Traveling to Medellin in Colombia: Helpful tips to know before you go

In preparation for a few friends traveling to Medellin to visit me, I wrote this quick post on some of the things I learned in my first few months living in Medellín. Some won’t even be noticeable on a quick weekend trip, but having a heads up on others should make your visit a lot smoother.

Traveling to Medellin in Colombia: money, money, money

1. Memorize the last 4 digits of your credit card.

Unlike the US where your card is magically accepted everywhere with a simple pressing of the green credit button, (or better yet, with no contact at all), traveling to Medellin means you’re likely to be asked for the final 4 digits of your card in order to process a transaction.

With the advent of chip cards, more often than not the credit card number is on the back of the card making it difficult or even impossible to locate once it’s been inserted into the machine.

The first time I was queried for this I misunderstood and mistakenly thought they were asking for either the 3-digit security code on the back OR a pin (which I never set up as I never take cash advances from my card). Don’t make that same mistake, simply memorize the final 4.

2. Cuantas cuotas?

When paying for things in Colombia you’ll often be asked, “¿Cuantas cuotas?” I’ve noticed it happens more in stores than in restaurants but I’m still not exactly sure why. This question is asking how many months you want to spread your credit card payment over.

“Uhhhh… what? I’m just buying $12 worth of groceries.” That’s a real thing here in Colombia though. Their banks allow for the payment on credit card transactions to be spread out up to 12 months (with interest of course), and specified upfront. So technically with a Colombian credit card, I could pay $1/month (+ interest) each month for a year for my $12 grocery trip.

I’m not sure how this works with a US credit card since we don’t have the cuota system but just to be on the safe side, get used to answering, “Uno” (and it doesn’t hurt to hold an index finger up to clarify).

3. Solo efectivo

If this is your first time traveling to Medellin (or South America in general) you may be surprised to find that cash is called efectivo, not dinero. I don’t remember hearing this word before when I studied abroad in Spain a decade ago so either they called it something else or my memory is quite fuzzy. (Probably the latter.)

4. Lots of places are cash only

You’ll see many stores with signs saying “Solo efectivo” (cash only). Not a bad phrase to memorize and watch out for so you can make sure you’ve got enough on hand.

5. Hoard your small bills

My friends and I joke about the feeling that we need to hoard our small bills here in Medellin. ATMs generally give out 50,000 peso bills but you feel like a jerk handing that over for a 6,000 peso purchase OR (more likely) some places won’t even take the large bills.

On top of that, when going out to dinner with friends and chipping in cash for the bill, more often than not we all find ourselves with 50,000 notes making it impossible to split.

Street vendors and markets are also places where you don’t want to use large bills so you definitely get used to trying to hang onto the small ones for places you need them.

Many of us start the day with a 50 and once broken try to hang onto some of that smaller change as long as possible. I once bought a 9.000 COP chai tea latte at Starbucks with a 50 and was overjoyed when the woman gave me back 40.000 COP in 5’s! Seriously … I told at least 3 friends about it that day. They were all happy for me. Having small change is kind of a big deal.

Every transaction is a quick mental calculation … “Should I use a 20 and two 2’s … ? Nah, I’ll break a 50. This place looks like they should have decent change.”

6. The exchange rate for the US dollar is approximately 1 to 4000.

The hoarding of small bills as discussed above is kind of funny because a 50.000 COP really isn’t that much money. It’s around $12.50 USD. Not what we’d consider a large bill.

If you’re traveling to Medellin and dreading the thought of figuring out the exchange rate, don’t worry. I’m awful at math but basically, I just divide the bill base (e.g. 20 instead of 20.000) by 4 to get an approximate idea of what it is in dollars. Obviously, the exchange rate fluctuates constantly but it does the trick for me. My friend Michael (a New Yorker and news junkie) knows it down to the peso but I’m not that up on the markets and I find that my way is good enough for me day-to-day.

