Tunja is the capital of Boyacá province. At 9,000 feet (2,700 meters) it’s one of the highest and chilliest provincial capitals in Colombia. Tunja can also boast about its picturesque mountain setting, scenic main plaza, mansion museums with the most unusual original frescoes we’ve ever seen (hint: hippos) and close proximity to Puente Boyacá (basically, the Gettysburg of Colombia). There’s even some local craft beer.
Imposing Plaza Bolívar in Tunja, Colombia.
Mister, you never see elephant, how I describe elephant?
There are plenty of museums to visit in Tunja including religious museums and, less predictably, a pair of mansion museums with original murals depicting wild animals which the artist never saw with his own eyes.
Do not miss the animal paintings inside the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon in Tunja, Colombia.
Excellent examples of these animal portraits can be seen in the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon next to the church on the main plaza. The ground floor garden is free to enter, but pay the tiny entrance fee (2,000 COP/about US$0.70) so you can visit the second floor where the painted ceilings are located.
Upstairs at the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonsalo Suarez Rendon features antiques and original architecture but the painted ceilings depitcing animals never seen by the artist are the real attraction.
One room is covered in detailed depictions of “Animals of the World” including a rhino and an elephant painted in the early 1500s with nothing more than a few plates from European books to go by.
The artist who created this incredible ceiling in the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon never saw the animals he was painting.
The animal murals on the ceilings were only discovered after a newer ceiling collapsed, revealing the amazing paintings. The work is still in fantastic shape and, truth be told, the artist managed to render most of the animals pretty accurately. There’s a second painted ceiling with more animals and some animal frescoes done in charcoal and egg white as well as in paint.
More animals can be found inside the Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas.
The Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas (3,000 COP/about US$1) also features some amazing animal-filled murals and ceiling paintings and the artists are believed to have worked from books in Juan de Vargas’ own library which included an impressive number of books from Europe.
This incredible rhino on a painted ceiling inside the Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas made quite a journey to Colombia.
A paper written by John E. Simmons, President of Museologica, and Julianne Snider, Assistant Director of Penn State University’s Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery, which was published in 2013 notes that the rhino images found in both the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon and in the Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas that they believe was copied from a book on architecture that was written by Juan de Arfe in 1587 and may have also been influenced by a famous rhino image created by Albrect Dürer in 1515.
The gawdy chapel at Claustro de Santa Clara Real in Tunja, Colombia is now mostly used for weddings.
Leaving wild animals behind, we headed to the Claustro de Santa Clara Real (3,000 COP/about US$1, closed mid day) where we gawked at the gawdy red and gold chapel as the guide (Spanish only) pointed out symbols from the indigenous Muisca culture which were added during construction including a big gold sun on the ceiling above the altar and Muisca faces on some of the figures. The chapel is now mostly used for weddings. Big, red and gold weddings…
Puente Boyacá, the Gettysburg of Colombia
It’s fitting that we went from the capital of Boyacá province to the Puente Boyacá memorial. Boyacá was one of Colombia’s nine original states and it’s known as the “Land of freedom” because this is where the Battle of Boyacá took place.
The Boyacá Bridge, near Tunja, where independence from the Spanish was won.
Puente Boyacá is pretty much the Gettysburg of Colombia. The sprawling, park-like outdoor memorial (free) is located on both sides of the highway that runs between Tunja and Bogota. Here you can see the bridge (puente in Spanish) over the Teatinos River where, in August of 1819, pro-independence forces defeated the Spanish in just two hours, marking the official start of Colombia’s freedom from Spanish rule.
Latin independence hero Simón Bolívar is dramatically depicted at the Boyacá Bridge site near Tunja.
The grit of guerra (war in Spanish) has been glossed over with rolling lawns and and epic statues, including a massive rendering of independence hero Simón Bolívar, of course.
Latin independence hero Simón Bolívar is dramatically depicted at the Boyacá Bridge site near Tunja.
Where to eat, drink and sleep in Tunja
We stayed at Hotel Casa Real just a few blocks from the main plaza (70,000 COP/about US$25, not including breakfast). It was charming (fresh cut flowers), clean, quiet and comfortable.
With a name like Porko, it has to be good.
Don’t miss Porko Sandwich Shop a few blocks off the main plaza. The lechona (whole slow roasted pig stuffed with rice) is lovely and the made-to-order roasted pernil (pig leg) sandwiches on sesame seed buns with a choice of sauces (7,500 COP/about US$2.60) are delicious. Plus, it’s a sandwich shop called “Porko”.
Tunja is also home to two tasty craft beers. One is called Cerveza Magnus and the other is called Cerveza Bruder. Bruder also has a brew pub in Tunja which is large and welcoming and serves beer on tap or in bottles and has plenty of big televisions.
