Medellin is a wonderful city, no doubt about it. But it is a city, with more than its fair share of traffic and therefore exhaust fumes, plus the noise that comes from the bustle that is so attractive to many people.
So if you want to step out of all that for a day or two, here are six towns to visit – or rather to choose from.
That’s what the locals do: they treat the surrounding area as if they were tourists and take day trips or long weekends out in the country. Bearing that in mind, if you want to get a sense of a small town almost being your own, midweek might be a good time to take your trip. The place will be quiet and the townsfolk will be extra pleased to see you.
1. Santa Fe de Antioquia
The old capital of Antioquia, now eclipsed by Medellin, but none the worse for that, Santa Fe has a population of just 23,000 and it’s easily accessible – less than 60 kilometers from Medellin, partly thanks to a road tunnel which makes short work of what used to be a mazy trip through the countryside on fairly small roads.
If you’ve never wondered what Santa Fe means, it’s holy faith. English speakers tend to think of saint (santa or santo) as being like a religious rank, a pinnacle that starts with pastor or reverend and runs through bishop and archbishop, but it really means holy. So Santa Maria is holy Mary, Santa Cruz is holy cross and so on.
Why Santa Fe in Antioquia was called what it is we will never know, but the Spanish explorers had a habit of giving religious names to places, which is why so many places that Christopher Columbus discovered are Santa Something.
Columbus, though, probably never came anywhere near Santa Fe, Antioquia – he was a coastal man who left the inland exploring to others. Discover an island, name it and move on – that was his motto. And he certainly missed out i this case.
Santa Fe is warm and humid, unlike some of the other towns near Medellin, so you don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing. If it’s okay for Medellin, it’s okay here.
The land around Santa Fe is coffee, corn and beans country, and it’s a comforting feeling to be in a part of the world where the soil is still for producing things rather than for building on.
The feeling continues into the town of Santa Fe, where it still feels like authentic Colombia. You can’t halt the march of time, of course, but you can cherish the good things that never go out of fashion: things like the warmth and friendliness of the people, the warmth of the sun and the peaceful, easy feeling of being left alone rather than hustled.
What is there to do in Santa Fe de Antioquia? You can look at an old suspension bridge, the Puente de Occidente, and take in the grand nature of this landscape.
There’s a cathedral, if you want to get still more peaceful and cool off a little, and there’s a museum of religious art, which is of interest to the casual observer as well as to the art expert or the religiously inclined. Art like this is history; you’re looking at the world through the eyes of someone from an earlier era.
2. Santa Elena
This is a group of villages up in the hills and we’re talking high altitude. That means it’s colder than Medellin. You can feel the temperature drop as you head up the hill. Halfway up, as you marvel at the orange-flowered, black-eyed creeping plant that covers every wall and cliff, you’re reaching for a sweater.
The plant is called something that translates as “poetic eyes”, and the way the black center falls back into nothing suggests a 19th century poet who’s been at the opium. And it’s a parasite, an invasive plant that will take over a garden if you’re not careful, so it’s probably not as popular with the residents as the visitor. Pretty flowers, though.
Cultivated flowers are the heart and soul of Santa Elena, the home of the silletero, the grower, who would walk the streets with huge displays of his blooms on his back.
At the center of the group is Santa Elena itself, a steep little town with small shops, cafes and a couple of restaurants. At certain times of year you might find a cafe proprietor making a rough wooden blaze in the fireplace that many buildings have but few use. They’re hardy people around here and they’d rather wear a tee shirt, a thick shirt and two sweaters than spend money on fuel.
Having said that, it’s not exactly Alaska and it never snows. And when the sun shines, which it does frequently, it’s just a beautiful, pristine part of the world. Out on the way to Parque Arvi, a magnificent, sprawling natural area, you feel like you’re halfway up a Swiss Alp, with the odd cow roaming the roads.
There is an organised part of the park, with gift shops, cafes and touristy things for sale. There, guides will show you around and give you a bit of prehistory, but if you’ve got the time, the inclination and the energy to wander on your own, it’s a magical landscape, a bracing paradise of trees and birds, with the remains of thick-walled mud huts demonstrating that people used to live here centuries ago.
You can take a trek on horseback or relax with a coffee or a herbal drink that’s supposed to alleviate altitude sickness – and while we’re on the subject, you are highly unlikely to suffer from that if you’re only there a few hours or days. But the air is thin and a lungful doesn’t do for your body what it would at a lower level.
Halfway between Parque Arvi and Santa Elena itself is a hotel/restaurant/spa called La Montaña Magica (the magic mountain),while back down in the town, opposite the little library it’s a short walk through beautiful country lanes to El Mosaico, a hotel where you can have a hot chocolate and a piece of cake.
