We are planning a permanent move to South America sometime in the next 12-15 months. Over the past ten years we’ve traveled to Peru twice and to Ecuador more than a dozen times. But recently Colombia has risen to the top as a place to consider, in particular the city of Medellin.
As luck would have it, I connected with a classmate of my older brother who moved to Medellin about five years ago. Janet proved to be of invaluable help. She put us in touch with Angie, a professional driver who knows the Medellin metro area better than anyone. TG had already spent countless hours researching potential neighborhoods, and between them they put together an itinerary that covered as much ground as possible in our six-day visit.
Sunday: Running on Fumes
Our flight left FLL at 7am, and we are a two-hour drive from the airport. That meant we were up at 1:30am for the drive from Okeechobee. After an uneventful flight, Janet and Angie met us at the airport and we took off running.
That afternoon we had planned to explore the suburbs closest to the international airport. First stop, the delightful little finca town of El Tablazo. A “finca” is a small farm and the surrounding area was indeed picturesque and pastoral. From there we drove through Rionegro, Zona Franca, and San Antonio Pereria. The townhouses and parks were charming with lots of open, green spaces.
We were already beginning to fall in love with Colombia. After a quick lunch at a local chain “Crepes and Waffles” (quinoa and kale salad!), we headed towards Medellin via the suburb of Guarne. We felt it was a bit crowded for our taste but did manage to spy one interesting little apartment: a 3 BR, 2 bath for one million pesos per month. (about $310)
By now it was getting close to 4pm and we were fading fast. As Angie drove into the city, we got our first glimpse of Medellin. With a population of about 2.5 million, it sprawls through a narrow valley surrounded by mountains. The view from the road is spectacular.
Janet had recommended the Hotel Asturias in the upscale neighborhood of Laureles. It is located on a quiet side street, close to shops and restaurants, and also near her apartment.
Our room was tiny but comfortable and extremely quiet.
A full breakfast with plenty of fresh Colombian coffee is included in the nightly rate.
Monday: Old Friends/New Friends
Angie picked us up at the hotel promptly at 8am and drove us to Janet and John’s apartment. It is a beautiful 4 bedroom on the 8th floor, with gorgeous views from every window.
There is also a rooftop terrace with 360 views of the city.
Then it was off on a whirlwind tour of the neighborhoods. We covered Belen, which sits against a hillside park called Tres Cruces, or Three Crosses. This is a popular hiking spot for folks in the city with many tall high-rise buildings. After driving around some, we stopped in a “Home Center,” which is a bit like a Home Depot and Bed, Bath & Beyond all under one big roof.
We priced everything from coffee pots and dishes …
to refrigerators and washing machines.
After lunch in the vibrant town of Sabaneta, it was time to visit another new, old friend.
Although Janet and I were years apart at school, we bonded instantly. Because of our common background I felt like I had known her forever. Another classmate of my brother’s is also living in Medellin and wanted to meet us. Barb lives in a long-term care facility with a full-time private nurse, and besides meeting Barb, we felt this would be the perfect opportunity to visit such a place without sitting through a sales pitch.
It was beautiful – with none of the “old people/disinfectant” smell you might expect.
Barb’s room opens onto a tiny garden with hummingbirds flitting about. It was charming. Monthly price for private room and full-time nurse: $4000. Barb smiled when she met me. She said, “your brother was a real hoot!” Yes, he was!
We drove through more city neighborhoods and then dropped Janet off at her apartment. We kept going on to Bello, which is in a lower-income and a bit edgier part of town. We came upon literally miles of young people lining the sidewalk on either side, the crowd and noise growing larger the further along we went. Angie finally asked a taxi driver what was going on. “A free Metallica concert!” he said.
We kept driving, further out of the city: Las Cabañas, Copacobana, and finally Girardota.
Then up and up into the surrounding hillside.
We passed a group walking up the hill. Angie said, “that one in the blue shirt is American” and promptly stopped to say hi. Sure enough, Rob is from Utah and lives part-time in his beautiful hillside casa outside of Girardota. He invited us in to see the property – a big 4-bedroom house inside a walled garden with a pool. The view from his upper balcony was spectacular. He offered to rent the house to us for $700 a month. We exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch.
By now it was almost dark, and we hit rush-hour traffic heading back into the city. We were too tired to go out – we noshed on fruit and cheese from the local grocery store before calling it a night.
