IMG_4123-1024x853 El Retiro, Colombia: Our New Home Sweet Home Colombia Colombia Heritage Towns El Retiro
Rush hour in El Retiro
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.

3D44B27F-DE27-4D21-A4EF-B1889D2AB7DE_1_201_a-1024x740 El Retiro, Colombia: Our New Home Sweet Home Colombia Colombia Heritage Towns El Retiro
Craftsmen at work at Muebles de Oriente

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. 

B7063C7C-3931-4554-BD72-0B2FF330FFC5 El Retiro, Colombia: Our New Home Sweet Home Colombia Colombia Heritage Towns El Retiro

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.

3EB72451-C250-4196-A752-B1D01C40CA89_1_201_a-1024x789 El Retiro, Colombia: Our New Home Sweet Home Colombia Colombia Heritage Towns El Retiro
In lieu of a 2020 Los Negritos parade, the city displayed several floats in the Parque Principal on New Year’s Day. This one honors Doña Londoño. Note: Political correctness isn’t a thing here –  at least, not as North Americans think of it.
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This float offers a nice tribute to the healthcare workers fighting COVID.

Thanks for reading. Here’s hoping you’re staying safe, healthy, and warm – and getting vaccinated!

 

57 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your ongoing story – it really helps to read something like this while “stuck” in the very cold Minnesota right now. I could almost hear the river and birds and smell the flowers! Oh how I miss plants and humidity! We love to travel but along with everyone else, the last 14 months have been on hold, so reading that you moved actually caused me slight anxiety (not used to travel anymore!) but I kept reading and all that you do sounds so easy and adventurous at the same time. We are eyeing some countries in central America to semi-retire too, but I have to say, every time I read your posts, I always consider Columbia.
    Thank you for making this seem easy and for taking us on your journey.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We’re so glad you enjoyed the post! As our moves go, this one was the easiest (only 45 minutes away) and it helped that we had a car. Let us know if we can answer any of your questions about retiring to Colombia. Cheers!

  2. Happy new home! It sounds wonderful, and stuck in wet, rainy England, like Lisa, it’s lovely to smell your flowers!
    We’re all looking forward to being back on the road again.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ah, thanks so much! A change of scene was just what the doctor ordered, because we too are anxious to get back traveling. Here’s hoping we all get a chance to do more this year. It looks like England’s doing a good job with vaccination, so there’s a lot to be hopeful about there. Hang in there!

      • Thank you 🙂 Vaccination does seem to be the one thing that England has got right during the pandemic. Better times are ahead!

  3. To date, South America has not been on our radar. I’m not sure why that is, but most likely it’s because we’re so enamored with Portugal so it’s a bit challenging for us to look beyond Portugal/Europe. I’ve been enjoying reading/seeing South America/Colombia through your eyes. It sounds as if you’ve found the right spot for this next chapter and with only a 45-minutes drive back to Medellin, you can get your city fix if you need/want to. Is there a local train system, or do you have to drive?

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Patti – hope you two can visit Colombia some day. We’d love to show you around!

      Portugal is really high on our list to visit. In fact, we also want to be based in Europe someday and Portugal was a contender. We’ve more or less decided on Spain, mainly because the winter weather seems a bit milder and we won’t have to start all over with the language. But we can’t wait to visit Portugal! No train service to El Retiro, but we did buy a car a few months ago and that’s given us a whole new world of mobility (besides COVID-safe transportation)!

  4. El Retiro sounds like a wonderful place to live. The great thing about renting is the ability to move easier if in a few years too many people move there – you can keep moving to the peace and quite areas. It sounds like a great move from Medellin – even though we loved Medellin too. I wish you the best.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Bonnie – so great to hear from you! Are you and Trin still in Australia? Hoping you’re staying safe and healthy and life is good for you. 🙂

  5. Annie Berger Reply

    I didn’t realize you were looking for another place to move to but certainly understand your reasons. How fortunate you were able to find not just the town that felt comfortable for you but also a duplex that fits you both and your dogs thanks to word of mouth. I hope that El Retiro will be a great alternative to the hubbub of Medellin.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Annie! We think we were meant to be here, because things have fallen into place so well. And so far we don’t miss Medellín (much). Hope you’re well!

