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Colombia Tips, Advice, and Everything Else

Quick Colombia Tips

From Medellin to Cartagena, here are just a few quick tips based on my experience in Colombia.

A few years ago I spent a month exploring Colombia, and a colleague recently asked for tips. I wrote up a quick doc for her professing my recommended highlights, and thought others might appreciate it, as well. Without further ado…

Read before you go:

Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but specifically Love in the Time of Cholera; here’s a blog entry I wrote about Cartagena.

Eat while in Colombia:

Arepas (I personally find sweet corn arepas and the plain ones to be meh)–go for the ones like Arepa con Huevo or Chicharron.

Papas rellenas.

Empanadas.

Fried fish with coconut rice and plantains — a must have when on the coast.

Bandeja Paisa–a big plate of meat and meat and carbs and starch. This is a popular meal in the more rural and mountainous regions.

Trout (La Trucha) especially if in the Coffee Triangle.

Casuela de Frijoles— sort of a bean stew. You can get a great bowl of it at Ajiaco y Mondongo’s in Medellin

Mondongo, of course, is a garlicky, creamy soup most popular in Bogota.

Patacón con Todo— Heaped onto a styrofoam plate with the routine precision of a Michelin star chef, I saved this baby for last. Patacón is the same as Tostones, or twice fried plantains. On top of this is seemingly everything you’d want on a mountain of plantains. You’ve got your sausage, your shredded chicken, your onions and cheese and beans. Top it with potato sticks and three kinds of sauce (my guess is pineapple, ketchup and mayo), and there you have a perfectly edible munchie meal, one that’s good enough to write home about. Where can you find this delicacy? I popped my Patacon cherry at a stand along the borders of the Plaza in front of the Iglesia de la Trinidad in Cartagena.

 

Medellin Breakdown:

Where to stay: The neighborhood El Poblado is where a lot of backpackers stay. A bit nicer and trendier.  What to do: Visit Parque Botero, eat a nasty hot dog. Take a salsa class and go dancing at El Eslabon Prendido! Go paragliding because you’ll never be able to afford it here and the views are increíble. Take a Pablo Escobar tour and find out why Medellin used to be the murder capital of the world.

Bogota Breakdown:

Bogota is the kind of city where you want to spend some time. Similar to New York, it’s hard to feel as if you’ve gotten an understanding of the place if you’re just passing through. However, if you must, some highlights are: Go on a graffiti tour Watch the sunset at the top of Montserrat Learn about gold at the Museo de Oro Shop. You’ll find your market somewhere. ……… You can read a bit further about my Bogota experience here.

Salento Breakdown:

Salento is the type of small Andean town in the middle of Colombia’s coffee triangle where you can expect to find men walking between colorful craft shops in small ponchos and cowboy hats, where you can perch yourself on a hillside hacienda drinking freshly roasted coffee and looking out at the snow-capped peaks of Los Nevados National Park. The town itself is lovely, so make sure not to just pass through it, as it’s not to be overlooked. Coffee farms surround the small town, so make sure to take a coffee plantation tour. But the main allure of Salento is its role as a gateway to Cocora Valley, the home of the stately wax palm trees, a national symbol.

Cartagena Breakdown:

Where to stay: I stayed at El Viajero Hostel, close to Monumenta India Catalina and the best damn arepa stand in the city. Many tourists like to stay on the lively Calle Media Luna. If you’re looking to stay on the beach, there are a ton of high rises in Marbella, but the beach isn’t incredibly impressive. The city is far more fascinating. The neighborhood of Getsemani is the new hot spot in Cartagena, so might be worth checking out hotels there.

**if you do decide that you love the reviews of el viajero and want a hostel vibe, it is worth noting that the private rooms, while air conditioned, are directly next to the courtyard where you will never get a peaceful night’s sleep. Not that you want one in Cartagena…

What to do: Beach is nice, but as you see if you read my post, I just loved walking around and eating, drinking, smoking, napping, getting caught in torrential downpours. It’s fucking hot in Cartagena.

A lot of people go to the mud volcano which I heard was over touristy, or take a day trip to Playa Blanca which is meant to be gorgeous, but I didn’t go…

Santa Marta Breakdown:

Santa Marta is a great gateway to other cool parts of the coast like Tayrona National Park, Minca, Palomino, Taganga, etc. The city itself is really not that cool (although some may disagree), but The Dreamer Hostel was actually a dream. You can see some of the pics from there in a blog post here.

Taganga Breakdown:

Alternately, you can even stay in Taganga, although I don’t have recommendations for where. Known in Colombia as “the backpacker’s ghetto”, it’s a sleepy fishing village, a little gritty, but absolutely lovely. We partied there one night at arguably my favorite club in all South America called El Mirador. As its name suggests, it looks out over the port. There’s a ton of different indoor and outdoor dance floors, a good mix of tourists and locals, and you can party till the sun rises and you can see little fishing boats bobbing calmly in the water. You can also walk along the beach during the party to look for drugs or arepas. And there’s always an after party.

Minca Breakdown:

Minca is a little village that is known among backpackers for two things– 1) A waterfall; 2) Casa Elemento–Pro tip: book in advance (if they have no beds, you can also pay to sleep in a hammock, which I did). The town is quite small, so if there are other things to do there, I didn’t hear about them.

Whatever hostel you stay at can arrange for you to take a taxi to the waterfall, which is a short trip and not a big hike to the falls.

A taxi can also take you the center of town, where you can take a zigzaggy, adventurous ride up to Casa Elemento, a hostel in the sky boasting the world’s largest hammock!!!. Make sure to find out how much the moto-taxi up will be before you meet with a driver and pay him before you sit down on the back of his bike so that he doesn’t try to get more out of you at the top.

The ride to Casa Elemento is super fun, but about an hour long into the mountains. Can read about my experience with this hostel here. **make sure to bring tons of deet/bug spray and something warm and covered up at night.

Palomino Breakdown: 

Again, stayed here at the Dreamer Hostel sister. It’s the prettier of the two with an excellent bar, restaurant, pool and rooms. It’s right on the beach, as well, and the water has the craziest current I’ve ever seen, so not swimmable but def something to see. You can also go river tubing in Palomino, but I didn’t get around to it.  

