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.

Misconceptions of Medellin

Two posts in two days! I’m on a roll! Medellin, Colombia

Medellin is a city of misconceptions.  A lot of Colombia’s bad rap comes from Medellin.  In the 80s and 90s, drug gang turf wars were rampant and that bloody era earned Medellin the world’s highest murder rate.  Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s cocaine druglord, ran the show back then, but when he was killed in 1993, Medellin began to turn itself around.

Modern art sculptures (Medellin, Colombia)

Modern public art sculptures

When people travel to Colombia, they might expect to see a still-developing country.  However, Medellin is a modern city that rivals big cities in North America.  Modern freeways, a fast and efficient public transportation system, and bustling commercial centres have allowed this city to grow and prosper.

Medellin metro system

The metro was a great way for us to get around the city. It also connects to the cable cars – so once you pay for the metro, you can take a free ride up to the top of Santo Domingo for spectacular views of the city

It’s still important to note that there are neighbourhoods (i.e. some areas in the downtown core) that should be avoided.  Jason (of course) was curious so we wandered into one of the sketchier areas (during the day..don’t worry, dad!) but hightailed it out of there after we got some weird stares from the locals huddled around a crack pipe.

Cablecar to top of Santo Domingo (Medellin, Colombia)

On our way up to the top of Santo Domingo

Travellers who come here today will find a (relatively) safe and modern city.  No wonder so many travellers decide to stay put and actually live here.  It has a pleasant climate (year-round temperatures of mid-20s°C), inviting green spaces, excellent restaurants, and an interesting arts and culture scene.

DSC00289 (683x1024)DSC00301 (683x1024)

We spent the day wandering around the Museo de Antioquia, walking down the lively, pedestrian-only Avenida Carabobo (Carrera 52), and then took the cable car up for views of the city from Santo Domingo.

Plaza Botero (Medellin, Colombia)

Medellin is the birthplace of the artist, Fernando Botero. Plaza Botero has about 20 of his sculptures on display (free of charge), right next to the Museo di Antioquia

Street musicians (Medellin, Colombia)

Musicians on Avenida Carabobo (Carrera 52)

Cablecar to top of Santo Domingo (Medellin, Colombia)

View of the city from the cable car

Cablecar to top of Santo Domingo (Medellin, Colombia)

On the cable car up to the top of Santo Domingo

If we were to move to Colombia, we would likely choose Medellin as well.  It’s a definitely a city to live in, as opposed to a city to just visit.

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.