After two days we wrote down some of our first impressions of Medellin:
Well-maintained streets with very little litter
Very “First World”
Corn (in everything)
Confusing streets with little signage – easy to get lost if you don’t know where you’re going
Mostly beautiful but with a few dodgy parts
Beautiful women who are very proud of their long hair
Tuesday: Flowers, Wood, and Waterfalls
The plan today was to drive south and east out of the city into the flower region.
This area sits at a higher altitude than Medellin and the air was much cooler as we drove up the mountain.
We passed through the towns of Las Palmas and El Retiro, both of which are notable for their woodworking.
Shop after shop lined each side of the road as we wound our way towards La Ceja, with many this time of year selling wooden Christmas trees and other holiday decorations.
On the way we stopped for a quick photo-op at a beautiful waterfall, Tequendamita Falls.
The greenhouses in La Ceja spread out across the valley. The town itself sits surrounded by mountains on all sides. It felt very quiet and peaceful – possibly made more so by the numerous seminaries and convents scattered throughout the area.
We wanted a typical Colombian lunch so on our way back we stopped at Kioskos for patacones and “Frijoles Triple Ah” (Triple AAA): beans with arroz (rice), avocado, and arepa.
Angie taught us the proper way to eat the small, dry cornmeal cakes: piled high with fresh avocado and a liberal dash of salt!
Then we checked out a house we had found on-line in an exclusive Rionegro neighborhood. It turned out to be in a gated community with a no-nonsense guard. Angie disappeared for a few minutes and came back smiling with a set of keys. We were able to go inside and see how much house you can rent for 3.9 million pesos a month (about $1200).
Dinner that night was at a Peruvian restaurant very close to our hotel. Maybe it was because we’ve been off rice and potatoes for so long, but dinner never tasted so good!
Wednesday: To Market to Market
Today was our first free day and we planned to spend it comparison shopping at the grocery stores and market. While I enjoyed a cup of coffee and reminisced with Janet, Andy took our regular weekly shopping list to the store and priced everything – apples to apples (or should we say papaya to papaya). We found, for the most part, that prices are far below what we would pay Stateside for the same items.
After my visit with Janet we walked to the local produce market. Here the fruits and vegetables are even cheaper as you are buying directly from the farmers.
We searched for kale with no luck. We didn’t know the Spanish word, and no one could understand what we wanted. Finally, one of the vendors asked another shopper who could speak English. She had no idea but typed it into Google Translate. The translation came back “kah-lay.” Of course.
After the market it was time for lunch. We walked back towards our hotel and stumbled upon a delightful little place called “The Art of Pizza.” The walls and menu were decorated with classic masterpieces, except with a pizza twist.
TG’s veggie pizza was indeed a work of art and as a friend said “For $8! How can you go wrong?”
Well, apparently you can go very wrong. I made the mistake of insisting on ordering in Spanish. I could read ensalada, aquacate, and queso (salad, avocado, and cheese). As a vegetarian it looked divine. What I failed to translate was the word tocino and the salad came buried in it: BACON! Too embarrassed to order anything else, I nibbled a few bites of TG’s pizza and looked forward to dinner.
We wanted to check out an apartment we had found on-line so after lunch we continued our walk. We found the apartment but then got totally turned around. As soon as we passed the porn shop, we knew we were heading in the wrong direction. Fortunately, Janet had given us a map of the area and we quickly straightened ourselves out. Not, however, before logging 15,000 steps on my Fitbit.
That night we had arranged to meet Janet and John for dinner. It was a delightful evening getting to know them both as well as picking their brains regarding their move to Colombia and their impressions of Medellin.
Thursday: The Business of Coffee
When we parted ways with Angie on Tuesday, she had given us three options for today: Fredonia, Santa Fe Antioquia, or Barbosa. All three towns are in opposite directions, and we only had time for one. “Research and let me know” she said. We settled on Fredonia, located in the coffee region south and west of Medellin. This turned out to be the best decision we could have made. We were literally on our way to heaven.
The hillsides are lush and green, with coffee plantations scattered about. Mountains grow tall inside the deep valleys and the air smells fresh and sweet.
This time of year, the coffee berries drip bright red against the dark green leaves.
The quaint town of Fredonia sits on a steep hillside with the ubiquitous cathedral towering over the center square.
We stopped in a small shop to purchase some of the locally grown coffee: Café Don Chucho.
