Strangers in a Strange Land
This post is part of Everything to Know Before Visiting Medellin, a collection of no-B.S., unique guides to an unforgettable stay in Colombia.
We realized Venecia, Antioquia was uncharted territory as soon as we checked into our hotel and I asked the manager if she needed our ID.
After a pause and an uncertain look, she said, "Si, pero… ustedes son un poco raro." ("Yes, but… you guys are a bit strange.")
Yes, strange because we weren't Colombian. Venecia is so off-the-beaten-path that she wasn't sure how to check in foreigners!
Since, our motto is "Do what others don't," this was music to our ears. And our stay in Venecia ended up being a wonderful, unconventional symphony.
The only downside was it wasn't easy finding information about things to do in Valencia, where to stay, and where to eat. But we found some answers, and here we're sharing them.
Venecia, Antioquia Guide Outline
Use this map to find your way to all the highlights mentioned below. Even better, if you follow our guide to using Google Maps offline, you can download it directly to your phone!
Where to Stay in Venecia
Venecia remains so disconnected from the outside world that none of the hotels listed below are online. To reserve a room you have to call them or walk in and ask.
The Favorite: Hotel La Vereda
Kim and I wandered around Venecia checking out all the hotels and this was hands-down the best bet.
The five rooms on the top floor are big, bright, and clean. The internet worked, the beds were fine, the showers had hot water, and it wasn't too noisy (though I'd still recommend earplugs).
My description probably isn't making you dream of staying there. It's not the Ritz… but… the rooms do have views of either Venecia's main square and/or Cerro Tusa. The Ritz doesn't have that!
Plus, it's only 70,000 COP(about $24 USD) a night.
Nubia, the live-in manager, made our stay even better. She kept the hotel spotless, was very welcoming, and generously helped us get spotless ourselves after a filthy climb up Cerro Tusa by letting us to use her own shower.
We'd definitely stay at Hotel La Vereda again.
The Back-Up Plan: Hotel El Turista
If La Vereda is full, Hotel Turista isn't the worst back-up plan. It's also located on Venecia's main square and it's even cheaper, at 60,000 COP a night.
Just be sure to ask for a balcony or window room because the first room the manager tried to imprison us in was a horrible, windowless cell. We had to ask her if she had anything better before she showed us a much less claustrophobic and oxygen-deprived alternative at the exact same price. It was actually quite nice, spacious, and bright.
Be aware that, according to a couple people we talked to, the internet doesn't work too well.
The Cheapest: Hotel Cerro Tusa
Don't be too put-off by the run-down, character-less, white facade of Hotel Cerro Tusa resembling that of a building in war-torn Syria.
The inside didn't look that bad.
The rooms are definitely bare-bones, everything's a bit dilapidated, and there's no internet, but they seemed clean. And, at 40,000 COP a night, they're the cheapest we found.
The Outsiders: Ecoparque la Italia and Aldea los Pioneros
Too far out of town and too expensive to be of any interest to our vehicle-less and budget-restricted selves, were Ecoparque La Italia (100,000 COP each per night including three meals) and Aldea los Pioneros (70,000 COP each per person including breakfast).
If you have a car, a job (and therefore a bigger budget than us), and prefer the tranquility of not being in town, check these places out and let us know how they are!
Where to Eat
Best Restaurant: Balcones de Venecia
As per our usual strategy, we asked every local we met, "What's your favorite restaurant?"
The most common answer? Balcones de Venecia.
As the name suggests it's on the second floor with balconies looking over the main square. And since I have a theory that food always tastes better when eaten from balconies, it was the first place Kim and I went.
Once again the balcony theory delivered!
I enjoyed my stomach-filling but not wallet-emptying (18,000 COP) Bandeja Paisa. Kim said her trout platter (13,000 COP) was the best she'd had in Colombia. That isn't saying much, but still.
Though we went for lunch, I recommend going for dinner instead (or going for both lunch and dinner) because in the evening just about all the other restaurants in Venecia are closed.
Best Local Snack: Arepas Venecianas
A few blocks north of town, this hole-in-the-wall place specializes in charcoal-grilled arepas filled with meat and/or topped with cheese. It was so popular that when we went at 5:30 p.m. they only had enough meat left for one last sausage-stuffed arepa (4,000 COP).
Normally I'm not much of a fan of Colombian arepas, but I did enjoy this one. It's crispy and butter-covered-ness strangely reminded me of popcorn. Popcorn stuffed with sausage!
