That neighborhood is Belén. This working-class community just west of the Medellín River is one of the places I have lived in Medellín, and possibly my favorite. I once considered Poblado, but Belén is better.
I’ve met a lot of nice people, eaten at a lot of good restaurants, partied at a lot of good bars and clubs. There are good malls, great tiendas, and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and historic sites.
It’s close to almost everything. Public transportation is great. You can’t ask for anything else.
History of Belén
Belén is both a comuna (district) and a barrio (neighborhood).
The comuna is bordered by Calle 33 to the north, partly the Rio Medellín and mostly the domestic airport to the east, the mountains to the west, and Diagonal 75B to the south.
The neighborhood is at Calle 30 and Carrera 76, where you’ll find Parque Belén and the Belén stop on the Metro Plus, the city’s rapid transit bus system.
Belén is one of the city’s oldest communities. A map I saw in a Medellín history book shows the area now called Belén as a little spot in 1850, one of only a few — along with places now known as Centro and Poblado, among others — in what became Medellín.
From living there, I know the majority of the people are white or mestizo.
During the violent days everyone here wants to forget, Belén was quite dangerous, but not so much today, something you will read about later in this post.
One of the most famous people to come from the neighborhood is Francisco “Pacho” Maturana, the fútbol coach who led local professional team Atlético Nacional to the 1989 Copa Libertadores title. That made Nacional the best club team in South America that year.
Maturana later led Colombia to the Copa America title in 2001, the South American tournament among the continent’s national teams, which takes place every three or four years, depending on the World Cup, to avoid a conflict with the world’s biggest tourney.
Points of Interest
One of the most popular places in Belén is Pueblito Paisa. Set atop a lush hill, the place has a church, a museum and small eateries, with the look and feel of an old Antioquian town.
Built in 1977, it’s a nice visit. I took my sister there when she came in December.
I read somewhere that if you decide to walk to the top, you should follow the road that circles the hill, instead of cutting up the stairs that go straight up, to avoid being robbed. I think that applies only at night.
Same applies to Parque Belén, and that of course depends on the hour. You should be fine until midnight.
There are a handful of little bars and tiendas near the park that can be fun. And during the day, there is almost always a group of older gentlemen playing dominos.
After a walk up the Cerro Nutibara, you might be hungry, and if the small restaurants atop the hill don’t enthrall you, there are other options.
For comida tipica, try El Rancherito at Centro Comercial Los Molinos. It’s a little pricey for local food, but it’s good. I had the grilled pork.
For a light snack, just stop by any pastelleria. You can find pastries, and sometimes even better, pastries with meat, cheese and vegetables baked into them. My favorite is Panadería Legiseth on Calle 30, near Carrera 78.
If you feel guilty about what you’ve eaten, go to Unidad Deportiva de Belén, a huge sports complex along Carrera 65 at Calle 32B with soccer fields, basketball courts, a track, a pool, an archery range and outdoor gym. It’s one of the most impressive parks in the city.
City officials named it after Andres Escobar, the great soccer player who was killed shortly after scoring an own goal in a 1994 World Cup loss to the United States.
So you’ve seen a historic site, you’ve eaten, you’ve worked out. Now you’re ready for rumba, and Belén does not disappoint.
On Calle 33, from Carrera 80 to the bridge that goes over the Rio Medellín, there is a string of bars and clubs to entertain you. La Caverna de Baco has already made this blog for its friendly outdoor atmosphere, wild shots and paisa warmth.
A few doors down is King’s Town, a great place for reggae music.
At the other end of Calle 33, near Carrera 80, there’s Shots del Diablo, a place that fills with paisas looking for tragos (shots). These places are on the south side of 33.
If you cross the street, you’re in Laureles, where you have a lot of choices as well.
If you want a night without drinking, you can always go to the movies. You’ll find a theater at Los Molinos, one of the best malls in the city.
It’s got the upscale look of the posh places in El Poblado, shopping centers such as Sante Fe and Oviedo, but without the inflated prices.
There’s also a food court and other random eateries, along with an Exito grocery store and hundreds of shops in this centro commercial.
Another theater is in the Unicentro, the large shopping center on Carrera 65, north of Calle 33, which is technically Laureles but close enough to Belén to enjoy.
Safety in Belén
I have lost count how many times I have walked around in Belén at night by myself without any trouble, the same way I’ve lost count how many times random strangers have smiled, waved or greeted me as they passed. I always feel safe.
My first night out in the neighborhood, there was a dispute between two guys, almost a fight, and the police were there within minutes. One of them, the instigator, was taken away in a police van. To enhance safety, there are private security guards walking around in most places.
That said, you have to take the same precautions you should take anywhere in the city, especially if you look like a foreigner: don’t flash your money, don’t wear expensive jewelry and don’t pull out your iPhone or Blackberry.
And if you’re speaking English, don’t do it so loudly. You don’t want to announce that you’re a foreigner, and even if the people there can tell, being discreet is part of being humble and the paisas appreciate that.
That’s why I never speak English when a friend calls me while I’m on the bus or the metro. It’s always Spanish. When I couldn’t speak Spanish well enough to have a conversation, I spoke a little more quietly.
Anything can happen, of course. The Medellín metropolitan area is home to almost 4 million people. It would be ignorant to think there is no violent crime here. I’ve heard about people getting robbed.
Near my old place, I heard about someone getting stabbed in the chest. At the same time, it would be just as ignorant to think Belén is dangerous because it’s in a Colombian city.
Last I checked, New York, London and any other big city has crime, not just in its working-class neighborhoods but in all of them. Keep that mind.
Cost of Living
It’s not as economical as Centro, but it’s a lot cheaper than El Poblado. Like I said before, it’s in between.
If you’re diligent, and you have the help of a paisa, you can find a nice one-bedroom apartment for 500,000 ($271) to $1.2 million pesos ($650) a month, the higher end units in neighborhoods such as Fátima and La Mota with furniture and utilities included.
But that’ll be your biggest expense. The nightlife costs half as much as El Poblado, on average 2,000 pesos for a beer instead of 5,000. And as long as you buy your groceries at the tiendas, you’ll save a lot. At these little stores, you’ll pay about a quarter the price you’d pay at Exito.
I’ve bought enough vegetables to feed four people for almost a week for only 6,000 pesos ($3). Only go to Exito if it’s the only place you can find something you want. I go there for my cereal, not much else.
In February, I wrote a post on the best neighborhoods in Medellín. Belén was ranked No. 2.
I was there recently, to meet a friend for lunch at La Colonia de Capurganá, a tiny seafood restaurant near Parque Belén that gives you a taste of the Caribbean Coast.
As I ate my delicious coconut-based soup and looked around, I realized how much I miss the area. It’s a real Medellín neighborhood, an area the working class calls home, the kind of demographic I was part of growing up in Hawaii.
My “best of” series will be a year old in August, when I write my 12th post. I plan to make it a revisions post, to use the feedback I get to perhaps modify the choices I’ve made.
Maybe Belén will jump Laureles and become No. 1.