Tayrona:

I didn’t make it here because I heard mixed reviews. I think the deal is a massive sweaty hike to a gorgeous beach where you can camp out for the night, sleeping on hammocks or in tents rented from the vendors there. I hear these hammocks and tents are pretty vile and a lot of people said that while gorgeous, the whole ordeal was more of a headache than it was worth.

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Casa Elemento- A Paradise in the Sky

Casa Elemento Hostel lives in an untouched world in the mountains of Minca, Colombia

From the world’s largest hammock to sunrise jungle hikes, Casa Elemento is worth the trek up the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Casa Elemento sits perched in the green, wild mountains of Minca, Colombia. Leah, Greer, Kat and I decided to head over to the famous backpacker hostel to catch up with a friend of theirs from Australia, Alec, who works there as the chef and to see what the fuss was about. Word under the bunk beds was that this hostel offers its guests magic mushrooms to take and trip on while enjoying the scenery. We learned within minutes of arriving that it does not, in fact, offer such a treat, but more on that later.

We left our hostel, the Dreamers, in Santa Marta and took a bumpy cab ride south through the Magdalena region to the small, shabby-but-charming town of Minca. Along the way, we were stopped by police on the side of a choppy, broken road under the cool shade of the cloud forests. As our driver pulled over his brown heap, we all hurriedly stashed any money or drugs in our bras and prepared our sweet Gringa smiles for the inquisitive pigs. Turns out, the cops were only looking to have a little fun, and they joked with us and commented on how beautiful our passport photos were and warned us about sand flies up at Casa Elemento before they sent us on our way.

The small corner of organized town-ness that I could see in Minca held little more than a restaurant and hostel or two, a few convenience stores, and about 20 motorcycle riders vying for the attention of any tourist whom they could charge for a ride up the mountain to the hostel. As eager faces and oil-stained hands tried to pull me in the direction of their individual bike, I was reminded of the time in Cusco when colectivo drivers competed with their peers to win more bodies in their vans to Ollantaytambo. Instantly over-stimulated and frustrated, I walked away from the group that was harassing me in a huff and found a driver standing off to the side, bothering no one, and asked if he’d be so kind as to take me up. I paid him his 15,000 pesos as I straddled the seat of the bike. I’ve learned that it’s always best to pay the agreed upon fare before the ride begins, not after you’ve arrived. Many drivers will take it upon themselves to charge you more at the end of the journey, guessing that you’d rather just pay up than have a confrontation.

The only way up the muddy mountain to Casa Elemento, Minca is on a motorcycle
The girls and I ride on the backs of motorcycles to make it up and down the mountain to Casa Elemento.

So there we were, the four of us giggling under our helmets and mounted behind some locals. The ascent was curvy and steep, but my driver was up to the task, expertly balancing on thin pavement when there was any, dodging potholes, and easing us through the sucking mud. I tried to move with the bike and lean forward as much as possible to make it easier for him, and he told me he appreciated the effort and even offered to let me drive, which I declined. It wasn’t long before my whoops of pleasure at going fast around bends and hilarious cackles resulted in my driver and me being far ahead of the group. I could tell he was happy to have a friendly, Spanish-speaker who liked to ride fast behind him.

The air on the mountain where Casa Elemento sits was thick with moisture, but still impossibly fresh. A tall barefoot American with sandy blonde hair and aviators on greeted us and pointed through a sort of sunroom to the outdoor bar where we could check in. When we called to make the booking, as there is no internet or Wifi access up there, we were told that only two of us could have beds and the other two would have to sleep in hammocks. Kat and I opted to take the hammocks- I had never slept in one and felt like I should before leaving South America, and she just didn’t mind them. While we were ordering up our first drinks of the night and inquiring, to no avail, about mushrooms, we ran into more than a handful of travelers we already knew from other hostels, which wasn’t shocking considering the popularity of this particular lodging.

Casa Elemento's bar is outside.
the outdoor bar of Casa Elemento
Casa Elemento hostel in Minca, Colombia has a great pool
Casa Elemento pool

While we didn’t find mushrooms we did find much more: a paradise in the sky. The commune-esque hostel boasts being the home to the biggest hammock in the world. The girls and I couldn’t wait to take our drinks and lounge on the giant net, to hang seemingly over the edge of the world, swatting away the millions of sand flies that apparently lived and reproduced in the ropes of the net.

Safety rules at Casa Elemento's giant hammock
World’s Largest Hammock rules
Relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Ladies chillin on the hammock, Casa Elemento
Visitors to Casa Elemento relax on the giant hammock.
Greer and Kat enjoying the hammock.
Cheers to Casa Elemento's giant hammock in the sky. Minca, Colombia
Cheers to the World’s Largest Hammock!

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The night was relaxing and peaceful. We drank and smoked and laughed. We traded stories with other travelers around a campfire, crammed together on the hammock in the tree house watching people shower below us, itched our bug bites and ate whatever Alec dished out for lunch and dinner. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is feeling blessed to be where I was.

Guests in a hammock in a treehouse at Casa Elemento
Greer and Kat in the treehouse.

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Yoga and relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento
Clouds move over the view of the Sierra Nevadas at Casa Elemento
Misty sunset at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Beautiful, misty sunset over the World’s Largest Hammock

When the time came to go to bed, I found myself a hammock that had been strung up in the aforementioned sun room, covered myself in every bit of clothing I owned and any blanket I could find, and swayed myself to sleep. I woke up early the next morning and went to use the outdoor toilet in a room with three walls— the missing wall reveals the beautiful scenery of the Sierra Nevadas. As I walked barefoot back from the bathroom, I noticed that people were asleep literally wherever they could find a comfortable spot. One couple had dragged a mattress onto the giant hammock and were sound asleep there. Another couple was sharing the hammock in the tree house. Someone was floating in the water, all of the sunroom hammocks were taken, as well as any spare couch or cushion inside. It felt hippie-like and homey, and made me feel comforted that everyone here had made this place their home for the time being.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Coastin’ with some bad bitches

The people you meet traveling are half the fun.

