Where colonial architecture meets soaring skyscrapers, the capital of Colombia’s Antioquia province is famed for its coffee plantations, flower farms, orchids, and butterflies. Elevated 1,500 meters above sea level, Medellín benefits from warm and forgiving weather, often compared to a year-round, springlike climate.
But it’s hard to talk about Medellín without gang culture and ‘narco-tourism’ coming to mind. Once Pablo Escobar’s lucrative drug ring base, the city is much more than The Cartel these days, with culture, commerce, and nightlife all on the rise. But petty crime isn’t rare, and civil unrest in the country at large remains high. So, is Medellín safe?
This guide answers all those important questions about traveling to Medellín in 2022, whether you’re a solo backpacker wondering how to get around or you’re curious about the natural hazards of living in South America. From the transport to the tap water, we look at all the things you should consider before venturing to the “City of Eternal Spring.” Let’s get into it.
Is Medellín safe to visit?
Colombia once had the highest rate of kidnappings of any country globally, and terrorism is still on most travelers’ minds when venturing to the South American gateway nation. But it has dramatically improved its image in recent years and is much safer, tourist-friendly, and easy to get around than the neighboring countries of Brazil and Venezuela. Even Mexico, the famous holiday mecca, is considered less safe than Colombia in certain parts, with a capital crowned the most violent city in the world.
A lot of mystery surrounds Medellín when it comes to the longstanding cartel presence, which put the city on the map for dark tourism and ‘narco tours’. Pablo Escobar founded the cartel structure in the town, and Medellín became the place from which “El Patrón” controlled all the links in his drug chain. Medellín had one of the highest global homicide rates in the world in the 1980s, but the Medellín Cartel no longer exists. Things turned around in the 90s with Escobar out of the picture, and crime plummeted.
Medellín is now statistically safer than some US cities and primarily safe for travelers. But it hasn’t wholly shaken its criminal past, and navigating the heavy drug presence is something visitors need to consider.
Gangs still operate in the city, but travelers are unlikely to get wrapped up in gang violence, with most conflicts being inter-gang. Petty theft is also high, but if you remain aware of your surroundings as you should in any busy city, you can avoid being a target.
It’s not only human hazards you need to consider. Colombia is seismically active and at risk of earthquakes. It sits at the boundary of the North Andes, the Malpelo, and the South American Plates, where most of the world’s earthquakes occur. Seismic activity has also increased in Medellín in recent years, and although most are only minor tremors, concern remains that the city is not prepared for a big quake.
This shouldn’t deter you from Medellín, but make sure you familiarize yourself with your hotel’s earthquake drill, and if they don’t have one, consider staying elsewhere.
Is Medellín safe for solo travelers?
There’s so much culture to soak up in Medellín, and backpacking through the city is highly recommended. Museums, theaters, festivals, and bars, it has it all, but solo traveling brings a whole host of new fears, especially when night falls on any major city.
The good news is that independent travelers love Medellín, and it’s considered one of the safest places in the country for solo females. With an outdated South American machismo culture, harassment and cat-calling are an issue in Medellín. But they’re probably the most hassle you’ll face as a female here. These attitudes are much less of a problem than in other Colombian cities with Medellín’s liberal student population.
Most solo travelers feel safe partying the night away or venturing the hiking trails. But keeping to the city’s well-populated areas and exercising caution when drinking alcohol is advised. Locals are helpful and approachable to the town and are a great place to turn if there are areas or activities you’re unsure about. Unsurprisingly, most will tell you not to get involved with the partially-legal drug trade, which is the leading cause of tourists getting in trouble with gangs and the police in Medellín.
Is public transport safe in Medellín?
The easiest way to get around Medellín is on the metro, and most locals are proud of the clean and efficient railway. The transit system crosses the city from north to south and center to west, and you can travel anywhere with one ticket for just 2,550 pesos, which is equivalent to 70 cents. But the city also has public buses, trams, and aerial cable cars, which are a great and cheap way to see the city and surrounding hillsides from the sky.
Luckily, the metro and other public transport systems are very safe, structurally, and socially. But the most significant risk is pickpockets, and petty crime is frequent on the public transport in Medellín, especially at rush hours when the carts are crammed with locals and tourists. Always be careful with your belongings and keep them close to your body, only carrying what you need. Pickpockets can use decoy techniques to distract their targets and could pose as vulnerable individuals, so always have your wits about you on Medellín’s public transport.
Is Medellín safe to live?
Medellín is a great place to consider moving to, and the city has a growing community of ex-pats and digital nomads. There are unsafe areas of all cities, and although crime has seen a significant drop in recent years, poverty still has a strong hold over local life, and employment is low. While this means petty theft remains high, lots of crime is restricted to the poorest areas.
Settling in a city, you’re likely to see a lot more than if you were just passing through, venturing beyond the tourist trails and indulging in the culture. But it’s easy to avoid the no-go areas in Medellín, and ex-pats wouldn’t usually have any business navigating these steep residential areas in the outskirts.
That said, the Comuna 13 slum that extends to the upper reaches of the surrounding hillside has risen in popularity for its street-art scene and fascinating urban escalators. Crime is still high here, especially gang-related conflict, but the slum has successfully reformed in the last few years, although it still should only be visited as part of a tour.
The expat-centric neighborhoods like El Poblado, Envigado, Sabaneta, and Belén are among the safest places in the city, perhaps even more so than the tourist areas. This is because petty theft is the biggest issue for non-natives, and pickpockets operate in areas that are more likely to be crowded with unsuspecting holidaymakers.
