Popayan – A Colonial City in Southern Colombia – More than just a White City

Popayan – (pronounced Popa-jan) is the capital of the department of Cauca. It is called ‘the white city’ or Ciudad Blanca due to the color of the colonial buildings and churches in its historical center.

It’s a very relaxed, attractive city with a great climate in southern Colombia. But few foreign tourists visit Popayan. When they do it’s usually just for a one-night layover on their way to Ecuador or the Colombian archaeological site of San Agustin.

This small city merits more attention than it gets. And while it may look quiet, provincial and unmemorable it’s actually charmingly refreshing. As its promotion slogan goes, ‘Popayan – more than just a white city’.

A street in Popayan

A History

This colonial city was founded by the Spanish in 1537. While there are no records of its pre-Hispanic history, it is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. During the colonial period, Popayan was an important town due to its logistical location between Lima, Quito and Cartagena. Here there were significant mines, manned for the most part with slaves from Africa, extracting gold and silver,

Great Climate

Located in southwestern Colombia, between the western and central Andean mountain ranges, Popayan has a population of 258,650. It sits at an altitude of 5,775 feet (1760 meters) above sea level, and has an average temperature of 64 degrees F. (18 °C).

Due to its altitude, the city has a very nice climate year around – warm during the day and cool at night, with a short rain shower late in the afternoon. The early settlers established sugar estates down in the hot, humid Cauca valley but went back up into the mountain town of Popayan to live and raise their families.

College Town

It’s a quiet, relaxed town that’s easy to explore.  A well-known university town, Popayan is home to 8 different state and private universities. Students are everywhere in the center and the city feels like a college town.

There are many small, family run hotels in the center, but few restaurants. Visitors complain the center is dead, lacking a vibrancy and essential services – especially in the evenings and on Sundays when it is often hard to find anything open.  But like many modern cities, the historic center houses mostly government and business offices and university buildings. 

Popayan has a sizable residential area just beyond the city’s center teaming with shopping centers and restaurants. A short taxi ride up Carrrera 9 imparts a more modern Popayan with plenty of dining and shopping options.

Earthquakes

The town of Popayan has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years after major earthquakes. The last one was on a Sunday morning of March 31, 1983. Mass was being held in the Cathedral Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion on the town’s main square of Plaza Mayor. The earthquake only lasted 18 seconds but it destroyed the cathedral killing many people – a total of 267 died in the city’s earthquake. The entire town was in shambles and much of the city’s original splendor was destroyed.

Reconstruction took more than 10 years. The cathedral was rebuilt. While the city still has some ruins and empty lots, it’s hard to see any signs of the quake today. As a result of this event, the first earthquake-seismic-design-code was established in Colombia.

Popayan’s historic downtown is rich with colonial architecture which has been preserved for more than four centuries. The cobblestone streets were almost all paved over in 1937 but current projects seek to recover the old city’s original look

It’s fun to stroll along the streets of the historic center soaking up the city’s architectural charms. 

Plenty to see and do

Puente Humilladero is a beautiful bridge 785 feet (240 meters) long made up of 11 arches. The bridge crosses a fault line between the city center and the Bolivar neighborhood connecting the central and northern zones of the city. Built in 1873, the designs were prepared by the Italian friar and a German engineer. Its well-planned design and strong construction have allowed the bridge to remain intact through many earthquakes. A park by the bridge is a gathering point for students.

Santo Domingo Church, Popayan

There are numerous churches and museums to visit in the center: the church of San Francisco, Santo Domingo, La Ermita and La Basilica with its famous Torre de Reloj, or the watchtower, which was built in the 1600s. There are many museums worth visiting like the museum of religious art and the museum of natural history.

Cerro de Moro hilltop overlooking the skyline of Popayan

The Morro de Tucan, or Cerro de Morro, is large hill overlooking the city. Where an ancient pre-Columbian pyramid structure once existed, today it is home to the large statue of the founder of the city. The hill offers a great lookout of the city below.  It’s a short climb to the top, but the stunning panoramas and sunset views make it a must-visit spot in downtown Popayan.

But some of the best things to see and do here lie just outside of the city.  After a day or two visit of the city, Popayan can then serve as a handy base to see the many interesting sites nearby.