  6. One of the toughest parts of leaving Colombia was saying goodbye, not just to maravillosos amigos, but to our amazing piezas de muebles de El Retiro. They are truly crafts people there. We’re really happy for you! (and Rosie & Tango, natch)

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      That’s right, you two also had muebles de El Retiro! We just had a couple of bar stools made, and last week ordered a teak patio table and chairs. Turns out there’s a workshop here that makes outdoor furniture from sustainable Colombian teak. There’s so much to love about this town. We miss you guys – maybe come for a visit someday?

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Jane and Duncan! Hope you two are doing well. Still in Australia, right?

  7. Sharon Brooks Reply

    Looks like you have found yet another piece of paradise. Love the river walk, I wonder if our cats would like it;-) ?

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, there are lots of kitties here but we haven’t seen any on the river walk 🙂 Hope you and John are well!

  8. How interesting that you went into this town to get a dining chair fixed and you end up with a new place to live? That is the beauty of being retired and free from all constraints. I think you will be very happy in your new sweet home 😀

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It’s amazing how things fall into place sometimes, right? We think we were meant to be here. Hope you guys are staying well and safe – vaccinated yet? Any new caravan trips planned?

      • We are yet to get our vaccine, but I think it should be very soon. We are travelling by motorhome in May…if allowed. xx

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Mel! We are so happy. Hope you’re well.

  9. Congratulaitons on your new home, Susan and John. It sounds (and looks) absolutely wonderful. I love your quest for adventure and your willingness to step outside comfort zones and try something new (that’s why I follow this blog).
    I look forward to reading your further adventures in El Retiro!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ahh, thank you, Donna! It’s been more challenging to find adventure during the pandemic, but somehow we always manage 🙂 Hope you’re having an excellent day and staying safe.

  10. I think you’ve found a wonderful place to call home, at least for a while. Great photos of El Retiro and nice to see the pups in their new habitat!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Henry! Hope we can see you again soon. Have a great day!

  11. I love your pictures! El Retiro looks like a nice place where I want to live, I used to like living in big cities, but now I am fond of the countryside anywhere in the world. I like the pieces of history you share, especially the ones about the Spanish settlement in El Retiro. I found the story of Don Castañeda and Doña Londoño interesting, how they freed their slaves in 1757 and bequeathed to them portions of the mining operations, after all, the Spanish couple made their fortune with the help of the African slaves. What an interesting town!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Liz! Yes, it’s a pretty fascinating story. Apparently they got a lot of blowback from the locals when they started freeing their slaves. People thought they were crazy and they were ostracized from their society. It seems that’s always the way when someone is the first to take an important stand. Hope you’re doing well!

  12. Wow your new location sounds ideal. Once we’re able to travel again, and once we’ve visited the (approximately ten million) places on our wish list, we’d love to find a place just like that, and settle into new surroundings for a while. Enjoy your time there guys!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, our travel wish list is about that long. Hope things keep getting better for everyone and we’ll all be able to resume some sense of normal soon. Take care, you two!

  13. It looks like you made the right decision to move to El Retiro. And living in such a nice place set against a beautiful and lush landscape, I envy you! 🙂 Oh and that clean river is definitely something to be jealous about, especially from a person like me who lives in a city like Jakarta where such thing is a luxury. I can’t wait for more stories from this lovely town.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Our dogs especially love the river! It’s a very quiet life here and things move at a slower pace. After getting our “city” fix for a couple of years, it’s just what we needed and the ideal situation for waiting out the rest of the pandemic until we can travel again. Hope you and yours are well, Bama!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Ian! And there are two lovely dogs who will need pet sitters one of these days 🙂 Hugs to you and your lovely lady.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Pam! Some things are meant to be 🙂 Hope you’re well.