Best Lunch Bet: Mi Casita
The second most frequently recommended restaurant in town was Mi Casita.
Also right on the main square, and directly below Hotel la Vereda, it's a typical Colombian restaurant with typical Colombian food.
Serving sizes, though, were atypically large and a good deal at 8,000 to 11,000 for the menu del día (soup plus main plus drink). And unlike some menu del día places which reheat pre-made meals, the food was made-to-order.
Best Tourist Trap: Hotel Turista
It's hard to believe a tourist trap (or in this case "Turista" trap) could exist in a place with so few tourists, but Hotel Turista's restaurant is getting close.
Despite being the busiest restaurant in Venecia, not a single local we asked recommended it, it was more expensive than the others, and the food looked meh.
Best Value Ice Cream: Helados y Waffles
With fifteen minutes to kill before our bus ride back to Medellin, Kim disappeared then reappeared with a little cup of chocolate ice cream and a smile on her face. She said the ice cream was good and, since it cost only 1,000 COP, it's a can't-miss deal.
Best Emergency Back Up Plan for Dinner: Dos Palmas Hotel
After Google Maps lied to us about how far the walk was to our initial dinner plan, Ecoparque la Italia, we were left desperately searching for something other than street food or pizza for dinner.
The restaurant at Hostería Dos Palmas was all we found.
It was 8:20 p.m. and they were just about to close, but they were kind enough to serve us. They didn't have a menu but instead offered the same as they do for lunch: a lentil or bean soup, a drink, and a main course of either meat or fried fish served with rice, fries, arepa, and salad on the side for 17,000. COP.
The food was unremarkable and not as good as the others we had during our time in Venecia but, given the circumstances, we were happy.
Best Back-Up Lunch Spot: Antojos
The food at Antojos was 10% cheaper than La Casita (10,000 vs 11,000), but about 30% smaller and not quite as good. It was perfectly reasonable though and worth checking out, if nothing else just to try a different place.
Where to Drink
Best Coffee (and Creativity): Café Graciela
With its modern chic design, Café Graciela's little outdoor coffee stand is one of the few pieces of evidence in Venecia that you're in the year 2018 and not the 1990s.
And maybe, based on their creative concoctions, you might even think they're from the future!
To give you an idea of what I mean, my "café malteado" was a blend of vanilla ice cream, black coffee, and wheat beer. Kim's "cold brew" was much more than your typical cold brew because it included lime and grape Jell-O!
Magically, the flavors worked well together.
If you're less adventurous, you can simply get plain coffee made from beans produced in a nearby farm. Our friends in the coffee industry tell us it's quite good.
Best Daytime Hangout Spot: El Café de Venecia
Only a block from Venecia's main square is another, smaller, and even more peaceful park. There on the sidewalk, Café de Venecia has set up a row of umbrella tables. It's a prime spot for relaxing along with the many locals who are doing the same.
While Café de Venecia has "café" in its name, I'd recommend doing your coffee drinking at Graciela and sticking to beers here instead.
Best Evening Hangout Spot: Billares Tes Tes
Pool is a favorite pastime throughout Colombia. Almost all tables in the country are for three-ball, zero pocket carambola billiards, but Billares Tes Tes also has one with the pocket-style pool Kim and I are more accustomed to.
Whichever table you choose to rent, it costs only 70 COP a minute (which equates to about $1.50 USD an hour) and beers are 3,000 COP for Aguila and Pilsen and 3,500 COP for Club Colombia (which, as we found in our blind taste test of Colombian beers, is worth the extra pesos.)
Things to Do
Hike Cerro Tusa
If Cerro Tusa didn't exist, neither would this post.
Hiking Cerro Tusa is THE thing to do in Venecia. So much so that prominently in its main square is a sign warning tourists of the dangers of the hike.
For everything you need to know about how to do the hike on your own, but why going guide-less may be a mis-guided choice, hike over to our Cerro Tusa hike overview.
Talk to Victor
You know your friend who has some boring, obscure interest, but who is so enthusiastic about it that it's actually kinda interesting to hear them tell you about it?
In Venecia, that friend is Victor Restrepo and his seemingly boring obsession is the history of the area.
Victor (cell: +57 320 313 4519) is the surprisingly-young manager of both Venecia tourism and the town's little archaeology museum located beside Café Graciela.
To Kim and my untrained eyes, the museum looked to have nothing more than a hodgepodge of broken ceramics and stones. But to Victor, these artifacts—quite a few of which he found himself—tell an important thousand-plus-year history of not just the town, but the whole region, and even Latin America in general. And he'd be glad to tell you all about it. (Don't worry, it'll only take about half an hour.)