I loved having the chance to make lasting friendships with a great group of Australian girls in Colombia.

I was sitting in the courtyard of my Cartagena hostel, el Viajero, sweating through my yoga pants, when the baddest girls I ever met caught my attention. There were five of them holding grocery bags, the thin blonde in front donning some kind of a grim reaper marijuana t-shirt. I remember wondering how these apparent backpackers had the means to be rocking cute outfits and makeup, whereas I only packed comfy staples and some tinted lip balm.

Later that day, I ran into the girls again in the hostel’s subpar kitchen while we made our respective dinners. I admired the way they all chipped in together, comparing their collective process to the countless times I had single-handedly prepared meals for my culinary-challenged friends. They were unexpectedly kind in offering me up their knives to use to cut up my red pepper and onion and were even more surprisingly friendly when I interrupted their meal to ask for a lighter to light the stove. As I handed the lighter back, I looked at the blonde one and said, “I like your shirt. If you’re ever in need, let me know.” I smiled and walked away, happy that I had already found a connect and wasn’t offering up an empty promise, and satisfied that they looked at me with hope rather than disgust.

I didn’t see the girls again until I was heading out to smoke a joint around the corner from the hostel. The tallest one with the most piercing blue eyes, Greer, was walking back to her room where I could hear the other girls howling with laughter. We acknowledged each other, she looking graceful in an Amazonian way in her long skirt that I soon found out were a staple of hers. I showed her the joint and asked if she’d like to come along, to which she happily agreed.

“You wanna invite your bitches?” I asked, hoping she wouldn’t be offended that I called them bitches. She didn’t flinch.

“Nah, they’ll just smoke all your stuff,” she replied.

I don’t remember what we talked about while we passed the joint back and forth, but I remember that she was easy to talk to. Long story short, the rest of her crew welcomed me into their group so seamlessly, I wondered how I hadn’t met them before or why I couldn’t find a group of girlfriends this laidback in the states. The last few nights we spent in Cartagena, lounging on chairs in the courtyard and chatting, I was astonished by how sweet and giving these girls were to each other. There was no cattiness, no jealousy. Just a few bad bitches having a good time, and I was honored to be one of them for the time being.

There was Katarina, or Kat, with curly brown hair and a septum piercing. Hanging with her was like being near a reiki masseuse; she somehow could always read and adapt to your energy, and she really took the time to make sure her friends knew they were loved and at peace. Greer, whom I mentioned prior, is nicknamed Groel, which is perfect for her if you’ve ever met her. She’s tall and a force to be reckoned with, and I’ve never seen such a small waist consume so much food and beer. Leah, whom they call Wrecky because she’s always wrecked (not really though), is the blonde with the grim reaper marijuana shirt. She’s thin and beautiful with bright blue eyes and the best Australian accent I’ve ever heard, and she’s always quick to dole out compliments. Julia, or Jules, is sweet, thoughtful and affectionate. She’s the type of person who goes with the flow and seems to never lose her temper, and you know you’re being taken care of when you’re in her company. Elise, or Leisy, is Jules’s sister, a fact what no one had to tell me- I could tell just from noticing their many identical gestures and mannerisms. Leisy’s got a raspy voice and a husky laugh and she is all heart. When I had to leave the girls in paradise to fly back home, Leisy carried my bags to the bus and hugged me about a million times before we finally said goodbye.

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The girls by the pool in Santa Marta- (left to right) Leah, Kat, Elise, Jules, Greer

Since we had all planned to make Santa Marta the next stop after Cartagena, the girls excitedly and genuinely invited me to join them. I was skeptical of the easiness with which they included me at first, but it was all in my head. We ended up at the most beautiful hostel, the Dreamers, in the city that doesn’t offer much but a stopping ground to the rest of the coast, Parque Tayrona, and the Sierra Nevadas.

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In the week I spent basking in their insanely good energy and superb, unparalleled, frat-boy-meets-celebrity style party skills, we sat around in hammocks and were lazy by the pool, drinking mojitos and beers and ordering pasta from the hostel restaurant.

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We trekked to the forest in Minca, a small town nearby, to visit the waterfall at Pozo Azul, and we stayed at the Dreamers in Palomino where the only activity we truly engaged in was trying to stand up in the freakishly strong current of the ocean nearby.

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beach in palomino
beach in palomino

They showed me an awesome time at a nightclub overlooking the bay of Taganga, called el Mirador, and kept me awake yet asleep on my feet, way past my bedtime, at an after party that lasted well past sunrise. I listened intently as they told me about their small town in Australia called Geelong, and watched with amusement a zombie apocalypse tourism campaign done by their crazy mayor whom they all voted for out of humor.

I politely accepted or declined bumps, shared clothes, talked about boys, exchanged travel stories, cooked meals, brainstormed on different uses for vegemite, got drunk, passed cigarettes, had heart to hearts. They even gave me a nickname, Bec, to match all of theirs, which I found very touching.

pasta dinner
pasta dinner…i don’t know that guy who’s photo bombing
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
the morning after el mirador, going strong by the pool
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure
Kat and Elise, still buzzin the morning of my departure

I guess this isn’t a post on things to do in Colombia, but this is what I did my last week of my backpacking trip. I found some good girls and rolled with it, because it’s not always about climbing every mountain or visiting every national park or joining every tour. More often than not, traveling is about the people you meet and what they teach you about yourself. These girls taught me that it’s ok to just chill and enjoy the company around you. They showed me that it’s possible to be accepted as family just by being a good person, and they helped me recognize that I have worth and that I am loved.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Cartagena is Magical Realism

Cartagena, Colombia is a city that reminds its visitors of its history with every step.

Experience the Caribbean meets European Colonial lifestyle that is one-of-a-kind in Cartagena.

