Cosmopolitan Medellín is a sharp contrast to the more conservative, close-knit region of Antioquia that surrounds it. The Cordilleras range is studded with quaint colonial pueblos (towns), while Coffee Country offers age-old haciendas where you can learn about coffee production and sample fresh-ground gourmet coffees.
The region around Medellín is also known as a playground for adventurists, with many active day trips available such as rafting, paragliding, and hiking. While some of these places can be reached on public transport it's often quicker and more convenient to book a ride with a tour operator. You could also rent a car and set off on your own, provided you have good maps of the area.
Visit Pablo Escobar's Former Estate - Hacienda Napoles
The former country estate of the late narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar is now a family-focused theme park operated by the local municipality, which has been gradually eradicating all links to Escobar. Covering 8 sq miles (20 sq km), the amusement park is entered via an arched gateway topped by the Piper airplane that Escobar used for his first drug run. His former mansion served for many years as the Museo Memorial, dedicated to retelling Escobar’s sordid acts, until it collapsed in 2015.
Today the main draw are an African-themed zoo with animals (and their offspring) – hippos, ostrich, zebra – that were once part of Escobar’s private collection. The site is also home to a waterpark, so bring your swimsuit. The life-size concrete dinosaurs that Escobar had built still stand as educational exhibits in Parque Jurásico. The park is located about 90 miles (150 km) northeast of Medellín on the Bogotá highway.
Explore Embalse del Peñol reservoir
Perhaps Colombia’s most scenic man-made creation, the Embalse del Peñol reservoir was created when a dam was completed in 1978 in the Cordillera Central, supplying one-third of Colombia’s electricity. Studded with isles, fringed by white-sand beaches, and penetrated by surging peninsulas, the jade-colored lake is magnificent in its beauty.
The reservoir is best admired from atop the Piedra El Peñol, a huge granite monolith resembling Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Mountain. A 649-step staircase spirals up through a fissure in the dome and deposits you at a platform 656 feet (200 meters) above the base. Painted in tropical colors, the lakeside town of Guatapé is one of Colombia’s quaintest colonial villages. Many homes feature zócalos (the extended lower third of exterior walls) painted with bas-relief depictions of village life.
Wander the Historic Streets of Santa Fé de Antioquia
Only a one-hour drive (but a world away) west from Medellín, the beautiful pueblo of Santa Fé de Antioquia was founded in 1541. It was the early capital of Antioquia province until displaced by Medellín in 1826, after which, time seems to have come to a halt. Today, this somnolent and well-preserved town is replete with narrow cobblestone streets and beautifully preserved Spanish architecture, centered on the main plaza – Plaza Mayor.
Catedral Basilica de la Inmaculada Concepción is the most important of Santa Fé’s many ecclesiastical gems. Snoozy by day, the town comes alive in the late evening, when bars clustered around Plazuela de la Chincha draw the night owls. Be sure to hop aboard a moto ratón (literally, “mouse motorcycle”) – small tricycle taxis – for the 2-mile (3 km) journey to Puente Colgante de Occidente, a photogenic suspension bridge over the Río Cauca.
Get Caffeinated in the Zona Cafetera
With an early start, a day trip to Colombia’s world-famous coffee-growing zone will get you back to Medellín in time for the nightlife. The region is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its centuries-old haciendas, tended by WWII-era Willys Jeeps and colorful chivas that bounce along the country lanes.
Concentrate your time around Manizales (120 miles/190 km south of Medellín), the northern of the three cities that form the Eje Cafetero, or “Coffee Axis,” and thus the closest to Medellín. This ridgetop university town sits atop steep hillsides corduroyed with coffee bushes. Hacienda Venecia, west of town, offers coffee-estate tours and you can even overnight in the hacienda. Nearby Reserva Forestal Nacional Río Blanco is rated one of the world’s top birding sites.
Enjoy the Aromatic Flower Farms South of Medellín
A day-long excursion into the mountains immediately east of Medellín winds past dozens of silliteras (flower farms) growing roses and other flowers for export: Colombia supplies two-thirds of the USA’s imported cut roses and other flowers (a $1 billion a year industry). The country is second only to the Netherlands as the largest supplier of flowers in the world.
Carretera 35 Este climbs out of town to Santa Elena, surrounded by fields the color of Crayola to the south, where the bulk of the silliteras are found. The Corporación de Silliteros de Santa Elena lists farms open to visits. Several historic pueblos are also worth the visit, including La Ceja, with a beautiful main plaza; and equally quaint El Retiro, a center for crafts and rustic furniture workshops, and where the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Chiquinquirá houses a magnificent baroque gilt altar.
Ride a Bike in Parque Arví
The mountain plateau immediately northeast of Medellín is the perfect place to escape the urban mayhem and enjoy the freedom and adrenalin rush of mountain biking or hiking amid the cool cloud forest of Ecotourism Regional Park Arví. Protecting the Medellín watershed, the park spans 4,352 acres (1,761 ha) at an elevation of 7,218-8,530 ft (2,200-2,600 m). Eleven trails – some cobbled and pre-dating the Spanish – wind through the forest, where mists often swirl through the treetops.
Tour operators offer mountain bike trips from the pueblo of Guarne. Or you can rent a bike in Medellín and take the Line K cable car from Acevedo Metrocable Station to Santo Domingo, then transfer to Line L for Arví. The tram deposits you by the high-tech Environmental & Cultural Center, with an amphitheater, food court and produce and artisans’ market. The Comfama section has an adventure park with zip-lines and vertical tree-scaling. It’s open Tuesday to Sunday 9 am to 6 pm.
Go birding in the Yellow-Eared Parrot Reserve
Birders are in for a treat at Reserva Natural de las Aves Loro Orejiamarillo, near Jardín, about a four-hour drive southwest of Medellín. This rain-soaked, cloud-shrouded 465-acre (188 ha) reserve was created in 2006 to protect the habitat of the endemic wax palm and the critically endangered Yellow-eared parrot.
Destruction of the wax palms (Ceroxylon quiduiense) – the national tree of Colombia – during past decades almost wiped out the parrot population, which relies on the tree for nesting. Once down to only 80 birds, the population has rebounded to more than 1,000 thanks to education programs, placement of nesting boxes, and creation of the reserve. The best time to spot them is early morning and late afternoon.