Villa de Leyva: Maybe My Favorite Place in Colombia

Earlier this week, I realized that in all the excitement about zipping around Boyacá and waxing eloquent (and photographic) about all the delicious pastries I consumed in Villa de Leyva, I never actually spent any time talking about the place itself. My bad.

So! Let’s talk a bit about Villa de Leyva, because it may very well be my favorite place so far in Colombia — at the least, it’s a hell of a strong front-runner. Villa is a small-ish town in Boyacá, which those of you paying attention will recall is the department just to the northeast of Cundinamarca, the department in which one can find Bogotá (and me!). As I’ve mentioned before, Boyacá is generally known as one of the more traditional departments, filled with lots of small towns that specialize in something like ceramics or bricks or cheese, and people in hats and ruanas (wool ponchos) to keep off the mountain chill. Boyacá is what comes to mind when people say the word tranquilo — it’s all small plazas and colonial churches and women selling obleas from a small wooden table by the side of the road.

Well, the whole place sure looks small from up here.

As the best-known (at least to non-religious tourists) village of Boyacá, Villa de Leyva is a little bit of a special case. Nestled up against a range of green mountains and straddling the edge of the mountain-desert divide in a valley that once was a vast prehistoric lake, Villa de Leyva couldn’t be more photogenic if it tried. Everywhere you look are pine trees or cacti or beautiful flowering plants, often all within about 100 yards of each other. It’s impossible to cross two streets without someone approaching to offer horseback rides or a hike. The place is filled with opportunities for other low-key outdoorsy activities like hiking, biking or swimming in the occasional waterfall. The desert sky is clearer and bluer than it is in Bogotá, which makes the town the ideal setting for their annual Festival de las Cometas (Kite Festival), a hugely and internationally popular event taking place this weekend. The only way to improve upon the scenery in Villa de Leyva would be to fill it with hundreds of intricate, beautiful kites.

But it’s not just about the natural beauty of the place, although that’s pretty overwhelming. The town itself, as with most Colombian towns, is fairly small: a central plaza, a few calles going this way, a few carreras going that way. But that plaza, Plaza Mayor, is something to write home about — a sprawling cobblestone expanse lined with hotels, restaurants and one 300-year-old church, it’s the biggest central plaza in Colombia and one of the largest in all of Latin America. Needless to say, most of the activity of the town centers around this plaza, from the excellent restaurants on various corners to the radiating streets where wandering tourists can buy everything from alpaca scarves to candy to leather bags that look like they just came off the cow. There’s often a stage set up for events in the center of the plaza, and there’s almost always something going on: when we were there, we witnessed a visiting Venezuelan symphonic orchestra, a poncho fashion show featuring elementary-school girls, a performance of Pacific Coast dance and a concert. As befits its position as the heart and soul of the town, the plaza fills up at night with a combination of locals and tourists, who sprawl across the steps of the church to eat ice cream, share a few beers or just watch their children race around throwing glowsticks at each other. People-watching doesn’t get any better.

The biggest one in Colombia, and it’s such a nice-looking one, too!

I’m no architect, but even I could appreciate the loveliness of the buildings. Everything in the town looks like it was frozen 200 years ago — all white walls and green trim, with porches filled with hammocks and clustered flowers. Plus, all of the streets are cobblestone, which those of us from Boston know is hell on walking if you’re not careful (or stupid enough to wear heels. Remember, we are in Colombia), but also means that cars traveling through town have to crawl at about 10 mph to avoid causing any serious damage. This might be the Colombian town where you’re least likely to be killed by a car.

Fresh mora juice with an $8 mil set meal at a vegetarian restaurant? Yes please!

