New Zealand: Adventures in Middle Earth

Khabar Magazine. Feb 2020.

Australia and New Zealand were in the news recently for the wrong reasons: raging fires and an active volcano. Despite these tragedies, the Antipodes have much to offer today. New Zealand, seemingly remote, has attractions ranging from spectacular, selfie-friendly scenery to vibrant cities, adventure sports, and a happily laid-back ethos. The multicultural nation is home to a growing Indian community and sports desi restaurants in every city.

My first visit to New Zealand in 2007 was under grave circumstances. A close family member had passed, and I was summoned for the funeral. Like many Indians, my uncle and aunt had immigrated from north India to Hamilton (the country’s fourth most populous city) in search of better opportunities. As new immigrants, they received subsidized education, medical, housing, and many other benefits that helped them establish their lives.

Though the moment was somber, I met many of my family’s South Asian friends and relatives who were living in different parts of the country. Each person shared similar opinions of their life in this remote country. They loved driving through fragrant, wildflower lined highways, scarce traffic, and pure, clean air. Work-life balance was great, and salaries much higher than those back home. They could also afford to live in nice homes, purchase cars, and give their kids a good education.

Indian New Zealanders or “Indo-Kiwis” are the fastest growing ethnic group in New Zealand. Most of them are of Punjabi or Gujarati descent, followed by speakers of Fiji Hindi. One of the main attractions for immigrants is high paying jobs, especially ones that require manual labor, as the country has more sheep and cows than people. Farmers can earn as much as six figures and are not considered “blue collar” workers.

Over a decade later, my husband and I finally had the opportunity to explore New Zealand in depth on a two-week tour curated by Aroha Luxury Travel Company. Prior to my arrival, German-Kiwi tour operator Veronika Vermeulen spoke with me on the phone to discuss my interests and customized a package to the North and South Islands. Having worked with international customers for over twenty years, she had deep knowledge of different ethnic groups and their preferences for diets, budgets, accommodations, and even appetite for adventure.

We escaped the mainstream attractions and got on a road trip starting in Auckland, and made our way through rolling hills, sheep farms, isolated beaches, pristine coves, and luxurious private lodges.

Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and a good starting point to explore the North Island. In recent years, Auckland has transformed into a multicultural destination with award-winning restaurants, bars, and clubs.

The best way to orient yourself to the city is from the sky. Take a scenic seaplane ride over the Hauraki Gulf, Auckland Harbor, Rangitoto crater, and Motutapu, to see how most locals live within a few minutes of beaches, vineyards, and hiking trails.


Shredded Morel Mushroom Curry is just one of the delights at Sidart, rated as one of New Zealand’s top restaurants for the past three years.

I was surprised to find an Indian restaurant at practically every corner, even in some of the smaller towns. Named one of the best restaurants in the country for the past three years, Sidart is a cozy Indianinspired restaurant using fresh and sustainable New Zealand produce. Chef and owner, Sid Sahrawat attended culinary school in Chennai, traveled around the world, and opened three acclaimed restaurants in Auckland. The five-course Discovery Menu, which included modern and flavorful treats like Prawn Balchao Tart, Fried Macadamia Crusted Fish, and Shredded Morel Mushroom Curry, was one of my most memorable meals of the year.


(Right) Looking at glow-worms, not the stars! The author and her husband at Waitomo Caves, a notable attraction.

One of the major attractions near Auckland is the Waitomo Caves, a network of underground limestone formations that are home to thousands of glow-worms. There are options for rafting, zip-lining, or hiking through the dark caves to see these magical creatures up close, lighting up the dark caves like brilliant stars in the night sky.


(Left) A rousing traditional welcome from the Maoris, New Zealand’s indigenous people.

We drove further inland to Lake Rotorua, known for bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers, and natural hot springs, as well as a large concentration of Maori people. The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand who came from Polynesia in the 1300s. Today, they make up 17 percent of New Zealand’s population. At the lake, I was welcomed by people wearing feathered headbands and animal skins. They sang and danced on ancestral Mokoia Island, bestowing a powhiri or official Maori welcome.

