How Medellin Learns: Libraries and Coffee Tours

Colombian Lifestyle Coffee Tour

Medellin is known for its amazing coffee. Nestled within the heart of the Antioquia coffee region, this area of Colombia is prized the world over for its mild, flavorful and well-balanced varieties of the favorite bean.

For those of you that love a good cup of joe, a natural sidekick to the sip is a great book. Many a lovely day have been spent immersed in the joys of reading, savoring the stimulating intricacies of coffee.

With this in mind, we’re going to blend these two experiences together. We’ll discuss the amazing reading houses Medellin has produced in abundance – their public libraries. These are peaceful work or study spaces as well. Once we’ve shared the best options to get literary (and cultural) in the city, we’re going to broaden our perspective and show you how to take your coffee experience to the next level with a coffee tour in the areas surrounding Medellin.

What is a Library Park?

A “library park” is a term originally coined in Colombia and used to reference an urban complex combining both a library building and an ample surrounding green space for public use.

Five of these library parks, or parque bibliotecas, were built around Medellin in 2008 as part of a major push to renew less affluent neighborhoods. By installing remarkable cultural and educational resources and public services within poorer areas, the city hoped to organically strengthen itself.

According to the Mayor of Medellín, “The library parks are cultural centers for social development that encourage citizen encounters, educational and recreational activities, building groups, the approach to the new challenges in digital culture. And they are also spaces for cultural services that allow cultural creation and strengthening of existing neighborhood organizations.”

Each is a modern architectural marvel.

The original 5:

And these are only the initial handful. What are the most remarkable libraries to visit, and why? Let’s talk.

Parque Biblioteca España

Known in English as the Spain Library Park, this awesome triad structure is installed in the Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood. It was a donation from the Spanish government.

Built by noted Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, the library park won the 2008 award for best architecture of the year in the Ibero-American Architecture and Urban Design Biennial, Lisbon.

The library is composed of three interconnected buildings decorated by dark stone tiles on the outside. The appearance of dark crystalline towers bursts from the surrounding barrio.

The three buildings each house different programs: the library, the training rooms and the auditorium. All are connected by causeway platforms.

Because of the beauty and prominence set into the hillside, it’s a spectacular place to find yourself at sundown. Watching the sun set over Medellin, with the light playing off the glinting building exterior, can be a wonderful experience punctuated by a good book and an espresso in the cafe. After the sun goes down, the city lights begin to creep up the hillside in an equally spectacular fashion.

To reach the Parque Biblioteca España, take Line K of the Medellin Metrocable and get off at Santo Domingo.

Biblioteca EPM

Biblioteca EPM dominates the area that occupied the main marketplace in all of Medellin. After the municipality saw the area fall into disrepair, they teamed up with energy and utilities supplier, EPM, to give the downtown area a facelift. EPM’s donation has been an amazing asset to the area and its people.

This library is dedicated to science, industry, environmental topics and technology. The multi-media experience here is rich, from the deep stores of books, industry publications, magazines, ebooks, edocuments, CDs, DVDs and more. These incredible resources are organized and publicly searchable online for easy location and reference.

For a change of academic pace, the institution presents expositions, short story competitions and even hosts a sewing library.

With a large wooden terrace, a clean linear design and a modern aesthetic, this edifice poses as an impressive platform for learning. There’s even a study balcony, two reservable auditoriums and a cinematique. While outside is a hubbub of downtown activity, inside is vacuum-sealed and silent.

This is an impressive feat considering the library faces the Plaza Cisneros of the Parque de las Luces (Park of Lights). Three hundred light poles, each up to 24-meters high, are arranged throughout the massive park. The artistic, linear display is reminiscent of church organs or massive flutes stuck facing the sky.

The retail walkway known Carabobo conveniently connects to this area. Take this strip eight blocks north and you will arrive at Parque Bolivar. Travel south and you’ll be in Plaza Botero and La Alpujarra. A wonderfully busy street center full of shops, eateries and vendors of all sorts await your exploration. Amazing architecture, sculptures and historic sites are peppered along the way.

The Biblioteca EPM is easily accessible from the central Metro Station stop “San Antonio.”

