Visit, GYO and taste the joy of Colombia

Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, used to be known for its drug trade and astronomical murder rate. No more. It has renounced its title as ‘Most Violent City in the World’ and is now one of the world’s holiday hot spots and in 2018 is listed in the top 10 of the best places to visit.

I love to travel and experience different cultures and as an avid gardener look for places where I can indulge in my passion for plants. If you share my enthusiasm you won’t be disappointed with a trip to Medellín in Colombia during August to see La Feria de las Flores – a flower parade unlike any other in the world.

At the time I visited there were no direct flights to Antioquia Colombia so the journey I had to endure was long haul in every sense with a stop off in Madrid, then Colombia’s capital city Bogota and finally a 2-hour flight to Medellín.

As you might expect, my family were not that enthusiastic about me traveling alone to Colombia, thinking I might get kidnapped by a drug gang or worse but I found it very safe and not violent like a lot people think. However, I do recommend that you keep to the city or like me, take a tourist guide who can safely take you off the beaten track.


Lush and green this exotic mountainous metropolis known also as the City of Eternal Spring, is modern, varied and exciting with plenty of restaurants and nightlife and lots to do and see at any time of year


Highlights are the museum and the adjacent outdoor exhibition in the Plazoleta de las Esculturas of 23 Rubenesque sculptures made by the famous Medellín artist, Fernando Botero, which includes some of his most iconic work. Here you can mingle with locals and other tourists posing for photographs, and sample the delicious salted mango and bite-size empanadas that are sold by the many street vendors


Outstanding is the incredible Metrocable, which links the city with the poor zones and the slums in the mountains, which is conveniently located close to the educational Parque Explora. At the park, you’ll find 300 interactive activities, so kids and adults alike can have fun whilst learning about science and technology and even see a glimpse of beneath the ocean in the massive Aquarium.

The reason for my visit in early August was to see the famous flower parade Feria de las Flores when Medellín becomes burgeon with blooms. Even in shopping malls you’ll see exhibits that could win medals at the Chelsea Flower Show! This year the event is to be held 1-10 August.


The festival, which began in the 1950’s was originally organized by Medellín’s Gardening Club to help inspire flower growers in and around the area and has grown into one of the largest horticultural events in the world. It’s also become a week-long street party with drinking, dancing and singing along to rhythmic melodies and Latin beats like only Colombians know how to.

The idea behind the flower procession came from a piece of history when slaves carried men and women on their backs up the regions steep hills. Now Silleteros, as the flower bearers are called, carry their giant and elaborate arrangements along the crowd-lined streets of Medellín to the sound of whistling and applauding fans from all corners of the world.

Many of the arrangements carried by the Silliteros are 1.8m in diameter and weighing up to 45 kilo


The parade is absolutely awe-inspiring with beautiful medallion-designed flower arrangements but it’s the Silliteros efforts – they range in age from toddlers to village elders that take your breath away and literally bring tears to your eyes. Watching them rigged out in their national dress – women wear white blouses and heavy black skirts adorned with flowers while men put on black hats, take machetes and travel bags and both carry their burden of blooms in temperatures well into the 32C, which is no mean feat so every cheer of encouragement is welcome


The parade is also a time for the Paisas, as the people from Medellín are called, to show their respect and gratitude to the police and armed forces, who join the parade and show off their marching and even parachute skills. Then as you’d expect at any public event, there’s the usual carnival acts that add fun, vibrant colour and joy to the occasion.

As well as flowers, the Festival week also features the largest horse parade in the world, and an automobile parade where the people driving the faithfully restored old cars wear costumes of the year the car was made.

The orchid exhibition along with tropical birds and flowers at the Botanical Gardens (Jardin Botanico) was one of the highlights of my trip


The 35-acre Botanical Gardens, which is free to enter, showcases Colombia’s fauna and flora, with hundreds of plant species grouped into themed spaces like tropical forest, vertical garden, and an “Orquideorama”, which even when there is no ‘special’ orchid event on, there are around 400 orchid plants to see.

