My Favorite Places around Medellin, Part Two: La Vuelta al Oriente
Over the course of traveling around Medellin, Antioquia, and elsewhere in Colombia -- off-and-on over a span of nearly 35 years, the last 10 as a permanent resident -- I’ve chalked-up a list favorite places that also might appeal to similarly nature-oriented, “foodie-oriented” and curio-oriented tourists and expats.
As I live just east of Medellin on a little farm inside a gated “parcelacion” (a small-farms community) near the little town of El Retiro, no wonder that I’ve fallen in love with the pastoral beauty of the surrounding mountains, forests, flora and fauna.
My bird list on the farm so far tops 70 species, including residents and migrants. Highland motmots nest on my property, along with five species of hummingbirds, Emerald Toucans and many others.
The view from my balcony overlooks the lovely Represa La Fe (a combination lake/water-supply reserve for Medellin), where you can rent paddle-boats and do family picnics at the Los Salados public park, just off the Las Palmas highway.
Los Salados park (open 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m. every day except days following national holidays) is just one of several of my favorite stops on my version of the “Vuelta al Oriente,” for decades one of the most popular weekend day-trips for city-dwellers in metro Medellin.
‘Vuelta al Oriente’
Many people in Medellin have for generations created and run their own versions of the “Vuelta al Oriente,” which has many routes through the mountains to the east of Medellin. These routes run past El Retiro, the Salto Tequendamita waterfall, and the towns (and veredas) of La Ceja, Llanogrande, Rionegro, Guarne, Marinilla, El Santuario, or -- for longer journeys -- onward to El Peñol and Guatape.
My version of “La Vuelta al Oriente,” however, is much shorter than some people’s versions. You can run this route easily in a day, unless you dawdle:
To start this trip from Medellin, drive up the eastern mountains on the Las Palmas highway (starting at the San Diego shopping mall) all the way to the top (Alto de Las Palmas).
At the Sancho Paisa roundabout, bear right. About 100 meters onward, your first stop (on your left) is Plaza Pakita, just before the Las Palmas toll booth. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Mondays.
Pakita is jammed on weekends – hard to find a parking spot -- so best to go during a weekday (except Monday).
This new mall has more than 20 specialty food-and-drink stands, restaurants, novelties, designer clothing, cut flowers, bars, “hippie stuff,” gourmet items and the “9-3/4 Bookstore and Café,” the latter a favorite of mine because it occasionally hosts live jazz music. A bit of Greenwich Village, paisa-style.
After you leave Pakita, turn left and pass the toll booth. Continue onward past the entrance to the El Escobero toll-road (on your right) and also past the entrances to two of Medellin’s finest bilingual private schools (Colegio Theodoro Hertzl -- my personal favorite -- and the Colegio Vermont, right next-door).
About five kilometers onward from Pakita, you’ll pass the Anticuario Botero antiques store on your left. Just beyond that (on your left), look for the “La Liebre” gourmet coffee and bakery. If you see the Sagrado Corazon parochial church on the left, then you’ve gone too far! (You can turn around at the church parking lot).
“La Liebre” is a bit of Paris outdoor café. Especially nice on a sunny afternoon.
Continuing onward toward El Retiro, you’ll pass several woodworking shops and a couple of typical paisa restaurants. Eventually you’ll see a pedestrian bridge (overhead) where on your left is the entrance to Los Salados park. Check this out if you’re inclined to take a pedal-boat or canoe trip around the lake, or stop for a picnic.
If you don’t enter Los Salados, then continue onward toward El Retiro. Farther on from Los Salados (about one kilometer), on your right you’ll see the sign and entrance for the historic Fizebad hacienda and private club.
This exclusive club includes a chip-and-putt golf course, horse-riding stables, tennis courts, a swimming pool, various bars, a health club, a musical stage (indoors) and a restaurant.
Normally closed to non-members, Fizebad nevertheless does allow public entry for the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass in a small, historic chapel, which is decorated with religious carvings and paintings that appear to date from colonial times.
The main hacienda house (principally a museum, but also a private hotel and reception/dining area for wedding guests) has a nice collection of orchids in the walkway around the courtyard, and a fine collection of colonial furniture in various rooms of the old house.
Besides the public entry for Mass, Fizebad also has a couple of sponsored musical events per year where non-members are allowed. One especially popular annual event is sponsored by a local charity, FASOR.
The most recent FASOR event at Fizebad featured a spectacular tango show with orchestra, a fine soloist and two professional tango dancers.
However, the biggest public event every year at Fizebad is “Bodas de Ensueño,” a one-day spectacle featuring exclusive vendors for fancy weddings.
This event -- normally on a Saturday or a Sunday during the first week of August -- features horse-drawn carriages, classic cars, wedding gowns, food-and-wine vendors, musicians, spectacular table settings, wedding cakes – in short, everything imaginable for a posh wedding.
Bookings for weddings at Fizebad can require reservations a year in advance (possibly more) and the club prioritizes bookings for members over non-members. As “wedding and honeymoon tourism” is a growing business in metro Medellin, it’s wise to make plans early.
About 200 meters farther-on from Fizebad (turn right if you’re leaving the club) is the first intersection for one of three main roads to El Retiro. Turn right to reach the town.
However, before driving down that road, take note of the two mini-malls at this intersection: The San Miguel mall (mainly an Esso station) and the Carabanchel Mall, which is on the opposite corner.
One of my favorite Italian restaurants in metro Medellin – “Antonia” -- is in the Carabanchel mall. The home-made, fresh pastas at “Antonia” are dreamy. The proud owner is also the chef. "Antonia" (named for the owner's daughter) is open Wednesdays through Sundays (and also for national holidays, which usually fall on Mondays).