 

“Colombia is magical realism.” This campaign slogan written to welcome international travelers to Colombia is a clear homage to the late Nobel-prize winning author and Colombian native, Gabriel García Márquez. The literary term “magical realism” is used to describe a writing style, often illustrated best through Latin American authors, that combines the ordinary with the fantastic. In Love in the Time of Cholera, which I just finished reading, García Márquez’s descriptions of Cartagena sweep me back to my enchanting few weeks on the coast of Colombia. “…the broken roofs and the decaying walls, the rubble of fortresses among the brambles, the trail of islands in the bay, the hovels of the poor around the swamps, the immense Caribbean.” (García Márquez. Penguin, 1988. p.132) The author describes the city as it was at the turn of the 20th century, yet from my eyes it still resembles this bleak yet majestic appearance. The heavy heat and fierce 3 o’clock sun make a siesta the only acceptable afternoon activity. The Afro-Colombians diligently tend to their fruit stands amid the smell of fried fish and coconut rice, and the sky spills itself almost entirely onto the sunken streets, flooding the ancient sewer systems. Both García Márquez’s words and the experience of being in Cartagena left me spellbound.

The city is uniquely alive. It isn’t a capital machine like Bogota or a tourist trap like Cusco. Cartagena demands a way of life from residents and visitors alike, a steady routine of siesta and fiesta. It is the kind of place that doesn’t expect anything from itself or from you. You eat where you happen to be when you’re hungry, you sleep where you are when you’re tired, and you drink where you are when you’re thirsty. Heavy stone curtain walls and rough black cannons, funded by the Spanish government to defend the robust port city from pirate attacks, surround the historic center, specifically the neighborhoods El Centro and San Diego facing the sea and Getsemaní facing inland. Construction of the walls began in 1586 under Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli, resumed and extended by Governor Fransico de Murga in 1631 and finally finished in 1796 under the supervision of engineer Antonio de Arévalo.

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Puerta de Santo Domingo, Cartagena, Colombia

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Castillo San Felipe, Cartagena, Colombia

It was inside these walls that I became acquainted with the city. My hostel, El Viajero, was located in San Diego on Calle de los Siete Infantes. The loudest part of this street, besides the tourists, was the bright, colorful buildings hailing back to the Spanish colonial era.

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However, just a short walk further inside the walled city and you’d be greeted by a buzz of activity. I took it that it was simply the culture to be outside, whether that meant selling your wares or simply sitting on a foldout chair watching people pass by. Even as they completed mundane tasks, I found that the residents were muy alegre, very cheerful, as my Colombian friends here in Boston described their people when they found I was searching for that very word to explain my perceptions.

While Cartagena offers many tourist activities, for example slipping into a mud bath at the volcano El Totumo, visiting the fortress Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, or taking a day trip to the nearby Playa Blanca for some snorkeling and gorgeous beach photos, I found that the extreme heat and humidity made many movements unnecessary, if not actually a burden. I was content to simply wander around, dragging the heels of my $2 Old Navy flip flops along the cobbled streets and using the hem of my shirt to wipe away my sweat mustaches. From the steps of my hostel, where I’d spend some nights cooling off on the stoop and smoking 50 peso single cigarettes from one of the traveling street vendors called tinteros, I could saunter a few blocks to the right and be greeted by the Plaza de San Diego, currently lit up with Christmas lights, to enjoy a cup of coffee or an authentic meal at Restaurante Totopo. From those same steps I could walk to the left a few blocks towards the most impressive supermarket, Éxito, that I had seen in South America or to the most delicious arepa stand on the same corner.

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My favorite route, however, led into Getsemaní. Just a left from the hostel doors and a quick right onto a Calle de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, which continues onto Calle de la Necesidad and you can begin to see the start of a shopping district forming, specifically in an alleyway filled with produce vendors called Calle del Cancel which leads to the main road Avenida Venezuela, a street whose broad sidewalks and tall windows offer no respite from the beating sun.

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Avenida Venezuela before a storm

On occasion, I attempted to take shelter in one of the many cheap clothing stores with just enough air conditioning to make me ignore the employees who would not-so-slyly surround me, a potential shoplifter. Across the street are a few plazas filled with Afro-Colombians selling fruit or eating entire plates of rice and fish on benches, and beyond those, another busy street, Lemaitre. I’d cross this busy road, paying no mind to the traffic lights, and would continue onto Calle de Tripita y Media into Getsemaní, where banners and some greenery create a canopy down the narrow street and men walk about shirtless or at the very least with their shirts raised up and resting on their bellies. Hostels boasting free wifi and restaurants offering deals for three course lunches called to me as I stepped from sidewalk to street in a steady rhythm, evading perspiring and loitering men before they realized I was a tourist and sidestepping inconveniently placed light posts. Soon I’d reach Calle Media Luna, where the famous party hostel, Media Luna Hostel, is located. Media Luna is the place to be on any night of the week, but Wednesday nights bring together the perfect combination of locals and tourists, packed together on the hostel’s steamy dance floor, swaying to the live music and leaning over the edge of the balcony to watch the party continue on the rest of the street.

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the band inside Media Luna Hostel
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Calle Media Luna, Cartagena, Colombia
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getting ready for a night out in my dorm at El Viajero…notice the red wristband

If you find yourself on these streets at night, I caution you to be wary of what you’re carrying, because the local police will not hesitate to search every pocket in your shorts and lining in your purse. If you do happen to get caught with an illegal substance, I’ve been told that to get out of it, you simply say to the policeman, “In my country, we pay a fine in these situations. Does your country do the same?” This is a clear bribe. And it should work, as long as you have the plata to back it up.

Each street inside the walls seems to offer up an array of food stands, from cups of sliced mangos and fresh-squeezed orange juice to arepas con queso and chicken kebabs, to shredded and sugared coconut candies and messy hot dogs. A few times, I went ventured a few blocks past Calle Media Luna to the Plaza de la Trinidad, where the focal point is a large yellow church and a courtyard where children play soccer and people line the perimeter, eating Patacón con Todo and drinking cervezas, or otherwise ducking into one of the many overpriced restaurants and bars near by.

