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(2017 - Winter Issue)


There’s a boomerang quality to Colombia. Not the curved flat piece of wood at home in Australia. But rather the history of the country at the northern edge of South America.

There is no getting away from the grim times of civil war and drug wars, but these days Colombia is definitely in recovery. “We are a country in transition” is what Colombians say, “an emerging country.” Colombia is a boomerang on the rebound.

I was using the city of Medellín as a base (one-time home of drug lord Pablo Escobar) for exploring this country in transition. I didn’t have to look far. Medellín has become a cosmopolitan city with a happening food scene, filled with art, museums, authentic historic sites and festivals. It’s also a base for easy day trips across the countryside to visit small-scale, family coffee plantations, flower-growing regions and well-preserved colonial cities. As an added bonus, Medellín is easy on the wallet (as emerging destinations often are).  

“Medellín’s turning point came about 10 years ago,” says Markus Jobi, a German expat who moved there to establish Palenque Tours and has occupied a front-row seat on the transformation. “People here are very sensitive to the history of Escobar and there is no family in Colombia that has not been touched by that unrest. But things are changing and afterward the city had to reinvent itself. The tourism wave started with backpackers—now the average tourist is between 30 and 70 years of age.”

Jobi helps visitors appreciate the complex history of Colombia. His tours do it by engaging with people and the culture. On a small scale, he opens the doors to surprise, contradictions, information and understanding. And Colombians—known for their welcoming smiles—help every step of the way.


The three-year-old museum in downtownMedellín stands like a solemn memorial to the troubled past of the country. It was founded as a place for Colombians to learn and understand the history of the armed clashes.

“This place gives people without a voice a spot to reflect,” explains Jobi. “We have to learn to solve conflicts in Colombia without violence. And the first thing we have to do is talk about it, to mention what is really going on.”

Varied multimedia exhibits help foster those reflections: audio stations where victims’ narrative testimonials show the courage and pain of speaking out. Together, they raise awareness and foster solidarity.

A historical timeline traces the political divide that took root in the early 1950s, the foundation of the FARC (the most heavily armed and vicious guerrilla movement in the armed conflicts) and the battles within and between the drug cartels that peaked in the 1980s. Touchscreen installations open discussions on truth, justice, reparation, democracy and human rights.

“When we develop a collective memory, then we can actually face it,” adds Jobi, explaining the importance of the museum.


Fernando Botero Angulo—known worldwide as Botero—is Colombia’s most important artist. His creative trademark is his exaggeration (or minimization) of detail—small heads and huge bodies. Botero explained his own art by stressing he was “just using volume.”

In 2003, Botero’s donation of 23 statues to the city’s central square marked a turning point. “The transformation of Medellín started at Plaza Botero,” claims Jobi. “Colombians place his artwork on the same level as Dalí and Picasso, so there is a feeling of national pride.”

Many call Plaza Botero the heart of the city. It’s a colourful mix where almost everything can be found—from vendors hawking Botero reproductions to small tables where men set up typewriters to sell services to those needing letters written.

Facing the square is the Museo de Antioquia, with its stately galleries housing some of Botero’s sculptures and paintings in the most complete exposition of the artist’s work.


Across the city, Jobi introduces us to Juan David Garcia, a founder of Casa Kolacho, a grassroots street art movement that has helped transform Comuna 13—once one of Medellín’s most dangerous barrios—into a centre for rap, hip hop and graffiti.

“The graffiti gives young people an alternative to crime,” says David through a translator. “It’s a part of expression and contributes to the changing perspective of life.”

The graffiti’s message is historical and political, as is the music the young people of the neighbourhood come to record at the Casa Kolacho studios. “American hip hop is for dancing,” explains David. “Colombian hip hop is for the message.”

The Comuna 13 neighbourhood has grabbed the attention of city planners worldwide for its creative use of outdoor escalators to transport people through the toughest part of the climb through impoverished neighbourhoods. From the top of the escalator there is a breathtaking view of the city.


Getting away from the crowded metropolis, Jobi drives us south to Fredonia, the region of Colombia’s first coffee plantations. Coffee thrives at about 1,700 metres in tropical climates, with a lot of rain and clearly defined wet and dry seasons. “In all of Colombia, 500,000 families work in the coffee industry and most are small-scale farmers.”

Our van bumps along a rutted dirt road to Café de la Cima, a modest family-owned coffee plantation. “This remote location is typical,” says Jobi, pointing to the verdant hillsides. “A normal coffee farm is usually away from the main roads and it’s usually small.”

We follow farmer Octavio Acevedo and his son Humberto up hillsides blanketed by low, green Arabica coffee plants, each speckled with green (unripe) and red (ripe) coffee beans. The ripe beans are picked by hand, filling large woven baskets, then washed and dried on racks above the rooftops of the outbuildings.

No large factory farms on this tour. Jobi explains why he prefers taking visitors to the smaller family operations. “This is a system with 100 years of experience spanning three or four generations. They are the backbone of the coffee industry.” 


Our last tour begins with Medellín’s famous cable cars, a part of the metro system transporting residents up into hillside com-
munities. At the top it is a different world—quiet and green. We stop at the flower farm, Finca Silletera, home to José Zapata and his family who have been growing and selling traditional bundles of flowers, called silleta, for generations.

Wearing traditional garb—white apron, poncho, black pants and sombrero aguadeño—Zapata graciously smiles as he artfully creates bouquets from the 80 varieties grown on the farm.

Always smiling, I notice. It’s the Colombian way.

Travel Planner

For more information about Colombia and various tours available, visit colombia.travel/en and palenque-tours-colombia.com.

Copa Air (copaair.com) offers scheduled service out of Toronto or Montréal to Panama City, with convenient connections to Medellín, while Air Canada (aircanada.com) offers non-stop service to Bogotá from Toronto.

Patio del Mundo (patiodelmundo.com) is Medellín’s only boutique hotel, beautifully decorated with bright colours of Colombian textiles and artwork.

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