– This post was written by Mick Murray –
Located only 30 kilometers from central Medellín, Parque Arví is a gigantic green oasis full of stunning scenery, wild animals, and centuries’ worth of local history. We spoke to Claudia Vanegas, one of Parque Arví’s expert tour guides, to find out everything there is to know about this lush local landmark.
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Meet your insider
Please tell us a bit more about your role at Parque Arví! What is your favorite part of your job?
I’ve worked here at Parque Arví for almost 12 years now. My main activity is to guide, orientate and inform our visitors about the flora, fauna, history and culture of the area, as well as the activities that can be done inside the park, and also inside the city and the village of Santa Elena.
What I like most about my job is sharing every day with different people. Besides that, I like to share my love and knowledge of this territory.
An introduction to Parque Arví
What is the history of the park? How was such a massive park created?
The park has an area of 1,761 hectares, most of which belongs to EPM (Empresas Públicas de Medellín). They were wondering what to do with this land, which is full of water and vegetation, and had undergone many changes due to the different cultures that lived in the territory.
The area has been used by indigenous people, and was later used for mineral extraction when Europeans arrived. Due to the environmental deterioration caused by this, trees introduced from other countries had to be planted.
The dream began to take shape around 2002, when several entities decided to create a space for locals and visitors to enjoy nature, and to teach people how important local ecosystems are for us. Companies such as EPM joined in, as well as the Mayor’s Office of Medellín, who began to imagine how to reach this territory in an environmentally sustainable, fast, comfortable and appealing way. That’s where the idea of the metro cable as a means of transport came up!
The Arví market was also opened before the park itself. This market consists of locals who sell the products they grow or craft themselves; the main rule is that the products must be organic.
In 2010, the park was opened to the public.
Parque Arví focuses a lot on eco-tourism. Can you tell us more about that?
Ecotourism consists of doing activities in nature, with a focus on environmental sustainability; something very important to us. At Parque Arví, we offer many different routes focused on a specific ecological theme. For example, we have one route that focuses on orchids, bromeliads and anthuriums. During this tour, we talk about the care that we have to take with these species, and the special project we’re running to support the reproduction and reintroduction of these species, some of which are in danger of extinction!
This project has helped us raise awareness among sixty local farmers who, in the past, extracted forest resources such as orchids and moss and sold them in the city of Medellín and other nearby municipalities. What the park is doing at the moment is reproducing a lot of vegetation among these species, and also reintroducing native trees into the forest.
So, let’s say that our tours are very focused on awareness and interpretation of the territory. It’s not just about walking, but about people using all their senses – including touch! For example, they can touch the moss, the lichens, and feel the different textures of the plants. When we are in the forest, we also do a relaxation exercise where visitors can listen to the different sounds that the forest gives us. For this, we have daytime and night-time tours – and a bicycle tour that complements the walking tour.
We also do bicycle tours along different routes in the park, visiting very special places. For example the lagoon, which has some spectacular viewpoints over the city of Medellín. We also work very closely with the local community, and sometimes sell tours that include a visit to agro-tourism farms, where people can experience being a farmer for a day. It’s very enriching for people who are usually not so close to the countryside!
What to see and do at Parque Arví
What interesting plants and flowers can you can see around the park?
Well, it really is a park that has a lot of diversity! We have almost 300 species of native trees. One species that is endemic to Colombia is called the black anthurium, which most people who come to the park are surprised by because its geographical distribution is very limited. This is only found in Antioquia, part of the Eje Cafetero and some areas of the valley. When people see this plant, it seems very strange to them because they’ve often never seen it before in their lives. This plant is very vulnerable, so we’re trying to bring it back to the forest in greater numbers.
Another plant that attracts a lot of attention is the orchids. We have orchids so small that you have to use a magnifying glass to see them! It’s like they come from a miniature world.
There are also the lichens, which are a symbiosis between an algae and a fungus; they’re like sponges. This type of plant also attracts a lot of attention. Well, there are too many to choose from, eh?
People visiting here are often surprised because there are bromeliads on trees more than 20 meters high! What happens is that they have flying seeds that grow very quickly once they land somewhere with favorable conditions.
Despite the fact that some trees are not native to Colombia – the pine trees, the cypresses and so on – the contrast between this vegetation and the native vegetation is like an enchanted forest, a dream forest. You have to come here to really see what I’m talking about; it’s an enchanting place.
I’ve read that Parque Arví is famous for its butterflies! Why is that?
Colombia is actually the country with the most species of butterflies in the world – and Parque Arví has so many plants that are hosts for these species. For example, the passionfruit (granadilla) are very popular with butterflies. Another very important plant is called verbena, on which various butterfly species like to reproduce.
There is one butterfly in particular that’s a real eye-catcher, and it reproduces on a plant that belongs to the bamboo family. This butterfly is called the morpho butterfly, and tends to attract a lot of attention from visitors.