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Plaza de la Trinidad, Cartagena, Colombia

I found it a treat to simply stroll down the streets and delight in all of the choices that are probably only 1 to 2 thousand pesos (50 cents to $1) away. The best time I found to sample the sidewalk delicacies is around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when the setting sun is less likely to reduce you to a puddle of sweat and the world has awoken yet again from its afternoon nap, half of it with an apparent morning woody that I can only assume is the cause of the rampant vulgarity and sexual harassment among many of the men on the street.

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Monumento India Catalina, Cartagena, Colombia
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some colorful Afro-Colombian art
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the busy streets in Getsemaní still slick with rain water

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While we’re on the subject of dangers, one rule I learned from an unfortunate Australian party boy in my dorm who tickled my feet while I slept is to NEVER try before you buy in Cartagena. I’m talking about cocaine here, people. What happened to his group has happened to other people I met along the way, so if you’re one to cool off by hitting the slopes, please take a lesson from this cautionary tale. If a native man can see that you are a clear tourist looking to buy drugs and offers you a sample, be wary. If he explains that you must follow him to a restaurant or café to try the drugs he has shown you, perhaps he even lets you hold the bag, turn away. If you haven’t ran for it yet, there is a good chance you and your mates will be greeted in a deserted restaurant by members of the cartel either wielding knives or backed up by their threatening friends. They will give you the drugs, sure, but they will demand that you pay them some exorbitant fee for the drugs. My bunkie and his friends were led to ATMs and instructed to take out as much as $700 each as payment for their cocaine, their robbers pointing out that their red wristbands given to them by the hostel indicate where they are staying, a clear threat. So I guess what I’m saying is that while Rule Number 1 is don’t try before you buy, Rule Number 2 must be don’t carry your debit or credit card with you when you’re on the hunt for drugs. And maybe Rule Number 3 should be to remove or cover up the hostel wristbands before embarking on potentially dangerous ventures. Not that I would condone such a thing….

When I wasn’t listening to horror stories, enjoying the air conditioning of the movie room in my hostel or traipsing about the streets looking for a snack, I was hoping that the wind would be good so that I could finally be reunited with my new favorite sport, kite surfing. For 10 to 12 thousand pesos, I’d take a taxi past the beautiful jetties and small slice of beach called Mar Bella to Hotel Las Americas, the first giant high-rise hotel in a strip of many along an unimpressive beach. I’d walk by the pricey seafood restaurants along flat sand, avoiding piles of horse droppings and dodging black women forcing massages on tourists and then demanding fares as high as 50 thousand pesos with the strength of their friends to back them up. The kites flying high against that impossibly blue sky were a sight for sore eyes, and I continued my lessons in the warm Caribbean, excelling despite the opposite wind conditions to those I first learned in. Gliding across the water, pulled by the kite, was the perfect cure for hazy heat of the city. Each meter I flew reminded me of how far I’d come from that first week in Ecuador when I was sitting on the beach watching everyone else kite surf but me.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Salento: Not to be Overlooked

Salento, Colombia is a peaceful town in the Coffee Triangle of Colombia.

Enjoy the town’s serenity, cuisine, and artisan culture.

 

Most people come to Salento, a small town nestled in the Quindio region of the coffee triangle, to engage in the activities beyond its tranquil streets, such as visiting coffee farms or trekking the Cocora Valley. However, the historic cowboy town itself is an alluring stopping ground due to its 360 views of Los Nevados mountain range, its relaxed atmosphere, colorful colonial architecture, and talented artisans. The poncho and cowboy hat wearing locals move about with a practiced calm and always have a genuine, slow smile for the many foreigners who visit. The main square, complete with church, supermarket and police station, is flanked on all four sides by restaurants and filled in the middle with food trucks serving up traditional paisa style cuisine and the regional specialty, trout or trucha. The constant slightly overcast skies and high altitude near the mountains make for mild and cool temperatures in the damp air. The two spots that made me wish I had more time to spend in Salento were my hostel, La Serrana, and a little café called Brunch.

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the plaza when we first arrived
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the jeep stand

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Laura and me crouched in the back of our first jeep
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food stands in the plaza
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bandeja paisa- traditional gigantic plate of meats and starches

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side street off the plaza- notice the cowboy on the right

La Serrana

I met German man in Bogota who had been backpacking for nearly two years, and he referred me to this hostel, where, he said, you can cook using ingredients from La Serrana’s very own garden. The 20 hectares of lush farmland where the hostel makes its home is about a half an hour walk outside of the city, or a ten minute, 600 peso-per-person old army jeep ride, down a dirt road past damp farms and healthy looking cattle. La Serrana is a home away from home. Its property perches prettily among the emerald plains and hills of Los Nevados mountain range. With a family style breakfast and dinner, dim mood lighting and comfortable leather chairs and sofas, visitors to La Serrana really get to experience a taste of the Colombian hacienda lifestyle.

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main building

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the dining room
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an outdoor hang out near the fire pit

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the hostel’s garden

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delicious breakfast
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so homey

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While the breakfast was delicious and the grounds were incredible, my favorite part about staying there was a stray dog that roamed around the farm. I named him Randall after he accompanied me on a few walks into town, only stopping to terrorize the cows. I don’t know where this dog came from, but my new friend Randall escorted me many times for my entire walk from the hostel to wherever I had to go in town, occasionally linking up with me when I popped in and out of stores or restaurants.

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Me and Randall, a stray who hung around the hostel

 

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following us into town

Brunch

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If you’ve been reading, you know that I am an adventurous eater who likes to sample the local flavor when I travel. But that doesn’t mean I’ll turn down a burger and a peanut butter filled brownie. Brunch is also a traveler’s home away from home, offering guests (usually outsiders) an American diner-style menu, complete with pancakes and omelets, tuna melts and turkey burgers. The small restaurant is owned and run by an American (I think…could be Canadian, I suppose) gentleman who, legend has it, still does not speak Spanish. His manager claims to be from Bogota, yet speaks English like a Californian, and is the most gracious host, quickly scrambling to bring cucumber water to the table, answer any questions about the menu, or let us sample some of the restaurant’s homemade peanut butter. After Laura ordered the most delicious black bean burger ever and I ordered the teriyaki pineapple burger—complete with lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions and fries— I set about reading the writing on the walls and picking up a deck of cards from the game pile to play a little Spit with Laura. We were barely into the first round when our food came.

