San Antonio de Pereira: The “sweetest” town in Antioquia’s Oriente

It was another splendid day in Medellín, a city known for its “eternal spring.” In a few days, I would be catching a plane back to Texas. Wanting one last Colombian road trip before leaving, some friends suggested we head northwest to the colonial enclave of Santa Fe de Antioquia.

Medellín’s central metro station is enormous, housed in a modern shopping mall and with two floors of busy vendors circling a central plaza. Side-stepping passengers dashing for impatient buses, we meander along a seemingly non-stop line of ticket windows until we reach the end, and begin to wonder if Santa Fe really exists. After asking for directions, an attendant gives us the bad news: we are at the wrong bus station if planning on heading north. We recess to review maps and discuss a “plan B” when a young Colombian, sitting nearby, approaches to offer advice. He seemed thrilled to be able to practice his English with a group of dazed foreigners. Explaining our desire to explore something “new”, he recommends we accompany him east of the capital, to a town called San Antonio de Pereira. He insists we’ll be smitten by its sweets.

Wasting no time, we purchase tickets for a bus leaving for Ríonegro, and scurry through a maze of chugging colectivo buses. Soon, the hectic pace of the city relinquishes to views of majestic mountains, and decorative fincas with balconies filled with vibrant flowers and suspended on steep slopes. We share this experience with other passengers, confirming that visiting the pueblos surrounding Medellín is an important part of living in Colombia’s second largest city. It appears San Antonio de Pereira is where locals go for incredible desserts on weekends, and a town “paisas” consider a well-kept secret.

Our kind and helpful chaperon disembarks in Ríonegro, but not before asking a hundred questions about Texas and of course, the importance of English as a second language. After a quick change of buses, and 15-minutes later, I have arrived to satisfy my sweet tooth.

The center square is abuzz with activity. Local artisans pack the plaza offering leather bags, jewelry, hats, toys, clothes, pottery and, not surprising, plenty of sweets. But the real action is taking place along the sidewalks near the plaza, where cafés and bakeries display rows of breads and pastries, often stacked to the top of the glass cabinets. Squeezed between stores selling magazines and radios, tiny shops aunt walls of packaged candies deliciously enticing customers.

I wonder where to start with so much “dulce”, a term used to describe the traditional sweets and candied fruits sold from stall to corner store. My day-tripping friends suggest a bakery with a slogan: “We are born for the simple pleasures and wish to share with you the sweet and rich side of life.” We get in line at Dulce Contigo. To our amazement, the wait is not long as patrons enter and exit within minutes, all cradling a small paper plate in their hands and wearing a big smile on their faces.

Resembling a church bake sale, clients first much purchase a token for $6,000 pesos before being escorted by an attendant to a crammed dining room stacked with rectangle-shaped trays, each one, containing a different flavored cake. My first flavor, Lulo, is delivered once I have handed over the token to a smiling hostess.

Locals claim that the town’s sweet reputation dates back almost a century when the agricultural Oriente Antioqueño was colonized for its fertile soil. As farmers supplied industrializing Medellín with fruits, women churned out jams, jellies (Gelatina de Pata) and creamy milk-based confections, such as arequipe and rice pudding (Arroz con Leche).

Dulce de Leche house specialty is a four-layer cake topped with a flavored frosting. Guests can chose from guanaba, mora, tree tomato (tomate de arból), papaya, guayaba, among many other Andes-grown fruits. After three trips around the room, I finally have to stop. Even though my favorite slice was Lulo, Brownie was a close second, and Amaretto, an amazing finale.

A stroll through the festive market bartering for hats and buying keepsakes ended with a visit to the Church of San Antonio de Pereira and a fine example of Spanish colonial architecture. But no matter how hard one tries to plan an outing, sometimes it’s best to take a recommendation from a stranger, as towns such as San Antonio de Pereira, never make their way into a guide book. As I stocked up on meringue and guava rolls, a day that at first seemed to fall by the wayside turned out to be my sweetest day, in all the Colombian countryside.

Some popular sweets:

Brazo de Reina

Even though the name may sound like an English Pub, Queen’s Arm (Brazo de Reina) is a frosted sponge cake filled with jam. Sold in some of Bogotá’s more traditional bakeries and pastelerías of the centro, Brazo de Reina is prepared across the re- gion, sometimes in the shape of a cylinder or rectangle. Given the amount of strawberries growing in the Sabana de Bogotá, this “once” (elevenses) comes filled with diced fruit.

Oblea

These crisp wafers are served across Colombia, and if there is a sweet sold on the streets of Bogotá, it’s oblea filled with a creamy arequipe spread. When rock idol Mick Jagger decided to take an impromptu stroll through La Candelaria’s colonial streets, he was lured by the oblea vendors. Hence, several near the Plaza Bolívar are called Obleas Mick. Some obleas include grated farmer’s cheese and fruit conserves. If visiting this country’s coffee region, the main square in the town of Salento, Quindío, has some of the largest wafers you’ll see in a lifetime.

Cocada

With two coastlines – the Pacific and Caribbean – Colombia has no shortage of coconuts. While the juice makes for a refreshing drink down by the beach, the fleshy interior is scraped from the shell and added to sh soup and rice. But coconut is also in many of the sweets sold on the streets of Cartagena, including the cocada. Among the many candies prepared by Palenqueras under the stone arches of El Portal de las Dulces, you’ll nd tamarind balls and panela cookies.

Milhoja

This is the Colombian equivalent to the classic French Mille-feuille. With its 1,000 layers, the razor-thin pastry is filled with a vanilla créme and garnished with a chocolate spider-web design. In Colombia, this desert is tends to have fewer layers (but who is counting) and top glazed with arequipe. A very popular after lunch snack with Bogotanos.