El Camino: Medellín, Colombia
Words: Tag Christof
Pictures: Jennifer Young
February 07 2016
Most of Colombia is a short three-hour flight from Miami, but it is a country surprisingly few Americans know much about beyond García-Marquez’ magical realism and pervasive drug violence. For far too long, the country has lived in the shadow of Pablo Escobar’s larger-than-life legacy and his lavishly wealthy cartel, centered on the city of Medellín.
Today, though, it is high time the world sees this stunning, bustling, temperate city – and Colombia at large – in an entirely new light: the Medellín of today is one of the most dynamic cities in the world. We visited last week in a group organized by Richer Poorer and put together by our good friends at El Camino Travel, which included Our Wild Abandon, Refinery 29, Darling Magazine, Mister Spoils, and photographers Gary Williams and Ben Schuyler.
We stayed in the bustling Poblado district, south of the city center, which on first gloss feels like a perfect mix of Venice Beach, Barcelona, and Miami: convivial, warm, chic, and overflowing with indie cafés, boutiques, studios, restaurants, and shops. But scratch just beneath the surface and it is a city own. People salsa in the street, bars and cafes are filled right up by 9pm even on weeknights, and there’s none of the pretentiousness that can sometimes be common in those other cities.
Among our first stops was Pergamino, a beautiful sidewalk café and a home base for one of the country’s most innovative coffee companies. Everyone knows that Colombia has long been one of the world’s premiere coffee roasting countries, but surprisingly, its best beans are almost never consumed at home. Despite the fact that coffee is a backbone of Colombia’s economy and culture, it is usually consumed piping hot, black, and without much fanfare or discretion. Pergamino is one of the first to set out to elevate the country’s home coffee offering to its rightful place by responsibly harvesting, roasting, selling, and serving world- class Colombian coffee in Colombia. Word is, a few of our favourite designer coffee shops already sell Pergamino’s beans under their own brands in the States, but we’ll be able to buy directly from them online in the near future.
Over the rest of the trip, we learned to salsa, met with a group of hip hop and graffiti pioneers
working to build community in a marginalized barrio, and took long walks down serpentine streets. We shared dinner with influential designers and photographers, the local fashion legend behind a beautiful new magazine, Polen, and Federico Rios Escobar, one of Colombia’s most respected photojournalists – check out his just-published series of photos from the time he spent embedded with the FARC. We learned the intricate art of bead weaving from 3 generations of an indigenous family, including its beautiful matriarch, who also happens to be a shaman who guides people through ayahuasca trips, and danced like crazy to the award-winning Afro-Colombian group Explosion Negra .
This was a truly, truly transformative trip.
Eat & Drink
Medellín is full of out-of-this-world restaurants. These are a few of the best we tried.
El Cielo: Mind-blowing sensory experience and instantly among the most memorable meals any of us had enjoyed, anywhere on earth. The experience began with an unassuming stone, placed in our hands that when crushed between our palms exploded into a therapeutic coconut hand cream. The multi-course meal that followed included a pineapple miso broth, butter that can only be described as transcendent, gorgeous steak medallions, fish with rosemary ash, bonsai trees, tiny root vegetables cooked sous-vide, indigenous fruits, and several other delicacies, and was finished off with rose petal hand rub and a jarring piece of nitrogen taffy. El Cielo is a world-class gastronomic experience that is also, amazingly, not-at-all pretentious.
Ocio’s: Hip hotspot restaurant with a line out the door by 9pm. The vibe is 90s Miami but classier: raw cinderblock walls, bespoke neon signage, semi open-air, lots of greenery, rudimentary but tasteful furniture – think wood and tubular metal chairs and ostentatious wire light fixtures filled with disused old lightbulbs – and very well-dressed people. The menu is abundant and health- conscious. Of the most memorable dishes we tried was one fish dish served with a novel crunchy toasted quinoa. Cocktails are excellent and house specialties have cheeky, fun names.
Carmen: Quieter and more restrained than the above two, but very chic and a good start to a grown-up night out. Relaxed, elegant, and contemporary with high ceilings, well-edited menu and excellent wine selection.
Like anywhere in Latin America, good and inexpensive lager beers abound. The standard local favorite is the red-label Pilsen brand, but Aguila was our unanimous group favorite. And every good night out starts with a shot or two or five of aguardiente – literally “burning water” or “fire water” – Colombia’s signature drink and a distant, particularly spicy relative of anise based drinks like ouzo and Pastis.
Last but not least, don’t even think about leaving Colombia without having a proper bandeja paisa. This generous plate is Antioquia’s signature meal, and is sometimes known as bandeja arriero because it traditionally was the fuel of choice for farmers and herders going out for a hard day’s work. The huge plate includes chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage Colombian-style, with rice), chicharrón (very flavorful fried pork skin), and generous helpings of plantain, giant avocado, red beans, and rice. You can top it off with a fried egg, too, if you fancy. We had ours at Restaurante Hacienda near the city center.
Like many Latin American cities, Medellín has long been plagued with dense, self-organized urban outskirts with high poverty and little connection to bustling city centres just a few miles away. In an attempt to give the residents of these neighbourhoods better access to the city, as well as to open up these formerly isolated communities to the world … two of the most unique (and controversial) urban infrastructure projects in the world.
First up are two separate lines of cable cars that soar high above the rooftops and have opened up formerly remote streets to new visitors. They are a very clever application of a transportation method normally used in alpine ski resorts and are totally integrated with the city’s well-developed and highly organized metro system. People come from around Colombia to ride them, and one can even be taken directly into a national park nature preserve.
The other project is a set of several escalators embedded right into the middle of the Colonia 13 neighborhood. On the face of it, they are an urban dream, but critics maintain that they’re used by tourists more than by residents. And that by artificially enriching one vein of the community, areas farther away from the new traffic are marginalized even further. Still, it is refreshing to see an old technology normally used to ferry people between airport terminals and stores in shopping malls instead used to transform a neighborhood.
We didn’t get much time to dive into Medellín’s architectural treasures, but a few basics worth checking our are the impressive Museo de Arte Moderno Medellín (MAMM), the postmodern monoliths of Biblioteca España, and the Coltejer building, an interpretative brutalist skyscraper from the 1960s that honors Medellín’s past as a center for textile manufacturing.
Bogotá, Cali, Cartagena and the other major metropolitan areas of the country are long car or bus rides away, so the best options for weekend or day trips away from Medellín are in the surrounding countryside. Several picturesque modern houses are available to rent, and everything from speedboating to horseback riding can be found nearby.
We visited the exterior of Escobar’s now derelict, quintessentially 1980s fortress in the suburb of Envigado, but about a two hour drive outside the city another abandoned and also government- surveilled villa near Guatapé lake, complete with million dollar views and water slide. We spent a day in a lavish home right across an inlet from the villa, where a famous chef prepared us an absurdly large Argentine parrillada washed down with some legendary gin and tonics – next time, try yours with muddled cucumber and freshly cracked black pepper. Aside from the view of Escobar’s house, we had a fantastic view of the iconic and impossibly steep monadnock formation, El Peñol. Brave souls can climb the rock via a few dozen flights of stairs, where a full-service restaurant awaits. The colourful and welcoming town of Guatapé is a short boat ride away.
Very special thanks to Richer Poorer and El Camino Travel.