Eating: Colombia

Introducing the ‘Eating’ series! All ‘Eating’ posts will be wholly devoted to foods and drinks from our travels. Yum!

Jason and I love trying out local dishes and eating new foods when we travel (one of the reasons our travel blog is named Travels of Yum), but Colombian food isn’t really anything to write home about. (Which is a little ironic since, technically, I am kind of writing home about it in this blog post)

Colombian food is very meat and starch-heavy. Jason LOVES meat but I prefer lighter fare. Also Colombians love to fry everything, which is delicious occasionally but when you have your fifth deep-fried ‘some sort of meat encased in a ball of corn flour’, you start craving a stalk of celery.

Typical Colombian dish

Typical Colombian dish: a platter consisting of rice, slaw, fried plantain, beans, and then either chicken, pork chop, or grilled steak. It was tasty but lacked a little variety. (Taken in Cartagena)

Typical Colombian dish

Same traditional Colombian dish – different meat. (Taken in Medellin)

Something we both agreed on is the flavour of Colombian food – or maybe lack thereof. We’re used to the flavour explosion of Korean kalbi, or the subtle hints of fresh herbs in Vietnamese pho, or oregano-infused aroma of fresh Italian tomato sauce. In comparison, Colombian food is a little one-dimensional. Locals are always sprinkling salt, shaking pepper, squeezing lime or squirting hot sauce on everything to give it some sort of kick.

After two weeks in Colombia and in search of something different, I tried a seafood paella in Cartagena. Cartagena is on the coast and I thought the Spanish seafood dish would be a good choice. Unfortunately, it wasn’t prepared very well (rice was overcooked and it was too salty.

Seafood paella (Cartagena, Colombia)

Looked good…but was a little salty and overcooked.

While on the coast in Cartagena, we also tried ceviche (fresh raw seafood marinated or cured in lime juice and seasoned with chili peppers). We visited a place called La Cevicheria.

La Cevicheria in Cartagena, Colombia

A bowl of octupus ceviche in Cartagena

Apparently Anthony Bourdain had visited this place on his show No Reservations. I’m not sure why, as we found the ceviche very sub par – it was overpoweringly tart and overpriced. I had the octopus ceviche and Jason had the mixed seafood ceviche. Jason’s was mildly better because of the variety in texture.

Luckily, breakfasts were pretty consistently delicious. Fresh baguette served with huevos pericos (scrambled eggs with onion and tomatoes) or arepa (fried maize pancake) served with fried eggs, drizzled with butter and sometime served with a local cheese that’s really similar to feta.

Huevos pericos (Bogota, Colombia)

Huevos pericos and fresh baguette

Delicious breakfast (Jerico, Colombia)

Arepa with cheese and fried eggs (one of my favourite breakfast dishes!)

One thing Colombia does really well is their soups and stews. I’ve posted this photo before but I’ll post it again since it was so good. Their fish soups, pureed vegetable soups, chicken soups are so good! Add a splash of lime and it’s perfect.

Authentic fish stew (Medellin, Colombia)

Don’t miss the soups and stews in Colombia!

Supposedly, one of Colombia’s tastiest dishes is the ajiaco – a very thick chicken stew that’s chock full of vegetables, maize, potatoes, cream, and capers. I only say ‘supposedly’ because I don’t think the version we tried was that great. It was a little too thick in consistency, almost like I was eating a bowl of really thick chicken-flavoured mashed potatoes. We would’ve given it another chance but we ran out of time in Colombia.

Ajiaco (Jardin, Colombia)

Ajiaco – A popular Columbian stew

Colombia also has some amazing exotic fruits (guanabana, mora, etc), so they have delicious fresh jugos (or juices) everywhere. Definitely not something to miss! No pictures to post though, since I always forgot to snap a picture before gulping down the deliciousness. Here’s a picture of Colombian beer though (which was also pretty good) 🙂

Colombian beers

Cool graphic beer logos.

The highlight of the food we had in Colombia was definitely the fish in Cartagena. They brought fresh fish to us while we lounged on the beach, so that we can select one we liked (we chose the Red Snapper) and they fried it up for us and served it with coconut rice. Absolutely amazing.