And don’t even get me started on the food. My friends and I usually subscribe to the “as many things from a cart as possible” school of dining, but we spoiled ourselves a bit in Villa de Leyva, and I couldn’t be happier that we did. Along our gastronomic path, we discovered (not one, but) two vegetarian restaurants, actual salads (few and far between here in Colombia), a place that served both pizza and sangria, the best almond croissants in South America, a bakery specifically for cookies, and some pretty good eggs. We barely made a dent in all of the town’s tasty offerings, though, so obviously a return trip is in order.

But wait, there’s more! Remember how I mentioned the former prehistoric-ness of the whole space? Well, we all know what prehistoric implies, don’t we? That’s right: Villa de Leyva was once home to my second-graders’ favorite animal: DINOSAURS. Sadly, there are not currently any more of the beasts ranging around (as far as we know….), but there is a pretty excellent tribute to their presence, in the form of the small, bright yellow Museo El Fosil, a short drive out of down. For the low, low price of about $4 mil, one can enter and gawk at the complete (or at least it looks that way) remains of a Kronosaurus — a large, toothed aquatic creature (yes, that’s our very own local Kronosaurus smiling at you from the Wikipedia entry). Obviously I could happily have stayed in the museum for a long time, attempting to commune with the beasts, but how could I stay away from all of the other gorgeous sights in Villa de Leyva?

Clearly, Wikipedia stole this photo from me.

Our three days there weren’t nearly enough time to enjoy everything the place has to offer — so it’s a good thing we’re already planning a return trip in November! In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with ogling these photographs until I’m back in the reality.


Food Friday: Historic Pastries in Villa de Levya

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Delicious treats from Villa de Leyva. I swear we ate real food while we were there — but you wouldn’t know it from my photos. Clearly I have my artistic (and gastronomic) priorities in order.

Vacation, By the Numbers

Days: 13

Different airports: 4

Co-travelers: 4 — always 3 other people, but two switched off mid-vacation

Number of times I had to unpack my entire backpack so an unfriendly customs official could rummage through my undergarments and judge the number of earrings I bring on vacation: 1

Meals eaten at Mexican restaurants: 3

Meals eaten at pizza places: 2

Total number of avocados consumed: at least 7

Hikes: 4

Hikes on volcanoes: 1

Times I thought I might pass out for various reasons: 3

Times I actually did pass out: 0. Yay me!

Ziplines conquered: 13

Micheladas consumed: 5. More, if you want to count the 1-liter one as more than one beer (it was $5! I love Quito)

Buses taken: 11

Dollars spent at Otavalo market in Ecuador: UGH.

Steps climbed at La Piedra near Guatapé, Colombia: 670

2×1 happy hour cocktails purchased: 12

Cocktails that were actually good: 4

Unsuccessful attempts to find Pablo Escobar’s grave: 2

Cats at hostels: 4

Motochiva rides: 1

Number of eggs eaten: I can’t count this high

Fourth of July parties attended: 1

Success: total

More coherent, complete sentences and photos to follow!

Food Friday: Coffee, Ambrosia of the Gods (in Tiny Styrofoam Cups)

Forget the fruit: I’m really a terrible Colombia blogger because of the coffee. Or rather, the failure to discuss coffee at least four times already. After cocaine and Sofia Vergara, coffee is probably the only thing most people around the world associate with Colombia, and yet here I am, twiddling my thumbs and talking all about (admittedly delicious and worthy of mention) buttered corn on the cob and pastries instead. Oddly enough, Colombia actually exports the vast majority of its coffee, so the stuff we drink here isn’t as high-quality as the beans you can buy in some fancy shop in New York, for example. Still, it’s pretty hard to find a genuinely bad cup of coffee around here, so I’ve got no complaints.

except they don't give you lids. WHY.

This was my very first cappuccino in Colombia, at a cozy Oma in Candelaria. An auspicious and tasty beginning to the year, for sure.

But I digress. To the coffee! For the record, I am slightly biased on this subject, as I’m essentially incapable of human speech, in either Spanish or English, before I’ve had my coffee in the morning. One of the first things I did upon arriving here was to warn my co-workers about this, and luckily, because Colombia is nothing if not a coffee culture, they’re pleasantly understanding about it. My students have yet to grasp why I just blink at them if they speak to me before about 8 a.m., but they’ll understand someday.