In addition to the flowers on display, there are plenty of stands selling traditional clothing, including the traditional white hats and locally produced foods like arepas (griddled corn cakes), chicharron (fried pork belly and rind) and empanadas (crispy cornmeal pastry with beef and potato filling).


Whilst at the garden, I recommend that you eat in the garden’s restaurant and try Colombia’s National dish Bandeja Paisa – a massive fry up of belly pork, minced beef and sausage served with a generous helping of stewed beans, fried plantain and rice topped with a fried egg or if you can stomach the thought of it, try the pork, tripe and chorizo soup called Mondongo


On your trip you’ll taste the best-ever tropical fruit juices too. These are made with fresh local fruit like lulo, which tastes like a gooseberry with a hint of orange and morras, which has the tart flavour of rhubarb and cranberry


There are so many things to do and discover in Medellín, a week is hardly enough time to see why Colombia is worthy to be called one of this year’s holiday hot spots.


You must take in a guided tour


There are a number of guided tours of Medellín, which tell the story of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord that operated in the late 80s, who is hailed as one of Colombia’s most famous figures. Escobar entered the cocaine trade in the early 1970s, collaborating with other criminals to form the Medellin Cartel. He earned popularity by sponsoring charity projects and soccer clubs, but later, terror campaigns that resulted in the murder of thousands turned public opinion against him. He was killed by Colombian police in 1993. If you want to know more then check out the original Netflix drama series Narcos, on your laptop right now.

There are tours that take in historic properties closely connected with Pablo Escobar’s life and death and explore the true stories behind this mythical figure from experts and also locals that were witness to these terrible times


Some tours also take in Comuna 13, a once high-risk community that was rife with cash and cocaine. Thanks to big investment and the urban escalator, access has been given to homes in what were once marginalized and isolated barrios (neighbourhoods) from the city below.

Now Comuna 13 has become home to artist lofts and dining hotspots. Police patrol the pathways regularly and even when I visited as a camera-wielding tourist, I never felt uneasy


Many of the buildings Communa 13 have been painted bright colours by local street artists to give the neighbourhood a cheerful feel


One of the places I found most interesting, and visually stimulating was in Barrio Santo Domingo Savio. This was once a blighted barrio or neighbourhood that was rife with drug crime activities and before 2002 people were not be able to walk through the streets for fear of being killed: warring urban militias controlled the neighbourhoods.

Today it’s a different story and one of the key reasons is the Biblioteca Espana or Spain Park library, which was built with investment from Spain’s Royal family. The huge shiny black building, which dominates the hillside, has not only a vast book collection but also recreation areas and free Internet access to the local community. It’s these new facilities, along with the metro cable system, which have allowed these poorer neighbourhoods to become an integral part of the city and no longer cut off, as they once were in those violent crime ridden years. If you make the journey, my advice is to stick to the main streets, and walk along busy, well-lit areas, and you and your camera should be relatively safe.

Medellín is also known for its efficient metro system – the first and only in Colombia. One of the most riveting parts of the metro system is the Metrocable, which  uses cable cars to take you up the mountain, providing you the opportunity to take in more of Medellín’s amazing views (photo: moeasr/thecultreit.com)


Located at the top of a Cerro Nutibara is the Pueblo Paisa, a mock, authentic-style version of a typical Antioquian township, which I can only describe as kitsch but still worth a look! There is a very interesting building in the plaza, which is an interesting mix of styles due to the fact that the original architect quit halfway through the build, so the people of Medellín decided that they would be fine to finish it and would do it in their own way!

To round off any evening, the Zona Rosa is the place to go. Here there are plenty of modern bars and restaurants where you can sample the local beer and the national drink Aguardiente, which is made from sugar cane molasses and anise and is exactly like its name infers, “Fire Water”! As a committed fan of salsa, Son Havana was also a must-visit for me as it’s the best place in town to go to for dancing to the tropical vibes.



What’s the deal?


You can have tailor-made holidays to Colombia by audleytravel.com, evaneos.co.uk and sunvil.co.uk, go on an organize trip through rainbowtours.co.uk and vjv.com or if you’re feeling adventurous, travel independently.

