Disappointed in Medellin: Housing Horrors & Car Chaos 🇨🇴

What do you think is the favorite country of travelers in South America? 90% of all travelers I‘ve met had their favorite country in common: Colombia. 



Over three years we‘ve been driving all over the continent in search of the best place to live. I asked every traveler where they had liked it best. While not many name Bogota as their dream destination (it‘s cold there), Medellin is the city everyone adores. 



Starting from Paraguay and crisscrossing all over, it took us a long time to make it to the northernmost country of South America. Three years I built up my anticipation for Colombia, and Medellin. Finally, there we were. Entering from the southern border of Ecuador, making our way up north. 




Entering Medellin by Car


One day we were driving our Toyota through the untamed wilderness of the Andes, enjoying coffee fresh from the coffee plantations.



The next day the streets became wider and busier as we entered Medellin at a fast pace, surrounded by multiple lanes of cars. Above us, screens flashed reminders that that day only vehicles with license plates ending in 1 and 4 may circulate. Or not circulate? I wasn’t sure. (As it turned out, this restriction didn’t apply to international cars.)


Little did we know, the headaches would begin immediately. Over the next month and a half, we’d find ourselves kicked out due to exorbitant housing costs, stuck in a garage, crashing a party with the police, and lost in the ghetto.

Highway Apartment for Triple the Price in Belén, Medellin 


Parking is limited in this densely populated city of 3 million people. We chose the first apartment because it offered a secure garage for our car. Our vehicle was in good company as right outside our living room window I counted 18 lanes of autopista leading over a multi-lane roundabout. 



The noise resembled that of a constant fan or AC, and I often shouted at Paul, “What did you say!?“ when I was in a different room, despite the doors being open. The living room didn‘t even have AC, which I found surprisingMedellin being such a hotspot for US Americans, who, as we know, love their AC. 


When I looked for more accommodations in Medellin, I realized that places with secure parking are rare, especially when on a budget. Maybe we could just stick it out for a few more days? We asked the landlord to extend our stay for another week. He agreed, but the price would be $100 instead of $35 per night. Shouldn’t places get cheaper the longer you stay?


This, among other reasons, prompted our departure after just one week, culminating in a heated discussion between Paul and the landlord. I wonder if they had treated every guest this way or if it was because we were tourists.



Foreigners in Medellin


Prices in Medellin were indeed way higher than elsewhere. The high influx of international tourists swarming the city like ants led to an explosion of housing costs. 25% of international tourists visiting Colombia are from the United States, outnumbering any other nation. At night, you find them clinking their glasses of whiskey at chic dinners, discussing business and online marketing. During the day, they sit at upscale coffee shops, deeply engrossed in their laptops (likely managing their online marketing endeavor). Or—my favorite at any time of day—proudly walking down the street with a new Colombian beauty by their side trying to impress her with tales of money from back home, ignorant of the chances of being robbed later that night. 


I couldn‘t ignore the tons of posters hanging on walls, lampposts, and trees shouting “Gringos go home!“ or “Digital Nomads not welcome!“. Clearly, the local population of Medellin was sick of foreigners driving their prices up. 


I do understand what draws people from all over the world to this modern city amidst the Andes. However, as a foreigner, I was unwilling to pay their housing prices. 

That day we moved out of our first place, in search of another. No hotel guaranteed secure parking in advance, telling us “first come first serve”. 


We better hit the road. 

Stuck in the Garage in Laureles, Medellin 


When the sun went down, we had already visited five or ten places, all of them “with garage” but no free spot. I then called hotels to ask if they had parking, and that time we were in luck! I told the lady, we’d be right there. 


It was dark but I spotted the steep ramp leading down to an underground garage. I ran inside and told her to open the gate. It slowly opened sideways with a squeaky mechanical noise. Paul with his head out the window, multiple times descending and braking, tilted his head looking up and down the entrance gate. 


It was very low. He stopped the car when the roof racks touched the archway. The car didn’t fit by a mere finger’s breadth. It looked awkwardly stuck half inside, half outside with Paul shouting, “What should I do now!?” The receptionist who had been watching shrugged and I felt stupid for not asking her about the clearance height beforehand. 


I mounted the side step of the car and pulled myself up to see the roof. There was no way we could make it unless we unmount the racks or damage their ceiling. Suddenly, I heard the mechanical noise. The gate was closing. I jumped off the side step and stopped the gate just after it had pushed the front fender. I pressed against it, but couldn’t open it. I heard grinding like gears in an old, rusty machine. The lady rushed to a switch inside the garage. 


Fortunately, the Toyota was undamaged, but we decided to call it quits. Paul backed our car, which—with all its luggage weighing the equivalent of three adult elephants—in reverse up the steep driveway, all the while cursing. It hadn’t been our worst attempt at finding a place that night.