Bruder is just one of the two craft beers made in Tunja, Colombia.
The city of Sogamoso is certainly not going to win any beauty contests. It does, however, make a great base for travelers who want to visit one of the few wineries in Colombia, check out a museum devoted to the country’s Muisca culture, tour Andean villages and admire Lake Tota (Laguna de la Tota in Spanish). The highest and largest lake in Colombia is a stunner despite the environmental battle that’s raging around it.
Lake Tota is the highest and largest lake in Colombia. It’s also facing serious environmental challenges.
Beautiful, embattled Lake Tota
We don’t know about you but we’d never seen a mountain lake with a white sand beach before we arrived on the shores of Lake Tota in the Andes above Sogamoso. At 9,891 feet (3,015 meters) and covering 21 square miles (55 square km), it’s the highest and largest natural lake in Colombia and the second highest navigable lake in South America (after Lake Titicaca in Perú & Bolivia). It’s also very, very beautiful and that’s part of the problem.
This sandy white beach surrounds part of Lake Tota in Colombia.
The deep lake doesn’t look polluted. The water is clear, green reeds flourish around the edges and provide haven for birds. The beach-like sandy shore is so white it’s called Playa Blanca (White Beach). Locals brave the cold, high altitude temperatures to take a dip and the lake supplies water for thousands of area residents.
That water, it turns out, might not be safe to drink. Local conservationist Felipe Velasco says he wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’s been borderline obsessed with the water quality and general environmental well-being of the lake since 2009 when he unwittingly rented a plot of land he owns on the lake shore to a trout farmer. At that time he says he was unaware of the polluting effects of trout farming and when he became aware of the environmental impact of fish farming he tried to get out of the lease. Years late he was still trying to end the lease.
Despite its beauty, Lake Tota is under serious environmental pressure.
The champion of Lake Tota
Since entering into the trout farm lease, Felipe has learned about other environmental threats to the lake and, in 2010, he formed Fundacion Montecito, a non-profit org focused on protecting Lake Tota and the area around it.
Felipe Velasco is fighting to stop pollution in Lake Tota and the surrounding areas.
One of the main polluting elements in the lake is trout farming. When we spoke to Felipe he said there were eight caged trout farms in Lake Tota producing millions of trout a year and resulting in concentrated organic pollution and pollution from fish food in the lake. In 2013 one million trout died from oxygen deprivation in Lake Tota, according to Felipe.
Felipe believes local onion farmers are an even bigger threat than the trout farms. Farmers have been growing onions on the shores of the lake and nearby hillsides for decades. The majority of onions consumed in Colombia come from farms around the lake. There are so many onion farms that the place smelled like onions when we were there.
Farms around Lake Tota produce most of the onions consumed in Colombia. It’s big business and an important part of life in the local communities as this onion statue in the main plaza in Aquitania, the principal town on the lake, attests. However, pesticides and fertilizer used on the fields are polluting the lake.
When we spoke to Felipe he said that chemicals from pesticides and fertilizer used in the onion fields inevitably find their way into the lake, polluting the water even more . “I see the lake as a living body that can’t talk for itself,” Felipe told us.
Over the years, Felipe and others have managed some environmental victories for Lake Tota, including international recognition and some protections and the implementation of environmental education in local schools, but commercial scale fish farming and onion farming continue.
A recreation of the Temple of the sun at the Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox museum (often just referred to as the Temple of the Sun) in Sogamoso.
Other things to do around Sogamoso
The Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox (better known simply as the Temple of the Sun), on the outskirts of Sogamoso (6,000 COP/about US$2 per person, exhibits all in Spanish), is one of the few (some say the only) museums focused on the Muisca people. There are various rooms with displays of baskets, pottery and other relics but the highlight, for us, was the chance to check out recreations of the culture’s elaborate round buildings including the Sun Temple which the Muisca used for religious ceremonies before it was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors in 1537.
The Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox (aka the Temple of the Sun) in Sogamoso.
Further outside of town you will find one of the few wineries in Colombia. The Marquesa de Puntalarga winery manages to grow grapes and make a wide variety or wines at 8,400 feet (2,560 meters). We found most of the wines produced here to be too sweet for our taste, but we had to admire owner Marco Quijano’s success with grapes at this altitude.
Grapes growing at 8,400 feet at the Marquesa de Puntalarga winery near Sogamoso.
We heard persistent rumors (and even saw a flyer) about a brewery called 1516 in Sogamoso. However, the website doesn’t open and multiple emails to the owner went unanswered. If you find and visit 1516 brewery, please tell us all about it in the comments, below.
Sogamoso also makes a good base for visiting Andean villages including Mongui which is part of Colombia’s exclusive group of Pueblos Patrimonios. We toured many of the towns during Christmas when each village creates a nativity scene in the main plaza. Check out our Christmas in the Andes post to see more.