  • The silver ring at the market for 20,000 —> $5ish USD
  • My 43,200 grocery tab —> $10ish USD
  • The 12,000 taxi ride —> $3ish US

7. Split checks aren’t as common here

Seriously, I feel bad even asking to split it more than two ways so most of us bring cash to help pay whenever we’re dining out in a group.

8. Tarjeta or efectivo?

You’ll be asked whether you want to pay with cash (efectivo) or credit (tarjeta). If tarjeta, the credit card machine is a handheld brought to your table. They don’t take the card away to swipe it at a stand-alone machine like they do in the US.

9. Tips are included (but they do ask to make sure)

“¿Con propina?” You’ll hear this a lot when you’ve asked for the check. The waiter or waitress will pause to ask, “¿Con propina?” or “with tip?” I always say yes, since it’s just that much easier. They automatically add a propina section onto the bill and it’s typically 10% or less. You can always add more on the side if you really appreciated the service but it’s common to just pay the bill as is.

10. You often don’t get the spare change back

If you’re in a taxi or buying from a street vendor (even in restaurants sometimes) and you pay, let’s say, 14,600 COP with 15,000 it’s common to not get the 400 pesos back. Considering that’s about 10ish cents (and who likes carrying change around anyway) it’s not a big deal, but something to be aware of so you’re not waiting around expecting exact change. Rounding up to the nearest note is quite common.

11. Grab some cash at the airport

Before grabbing a cab, stop at one of the ATMs in the airport and grab some cash. Credit cards machines are not common in taxis and often prove to be more scams than anything else. If your debit card charges international transaction fees and doesn’t reimburse you for ATM fees I highly recommend switching to a Charles Schwab checking account. I’ve used and loved them for years.

Traveling to Medellin in Colombia: getting around

12. Taxis

Taxis in Medellin are yellow and clearly marked with the license plate numbers on the doors on both sides and even the roof. (I know from looking down from my 9th-floor balcony.)

Certain places have taxi queues, (near metro stations, grocery stores, public parks), but if you’re not near one of those you can just hail one by raising your arm just like in any other major city.

The meters are often attached to the roof of the cab in the middle or in front on the passenger side. The meters start at 3,500 pesos (as of this writing). Get used to checking this immediately when you get into the cab. My friends and I once hopped in a cab that hadn’t been reset and the guy took off with the meter at 9,000 before we politely corrected him.

Taxis are quite cheap so if it’s dark or you’re not sure about walking in a certain area, grab a cab. My furthest trip in a cab to date has only been about 20 minutes/8 kilometers/5 miles and it was around 14,500 COP ($4.50ish USD).

13. Seat belts in taxis are hit or miss.

The belts are usually there … but the corresponding buckle in the seat isn’t. Whether shoved so far into the nether regions of the seat that you’re afraid to lose your hand during the search, or simply removed, I don’t know which. I’d say the ratio of seatbelts to none has been around 6:4 in my experience here. It’s a little uncomfortable to say the least. The driving here is nothing like San Jose, Costa Rica (my craziest driving memory) but it’s far from US standards. Lane lines are … a suggestion.

14. They do have Uber here

That being said, they have a really bad habit of either canceling on their way to you OR saying you’ve picked up when you’re still standing by the side of the road fuming.

I’m hesitant to say it happens a lot, buuuuuut, when I’ve only tried to Uber with friends on two occasions and had 1 successful trip and 4 cancellations/fraudulent pickups … I’d say that’s a lot. The first time we had a guy cancel on the way to us, we immediately booked another Uber who sailed right by us (we saw him go by 👋 ) and he marked us as picked up when we definitely were not. Finally, the third guy got us. No idea why this happens.

On the second occasion, we had two people cancel on us before deciding to hop into a cab. Eff it … I’m all about the taxis now.

15. The addresses can be a bit tricky … but they also kinda make sense

The reason an Uber is appealing at first is the ability to plug in your destination versus struggling to explain where you’re going to the driver.

The address format is here is Carrera 37A #8 A 43, Medellin, Antioquia.

Of course, you don’t need the Medellin, Antioquia part when driving within the city so I’ll just (try to) explain the first part.

