If you’re spending any kind of time traveling in Medellin, which is easy to do, after a couple days a get away is in order. There are a number of possible day trips from the city. They sell guided tours to a number of these places but these villages are so easy to reach with public transit that they can and should be explored at one’s own leisure.
All of the towns are accessible by local buses that leave from the North Bus Terminal of Medellin – easily reached with the metro. Just take the A line to Niquia and exit at the Caribe station. Leave the station, cross the overhead bridge, just outside of the station, and the North Terminal is just on the other side.
Medellin is the city I fly into and leave from every year. So I spend a considerable amount of time here. And when my friends, with limited vacation time, want me to give them a tour and intro to Colombia – I bring them to Medellin for two reasons: one, it’s my favorite city in Colombia and two, there are so many day trips within a short distance of city center. A week goes by and everyone feels like they’ve gotten a good intro to Colombia.
Medellin is an excellent base for exploring nearby coffee towns, beautiful countrysides and picturesque colonial pueblos which makes an extended stay in Antioquia’s capital all the more interesting.
Guatape, a gorgeous lakeside town just two hours outside of Medellin, is Medellin’s most popular day trip. The town is located on the River Nare, which was dammed in 1972 to create a reservoir which supplies Medellin with 30% of its energy and most of its drinking water. Guatape is a colorful, colonial town with picturesque houses with balconies all painted in bright racing colors. The decorative wall panels located around town are called zocalos. There are a lot of shops in town catering to tourists, selling arts and crafts. The main square, Plaza de Simon Bolivar is a block off the lake and one of the most beautiful squares in Colombia. On the malecon, along the lake front, there are a number of restaurants with outdoor tables featuring locally raised trout. There are boat rides on the lake and a zip line along the beach. The town is higher in altitude than Medellin and the air is pleasantly cool.
La Piedra del Penol
Across the lake, about a mile walk away, is the Piedra del Penol, a bullet shaped granite rock 200 meters high. Not much to see here but there are 649 stairs to the top, if you’re so inclined. They say there’s a nice view once you get there. The Penol is just outside of town. The bus stops here before heading into Guatape, about a 10 minute ride down the road. After seeing the rock one catches another bus into the center of town. Buses leave from the North Terminal in Medellin to Guatape. The cost if 10,000 COP and it trip takes 2 hours each way. The town gets busy on the weekends with visitors from Medellin but stays fairly quiet during weekdays.
Santa Fe de Antioquia
Just 80 km northwest of Medellin lies the small town of Santa Fe. It is 1,000 meters lower in altitude than Medellin and therefore much warmer and humid. So if you came to Colombia and wondered where the heat was – you’ll find it here. Santa Fe was founded in 1541. It was once the capital of Antioquia until Medellin was named the capital in 1826.
The town’s historical center has remained pretty much the same since and is easily explored on foot. Santa Fe has beautiful colonial architecture. The streets are made of cobble stones and the house are white washed with wooden balconies The main square, Plaza Mayor, is a beautiful plaza with a water fountain and the Cathedral Metropolitana. There are two other churches in the center and several museums to visit.
El Carmen de Viboral
El Carmen de Viboral is a tiny city of about 50,000 people an hour east of Medellin. It is known for its colorful, floral ceramics. The town is full of pottery shops and workshops making it a perfect day trip to learn about Colombian ceramics and to pick up some bargain souvenirs.
Founded in 1787, ceramics had been the major industry of the city since 1898. In fact ceramic plates and broken ceramic pieces are used to decorate the town. At 800 meters above sea level, it’s nice and cool with a beautiful main square lined with large, sidewalk cafes.
The Casa del Cultura hosts an interesting museum looking at the history of the ceramic industry – from the crockery making process to the typical styles of hand painting. The ceramic production of El Carmen focuses primarily on plates, cups, kitchen utensils, washbasins, vases and statues. Everything is painted by hand using a bouquet of colors. No two pieces are exactly the same.
At one time there were 25 factories making ceramics in the town. But in the late 1970s the activity began to decline with the introduction of cheaper products imported from China. But in the 1990s the tradition started recovering. Today there are more than 27 companies producing enameled ceramics.
From the center of town take the street next to the hotel up 5 blocks. The area, called ‘Zona Rossa’, where the ceramic shops are located. One can tour the ceramic workshops, watch the ladies hand paint the ceramics, take pictures and buy directly at the shops. Haggling over prices is o.k. and the ceramics are very inexpensive.
I’ve always had a hard time finding souveniers in Medellin to take home. If you’re looking for some typical, quality mementos, the ceramics of Casa de Viboral make the perfect gift. They’ll wrap them in newspaper and bubble wrap to ensure the safest passage possible in your suitcase. A couple of the the ceramic parrots in the picture below actually made the trip in my suitcase and survived the abuse of Spirit baggage handlers. No small feat.
(for more on Medellin, see full article on ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’)
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