Francisco Javier (Don Chucho’s son) has the nicest smile you’ll ever see and a warm personality to go along with it.
After our coffee his wife escorted us to an upstairs restaurant overlooking the cathedral and square – a place we never would have found on our own.
Angie ordered without a menu: traditional Colombian food similar to what we had at Kiosko’s on Tuesday.
Although Fredonia is at the beginning of the coffee region, we were still in Antioquia, in an area called Sur oeste, or the Southwest. “Here begins the business of the coffee” Angie said.
Friday: The Four Elements of Rap
It was our last full day, and we had covered everything we wanted to see. As much as we loved Fredonia, we realized it was too far from Medellin to seriously consider for our new home. We want to find a quiet place close (but not too close) to the city, a short ride to the airport and where we can walk to the markets and shops.
So, we decided to do something touristy that afternoon. We made a reservation with Free City Tours for a tour of comuna 13. Colombia is a country of resilience and no place embodies that quite like comuna 13. Until the late 1990’s, this community was considered The Most dangerous in the world. Around that time, the people took control of their neighborhood and turned it into a place of hope, peace, and beauty.
The focal point of the tour is the area around the escaleras electricas, the outdoor escalators that provide access to homes in barrios high up on the hills and formerly isolated from the city below.
The area is awash with murals and graffiti, while at the top there is a lookout and boardwalk offering beautiful views of the bustling city.
We met at the San Javier metro station and then together took a local bus up the winding hillside to the start of the tour: the U.V.A., or local community center. This place, located next to a new high school, provides art and sports classes for children and adults. The words on the building’s exterior represent everything the community reclaimed as their own: things like “honor”, “justice”, and “respect.”
In order to fully understand the violence and difficulties that have plagued this area and its impressive reformation, it’s best to go with a local guide. Our guide, Alejandro, was born in comuna 13 and his family was forced to flee during the worst of the violence. His uncle and cousin were killed, accused of being part of the “guerrillas” or drug dealers. His eyes glistened with tears as he told us about this difficult time and the transformation of his town.
We started up the hill.
Alejandro said he had some surprises for us and a short way up he gave us the first: ice cream popsicles.
I tried the avocado and TG had the soursop. We found them both creamy and delicious.
Up more stairs to a coffee museum where we were shown the proper way to make Colombian coffee (NEVER add sugar!) and then were each given a sample cup.
After coffee we stopped at the beginning of the six escalator sets for freshly made (and piping hot) empañadas. Still eating, we ducked into another small coffee shop and enjoyed a shot glass of cold coffee-lemonade. It was interesting and refreshing.
While there, we were treated to our third surprise: a short rap concert by two local musicians, who each performed an original song. One of them sang to me; I think he was saying I had a nice smile, but it could also have been that my hair is gray.
Up more escalators to a lookout point and our last surprise of the day: a break-dance performance by some very talented young men.
All along the way, the walls of buildings are covered with murals and graffiti – so many that it’s hard to take it all in!
At the top of the hill, Alejandro stopped to explain we had just experienced the four elements of rap: art, music, poetry, and dance – which is the true spirit of comuna 13. He said “Don’t ever stop dreaming. Let comuna 13 be your inspiration – you can do anything you set your mind to. Live your life every day like it is the last.”
He gave us each a friendship bracelet made with Colombian colors and we said our good-byes.
We re-traced our steps back to the bus stop and San Javier metro station where we caught a taxi for our hotel. It was truly a memorable afternoon.
On our last night we enjoyed another traditional Colombian dinner at a nearby restaurant, Mondongo’s. By now we were old pros with the patacones, arepas, avocado. But a banana?
The grinning waiter explained that bananas go in “everything!” “Add it to your beans, put it on your patacones, anywhere!” he said gesturing across the entire table of food.
Saturday: Home Again Home Again
Saturday morning Angie’s husband, Jorge, took us to the airport via the tunel. At five miles long it is the longest tunnel in Latin America and connects the city to the international airport in about 18 minutes.
It was a short, easy drive and we arrived in plenty of time to stop at the duty-free shop and catch our flight back to Fort Lauderdale.
Medellin ended up being everything we had hoped for and then some. Our research into South America is not yet complete, but it will be hard to find a better place to live. Many thanks to Janet, John, and Angie for making this such an extraordinary week! “Hasta pronto, Medellin.” See you soon.