Deep fried red snapper (Cartagena, Colombia)

Fresh, deep-fried red snapper served right on the beach

I couldn’t get enough of it. I ordered it again for dinner (where I tried the Mojarra). And again for lunch the next day.

Deep-fried Mojarra (Cartagena, Colombia)

Deep-fried Mojarra in Cartagena

Closing in on 3 weeks in Colombia, we decided to get a taste of something familiar – Chinese food. We found one of the few Chinese restaurant in Medellin. Thanks to my dad insistence that I learn the language of my ancestors (i.e. 3 hours of Chinese school every Saturday all through my grade school years), I was able to converse well enough with the owner of the restaurant to order off the menu. That meant we were able to order some authentic Chinese food, as opposed to the Americanized (Colombianized?) Chinese food that she normally serves.

Chinese food (Medellin, Colombia)

Pretty authentic Chinese food (Ma-Po Tofu and Sweet & Sour Pork)

Chinese veggies in soy sauce and garlic (Medellin, Colombia)

After weeks of eating meat and starches, it was nice to have some leafy greens. The owner has to special order in ‘Guy Lian‘. What a treat!

Adios Colombia! The country was beautiful, the people were really friendly, but the food could be better.

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Sardines in a Can Van

Interior of the Chiva bus

The more eclectic the decor on the bus, the faster and crazier the driving.

Whenever possible, Jason and I try to avoid intercity or inter-country bus travel.  But in South America, there isn’t really any sort of useful passenger rail system – leaving us with either expensive flights or the dreaded ‘superlong, head-tossing, stomach-churning, hairpin-turning, traffic-weaving, over-air conditioned’ bus rides.  So we have accepted the fact that ‘superlong, head-tossing, stomach-churning, hairpin-turning, traffic-weaving, over-air conditioned’ bus rides will be part of our South American adventure – or the actual adventure itself.  Let me tell you about our epic bus adventure from Cartagena to Medellin- a whopping 16-hour, multi-part saga.

Exterior of the Chiva bus

The bus ride from Jerico to Andes was one of the most interesting bus rides we’ve taken so far. Unfortunately, the one from Cartagena to Medellin was the exact opposite

Part 1: The Negotiation

Getting to the main bus terminal in Cartagena took a 40 min cab ride (which surprisingly only cost CDN $11). Once we arrived, we found out the next available bus would require us to wait another 3 hours in the sweltering bus terminal. We couldn’t afford to leave Cartagena that late since the estimated 13 hour bus ride would mean we would arrive in Medellin somewhere around 3am. We had read warnings to only arrive in Medellin during the day.  Note: Although this warning was directed specifically to people flying into Medellin (i.e. to avoid the stretch of highway between the airport and the city at night), we decided that it might be wise to apply this to our bus travels as well.

After a game of Colombian Charades (i.e. Charades with Colombian locals) with a few random men hanging around a couple of passenger vans, we were able to negotiate a ride to Medellin that would leave immediately.

Part II: Sardines in a can van

12 people crammed into a van that is supposed to seat 8. This part lasted 6 hours.

sardines in a van

Squished into the 2 front seats were 3 people. Squished behind me in the 3 back seats were 5 people.

sardines in a van

Jason and I were lucky enough to get our own seats!

Part III: Language barrier

Our bus driver stopped at a bus station in some unknown town. Everyone got off the van and got into another van.  A Colombian fellow took our bags and loaded them into the van too. Just before we took off, Jason asked “á Medellin?” The driver looked at us as if we had both grown an extra head.  Then a stream of Spanish words came out of his mouth, of which none were ‘Medellin‘.  He waved us off the van, while a Colombian boy unloaded our backpacks.  He then put them both on (one on his back, the other on his front) and walked off around a corner.  We scurried after him and when we caught up to him, he was loading our backpacks onto an entirely different bus.  “Medellin?“, we asked one of the random men standing around the bus. “Si.”, one them replied.  So we hopped onto the slightly bigger, more run-down, dark and dank bus and hoped the guy outside knew what he was talking about.