Midnight Mission: Seeking Sanctuary in Rosales, Medellin


It was 11:30 p.m. We drove over six hours searching for a hotel with parking. Why was this so hard? We tried all hotels on Booking.com and Google Maps. I was glued to my phone looking for anything remotely similar to a hotel. I only had one more place: VIP Apartments


The last customer review was two years old and in Google Street View, it looked like a two-story townhouse. Could it be out of business? It was almost midnight, and I kept glancing at Paul to see if he was still awake. 


Just a block from the address, we saw a bunch of people, and two police cars alarmed us with blue and red flashing lights. We didn’t want to get in trouble, so we stopped half a block away and waited inside the car. It could have been a fight between drunk people; I couldn’t tell. 


We saw how two police men approached us with a flashlight. They asked what we wanted, and we showed them the address on the phone, saying we wanted to stay there but didn’t know where it was. 


In reality, none of these houses on the street looked like hotels. I showed one officer the photos on Google Maps and he compared the surrounding houses to the pictures. There it was, almost. One inconspicuous house with newish yellow paint. They had changed the color of the wall, but it still had the same two small windows, and a garage gate. 


The place looked dark. Could it be that its residents were already sleeping, and no one even knew that this place used to be a tourist accommodation? I walked up to the door with two police officers while Paul waited inside the car. 


Frat House and Party People


A young guy in a white sleeveless shirt and tight ankle-high jeans opened the door. His jaw dropped. He held his hand on his chest, touching the colorful beads around his neck. His gleaming eyes with raised eyebrows quickly moved between me and the officers. With perfectly styled hair and his skin shining like polished bronze in the dim light, he looked straight out of a fashion magazine. 


“You changed your house color,” the officer said. I couldn’t help but grin, thinking this poor guy thinks he’s getting arrested for painting his house. I explained that we were looking for a place, me and my boyfriend, not me and the officers, and we were wondering if it was available. “And do you have parking?” 


I looked behind him into the dark corridor, trying to see where the dim light came from. Despite the late hour, cheerful voices continued to chat, and clouds of smoke blew out, unconcerned by the late-night visitors. He said, “Yes of course,” and assured me that we can park the car. It was a garage with just one spot but it was available, and spacious enough to enter. 


Relieved that we had found a place with a garage, we were willing to overlook any shortcomings in the apartment at this late hour. The host rushed us to our bedroom, past the open room with lively partygoers sporting colorful hairstyles and exotic outfits. One of them, whom I only remember as a mix of plastic surgery, heavy makeup, hair extensions, and breasts that seemed out of place, waved at me.  


Our host had two towels under his arm and placed them on the bed after he brushed it off with his free hand. He then hurried off with the rest of the party gang. 

Battling…Bed Bugs!?


The next morning, I lay in bed, peering around the dark room. There was one window leading out to the corridor, with bars on the outside.


There was no other furniture except a kitchen unit, which looked empty and barely used. I suspected there might be a washing machine in the corner. Paul jerked his legs under the blanket. I felt the urge to shower and got up. 


When I returned, he was standing next to the bed, tearing off the sheets from the mattress. He examined the mattress, spotting a couple of dead bugs. Is that what beg bugs look like? I had never seen any. I noticed some crawling behind the bed and on the wall. Paul pulled the cushioned headboard out from behind the bed. He pressed the upholstered squares apart, and spotted the bugs in between the panels. I shrieked. They were moving as quickly as ants in an anthill. We pulled the headboard as far away from the bed as possible and pushed the bed an arm’s length away from the wall, hoping to prevent the bugs from climbing onto it. 

Let’s do Laundry!


I knew Paul wouldn’t want to continue driving that day. It was so exhausting to find a place in this city, and goddamn it, I also wanted to enjoy it like the other travelers did! I just dreamed of spending the day out at nice coffee shops and a restaurant! We weren’t happy with the place, but it did have a washing machine, which we urgently needed because we hadn’t washed clothes since Ecuador.


I opened the top lid of the washer and saw a bunch of dirty white shirts and underwear. Pretty sure someone had never turned on the washer and just collected their gray old whites in there. I opened all the kitchen cupboards to look for a cloth to help me take out the dirty laundry, but all cupboards and drawers were empty except for one tiny coffee cup and one pot. No plates, no cutlery, nothing. Like a poor, sad single man’s apartment. Whatever… I used two fingers to pull out every single item from the washer and dropped them on the kitchen counter. 

A Day Out in Medellin


While we were waiting for our load to finish, I pondered what to wear for that day. Medellin is known as the “City of Eternal Spring”. Definitely I wouldn’t need a jacket like most times during our drive through the Andes over the last half year. All my practical clothes were in the washer, so I chose a strapless jumpsuit with wide legs, resembling a long dress, together with a leather backpack. 



We had already explored Laureles, which was my favorite neighborhood in Medellin at the time. People of all ages bustle along the colorful and modern buildings, carrying shopping bags and FroYo.



The aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the air, with sounds of lively conversations drifting from outdoor cafes. I had just missed one thing. 