New Zealand’s cuisine is based on British, Mediterranean, and Pacific styles of cooking, though driven by local and seasonal ingredients. Fish and chips, meat pies, roast lamb, smoked fish, fresh salads, hokey pokey (honeycomb candy), and pavlova (meringue and fruit dessert) are some of the most popular dishes. Driving through the countryside, we would often stop at gas stations or highway restaurants for lunch. Even takeaway counters offered Indo-fusion dishes such as chana masala pies and chili chicken patties. Staying at private lodges meant meals were especially prepared for us and the chefs would get our dietary preferences prior to arrival. They catered to vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and lactose-free diets, using homegrown herbs and vegetables. “We also take our clients to the supermarkets, so they can cook at the hotel apartments if they want to,” says Vermeulen about her South Asian clients.

For decades, the turquoise lakes of Otago, the magnificent landscapes of Lake Wakatipu, and the clock tower of Christchurch have attracted Bollywood films. Kaho Naa Pyaar HaiI Hate Luv Storys, and Players are some Hindi films that have helped raise the profile of New Zealand as a travel destination.

South Island is home to New Zealand’s highest mountain range, the Southern Alps, which offers filming opportunities at relatively low elevations and quick access to the peaks.

Snowy mountains, alpine lakes, longest glaciers, and evergreen forests make Queenstown an idyllic location for honeymooners, nature lovers, and adrenaline seekers. This hip town is known as the adventure capital of the world and offers a myriad of activities that can push you to your limits, including jet boating, bungee jumping, rock climbing, canyoning, abseiling (rappelling down a rock face), paragliding (jumping from a plane or cliff to glide under a fabric sail), heli-biking (taking a helicopter up and biking down a mountain), skiing, and snowboarding.


(Left) A field of lupins near Lake Tekapo, which is a big draw for Indian filmmakers.

One of the most magnificent sights to me was a field of blooming lupin flowers against the backdrop of the milky, turquoise-colored Lake Tekapo, and-snow covered Mount Cook towering behind. Part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, this region of Canterbury is also a good spot for stargazing. At Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat, my host family offered a rare opportunity to see Saturn, Jupiter, the moon, and constellations from their 6” refractory telescope from a wine cellar observatory.

New Zealand wines have gained international accolades, and vineyard tours are a huge attraction for wine lovers from around the world. Marlborough is the country’s largest wine region, with exquisite Pinot Noirs to intense Chardonnays, while Central Otago is the world’s southernmost commercial wine growing region.

Around here, you can also sail around the Marlborough Sounds’ 1,000 miles of coastline, bays, beaches, and native forests, fishing for green-lipped mussels, oysters, salmon, whitebait, abalone, and crayfish. The area is abundant with wildlife, from penguins and rare King Shags to dolphins and fur seals.

New Zealand is a bucket list destination for many travelers. Even though it’s a small country and a long way to get to, it offers a variety of experiences. Whether you enjoy nature, adventure, food, wine, or culture, there is something for everyone.


Don’t bargain

The Kiwis are very friendly people and pride themselves in paying high wages to quality guides and tour operators, and bargaining will cause angry reactions. You don’t need to pay tips, but accept that there’s a set price for goods and services.

Be punctual
One of the things that South Asians struggle with, according to Vermeulen, is leaving on time for tours and activities. Even if you have booked and paid for a tour, they won’t wait for you if you arrive late.

Get away from the crowds
Recently, overcrowding at tourist locations has become a huge problem, leading to long lines, congested trails, and frustrating photos. To enjoy nature in all its glory, book private tours with smaller companies that offer similar experiences.

Account for weather disruptions
The South Island is especially susceptible to high winds and frequent rain, which can cause interruption of helicopter and boat tours. Be prepared for not everything going according to plan and if time permits, stay for a few extra days.