Sogamoso is not a beautiful city, but the main plaza and cathedral aren’t bad.
Where to sleep in Sogamoso
It’s no contest: Finca San Pedro is the best place to stay in Sogamoso. Located a short distance out of the city itself, this economical and homey place is set in a large and tranquil garden. There are private rooms and a dorm and a shared kitchen. Yoga retreats are also offered.
This is also a great place to learn more about Lake Tota. Felipe’s brother Juan runs Finca San Pedro and is very knowledgeable about the area and the issues affecting Lake Tota.
Villa de Leyva, about 100 miles (160 km) from Bogotá, is a charming mountain town full of Colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and a pleasing mix of locals and visitors. That’s why it’s one of the most famous and popular members of Colombia’s elite group of Pueblos Patrimonios. The sights and attractions around Villa de Leyva – including, Colombia’s best winery (and it isn’t bad), a phallic archaeological site and a house made entirely of terracotta – are just as interesting as the town itself. Many travelers come to Villa de Leyva for just one day but we bet we can convince you to stay a little longer with our travel guide to Villa de Leyva.
Founded in 1572, the town sits at just over 7,000 feet (2,100 meters), so pack your layers. Even when flooded with swanky weekenders from the capital, Villa de Leyva retains an antique air. The town’s impressive Plaza Mayor is the biggest plaza in Colombia at 150,694 square feet (14,000 square meters) and some say it’s the largest cobblestone plaza in all of South America.
The church that anchors the main plaza in Villa de Leyva, Colombia.
Museums in Villa de Leyva
In a town so historic it’s no surprise there are so many museums to visit. Here are a few we liked.
Colombian history: The Casa Museo Antonio Nariño (free) is devoted to the life and times of aristocrat, early indepenence leader and one time Presidential candidate Antonio Nariño. Displays about his many achievements are arranged throughout his former home. Frankly, the architecture was as interesting as the materials inside.
An atmospheric street in Villa de Leyva, one of Colombia’s most popular Pueblos Patrimonios.
Geological history: Many dinosaur bones have been found in and around Villa de Leyva and the Paleontological Museum (3,000 COP/about US$1.00), which is run by a local university, is a good place to get an overview of the weird things that lie in the dirt around here. display cases overflow with fossilized sea creatures, ammonites and dug up skeletons of long-dead species.
People watching in Villa de Leyva.
Religious history: The Museo del Carmen (3,000 COP/about US$1.00) is located in a church that dates back to 1845. It has five different rooms that house hundreds of pieces of religious art and books, some of which date back to the 1600s. It’s considered one of the best religious art museums in Colombia.
Something weirdly modern: The Fundacion Casa Museo Luis Alberto Acuña (4,000 COP/about US$1.50) offers a breath of fresh air with rooms filled with modern art. Named for Colombian artist Alberto Acuña, the museum has a lot of his work plus rotating installations of work from other modern artists.
Day trips from Villa de Leyva
Colombia doesn’t have a lot of wineries, but you an visit one near Villa de Leyva.
Colombia’s best winery: There are at least three wineries in Colombia. We have been to two of them. Marquese de Villa de Leyva winery just outside of town is, by far, the best. They have winery tours, tastings in a lovely tasting room with snacks and everything and you can buy bottles direct from the winery. Learn more in our story about the best winery in Colombia for TheLatinKitchen.com.
This house just outside Villa de Leyva is made entirely out of terracotta (inside and out) and is said to be the largest piece of pottery in the world.
The world’s largest piece of pottery: In 1998 a Colombian architect began work on a project on his property outside Villa de Leyva. His goal was to create a home using only materials found on his land. The result is a massive home-made entirely out of terracotta (baked earthen mud). The structure is terracotta. The furniture, counter tops, lamp fixtures, sinks and other details are terracotta. He calls it the largest piece of pottery in the world and for a few bucks you can tour the house and see for yourself. Learn more in our story about the terracotta house for AtlasObscura.com.
Welcome to Dickhenge…
Dickhenge: The El Infiernito archaeological site (aka the Muisca Observatory, 4,000 COP/about $US1.25), just outside of town, gives you the chance to check out an outdoor area that the Muisca people used as an astrological observatory. You will, no doubt, notice the more than 30 carved stone objects rammed into the ground. You will also notice that every single one of them is phallic. We do not know what huge stone penises have to do with astrological observation.
We don’t really know what this is: Just down the road from the observatory is the weird Parque 1900. There’s a restored old cars at the entrance. We could see rudimentary amusement park rides and hear piped in music. We did not go in.
Lunch Sutamarchán style, near Villa de Leyva.
