Expat Profile: Craig Watson from Barrio Central Cafe Bar

Interview with owner of Barrio Central, Medellin

Today we have an interview with the owner of Barrio Central, Medellin. We’re going to have an inside look at Craig Watson’s life, a happy and really cool British man who found love in a Colombian woman and decided to make this country his home.

When I asked what brought him to Medellin, he started explaining that he has always wanted to travel for a longer period of time than a traditional 2 week holiday, so he quit his Recruitment/Headhunting job in London in November 2002 and bought a round-the-world ticket….taking him to Thailand (1 month), Australia (2 months), New Zealand (2 months), Chile (1 month) Bolivia (1 month), Peru (1 month), Ecuador (1 month) and then Colombia…

I Arrived and Then I Didn’t Want to Leave

Craig in his traveling days
Craig in his traveling days

“I traveled by bus from Ipiales all over Southern Colombia (Pasto, Popayán, San Agustín, Tierradentro, Cali, before arriving in Medellin August 2003. I loved the city, the people, the atmosphere, the climate etc… met Lina my future wife and used Medellin as a base to visit and know more of Colombia… I was supposed to leave Medellin in November 2003 as I had a flight back to the UK out of Rio, Brazil, but I didn’t want to leave. So I decided to stay in Medellin and actually left in July 2004”.

Craig’s moving experience was kind of adventurous since the first time he was  backpacking and just traveling and enjoying new cultures, languages, food, architecture, history, landscapes, climates, countryside, etc., so he actually moved to Medellin in March 2007 to be with his then-girlfriend (Lina), now his wife of 9 years, as they got married at her family finca near Santa Fe, Antioquia in March 2009.

For him, the move was a lot easier as he had lived and traveled from Medellin all over Colombia from August 2003 until July 2004. So he knew what to expect with the climate, the language, the food and even some of the cultural differences – although this can always be improved on and there are always things to learn which make living in another country so interesting for him.

From Teacher to Business Owner

His professional path here started when he decided to look for a teaching job in a secondary (High) school and therefore applied to several bilingual schools and had interviews and had to give a mini lesson to some students on World History. Then he secured a position at Colegio Gimnasio Vermont and started in July of 2007. This really helped him gain friends and colleagues and he felt very comfortable and at home very quickly. After 3 years of teaching children from the ages of 11 to 16, he has the utmost respect for the profession of teaching.

The language was another thing to take care of. He picked up some basic level Spanish while traveling for about 4 months in Chile, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. “I have to admit I rarely traveled alone and if I was traveling with a fellow European who wasn’t British like me, then invariably they could speak Spanish a lot better than myself so you ended up relying on others, which with hindsight I really should have tried harder”.

However, he admits that he has always enjoyed trying to converse in Spanish as it really does add to the overall traveling experience. Now he can chat quite easily with people and understand most Spanish that he hears, but has never had that many actual lessons. “Therefore I make the same grammatical errors over and over again….que pena, jajajaja

Medellin is Friendly, Upbeat, and Has the Perfect Climate

Soccer is life in Medellin
Soccer is life in Medellin

When talking about the most enchanting thing for him about Medellin, Craig said that it was difficult to answer as many things spring to mind. He says that for most foreigners it’s the openness and friendliness of Colombians, the spirit/happiness and upbeat energy that you feel when you arrive in Colombia (both of these especially noticeable in Medellin), while adding that the climate is perfect for him since it’s not too hot or humid, therefore there is no need for air conditioning or heating in your home.

The topography/countryside, the National Park (Parque Arví/Santa Elena) – the mountains especially are a sight to behold and of course the valleys, the rivers, lakes (Guatape), forests etc. There are so many different places to visit, with different climates and activities. He talks about the taste of the fruit and vegetables is such a beautiful and delicious surprise as is trying all the exotic fruits you have never even seen, never mind tasted before, trying all the different juices and dishes from all over Colombia, which his favorites are Mondongos, Ajiacos, Cazuelas, Rancheros (Chicharrón) and Sancocho to name only a few.

Craig also talks about how fun Football is at the stadium – Atanasio Girardot – how the atmosphere at a Clasico (local derby between Medellin and Nacional) is just superb, the colors, sound and pure passion… But for him, he thinks that if he has to pick one thing that is the most enchanting – it has to be the friendliness, warmth and positive energy of the Paisas themselves!

The Differences Between England and Colombia

I asked him to tell me the three main differences between living in Colombia and England, to which he said: “Firstly I prefer the lifestyle and standard of living – I feel healthier, more relaxed and generally happier here in Colombia. It is hard to explain but the feel of the country, the general daily activities is just a better experience for me compared to my native country.

“The weather is a huge difference with no seasons here in Medellin – just sunshine or rain. It is just such a lovely feeling to have so few days per year of greyness and clouds…. I sometimes miss the long summer days of daylight in a British summer but there are so few sunny days this goes away very quickly as I enjoy the all year round sunshine of Medellin.

