll wind your way around some of the steepest Andes in the country to get there. Eventually, you reach the plateau upon which Jardín sits, nestled amid rolling green banana and passion fruit crops.
The tiny town (barely 14,000 residents) is a relaxing respite from Medellín's endless bustle. Stay at a local hacienda with views of the hills and the many rivers that surround the town, and try some jams and sweets at local confectioner Dulces de Jardín. Flavors include maracuyá (passion fruit), and rose petal, among countless others. You should definitely take one of the rickety cable cars leading to lookout points located on either side of town. And to get a sense of just how well-preserved Jardín is, stroll the cobbled plaza. It's dominated on one side by the twin steeples of the Neo-gothic Templo Parroquial de la Inmaculada Concepción, the town church. If you hang around on weekend nights you'll be treated to local cowboys riding into the plaza and performing all kinds of equestrian stunts.
El Peñol and Guatapé
This is one of the most popular excursions from Medellín, and for good reason. If you make this two-hour trip (buses leave from Terminal Norte) east of Medellín, you get a great two-for-one. Not only can you experience the majestic granite rock formation called El Peñol, but you can also sneak in a visit to the adjacent village of Guatapé. The town itself is a character—colorful, quaint and bustling with wildly painted moto-taxis that light up at night.
Both the town and the rock are located on a famous lake (actually a reservoir called the Embalse Peñol de Guatape). Its pristine jade waters wind like octopus tentacles through the countryside, and the green islets that rise from the water are like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. For the best vantage point, climb the 649 stairs carved into the side of the rock. The journey up is so narrow and vertical you'll feel like you're scaling a sheer rock face. It's definitely a brisk workout to arrive at the summit, but once you do you're rewarded with 360-degree views of the stunning Antioquian countryside and the aforementioned lake. Enjoy a mango michelada for your troubles—they might be Colombia's greatest alcoholic refreshment.
Santa Fe de Antioquia
Santa Fe de Antioquia is another charming small town (population about 23,000), located at a lower altitude than Medellín, in the Cauca River Valley. As such it enjoys a more tropical climate than Medellín, which makes it ideal for sunbathing and swimming. Here you'll find any number of fincas and haciendas—retreats featuring shimmering pools that cater to the Paisas who weekend in town for a little R&R. You can arrive there by bus from the Terminal Sur in Poblado.
But Santa Fe de Antioquia also has quite the colonial history, as evidenced by the Catedral Basilica de la Inmaculada Concepcíon de Santa Fe, the neoclassical cathedral fronting the town's Plaza Mayor. It's the crown jewel of one of the most beautiful plazas in the entire region. The town itself was founded all the way back in 1541, and for almost three centuries it was the capital of Antioquia Department until Medellín replaced it in 1826. The cobbled streets and colonial grandeur that make Santa Fe de Antioquia such an idyllic place to visit also earned it a designation as a National Monument of Colombia in 1960.