Sausage for everyone: The nearby town of Sutamarchán, about 15 miles (25 km) from Villa de Leyva, is famous for its longonizas (sausages). Especially on the weekend, the main drag through town is lined with restaurants that have huge grills out front on which they are cooking up piles of longanizas, morcillo (rice-filled blood sausage), chorizo, grilled pork morsels, potatoes, corn and more which are served on a heaping plate called a picada which is meant to be shared.
This giant prehistoric crocodile was found in the ground near Villa de Leyva and this museum was built around the find.
Lotsa fossils: The Fossil of Monquira museum (8,000 COP/about US$2.50) is about 10 minutes by car from Villa de Leyva in the town of Monquira. The museum is home to an impressive collection of fossils that bear witness to the fact that this area was once under a big salt water bay. The most impressive installation is the fossilized remains of a 23 foot (7 meter) long prehistoric alligator type of thing which was discovered on site by a local in 1977. The museum as actually built around it. The creature is so massive and out of context that it feels fake, but it’s not.
The town of Ráquira is famous for its pottery and not shy about it.
Potteryland: Ráquira, about a half hour from Villa de Leyva, is a town that’s famous for its pottery. Even if you’re not in the market for a garden donkey or a rustic set of coffee mugs, it’s worth a drive through just to marvel at the center of town, whose name means “city of pots”. It’s like a kitchy Disneyland for pottery lovers.
Christmas in Villa de Leyva
Every Christmas Villa de Leyva pulls out all the stops and hosts a massive fireworks display. The town’s huge main plaza is turned into a viewing area for the dramatic show that explodes over the Colonial rooftops of the town.
They’ve been doing it for the past 30 years and town gets packed for the annual event. We paid 7,000 COP (about US$2.50) at the local tourism office just off the main plaza for access to the “VIP” viewing area in main plaza where rows of plastic chairs were set up. We were told the money goes to buy Christmas gifts for kids.
The fireworks finally started around 10:30 after the crowds waited through hours of live music performance (made more excruciating by a terrible sound system) and some dance performance. At one point impatient locals started chanting “Luces! Luces!”.
The fireworks display lasted for about 40 minutes and it was worth the wait. Check out the show in our Christmas fireworks in Villa de Leyva video, below:
Hotels in Villa de Leyva
Obviously, tourism is a big deal in Villa de Leyva and the town has hotels to suit every type of traveler. We were looking for history, so we stayed at Hosteria Molino del Mesopotamia, one of the oldest buildings in Villa de Leyva. Built in the mid 1500s as a flour mill (molino means mill in Spanish), the original buildings of the hotel actually existed before Villa de Leyva officially did. The property was purchased by a family in 1960 and ultimately converted into a hotel.
New buildings and rooms were added in a sprawling garden over the years but you can still stay in the original building which is nearly 450 years old. Yes, that means rooms have quirks (sloping floors, gaps in window jams, drafts) and the decor can best be described as an antiques hodge-podge, but the ambiance is nice.
We enjoyed our very first canelazo in the small bar at the Hosteria Molina de Mesopotamia hotel in Villa de Leyva.
You can still see the massive mill stone in the hotel’s restaurant and the cozy hotel bar has a fireplace made from what used to be an earthen bread oven. That’s where we had our very first canelazo. Learn more about this beloved Andean hot toddy in our piece about canelazo for TheLatinKitchen.com. Recipe included.
Restaurants in Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva is also bursting with restaurants from basic eateries where you get a set meal for a few bucks to well-designed restaurants and bars headed up by creative chefs and bar tenders.
Good things come out of that wood burning oven at Mercado Municipal restaurant in Villa de Leyva.
Mercado Municipal restaurant was a stand out for us. Chef/owners Laura Jaramillo and Mario Martinez, who trained at a culinary school in New York City and the Culinary Institute of America, respectively, have created a casually elegant, bistro-style restaurant with a welcoming back garden. They serve up fantastic food for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Many vegetables come from their own organic kitchen. They have a wood-fired oven for pizza and other dishes. They also have an in-ground oven they use to slow-cook succulent meat. The international wine list is impressive and you can expect to hear Amy Winehouse and Pearl Jam on the sound system.
The sister restaurant to Mercado Municipal is called La Bonita and it gets good reviews for its Mexican food, but we didn’t eat there so we can’t say for sure. We did enjoy a great michelada at Big Sky Lounge and Grill. Big Sky also serves a wide range of Colombian microbrews, including their own.
Like most things in Villa de Leyva, restaurants can get packed on weekends.
Believe it or not, there are plenty of other things to do and see around Villa de Leyva like an ostrich farm and some hot springs and a weird desert. Even we didn’t have time for it all. If you’ve done something fantastic in or near Villa de Leyva that’s not in this post, tell us about it in the comments section, below.