“The food, for me lots of foreigners complain about the food here but I love the fact there is no microwave meals and such a lack of processed/tinned products, so most of the food is made from fresh ingredients without artificial colorings and preservatives. I think this is one reason why I always feel and look healthier when living here in Colombia. Also when I crave certain foods/dishes from home, like a hot, spicy curry, I just cook it myself at home, so no real problem.”

The Birth of Barrio Central

Craig with a pub quiz winner
Craig with a pub quiz winner

After his teaching experiences, Craig tried something completely different, but way cooler –a family business. He opened their Cafe Bar called Barrio Central Cafe Bar on April 1, 2016 – just over 2 years ago… They have been fortunate that the location is excellent because it is on a corner with no business on either side of them, but within striking distance of the very famous strip called La Setenta. This area is famous for many traditional bars/fondas that play Colombian music at a very loud volume.

“Our bar is slightly different with a real mix of Latin/British Rock, Salsa, Reggae, Blues, Soul, and general global pop music – at a lower volume for people to enjoy a chat over either a cold beer, cocktail, juice, coffee and also share some homemade pizza, nachos, etc, while enjoying our lovely outdoor space (beer garden).”

He continues: “Also I believe the design, style, and feel of the bar (which was designed by my wife Lina who is an Architect) has really helped create a successful business as it has a slightly different look… many people say it looks a bit European (maybe British) due to the beer garden/patio area.

“The family business in this initial two years has continually grown in popularity as more people hear about the bar. The events we do have really helped build on our initial success, such as a couple of times per month on a Wednesday or Saturday night we have live music, also we have hosted several meet-ups – of course, the hugely popular webpage – Medellin Living, Catalyst Weekly, Digital Nomads Medellin, to name a few and we also host a very successful Pub Quiz/Trivia Night every 2 weeks on a Monday evening.”

A very positive sign that the business has continually grown is when they expanded their indoor bar area and built themselves a bigger, more productive kitchen back in August 2017. Therefore they could increase the food menu and speed up the production process.

Opening a Business is Tough

About the whole experience of starting Barrio Central Cafe Bar, Craig says that any business owner would confess it is a tough struggle to begin with since you are starting from nothing, no reputation, no word of mouth – nothing, so the amount of effort to create that positive word of mouth and standing in the community is hard work.

Therefore initially he created all their social media pages to show the work and renovations they were doing during the first phase of the project on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Google, and TripAdvisor. He also wanted to be able to do all of the roles of running the day to day operation of the bar, so he was the cook (homemade pizzas, sandwiches and some traditional Colombian dishes such as chicharrones, empanadas, and chorizos etc…), barman, barista, waiter and he would also work the cash register, taking in the payments from customers and paying suppliers.

“This experience was invaluable for me and gave me a great insight into how the whole bar functioned. We have been able to continually improve aspects of our bar and keep the place fresh and interesting. However, I have to mention that I am a co-owner with my wife Lina, my wife’s cousin Julian and his wife Maria Isabel… therefore 3 local Paisas and one Englishman, this definitely has made it easier for me as a foreigner as they have helped with so many aspects I would have found very difficult to complete effectively.”

Time to talk about family and how being a husband, a father and a businessman have changed or impacted the vision he had of life when he was younger. For him, the main difference is that as a younger man you think of your education, then your career and working hard to try and be successful. Now that he’s a husband, father and co-owner of a business, a lot of these aspirations alter as he wants to be there for his family and enjoy time and experiences with them rather than just work, work, and more work.

Three Pieces of Advice 

Craig and friends outside the beer garden
Craig and friends outside the beer garden

“Choose very carefully and feel completely comfortable with your future business partners.

Think what can the individuals add to the mix of experience, expertise, and ideas for the future business. Lastly, always listen to each other and the key to any business is communication.”

How do You Feel About Living in Medellin?

“I love living here in Medellin and that is why since the first time I got here in August 2003 until now April 2018 (which is nearly 15 years in total) I have lived here for about 8 years – so over the last 15 years over 50% of my time has been here in Medellin, Colombia. As I mentioned earlier, I feel happier, more relaxed and healthier living in this beautiful City of Eternal Spring and have no desire to change that anytime soon!”

Ann LevizonAbout Ann

Ann is a journalist and freelance writer from Caracas, Venezuela who recently started the adventure of traveling the world on her own. She’s a geek who adores music, books, drawing and movies. She can be found on Instagram here.

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  1. Very interesting article, I will try to visit Craig’s bar if I can find it. I just bought my finca in La Ceja on October 12th, so I am not that familiar with Medellin.
    Craig’s story makes me feel even better about my purchase of a finca in Antioquia.
    Jim Melby