New Zealand offers stunning scenery, from forests and glaciers to beaches and waterfalls. Being in the Pacific Ring of Fire, it has a high frequency of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. A recent eruption on White Island killed 21 people, including Pratap “Paul” Singh Chouhan and his wife Mayuari “Mary” Singh from Atlanta. Though most adventures are organized safely with ample warnings and weather tracking, natural forces are unpredictable and travelers must check multiple sources for any advisories or closures, before embarking on tours to certain at-risk areas.

~ Written for and printed by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.

A Guide to Magical Montreux, Switzerland: the Perfect Place for a Winter Vacation

CheapOAir Miles Away. January 2020.

Switzerland’s alpine peaks, turquoise lakes, wooden chalets, and rolling hills, attract visitors year-round. Those looking to take a winter break will find plenty of spots around the country offering some of the longest ski runs in Europe, powdery mountains, and cozy log cabins. But if you want to combine unique winter sports with some culture, head to Montreux, a picturesque town located on the shores of Lake Geneva, at the foot of the Alps. Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away.

Belgium’s Chocolate Maker, Euphrasia Mbambe, is Breaking Traditions

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Dec 2019

Sitting on the crossroads of Western Europe, Belgium is a small country that reminds one of Amsterdam, Paris and Venice. With Medieval and Art Nouveau architecture, fashion and diamond merchants, vibrant museums, and a unique sense of humor, Belgium is one of the most culturally accepting countries that you should consider traveling to.

From Mantonge (aka African quarter) in Brussels to the Turkish kebab houses in Antwerp, Belgium’s diverse population includes large minorities of North-Africans (predominantly Moroccan), Congolese, Rwandans and Burundians as well as Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Turkish, Greeks, Poles and many more.

Immigrants from francophone Africa (mainly Belgian Congo) settled in the French-speaking region of Wallonia. When walking around this region, you cannot escape the aroma of freshly made waffles, corner frites stalls (the Belgians claim to have invented French fries), and the myriad of chocolate shops. There are over 2,000 chocolate makers in Belgium, producing 172,000 tons of chocolate each year. The industry is dominated by large brands such as Guylian, Neuhaus and Godiva. The best-known commercial brand of Belgian chocolate, Côte d’Or, was founded by Charles Neuhaus in 1870, referring to the Golden Coast (now Ghana in Africa), where the cocoa beans first originated.

Now, there is one female Afro-Belgian chocolatier in the market.

Euphrasia Mbambe of Sigoji in Belgium
Photo credit: Sigoji
Chocolate Rooted in Cameroon

In southern Belgium, in the French-speaking town of Rochefort, Sigoji,produces pure chocolate infused with imported spices and coffee.

“As a child, I remember watching my grandfather working on his plantation, harvesting cocoa, fermenting and drying cocoa beans,” says owner Euphrasia Mbambe, who was born and raised in Cameroon. Mbambe remembers how the fruits were collected and sent off to Europe. She had no understanding of what would become of them — that the beans were turned into chocolate — until she moved to Belgium and tasted the finished products herself.

By the age of 18, Mbambe was sure she wanted to be a chocolatier but, “being Black and female in a male dominant chocolate world was impossible.” She put her dream on hold until years later when she inherited the cacao plantation from her grandfather.

“I always say that cocoa beans are part of my blood. I know their flavor, the smell of their leaves, the heart of their mucilage. It’s something impossible to explain, but it enables me to create a good balance in my chocolate,” Mbambe says. She went to evening school to study chocolate making and trained with well-known chocolatiers in Belgium, before opening her two stores – Sigoji (named after her two multiracial sons, Siméo and Ugo).

Box of Sigoji Chocolates
Photo credit: Sigoji

Using ingredients such as ginger, goji berries, pépites, and vanilla, Sigoji creates an irresistible and harmonious balance of African and Belgian flavors in their nuggets, pralines, ganache and chocolate bars. “I use tea, nuts and flowers, but very little sugar in my chocolate. It is important to taste the cacao, which is what reminds me of home,” Mbamba adds. She sources beans from her grandfather’s plantation in Cameroon, as well as suppliers from Haiti, Madagascar and local farmers in Wallonia.

