Visitors to Medellin who want a taste of a more traditional Colombia often settle for a visit to “Pueblito Paisa,” the city’s tacky replica of an Antioquian country village. But perched on the hills around Colombia’s modern, bustling second city are a selection of tranquil, genuine “paisa” towns, normally overlooked by the tourist.
Locals, on the other hand, often embark on a “vuelta a oriente,” an eastern circuit, in which they cruise through the mountain countryside, stopping to relax in one quiet plaza after another. A decent circuit can often be completed in a day and will encompass three to four stops in towns such as El Retiro, La Ceja, Carmen de Viboral, Rionegro, Marinilla and La Union, before the return to Medellin.
The main obstacle to tourists making the trip is lack of a car. But this can be overcome in two ways: either by booking a tour with a local operator, or by using buses and taxis to hop from one town to another. LandVenture Travel offers a round trip with an English-speaking guide and stops at sites of interest for a minimum of COP70,000 ($38) per person. Those who want extra flexibility can make their own tour of three to four villages for as little as COP20,000 ($11). I choose the second option.
As the bus climbs the steep hillside to the south-east of Medellin, leaving the red-brick tower blocks of El Poblado below in the mist, we enter forests of dark green coniferous trees. When the road levels off after about an hour, we pass fincas and wooden chalets with well-kept gardens. The landscape is like the Swiss countryside, but without the snow-capped mountains.
This is where many Medellin families come to escape the polluted city and spend the weekend in their second homes. The region has been wealthy since before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1530s. By the time the colonizers set foot in eastern Antioquia, indigenous Tahamies and Catios tribes were thriving, trading gold and cultivating beans, maize and fruit.
First stop is the little cattle-ranching town of El Retiro. Visitors can unwind in the peaceful main square, overlooked by the beautiful white-washed Nuestra Señora del Rosario church. The town is a delight for lovers of colonial architecture, who can wander through the streets admiring the color and facades of its low buildings. The highlight is the stone and clay face of the San Jose Chapel, built in 1733.
The larger town of La Ceja is a 20 minute bus ride away. The contrast with El Retiro is clear. La Ceja’s broad main plaza is much busier than its western neighbor, with men in ponchos and traditional hats watching cars and trucks speed by, loaded with sacks of grain. A horse draws a cart full of goods up the street. Anselmo Rios, director of the town’s cultural center, explains that La Ceja is a trading village. Along with local fruits like bananas, tomato, and mulberry, floriculture is one of the town’s main industries. “We depend much on the dollar, because we export our flowers to the U.S.,” he tells me.
La Ceja is a hub for burgeoning artists. Anselmo shows me round an exhibition of oil paintings by Juan Gonzalez Londoño, a local artist, and takes me to the site where they are building a new cultural center, to be finished in December. He explains that La Ceja has set up up a program called “Ciudad Galeria,” which allows local artists to display their works in galleries, shops, and cafes around the town.
San Antonio de Pereira, a quiet suburb of Rionegro, is a disappointment, with a paved main plaza that is grey, lacking the colors of La Ceja and El Retiro. But it turns out that locals do not come here to feast the eyes, but to enjoy the deserts sold in stalls around the main square. Visitors can sample meringon (a meringue cake), arequipe (dulce de leche), candied fruit, and many other delicious desserts. On the road running in front of the church, you can also try the savoury chorizo, a pork sausage which is tasty if a little greasy.
Rionegro itself turns out to be a rapid stop-over. It is a small country city and the streets are packed with cars and people people at rush hour. If you decide to stop off here, the imposing San Nicolas el Magno cathedral is worth seeing. Unless you feel like a shopping break, travellers looking to experience the typical Antioquian setting should skip this town altogether, and head straight to Marinilla.
Marinilla is no sleepy rural village, but it manages to conserve its “paisa” charm. Men in traditional dress sit in its pretty main square under a leafy canopy of laurel trees and yarumus. Brightly colored “chiva” trucks wait opposite the Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion church to take locals out to the surrounding countryside. After I ask some men for the names of the plaza’s trees, an old man who is having his shoes shined insists on showing me some of the town. Don Mariano leads me to the museum of history and architecture at the intersection of Carrera 29 and Calle 30, where well-preserved artifacts of the 1810 Marinilla regiment are on display.
As I arrive back at Medellin’s busy Teminal Norte, I feel like I have had a taste of life in an Antioquian rural town. A “vuelta a oriente” is a must for anyone who wants to see the real “Pueblito Paisa.”
Tour operator: Landventure Travel
There are hourly buses from Medellin’s Terminal Norte to Marillla, Rionegro, La Ceja and El Retiro for around COP4,000. Expect to pay around COP60,000 for a taxi ride between Medellin and one of the towns.
There are frequent buses costing around COP3,000 traveling from one town to another. Alternatively, ask for a “collectivo,” a shared taxi, which will cost between COP2,000 and 3,000. Taxi rides between the town vary from COP10,000 to 15,000.