  • Carrera 37A is the name of the carrera. Carreras are streets (avenues) that run north/south.
  • #8A is the name of the calle. Calles are streets that run east/west.
  • 43 is the building number but …
    • Many times the buildings don’t actually have numbers.
    • That number is actually the distance in meters from the intersection in the address
    • So that restaurant is located 43 meters from the corner of Carrera 37A and Calle 8A
  • One more helpful tip on remembering directions: carreras run in the same direction as the main line of the metro, calles run crosswise.

In addition to running north/south, carreras increment in number to the west. Calles run east and west and increase in number to the north. This is really quite useful in understanding where things are. For instance when my friend Michael moved near Carrera 70 in Laurales and I’m near Carerra 43 in Poblado it instantly gives a bit of context as I immediately know that he’s west of me and by a good distance.

There are numerous smaller carreras and calles that are not through streets. These typically are named A, B, C, etc. So by the 37A and 8A you can tell that these are smaller side streets that end rather than the main thoroughfare.

Although then again, some are simply the same street running in the opposite direction. For example, Calle 10 is the main street here in Poblado. It’s one way, running from west to east. It’s “other half,” also a major street is called Calle 10A and runs the other direction east to west.

There are also numerous occasions where a calle changes to a carrera or vice versa. For example, if a calle is running east then curves south you can bet your ass that it probably changed names (to a carrera) around that curve.

There are also other street types: transversals etc. but I don’t understand them at all yet so won’t confuse you with those. Just look alive and you’ll get the hang of the city quite fast.

16. Get a Civica card to save time and money getting around

This little green card can save you time and money on the metro and busses if you’re going to be in Medellin for a while. For me, the main draw is saving time as the lines to buy tickets on the metro can be quite long during busy times (automated machines haven’t quite made their way into the metro stations as of this writing). Check out this quick and easy guide to the two types of Civica cards you can get.

17. Getting from the airport to Medellin

Medellin has two airports but if you’re traveling to Medellin from outside Colombia, you’ll likely be arriving at the international airport José María Córdova which is located in Rionegro. It’s about 35 km east of Medellin and can take 40 mins to an hour to get into the city depending on where you’re heading in Medellin.

White taxis at the airport have a fixed rate of 70,000 COP to Medellin. These fares are posted at the airport and this includes the toll so don’t get conned into paying for that. There’s not an extra charge for night time so don’t let that get you either. Variations of these extra charges are known as “gringo fares.”

If they try to get you to pay something else, try something along the lines of: “No. Es ochenta mil. Mis amigos viven en Medellin y me dijeron que cuesta ochenta mil. Precio fijo.” (No. It’s 80.000. My friends live in Medellin and told me it’s 80.000. Fixed price.). Prices can and do change so I recommend quickly checking this article for the latest prices.

Yellow taxis are also available from the airport although the airport is supposed to be the exclusive domain of the white taxis. Basically, if a yellow cab has a fare to the airport, he’d obviously like to pick someone up while he’s there to get a paid trip back to the city. If you see one and you have decent Spanish you maybe be able to negotiate one of them to a lower fare than the white taxis, around $60-65.000 COP.

Traveling to Medellin in Colombia: random things to know

18. Power outlets are the same as in the US.

(Yessssss! No travel adapters!)

19. They drive on the right side of the road.

Right being the right way and not the wrong. 😇  So same as the US, Canada, most of Europe, etc.

20. Look alive out there!

Get used to looking every which way for traffic. Many of the smaller streets (and intersections with the big streets) won’t have walk/don’t walk signs so you’ll need to keep your head on a swivel. In some ways it helps that many streets are one way… but then I’ve also seen some people driving the wrong way down a one way soooooo…

There are also tons of motorcycles and, as in any city, they don’t tend to follow the exact same rules as cars. So sometimes you may find yourself stepping into a street jammed solid with traffic only to almost get hit by a moto whizzing between cars.