The brand Sigoji is now educating farmers in Cameroon about how to have a healthy harvest, the worth of their harvest and the chocolate-making process. It also assists with building schools, hospitals and orphanages. Mbambe offers bean-to-bar chocolate-making workshops to visitors at her boutique in Ciney.

And to bring it all full circle, Mbamba was voted “Best Craftswoman” in 2017 and “The Best Chocolate Factory in Wallonia” by Gault and Millau in 2019.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Autism Influencer and Baker, Jeremiah Josey, is Inspiring Kids Around the World

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Dec 2019.

At only 20 years old, Jeremiah Josey is a Maryland-based baker, model, author and inspirational speaker. He has walked the New York Fashion Week runway, appeared on Steve Harvey’s show three times, and was recently called out as one of 14 top autism influencers on social media by ‘Autism on The Mighty’ community. And he has accomplished all this while suffering from autism, a development disorder that restricts one’s communication skills.

Josey started baking with his grandmother in his early teens. Her sunny side up eggs called “egg in a basket,” that she often made, enamored him.  He learned to perfect the eggs and set off to discover a world of pastries and desserts. Be it the holidays, family birthdays, or weekends, Josey often found himself alongside “grandma” baking pumpkin pie, blueberry pie, peanut butter cookies, pumpkin chocolate cheesecake, and chocolate cake. “We cook from love and put our heart and soul in it,” Josey says about his cooking.

When Josey expressed a passion for cooking, his mom reached out to Washington, D.C.-based “Top Chef” Kwame Onwuachi and asked if Josey could come and cook with him at his restaurant. He agreed and it set Josey on a journey of cooking alongside celebrity chefs all around the world. During one of his appearances on “Steve,” Harvey surprised the young star with an impromptu baking session with celebrity pastry chef Christina Tosi, founder of the dessert and bakery restaurant chain Milk Bar.

Dreaming Big Together

Josey got his first passport this past summer and since then has traveled to Bermuda to bake alongside different chefs and speak on autism at schools. He has been invited to Jamaica and Quatar in 2020. He tells other children, “Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you cannot pursue your passion and have big dreams.” He also records his journeys for his YouTube channel – Jeremiah’s Cooking Adventures.

Josey’s biggest inspiration has been his mother, Simone Greggs. “She always told me, ‘You can do it. It may take you longer, you may need to find a creative way, but you can do it.’ She has never left my side and we wouldn’t know what we would do without each other,” he says. His biggest challenges have been overcoming stage fright and the fear of public speaking due to lack of self-confidence, but he practices at home and is getting used to it.

Autism Influencer and Baker Jeremiah Josey
Photo credit: Jamie Cheyenne

The mother and son duo co-wrote a picture book — “Here’s What I Want You to Know” — based on a conversation they had when Josey was bullied at school. “I took his words and created the book to help African American, Hispanic and ethnic minority parents who have just received the diagnosis that their kids have autism,” adds Greggs.

When asked about his future plans, Josey continues to work on his “big dreams.” His mother is compiling all the recipes he has prepared with celebrity chefs for a cookbook. He is currently working on a new clothing line called Passport Adaptive™ to launch in 2020 and trying to get into culinary school. Some of the culinary schools are not ready to accept autistic students and it’s not easy for Josey to take entrance tests, so this has been challenging. He would also like to open his own bakery called Jeremiah’s Cakes and Shakes.

This young baking star is just getting started and the biggest advice he shares with kids with autism is to be happy, to be excited about their work and never stop dreaming or following their passions.

For updates on Josey’s baking journey and adventures,  follow him on Instagram.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

How to Spend the Holidays Like a Local in Colombia

CheapOAir Miles Away. Dec 2019.

Colombia is one of the most popular winter destinations for Americans who want to celebrate the holidays with lots of festivities and escape the cold temperatures, and for Colombian expats who want to visit loved ones during the special holiday season. Christmas time brings lights, decorations and fireworks to the streets, while January brings some of the biggest music, book, and handicraft festivals in the country. These are some of the things to do and places to visit in Colombia during the holidays. Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away.