Parque Arví has two other neighboring parks, Comfama and Comfenalco. Of the two, Comfenalco is more focused on butterflies, and they even have a designated butterfly garden. This is also part of Parque Arví, although it is managed by the Comfenalco compensation fund.
Sometimes we run tours focused specifically on butterflies. It’s very beautiful to see the whole process of their transformation, from an egg to a caterpillar, chrysalis, and then finally a magnificent butterfly. It can be a very inspiring experience to witness.
Apart from butterflies, what other wildlife can you find at Parque Arví?
It’s possible to see animals during the day, but very occasionally, because the animals are quite aware of the presence of people. From time to time, you can observe the local snakes; there are three species that are very well-known in the territory. And no, they are not venomous! There is a green one that we call the guardacaminos, a big black one that is called the cazadora, and there is the false coral snake that tends to scare many people when they see it due to its striking colors. You can also see squirrels in the daytime, as well as many different species of birds.
We have a tour that is specifically for bird watching, which is very nice. It lets you see a wide variety of species, from big ones to very small ones – we bring along binoculars to help you see the latter. A tour like this is a pleasant and very special experience for visitors who like birds.
At night, we can see other animals. For example, there’s the margay, which we call the tigrillo. These wild cats are a little bit bigger than your average house cat. Because this is a biological corridor that connects the Aburrá Valley with the San Nicolás Valley, parts of Arví Park also act as a biological corridor for an even bigger feline: the puma. Some camera traps have been placed in certain parts of the park to observe these creatures in greater detail.
We also have armadillos, weasels, and porcupines. One evening when I arrived at work, I met a porcupine on the road! They’re beautiful creatures, with their spiky quills on their backs.
There’s also the guaguas, which are big rodents. Unfortunately, in the countryside many people kill them for food. Despite being a rodent, it looks a bit more like a bush dog – except it’s got the face of a little bear. It’s quite beautiful! We also can’t forget about the olinguitos, which are also very cute.
And obviously, there are the opossums, which are very important in the ecosystem because they are one of the biggest dispersers of seeds of the native vegetation.
We have a lot of species that are very difficult to see at night because they’re well hidden – but you can hear them! One animal, the potoo bird, is very well camouflaged and blends in with the trees, and it makes a sound as if someone is laughing out loud. That’s why when some people walk around at night, they believe that a witch has come out, and it scares them away. The sounds of the night are fascinating but not for the faint of heart – for example, the owls… they make some very strange sounds that can really scare people who aren’t familiar with them.
What else is there to see and do around the park?
There are some excellent picnic areas. We know that not all of our visitors are able to join guided tours, so there’s also plenty of room for relaxation. We have a kilometer-long landscape next to the Piedras Blancas stream, which has kiosks for people to come and have their barbecue, or enjoy their sancocho.
This area has toilets, drinking water, very nice bridges and the scenery is spectacular – it’s also completely free of charge. For people who don’t want to go into the forest, or don’t have time to be in the park, it’s an ideal place.
People who like photography can also take some very nice pictures here. The area has a small waterfall that attracts a lot of attention, and there are plenty of other things to do. Although it is technically not a camping area, it’s allowed to camp here for a maximum of 3 days.
Practical tips for visiting Parque Arví
When’s the best time to visit Parque Arví?
Well, the best time to visit the park is at nine o’clock in the morning! It’s important to leave yourself plenty of time, because all activities in the park require at least an hour and a half. If you come early, you’ll leave yourself plenty of time to do something meaningful.
No matter the season, make sure you wear suitable clothing and footwear. Sun protection is also very important. We are 2,500 meters above sea level; the sun here is stronger and can be dangerous for the skin, even if it is not especially hot. People get sunburnt very easily!
I’d also recommend bringing a rain coat or poncho, because we are in a cloud forest where the weather is very changeable. It’s also important to bring your personal water bottle. The park has drinking water, and the idea is to minimize the consumption of plastic as much as possible.
Many people reading this won’t have been there before – what’s the best way to get to the park?
You can enter the park via the Metro Cable. If you have your own vehicle, you can also access it from Medellín or Santa Elena; so you have several ways to get there.
What are the different ways to get around the park? What are the benefits of walking versus cycling, or vice versa?
It all depends on the type of person you are! Some people just want to ride their bikes around, while others want to take a trip into the forest where they take off their shoes, lie down, and listen to talks about the surrounding nature while they relax before the biking even starts. If someone rents a bike and takes a self-guided tour, they can only go along a route that is on the main road.
In my opinion, the experience with the guide is much more meaningful because people learn a little bit of everything. In other words, they don’t just leave with sore muscles from biking, but they’ve also learned a lot about the local birds, for example.
During the week we do short guided bike rides lasting an hour and a half. On weekends the tour lasts for five hours. Visitors go into the forest, and visit viewpoints to get amazing views of the city. We change the route every month! July and August feature a tour to the nearby farms, which lasts three and a half hours; they also take you to a forest and do relaxation activities. The idea is that people do the whole experience.