Part IV: Musical Chairs Buses

Another 5 hours later, we arrived at a bus station in another unknown town.  We got off the dark, dank bus because everyone else did.  This time, our bags got moved into one of those fancy coach buses.  The conductor started drawing up new tickets for us, and I thought we’d have to pay again for the next leg of the epic saga titled “The never-ending bus ride”.  Luckily, there was an English-speaking Colombian man in the mix.  We’ve discovered on this trip that finding someone who speaks English in Colombia is like receiving good customer service from Rogers Cable…a rare and pleasant surprise!  He told us that this was the last bus transfer and that we should be arriving in Medellin around midnight.

Dirt road from Cartagena to Medellin

On this bus ride, we spent 3 hours travelling on a dirt road. We probably could’ve walked it faster 🙂

The Epilogue: 

I can’t really title this part, “Part V”, since we were still on the same bus.  But around 11pm, we came to a sudden stop on a winding mountain road.  At first I thought we were having engine trouble or maybe a flat tire.  The bus driver adjusted the bus a bit and then turned the engine off.  We were plunged into darkness and silence.  No one was panicking so I didn’t think we were in trouble.  Everyone else on the bus just sat back and went back to sleep.

After sitting in the dark for 15 minutes, I asked Jason to find out what was going on.  The English-speaking Colombian was not with us, so we tried to patch together whatever Spanish we understood and figured out that we were going to sit here until the road construction up ahead was finished(?!!)  We were flabbergasted!  We had to wait here for at least another hour until the construction crew finished building, apparently, the only road between here and Medellin.

So we sat.

And sat.

And sat some more.

When we finally got started again, and drove over the newly-formed “road”, we gaped at the line-up of cars, trucks, and buses on the oncoming side of traffic.  Colombian efficiency at its best, I tell ya.   Who schedules construction on the only road in the area when there’s obviously still plenty of traffic?  We finally rolled into Medellin at 2 in the morning.

Ten minutes later, the bus that left Cartagena 3 hours after we left also rolled in.

Hot & Steamy Cartagena

Have you ever seen the movie “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”? The scene, where the characters portrayed by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt first meet, is supposed to be set in the capital city of Colombia: Bogota.

They’d portrayed Bogota as this hot, steamy city. Let me tell you: Hollywood got it all wrong. Bogota is cold! (i.e. an average temperature of about 19°C year-round) They must’ve mixed up their Colombian cities. Perhaps they meant to use Cartagena instead? Because this place is definitely hot and steamy! This is us simmering in the Caribbean heat.

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Jason and I are on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia, in the city of Cartagena. I’ve read mixed reviews about this place, but I personally loved it (once I was able to stop scratching long enough to enjoy the Caribbean heat). The palm trees were beautiful, the beaches were plenty, and we had a front row view of the ocean.

View from our apartment (Cartagena, Colombia)

Beautiful ocean view from our Bocagrande apartment

Before we moved closer to the ocean, we stayed for a few days in the old walled city.

Casa Villa Colonial (Cartagena, Colombia)

Our hostel in Getsemani: Casa Villa Colonial. Beautiful, airy, and bright. I would definitely recommend this place to any traveller staying in Cartagena

There are three areas within the walled cIty: the beautiful original part of the walled city called Old City, the newer part called San Diego, and the grittier, sketchier area of Getsmani, where the majority of the hostels were.

Old City (Cartagena, Colombia)

The ramparts that surround the Old City in Cartagena.

We stayed in Getsemani and fell in love with how it best represented local life in Cartagena. The food was authentic and cheap, music was always blaring at night, and old men sat around watching the pedestrian traffic pass by.

Getsemani (Cartagena, Colombia)

Grittier (but no less beautiful) Getsemani.

When we decided to stay in Cartagena for a little longer, we rented an apartment nearby in Bocagrande, a modern area dotted with high-rise hotels and accommodations for Colombian vacationers.

Bocagrande (Cartagena, Colombia)

The pool terrace at the apartment we stayed at in Bocagrande

I loved the attractiveness of Cartagena: the colourful Spanish-colonial architecture; the narrow winding stone-paved streets, and the surprise of turning a corner and happening upon yet another one of the city’s many plazas.

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Speaking of surprises and plazas, check out this strange spectacle in Plaza Fernandez de Madrid:

Street performers (Cartagena, Colombia)

Eye-popping tricks by street performers

We were pretty captivated with him until we figured out how was he doing it. Can you figure it out?

And then after dark, the Old City got even more enchanting. Seriously, this city is like the girls you see roaming the club district in Toronto – gets more beautiful after dark.