Welcome to Part 2 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 series of posts. Part 2 is our guide to the Best Food & Beverages we enjoyed during the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including giant Amazon fish, reinvented arepas and the best tacos south of Mexico. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2015, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.
In 2015 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and we drove 7,210 miles (11,603 km) doing it. Want more geeky road trip numbers like how much money we’ve spent on gas and how many borders we’ve driven over? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page on our website.
And now, in no particular order, here’s our guide to the best food in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador in 2015.
Best Food & Beverages of 2015
Best food city: It’s no contest. Bogotá, Colombia blew our minds, culinarily speaking, and we should know. We spent weeks eating our way through the city, meeting chefs and generally falling in love with the food that’s going on there. There was so much to love that we wrote a comprehensive post about where to eat in Bogotá including 29 amazing places (and one to skip) and then we published another post all about drinking in Bogotá.
Best floating food: The Aria Amazon River Boat is a floating five-star hotel and restaurant that takes guests through the Amazon and its tributaries in northern Peru. The food lives up to the hype thanks to a menu created by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima. Meal after meal presented an amazing array of choices, many of them incorporating Amazonian ingredients like paiche fish, yuca and camu camu fruit. About 70% of the menu’s ingredients are sourced from the Amazon basin. About 100% of it was delicious. In 2016 the company is offering special chef-hosted cruises that include tutorials and visits to local markets. That’s the elegant dining room, above.
Best every day pizza:Fabiano’s Pizza in Cuenca, Ecuador serves legit pizza (see above) at great prices to a crowd that’s heavy on the expats (the place had a festive nursing home vibe). The most expensive 12 slice pizza was around US$17.00 and a generous glass of wine was US$3.50. Cash only. English is spoken (did we mention the expats?).
Best fish and chips: The beachfront road through Puerto Lopez on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador is home to a string of restaurants that look and smell pretty much the same. We randomly chose one called Carmelitas and, for about US$7, we got a massive plate of fabulous fish and chips (called pescado chicharron on the menu, pictured above). the food was so light, fresh and delicious that we returned the next day for more.
Best comfort food:El Comedor Comfort Food in Bogotá lives up to its name with their salt encrusted whole chicken, a succulent bird that’s served with roasted potatoes (above) and avocado salad. It’s a local’s favorite and must be ordered ahead.
Best pastrami sandwich: 2015 was the year that La Fama Barbecue added a pastrami sandwich to the menu (27,000 COP or about US$8.50). The pastrami is brined for 14 hours then slow cooked and smoked. The meat has a perfect patina, it’s thin sliced, super tender and delivers great flavor. The pastrami is served on buttered and toasted rye bread from El Arbol de Pan bakery along with Swiss cheese. A great slaw is served on the side. Au jus dipping sauce also comes with it for some mysterious reason.
Best to-go cup: We love to-go cups because they provide a way for you to take your unfinished drink with you when you leave a bar instead of forfeiting it. We’ve rarely seen to-go cups outside of New Orleans, so we were thrilled when staff at Apache Burger Bar in Bogotá handed us a high quality, high design to-go cup (above) on our way out the door.
Best reinvented dish: The Colombian owners of Moliendo Café in Cuenca, Ecuador have re-invented the (very) humble arepa by turning the basic ground corn patty into a vessel to be topped with extremely well made Colombian favorites like beans, hogao (a rich sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables), chorizo, chicharron (fried cubes of meaty pork skin), ribs, etc. Orders are around US$3.50 and portions are huge (as you can see above). They also import Postobon soda and Aguila and Poker beer from Colombia.
Best taco south of Mexico: Readers of our travel blog know that we miss the food in Mexico every single day. So we were thrilled to get the chance to sample some dishes from Chef Roberto Ruiz in the days before he opened Cantina y Punto in Bogotá, Colombia in late 2015. Chef Ruiz is from Mexico and his Punto MX restaurant in Madrid is the only Mexican restaurant in Europe with a Michelin star. Working with a brand new staff in a brand new kitchen as construction went on around him, Chef Ruiz proceeded to exceed our expectations with a plate of tuna chicharron tacos on hand made tortillas, his famous guacamole and a fiery, flavorful salsa made from freshly roasted chilies sourced from a Mexican farmer near Medellin (above).
Best new beer garden: In November of 2015 Demente Beer Garden opened on Plaza de la Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia right next to Demente Tapas Bar. The new beer garden serves Colombian craft beer (including Bogotá Beer Company, Apostol, 3 Cordilleras and Sierra Nevada) and pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven and is every bit as cool as its older sibling.
Best falafel:United Falafel Org (UFO), located next to the weirdly sterile church in the center of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, serves up fluffy falafel balls, great tahini, delicious hot sauce and homemade pitas (US$3.50 for a two ball falafel sandwich or US$6 for a five ball falafel platter). Not into falafel? Rotating specials including eggplant wraps and curries are also on the menu at this tiny, bohemian space where tables are made from old pallettes.