Coffee culture here doesn’t meant the same thing, though, that it does in Rome, or Istanbul, or Seattle. There are several near-ubiquitous chain coffee shops (I’ll get to those in a minute), but one can also find tiny, double-shot cups of strong black coffee (tinto) sold from carts or backpacks on nearly every street corner, from morning until well past dark. People don’t linger over frappuccinos in comfy chairs here — rather, they stand around the carts, chatting and taking small sips of steaming black liquid. Drinking coffee, like so many other actions here, is more of a social occasion than it is at home — you’re almost obligated to speak to someone else at some point, which is nice on the one hand, but, as I’ve mentioned, tends to be a bit of a challenge for me. My school alone has at least two different places to get coffee, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility of more that I haven’t discovered yet. Naturally, I frequent both of them at least once a day — more often, if I have class with seventh-graders in the morning.

I often consider ordering more coffee just to get more cookies

Oh, did I mention that they give you tiny cute cookies with your coffee? Because sometimes they give you tiny cute cookies with your coffee.

Of course, since Colombia is a modern country and all, carts, cafeterias and random dudes aren’t the only place to satisfy a caffeine craving. Pretty much any restaurant, bakery or bar worth its potable tap water offers a small variety of coffee drinks, though obviously the quality varies. There are two major national coffee chains: the Greek-sounding Oma and the somewhat more renowned Juan Valdez. For reasons I cannot fathom, both companies chose practically the same dark red shade as their main brand color, which makes them rather hard to distinguish from a distance. Luckily, this isn’t much of a problem, since there’s at least one of each roughly every two blocks in most busy neighborhoods. Both places offer your Starbucks-style range of drinks, from basic Americanos to fancy blended frozen arequipe-flavored concoctions (which I will never try, given my ironclad opposition to cold coffee beverages. But they look nice!), and some tasty pastries. The one thing they don’t give out freely are lids for the coffee cups — you have to ask them for a lid when you pick up your drink, or you’ll be spending the whole walk trying not to spill steamed milk all over your shirt. As a clumsy person, I am still not used to this. Juan Valdez are also rockstars at branding, and sell everything from coffee presses to T-shirts at their stores. Oddly enough, their clothes and bags are are actually fairly popular here — can you imagine people walking around downtown Philly in Peet’s t-shirts? I guess Colombians just love their Juan so much they have to wear it on their sleeves.

(Sorry. That was a really terrible joke. I’ve obviously been speaking Spanish so much lately that I’m forgetting how to be funny in English.)

Food Friday: Get Me to a Juicery

I think at this point I’ve waxed poetic enough about the fruit of Colombia that y’all have a pretty good idea of the plethora of vitamin-packed options just hanging off the trees (or whatever else they grow on) here. But the great thing about fruit, you know, is that it’s versatile. You can just snack on it, which is usually my preferred method, but you can also squeeze it, shake it, mix it with other liquids, and turn it into glorious, drinkable juice.

it's called the aloha smoothie, because of course it is

Our group's circle of glorious breakfast smoothies in Santa Marta. Mine was something like papaya-pineapple-mango, and I could happily drink it every day for the rest of my life.

Now, if you’d asked me about six months ago, I would’ve told you that I’m not really a juice person. However, my time here has convinced me that I’m just not an American juice person. What passes for juice in most supermarkets or restaurants at home is some sort of terrible joke, Technicolor liquids made from a 9:1 ratio of concentrate to actual fruit juice, packed with fructose, food coloring, and basically everything else except the fruit itself. Well, to let all of you guys back at home in on a little secret: that shit is not juice, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for letting kids drink it without telling them what they’re missing.

oh bob, you never let me down

The biggest glass of mora juice in Bogotá. Juice courtesy of Bob's Pizza (you laugh, but it's damn good pizza); photo courtesy of the lovely Tasha Miley.