  14. El Retiro sounds perfect to me. It can be difficult to find a place that has a rural feel, is close to nature but is also easily accessible and has the amenities/vibrance of a larger centre. I’m surprised that it gets so few tourists. All the best as you settle in to your new environment!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Caroline! I think it’s just a matter of time before tourism shows up here. Of course, there haven’t been any foreign tourists, anywhere, for a year. It will be interesting to see what the town is like, once the pandemic has finally blown over. Hope you’re well 🙂

  15. Wow, El Retiro looks fantastic! Glad you found such a beautiful place to live. So does that mean you aren’t coming to Spain to live or is that in your future plans?

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Nancy! Oh, yes, Spain will be our next stop someday. We still have a lot of South America to see and we can’t fly our elderly dogs anymore. So we’re here for a few more years, and then we’ll situate in Europe. Hope you’re well!

  16. This sounds so perfect! It must have been such a shock when the noise returned in Medellin, but it gave you a Covid gift. It’s wonderful the small and bigger gifts we’re all getting because of the pandemic. Don and I have discovered things in our own backyard as I’m sure many others have done.
    El Retiro looks thoroughly charming, and so perfect for you and the dogs in so many ways. How lovely, and lucky, to have found the exact home you need.
    Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Alison. A covid gift, indeed – that’s a good way to put it. It’s been such a terrible time for so many people. All the more reason to have gratitude for those gifts: the peace and quiet, the chance to reflect, take stock, regroup, the time to READ. And like you and Don, a chance to make new discoveries close to home (and there is still so much here to discover!).

      Hope you both have a lovely week 🙂

  17. I’m not at a point in my life where I want to purchase more things, but I’d love to be with you at the Saturday market. That looks just glorious. Stay well. Enjoy the new digs.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Come for a visit, when all this Covid stuff is over 🙂 Stay well yourself, Muriel, and have a great day!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We would love to take you up on that someday 🙂 Vancouver is one of our favorite cities, and we would love to meet you!

  18. Hi John and Susan!

    I read your post in my inbox last week, as I had it saved for reading when we would be without internet. Now that we are back in the land of WiFi for a few days, it is nice to see all the photos that you included as well and to finally leave a comment.

    It intrigues me to read about what makes expats decide to “settle” somewhere. The why of the move. And certainly the attraction of the new place. I can so imagine the attack on your senses when Medellin returned back to its normal hectic self! El Retiro looks wonderful. – a perfect distance from the city and peaceful while offering enough distractions. Lucky about the rental as well.

    Take care and enjoy your new digs!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Liesbet! Looks like you’re having a fantastic time in the Baja. We LOVED the Sea of Cortez when we were there on our boat. To this day, the Sea is one of my best memories of our cruising days.

      I chuckled a little with your comment about “settling.” I don’t think we’ll ever “settle” – ha! The longest we’ve spent in one place for our entire marriage has been 5 years. As much as we love El Retiro, it’s another stopping point until we can re-locate to Spain. Hopefully that will be a few years, depending on our dogs. And we’re going to make the most of our time in Colombia.

      Stay well and keep enjoying Mexico!

  19. Congratulations on finding your new home! What a great story about the dining chair leading you there and everything else just falling into place. Meant to be! Looks like a charming town, especially with the river.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Kelly!! Even after two months, it does feel a little too good to be true – ha! Hope you’re well and hanging in there. Cheers,
      Susan

  20. I love your enthusiasm for travel. Your new venture to El Retiro is fascinating. Thanks for putting this together and sharing your experience.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much – glad you’re enjoying the blog!

  21. Wish you loads of happiness and cheer in your new home. El Retiro looks like such a beautiful and tranquil place. The pictures are excellent. Enjoy your stay there.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, and thanks for reading 🙂

  22. Bill Warder Reply

    Interesting to hear it’s a little cooler. My wife ANA and I have only been to Medellin and the airport, it was warm. Do you like Gutape (not sure the spelling) since you have a car anyway? Is it a similar environment as El Retiro? New readers ..Bill (FL) and Ana (orig from Barranquilla)

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hello and welcome to our blog! Yes, Guatape is a beautiful town and well worth the visit, but it tends to get a LOT of visitors on the weekends and during holidays. As a place to live, it’s a bit too noisy and touristic for our taste! Anyway, thanks for reading and let us know if you have any more questions.

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