A Modern Take on Sierra Leonean Cuisine: Here’s What’s Cooking in Maria Bradford’s Kitchen

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Nov 2019.

Maria Bradford is changing the way diners perceive African cuisine. She pairs her African-inspired modern savory street food snacks with English cakes and scones and caters them to a tea party in London. She mixes hibiscus with strawberries picked at her neighborhood farm in Kent and sells the “Passionately Bissap” juice bottles through her online store.

Bradford is a native of the West African country Sierra Leone that is typically associated with transatlantic slavery, Ebola, poverty and corruption. “I divert the conversation to food,” says Bradford, founder of Maria Bradford Kitchen, based in the UK. “I talk about my fun childhood in Sierra Leone, where I was surrounded by aunties and grandparents. Though I had a single parent, I was always around people.” Bradford points out that Sierra Leon is also known for welcoming people, beautiful beaches and great food.

Childhood Foods Reinvented

If you browse through Bradford’s Instagram page (which has 22K followers and counting), you can visualize the comforting, yet contemporary food she is referring to. Bradford did not want to present the stereotypical West African dishes, such as peanut stew and jollof rice. Instead, she is inspired by the street food she fondly loved as a child but was not allowed to eat, as her mother considered eating on the street to be rude. “I would use my taxi fare and walk back home so I could buy donuts after school,” she points to the inspiration behind her pumpkin drop donuts with cinnamon sugar. Her sophisticated dishes, such as fish untu (steamed fish balls) and lemongrass soup, morkor (sweet and savory banana fritters), cassava flatbread with pan-fried sea bass, use the flavors and ingredients from Africa and are presented with her own unique twist.

Bradford’s culinary journey started only a few years ago when she was cooking for family and friends. Her first catering gig — a cousin’s baby shower in London — motivated her to start her own business. She created an Instagram page, enrolled in culinary school, set up a catering business, and started a product line selling drinks and sauces.

Juices from Maria Bradford Kitchen
Photo credit: Maria Bradford Kitchen

Bradford creates the Sierra Leonean-inspired drinks and chili sauces with seasonal, natural ingredients. “Again, I took from the beverages sold from bicycles on the streets and had my own take on them,” Bradford explains. With tropical flavors of coconut water, lavender, tamarind juice, ginger, hibiscus and mango, the different juice concoctions are great as cocktail mixers. She advises drinking them by themselves or adding a bit of brandy or whiskey for a special holiday treat. Passionately Bissap pairs exceptionally well with gin or prosecco. The products are available online on her website or by messaging her through her Instagram page.

Travel, Food and a Cookbook
Maria Bradford of Maria Bradford Kitchen
Photo credit: Maria Bradford Kitchen

When not cooking, Bradford is traveling and drawing inspiration from other chefs around the world. She takes cooking classes, cooks with local chefs, hosts pop-up restaurants and draws parallels between how people eat in Sierra Leone versus the rest of the world. In Javier, Spain, she went down to the fishing bay each morning and cooked with the locals. “Growing up, 90% of my diet was fish, as it was cheap and accessible, so I love to cook with fish,” she says. You can see many of her fish dishes in her picture feed. In Malaysia, she compares the chicken satay to Sierra Leone peanut chicken. Her latest travels took her and her family to a homestay in India, where she learned to cook from an older lady in Kerala. “It reminded me of my own family and how we love to invite strangers,” she adds.

“A cookbook is definitely coming at some point,” says Bradford, but currently she is focusing on renting a commercial kitchen where she can host frequent supper clubs as she continues to positively showcase the flavors of West Africa.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

As You Wish, Your Highness! Fun Things to Do in Liechtenstein That Will Give You a Taste of Royalty

CheapOAir Miles Away. Nov 2019.

Liechtenstein is the 6th smallest country in the world and is located in the center of the Alps, between Switzerland and Austria. This breathtaking country has everything from beautiful scenery and a rich art scene, to fine dining and plenty of activities – all at surprisingly affordable costs — making it one of the best destinations to visit right now. Although it is a princely state (meaning there’s a monarch ruling the population of about 30,000), you don’t need to be royalty to enjoy a vacation in Liechtenstein. Here are some great things to do in Liechtenstein that will make you feel like nobility! Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away blog.