Around Popayan

Thermal baths – Aguas Hirviendas at Coconuco

About 15 miles (25 km.) from Popayan, on the road to San Agustin, is Coconuco a beautiful spot surrounded by green hills and waterfalls. In the mountains over the town, the magical site of Termales Aquas Hirviendas (Thermal Baths of Boiling Waters) is found. Coconuco is only an hour bus ride outside Popayan. For $3 you can soak in the thermal pools.  Boiling pools of sulfur water are mixed with cold mountain spring water and channeled into the surrounding pools. Each pool has a different temp.

The spa ritual is: 15 minutes in the hot pool, get our, stand under a waterfall of ice-cold, mountain spring water, scream, jump back in a hot pool and repeat. There are a lot of locals here on the weekends but hardly anyone visits during the week. The locals bring boom boxes and sip Bacardi rum with Poker beer chasers pool side. There is also a volcanic spring fountain where you can drink sulfur water, they call aqua soda or soda water, which is very diuretic.

The Market of Silvia

Another big draw is the indigenous market in the village of Silvia on Tuesdays when the Guambiano tribe come to market from their four villages of Pueblito, La Campana, Guambia and Caciques. There are only 12,000 people remaining in the tribe. They speak their own language and dress in their colorful, traditional garb. At the market they sell their arts and crafts, vegetables and fruit and then buy supplies like rice beans, potatoes and farm equipment to take back to their villages.

They come and go in picturesque, exhaust spewing chiva buses and congregate around the main square of Silvia. They don’t like cameras believing photos rob them of their soul. But if you buy something from them, they will indulge you and pose for a shot. From the main square in Silvia walk uphill to the church for a great view of the village below.

Parque Natural De Purace (Purace National Park)

The tundra, or paramo, of Park Purace

Purace park is 534 square miles (860 square km) of volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, natural springs, waterfalls, lagoons and grasslands.  A volcanic zone in the Andes, it is S.E. of Popayan, on the road to San Agustin. It’s high-tundra (paramo) terrain. Purace, in the indigenous Quechan language, appropriately means ‘fire mountain.

The park contains many springs like the Termales de San Juan which are immersed in virgin, Andean beauty.  There are 200 types of orchids that grow here, 30 lakes and waterfalls like the Los Guachanos Cave Park Bondon waterfalls. Major Colombian rivers like the Magdalena and Cauca originate here. It is also home to a vast array of wildlife like the spectacled bear, otters, sloths, pumas, deer, eagles and Andean condors.

With the help of an indigenous guide and a day to spare, one can hike to the crater summit of the active Purace volcano 15,000 feet (4,646 meters). It’s a four-hour, 7 km. climb to the top and takes around 3-hours to descend. Technically, it’s not a particularly hard climb but the altitude makes it harder than it should be.

Semana Santa (Holy Week of Easter)

Since the 16th century, Popayan has been famous for its religious processions during the holy week proceeding Easter. The processions depict the passion and death of Jesus Christ. There are festivities all week long but the processions take place between Good Friday and Holy Saturday before Easter. Thousands of people from all around Colombia come to take part in the event.

Getting There

There is an airport in Popayan and one can fly in from any major Colombian airport. Or come by bus from the cities of Cali to the north or Pasto to the south – both relatively short trips.

A southern Colombian itinerary would require at least 10-12 days: 3-4 days taking in the sights in and around Popayan; 3 days to cross the paramo of Park Purace and to visit the archeological sites of San Agustin (a 6-hour bus trip from Popayan); 2-3 days to venture north to visit to tombs of Tierradento (a 6-hour bus trip). After Tierradentro, there’s a road from heading back to Popayan (a 4- hour bus trip). One could also visit Cali from Popayan (a 3-hour bus trip) or Pasto (a 6-hour bus trip from Popayan).

For more on see: travel in Southern Colombia

Top Spots in Colombia – 15 Best Destinations

Seasoned South American travelers say Colombia is the continent’s best kept secret – beautiful, affordable and relatively undiscovered by tourism.  Though large, Colombia is easy to travel with plenty of low cost internal flights, comfortable cross-country buses and taxis everywhere.
Travelers can easily visit more than 2-3 destinations in a week with an ample selection of destinations to visit over extended periods.