Biblioteca Publica y Parque Cultural Débora Arango

A few blocks from the plaza-central Parque Envigado you’ll find the Débora Arango Public Library and Culture Park. Built to honor the beloved and recently deceased artist and cultural activist after which it is named, this is Medellin’s massive display of gratitude for her contributions.

With 7,000-square-feet inside and 8,000-square-feet of open green space outside, this park and library is a must-see stop of the already amazing Envigado. The building was a collaborative effort between the South Korean government and the Colombian Ministry of Education. The space is intended to foster art and learning of all kinds, but with special focus on the need for digital content and fluencies in the coming years.

The best part is (like all libraries in Medellin), you don’t need to be a local to check out books here … or to sign up for classes and activities (many of which are free!). Zumba, painting, dance and other expressive art forms are available within the calendar month.

Or you might catch an expert’s conversational lecture on Depeche Mode. If you’re lucky.

Turning back to the inspiration for the library, Débora Arango survives as a beloved icon in Paisa culture. She spent her art and energy drawing attention to the corruption and the ruination perpetrated by Colombian government unto its citizens.

As a noted feminist, her works were often focused on prostitutes and women in prison. These serve as hyperbolic examples of women in the roles most obviously secondary to men. Her life championed these people’s cause and her legacy is to edify her support for them still.

You can catch many of her seminal works on display at the Medellin Museum of Modern Art (MAMM) or MAMM in Ciudad del Rio. Arango passed away at her home in Envigado in 2005.

Time for a Coffee Tour

Now that you’re feeling well-read, let’s step outside the city and savor the flavor of Colombia’s best export: coffee.

After brazil and Vietnam, Colombia is the third largest exporter of coffee in the world with an annual production of 11.5 million bags. In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the coffee production area of Colombia, known as the Golden Triangle, a World Heritage Site. In 1835, the first commercial production of coffee was registered here.

Let’s allow the tour tell you the rest….

These tours will pick you up in a comfy van and squire you through the luscious green landscape of the Jardin coffee areas outside of Medellin. You’ll come to a finca, or farmhouse, and witness firsthand the authentic, fair-trade processes of a boutique coffee production in Colombia.

The bilingual farm guide will explain the origins and history of coffee. Then you’ll follow the red coffee cherry through its life cycle from dried green coffee beans to the roasted dark nuggets we all know and love. You’ll be out in the fields, amongst the shrubs, learning about picking, selection, husking, washing and sorting.

All that country air and learning creates quite an appetite, so at midday a finca-fresh traditional Colombian-style lunch is served.

After lunch, it’s time to talk about the finer points of roasting, from aromas to taste. Pay close attention for good tips on how to prepare a premium cup at home, fresh from the masters. Expect to develop a deep and rich appreciation for a process you may have taken for granted in your day-to-day life.

After you’ve seen how it’s done, feel fry to buy a bag straight from the source.

How do you book a tour? Here’s a couple choices:

Toucan Cafe Tours

Cost: ~$50 per person

Duration: 9 a.m.-6 p.m., several options for days

Requirements: Passport (or copy); a tour group totaling 6 or more

More info:

La Mesa Coffee Tours

Cost: $115 per person

Duration: 8 a.m.-5 a.m., Wednesdays

Requirements: Passport (or copy); a tour group totaling 4 or more

More info:

And if you’re not quite feeling up to a day-long tour, drop into Pergamino Cafe in Poblado. This trendy and super-pleasant indoor/outdoor cafe is run by a local coffee family as an extension of their primary business. Aside from enjoying amazing coffee and tasty treats, ask about their coffee lessons. The barista staff hosts regular seminars where you’ll learn how to prepare your espresso the right way and the finer details of coffee production. Definitely a treat if you’re all about your cup of joe!

The Last Word

For those interested in literary pursuits, Medellin offers spectacular locations to enjoy great reading – inside or outside the library cafe. Whether you’re looking for a place to read in peace, study or just enjoy an amazing piece of architecture outside, there’s an abundance of areas to choose from. A word to the wise: if you’re not a fluent Spanish reader, pack a suitcase full of books. While libraries will have a few English publications, most will be in Spanish. A handful of paperbacks, at a minimum, will smooth your transition. Until we see you, in coffee we trust!

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