The food scene in Bogotá is on fire (we tell you where to eat right now in our Bogotá Dining Guide) and the drinking and bar scene isn’t too far behind with craft beers, and lovingly made cocktails served in bars to suite anyone’s style. Our guide to watering holes in the Colombian capital will tell you where to drink in Bogotá right now.
Where to drink in Bogotá right now
Bar Enano – The Spanish word enano loosely translates to dwarf in English and everything about Bar Enano, off the main dining room at Bistro el Bandido (which nails the French Bistro vibe and menu – order the coq au vin), is small. The handful of tables are tiny. The menu offers small bites. The antique tableware, exquisitely sourced from antique shops and estate sales in Medellin, is almost doll size. The cocktails, on the other hand, pack a big, big punch. The throwback issues of Playboy magazine are the icing on the cake at this intimate, retro spot.
Bar Enano, a new place to get a serious cocktail in an intimate space.
Black Bear – This place is so full of craft cocktails and the hipsters who love them that you may think you’ve teleported from Bogotá to Portland. There’s food here too but it’s the serious mixology that keeps this place packed.
At Black Bear it’s hard to tell who’s more serious about mixology: the bartenders or the patrons.
Bar 8 1/4 – This six stool watering hole is helmed by Ronnie Schneider, a Venezuelan who calls himself a “Slow Drink Tender”. Armed with a cabinet full of homemade infusions and bitters he experiments boldly, fails rarely and delights his patrons with classy (but never pretentious) presentation with surprises in every sip. Whatever you do, don’t order a boring old beer. Located at Carrera 14 #86A-12 on the first floor of a house that’s been turned into a culinary and retail space. You will need to be buzzed into the front door which just adds to the speakeasy vibe.
Ronnie Schneider works his magic at Bar 8 1/4.
Apache Burger Bar – Created and operated by Chef Felipe Arizabaleta of Bistro el Bandido, Bar Enano and Bruto fame, this place is a hip watering hole on the roof of the even hipper Click Clack Hotel. Casual, sexy and straightforward, you can get a beer, good wine or a cocktail while enjoying a DJ and epic views of the city below. Food (salads, sandwiches, Chicago style hot dogs and, of course, burgers) is also available.
Locals flock to Apache Burger Bar for rooftop views, a DJ and great drinks.
Bogotá Beer Company – Lovingly referred to as just “BBC”, this is the biggest little craft brewery in Colombia (in 2015 BBC was purchased by Ambev, the Brazilian affiliate of Anheuser-Busch Imbev, but nothing has changed on the ground). There are nearly 30 BBC pubs across Colombia where a range of craft beers on tap and in bottles can be enjoyed along with food and music. Happy hour prices are offered Monday to Friday between noon and 7 pm which means you can enjoy a pint of world-class craft beer for about US$2.25 including tax and tip. Really.
Bogotá Beer Company, the biggest little beer maker in Colombia.
Statua Rota – BBC is the big boy of Colombian craft beers, but there are many small producers doing good work as well. We recommend a visit to Statua Rota (Broken Statue) in the Chapinero neighborhood where a house has been converted into a brew pub that feels like a frat house but with better kegs. Two brothers and a friend started the brewery and despite their youth and heavy metal wardrobes they’re very serious about what they do. Their European style beers are solid and include a wheat beer brewed with lulo (a sweet/tart fruit) and coriander seeds and a bock beer called Michael Jackson because, according to the brew master, it has a white soul but it looks black. A grill in the courtyard turns out well-priced kebabs, sausages and burgers too.
Serious beer in a frat house atmosphere at the Statua Rota brew pub.
Xarcuteria – The best happy hour in Bogotá, by far, is at Xarcuteria where cocktails are half price and wine and beer (including craft beer) is 30% off every day from 4:30 to 7:30 and again from 10:30 to closing time. Happy hour is not offered on Sundays, but you’ll need a day to recover anyway.
Gordo Brooklyn Bar & Restaurant – Colombian chef Daniel Castaño worked with Mario Batali in New York City for nearly a decade. When he returned to Colombia to begin opening restaurants of his own he missed the bars he used to visit near his home in Brooklyn, so he created a Brooklyn bar in Bogotá. Unlike many places in the capital, the bar at Gordo is huge and inviting. There are couches and areas to simply hang out in. There’s even a pressed tin ceiling that came straight from Brooklyn. The bar tender is skilled, they make their own tonic water and vermouth and, if you’re lucky, Daniel might be on the bar stool next to you. The menu is fabulous too (including a burger made with a hand ground beef patty served on a homemade brioche bun), so come hungry. Read more about how Daniel created a Brooklyn bar in Bogotá in our piece about Gordo for TheLatinKitchen.com.