Because what they’re missing is this: the amazing range of fresh fruit juices available in almost every restaurant here, in flavors from mora (blackberry) to mango to guanabana (try to say that three times fast). My personal favorites are piña (pineapple) and durazno (peach) — I mean, where the hell can you even buy fresh peach juice in the US, besides maybe Georgia? Juice can be mixed either en leche (in milk) or en agua (in water), depending on your personal preference. I find that some flavors tend to taste better with one versus the other, but I’ve yet to buy any truly bad juice here. And they don’t cheat you on quantity, either — since the basic fruit juice is mixed with another liquid, it tends to arrive in a massive glass usually reserved for bar crawl quantities of beer. A pint glass of pineapple juice for about $2? You won’t hear any complaints from over here!

can I bring this home with me, please?

Step right up! Get your fresh-squeezed guanabana! (Note: I have no idea if squeezing is the correct way to juice a guanabana)

And restaurants aren’t the only place to find tasty juice, although they’re better if you’re looking for more exotic flavors. If all you need is a shot of Vitamin C, though, the street vendors have you covered. Every few blocks in most busy neighborhoods, you’ll come across a juice cart, selling fresh-squeezed naranja or mandarina (different variations of orange/citrus) juice for about the equivalent of a dollar a pop. The vendor will squeeze the juice right there in front of you while you wait, which can be a pain when you’re in a hurry, but is a really satisfying reminder of exactly how fresh that juice is. At some markets, especially on weekends, it’s also possible to find stands with several kinds of fresh juice, like guanabana (a soft white fruit which yields a juice that looks deceptively like coconut) and papaya (I’m still working on warming up to it. Give me some time).

yeah, so I play with my ice cubes. what of it?

Ice-cold pineapple juice: the perfect way to cool down on a hot coastal afternoon.

Even the supermarket juice kicks our ass. Every market, even tiny corner tiendas that are basically like three 7-11 shelves packed into the space of one, stock bottles and boxes of different flavors of juice. Did I mention that it’s also socially acceptable here for adults to drink juice boxes? I can’t wait til that trend catches on back at home. Listen up, health advocates: I’m telling you right now, the trick to getting people to drink more fruit juice is juice boxes. Everyone loves juice boxes! My personal favorite supermarket juice, a brand called Ades, does, in fact, come in a large box, decorated with a tasty-looking colorful picture of whatever fruit it contains — because it’s actually made with real fruit. It’s also made with soymilk and various other tasty, good-for-you ingredients and generally just kicks the ass of any packaged juice I’ve ever had in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Newman’s Lemonade, but they don’t sell lemonade here, so that’s an unfair competition).

Like lollipops, arepas and diet soda, juice is something my body has learned to develop cravings for since coming to Colombia — but unlike those other things, juice is actually good for me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear a peach juice box calling my name, and who am I to deny its siren song?

Food Friday: And Micheladas, As Much As Anything Else, Led to My Drinking Problem

Before….

So I’ve spent enough time and digital space this week singing the praises of micheladas that I feel you’re all due a more detailed explanation. The short version is: They are the best way to drink beer when it’s hot out, and I don’t understand why I have not experienced them before in my life (this guy over at the NYT apparently feels my pain). I plan on keeping a supply of lime juice near me at all times from now on, for emergencies. And/or thirst.

Here’s the long version, for you detail-oriented folks: As with many tasty treats, the cerveza michelada originally hails from Mexico (which makes sense, considering they have that whole lime-and-Corona thing going on, too). According to the all-knowing information lords over at Wikipedia, there’s a bit of a debateabout how it originally gained its name, so we’re not going to dwell on that. The important thing is that, regardless of heritage, it’s created a strong foothold here in Colombia — one could order a michelada at pretty much every restaurant we visited on the coast, even if it wasn’t on the drink menu. I haven’t seen them here in Bogotá, which I suspect has a lot to do with the less favorable weather, but my impression is that you can probably get them in many places around here, too.