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wall notes

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nice manager feeding us homemade peanut butter- i’m almost done with the jar I brought home

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Needless to say, everything was delicious. We came back as many times as our stomachs would allow, and to help us digest so we could order a brownie a la mode, we vegged on the couches and bean bag chairs in the movie room in the back, taking our pick of 1000 movies on a USB.

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watching ‘a knight’s tale’

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Where The Caffeine Grows…

Touring El Ocaso Finca in Salento, Colombia to see how coffee is made.

See how Salento’s mountain climate is perfect to make the smoothest coffee in the world.

 

After two months of accepting instant coffee and canned milk as my morning fate, I was thrilled to finally make it to Colombia to get a proper caffeine fix in. To see how my favorite addiction is made, I decided to take the scenic 40-minute walk through mountain jungle from my hostel La Serrana in Salento to check out El Ocaso Finca. While there are other fincas and plantations close by, this one was highly recommended. The coffee produced here is only organic and is UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, and 4C Association certified, focusing on their productivity, environmental practices, and ethical codes, respectively.

view on the walk over
view on the walk over
El Ocaso Finca
El Ocaso Finca

When I arrived, I was delighted to see a bustling house amid the gorgeous 23 hectares of plantation, 12 of which are used for coffee. Our small group led by a Spanish-speaking guide began the tour by showing us the crops and explaining the seriously committed process that goes into your morning cup of joe. We picked ripe red berries from the bush and broke them open with our fingers to reveal two coffee beans that were sweet to suck on.

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not yet ripe

 

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Normally, the pickers do the first part of this job, emptying their 80-120 kilogram sacks at noon and the end of the day into the “hopper”, which searches the haul for leaves, sticks or green cherries and sends the good bits down to the “de-pulper.” This 100-year-old machine finishes the job by squeezing the coffee beans from the cherries and separating the pulp from the beans, a process called “wet-milling”. But I digress.

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To even get the coffee cherries requires a lot of time and work. The seed must be planted in sand for 30 days until a bulb has formed. Once it has, the crop will continue to grow for an additional six months before being moved to soil and planted in rows, one meter apart from each plant and two meters from its neighboring rows. From here, it takes 18 months for the plant to grow beautiful white flowers with five petals, which fall off after three days to make room for the coffee fruit to grow over the span of nine months or more. While the fruit starts green, it changes to red or yellow as it ripens. Once the fruit has grown, it will produce for five years, twice a year, from March to May and September to November, the cherries being picked whenever they are ready.

the plants in sand
the plants in sand

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So what happens when you have those beans? The good beans are cleaned and stripped of nearly all outer organic matter and put into big machines to dry, or sometimes, during low harvest seasons, the coffee is taken to the canopy to sun dry. Once it is dry, the handlers check it once more for defective beans, which they use for domestic brews or instant coffees (the good stuff gets exported). Then the dried beans are mashed up with a muddler to remove their skin and then toasted for 70 minutes, constantly being stirred so that they don’t burn. You can tell a lower quality coffee from a higher quality because the bad stuff is darker from being burnt.

dried beans on the table- they called them "almonds"
dried beans on the table- they called them “almonds”

 

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big bad muddler

 

stirring the beans over heat
stirring the beans over heat
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality

Now this is the part of the tour I had been waiting for- a chance to sample the coffee. We ground up the beans in a hand grinder, the thick aroma of fresh coffee beans filling my nostrils. Our tour guide put the ground up coffee into a sieve that rested over a silver coffee pot that looked more like a pitcher to me, and I volunteered to pour the hot water, slowly, around the top circle of the strainer, until the water seeped sultrily through the grounds. The coffee was so mild and tasty that I didn’t even feel the need to bite back at the bitterness with sugar or milk. The cup of coffee that I drank at El Ocaso Finca was the perfect example of how Colombia, while only third after Brazil and Vietnam in coffee production, is the leading producer of the smoothest coffees.

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by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Mystical Cocora Valley

Feel suspended in time and space in the magical Cocora Valley in Colombia.

Walk amongst a garden of the tallest palm trees in the world outside of Salento, Colombia.

The old war jeeps that serve as taxis in Salento, Colombia can comfortably seat eight passengers, with two up front next to the driver and six facing each other in the bumpy back. The day I decided to see the Valle de Cocora, a valley that is located in the highest of the three branches of the Andean mountains and is home to Colombia’s national tree, the Quindio wax palm, we somehow managed to fit thirteen passengers into the jeep- four squeezed together in the back, three hanging off the back, and two in the front with the driver.

The 45-minute drive under a threateningly overcast sky was scenic to say the least. I smiled the whole car ride to myself as the chilly, moist air rushed at my face through the plastic windows of the jeep. I couldn’t believe my eyes as they scanned rolling jade plantations, feasting black and white cows, trees that I had never seen before, and a clear river running over mossy rocks.

The stopping ground before the Cocora Valley is a small town in and of itself, with shops, restaurants, hotels and horses for hire.

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Originally, my intention was to simply see the valley for the tall palm trees and then take a jeep back, a short excursion. Most people do the Cocora Valley trek, which I ended up doing, which lasts about four hours and is fairly physically demanding, but we’ll get to that. As I walked up a road away from the town, the sounds of music and people trying to cater to the tourists and of horses’ hooves all began to fade slowly until there was nothing. I was alone walking down the dirt road towards the fog in the distance, and my only company was the sound of my boots on gravel.

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It’s hard to express the bliss of being alone. No friends from the hostel chattering about where they’ve been and where they’re going, no chipper tour guide exploiting his country’s heritage and beauty, no cars whizzing by. The only other living things around me as the skinny palms came into clearer vision through the fog were the quietly grazing horses and cows. I paid a ponchoed man standing under a green tarp something like 3,000 pesos to enter the Valley, and walked slowly over the thick, memory foam-like grass. My mouth hung open and my head tilted back as I marveled at these skyscrapers, swaying slightly at the top and looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. The cloud in the distance soon became the cloud I was standing in. The mist around me gave me a mystical feeling, and I sat down to meditate in my much-needed solitude.