Where were the historical buildings? I adore traditional architecture with its high ceilings and tall doors. Love getting lost in decorative facades that imitate nature and find cultural symbolism. Let’s go to the historic center!


Lost in the Urban Jungle of Medellin 


The Uber driver asked if we were from here as he rolled up his windows halfway while approaching El Centro. He drove through the narrow streets, barely slowing down for the numerous people sitting and standing on either side of the road. The driver had to squeeze by them so tight that one guy, with his mouth open showing me his two remaining teeth, looked me directly in the eye just an arm’s length away, only separated by the now fully raised window. 


I stared at all the garbage of thrown-away take-out food piling up in the corners. People were sitting on plastic chairs next to self-made rolling shelves displaying colorful caps and shirts. One guy made a quick movement, acting like he was jumping in front of our car. The Uber driver did not move, nor did he seem impressed. When we reached the palace on Plaza Botero, the most popular site in the center, he just said, “Cuidado.” (Be careful.) 


I did not want to get out of this car. I felt lots of eyes on me and wondered where it would be safest to carry my backpack. Front of back?



So many people were shouting and running, most of them not looking like tourists. To escape the busy streets and reach the Palace of Culture, we had to pass through security gates that surrounded the whole square. Police were standing at the opening to keep out the most mentally challenged people, although certainly not all. 


The Art in El Centro, Medellin’s 


The internationally renowned Colombian artist Fernando Botero created large, exaggerated sculptures that one can’t ignore when visiting the center of Medellin. We walked from one humorous sculpture to the next, but I couldn’t enjoy them. Almost ironically, there was a person selling ice cream and candy under every fat lady and animal sculpture. There was no way I could stand and appreciate the art. Every few seconds someone came up to us asking if we wanted to buy their snacks.



We squeezed through an opening in the security gates to get out of the “police zone”. Believe me I did not want to continue walking. If it had been up to me, I would have gotten an Uber and headed straight back to charming Laureles to enjoy my Chardonnay for dinner. Paul believes we can gain experiences by walking through critical areas. “It’s all about how you walk,” he said. “Don’t wear your backpack in front, you look scared.” That sort of thing. 


Courage in the Chaos of the Ghetto


So I walked with my head high, swinging my arms at my sides, trying to not move too fast or too slowly. A mix of leisurely and determined walking. I wanted to show that: No, I didn’t end up in El Centro by accident. I chose to be here. I’m just walking through this ghetto to reach my destination. I have no idea how I looked. After all, I was wearing a pretty tube top jumpsuit and fashionable sandals in one of the rougher areas of Medellin. Certainly not a great outfit for running or fighting. 


Every time Paul spoke to me while we walked, I was thinking Don’t talk so loudly. They’ll know we’re tourists. Of course this was absurd because no one in El Centro that day looked more like a tourist than us. 


It was only the men who eyed us with interest. Some holding their toothpicks and chewing on them as they watched us pass, like they were ready to hunt their next meal. Paul, as always, was turning heads. Most called out in Spanish “Patron, ven aca!” (Boss, come here!) and some in English “Where are you from?” But at least two heads taller than anyone around us, Paul looked like he would eat them for breakfast, or hide them in his beard and have them for supper. 


I never felt as unsafe in over three years of South America as in this part of Medellin. And I still stick to this even after being faced with the threat of guns by self-proclaimed sheriffs from an indigenous community in the dead of the night. (This will have occurred two months after Medellin, during our drive up the coast to the desert of Punta Galina.)


Mirador with Beautiful View over Medellin


After an hour of walking, we reached a small hill near our apartment with a famous viewpoint. Tourists and locals alike were sitting on benches and eating ice cream in the little Pueblito Paisa. I loved the panoramic view of the Medellin skyline and surrounding neighborhoods. Back in civilization!



The next day we were determined to move out. I had found an Airbnb that checked all our boxes. We spent almost a month on the border between the two neighborhoods of El Poblado and Envigado. It was so uneventful that I struggle to recall much about it 😉 



However, if I were to return to Medellin, I would choose one of these two neighborhoods again. They were peaceful and secure, with an abundance of restaurants and coffee shops. Similar to Laureles but with more spaciousness and natural surroundings. For those with a car, this is the ideal place to stay.

Is Colombia really that great?


After all the recommendations, we made it to Colombia and experienced both the good and the bad. Traveling by car, we had the freedom to explore many hidden corners of the country. Fellow overlanders driving the Pan-American Highway between Alaska and Argentina, along the Pacific coast, told us Colombia had been their favorite country. 


However, they’re missing out on the real gem. If only they went there, it would likely top their list. 


If we’ve met in person, you know I make a point of sharing my heart’s favorite country. I wonder if others are similarly inspired to visit it after my recommendation, just as we were to explore Colombia.


What is it? Connect with me on social media and I’ll reveal the secret 😉



P.S.: This blog post is a chapter of my soon to be published travel memoir. Any suggestions for publishers? Contact me!


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