…and after!

To create instant beer-based happiness, here’s what you need:

  • a lighter beer like Aguila or Club Colombia. You don’t want anything too strong or heavy, since you’re not really going to be tasting the beer anyways
  • lime juice, preferably from an actual lime
  • salt, the coarser the better
  • some kind of sauce. Apparently there are versions of micheladas using all kinds of sauce, from Worcestershire to Tabasco, or even mixes of several sauces. However, being the hot sauce zealot I am, I refuse to acknowledge the possibility of using anything else — ideally the Amazon hot sauce with the macaw on the label. So hot sauce it is.

If you’re at a restaurant, your michelada will arrive at the table like a fun little multi-part puzzle, self-assembly required. You will have a glass with salt around the rim (salt distribution varies, so choose servers wisely) and a shot of lime juice at the bottom. Sometimes they even give you a lime slice, for that extra limey flavor! You will also, of course, have your beer, which must be poured into the glass with minimal salt disturbance so as not to ruin how pretty it looks.

If you have a savvy server, he or she has hopefully brought the hot sauce out with the drinks (or if you’re at the good kind of restaurant, it’s already on the table). If not, you should absolutely request it, since it’s an important part of the whole experience. Once you’ve acquired the hot sauce, add as much as you like, although be warned that just a few drops of the really spicy macaw concoction should suffice (I may or may not have learned this the hard, painful way). Be sure to stir it before drinking, because hot sauce, beer and lime juice shockingly don’t mix well naturally, and an uneven distribution will really throw off your enjoyment of the whole experience.

Then drink it! And then consider ordering another one, because that first one was so tasty!

Homebrew, complete with Amazonian spices.

And if you’re at home, then just do it yourself, you lazy bum. Speaking from experience, it’s pretty fun to play with limes and salt and generally make a bit of a mess in the interest of drinking. Plus, in the privacy of your own kitchen, you can add as many weird condiment combinations as your heart desires, without risking judgment from any of your fellow diners. After all, there’s nothing that pairs worse with a tasty cold beer than the piercing hot glances of opinionated people. Save the burn for the hot sauce, folks.

Oh, and if you’re struggling with the reference in the title, please go watch all of this movie immediately, and report back when you can tell me how you like your coffee. You’ll surely laugh.

Costeño Photo Safari, Part One

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Three things I learned during my visit to the Colombian coast: 1. It can be so humid that your camera lens steams up and makes it look like you took all your photos while standing in a sauna. Which actually … Continue reading

Coastal Adventures in Cartagena & Santa Marta; or, Why I Want a Hammock for My Birthday

Happy post-vacation Tuesday, y’all! Yeah, I know most of you had to work last week, but that’s just another of the perks of living in these southern regions.

On the other hand, I spent basically all day yesterday sitting in the teachers’ room at school, doing nothing — not because I’m a huge slacker, but because upon my return to Bogotá this weekend, my body immediately decided to express its displeasure with the departure from warmer, sunnier climes by becoming quite indignantly sick (at least it seems indignant to me. And it’s my body, so who is anyone to tell me otherwise?). It’s not anything severely terrible, just a rather emphatic cold, but between the constant sniffles and the fact that my voice is operating at about zero decibels with the occasional squeak to provide contrast, I’m afraid I won’t be much use at all as a teacher this week.

walls and lamps

Cartagena: Exhibit A in "how to create successful mood lighting."