This is my selection – the  15 best destinations to visit in Colombia. These are places I gladly return to time and time again.  The list is divided by topological identities: beaches, colonial towns, archaeology and cities.  For more information on each destination read  the full articles on colombiatravelreporter.com

Beaches

A view from Acronis in La Guajira

La Guajira

One of the strangest and most spectacular spots in Colombia is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula,  a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe politically ruling the entire peninsula today. It’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic. The trip is a must see if coming to Colombia, not an easy trip but well worth the sacrifice. (see full article)

The beach of Sapazurro

Sapazurro

Sapzurro is one of those ideal, sleepy tropical towns in which to hide out, lay low and escape from it all. If you want to drop off the radar for a while – this is the place to do it.  Located on the southern end of the Darien Pass on the Panamanian border, it is a 15 minute boat ride from Capurgana – a small village catering to mostly Colombian tourists. There are no roads to get here; either one flies into Capurgana – $100 from Medellin to a small airstrip outside of the town or comes in by boat – $20 from  the port of Turbo. The boats leave pounding across the Gulf of Uraba a full speed through 3′-4′ chop. Not a pleasant 3 hour ride for the faint of heart or seasick prone. The difficulty getting here makes this place one of the best kept secrets in Colombia. (see full article) 

Playa Cuevita near El Valle

Bahia Solano – El Valle

Travelers who want to go see the Pacific in Colombia have their work cut out for them. This area is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, yet one of the least developed, beautiful, forgotten places in Colombia; where long swaths of pristine beaches backed by rainforest jungle spill out onto black volacanic sands while 4-6 foot waves pound the surf and 12 foot whale spouts are spotted just offshore. El Valle is an Afro-Colombian village of a few thousand people an hour’s ride on a muddy dirt road from Bahia. The town is hot and humid and isn’t much to look at but the main beach area, Playa El Almejal, a 20 minute walk north of the village, is paradise – as is Playa Cuevita a 20 minute walk south of El Valle. (see full article)

The beach at Palomino

Palomino

Palomino is one of those off-the-beaten-track beaches that are hard to forget and one where you’ll definitely want to spend more time at and probably come back to  again in the future. To get there take from Santa Marta a bus up highway 90 hugging the Atlantic towards Riohacha. It’s about a 2.5 hour trip. The bus driver will drop you off on the main highway in front of a dirt path which leads down to the beaches. Motor-taxis are parked on the highway waiting to take you down to the beach.

This is definitely a back packers paradise – a one of its kind in Colombia. It is a very laid-back, anti-stress atmosphere here with none of the boom-boom party enthusiasm of most Colombian beaches. The town caters to tourists, both Colombian and foreigners, who come  to relax, be alone and recharge their batteries.

Only about half a mile of beach in Palomino is sparsely developed. The beaches to the north and south of Palomino are empty and one can endlessly wander in any direction along the palm lined sandy beaches and rarely see a soul. (see full article – Santa Marta and the beaches north)

Beaches at Tolu

Tolu

Tolu is a sleepy little tourist town 3 hours south of Cartagena on the Caribbean Gulf of Morrosquillo. Tolu is bustling boom-boom town with music blaring from every bar, restaurant and bicycle taxi ambling along the malecon boardwalk – jut the way the Colombian tourists like it. The town caters to middle class Colombian tourists during holidays and the weekends and they want to keep it to themselves. If it’s peace and tranquility you’re looking for then it’s probably best to visit during the weekdays when the town is relatively quiet.

Everyone travels in bicycle rickshaws or what they call bicitaxis, outfitted with boom boxes and accommodating anywhere from 3-10 people. It’s a nice place to unwind in a town with everything you need. There are also numerous beaches within a 30 minute bus ride of the town definitely worth checking out: San Bernardo del Viento, Playa Blanca and the islands of San Bernardo. (see full article)

Archeology

A tomb at Tierradentro

Tierradentro

Tierradentro – located in the department of Cauca, is known for its pre-Colombian tombs. Underground tombs have been found all over the Americas – from Mexico to Argentina but their largest concentration is in Colombia. And Tierradentro is one of Colombia’s greatest pre-Hispanic attractions.

There are 162 subterranean tombs located in 4 different sites dating back to the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. Carved into volcanic rock the tombs open to the west. Spiral staircases lead to a main chambers 15 to 24 feet below the surface. The main rooms are 30-36 feet wide with supporting columns and small walled chambers where the bodies were buried. The walls were scored with geometric patterns and painted red, black and white; red representing life, black death and white the hope of passing to the next life.

