There are two miraculous reasons to travel to Guadalajara de Buga. One involves a crucifix. The other involves craft beer.
The miraculous crucifix of Buga
Guadalajara de Buga (usually simply called Buga) is just 45 miles (70 km) from Cali, but the tranquility of this colonial town, whose architecture and living tradition earned it a place on Colombia’s elite list of Pueblos Patrimonio, makes Buga feel a world away from the big city.
Founded in 1555, Buga is one of the oldest cities in Colombia and its main claim to fame is a story that’s nearly as old. As the legend goes, an indigenous washer woman was trying to save money to buy a crucifix. She finally washed enough clothes in the local river to save the money needed to buy a simple crucifix. However, as she was on her way to make the purchase she saw a neighbor being hauled off to jail because of unpaid debts.
Instead of buying the crucifix, the woman paid off her neighbor’s debts. When she returned to work in the river she noticed something shiny in the water and discovered a small crucifix floating by. She grabbed it and brought it home where the crucifix continued to grow and grow.
Today, the legend of the indigenous washer woman and her miraculously growing crucifix is marked by The Lord of the Miracles, a distinct dark-skinned Christ on the cross, which is housed in the Basilica del Senor de los Milagros in Buga. Every year millions of pilgrims visit the pink church.
The miraculous craft beer of Buga
If you worship at the house of hops, you’re in luck as well.
Brew master Stefan Schnur with some of his Holy Water Ale beers made in Buga, Colombia.
When German Stefan Schnur arrived in Buga he did not intend to create the only bed & beer hostel in Colombia, but that’s what he did when he opened the Buga Hostel in 2011.
The hostel is affordable with standard hostel accommodation. The Holy Water Ale brew pub and cafe attached to the hostel, however, is a craft beer miracle with nine different beers brewed by Stefan at a small, nearby brewery. There’s also an inventive menu including homemade bread and legit pizzas with locally made sausage and other great toppings on homemade crust. Don’t miss happy hour.
The Holy Water brew pub, part of the Buga Hostel in Colombia.
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.
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.
Thirsty traveler’s rejoice! The craft beer scene in Colombia is booming. For example, Colombia’s biggest microbrewery, Bogota Beer Company, got a lot bigger earlier this year when it was purchased by Anheuser-Busch InBev. However, there are still plenty of truly independent, up and coming craft breweries in Colombia, including four in Medellin that have small brew pubs and offer microbrewery beer tours and tastings. Here’s where to drink craft beer in Medellin, just four more reasons why we love Medellin.
Colombia’s Bogota Beer Company was just bought by Anheuser-Busch InBEV.
Where to drink craft beer in Medellin
Cerveza Premium Apóstol
The folks behind Cerveza Premium Apóstol, which opened for business in 2009, are serious about beer. Very, very serious. The brewery produces 106,000 gallons of beer per year and their weekly brewery tour not only explains the basics of how beer is made but the guided tasting which follows each tour provides the basics of how to appreciate, drink and even pour your beer.
During the post tour tasting, each of Apóstol’s German style beers, which are made by a brew master who trained in the US, are introduced and explained including color, ingredients, flavors, optimal serving temperature and even which type of beer mug or glass will bring out each beer’s unique fragrances and flavors. You will leave feeling smarter about beer.
Do it: The three hour brewery tour and tasting at Apóstol is offered every Thursday starting at 6:30 pm on the dot (20,000 COP/about US$6.50 including the tour and the tasting, Spanish only, though English language tours are available for groups of 20 or more). Reservations highly recommended.
Apóstol microbrewery in Medellin is VERY serious about beer.
The 3 Cordilleras brewery is named after the three chains (cordilleras in Spanish) of the Andes which run through Colombia. The brewery started production in 2008 and currently makes five beers including an amber ale called Mulata, a wheat beer called Blanca, an IPA called Mestiza (Karen’s favorite), a dark beer called Negra and a Rose beer infused with fruit.
After touring the downstairs brewery, outfitted with equipment bought from a brewery in Portland, Oregon, guests go upstairs to a loft bar to drink some beer and listen to live music. It feels like a college party, only with better beer.
Do it: Brewery tours are offered every Thursday from 5:30 to 9:00 (20,000 COP/about US$6.50, including three beers or 15,000 COP/about US$5 for designated drivers who aren’t drinking). Reservations recommended.
Part of the brewery at 3 Cordilleras in Medellin, Colombia.
Three friends like drinking beer. In 2011 three friends decide to make some beer. In 2013 three friends open a brew bar called Cervecería Libre. The owners called their place Cervecería Libre because they believe people deserve freedom of choice and they deliver it. With 12 beers on tap and 19 beers in total, all of them Colombian microbrews, Cervecería Libre’s bar is the place to go for the best selection of Colombian craft beer.
Cervecería Libre itself makes and pours four beers including Libre IPA, Libre Passion (which is brewed with a passionfruit-like bomb of deliciousness called maracuya), a Stout and a brown ale called Libre Avellana. The place attracts a young crowd with reasonable prices of 5,000 to 6,000 COP per beer (about US$2) per beer, late hours and good music (Nirvana, Primus, etc.).
Do it: Basic brewery tours are available at Cerveceria Libre upon request. The Cervecería Libre beer bar is open Wednesday and Thursday from 5 pm to midnight, Friday from 5 pm to 2 am and Saturday from 6 pm to 2 am. Cash only.
The Cerveceria Libre brew pub in Medellin has 12 taps and nearly 20 different Colombian microbrews for sale.
Hellriegel Beer Company
The newest brew pub in Medellin is Hellriegel Beer Company which is named after German/Venezuelan owner and beer maker Stefan Hellriegel, a self-taught brew master who produces five beers.
Hellreigel’s Silletera beer is an American pale ale named after the men and women who carry traditional loads of flowers during the city’s famous annual Flower Festival. His Carriel Irish red ale pays homage to an elaborate bag which is traditionally carried by Paisa men (locals proudly call themselves Paisas). Luna Nueva is a stout,Verdolaga is a naturally green ale which celebrates the colors of beloved local soccer team Atlético Nacional and Ponderosa is an Irish Red Ale.
Do it: Hellreigel does not offer a brewery tour but you can sign up for a day-long brewing course (US$89) and the brew pub is open daily.
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.