Low fare flights cost around £1000 return from London to Medellín in August and you can find double room accommodation from as little as £26 per night, although I do suggest you budget for around £75-100 per night to enjoy a bit of luxury.

Colombia’s capital Bogota, has no shortage of festivals, and in the months of January-February, the year begins with the Bogota Feria Taurian, with matadors from Spain and Mexico flown in for the occasion. With a ‘tropical’ climate, these are also the best months to visit when the weather is driest.

The Museo del Oro in Bogota has the most spectacular exhibits of pre-Historic art, culture and tradition ever displayed.

The stylish Serie 1948 is a homely Bed & Breakfast (via Booking.com) located in a quiet neighbourhood near to bars and restaurants. It offers guests bike hire, a sun terrace, garden and locally sourced coffee and food.


Enjoy the tropical taste of Colombia – at home!


When my husband Luis and I had a Spanish taspas bar in Bournemouth in 2008, we became well known for, amongst other things, our tropical fruitshakes and smoothies, which were inspired by his home, the Dominican Republic and my trip to Colombia. We bought frozen sachets of the natural fruit from the Brixton market in London and we were also able to buy some fresh fruits from our local Asian store… but you might like to try your hand at growing your own.


Lulo – the golden fruit drink of the Andes


Lulo grows spontaneously in the Andes at altitudes between 1-2000m above sea level under the canopy of taller trees and shady areas near water with temperatures around 18-21C.

The greenish pulp of lulo or naranjillas (Solanum quitoense) fruits make a delicious drink that tastes like a combination like gooseberry and pineapple with a floral aroma and hint of Seville oranges and tomato on the finish!

Ripe naranjilla fruit is bright orange and similar in appearance to small oranges, but must be harvested when fully ripe otherwise, they can be quite sour. The flesh of the fruit is also peppered with many edible seeds.

Lulo goes down a treat with ice cream and cheesecakes, as well as fools and mousses.

Lulo contains Vitamins A and C, as well as Vitamin B3, which help to re-energize, especially on a hot day when high temperatures can make you feel quite weak and will assist your digestion and improve blood circulation.


Tropical lulo juice


INGREDIENTS

6 lulos

Sugar to taste

1 small cup triple sec

Prepare lulo juice and sweeten to taste, then pour in the liqueur and freeze. Take the juice out of the freezer a few times and blend with milk or water at low speed to prevent crystallization and to obtain a creamy consistency. Serve in champagne glasses.


GYO Lulo from seed


It’s possible to grow this exotic plant in the UK. It makes a good patio plant and will thrive in dappled shade on a sheltered patio during the summer months. It’s also perennial, so will keep from year to year if it is housed indoors for the winter at a temperature of around 18C. In the wild plants the leaves are studded with fierce spines and the stems bristle with hundreds more but cultivated varieties are spineless. The plant is a relative of tomatoes and potatoes and produces a bushy plant up to 1.2m tall with large wavy-edged leaves, up to 60cm in length. These are soft and whilst young are covered with a fuzz of brilliant purple hairs that as they mature change to silvery-white, which makes them shine in sunlight. Fragrant white flowers are followed by ‘ping pong’ ball size orange fruits, which are covered with brown hairs. Given ideal conditions the plant will bloom within 4-5 months of sowing and produce fruit within a year. (seeds are available from chilterseeds.co.uk)


Maracuyá – a drink full of passion


Maracuyá, or passion fruit, is a vine fruit, which makes wonderful aromatic juice – simply mix with water and give it a whizz in a blender with crushed ice. It also makes great sorbets or coulis to drizzle over ice cream and can be used to decorate favourite desserts like pavlova and cheesecake. As versatile as lime, it draws out the flavour of other foods too. The sweetened juice can be spread on bread; served with meat; or used as a marinade for venison or game.

The fruit of Passiflora edulis contains Vitamins A, B & C, in particular B3 Niacin and Passiflorin, a mild sedative. In Latin America, a glass of Maracuyá is often given to hyperactive children before bed!