The hills in the park are spectacular dotted with small farms. It’s a long hike and difficult hike up and down the steep mountains and 8 miles of narrow foot trails to visit some of the major sites. It can be easily done in two days of hiking and tomb exploration. (see full article)

a demon statue at San Agustin

San Agustin

San Agustin – is a pleasant country village in Huila where one can explore Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony immersed in some of its most beautiful rural landscape. A few thousand years ago the people who lived in this area adorned their tombs with statues of god heads, devilish images, men in trances and man/animal figures. They believed these were creatures bridging the world of man and animals.

People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. And these tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt; well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas. (see full article)

Colonial Towns

Mompox

Mompox

About five hours inland from the Caribbean coast is the intriguing town of Mompox – a perfectly preserved colonial town. Founded in 1537 Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city for cargo and travelers during in the colonial era. The Magdelena River splits in two just before Mompox. Back in the 1800s the branch, on which Mompox sits, silted up with mud and became innavigable for big boats – so traffic was diverted down the other branch. Mompox became a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time.

The city center is like one huge museum. All the villas in town leave their huge doors and windows open displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with antiques. When the cool evening breezes float in at sunset, the residents sit outside their houses on the street to cool off and chat with neighbors while bats dive down the whitewashed streets hunting for mosquitos coming up from the river. There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. (see full article)

Barichara

Barichara

Barichara – a few hours travel south of Bucaramanga there’s the town of Barichara founded in 1741 which means in the native Guane language “place of rest with flowering trees”. The streets are made of cobblestones and the whitewashed colonial houses have been kept original. They filmed many Colombian movies here. Inside the houses remind me of Tuscany with wooden beams, terra-cotta tile floors and terra-cotta roof tiles. The town has been named one of the most beautiful villages in Colombia.

It is located in the department of Santander, a Colombian department, rarely visited, but home to a number of quaint colonial villages. Not many people know much about Santander because it’s not on the road to any significant stop in Colombia. It’s a 15 hour – 450 mile bus ride from Cartagena to the north and 250 miles and another 10 hour mountainous bus ride to Bogota to the south. Why bother? It’s one of the cheapest areas in the country offering bargain adventure, colonial lodgings, a great climate and country food. (see full article – Colonia Towns of Santander)

Plaza Major – the largest cobblestoned plaza in Colombia

Villa de Leyva – A National Monument

The department of Boyacá boasts numerous, well-preserved, Spanish colonial villages dating back to the 1700s and Spanish rule. But Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s most special towns. Considered one of the most beautiful village in Colombia, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited villages. Only a three hour trip day trip from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is never at a loss for visitors. It has been declared a national monument.  The town boasts an impressively preserved main square, Plaza Major, the biggest and the most beautiful cobblestoned-square in Colombia with 42,000 sq. feet of rock surface area. (see full article – ‘Villa de Leyva and Mongui – the beautiful villages of Boyaca’)

Main Plaza of Mongui

Mongui

Another beautiful colonial village in Boyaca is Mongui.  Located six miles northeast of the city of Sogomoso, set high in the hills, Mongui is 6,000 feet above sea level. Due to the altitude the air is cool and seemingly rather thin of oxygen.

A small town of only 5,000 inhabitants, Mongui, which means sunrise in native language, is beautiful with a large cobbled stone plaza and a magnificient Basilia built by the Franciscans in the 17th century. The church has an interesting museum. And just a couple blocks off the plaza, down Carrera 3, is the Calycanto bridge, a beautiful arched stone bridge.

Mongui is becoming famous as a traveler’s destination, not only for the village, but also as a doorway to one of the most beautiful ‘paramos’ in South America. The Páramo ia a unique environment unlike anywhere else on earth; an Páramos  ecosystem existing above the mountain’s forest line, but below the permanent snowline. (see full article)

Green hills of the coffee triangle

The Coffee Triangle

Another big tourist attraction in Colombia is an exploration of the Zona Cafetera, the ‘Triangulo del Café’ or the Coffee Triangle. Here they say the best coffee in the world is produced. A rather heated point of contention because every city and region in Colombia claims to produce, not only the country’s best coffee, but they also boast the most beautiful women .

