Escape To El Retiro
“I imagine this would be a nice place to settle in to for retirement,” Lief mused as we meandered closer toward the main square.
There, in front of the beautiful old white church, much of the town had gathered for Easter Sunday mass. The church-goers overflowed into the street, where, on a raised wooden platform, stood, very still, four local children, dressed in white cloaks, awaiting their cue to proceed through the crowd and into the church. Behind them would follow others with statues of Mary and the risen Christ hoisted on their shoulders.
We watched a while and then returned to our meanderings. Not everyone was attending the Easter service. Beyond the church and the square, the small town was pleasantly active, restaurants and shops open, a barber clipping away just inside his open door…
The sun shone bright, but, wandering up and down the narrow streets, we were cool. It’s never too warm at this elevation.
All around, the mountains looked down on us, giving the town a safe, cozy feel. Our guide Nelson explained that the narrow lanes of Spanish-colonial structures we were admiring extend for five or six blocks in each direction from the square. And, in this zone, he continued, you can find everything you’d need for a pleasant, comfortable life.
“My family and I come here sometimes for weekends,” Nelson told us. “We stay in one of the small hotels in the center of town, and we ask for a room overlooking the street. Our daughters like to sit at the windows and look out, watching the people below come and go. My wife and I like to sit outside at the corner cafes. Friday and Saturday evenings, these little places come to life. Everyone sits around, drinking beer or tea, and telling stories. There are some great old characters in this town, and I love to listen to their stories of the old days…”
The town is El Retiro, Colombia, one of those places that has managed to remain a world apart. El Retiro is a colonial city that is home to about 6,000 people and four churches, including the oldest in the region. The setting, the square, and the ambiance remind me of Cafayete, Argentina…but you don’t have to travel to the end of the earth and halfway back again to get to El Retiro. It’s hidden away but a half-hour from Medellin’s international airport.
El Retiro could also be compared with Granada or Leon, Nicaragua, minus the midday heat…or maybe Cuenca, Ecuador, though more accessible and, thanks to its size, more welcoming and charming.
“Why do the front windows of the houses on the street stretch out the way they do?” young Jackson asked as we walked around.
“That was to accommodate young courters,” Nelson replied. “Young men would stand outside the window, on the street, while the young women they were making their intentions known for would sit on the benches on the other side, inside the houses. The young lady could lean out through the window but was protected from direct contact with the young man vying for her attentions from outside the grate.”
We looked inside one of the windows and saw the painted wooden bench and ledge that Nelson had been describing.
“I wonder if the boys out on the street sang to the girls inside,” 11-year-old Jackson continued. “That’s what I’d do…”
“Do these old colonials ever become available for sale?” I asked.
“Yes, they do. I know of one or two for sale right now,” Nelson explained. “The best way to find one is to mention your interest to someone in town…then sit in the square for a while drinking a coffee. Anyone with a house to sell will come to find you…”
“What do you think one of these houses would cost?” I wondered.
“Maybe US$40,000 or US$50,000,” Nelson suggested.
An awful lot of charm for not a lot of money.