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I don’t know how everyone meditates, or if I was even doing it right. I sat cross-legged on the damp grass, closed my eyes, and pictured myself as I was, a woman alone in the forest of palm trees. I felt the absence of other people around me, their energies no longer clouding my own. I envisioned the palms towering above me, and imagined that I was the wind that I heard rustling in my ears. I pictured the birds I heard chirping sitting in their nests, and I followed the river that I could hear running in my mind. When I finally opened my eyes, I could no longer see the palms that I had looked at before I began to meditate. The mist was shielding them, but then just as suddenly, those palms appeared before me again, and the cloud moved on.

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I took my time in the forest, making sure to stay near the dirt path while I looped through the trees. I followed grass stairs up which led to more path, going uphill and out of sight, so I continued. It wasn’t until about an hour into my walk, when the landscape started changing to thick woods and clusters of tall skinny, pine-like trees instead of mist and palms, that I realized I was probably doing the trek despite my original intentions. I looked at the map from my hostel. Not only was I doing the hike, but I was doing it backwards. Oh well. There’s supposed to be some waterfalls in here somewhere, I reasoned. It’s probably worth it.

when I started to realize that I was out of the valley and on the hiking trail
when I started to realize that I was out of the valley and on the hiking trail
map from the hostel and my route
map from the hostel and my route

The ascension was difficult, but doable. Thankfully, I brought enough snacks and water. Soon, the fog was so thick and I was so high up that I couldn’t even see the valley anymore. It took me two hours to make it to the Finca, or farm, on the map. If you’re doing the same trail and come across a locked gate, just climb over it. I don’t know why it’s there.

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the gate you must vault
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the beautiful finca

By the time I got there, I was cursing my genetics. See, I’m a healthy girl. I’m fit enough, but along with gifts of big boobs and curly hair, my mother bestowed upon me the curse of bad hip joints. Every step was agony, so I begged the people at the finca for some form of painkillers and continued onward, or should I say downwards. The path back down the mountain (by this time I realized that I had climbed some small mountain) is steep, rocky and slippery. As I zigzagged down with cautious steps, I immediately picked up a giant walking stick and partnered up with some locals, an incredibly loving couple and their friend, who were very kind and informative about the nature and culture in this part of Colombia.

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Another hour and a half to the bottom, past the same river I had seen on the jeep ride here, over rickety bridges, around pools of mud.

my new friends, carefully making their way down the slippery rocks
my new friends, carefully making their way down the slippery rocks
me and my walking stick
me and my walking stick
cool, rickety bridge
cool, rickety bridge

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Near the bottom, the rain began to pour. I was lucky I brought my rain jacket that protected my electronics, but I did not fair so well. We came out of the forest part and slipped about on strategically placed rocks and wood, dodging puddles poorly through the Cocora Valley, past a fresh water trout farm, and up another hill to the small town. I never truly knew the meaning of “soaked through to the bone” until that day. My hood was filled with enough water to quench the thirst of three dehydrated men. My shoes were squelching with each step. They didn’t dry for four days. We finally all made it to their car, panting and dripping and laughing. The nice Colombians offered to drive me back to Salento, which I gratefully accepted, and I shivered in the car with yet another smile on my face and another amazing experience under my belt.

last pic I could take coming out of the woods before the rain came down too hard
last pic I could take coming out of the woods before the rain came down too hard

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Bogota and Street Food

The street food in Bogota and Colombia in general will have you drooling.

Munch on arepas and papa rellena as you admire Bogota’s fast paced life and impressive graffiti.

 

Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is by far the most commercial city that I have encountered in South America. I only stumbled through a few neighborhoods, but I could tell that I wouldn’t get to know even a sixteenth of the city in the three days I would be there. It reminded me of New York in that limitless way that can keep you constantly entertained if only you had the time, money or energy to stay put and explore. The second I left my hostel and took stock of where I was, I felt plugged in.

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The streets and the people on them are sort of bleak and direct, moving nonstop underneath a smoggy sky. The indifferent pedestrians make cars stop by simply walking into the street. Bogota is not a walking city by any means, and the public transit, the Transmilenio, was confusing, but well organized, similar to the New York Subway.

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The architecture doesn’t give away where in the world you are. Symmetrical modern high rises in some neighborhoods blend with Tudor style houses in others, while Spanish Colonial buildings down the street clash with whitewashed, Greek-style frameworks with tiled roofs. I felt like I could be in Europe somewhere, maybe Poland or Ireland.

apologies for the blurry image- taken from bus window
apologies for the blurry image- taken from bus window

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What’s to do in Bogota? There are plenty of tourist options, much of which involving parks and museums and churches. Or you could do what I did and take the bus down to La Candelaria (either stopping at Las Aguas or Museo del Oro stops on the bus) and walk around taking pictures of cool people and world famous graffiti.

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You could have a cup of delicious Juan Valdez coffee, Colombia’s Starbucks equivalent. The Museo del Oro, Gold Museum, was pretty cool and informative as far as museums go.

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Riding the cable car up to Montserrat was beautiful and something to do. You can also walk, but the stairs were closed at the hour we tried to go, and I wasn’t having it anyway, what with the altitude and all.

Montserrat from the ground level
Montserrat from the ground level

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But I’ll reiterate—the city was just too daunting to decide what to do. It felt wrong, almost insulting to the locals, simply going from tourist destination to tourist destination when Bogota has so much more to offer as a legitimate place of living and working, not just one of those cities like Cusco or Florence that functions off of tourism. So, I bought stuff to pass the time.