It’s an easy trip to the coffee triangle by bus from Bogota, Medellin or Cali. It gives one the chance to explore Colombia’s evergreen interior. The triangle is composed of three cities all respective capitals of their departments: Manizales – capital of Caldas to the north, Pereira in Risaralda in the center and Armenia capital of Quindío to the south.

Well worth a visit are the towns of Salento, Filandia, the Valley of Cocora National Park and the National Coffee Park. – all located in the coffee triangle.  (see full article)

Colombian Cities

Popayan

Popayan

Popayan – Called the white city – Ciudad Blanca – or as its promotion slogan goes: more than just a white city. A colonial Spanish city founded in 1537 is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. It’s a quiet relaxed town. – easy to get around with a fair amount of tourism. It’s a university town with about 8 different state and private universities and students are everywhere. With an altitude of 5,770 feet it might get warm in the day but is always cool at night and rains and thunders almost every day.

(see full article- ‘Travel Southern Colombia: Cali, Popayan, Pasto’)

Plaza Botero in Medellin

Medellin

A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people in Antioquia, Colombia – the heart of Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Known as the land of the eternal spring it has a temperate climate – hot during the day and cool at night.

Not too long ago rated the most dangerous city if the world due to fighting between drug cartels, agrarian backed revolutionary groups, paramilitary groups, and a war on drugs.

Medellin is in the department of Antioquia stretching  25 kilomters through the narrow valley of Aburra between the high mountains ranges of the Central Cordillera.

The residents call themselves Paisas. They’re known for being curious, clever people and good businessmen. Also known as the Silicon Valley of Colombia, Medellin is easy to travel thanks to an excellent metro system and cable cars with plenty of restaurants, museums and enough things to see and do to easily fill up a week.  (see full articles: ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’ and ‘Traveling Medellin: Places to visit around Medellin’)

Cartagena seen from an old Spanish Fortress San Filipe

Cartagena

Cartagena is a  vibrant beautiful port city where cruise ships also dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the major tourist destination for Colombia. The city has the feel of a touristy city in Spain. The city within the walls – also called the inner city or El Centro,  was where the high officials and nobility originally lived. You can easily walk most of its narrow streets strolling around in a half day.  (see full article)

Medellin: the Land of Eternal Spring

 Medellin (pronounced Meda-jean)
 
A city street in the center of Medellin
A street in downtown Medellin
Plaza Botero
The city of Medellin

A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people in Antioquia, Colombia – the heart of Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Known as the land of the eternal spring it has a temperate climate – hot during the day and cool at night.

Not too long ago rated the most dangerous city if the world due to fighting between drug cartels, agrarian backed revolutionary groups, paramilitary groups, the government and years of America’s war on drugs.

Medellin was the home and headquarters of the famous  drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. But  Medellin wasn’t built on drug money as many people perceive.  Drugs are only 3% of Colombia’s GDP. The coffee boom and industrialization made Medellin a major city in Colombia.  Drugs and politics  led the cities and country sides into a dark era of violence.  The FARC, formed in the year 2000 as an agricultural people’s party, has left the jungle, made peace with the government and is forming its own political party.

A street in Medellin
Plaza Botero by night

It was a dark violent time when a new president, Alvaro Uribe, was elected in 2002,”  one of the local tour guides told me. “A former math teach elected on a program of law and order to stop  the drugs, violence, revolution and bombings.

He reformed poverty stricken barrios. He took on neighborhoods crowded with the homeless, drug dealers and prostitutes refurbished them, reconstructed the old town squares, moving the poor to better places where with more services and structures. He was a strong leader using American anti-drug money to finance some of the projects. He built libraries in poor barrios and the city metro which to this day is the pride of the city.

The dark era seems to be behind them.  The city is safe, vibrant and very alive and well. In 2000, only 40,000 tourists came to Colombia (a big country twice the size of France).  In 2017 there were 3 million foreign visitors – a 13% increase from the year before according Colombia’s Trade Minsitry. Visitors from the USA topped the list of visiting foreign nationals. Bogota received more than half of the visitors followed by Cartegena then Medellin.

International flights arrive to the Jose Maria Cordova International airport everyday. The city center is 28 kilometers from the airport and a taxi cab ride costs $25 or take the white city buses outside the city airport for only $5 for the 40 minute trip.

Medellin is in the department of Antioquia situated and stretched for 25 kilomters through the narrow valley of Aburra between the high mountains ranges of the Central Cordillera.