GYO Passion plant


A vigorous self-clinging climber with beautiful flowers, Passiflora caerulea is frost-hardy in Britain but only in a hot summer will it produce the orange fleshy fruits that are edible although quite bland – be aware that eating under-ripe fruit (yellow) can however, cause stomach upsets.

The passionflower that is used for making the delicious tropical juice is Passiflora edulis. It is sometimes locally referred to as granadilla, although botanically this species is Passiflora ligularis and tastes more like a plum. In the UK these tropical plants need to be grown in a large greenhouse with a minimum winter temperature of 5-7C.


Mora – deep, rich and fruity


Fruits and flower of Mora (photo: Forest & Kim Starr, Creative Commons)

Mora de Castilla, Rubus glaucus, is also known as the Andes Blackberry and has the richness of rhubarb and the tartness of cranberry. It is a great for mocktails and served as Mulled Mora or a Sangria-style fruit punch. Mora is also ideal for jams, jellies and tarts; and for meat and poultry.

Rich in vitamin B and C moro is also high in iron, so is a useful remedy for anemia. It also contains quantities of calcium and phosphorus, which strengthen bones and teeth.


Try another sweet bramble


Moro is just one of several hundred species of Rubus. In the UK we cannot grow Mora but we can grow brambles or Rubus fruticosus. These are blackberries, Japanese wineberries and the Chinese bramble or Rubus tricolor, which also has edible fruits packed with vitamins.


Worth a try…


According to windharma.com, the Black Mamba Kiss, which is made with blackberries, gin, Gran Marnier and sugar syrup that’s laced with anise is a hot favourite with cocktail drinkers and the perfect choice for an after dinner drink.

The Black Mamba Kiss cocktail is dense, silky with an intense flavour and should be served in a Martini glass with a slice of apple and a mint leaf or berries to taste


Bramble Gin


INGREDIENTS

Gin

Blackberry liqueur made from brandy and crushed blackberries

Lemon juice

Sugar syrup

METHOD

Fill glass with crushed ice and add the gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup and stir.

Top up with more crushed ice. Then lace drink with blackberry liqueur.


DIY Brandy liqueur


METHOD

Place the blackberries and lime zest in a glass Kilner jar, muddle lightly to release juice, and then add brandy and vodka. Seal and shake. Let mixture steep for 3 days at room temperature away from direct sunlight.

Strain through a fine mesh strainer, pressing down to extract juice, then filter mixture through a coffee filter and discard any remaining solids.

Combine the blackberry infusion and a simple syrup made from 2 parts sugar to 1 part boiling water, in a sealable bottle or jar, then shake to mix. Let rest for a minimum of one day. Store in the refrigerator for up to two months.

GOOD IDEA For a quick and fabulous sangria, chop up a bunch of fruit and mix it with some of your DIY blackberry liqueur and brandy, then refrigerate overnight. Top off with red wine when you’re ready to serve.


Guava – delicate and aromatic


Guava, a sub-tropical fruit, which is also known as Guayaba, is now being hailed as another ‘ultimate superfood’, due to its high concentration of antioxidants, which protects against aging and also cancer


Whilst it’s impossible to grow guava in the UK, this tropical fruit, which is a member of the Myrtle family is native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, is still worth checking out as you can readily buy the fresh fruit from your local Asian market and get to taste this delicious sweet treat. The fruits of guava are round and oval or pear-shaped. They have thin yellow or green skin and hard, slightly granular and very fragrant pink, yellow or salmon-coloured flesh that contains edible seeds.

You need to peel and seed guavas before lightly cooking them so that the flesh disintegrate, making it the perfect consistency to add to ice creams, sorbets and fools.

We use guava fruit to make a tropical smoothie, just like Luis used to make in the Dominican Republic, which like everything over there is seen as not only a powerhouse drink for breakfast but also as another ‘cure-all’ and useful for treating diarrhoea, constipation, coughs, high blood pressure and good for weight loss and improving the skin!


 


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