Tourists stroll down a street that is packed with bars and restaurants, in Medellin's Provenza neighborhood.

Medellín was one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Now, it's trying to grapple with an influx of tourists.

With a reputation for being fun, affordable and surrounded by nature, Medellín has become Colombia’s most visited city. But a recent boom in tourism has also been bittersweet for some locals, who are being priced out of the city’s most appealing neighborhoods.

The World
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As a Miley Cyrus song plays in the background, customers at the Semilla Café take video calls and work diligently on their laptops, while they sip on herbal teas and $2 lattes.

The coffeeshop, with long wooden tables and booths framed by tropical plants, also functions as a co-working space. Many of its clients are programmers, web designers and other kinds of remote workers who come from Europe and the United States.

Local restaurants and cafés have benefitted from Medellín's tourism boom, as well as landlord who rent out their apartments to digital nomads and others who stay in Medellín for several days.

Local restaurants and cafés have benefitted from Medellín's tourism boom, as well as landlord who rent out their apartments to digital nomads and others who stay in Medellín for several days.

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

Dillan Taylor, a 29-year-old from Maryland, runs a life coaching business from his computer. He decided to work out of the Colombian city of Medellín for three months to improve his Spanish, while enjoying the city’s pleasant weather, its “dancing culture” and its location in a lush green valley where there are plenty of opportunities to hike and visit colorful villages.

“...I met many travelers who said ‘you gotta go to Medellín.’”

Dillan Taylor, runs remote life coaching business from Medellín
The Semilla Café is a popular spot for remote workers in Medellín.

The Semilla Café is a popular spot for remote workers in Medellín.

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

“I was living in Buenos Aires [in Argentina] at the start of the year and I wanted to continue living in South America,” Taylor said. “I didn’t know exactly where to go next, but I met many travelers who said ‘you gotta go to Medellín.’”

With a reputation for being fun, affordable and surrounded by nature, Medellín has come a long way since the 1990s, when it was considered one of the world’s most violent cities. It was home to the notorious drug cartel run by Pablo Escobar.

Today, landlords have benefited from the growing numbers of visitors, because they can make more money by renting out their apartments to tourists than by renting to local residents.

But the tourism boom has also been bittersweet for some locals, who are being priced out of the city’s most appealing neighborhoods, as properties that were previously rented out on annual contracts get turned into short-term rentals.

“Locals can’t compete with digital nomads, who earn wages in US dollars,” said Ana Maria Valle, a politician who recently published a TikTok video that discusses gentrification in the city. She also placed black-and-white posters in some of the city’s most touristy neighborhoods, with messages like “gentrifiers go home” and “I prefer neighbors to Airbnb.”

Medellín has built a reputation for being fun, affordable and surrounded by nature, a combination that now attracts thousands of tourists.

Medellín has built a reputation for being fun, affordable and surrounded by nature, a combination that now attracts thousands of tourists.

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

According to the city government, about 300,000 people who visited Medellín in 2022 stayed in the city for two weeks or more, including digital nomads, medical tourists and retirees escaping cold winters in the Northern Hemisphere.

The number of apartments listed meanwhile on Airbnb — the popular vacation property rentals company — rose from 8,000 in October of 2022 to 14,000 at the end of last year, according to data gathered by AirDNA, a platform that tracks short-term rentals.

“The main reason for [homeowners] to move their properties from the traditional residential market to touristic rentals is profitability,” said Luis Miguel Pelaez, the general manager of Acrecer, a Medellín real estate company.

“In the traditional rental market you have a yearly return of around 5% to 6% (of a property’s value) while with short term rentals you can almost double that profit.” 

Rising rents

A new building in Laureles functions as a co-living and co-working space, and is set up mostly for short-term rentals.

A new building in Laureles functions as a co-living and co-working space, and is set up mostly for short-term rentals.