The immune system devastation was absolutely worth it, though, for last week’s festivities. Here in Colombia, as in most Latin American countries, the week before Easter is Holy Week, or Semana Santa. For most working people, only the Thursday and Friday of that week are holidays, but lucky us in the school system — we get a whole week off! It is one of the biggest travel holidays of the year, though, kind of like our Thanksgiving week, so you have to plan ahead if you don’t want to be paying your entire year’s volunteer stipend just to leave the city. Luckily, I’m friends with some savvy people, and we figured way back in January that by April we’d probably need a break from the Bogotá rain, so we got ourselves some flights to Cartagena ASAP before the prices went through the roof. And holy arepas con huevos, am I glad we did.

Our weeklong journey took us to the beaches of Cartagena, around the walled city and up the ramparts of an old castle, through a highway that winds along the Caribbean coast past the port city of Barranquilla, up to the smaller town of Santa Marta and the gorgeous beaches near Tayrona National Park, then back to Cartagena for one more day of socializing and eating ice cream before we crashed back into the rainy reality of Bogotá. But let’s go back to the warm, happy place for a few minutes, shall we?

oh hey, pretty sky

Like this one!

Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast (think I can squeeze any more alliteration into this sentence?), is built around the preserved remnants of an old walled port, dating back almost 500 years and now an UNESCO World Heritage site — in the company of such illustrious locations as the Sydney Opera House, the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis. I’ve visited a few World Heritage sites over the course of my travels (Argentina’s Iguazú National Park, the historic center of Bruges, Masada and the Baha’i gardens in Israel, Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island, and Colonia in Uruguay), and I’d definitely say that Cartagena deserves its place on that list. It is outrageously beautiful, the kind of pretty that makes you take pictures of random porches and windows because you’re just trying so hard to capture whatever the essence is hiding in the walls that makes the city so bewitching. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I sure do have a lot of photos to show for it.

So we had two days in Cartagena, with our friends Mayis and Dany serving as official hosts and unofficial tour guides (this is why it’s always smart to go on vacation with someone who’s actually from the place you’re visiting). Though we didn’t realize it before, we ended up visiting the city the week before the sixth Summit of the Americas, which is drawing presidents from all across the region, including Obama and the ever-unpredictable Chávez. Needless to say, the city was positive crawling with cops — we legitimately could not walk two blocks without running into at least half a dozen cops. When people mention shows of force, I think Cartagena the week before the Summit is exactly what they’re talking about.

i'm on a boat!

BOAT CEVICHE. With bbq sauce. Winning.

Still, we didn’t let the omnipresent fluorescent green jackets and large signs proclaiming “Somos seguridad” (“We are security”) put a damper on our vacation. We did all the regular touristy things: walked along the wall, took pictures of doors and horse-drawn carriages, drank piña coladas on the beach, watched sex workers plying their trade on said beach, spotted a few local celebrities, drank micheladas, applied a lot of sunscreen and ate our weight in ice cream. Being the crew of Bourdain groupies that we are, we also made a point to eat at La Cevichería, a cozy ceviche restaurant that was featured during his Colombia “No Reservations” episode. Chalk up another point for the supremacy of Bourdain — the ceviche there was mind-blowingly good, and incredibly creative. Mine came in a dish shaped like a boat! Covered in barbecue sauce! AMERICA!

that kid totally stole my thing

The Santa Marta waterfront. For once, I'm not the one doing the victory pose.

you know, hawaii isn't the only place with pineapples

Tasty fresh mango/papaya/pineapple juice at Lulo in Santa Marta. Breakfast drink of champions!

I could (and probably eventually will) write an entire essay about how much I loved Cartagena, but I’d be remiss and a terrible travel cataloger if I didn’t talk about Santa Marta — and the beach. When I told people here that I was headed to Cartagena, almost everyone informed me that I “had” to go to Santa Marta. I’ve never been one to turn down travel recs, and it turned out that what seemed like half of WorldTeach was also headed to Santa Marta around that same time, so we decided to take two days and head up the coast to see what was so special about it. Santa Marta is about a four-hour easy drive up from Cartagena, along a pretty, mostly waterfront highway. The town itself is pretty small and not necessarily anything to write home about — it kind of looks like a mini-Cartagena that nobody has bothered to wash yet. Its definitely a bit grungier than Cartagena (which may be the key to some of its backpacker appeal), with more than a few iffy-looking neighborhoods, but it has a cute waterfront filled with vendors and some damn good restaurants. I think we might’ve eaten better in Santa Marta than I have anywhere else so far in Colombia — everything from Mediterranean to Italian to breakfast sandwiches and fresh juice.

seeing how your bag gets made

The aforementioned bags, happily-colored and direct from the source!

