The Fondas of Sabaneta: Searching for the Real Medellín

Sabaneta Medellin Colombia

My friend Camilo took Caty and me out on Sunday for what turned out to be one of the loveliest nights we’ve had in Colombia. I had told him that we spent the previous night at Parque Lleras, a notorious hotbed of tourists in Poblado, which made him want to show us a part of greater Medellín that he thought had more local flavor. He said “It’s important for people to get out of Poblado, to get out of Parque Lleras, if they want to see the real Medellín. Let’s go to the barrio. Let’s go to a fonda in Sabaneta.” We agreed that that sounded like a great plan, but what’s a fonda?

A fonda is a traditional Colombian bar that you will see in certain parts of Medellín. It is decorated like a general store, the type that would have existed a century ago, and it is the social heart of the neighborhood near the cathedral. Obsolete agricultural and industrial tools line the walls, along with paintings of neighborhood residents. When I asked what one has to do to get a painting on the wall, I was told it was enough to be a “character.” Everyone knows everyone and it is easy to develop a reputation in Sabaneta, which is technically not a barrio (neighborhood) but rather a separately incorporated township just to the south of Medellín and connected to it by the Metro. Many of the paintings were more than 20 years old, one fellow evidently was named “Marihuana.” There were old-timey boxes of detergent, cigarettes, plates, cookies, bananas, all manner of little knick knacks.

Fonda Medellin Sabaneta Colombia

Fonda Sabaneta Medellin Colombia

 

We sat down and ordered some beers and a bottle of aguardiente, an anise flavored white rum traditional in Colombia and affectionally nicknamed “guaro.” I took this moment to ask Camilo for some more information on the area while we munched on the small bowls of popcorn and sliced fruit that had been placed before us on the table.

Sabaneta is a small but growing neighborhood, or barrio, south of Envigado. The signs on the main roads prohibiting the riding of horses are an indication of how recently the area has shed its rural roots. It is one of the fastest growing areas in Medellín, as the race to house the growing population pushes the city ever outwards, from Poblado, to Envigado, and now Sabaneta. The ongoing construction of several high rise apartments is a testament to this, though some locals are ambivalent. Camilo’s friend Paola, who lives in Sabaneta, at one point commented on how her house used to have better views before all these high-rises started being built. We had arrived on the main square as soon as the heat of the day had died off in early evening.

The full moon was bathing everything and everyone in it’s iridescence- the people along the main road selling scarves, trinkets, small reproductions of Botero sculptures, and traditional desserts, the endless tables of groups dining al fresco along the promenade, and the standing room only Sunday church services, so packed full that the faithful were spilling out of the entrance of the cathedral and crowding the square. Before we headed over to the fonda we took a walk around the area where open air restaurants were serving the crowds various sausages, empanadas, almojábanas, and these addictive softball-sized doughy fried cheese balls known as Buñuelos.

Fonda Medellin Sabaneta Colombia

Apparently this place makes the largest buñuelos in the city. Definitely the biggest I’ve seen.

 

Camilo knows English and Spanish, Paola Spanish and a bit of English, Caty and I English and a bit of Spanish. This ended up working out just fine, and we spoke an inventive Spanglish throughout the night. After a few beers and a bottle of aguardiente, we started to get hungry and Camilo suggested a restaurant in the hills of the Estela neighborhood of Sabaneta, an off the beaten track place with a swimming pool that felt like a little resort, where we could get some of the best blood sausage, or morcilla, in the city.

The restaurant, La Hijo de Estela, makes the best morcilla I’ve ever tasted. We got a big plate of the stuff, along with chorizo, chopped chicharron, a few bits of potato, arepas, a bowl of hagoa sauce (Paola explained it as a sort of salsa, very mild, like blended pico de gallo with a little cumin), and a bowl of limes. This mix of snacks is called picadas (literally- little bites), and of course another bottle of aguardiente was ordered to compliment the meal. Aguardiente is almost always taken as a shot. An easy toast is to just say “salud” or health. Paola showed us another one too- Arriba (raise the shot), Abajo (lower it), al Centro (hold the glass out), y pa’Dentro (drink it up)!

Oh and a couple patroness (smashed  fried plantains) too

Oh, and a few patocones too (smashed fried plantains)

Aguardiente Sabaneta

Guaro

 

Horses are still a big part of life here, though nowadays almost exclusively for recreation instead of labor. A common pastime on the weekends is to get your best friends together with family and go out drinking and riding for the day. The group rides around to different fondas, stopping sometimes at private houses as well. A donkey is brought along laden with speakers to provide music to the group. Camilo mentioned that it used to be common to have just one mix CD for the evening and so you’d hear the same 10 songs over and over all night. My first time on a horse in over a decade was just last month at Guatape, and I had such a blast that I’ve been dreaming about riding more ever since.

The rest of the night was passed in dreamy relaxation. Leaning back in my wooden chair, forking bits of sausage with my tiny pronged hors d’oeuvres fork, drinking to the health of all gathered around, and spooning salsa onto fried plantains. After a while, the lights skipping off the surface of the swimming pool, the quiet din of the surrounding tables, and the cool glass of water in my hand allied to make me a bit drowsy and conscious of the late hour. It was getting late for a Sunday and the fondas of Sabaneta would be closing. We finished everything off by about 10:00pm and soon were piling into the car to get back to Envigado, to sleep, to the start of another week.