The main bus terminal in downtown Medellín could have sent us in any direction on a Friday morning, before a long weekend, and when the capital of Antioquia was emptying by the minute with passengers snapping up tickets for express transport to Corozal and Montería in the north, Guatape with its stone monolith in the eastern townships (Oriente) and the coffee farms of Manizales, Armenia and Pereira to the south.
We had done the Zona Cafetera (coffee region) on a previous excursion in “bullet buses” offering gut-churning and face-slapping entertainment from Bruce Lee in a felt-encased box. On our excursion to the western highlands of Santa Fe de Antioquia, we could expect a two hour movie marathon of Kung Fu’s Jackie Chan.
But Jackie never came onboard. Instead, we had a quiet ride, departing early from the Terminales de Transportes del Norte (Cra 64 No. 78 – 344) to make the journey to one of this department’s most picturesque towns; and an important weekend resort destination for the Antio- queños in search of orchards, swimming pools and a few degrees of extra heat.
You quickly exit Medellín by taking the less-traveled road which heads to the banana-growing region of Urabá. After climbing out of the metropolis and rising towards La Loma from the Valle de Aburrá, you leave a patchwork of precari- ous shanties and roadside Roman villa style ‘motels.’ The ionic columns of fleeting communes gives way to a verdant valley of flower farms and pit stop paraderos, inviting travelers to try the in-situ grilled sausages and arepas.
We quickly descend through a rugged landscape (and thanks to a time-saving tunnel) towards the Cauca River with its silt sandbanks and sub tropical forest. The 80 kilometers which distance Medellín from Santa Fe de Antioquia are covered with ease and no Chuck Norris as a traveling companion.
Founded in 1541 by the iron magnate Jorge Robeldo, one of the unmissable structures, which makes Santa Fe so endearing is an iron and steel suspension bridge known as the Puente de Occidente. Spanning the Cauca on the old road which winds its way to Sopetrán, the Puente de Occidente, is inspired engineering which recalls some of Britain’s 19th century structures, such as the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol and the Victoria Bridge near Bath.
While these time period masterworks are a world away from the meandering Cauca canyon, they are united by a common dream of men who transformed their nations with coal and steam, coffee and steel.
Santa Fe de Antioquia is one of the department’s “finca” hot spots and there is a shortage of weekend retreats, lodg- es and rustic haciendas in which to kick back. Given the warm climate, it is best to avoid Santa Fe on long weekends, and during the week, prices for a room drop considerably.
After exploring the cobble stone streets of this historic town we pause for refreshments in a typical tienda. The dark interior was a stark contrast to the colorful exteriors and the hanging pots of flowering gardenias. We found a room with a pool at the Hotel Caserón Plaza which was small but cozy. My guidebook companion, the Moon Guide, also recommended the Hotel Mariscal Robledo and Casa de Tenerife.
You’re not likely to get lost in Santa Fe as there is a tourist office near the town’s main square, the Plaza Mayor, which has plenty of maps and tips on how to maximize your time there. As Antioqueños love their beasts of burden, there are plenty of trails for horseback riding, as well as the chance to drop in on several haciendas where coffee picking and roasting in large copper pots has remained the same since the first arrieros (mule herders) col- onized these highlands. Then, there is the region’s favorite drink – ‘guaro’ – the Antioqueño firewater, to get you in the mood for a saddle or that all-inclusive hammock suspended between flowering acacia thorn trees.
There are five beautiful stone churches in Santa Fe de Antioquia, the most emblematic of all is the white-walled Cathedral perched on a hillock and giv- ing tourists a panoramic view of the lazy Cauca River.
There are many arts and craft stores in town as well, selling an emblematic accessory of bygone days, the arrieros’ leather carriel, and which is still stitched by arti- sans in other tropical outposts of “paisa” hospitality: Támesis and Jericó.