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

In Laureles, a leafy neighborhood near the center of the city that is popular with Medellín’s middle class, residents say that rents are rising fast.

Some tenants haven’t even had a chance to renegotiate contracts with their landlords, who seem to be more interested in catering to the tourists.

Sandra Suarez, a dentist and single mother, says she was paying $220 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Laureles on a contract that was eight years old.

She was asked to leave at the end of 2022, when the building’s owner decided to renovate, and turn all of the 24 apartments in the building into short-term rentals. 

“They started to bring in fridges, TVs and new furniture into the apartments that were empty,” Suarez said. “They began to do construction work, and it generated so much dust that we had to leave as quickly as possible.”

The leafy sector of Laureles is popular with tourists. But some locals have complained that they are being priced out of this neighborhood.

The leafy sector of Laureles is popular with tourists. But some locals have complained that they are being priced out of this neighborhood.

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

Suarez said that she can no longer afford to live in Laureles where, nowadays, it's hard to find a two-bedroom place for less than $600. 

She’s currently earning about $1,000 a month, which is four times the national minimum wage, but no longer enough to live in a place like Laureles.

“...our building had lots of single mothers. It makes me sad to think about what could’ve happened to them.”

Sandra Suarez, dentist

“I was lucky I found another place” in a neighborhood further away from the city center, she explained. “But our building had lots of single mothers. It makes me sad to think about what could’ve happened to them.”

Global trend

Medellín is not the only city where tourism is starting to transform some neighborhoods.

European cities like Paris, Vienna and Lisbon, force homeowners to get Airbnb permits — in an effort to ensure there are enough apartments left for longtime residents.

In Portugal, officials found that some parts of central Lisbon had so many apartments listed on Airbnb that they stopped issuing new licenses last year. The nation’s prime minister said he didn’t want the city’s historical center to end up without any local residents, and feel like "Disneyland."

In Medellín, some city planners say it's time for officials to make an inventory of how properties in different neighborhoods are being used.

Alejandro Echeverri, an urban planning professor, said that with more data, city officials might be able to see which parts of Medellín are going through “the most extreme gentrification processes” and determine if there is a need to limit the number of short-term rentals in some parts of town.

Medellín has built a reputation for being fun, affordable and surrounded by nature.

Medellín has built a reputation for being fun, affordable and surrounded by nature.

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

Echeverri was part of the city government in the early 2000s when Medellín was emerging from its worst years of drug violence. 

He led an effort to renovate Medellín that included building libraries, museums, parks and cable cars to connect poor neighborhoods on the steep hills that surround the city with the downtown area.

“The challenge was to improve the quality of life of the people that live in the barrios and to reconnect this fragmented city.” Echeverri said.

But the new urban projects had an unexpected outcome — they generated positive coverage of Medellín in international newspapers and travel websites, and brought in the first significant wave of foreign visitors.

A few years later, the city was featured in the popular Netflix series "Narcos," and its music industry started to give rise to international stars like Maluma and J Balvin, drawing more curious tourists.

Nowadays, Medellín is even mentioned in a song by Madonna. And its main thoroughfare for nightlife, Via Provenza, was included in TimeOut’s list of the “world’s coolest streets” last year.

Via Provenza, Medellin's main thoroughfare for nightlife was listed as one of the "world's coolest streets" by Timeout Magazine.

Via Provenza, Medellin's main thoroughfare for nightlife was listed as one of the "world's coolest streets" by Timeout Magazine.

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

With this growing fame, more people are expected to turn Medellín into a temporary base, renting greater numbers of apartments and forcing the city to confront a new type of challenge: how to deal with too many visitors.

“I think it will be important to have some balance,” said Echeverri, the urban planning professor. “There are two different groups, one that is taking advantage of the new situation and one that is suffering. So, how you balance that is the question.”

This story was updated with comments from Luis Miguel Pelaez.

Related: This Colombian town is dimming its lights to attract more tourists to view the night sky

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