By: Jody Hanson
The Café Alaska in Medellín, Colombia was built in 1942—about 80 years ago—and not much has changed since. The grandfathers passed it on to the fathers, who have since moved on. Then their sons shuffled in to take their places on the chairs and stools that make up this historic watering hole. Whether the next generation will line up remains to be seen as there aren’t a lot of under-60s hanging out at Café Alaska.
The Café Alaska has the distinct honor of being a local heritage site. Think of the Bares Notables in Buenos Aires, take a couple of steps down and that is the Medellin version.
The Café Alaska Ambience
Friendly, friendly, friendly. The bartender tells us we are welcome to take photos. Then he stops by our table to point out aspects of the Café Alaska that we missed with our cameras. And he takes lots of happy snaps of my beer-drinking friend and I as he knows we want to capture our visit for posterity.
The patrons don’t exactly jump into the photos, but they aren’t camera shy either.
Living history about sums up the feeling of the Café Alaska. Quinton Crisp once quipped that after four years it doesn’t get any dustier so there is no point in cleaning. And the bottles that line the top shelf of the bar attest to his theory.
Tango music plays nonstop. Really, is there any other genre worth listening to?
The Tango History
Carlos Gardel fans will love the seemingly hundreds of photos of him that decorate the walls of the Café Alaska. A quick history lesson is that Gardel (1890 to 1935) was a prolific singer, composer, and actor who elevated the tango in Buenos Aires from the slums to the middle-class. Although he was born in France and his passport was from Uruguay, Argentina claims him as a native son and Colombia vies for his fame as he died near Medellin. His demise was to be taken out in a plane crash at the height of his career, so—like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Buddy Holly—he has become a forever revered icon.
The Café Alaska Facilities
Gotta go? The urinal for men at the Café Alaska is about the size of a USB. The swinging door stays open permanently. The patrons saunter up, unzip, do what they have to, and return to their beer. And, of course, nobody pays any attention whatsoever. It is simply the way it is done.
Ladeezzz, make sure you go before you wander into the Café Alaska. There is a toilet for women (maybe) but there is a poster hanging over the door and it looks like it has been nailed shut. You wouldn’t want to get caught out on that one.
The men who frequent the Café Alaska—while the women stay at home to cook—can be divided into three categories: the talkers, the pool players, and the card sharks. The talkers may well be waiting for their turn at the table.
Unlike billiards, the game at the Café Alaska is played with three balls and the objective seems to be to touch them all as there aren’t any pockets to sink them into. A little research suggested that the game of choice is carom or carambole. The serious players have their own cues, which are locked in a cupboard in the back of the bar.
Meanwhile, at a table outside—that moves inside if the rain is too heavy—there is a constant card game in progress. The card players concentrate on their hands and everyone takes the game seriously, even though there isn’t any money involved.
The Suggested Itinerary
Café Alaska isn’t exactly on the major tourist route and the best way to get there is by taxi. And even then the driver may have to ask a few people along the way.
Once in the area, a stop at the Carlos Gardel Museum—just down the street from the Café Alaska—is a must. Music plays in the background and tango lessons are available for those so inclined.
So make it a half-day trip and include lunch at one of the local eateries. Chances are there aren’t any other foreigners lurking about so you may well have the barrio to yourself.
Address: Cra. 45 #79-3, Medellín, Antioquia
Phone Number: (4)-2126344
Hours: 11:00 a.m. until whenever
About the Author
Jody Hanson is an insufferable travel junkie who has visit 107 countries – 67 on her own – lived in nine and holds passports in three. She has visited all the countries in North, Central and South America except for Venezuela, Guyana, Surname and French Guinea. She wrote this article on behalf of Tucan Travel who can take you on adventures in Colombia and all over Latin America.
Photos courtesy of the author.