The Medellin ruled by drug lord Pablo Escobar is fast fading from memory, eclipsed by a cultural revolution of sorts, a return of the people to normal life following the demise of the cartel. At the Museo di Antioquia, Botero’s trademark swollen sculptures line the piazza and adorn the paintings indoors. The sun shines daily on a variety of public festivals and parks (my favorite was the Barefoot Park) that have sprung up with heavy mayoral investment in the arts over the last few years.
It’s still a surprisingly well-kept secret that for more than fifty years Medellin has been the world’s second most important tango destination.
Buenos Aires will probably always hold the title of world tango capital. The dance is everywhere you look, the culture famously saturated and synonymous with the music and dance, and the dramatic traditions and etiquette associated with the milonga.
In Medellin, tango doesn’t hit you over the head when you arrive. Instead, you have to tease it out. The tradition is not that well-publicized and it’s possible you’ll find lessons or milongas online that no longer exist, evidence of a dance that’s been danced without you. Yet, the tango trail is a great fit for any persistent, adventurous traveler who wants to experience the city through one of its unique passions. No need to sacrifice the more well-known attractions, either. Botero and the Botanical Gardens can easily be squeezed in between milongas.
Especially when traveling on a mission, it’s important to choose accommodation carefully. Lots of travelers opt for a hotel in the Zona Rosa, a sort of Colombian Disneyland of dining and drinking, packed with outsized, fantastically decorated clubs that deserve a place in Alice in Wonderland’s guide to nightlife. Here, English is commonly spoken and you can stay out late. Closer to the center, Medellin isn’t quite as flashy, but there is easy access to a few of the better tango venues and a less-sanitized view of the city. Plus the Metro is fast and efficient (if only one line) and taxis are cheap and honest, so moving around is never a problem. Colombian hotels like the Calle Real are better priced than most backpacker hostels, clean, and regularly have WiFi, though you won’t find many opportunities for hanging out with fellow guests.
Once you’ve got somewhere to sleep, it’s time to start investigating the sensual tradition of tango…
…which probably doesn’t even mean dancing right away. Tango is serious, you don’t just show up and start wiggling like at any nightclub. Tango is about listening and watching as much as participating. Whet your aural appetite with bars like Homero Manzi, one of Medellin’s more famous tango destinations, where you’ll find a wholly authentic jukebox and tango stars’ portraits lining the walls. After a few lessons, come back for a milonga.
Salon Malaga, is properly another planet dedicated to the formality and fizz of tango. After 54 years, it’s accumulated an impressive collection of 78rpms and the loyalty of a clientele who seemingly started going there when the place opened. Every Saturday there are performances; this is a great time to get a feeling for the Medellin tango tradition while sipping some rum and munching on patatas bravas sprinkled with salt and lime juice.
Malaga is also a great place to start trying your hand, and feet, at tango. There are group lessons; so if you’re not in a couple, no need to worry. However, if you are traveling with a potential dance partner, consider asking about private lessons. Prices are good and the extra attention really helps in understanding finer points. Even walking is dramatic in the tango, and the dance can get almost psychological, requiring real clarity and sensitivity.
Then take in a little history at the Casa Gardeliana, dedicated to tango star Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash over Medellin in 1936 and remains an emblem of the city’s tango culture. Gardel, a native of Buenos Aires, was a real rock star in his time, touring South America to the delight of adoring fans in the twenties and thirties before meeting his tragic end.
El Patio del Tango is a literal covered patio with a restaurant and a small stage hosting Medellin’s tango luminaries. Their steak rivals Argentina’s other major export, buttery and tender. You may just catch some of tango’s next big stars; at least two I met here moved on to Buenos Aires and international fame.
Before heading to a milonga at, for example, Teatro Pablo Tobon Uribe, put the finishing touches on your silhouette with shoes from D’Raso Calzado, Medellin’s go-to shop for professionals and dedicated amateurs. After all, you can’t quite access the particular allure of the tango in Birkenstocks. Everything is handmade, whether you get bespoke shoes or not, and the high-quality workmanship costs a fraction of what it would in, say, New York. Touches like glittery soles and the finely-wrought, strappy styles embody full-on Latin glamour for the women’s shoes, while the men’s selection is more low-key yet still top-notch.
Experiencing a city through a particular lens, whether tango in Medellin or wineries in Tuscany, can be a memorable way to get to know a slice of the people and places that have made it tick. You may not ever be a real local, but following Medellin’s tango trail will bring you that much closer to the essence of Antioquia.
Check out Julia’s Complete Custom Guide for exploring Medellin’s Tango Trail.
Julia Pond has lived in Rome, New York, London and Colombia. She is the Associate Editor at Gogobot and a freelance dance artist.