Keisha Smith-Jeremie Helps Adults Reimagine Applesauce with Sanaía

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Nov 2019.

A Bohemian entrepreneur has reinvented an American staple with a Caribbean twist. Sanaía Applesauce is not your ordinary applesauce that kids usually snack on. This one has flavors such as tamarind, ginger, hibiscus, lavender, and white pear in a yogurt-cup like packaging. It is also made with all-natural ingredients and is less than 70 calories.

Growing up on the beautiful islands of The Bahamas, founder and CEO Keisha Smith-Jeremie never realized how idyllic her childhood was. “I had 8-9 fruit trees in my backyard and we would help our neighbors pick fruits over the weekends. You almost knew what month it was based on which fruits were in season. That is the deepest connection I have to my roots that led me to start my business,” says Smith-Jeremie about how she founded her company.

When she left The Bahamas at the age of 16 to attend the University of Virginia, it was the first time this island girl experienced winter and snow. She missed the flavors of home — tangy tamarind sauce and sweet guava jam — so she went to the local grocer in the Shenandoah Valley, got some apples and started making her own applesauce; recreating similar textures and flavors.

Guava Sanaia Applesauce by Keisha Smith-Jeremie
Pictured: Guava Applesauce | Photo credit: Sanaía

Over the years, Smith-Jeremie tested her recipe with friends. Her tamarind and applesauce concoction got rave reviews and she decided to commercialize the products. After appearing on the ABC’s “Shark Tank,” she joined hands with businessman Mark Cuban who ultimately did not invest but stayed on as an advisor to Sanaía Applesauce.

Now, Sanaía’s guava and unsweetened applesauce flavors are available at 800 Walmart stores and through  Flavors hitting the shelves in 2020 will include hibiscus, ginger, tamarind, lavender and pear.

Disrupting the Industry

So what makes Sanaía Applesauce different from the other applesauce brands that have been on the shelves for decades? Smith-Jeremie says everyone from her 10-year-old goddaughter (who she named the brand after) to Millennials and adults love the unusual fruit flavors and texture of the apple wedges in her applesauce. Sanaía is made with whole Granny Smith green apple wedges, as well as all-natural and organic ingredients. No added sugars make the applesauce a healthy, vegan, GMO-free, low-sugar, gluten-free, dairy-free and allergen-free snack that satisfies your sweet tooth craving. She shares, “I created Sanaía because I believe that what we eat provides us with the fuel we need to live the life we want.” She advises to eat the applesauce chilled or poured over warm granola.

Unsweetened and Guava Applesauce by Sanaía
Pictured: Unsweetened and Guava Applesauce | Photo credit: Sanaía

As a female immigrant entrepreneur, Smith-Jeremie juggles her personal and professional life while growing her business. She attributes her success to having a great team. “Surround yourself with passionate people who also see your big vision. As a small company, I am closer to my customers and can make decisions much faster. The comfort is in not knowing all the answers, but focusing on all the advantages you have,” she advises.

When asked where she sees the brand going next, Smith-Jeremie responds that her aspirations are to see Sanaía at college campuses and in airplanes and grocery stores. Currently a $900M market with 99% of the spend focused on children, she believes that applesauce is ready for mature and healthy flavors and that Sanaía is the brand that will lead the way as adults reimagine the way they think about applesauce.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Santa’s Terrifying ‘Evil Twin’ Will Beat You With a Broom at This Offbeat Austrian Christmas Parade

Travel+Leisure. Nov 2019.

If you want to find out if you’ve been “naughty or nice” this year, some stomping devils may be able to tell you.

The common Christmas expression is thought to be derived from a Western European folklore known as Krampus. The mythological figure — who is half goat, half demon — is the evil twin of Saint Nicholas and was supposedly invented in the middle ages to discipline kids according to National Geographic. While Santa brings presents to well-behaved kids, Krampus punishes those who have been naughty.

