Travel

South America's First Eco-City Is an Affordable Paradise

Green in more ways than one.

doleesi/Shutterstock
doleesi/Shutterstock
doleesi/Shutterstock

It’s only fitting that the “City of the Eternal Spring” has inevitably blossomed in recent years-and it’s only getting greener. Medellín wows at first glimpse. Brick skyscrapers tower from its urban center with pops of trees in public parks throughout the Aburrá Valley. Amid a green Andes Mountains backdrop, you see aerial cable cars servicing cliffside neighborhoods once difficult to access. With an eco-friendly transportation system and a new five-plus mile tunnel that cuts through the Andes Mountains between the José María Córdova International Airport and Medellín’s city center, the Colombian city has never been more accessible. And things are only looking up from here.

In August 2021, Medellín’s government unveiled big plans to become Latin America’s first ‘Eco-City.’ And after Colombia elected its first-ever left-leaning president in June-who has promised sweeping green measures, including the end of new oil exploration-it’s never been easier to bolster the city’s commitment to being a Smart Tourism Destination. The plan involves cutting carbon emissions by 20 percent, doubling bike lanes and public transportation routes, and electrifying all public transport by 2030.

Medellín is a city of adventure. Come find the city’s best swanky glamping with canopied beds, outdoor escalators surrounded by colorful murals, rich chocolate and aji pepper dishes, and locals working to protect the gorgeous tropical nature surroundings. Here are the greatest (and some of the greenest) escapades that await.

John Coletti/The Image Bank/Getty Images
John Coletti/The Image Bank/Getty Images
John Coletti/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Get around via gondola, metro, and outdoor escalators

Yellow taxis, mega trucks, and dirt bikes endlessly zigzag in Medellín traffic jams all hours of the day. Skip the cab and opt for a ride within Medellín’s multifaceted metro system, which includes the tram, bus, and rail-the only Metro system in Colombia. The rail system stretches across more than 31 kilometers and 27 stations. Plus, a trip is only about $1 one-way.

Don’t stop at the rails, though; hop on a Metrocable gondola ride. Popular stops along the way include the National Park Parque Arví and San Javier/Comuna 13, home to graffiti art tours galore.

In Comuna 13, a quintessential Medellín experience is taking the outdoor public escalators through the neighborhood, stopping at restaurants, souvenir tents, and street art coloring the journey. Even more impressive than the escalators is the Comuna 13 turnaround story, once the city’s ground zero for guerrilla-driven conflicts, and now it’s the cool place to be.

SiembraViva
SiembraViva
SiembraViva

Munch on morsels at a sustainable farm

Yes, Colombia and Antioquia (the state that Medellín is a capital of) are heaven for coffee lovers and coffee farms. But there is so much more that is grown in this rich-soil region as well. To experience sustainable Colombian farm bliss, SiembraViva-an organic farm approximately 30 minutes east of Medellín in the flower-farm-filled town of Santa Elena-offers Sunday guided tours of its grounds.

The experience includes planting and harvesting activities, a home-cooked meal at its Herbario restaurant, and even a blind vegetable tasting. The farm grows cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, and dozens of other fruits and vegetables, so make sure your taste buds are on their A-game.

RicardoImagen/E+/Getty Images
RicardoImagen/E+/Getty Images
RicardoImagen/E+/Getty Images

Play with turtles and see some biodiversity

Contrary to what you’ll find in the thumping, rooftop-bar-clad El Poblado neighbourhood, the area is home to more than just party animals. There are cute turtles from local rivers that are being rehabilitated, too. Isabel Romero is a local angel to shelled friends and operates the Tortugario Estación Cocorná: Centro de Conservación de Tortuga from her home on the banks of the Magdalena River.

Via her Instagram page, she operates tours of her turtle sanctuary, hosts environmental education talks, and drives forward a message of caring for the local ecosystem and wildlife. You’ll want to make this excursion a full-day or overnight trip, as it can take a few hours to get to the sanctuary.

Diego Grandi
Diego Grandi
Diego Grandi

Dine in the best restaurants and the heart of a botanical garden

In the heart of Medellín is the Jardín Botánico Medellín. Just a stone’s throw from the Universidad metro stop, this nearly 35-acre park is home to more than 4,500 species of flowers, 140-plus species of birds, and one of the best restaurants in town, In Situ. An open-air concept with floor-to-ceiling windows opening to the garden grounds, this elegant staple offers seasonally inspired pastas, lamb and steak cuts, and more.

El Cielo Restaurant
El Cielo Restaurant
El Cielo Restaurant

Another heavyweight in the freshest-ingredient space is Elcielo Restaurant, with Michelin Star award-winning chef Juan Manuel Barrientos at the helm. Book a reservation well in advance at Elcielo and save some belly space for its 20-plus course tasting, with sensory experiences like bathing your hands in chocolate (and eating the chocolate off your hands, too).

For shorter dining affairs, Crepes y Waffles is arguably Colombia’s most beloved chain, where waffles are topped and crepes are stuffed with international ingredients that run the culinary spectrum. And for the best on-the-fly empanada in town, hit Empanadas El Machetico las de Nico for the crispiest morsel and pair it with some spicy ají sauce. There may be a mob of locals around its front counter, but that’s how you’ll know you’ve arrived at the right spot.

Click Clack Hotel
Click Clack Hotel
Click Clack Hotel

Book a home base that matches your itinerary’s vibe

In such a choose-your-adventure city, it’s only appropriate that Medellín’s hotels are as diverse as it gets. In the heart of one of the city’s most upscale neighborhoods, Provenza, you can choose to glamp at Bambú Glamping Ecolodge, which has canopied beds and open courtyards catering to the backpacker crowd. On the swanky front, Hotel Dann Carlton sits along the city’s mega-mall and bank-lined Golden Mile, Click Clack in el Poblado is tucked quietly away from the party epicenter of Parque Lleras, and Factory Lofts in Laureles provides comparatively soft and cloud-like beds in a city that loves firm ones.

For the region’s utmost eco-conscious retreat, Cannúa Lodge-approximately 40 minutes east of the international airport-offers sustainably built, boutique-style quarters with panoramic mountain views. Among the experiences you can book are coffee, rum, and chocolate tastings, as well as sunset hikes up a nearby mountain.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Jesse Scott is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.