The residents call themselves Paisas. They’re known for being curious, clever people and good businessmen. Common belief  is that Paisas think they are better than the rest of Colombians.  The city was founded by the Jews and the Basque Spaniards who were escaping the inquisition of Spain.  They were isolated in a  valley between mountain chains for 400 years. Then came the coffee boom and the industrialization.  The city blossomed.

The City’s Metro System

Cable cars in Medellin

Medellin boasts a spectacular, spotless, elevated,  metro system, free of drunks, panhandlers and graffiti. For $.70 you can safely ride anywhere in the city with cable cars at the end of the tracks going up in the mountains transporting people to the  poorer neighborhoods up the mountain.   The metro is the pride of the city.

Avri Park For a longer excursion take the metro line A to Avejedo and tranfer to cable cars going to Santo Domingo. Transfer –  pay another $3 and go for a long stretch up the mountain to Avri park. The air gets cool, the wind picks up and the car starts swaying. Pack a sweater.  You can walk around the park, there are trails into the woods, tours on horseback , food stalls at the terminal park and gift stalls.  The last cable car down is at 6 p.m.

Night time in the Pablado district

Nice hotels start at $20 night. Hearty lunches $3. Coffee and beer $.50 a shot. There are friendly, informative police all over the place. Perfectly safe during the days, some places in the center are a bit suspect at night but the areas of Pablado, Park Lleras – the Zona Rosa – are teaming with tourist, great restaurants, wine bars and brews pubs. Perfectly safe at night.

El Poblado is harkened at the place to stay. It a residential upscale area of Medellin – very safe with a lot of restaurants and hotels. Tourists all seem to collect in the  trendy Park Lleras district, also called the Zona Rosa which is on the south side of the city.  It’s an upscale area with a lot of night life, restaurants, clubs  and hotels.

I think both areas are overpriced and slightly over rated. If you want to be more immersed with the locals and off the beaten path, I like the Calle 70– by the stadium in the northern part of the city.  Here there are also a lot of hotels, restaurants, it’s safe to walk around at night, economical and busy with mostly people from Medellin and Colombian tourists.

Medellin is probably the second best city in Colombia for it’s range of restaurants (Bogota being the first). Everything from Italian, to Thai, Peruvian, Mexican and much more can be found here.  Like in all Colombia, European restaurants mostly  offer the best quality and variation. Colombian restaurants  often  have the same fare and presentation.  It’s economical comfort food  sometimes seeming to  lack  passion and creativity. The local dish of Medellin is the ‘bandeja paisa’ – a regional dish consisting of everything form sausages to fried pork skins, rice, beans, avocado, black pudding and arepas.  Like most Colombian dishes – this one is a brick. Be hungry or better yet  share it with someone else.

A shopping center in Medellin. The roof opens and closes when there is rain.
A ice skating rink inside the shopping center – Santa Fe – in Medellin

There are great shopping centers in Medellin. Centro Commercial Santa Fe in Poblado area is one of the best. Built by a European architect there’s plenty of high end fashion shops. Nothing is cheap but the mall is incredible sporting an ice skating rink and a roof which opens on pleasant days and closes when it rains. A better market is Aplujarra a nine block area in old Medellin where bargains abound.

A machete juggler in the streets of Medellin
A street market in Plaza Berrio

Plaza Berrio is a metro stop in city center – the oldest square in the city – with  lots of movement. Old people come here to exchange old possessions for more old stuff – a  garage sale of sorts. Here there are  musicians, street peddlers, con men, show men and guinea pig gamblers. The gamble  consists of putting  three bowls in a circle on the street. Take a guinea pig out of a bag shake the animal up and down – back and forth. People put money on the bowls, the guinea pig is placed in the circle and depending on which bowl the dizzy pig goes to, you win or loose.

Parque Bolivar is a big square dominated by a big  brick church  – Cathedral Metropolitano. Lots of the  locals congregate here and it’s safe during the day but not recommended at night.

Parque Bolivar with a statue of Simon Bolivar and the Cathedral Metropolitano in the background
Cathedral Metropolitano in Parque Bolivar

Near the metro stop San Antonio one can explore the city’s adopted connection with the Tango. Here there’s a old tango bar, called Malaga. The walls are lined with old gramophones, photos and memorabilia of the tango world. It’s a perfect stop for  a cold beer while watching elderly couples gracefully tango the afternoon away.