You might prefer to be somewhere warmer for most of your Colombia visit, but a short time in Santa Elena is good for the body and the soul.
And by the way, there is a cable car from Medellin to Parque Arvi, with fascinating views of the outskirts of the city and the forest. And then a 20-minute bus ride into town.
You may also come across a battered old Renault operating as a cheap taxi, and it might seem strange that Colombia is like a retirement home for the Renault 4 (and later models but not, for some reason, the 5). It’s because many years ago the French motor manufacturer saw a gap in the market and set up a factory here.
Half an hour further out from Santa Elena but still within a couple of hours drive from Medellin is the very different town of Rionegro, where the old part is redolent of history and full of little shops, while half a mile away is a brand new mall with some good stores, a supermarket and restaurants. It’s the kind of place where you can get on the wifi to check your bank balance and the sports scores, which seems oddly appropriate when you sit, having a bowl of sancocho for lunch, and find yourself looking out onto an old farm. It’s as if the mall was parachuted into the countryside as a modern convenience amid the bucolic splendor.
Water, water everywhere is the story of Guatape, which is dominated by a lake and a modern reservoir, not to mention a huge rock that everyone who visits the area wants to climb. The Peñol Rock, or Piedra del Peñol, can be seen for miles around. At 200 meters high and with 649 steps to negotiate, it might be better for some of us to say we’ve been there rather than to try to go up it, but if you can handle it, it’s certainly one for your travel CV.
If you do make it to the top, which is flat, there is food and drink to enjoy while you marvel at the views and enjoy being king or queen of the castle.
The presence of large quantities of fresh water lends a deep peace to the town in a way that sea, for all its magnificent qualities, does not.
What is there to do around here apart from extreme rock climbing? The town itself is nice just to be in and relax – and there’s a lot to be said for that.
But if you like to have an itinerary in between the coffees and hot chocolates, you can take boat trips around the water and close by there are monasteries to visit – real, working monasteries where the monks are accustomed to being tourist attractions – although it would be interesting to hear what they really think about it.
5. Rio Claro
This is a nature reserve where you can simply relax and enjoy nature. Or, because it is a commercial operation, you can get a bit of excitement and adventure with all-terrain vehicles, quad bikes or horses as your vehicles of choice. There’s rafting, ziplining, hiking and you can camp here, to get the full outdoor experience.
There are fascinating rock formations, caves, trees and of course the river that gives the place its name.
The area attracts eco-tourists – the 21st century type of visitor who is not satisfied lazing on a beach and dining in a concrete hotel. Eco tourism is all about enjoying what has been here all along, since the dawn of civilization and before. And the mantra of “take only pictures, leave only footprints” is at the heart of that philosophy.
To visit Rio Claro is to step back in time, forgetting for a while all the trappings of the modern era and getting in touch with your inner cave-dweller. You might be glad that your footwear is more substantial than what your primitive ancestors wore, but you’ll find yourself envying them the simplicity of their life, the purity of their surroundings and the lack of stress, the modern scourge that we’re all too familiar with.
One of the most beautiful towns in Colombia – and within striking distance of Medellin – Jardin must have made an instant impression with the Spanish colonists who looked down into the valley and decided that no saint’s name, nor any mystical word was needed; the would call it “el jardin” (the garden), because it was like the garden of the country or perhaps their idea of the Garden of Eden.
Fortunately, almost miraculously, Jardin today has the same effect on visitors, although the colonial architecture put up by those early arrivals is now part of the picture. And it’s not just the shape and layout of the buildings, but the vivid colors that make houses and public buildings into works of art.
This is a town where having not much choice of things to do is actually a good thing. That’s unless your idea of something to do is look around the imposing cathedral, La Basilica de la Immaculata Concepcion, which is an unusually large and imposing building for such a small town.
And when you’ve thoroughly absorbed the magnificence of that place of worship, you might just stroll down to the Gallito de Roca Preserva, a nature reserve dedicated to the splendidly colorful bird whose red head and cape you will never forget. Although also found in Peru and Bolivia, the population of this incredible creature is being carefully managed. You don’t have to be an enthusiast to see why; one on its own is a breathtaking sight, but several, in the company of other South American residents, is enough to turn a Philistine into an ornithologist
From Jardin itself you can take cable car rides out into the wilds, but if you just want to sit in an authentic old Antioquian town and watch the world go by, that is an entirely admirable option.
Six towns close to Medellin, then. All well worth a visit and easy to reach for a day trip or a longer sojourn. If your stay in Medellin is more than a week or so, you might see them all. But if that sounds too energetic, they’re all different, so pick the one(s) that sound like your kind of thing and soak up a bit of authentic rural Colombia.