Travel to Antioquia province and you will soon see that it is the Texas of Colombia: sprawling, gritty, uncouth, proud and generally bigger, badder and better than the rest of the country (in its own not-to-humble opinion). Medellin, the capital of Antioquia, is all of those things times 10. Yeehaw!
The city of Medellin, Colombia fills the Aburra Valley in Antioquia province.
How Antioquia and Medellin got that way
Like Texas, the people of Antioquia excel at raising cattle and crops and they’re savvy businessmen as well. One theory that we heard repeatedly says that you can blame the Spanish Inquisition for that.
During the Inquisition, Jews in the Spanish world (including Latin America) were faced with an unacceptable choice: convert or die. Jews in Colombia headed for the hills and many of them ended up in the (then) nearly inaccessible valleys of Antioquia where their business acumen (yes, it’s a stereotype) mingled with the agricultural skills of local campesinos.
Today the inhabitants of Antioquia and Medellin call themselves Paisas. You’ve all seen a Paisa. His name is Juan Valdez and even though Señor Valdez is a stereotypical fictional character created to sell Colombian coffee, you see dudes who look just like him in Medellin and all around Antioquia all the time.
Paisa Don Aristedes.
Colombians who live in the big, cosmopolitan capital of Bogota tend to deride Paisas as hicks (though they envy and sort of fear their business acumen). Us? We think Paisas give Medellin the feel of a country town that’s grown huge but is still just a country town at heart. You really do get the sense that if the modern amenities of Medellin disappeared tomorrow and the place reverted to its campesino roots few locals would mind and some would consider it an improvement. And we love that.
Leave your Medellin misconceptions at home
Yes, yes, yes. Not so long ago Medellin held the dubious honor of being the “murder capital of the world” (a distinction now held by San Pedro Sula, Honduras) thanks to narco terrorists like Pablo Escobar (who was killed in 1993) and other jokers including guerillas and paramilitary groups whose calling cards were random acts of violence which nearly crippled the country.
Pablo Escobar’s grave in a cemetery in Medellin.
Over the past decade or so, violence across Colombia has been consistently falling including in Medellin where murder rates in the city dropped 34% in the first quarter of 2014. According to Insight Crime, a non-profit which monitors the threat of organized crime activity to citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia is on track to have its least violent year in three decades.
However, we’ve spent more than 16 months in Colombia – more than six months of that in Medellin – and we’ve only had one brush with crime or violence and that did not occur in Medellin but in a far-flung area near a known red zone (areas which the Colombian government concedes are under the control of FARC or other guerilla groups) where we were caught in the middle of a skirmish between FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers (more on that later).
So, pack your common sense but leave your misconceptions about Medellin at home.
Vendor selling chontaduro palm fruit in central Medellin.
We’re not buying all the blind cheer leading by city officials who keep going on and on and on about things like the city’s 2013 ranking as “City of the Year” by the Wall Street Journal. Instead, we put our stock in our own experiences in the city. Here are a few illuminating observations.
Medellin (pronounced Med-uh-jheen) is the second largest city in Colombia with a population of nearly four million all living in the center of the large Aburra valley in the Central Andes which is about 35 miles (60 km) long 6 miles (10 km) wide at its widest. This means the city has the crowds and traffic, noise and pollution that comes with a population that big. There’s also a noticeable population of homeless people, stray dogs and other big city scourges that feel normal to New Yorkers like us.
On a more charming note, Medellin is teeming with vintage Renault Masters and we’re sort of loving their tiny, boxy, indestructible utilitarianism.
Medellin has an amazingly clean, cheap and efficient metro system. City officials spent months training locals about how to ride and respect the system before it was unveiled in 1995 and its cleanliness and civility put the New York City subway system to shame (admittedly, it carries a fraction of the passengers each day, but still).
Medellin’s Metro System is a point of pride and a clean, safe, efficient and cheap way to get around the city.
At one point we saw metro cars plastered with public service posters warning women to check out their doctor’s credentials before getting plastic surgery, which is a huge business in Medellin including boob and butt augmentations that some women seek out to get what’s been called the “Narco Beauty”.
Medellin’s Metrocable serves the thousands of people who live in under-developed comunas on the hillsides around Medellin.
Medellin is located in a steep-walled valley with the city occupying the valley floor and the foothills and impoverished comunas creeping up and up and up the hillsides. Those poor neighborhoods have not necessarily benefited from city improvements like the metro system (which only operates in the valley) and that whole “City of the Year” thing, but the government has instituted some programs designed to improve life for comuna dwellers including an aerial tram system called the Metrocable that makes it much easier to get to and from the city and a library program that has built modern, book-filled structures in various comunas.