21. You can drink on the streets in a lot of places

In my neighborhood of Poblado, it’s pretty prevalent, especially on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. I haven’t spent as much time in other areas of the city but have noticed it being allowed in many places. Just watch out for signs in some of the public parks asking that you respect the area and limit your drinking to “around the park but not in it.”

22. There’s a large police presence in Poblado.

Don’t take that to mean that anything, in particular, is going on. It’s pretty normal. There are lots of tourists in the area and Parque Lleras is a well-known party spot and gathering place so police are out in good numbers, especially on weekend nights.

They wear olive green uniforms with brighter green trim and ride green motorcycles. They are almost always in pairs or groups of 3 or 4.

23. Some restaurants close midday then reopen in the evening

If you’ve walked by a place multiple times and can’t figure out for the life of you what the hours are, there’s a good chance they have varied hours throughout the week. You’ll find plenty of places that have hours like: Open from noon to 3 p.m. and then again from 6 to 10 p.m.

24. You can get away with dressing very casual

I don’t have room for much in my single suitcase and I certainly did not bring a ton of dresses. I’ve found that jeans, flats, and a casual shirt will get me almost anywhere in this city. There are tons of women more dressed up of course, but then there are also plenty of backpacker types that are more underdressed than me.

For guys, jeans and a shirt — either a plain v-neck, button-down, or polo — will get you into most of the bars and clubs around Lleras. As always, there are all kinds of people wearing all kinds of things so doing whatever works for you currently will likely get you into the same style of bar/club here.

25. Pharmacies are quite a bit different than in the US

You don’t walk in and browse around. Instead, everything is behind a glass counter and you walk up to the pharmacist and tell them what you need. They listen, then go off and bring you back products to fix your ailments. In my case, I prepared a bit in advance by googling the words for “heartburn” (hell, I’m getting old) and, well, we’ll just call it a “common lady problem.”

I also went by a few pharmacies before finding one with a woman at the counter because I really didn’t want to try and explain everything to a dude with my limited Spanish. 😂 This is so different from the US where you just grab whatever you need and slide it in a jumble on the counter. But the tradeoff for a little embarrassment is amazing because you can get tons of things here without a visit to the doctor for a prescription! Something I’m sure a lot of foreigners abuse but in this case, I was quite grateful.

26. Toilet paper goes in the trash, not the toilet

If you’ve traveled to Central/South America/the Caribbean before you’ll already know this, but in many countries, it’s common to throw your used toilet paper into a bin next to the toilet rather than flushing it down the toilet. You’ll see signs for this in virtually all public restrooms though sign or no sign, I find it almost impossible to ignore years of brain wiring.

Even after mentally chanting, “Don’t flush it, don’t flush it,” I often find myself guiltily flushing seconds later and hoping like hope all goes down smoothly because try as I might not to, my hand automatically opened and dropped the toilet paper in.

Some countries’ plumbing systems simply can’t handle the load (pun intended), while in others, I suspect they’ve modernized to the extent where they can … but why risk it? Medellin feels like one of those modernized places, still, who am I to decide, so I try to do my part as much as possible. I will say that neither of my Airbnb’s said anything about it (and I refrained from asking) in order to flush away guilt-free in the comfort of my own home.

27. No dar papaya

The locals have a slang term, “No dar papaya,” which essentially means, “Don’t go asking for trouble.” You may have already heard of this as it’s quite commonly mentioned on the internet when researching traveling to Medellin. This phrase typically refers to flashing money or goods or doing other things that may put you in danger like going out alone, getting quite drunk, walking through sketchy areas, etc.

So don’t have your big expensive camera out constantly, wear expensive watches or jewelry, flash your iPhone around or leave it lying openly on a cafe table, carry a lot of cash, or otherwise put yourself at risk as a target.

That being said, you’ll see a lot of foreigners doing just that. To each their own, but it’s better to practice flying under the radar for safety’s sake. In crowds or on the metro be sure to slip your phone into your front pocket and keep track of your purse and/or wallet.

This post was written in the spring of 2019 during the 5 months I spent living in Medellín. Let me know of any questions @liveworktravelig on Instagram!

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