Continue reading and watch the video on Travel+Leisure….

Where to See Transformation in Medellín, Colombia

Cuisine Noir. Oct 2019.

In recent years, the city of Medellín has transformed into a vibrant and upscale city that visitors from all over the world have fallen in love with. Located in the Aburrá valley, surrounded by majestic mountain ranges, Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia and was named the Innovative City of the Year (by The Wall Street Journal in 2013), outranking New York and Tel Aviv. It’s year-round spring-like climate, modern art museums, bustling nightlife, and colorful cultural festivals, make it an ideal destination to visit in South America.

Kids and adults exercising in Medellín, Colombia
Pictured: Local Life in Medellín | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Most hotels and restaurants are concentrated in the upscale El Poblado neighborhood of Medellín. Here you can easily walk to trendy cafes, bars, clubs, and some of the largest shopping malls in the city. Medellín is also known as the fashion capital and offers everything from designer brands to local handicrafts. But, to learn about the city’s makeover, take the metro cable that connects the cosmopolitan lower city to the slum areas located along the slopes of the mountains.

Connecting Communities

Medellín has the first (and only) metro system in Colombia, which has had a measurable social impact on the city. These impressive cable cars, now connect formerly difficult-to-reach favelas (shanty towns) with the metropolis. An entire “metro culture” program set up by the local authorities, offers educational opportunities and a leadership training school, as well as free libraries and afternoon music concerts at the stations, to many low-income families that live in these areas.

At Santo Domingo, you can find young men and women offering guided tours of their neighborhood known as Comuna 13. The area, which was once known as a hub for drug cartels, is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in Medellín. The residents are encouraged to display their social and emotional struggles through colorful murals outside their brick and cement walls, leading to an open-air museum of sorts. More than 25,000 visitors walk through the narrow hilly streets of Comuna 13 each week, watching rap artists and talented street artists. Local enterprises have popped up serving the tourists with trendy cafes, souvenir shops and snack bars.

Mural and Business in Comuna 13
Pictured: Mural and Business in Comuna 13 | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Further up, riding the cable car offers spectacular views of the valleys and forests, ending at Arví Park, an ecological nature preserve and pre-Hispanic archeological site. Residents from surrounding villages sell their products at Mercado Arví, an outdoor market located next to the gondola station. Here you can taste fresh homemade buñuelos, arepas, empanadas, tamales, honey, fruits, and mortiño (blueberry) wine, as well as shop for handicrafts. Walking trails located inside the park take you through natural forests covered with wildflowers, orchids, and butterflies. From here, you can make your way to some of the flower farms located in the township of Santa Elena. Many of these peasant families have set up restaurants and museums next to their farms. Here you can enjoy a traditional Colombian farm-style lunch of grilled meat, rice and beans, with a spectacular view of flower orchards.

Flower Farm in Santa Elena in Colombia
Pictured: Flower Farm in Santa Elena | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
A Celebration With Flowers

One of the most important events in Medellín is the Feria de las Flores (The Flower Festival), which represents the end of slavery. Slaves once carried wealthy men and women on their backs up the steep mountains of Antioquia when there were no other means of transport. Once slavery was abolished, these wooden disks or saddles were repurposed to carry flowers and vegetables to sell in the markets. Many of the descendants of the saddle carriers, known as silleteros, mark the tradition by carrying flower arrangements on wooden planks through the city during the flower parade.

he Parade of the Silleteros  in Medellin, Colombia
Pictured: The Parade of the Silleteros | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The “Cultura Silletera” (flower-growing culture) has been named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Nation. The festival also pays tribute to the flower industry, a thriving business in Colombia. The country is the second largest exporter of flowers, after The Netherlands.

More than 400 events take place during a 10-day period in August, including a pageant, class car parade, a horse parade, a flower parade, an orchid exhibition, street fairs and musical concerts. Attending the Flower Festival is one of the best ways to get an authentic taste of the paisa culture.

~ As seen on Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.