South America’s First Eco-City Is an Affordable Paradise

Green in more ways than one.

It’s only fitting that the “City of the Eternal Spring” has inevitably blossomed in recent years—and it’s only getting greener. Medellín wows at first glimpse. Brick skyscrapers tower from its urban center with pops of trees in public parks throughout the Aburrá Valley. Amid a green Andes Mountains backdrop, you see aerial cable cars servicing cliffside neighborhoods once difficult to access. With an eco-friendly transportation system and a new five-plus mile tunnel that cuts through the Andes Mountains between the José María Córdova International Airport and Medellín’s city center, the Colombian city has never been more accessible. And things are only looking up from here.

In August 2021, Medellín's government unveiled big plans to become Latin America's first 'Eco-City.' And after Colombia elected its first-ever left-leaning president in June—who has promised sweeping green measures, including the end of new oil exploration—it’s never been easier to bolster the city’s commitment to being a Smart Tourism Destination. The plan involves cutting carbon emissions by 20 percent, doubling bike lanes and public transportation routes, and electrifying all public transport by 2030.

Medellín is a city of adventure. Come find the city’s best swanky glamping with canopied beds, outdoor escalators surrounded by colorful murals, rich chocolate and aji pepper dishes, and locals working to protect the gorgeous tropical nature surroundings. Here are the greatest (and some of the greenest) escapades that await.

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Get around via gondola, metro, and outdoor escalators

Yellow taxis, mega trucks, and dirt bikes endlessly zigzag in Medellín traffic jams all hours of the day. Skip the cab and opt for a ride within Medellín’s multifaceted metro system, which includes the tram, bus, and rail—the only Metro system in Colombia. The rail system stretches across more than 31 kilometers and 27 stations. Plus, a trip is only about $1 one-way.

Don’t stop at the rails, though; hop on a Metrocable gondola ride. Popular stops along the way include the National Park Parque Arví and San Javier/Comuna 13, home to graffiti art tours galore.

In Comuna 13, a quintessential Medellín experience is taking the outdoor public escalators through the neighborhood, stopping at restaurants, souvenir tents, and street art coloring the journey. Even more impressive than the escalators is the Comuna 13 turnaround story, once the city’s ground zero for guerrilla-driven conflicts, and now it’s the cool place to be.

sustainable city

Munch on morsels at a sustainable farm

Yes, Colombia and Antioquia (the state that Medellín is a capital of) are heaven for coffee lovers and coffee farms. But there is so much more that is grown in this rich-soil region as well. To experience sustainable Colombian farm bliss, SiembraViva—an organic farm approximately 30 minutes east of Medellín in the flower-farm-filled town of Santa Elena—offers Sunday guided tours of its grounds.

The experience includes planting and harvesting activities, a home-cooked meal at its Herbario restaurant, and even a blind vegetable tasting. The farm grows cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, and dozens of other fruits and vegetables, so make sure your taste buds are on their A-game.

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Play with turtles and see some biodiversity

Contrary to what you’ll find in the thumping, rooftop-bar-clad El Poblado neighborhood, the area is home to more than just party animals. There are cute turtles from local rivers that are being rehabilitated, too. Isabel Romero is a local angel to shelled friends and operates the Tortugario Estación Cocorná: Centro de Conservación de Tortuga from her home on the banks of the Magdalena River.

Via her Instagram page, she operates tours of her turtle sanctuary, hosts environmental education talks, and drives forward a message of caring for the local ecosystem and wildlife. You’ll want to make this excursion a full-day or overnight trip, as it can take a few hours to get to the sanctuary.

medellin botanical garden
Diego Grandi

Dine in the best restaurants and the heart of a botanical garden

In the heart of Medellín is the Jardín Botánico Medellín. Just a stone’s throw from the Universidad metro stop, this nearly 35-acre park is home to more than 4,500 species of flowers, 140-plus species of birds, and one of the best restaurants in town, In Situ. An open-air concept with floor-to-ceiling windows opening to the garden grounds, this elegant staple offers seasonally inspired pastas, lamb and steak cuts, and more.

restaurants in medellin
El Cielo Restaurant

Another heavyweight in the freshest-ingredient space is Elcielo Restaurant, with Michelin Star award-winning chef Juan Manuel Barrientos at the helm. Book a reservation well in advance at Elcielo and save some belly space for its 20-plus course tasting, with sensory experiences like bathing your hands in chocolate (and eating the chocolate off your hands, too).

For shorter dining affairs, Crepes y Waffles is arguably Colombia’s most beloved chain, where waffles are topped and crepes are stuffed with international ingredients that run the culinary spectrum. And for the best on-the-fly empanada in town, hit Empanadas El Machetico las de Nico for the crispiest morsel and pair it with some spicy ají sauce. There may be a mob of locals around its front counter, but that’s how you’ll know you’ve arrived at the right spot.

hotels in medellin
Click Clack Hotel

Book a home base that matches your itinerary’s vibe

In such a choose-your-adventure city, it’s only appropriate that Medellín’s hotels are as diverse as it gets. In the heart of one of the city’s most upscale neighborhoods, Provenza, you can choose to glamp at Bambú Glamping Ecolodge, which has canopied beds and open courtyards catering to the backpacker crowd. On the swanky front, Hotel Dann Carlton sits along the city’s mega-mall and bank-lined Golden Mile, Click Clack in el Poblado is tucked quietly away from the party epicenter of Parque Lleras, and Factory Lofts in Laureles provides comparatively soft and cloud-like beds in a city that loves firm ones.

For the region’s utmost eco-conscious retreat, Cannúa Lodge—approximately 40 minutes east of the international airport—offers sustainably built, boutique-style quarters with panoramic mountain views. Among the experiences you can book are coffee, rum, and chocolate tastings, as well as sunset hikes up a nearby mountain.

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Jesse Scott is a contributor for Thrillist.