Those ominous looking dark building is the Biblioteca Espana, one of a dozen or so libraries built in under-developed comunas that cover the hillsides around Medellin.
They call Medellin the city of eternal spring and that is one hyperbolic claim we can agree with. The city sits at an altitude of about 5,000 feet (1,525 meters) and the mountains that surrounded it rise to more than 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). This creates weather so temperate and predictable (basically a high of 80 and a low of 65 every single day) that very, very few homes have heating or air-conditioning or even fans. It’s simply not needed.
At least half of the city’s sidewalks have special ridged strips down the center leading to nubbed concrete at the corners. These are guides for the blind. They are also awesome.
There’s not much to do in Medellin, but come anyway
Here’s a short list of some things to do and see in Medellin including craft beer, flower parades, interactive science, art and extreme eating. And don’t miss our post about FREE things to do in Medellin.
By far the city’s biggest claim to fame is its annual Flower Festival which happens around August every year and celebrates Antioquia’s flower growing heritage, proud Paisa culture and general love of a good party. We’ve been in Medellin for two consecutive Flower Festivals and you can check out the flowers, tradition, parades and controversies in this series of Flower Festival posts.
Part of the splendor of the annual Flower Festival in Medellin.
Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero was born in Medellin and his art still flavors the city though the artist hasn’t lived full-time in Colombia in years. Botero donated hundreds of works of art from his personal collection, including pieces by modern masters as well as his own sculptures and paintings, to the excellent Museo de Antioquia in central Medellin (10,000 COP or about US$3.50).
Paintings by Medellin native Fernando Botero in the excellent Museo de Antioquia.
In front of the museum is Botero Plaza which is filled with the artist’s enormous, proportionately exaggerated bronze sculptures. The plaza is a free public space and the museum is well worth the entry fee both for the art collection and the chance to check out the building itself.
Botero bronze sculptures fill Botero Plaza in front of the Museo de Antioquia.
Parque Explora (15,000 COP or about US$5) opened in 2007 and is a massive interactive science center particularly interesting to kids and geeks of all ages. There’s an aquarium (the largest in Latin America), principles of science exhibits that demonstrate ideas like gravity and perspective and rotating special exhibits with themes like “Water”.
Us taking part in one of the interactive science exhibits at Parque Explora in Medellin.
If you really want to piss off the locals, go on one of the many Pablo Escobar tours of the city that take in attractions like his grave, the building where he was killed on the roof in 1992, etc. Before you book anything, learn more about the thorny issue of Escobar tourism in this award-winning piece we did for RoadsAndKingdoms.com.
Craft beer at Apostle Brewery in Medellin, just one of a growing number of local microbreweries.
In recent years Medellin has seen a surge in craft brew making and craft brew drinking. Three local breweries also offer brewery tours and a variety of special party nights. Get the details about the craft brew scene in Medellin in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.
For the less fancy, there’s this option: Drinking beers in front of small tiendas which double as neighborhood bars, is a commonplace throughout Colombia. However, Medellin seems to do it best with interesting places to sit among locals and enjoy a cheap Pilsner or Aguilla beer every few blocks in the city.We found some of these spots, generally with large TVs, to be some of the best places to hang out and watch beloved local futbol teams Atlético Nacional (which just turned down a buyout offer from Donald Trump) and Independiente Medellín on game days (Wednesdays and Sundays).
Medellin’s passion for futbol (aka soccer) runs deep. This mosaic, found at the Estadio (Stadium) Metro stop depicts Madonna dressed in the colors of one of the two rival teams in the city. She’s even holding a soccer ball.
Medellin has an active nightlife scene with bars and clubs centered in several areas of the city, most famously around Parque Lleras. If you wander La Setenta (Calle 70th between the Estadio and Laureles neighborhoods) on a Saturday night you’re in for some great people watching as the city gears up to party and Paisas from all walks of life spill into the streets from a wide array of clubs, bars and restaurants.
We do not recommend that you partake in the seedy, sketchy side of the nightlife scene in Medellin. Prostitution is legal in Colombia but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t incarnations of it that are downright reprehensible.
Just like in Texas, Paisas love their meat and you really shouldn’t leave Medellin without trying the local dish. Called Bandeja Paisa, it’s a vegetarian’s nightmare and a heart surgeon’s dream. Check it out in this previous post we did, all about our first Bandeja Paisa.
Yes, this is ONE serving of Bandeja Paisa featuring beans, chicharon (fried meaty pork skin) morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, a fried egg, an arepa and a slice of avacado.
Bandeja Paisa is best washed down with a shot or two of Aguardiente Antioqueño, the local version of Colombia’s beloved aguardiente which is a distilled cane spirit spiked with anise. Every region of the country has their own version of the stuff. Here’s what happened the first time we tried aguardiente.