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?

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!]