But you don’t go to Santa Marta just for the food, or to buy cheap bags (though both of those turned out to be excellent perks). You go for Tayrona. Tayrona is one of Colombia’s most famous national parks — and in a country with as many beautiful outdoor spaces as this one, that’s saying something. We actually didn’t visit the park itself, since we only had one day and the entrance fee is a bit pricey for a day visit (most people stay for a few days, hiking and sleeping on the beach). Instead, on the recommendation of several random people we’d met the day before (in my experience, always a good strategy for useful advice), seven of us headed to a beach called Los Angeles, right next to the park. Instead of paying $35,000 pesos and walking for two hours to reach the beach, we were at the waterfront 10 minutes and $3,000 pesos after climbing off the bus.

they do sunsets right, here

This is at least as good as someone reading me a bedtime story.

And you guys, this BEACH. The whole place looks like Jurassic Park — all primeval forests and looming mist-shrouded mountains and crashing waves and mirror-clear water. There were other people at the beach, mostly couples in hammocks or families in tents, but they mostly kept to themselves and there were no vendors in our faces like on the beaches in Cartagena. It felt like we’d discovered this place all by ourselves, like the sky and boulders and soft sand were there just for us, that day. The day at Los Angeles with six of my fellow WorldTeach ladies was probably one of my favorite days I’ve spent in Colombia so far, and my new goal for the year is to make it back there, this time for long enough to spend a few nights in one of those comfy-looking hammocks, waking up to sunlight and sand and waves stretching out in front of me all the way to that prehistoric horizon.

[Stay the digital equivalent of tuned! Many, many more photos to come this week!]

Of antisocial waiters and unexpected pig bits

Considering how much I love eating, I suppose it was only a matter of time until I submitted to my overwhelming desire to resort to the loved-yet-feared Food Blog Post. Since I expect this to be somewhat of a recurring theme over here in arepa-land, I’ll keep this contained to some specific foods, instead of trying to write about All Of The Foods. Also because if I write too much more about food, it’s going to make me hungry again, and I am pretty much out of food in my kitchen and entirely unwilling to dash to the grocery store amid the softball-sized raindrops out there. So! Onwards!

rats, with wings

Some historic buildings, and less historic urban fowl, in La Candelaria's Plaza de Bolivar.

As I’ve mentioned, La Candelaria is the old, historic, touristy, university-student-filled, kinda-sketchy-at-night neighborhood in Bogotá. In addition to its well-deserved reknown for its colonial architecture, the president’s house, and a certain wonderful church that looks like it’s made of candy, Candelaria is also the place to go for somewhat overpriced but allegedly authentic and entirely delicious Colombian (or, more accurately, Bogotana) food.

In the past two weeks, I’ve hit up Candelaria for food twice, with vastly different experiences and somewhat different results. Spoiler: in the end, it was all delicious. But, as usual here, there were a few bumps along the way.

Rewind about two weeks to a Saturday afternoon, when a friend and I had an intense craving for ajiaco, which is probably Bogotá’s most famous dish. It’s a thick stew made with chicken (or not, if you’re one of us weirdo veggies); three kinds of potatoes, including one that is native only to Colombia; half an ear of corn on the cob; and topped with capers, cream, white rice and avocado, which are brought out on a platter with the soup and are meant to be added at the table. Ajiaco, with chicken or without, is DELICIOUS. It is exactly what you want on one of Bogotá’s (constant) rainy afternoons, and it is filling as nobody’s business. If you’re going to be eating ajiaco, you pretty much have to plan to eat nothing else for the rest of the day, because your stomach will be busy churning all those potatoes around (and being blissfully happy about your gastronomic and life choices).

