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It might not have the sunbaked alleys of Cartagena or the rugged topography of Tayrona National Park, but Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín, has an allure all of its own. This article appears in SUITCASE Vol. 18: The Rhythm Issue.
My husband and I found tranquil respite at a verdant, French-run boutique B&B called Patio Del Mundo. With pretty printed tiles and turquoise hammocks strewn across balconies, this seven-bed auberge is the only place in a raucously loud city where a good night’s sleep is guaranteed. With rooms starting at £130 it is also reasonably priced, and puts on a breakfast spread good enough for royalty.
From the moment we arrived in Medellín our schedule was jam-packed courtesy of the Colombian travel specialists Amakuna. First up? A coffee tour. Colombia’s climate and high altitude make it a leading producer and exporter of coffee and so, escorted by the excellent coffee shop company and tour operator Café Velvet, we visited a finca called Nova Ola, situated 30 minutes from the city in Caldas, Antioquia. Our guide Damian, a trained barista and a coffee fanatic, was well-equipped to educate us on the “bean-to-cup” process. He proudly told us that he’d downed five double espressos the night before…
Order Volume 18 Finca Nova Ola is large in scale, but fairly small in production, and has a social element. Chief bean-picker Jaime (often accompanied by his tiny son, Álex) is joined in his efforts by four to five local women who have been left by their husbands, and who are well paid for their work.
Once the beans have been shucked from their shells on the finca, they are meticulously roasted at Velvet, with the burnt beans discarded and diverted to a coffee chain called Juan Valdez, Colombia’s answer to Starbucks (it makes you wonder about the quality of your own chain-bought morning hit in London). After an energy-packed lunch with the finca’s owner, Juan Posado, we headed to Café Velvet for a coffee-tasting session led by Damian. We learnt that Colombians enjoy the slightly sweet arabica bean (you had best not ask for milk with your cup), whereas Brazilians prefer a bitter brew.
A Pablo Escobar tour was on the agenda for the next day. This excursion is considered controversial by many Colombians, who would rather forget the terror wrought across their country by the notorious drug lord. Allegedly once the seventh richest man in the world, at the height of his omnipotence, Escobar was responsible for 80 per cent of the cocaine coursing through the United States. For tourists, of course, he is a historical figure of interest – but don’t, whatever you do, mention the Netflix series Narcos. Colombians loathe the fact that Escobar is played by a Brazilian actor, not a Colombian, preferring their own 63-episode series, Escobar: El Patrón del Mal (Escobar: The Boss of Evil).
The most interesting part of the tour was a visit to Barrio Pablo Escobar, a neighbourhood of 150 houses that Escobar built for the impoverished. The locals – who earn an average monthly family salary of £120 – were friendly and invited us into their homes. A group of elderly ladies told us that they were convinced that Escobar (who was shot dead in 1993) is still alive. Despite our protests, the ladies were not for turning. For them, Escobar remains a hero.
The city of Medellín is also a rich and cultured design district. Makeno is well worth a visit – the emporium highlights Colombian brands including the Cali-born cult designer with a penchant for flounce, Johanna Ortiz (her pieces sell like hotcakes on Net-a-Porter).
And when it comes to food, Carmen Restaurante is unmissable. Co-founded by the San Francisco-born chef Carmen Ángel and her husband Rob Pevitts (the pair also run two restaurants in Cartagena), Carmen’s tasting menu is the stuff of lore. It isn’t cheap, but if you can afford the seven courses of traditional Colombian fare with a twist (with wine pairings on the side) then your stomach will thank you for it.
Medellín is also a great starting point for day trips. The colourful lakeside village of Guatapé in Eastern Antioquia lies a two-hour bus trip away and is suitably Instagram-friendly. Those energetic enough may wish to climb the 740 steps to the top of Guatapé’s version of Sugarloaf mountain, La Piedra. My husband and I, however, were happy enough to while away the hours with a beer, watching the assembly of the town’s New Year’s Eve decorations. (If you think the UK loves festive decorations, I encourage you to visit Colombia during December.) We arrived in Cartagena just in time to bring in 2017. But Medellín, recently departed, lingered richly in our thoughts.
Amakuna offers a ten-day Highlights of Colombia trip, taking in Bogotá, the Coffee Region, Cartagena and Medellin from £2,195, including three nights at Patio del Mundo in Medellín, a coffee tour with Café Velvet and a city tour. International flights not included.
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