We’ve adjusted our latitude again! But only about a quarter of a degree south this time.
In our last post, we announced that we had pulled up stakes and moved out of Medellín to El Retiro, Colombia. It’s hard to believe we’ve already been here a month and a half, but we couldn’t be happier.
We loved our two years in Medellín for all of the reasons that big city life has to offer: parks, museums, festivals, theatre and live music, great public transportation, colorful neighborhoods, and more fantastic restaurants than we could ever visit in a lifetime. And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which made most of those things off limits for many months. Some of them, like theatre productions and large festivals with masses of people (Exhibit A: Medellin’s renowned Feria de las Flores) may never return completely to their old normal.
Colombia’s five-month period of quarantine and lockdown was terrible in many ways, but it did have had one silver lining: peace and quiet. When the restrictions eased, the noise of the city came back with a vengeance. (Maybe it had always been that noisy; we just never noticed it before we had the luxury of months of quiet.) In short, the pandemic spoiled big-city living for us, and it was time for a new horizon. We needed a quieter place with cleaner air, where our two senior dogs could roam a bit and swim in a clean river. We wanted to be closer to nature. And practically speaking, we sought a place where we could feel safer from COVID, with less population density.
El Retiro, Colombia offers all of that, and much more. And we owe it to a dining chair.
One of El Retiro’s claims to fame is its custom-built, finely hand-crafted furniture, with one full street dedicated to the workshops of the artisan woodworkers. In fact, when we first moved to our apartment in Medellin in 2018, we had several pieces of furniture made here at Muebles de Oriente, a 40-year-old factory/showroom that friends had raved about. We were blown away by the high-quality, custom work at profoundly reasonable prices.
One of our dining chairs had gotten marred by a big scratch (our bad, not the furniture maker’s), so back in November we made a trip to El Retiro to see if it could be fixed. Not only did they completely refinish the chair free of charge (Muebles de Oriente, you ROCK!), but we got to have our first real look around this charming town. At this point we’d already made the decision to move out of Medellín, but hadn’t really warmed to some of the other towns we’d looked at. After a closer look at El Retiro, we felt like we’d come home.
A few months and a really lucky break later, and here we are.
With its cooler northern Andes climate (this is the REAL land of eternal spring) and higher elevation (2,175 meters), El Retiro feels worlds away from the city. El Retiro was incorporated in 1790 but Spanish colonists settled here much earlier. As such, it’s the quintessential Colombian colonial town, filled with centuries-old adobe and tile-roofed dwellings that are meticulously maintained and neat as a pin. Retiro is surrounded by lush, green hills and fronts the crystal-clear Rio Agudelo, making it a big draw for hikers, cyclists, and other outdoor adventurers.
Despite its rural feel, El Retiro is also a bustling municipality of about 20,000. Its proximity to Medellin (about a 45-minute drive, depending on traffic) means we get a fair amount of visitors from the city on weekends. As a result, there’s a thriving restaurant scene with a wealth of traditional Colombian and more cutting-edge cuisine to choose from.
We’re definitely off the tourist radar here (not a t-shirt shop in sight) and might go for days without seeing another expat. Yet, Retiro is only about a half an hour from the airport. That’s a big bonus, since living near an international airport is always a prerequisite for us.
(The following photos are in galleries. Just click through them to see enlarged versions.)
Here’s the problem with El Retiro: It’s so charming that everyone wants to live here.
Since we’re committed to renting, rather than buying a home, we were at the mercy of an incredibly tight rental market. The few apartments we looked at were very small and lacking in outdoor space for our pups. And then we made the acquaintance of a local lady (thank you, Liliana Garzón!), a well-connected facilitator who had heard through her grapevine about a duplex that had just come up for rent but had not yet been advertised. After one look, we knew we had found our home. Yet another bonus: We have become fast friends with our new landlady and her amiga, both lovely people.
An Enduring Legacy of Freedom
Here’s another amazing fact about El Retiro: It’s considered one of the cradles of liberty in South America. The story centers around Don Ignacio Castañeda and his wife, Doña Javiera Londoño, a wealthy couple who settled in the area in the Spanish colonial days of the 1730s. They made their fortune in gold and quartz mining, and – as was the sad custom at the time – used enslaved Africans to do the work.
Side note: All over El Retiro you’ll see the word “guarzo,” a local phonetic spelling of the Spanish word for quartz – and Retiro natives are called “Guarceños.” Even our own housing development is named Quintas del Guarzo.
Because they had no children and, therefore, no heirs, Don Castañeda and Doña Londoño took a revolutionary and risky step in 1757: They began freeing their slaves. After her husband passed away, Doña Londoño kept freeing them, eventually liberating a total of 122. At the same time, she bequeathed to them portions of the mining operation, enabling the people to survive and make a living. It was one of the first incidences, if not THE first, of slaves being freed in the Americas – and it happened a century before the U.S. Civil War.
Another side note: To this day, the surname Castañeda is very commonplace in town, and it’s a safe bet that many of today’s Castañedas are descended from those original freed workers (just as elsewhere, it was common here for enslaved people to take the surname of their masters).
Every year in December, this history is commemorated with a massive local celebration, the Fiesta de los Negritos. Prior to COVID, it was one of the year’s high points for Guarceños with lots of live music, athletic competitions, art exhibits, and parades. Of course the Fiesta was cancelled for 2020, but we hope some version of it will return this year.
Thanks for reading. Here’s hoping you’re staying safe, healthy, and warm – and getting vaccinated!