Here’s the thing, though. Ajiaco is lunch food. It is not dinner food. In the States, we’re generally pretty open to people playing around with food conventions: changing orders, places that only sell cereal, the glorious phenomenon of breakfast-for-dinner, etc. Here, not so much. Apparently when you’re a waiter at one of these tourist traps who is probably (and somewhat justifiably) sick of people doing horrible things to your language, two gringas strolling in and ordering ajiaco at 6:30 on a Saturday night is just too much to bear. But, since you’re Colombian, and Colombians are masters of indirect passive-aggression when it comes to things like this, you will initially offer no hint of malice. Indeed, you’ll quickly offer the menus, take the order with minimal judgment apparent on your face and bring out the tasty bowls of soup and plates of accessories in what seems like record time.

Then you will proceed to ignore your customers. Forever. You will resort to such measures as standing in the entrance with your back to the restaurant, hiding behind the counter to eat your dinner and looking at the ceiling or ground every time you pass near their table so as to make the goal of eye contact impossible. You will do this for nearly an hour, at the end of which time said gringa customers will be so tired of trying to catch your eye to ask for the check that they will simply get up and pay the other server standing at the counter — after briefly considering whether an attempt to flee the premises will finally merit your attention. You will not even look at them as they leave. When you leave work for the night, it will not occur to you that there are any flaws in your customer service skills.

nom nom nom

Chocolate, bread, butter and cheese: my idea of a complete, balanced breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner.

So. Never going back to THAT place. I apologize for not taking any photos of the tasty ajiaco, but I was intimidated by the waiter’s less-than-accommodating attitude.  I had much better luck when I returned the next weekend, closer to mid-afternoon on a Sunday. We went a few doors down from the place with the hateful waiter, and tucked ourselves into a table in the back of the restaurant, which is one of four nearly identical restaurants perched in a row on a small side street directly off of La Candelaria’s Plaza de Bolivar. As we were in the center of traditional food, we had no choice but to order chocolate santafereño completo (Colombian hot chocolate). They’re big fans of hot chocolate in general here, and it’s hard to go wrong with a drink make of the best food in the world, but the chocolate completo is something special. It arrives at the table on its own small platter, surrounded by slices of bread, butter, an almohabana (sweet cornmeal roll) and a slice of cheese, which tradition dictates that you submerge into the chocolate. Like a good tourist, I tried it, but found that as much as I love both chocolate and cheese, I think I’ll generally try to keep them separate from now on. It’s not that it tasted bad (it’s hard to go wrong with either of those things), but they don’t really gain anything from the combination.

oops

You can barely even see the pig's feet! They obviously belonged to some pretty sneaky pigs.

And then there was the food. Again, feeling adventurous, but not up to the challenge of tackling another bowl of ajiaco, two of us opted to try to the caldo de frijoles, which is essentially just a big bowl of beans and some veggies — or so I thought. Turns out this particular antioqueño recipe comes with some very special extra flavoring, in the form of pezuñas (pig’s feet). Whoops. Vegetarian fail. For the record, I didn’t even know what pig’s feet looked like, much less how they tasted, but now I can at least attest to the former: weird, bony and incredibly fatty. I ended up quarantining the pig’s feet and still ate my weight in a very satisfying bowl of beans, but I’ve certainly learned not to assume that just because my Spanish is pretty good, I won’t still get fooled into ordering the occasional bowl of beans with pig’s feet.

Oh, and Happy Leap Day, y’all! Hope your respective celebrations are free of unwanted meat-bits (but filled with the wanted kind)!