Being the town's tourism chief, Victor's also a good resource for things to do in the area. He's also the self-proclaimed holder of a record no sane person would have any desire to break: The fastest descent of Cerro Tusa (30 minutes).
When in Venecia…
In small towns throughout Colombia you can't help but remark on how many people are out and about doing… nothing.
Old people sit on chairs in front of their houses taking in plotless real-life reality TV without the TV. Middle aged people sit around stoops, squares, and bars filling tabletops up with coffee cups and beer bottles. Kids practice wheelies on their bikes.
Sitting around is a popular pastime in these parts.
So when in Venecia, do as the locals do: Hang out, have some drinks, people watch, and give off an air of not having a care in the world.
Up on a distant ridge in the hills towards muffin-topped Cerro Cardona, Victor pointed out little shelter. That's where, as he showed us in some photos, the town had constructed a platform from which you can take in views of the town and Cerro Tusa behind it.
If we had our own car (you can get there by road) or more time in Venecia (you can also hike there through the woods), we definitely would have checked it out.
Hike Cerro Bravo
Venecia isn't just a one cerro town. While Cerro Tusa is certainly the most famous hill of the area, Cerro Bravo is also worthy of tourist's attention.
The hike up Cerro Bravo is not nearly as dangerously steep as Cerro Tusa and has equally stunning mountaintop views, but it's much longer. Victor said from the town square to the top is 12 kilometers and takes about six hours. You can, however, shorten the hike by taking a taxi closer to the base.
Most intriguing to us is the possibility of leaving from Venecia, going up over Cerro Bravo, then back down the other side to end up in Fredonia, another little town we've yet to check out but are keen to visit.
Getting Between Venecia and Medellin
Buses travel regularly between Venecia's main square and Medellin's south bus terminal. They take two hours and cost 10,200 each way.
From Medellin, the first bus leaves at 6:15 a.m. and the last at 6:15 p.m, with buses leaving at 15 minutes past the hour every hour in between except 8:15 and 12:15.
From Venecia, the buses leave on the top of the hour every hour between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. except 9am and 11am. There's also a final bus that leaves at 5:45 p.m.
Departures on Sundays are limited both ways. Call (+574) 361 18 07 / 361 09 92 to confirm.
If you're staying in El Poblado, Envigado, or Sabaneta, don't waste your time and pesos going to the Medellin's Termial Sur to catch the bus to Venecia. Catch it en route!
The bus will stop by the metro stations along the way, so you can hop on there then pay for your ticket when the controller comes on in Caldas.
Recommended 24.75 Hour Venecia, Antioquia Itinerary
Pulling all of the above together, if I could travel back in time and recommend to my slightly-younger-but-less-wise self the ideal itinerary to get the most out of Venecia, Antioquia, here's what I'd advise:
- 11:15 Catch the bus from Medellin to Venecia.
- 11:15 – 13:15 Arrive in Venecia and check in to Hotel la Vereda.
- 13:15 – 14:15 Lunch at Mi Casita.
- 14:15 – 16:15 Wander around town, stopping by the museum to chat with Victor.
- 16:15 – 17:15 Have a coffee (or better yet, one of their crazy concoctions) at Café Graciela.
- 17:15 – 18:15 Walk around some more. Maybe grab a beer at the square or an appetizer from Arepas Venecianas. Buy some snacks for the hike the next day because nothing is open early in the morning.
- 18:15 – 19:30 Dinner at Balcones de Venecia.
- 19:30 – 21:00 Play a couple games of pool at Club de Billares Tes Tes.
- 21:00 – 22:00 Return to the hotel and go to sleep.
- 6:30 Wake up
- 6:30 – 7:00 Grab a quick coffee and head to Cerro Tusa by moto-raton (tuk-tuk).
- 7:30 – 11:00 Hike Cerro Tusa.
- 11:00 – 12:00 Shower and change back in town.
- 12:00 – 13:00 Grab lunch at Balcones de Venecia, Mi Casita, or Antojos y Algo Mas followed by a celebratory ice cream from Helados y Waffles.
- 13:00 – 14:00 Have one last wander around town, coffee, or souvenir shop before catching to 2 p.m. bus back to Medellin.
If you're reading this, it's because you're thinking of hiking Cerro Tusa. Before you do, read our guide. If not, you might end up like Kim, frozen in fear on the bottom unable to make it up.
And if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions to share with other readers, please share them in the comments!