The same Carabanchel mall also houses the main offices for one of the area’s best-known real-estate brokers for “El Oriente:” Luis H. Londoño. (Full disclosure: Luis was the broker who found and oversaw the sale of the little farm where we’ve been living deliriously for 10 years now.)
If you’ve stuffed yourself at Antonia (or sampled a nice glass of wine), then you’ll turn left out of the Carabanchel mall, taking a narrow, paved road toward El Retiro. Along this road, you’ll pass several new housing developments, as well as the new Senior’s Club assisted-living retirement center.
After about five kilometers onward, you’ll cross a bridge over a little river that runs past the town of El Retiro. At this point, the road splits at an intersection. Take the right fork.
On your immediate left, you’ll see the sign for the tiny Luna Mall, which includes the “Postres de Lala” desserts shop as well as the “Latin Dreams” realty. The latter (as you might guess, given its English name) was founded by a Colombian who grew up in the U.S., and who consequently has a distinct North American accent when speaking Spanish, the same malady from which I suffer.
Right next-door to Luna Mall is the new Macedonia Mall (also on your left), which hosts one of my favorite cafes – “Café Boutique” – especially good for breakfasts, salads, soups, light lunches, pastries, table games, coffees and wines.
Also in Macedonia Mall is the “Soy Vital” natural-foods store as well as several other shops.
Continuing onward to El Retiro and just beyond the “Puro Cuero” furniture store (on your left, very nice leather sofas and chairs), keep going straight ahead. Ignore the fork at the left, and also ignore the intersection at the right, just over the little bridge.
About 100 meters on, you’ll pass a historic church, again on your left. If it’s open (which isn’t often), then stop and take a peek inside.
Continuing straight onward (ignore the fork at the right), this cement-paved road narrows into a one-way, heading upward toward the main town square (“El Parque”), where you’ll find a Bancolombia bank branch, typical paisa restaurants, and the main church. Parking here is difficult. The church is worth another peek inside.
‘Cantos de Agua’ Tree Nursery
Once you leave “El Parque,” head out-of-town (bearing left) for a most unusual tree-and-plant nursery – “Vivero Cantos de Agua.”
This nursery, three kilometers out of town, is on the “Vereda El Carmen” dirt road. The road starts at the “IMDER” mini-soccer stadium, next-to the town cemetery. To find this road, just ask anyone, “donde esta el cementerio?”
The Cantos de Agua nursery (www.cantosdeagua.com) has a big sign at the entrance, to your right. Frequently, the gated entrance is closed, but usually not locked. Just open the gate yourself and head up the driveway (30 meters) to the house and the gardens.
“Cantos de Agua” specializes in raising and selling certain native Colombian trees and plants, some of which today are endangered species.
Among the unusual plants you’ll find here are Palma de cera (Colombia’s national tree), Pino romeron, Chaquiro, Caunce, a native Magnolia species (not the North American kind), Palo santo, Fucsia arbustiva, Palma macana, Encenillos, Guayacan and many others.
Bird feeders next to the main house on the property attract many hummingbirds. Stop for a while to watch the entertaining aerial combat as each hummer tries to dominate feeder access.
Once you leave Cantos de Agua, take the same dirt road back to El Retiro. Just past the IMDER sports center, take the second paved road to your left, which is a sort of “beltway” around El Retiro, leading back to an intersection near Puro Cuero.
Turn left here, retracing your path toward Macedonia Mall (which now will be on your right), and continue straight onward for about four kilometers, until you come to the El Retiro roundabout intersection with Las Palmas.
Just before the roundabout is the “Queareparaenamorarte” traditional-foods restaurant. As there’s nothing vegetarian here, it’s not on my list.
At the roundabout, immediately on your right, you’ll see the uphill entrance to the “Zona Goumet” restaurant mall. This is home to (by far) the best Mexican restaurant (“El Zocalo”) in metro Medellin. My favorite: the enchilada combination of "roja, verde y mole," which (if you ask) can be vegetarian. In my case, that's two versions of cheese enchiladas (with red and green sauce) as well as a Nopal cactus enchilada, in a delicious, chocolate-based mole sauce.
If you’re too stuffed already to lunch at El Zocalo, then continue onwards toward the “Don Diego” roundabout (about one kilometer beyond the El Retiro roundabout), then bear right towards the town of La Ceja.
Long before La Ceja, about two kilometers along this highway, is the entrance (to your right) of the spectacular Tequendamita waterfall. Stop here for photos and perhaps a drink and a snack at the restaurant.
Tequendamita is a lovely end to this day trip -- my version of La Vuelta.
To head back to Medellin, turn left upon leaving Tequendamita, left again at the “Don Diego” roundabout, bear right at the El Retiro roundabout (opposite “Zona Gourmet”), then continue onwards through the Las Palmas toll booth. Passing Pakita on your right, you’ll next come to the Sancho Paisa roundabout, where you’ll bear left and then continue on Las Palmas highway all the way back to Medellin.
Cheers: You made it!
Latest from Roberto Peckham
October 10 2015
posted by Oscar Martinez
Un saludo muy afectuoso de parte de Oscar de Olé.
September 29 2015
posted by Javier
Felicitaciones Cuña, esto va por muy buen camino... es cuestión de tiempo, como todo inicio...
September 25 2015
posted by gloria uribe
gracias por sus buenos cometarios
Gloria Uribe...CAFE BOUTIQUE
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