As an ex-pat, you’ll get to know your environment and be more switched on to the scams that operate in the city. You’ll also garner more respect as a resident, from getting to know locals and investing in the community, so be less likely to be targeted. Medellín is typically welcoming, but ex-pats are more embraced by the residents than tourists and are unlikely to face issues.
Is tap water safe to drink in Medellín?
For most backpackers, whether you’re headed to the luxury shores of Bali, party beaches of Central America, or bustling street markets of India, it’s safe to assume that the tap water is off-limits. An upset stomach is often on the radar for anyone ditching home comforts for an adventure across the globe and unfamiliar territories. Yet, surprisingly, there is a common misperception in Colombia that drinking tap water will make you unwell.
The coastal towns and remote highlands villages rely on five-liter bags of purified water available everywhere. Still, in the country’s two largest cities, Bogota and Medellín, tap water is perfectly safe to drink. Thanks to the excellent purification system in the town, you won’t need to buy bottled water or worry about the ice in your drink. The tap water might taste slightly chlorinated, but it won’t cause an upset stomach if consumed. Widespread access to free, clean water also means that fresh fruits, vegetables, and street food are primarily safe to consume in Medellín.
Another pull factor to the vibrant city? Or a basic amenity you didn’t expect to be a hindrance? If you’ve done any traveling, even just to western Europe, you’ll understand the hassle of sourcing bottled water everywhere you go. Not to mention the painful carbon footprint you leave behind with all the plastic you have to purchase. The safe tap water in the city comes as a welcome surprise.
7 Tips for Staying Safe in Medellín
- Be wary of where you visit in the city – Although no longer the urban warzone it was in the 80s, you should exercise caution in some regions of Medellín. Gang activities still frequent the Comuna 13 neighborhood, and you shouldn’t wander around the slum by yourself.
- Be extra cautious after dark – Medellín is safe for solo travelers, but exploring alone at night is ill-advised, especially in areas like the El Centro neighborhood. Even though many popular tourist attractions can be found here, like Botero park and el Parque de la Luces, which feature on most city walking tours, the quiet and poorly lit spots are unsafe after dark.
- Keep your belongings safe – Petty theft is the most common issue faced by tourists and foreigners in Medellín, be discreet with your valuables, keep them close to your body, and only take what you need with you out for the day. It’s not just pickpocketing, but armed robberies happen in the city, so don’t flash expensive devices in public.
- Don’t stand out – Another way to evade pickpockets is not to wear anything that makes you look like a target, i.e., not a local or ex-pat. Tourists are the primary subjects of petty crime and are more likely to be roped into scams. Ditch the flip-flops, fanny packs, cargo shorts, open vests, and even jewelry. If the weather allows, consider wearing jeans to blend in even more. This might make you feel safer as a solo female also and prevent cat-calls, although women have the freedom to dress however they feel comfortable in Medellín.
- Don’t accept drugs – Getting involved with drug tourism in the city is the most common way for visitors to come into trouble with gangs. Not to mention that the drugs in the town are unregulated and unsafe. There’s a common misperception that drug consumption in Colombia is legal. While there are certain flexibilities to the drug laws, Cocaine possession beyond one gram and all sale is strictly prohibited. If you’re offered free drugs, it’s most likely a police setup that could result in you getting put behind bars. You don’t want to end up on the wrong side of the Colombian Policía.
- Don’t leave drinks unattended – As is the case for most nightlife scenes, you should never leave your drinks unattended or accept alcohol from strangers. Spiking is uncommon, but it does happen in Medellín, and women aren’t the only targets. Men should exercise the same caution in nightclubs, and they could be targeted as a means of carrying out personal theft.
- Speak the local language – One of the best ways to earn respect, avoid conflict and get out of sticky situations is by being able to communicate in the local language. This means having some basic knowledge of Spanish and the specific Spanish-Colombian dialect of the region. If you speak Spanish, it will be easy to get by in Medellín, but you should still try to communicate in the local native tongue.
Is Medellín a poor city?
Medellín’s poverty rate has been on the decline for over a decade, but severe economic crisis still has a hold over the city. The illegal economy, particularly the drug trade, is the only way many of Medellín’s inhabitants can rise from hardship, but this has only led to more discrepancies and destitution among the poorest residents. More than nine percent of the city lived in extreme poverty by the end of 2020, living on less than $45 a month on average.
Is Medellín safe at night?
Medellín is safe mainly by day, but like most major cities, the night can be a time for increased street crime, and it’s advised to avoid the poorer neighbors. But even the touristy areas like El Centro can prove sketchy. Poor lighting and fewer crowds put solo travelers at heightened risk of petty crime.
Is there dangerous wildlife in Medellín?
Colombia has diverse wildlife, and some dangerous animals are among its wild residents. You can find harmless ground snakes all over the country, but venomous coral snakes, pit vipers, and banana spiders, too, whose bites can be deadly. The rainforests are also home to boas and anacondas, which kill their prey by constriction, and black caiman crocodiles aren’t uncommon in the jungle marshes.
You can find all of these animals in the regions surrounding Medellín, but they’re unlikely to venture into the loud and crowded city where they’d struggle to survive. Still, the hilly El Poblado neighborhood, popular with ex-pats, is frequented by poisonous snakes and the less threatening axolotl salamanders.