"la mola" style jewelry
“la mola” style jewelry
spent a fair amount of pesos here
spent a fair amount of pesos here

There is always something to spend your money on, whether that be cheap watches and wallets from tables that line the streets, scarves or jewelry laid out on blankets on the pavement, the latest fashions from boutique stores, adorable puppies framed in windows and cages, or food. My god, the food. For every pizza place in Manhattan is a rotisserie/fried chicken joint in Bogota. While New York is obviously the capital of delicious nourishment, serving up literally anything you could ever want to eat, Bogota has one thing on the big apple- street food.

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Street food. I say it in a suggestive whisper. Hey. You wanna go find some street food? Like any good big city, Bogota is constantly moving and the locals have to keep up. Which is why, I’ve decided, they are on point with their street food options. All the carbs and flavors possible in one concise, probably deep-fried package. For those of you solid New Yorkers who think hot dogs, pretzels, halal plates and Nuts4Nuts are the best things to shovel in your mouth while you’re strutting down the sidewalk, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I’ll just regale you with some of the delicious creations that I ate standing up in Bogota/Colombia in general.

Meat: Street meat is delicious. That is a fact. The end.

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Arepa Con Queso: This is the classic, guys. The first arepa with cheese that I ever had was a bit sweeter and more corn-like than a classic arepa, which is basically a somewhat tasteless, ground corn dough pancake thing, for all you Gringos. The round yellow cake is savory with just a touch of sweet from the corn in the soft dough and was moist enough to eat without a drink in hand.

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Arepa Sandwich: Arepas have the durability and neutral flavor to be the perfect base for a sandwich. My first encounter with arepa sandwiches was at Metro Arepas in Bogota, a small, open storefront with a kindly older man taking orders and a quiet, methodic woman filling my arepa with chicharron (fried pork skin) and cheese, brushing melted butter over the tops before she flipped it on the grill, and sprinkling salt onto the hot, greasy dough. I drooled as I watched her prepare my snack, and ate with gusto, licking my salty fingers and taking sips of Coke out of a glass bottle. The next time I had an arepa sandwich was at a super cool fast food strip along the highway in Medellin. While the menu over the counter boasted many different deli-style arepa sandwiches, I was in the mood for a burger and only didn’t order a burger at the counter over because I felt guilty not eating something Colombian. My messy, mass-produced, reheated patty topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo was the perfect combo of American and Colombian disgusting cuisines. My only regret was that I didn’t order fries to go with it.

*drools*

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*drools*

 

Arepa Con Huevo: Ok, so I know I need to quit gushing over arepas. I know so many people who hate them, although I can’t imagine why. If you’ve read the last two descriptions, you should have a decent idea at how versatile this Colombian staple is, so I don’t need to keep talking about it. I will, however, explain to you my final favorite, the arepa with an egg. On the corner of this street near my hostel in Cartagena was an angel who never smiled and was always making fresh arepasempanadas and papas rellenas. While everything she fried in her makeshift street deep fryer was the most tasty, I kept coming back for those egg arepas. She stood every night behind a table, flattening and rounding out premade dough, filling it with ham and some other mystery ingredients, and frying it for a minute, then slicing it open a bit to drop in a raw egg and fry it again. The egg cooks fully in this time and once the masterpiece is handed to you, you join the crowd of Colombians standing around the table, alternating between spooning sauce onto their snack and taking bites.

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arepa con huevo in street skillet
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arepa con huevo

 

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the beautiful cartagena arepa stand and ALL the sauces

Papa Rellena: Stuffed potatoes. Papas rellenas differ in innards from shop to shop and city to city, and none has ever been as legit as the first one I had. From the lookout point on the sidewalk, these lumpy yellow balls are about the size of a softball. They sizzle in oil before an attentive Colombian pulls them out with a slotted spoon and offers one to you, hot and fresh because they go that fast. The first tentative bite offers the taste of fried egg batter and mashed potatoes underneath. The second bite uncovers meaty rice beyond the layer of mashed potatoes, and under the rice is a hardboiled egg. Genius. Not all of the ones I’ve had were as good as this one. If you want this exact papa rellena, you can find it at one of the stands outside that big white Gothic church in Bogota. K?

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papas rellenas being made
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oh my
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here’s the church where you can find these arepas and much more

 

Hot Dog: After a night of drinking and salsa dancing in Medellin, I was quite famished. I asked the cabbie who was taking Laura and me back to our hostel if there was anywhere we could stop and eat. He pulled over on the side of a city road where a couple of men at a stand were serving up burgers and hot dogs. I ordered two dogs for myself and watched patiently as they completed what I thought was someone else’s order. Dogs were fit into warmed buns, and then topped with, if memory serves, melted cheese, cooked ham, bacon bits, beans, mayo, ketchup, pineapple sauce, potato stix, and more sauces. When the man handed them to me I laughed in his face, thinking it must be a joke. But I ended up taking them like a champ (aka giving one to my cab driver). It was the most serious hot dog that I ever put down.

stayin classy
stayin classy

Patacón con Todo: Patacón, fried green plantain, with everything, and they mean it. I was wandering around the streets of Cartagena when I stumbled upon the Plaza de Trinidad, an open, brightly-lit square in front of a church with impressive Christmas light fixtures. Among the few steaming street food stands, one in particular caught my eye. The two men working it had a good thing going. They worked together like a machine, bantering in between creating nine plates of food, one of which would go to me. One man cut up the fried plantains while the other dumped two kinds of shredded meat (I assumed pork and beef) onto the griddle, onto which the first man immediately squeezed a bunch of some brown sauce while he added some cut up hot dogs to the mix. The woman who accepted the money (at these stands, there were usually one or two people preparing the food and one getting paid) laid out the plates as best she could given the limited space, and one of the men immediately plopped a heaping portion of plantain on it. The second man sprinkled a healthy handful of shredded lettuce over it with one hand while he stirred around some white cheese that he dropped onto the grill to melt with the other. On top of the lettuce went the meat mixture, then the cheese, then all the sauces, then potato stix and quite probably some chicharron, and voila, Patacón con literally Todo.

this is what was left in the time it took me to walk from the plaza to the hostel
this is what was left in the time it took me to walk from the plaza to the hostel

Bogota was whatever, but here’s what I ate. Hope I made you hungry.

 

by Rebecca Bellan