What kind of trails are there to follow?
Camino de la Cuesta
This trail lasts for 3 hours, and features old stone paths as well as a great viewpoint over the city. The place is very beautiful and we talk a lot about the local history. This route is more about history and oral tradition than anything else; the stories told from generation to generation.
The Arroyuelo trail starts on the road, before entering the native forest – then you go through a cypress forest, and you end up in the picnic area where the rivers or streams meet. This one also lasts more or less 2.5 to 3 hours.
This one focuses mostly on the park’s vegetation. We cover everything from mosses to ferns, lichens, orchids and anthuriums. On this trail you can also see how the mosses and orchids interact, how they live, and how they can coexist with the foreign tree populations.
Orchids, Bromeliads and Anthuriums
This trail is very short and talks about these species and their conservation. In total, it takes between 40 minutes to an hour and is very enjoyable for plant lovers because it includes a visit to a vegetable garden where we have aromatic plants, as well as a nursery full of succulents.
Myths and Legends
Another very short one, which takes 35 to 40 minutes. You can learn all about local myths and legends here, and see representations of things like the headless priest, la patasola (a local version of vampires) and witches. Then we talk about these legends and about the various other stories of the territory, the things that have happened here… Some people are very scared, while others love it and keep coming back!
The archaeological circuit is where we talk about how our ancestors lived. Archaeology is the act of interpreting things that are found in the territory, which help us to understand how past people lived, what they ate, what they cooked, how they buried their dead, and more. So, based on all the archaeological evidence found in the territory, we interpret that route.
The Bewitched Path
This can be done on foot or by bicycle. In this one, we also talk about stories and legends. You can also see a part of the city, because the route has a scenic viewpoint.
And that’s not all; we have a lot of things to do, there is a lot more to explore!
What should people bring with them to Parque Arví?
One thing you should always carry with you is an original identity document! It’s a common mistake not to bring one, but it really is crucial. Locals can bring their identity card, while foreign visitors will need their original passport or driving license.
It’s also very important to bring medication if you might need it. Although there is an ambulance service, there’s no guarantee that they will be able to provide you with the correct medication you need.
Also, and I could repeat this 50,000 times, bring sunscreen! You cannot go to the park without sunscreen. Make sure you re-apply it every 1.5 to 2 hours.
People can also bring their dogs (some people even bring their kittens), but obviously be careful. Dogs love walking around the park, so I’d recommend bringing them along for the trip! Just make sure they behave themselves, stay on authorized routes, and don’t run off into the forest. There have unfortunately been cases where this happened.
Do remember that if you plan to go inside the forest, you must be accompanied by a guide. There is a single self-guided route available, but this can only be purchased at the ticket office for security reasons. This is done to ensure everyone’s safety!
Behind the scenes at Parque Arví
Have you ever had any celebrities or VIPs visit the park for a tour?
A lot of them, actually! We try to keep things quiet and let them have their space so that they can do the tour in a very relaxed way. For example, we’ve had Karol G, many football players, and several Colombian actors. One day, an actor came in – Mario Duarte – who had a villainous role in a Colombian soap opera… people looked at him strangely and pointed him out as a bad person! It was very funny.
When Juanes [the famous Colombian musician] came, it was super special. He is very relaxed. Of course, plenty of models have also come to Parque Arví to do their photoshoots.
If you had to pick your favorite part of Parque Arví, what would it be?
My favorite thing is the night route, Parque Arví at Night. The night tour is special because people feel more vulnerable. Let’s say they value their senses more. So you see how important it is to take care of yourself, and to take care of natural resources. People always leave very happy.
Aside from that, nighttime is a perfect time to tell stories… huddling around the bonfire is a great way of bonding with others. The night tour always ends with a bonfire where we roast marshmallows. We also enjoy a traditional local drink called canelazo, which is made with aromatic plants, panela sugar, and aguardiente (strong alcohol).
What’s something that most people wouldn’t know about Parque Arví? Are there any hidden spots or secret stories?
People sometimes think that the park is small, and that they can walk around and see most of it in 30 minutes. Of course, when you tell them just how big it is and how much they can see and do, it’s difficult for them to choose!
There are many special places around the park, and it’s difficult to name just a couple. I would say I like the energy around the lagoon, which is a place that really has an emotional effect on people. That, and we also have a path that we call ‘the forest of silence’. When you get there, you feel a lot lighter, like you’ve just been unburdened from all of your problems. There’s a lot of history in these places.
What is your favourite moment or story from your time working in the park?
There are many of them! What comes to mind immediately is when we did the silletera experience. In 2018, two of my colleagues dressed up as silliteras [a local tradition closely linked to the Medellín Flower Festival], and made silletas with our visitors. As inhabitants of Santa Elena, this month is very special to us. To be able to transmit this cultural heritage was really important to me, and I remembered it seemed to me as the best time I’d had at the park. And Christmas, obviously! During this time, we make nativity scenes with flowers, which are very striking.