Pueblito Paisa  is a miniature Antioquian village also offering a good view of the city. Here a restored, typical little Paesa village from 100 years ago has been restored on top the hill. It’s a nice place to visit during the day  and is heavily visited by locals on the weekends.

A statue of Chief Nutibara in Pueblita Piasa Park
A Botero statue in Medellin
A Botero painting in the museum of Plaza Botero

The sculptor Fernando Botero is a world renown Latin American sculptor. A native of Medellin, he is considered  Cololmbia’s leading contemporary artist. His sculptures are known around the world. There are some statues and a Botero museum in Bogota his best works are displayed in Medellin. There are 20 original Botero sculptures in Plaza Botero –  a beautiful square and the most visited in the city.

A Botero statue
A Botero statue in Park San Antonio

Botero sculptures are unique with their exaggerated proportions – some parts are big – others small. People have a relationship with these sculptures climbing up on them to have their photos taken. There is also a the Museum de Antioquia in the square with more of Botero’s work inside.

There are a few more Botero statues in the park by the bank near the San Antonio metro station. One of them , a statue of a bird, which doesn’t look at all like a Botero statue after someone left a backpack with explosives under the statue on June 10, 1995. When the bomb went off 25 people were killed. They were going to take mangled statue down but Botero himself, living in Paris at the time, wouldn’t allow it threatening to take the rest of his statues down if they moved the bird. He said the statue must  be left as a sad memory of violent times. It still stands in the park today – a memorial. The names of the 25 dead bombing victims are etched  in marble below the statue.

A good tour to take is Real City Toursrealcitytours.com. The tours are free. You tip the guide at the tour’s end. Sign up on their website a day or two before. They will send you a confirmation via email. Tours meet at 9:45 at a central metro station. They break up into groups of 20 and  tour the city center. Tours last  about four hours and are very informative and insightful.

Comuna 13
Comuna 13
Comuna 13

Comuna 13

Comuna 13 used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Medellin. Today it is a destination. There are graffiti tours run by companies for a price, but this is a tour you can easily do on your own.

Take the metro to San Antonio and they another to San Javier. When in San Javier there is a raised walkway that goes over to the library (biblioteca).  Around the library there’s some nice graffiti.  After the library, go back to the front of the metro station.  Take bus 221 to ‘la escaleras electricas’ or the escalators.  I found it’s easier to just take a cab.  They’ll leave you at the bottom of the hill. Follow the graffiti covered walls up to the escalators which were built to take the residents up the mountain to Comuna 13.

For a different look and feel of Medellin, Comuna 13 is worth the trip. People say it isn’t safe to wander around there, but the residents don’t seem to  mind the handfuls of tourists who venture into their neighborhood.   There are sidewalk vendors catering to them. And I never felt threatened in the least the whole afternoon I was there.

Emerging from the dark ages of violence, the people of Medellin today have no fear of bombings and stray bullets. Feeling once again free to leave their houses. Life goes on. These are peaceful times. They are genuinely happy to see tourists return.  It’s proof that times are better. The violence is over.

A street in Guatape
a street in the village of Guatape

Guatape

If you’re spending any kind of time in Medellin, which is easy to do, a get away from the city is in order. Guatape’ is the most popular. It’s located next to a reservoir created by the Colombian government for a hydro-electric dam.  It’s a colorful, colonial town with everything painted in bright racing colors.  There are a lot of shops selling arts and crafts in town.  And on  the malecon along the lake front  there are a number of restaurants with patio tables featuring locally raised trout. Across the lake, about a mile walk away, is El Penol.  It’s a bullet shaped granite rock.  Not much to see here but there are 649 steps to the top, if you’re so inclined.  They say there’s a nice view on top.

There are other towns to visit around Medellin with a Spanish colonial feel to them. Santa Fe de Antioquia is a steamy hot little town with a nice city center. Other pueblos to visit are Aguadas, El Carmen and Jardin.

A restaurant in Santa Fe de Antioquia

For more on travel around Medellin see the following article:

Places to around Medellin: Daytrips – Guatape, Santa Fe, El Carmen de Viboral



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For more of Colombian cities see the following articles:

Travel to Cartagena

Bogota and Zipaquira – are they worth seeing?

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