Old City (Cartagena, Colombia)

Jason watching people-watching people in the open air cafe

Old City (Cartagena, Colombia)

Old City Cartagena all lit up at night

See? I wasn’t kidding you. She’s pretty gorgeous. Feel free to ask her for her phone number.

The Good, the Bad, and the Itchy

I had debated whether to blog about this, but in the end, decided to do so for two reasons:

  1. Travelling is not just about the great stories and amazing experiences. It’s also about the rough patches and not-so-great times.
  2. Perhaps other travellers will read this and find comfort in reading about someone else having gone through the same thing.

Bed bugs.

Those two little words immediately conjure up feelings of dread and paranoia. Just reading those two words makes me feel like I need to scratch imaginary bites. Except this time, they were not imaginary.

Just a few days into our travel, I woke up with angry little red welts all over my arms and legs. We had just spent the night in a place that charges only $20/night. I remember asking Jason before we decided to take the place: “I wonder why it’s so cheap? it seems almost too good to be true”. Famous last words, right? (By the way, stay away from Hotel Aragon in the La Candelaria area in Bogota)

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Room with a view. Little did we know what horrors hid under the bedsheets.

Don’t get me wrong, not all cheap places have bed bugs. Even luxury hotel chains can have a bed bug problem. However, the risk of bed bugs are perhaps a little greater with cheap places since they attract a certain type of traveller. The type of traveller that covers a lot of ground over a short period of time, which increases the chance of picking up unwelcome hitchhikers along the way.

Getting bitten by bed bugs while travelling is different from dealing with a bed bug infestation at home. The former is a little easier to deal with, although the symptoms are pretty much the same. It’s not the first time this has happened to me, so I knew how to deal with them.

Nine years ago, my girlfriend and I were backpacking through western Europe and got attacked by bed bugs in Venice. We found that all the hostel options in Venice were too expensive for us and opted for a €12/night stay in a campground just away from the centre. We luckily had sleep sacs. The sleep sacs gave us a thin layer of protection between the old, scratchy blankets and our skin. We ended up with only a few bites on our arms and faces. We initially didn’t know what they were. They were a series of several tiny red spots, all clustered in a small area. We later found out they were bed bites when they turned into angry little red welts that took days to heal. This time around, I wasn’t as lucky. I didn’t have a sleep sac so the whole of my arms and some of my legs got covered in bites. They itch like crazy . It’s taking all my willpower to not scratch like a madwoman.

When a person’s home is infested with bed bugs, it’s a nightmare to get rid of. You need to call in expensive, professional exterminators to get rid of them. And even then, there’s a chance that not all bed bugs are caught. To get rid of bed bugs when travelling, you just have to leave the place that has bed bugs. However, to make sure you don’t carry them on with you, you have to isolate all the clothes that you wore by placing them in a plastic bag and sealing it shut. When you get a chance to, wash all those clothes in hot soapy water and then run them through a hot dryer cycle. Basically, keep the clothes at above 45° C for a minimum of 15 minutes. Unfortunately for us, a lot of the laundry services offered in Cartagena don’t use hot water to wash their clothes. So we boiled water and washed them in the sink. One cycle of boiling water to wash it, another cycle of boiling water to rinse it, and then we hang-dryed the clothing. For extra measure, we then sent all our clothes to a laundry service for another round of wash and then the hot dryer.

The humidity and heat of Cartagena (which is right on the Caribbean coast of Colombia) actually irritates the bites even more and makes it pretty unbearable. I was pretty miserable and itchy for the first few days after I got bit. Seriously, I was on the verge of crying. So we’ve rented an air-conditioned apartment for the week so that I can recover in comfort. It’s actually a little bit of paradise after the hot hostel we had to stay in. So we’re laying low for a the next few days so that my skin can heal.

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Our little slice of air-conditioned paradise.

Interestingly enough, Jason didn’t show any signs of a bite until almost a week later. Different people react differently to bites. Some don’t react at all, some show signs within minutes; while for others, it can take as long as weeks for bites to appear.

Side note: here’s a good resource on how to check your hotel room for bed bugs before deciding whether to stay there (from the New York State Integrated Pest Management’s bed bug FAQs)

So how about you, any travel horror stories to share?