So what made me want to travel to Colombia? It was a combination of things; one was planned, one was fortuitous, and with a bit of personal shame, a desire to see if it was time to rid myself of a prejudice.
The “plan” was an invitation from the Colombian government’s tourism authority to participate in a Buyer’s Market, where I will meet with a variety of Colombian suppliers (I believe there will be over 200 travel agents from around the world) along with a choice of 3-4 days small group tours to different areas of Colombia (Bogota, Medellin, or Cartagena). I chose to keep it simple after all my recent travels and just fly into Bogota and explore there.
The “fortuitous” aspect is that AmaWaterways recently announced that in 2024 it will be offering river cruises on Colombia’s Magdalena River, which I understand is beautiful. I understand the ship is being built in Colombia and that only a portion of the river is navigable. You know me: I need to know more before I can recommend something to my clients, but AmaWaterways has never disappointed!
Now to address the last thing: I have had a concerning “prejudice” when it comes to Colombia. I lived in Miami, Florida in the late 70s-early 80s when cocaine and Colombia drug wars literally were on the streets where I lived and worked. There were some seriously scary times. Add to that the history of conflict since (more on that in my next article) and the still pervasive warnings about travel in Colombia for being dangerous and there is a serious hesitation. (I joked with my daughter about my taking this journey that if I got kidnapped and they sent her my ear as evidence – something FARC regularly did – I needed to know how much she would pay in ransom. She set her limit way too low. LOL)
However, the way to get over prejudice is to recognize it as a prejudice, take a small leap of faith, open one’s eyes, and become enlightened. I truly wanted to take that leap, and this opportunity seemed like a good way to become more enlightened…and without looking at Colombia with rose-colored glasses.
My journey to Bogota, Colombia was pretty easy…for me. A 4.5-hour flight from Reno to Houston and then a 4.5-hour flight to Bogota. However, the arrival time was 2:25 AM; rather unusual, but it is what it is.
By the time I arrived at the designated and included Biohotel Organic Suites, which is not exactly centrally located or in a terribly nice neighborhood, it was 3:30 AM. I’m not really sure what is so biological or organic about the hotel other than sustainable wood is used in various areas and there are some plantings around. As for the “suite” aspect: Not so much. By the time I settled in, it was almost 4:00 AM and by then the only thing that really mattered was that there was a bed. But, alas, I did not come to Colombia for this hotel! (Note: I later learned that most luxury and international branded hotels are here and far better located. And I will be transferring to the Hilton for the actual marketplace.)
I was up for my 10:00 AM Private Culinary & Cultural Experience; taking advantage of some free time, as the program doesn’t really start until the evening. It was a fantastic experience both culturally and culinarily!
One of the interesting things about Colombia is that there is no single cuisine, but rather that Colombians – at least those in Bogota – take great pride in their diversity; bragging that there are six different unique regions. This diversity is not a point of exclusion (at least not now…more on that in a later article), but inclusiveness! From the mountains of Bogota, to the high valleys of Medellin, to the jungles of Cartagena, to the oceanfront of Cali, all of the cuisines are readily found in the markets of Bogota!
After a 45-minute drive (I told you the hotel isn’t centrally located) we arrived at the first of three markets, Plaza de Paloquemano. The first thing that struck me was how clean and orderly it was. But the next thing that struck me is that things in Colombia appear to be similar to what, as Americans, one knows, but they are actually quite different.
Our first stop was at a tamale stand. These tamales are not anything like Mexican ones, which are cornmeal with a bit of meat wrapped in corn husk. These are much larger, wrapped in banana leaves, and filled with a combination of a think yellow cornmeal and vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, chickpeas, etc., as well as chunks of chicken, hen (older chickens – which are very popular for their richer flavors), or pork. The spice profile is more toward richer, rather than spicier, flavors. My tamale was chicken and it was delicious.
Next up (and really just one stall over) was lechona; a new favorite of mine. Essentially a whole pig is roasted, then everything is removed, leaving the skin as a shell. The all of the pork is combined with root vegetables, spices, and rice…and then stuffed back into the skin. Amazing…and something I may try to recreate on a smaller scale when I get home!
It was served, as apparently many Colombian dishes are, with arepas. Arepas are thick corn and flour cakes that are one of the most proudly traditional foods of Colombia. (The one I had with the lechona was not as good as others I would later have.)
We then wandered through the fish and seafood area of the market. While most of the seafood was frozen, there was a plethora of different freshwater fish, with a focus on both tilapia and catfish.
Strolling through the fruits and vegetables was fascinating because, as I mentioned, while many fruits look similar to those found in the United States, they were different; and not only in flavors. I cannot remember the names of most of the fruits, but for example, one that looked like a mango was actually closer inside to a pomegranate yet tasted like a combination of orange, lemon, and watermelon.
Next up was masato, a fermented drink made with rice or corn. I was told the rice was the most popular – which was obvious by the larger number of gallon jugs displayed – but, being me I had to try both and preferred the stronger corn-based masato.
Enjoyed with our masato were three kinds of cheese bread. Colombian cheese is fresh, not aged. In the three types I tried (regular, without yeast, and guava jelly filled), they all had a flavor profile similar to good old American “cheese”, but lighter….and presumably healthier. Definitely comfort food!
Next up were wrapped corn cakes; a sweet “dessert” made by combining the cornmeal with palm sugar, wrapping them in a corn husk, and then steaming them. While much closer to a Mexican tamale in construction, its flavor is nothing similar. One thing that made mine taste better was an old man with a large stomach – buttons straining on his shirt – who in Spanish, with a huge smile and chomping on one, insisted his wife’s were the best and I had to try one. (I don’t speak much Spanish, but I definitely got what he was saying!) Again: Delicious!
Before we left our first market (yes, there is more!) my guide asked me if I would like a coffee. Well, in Colombia ya’ gotta’ have a coffee, right? Well, somehow – and again it may just be me – I saw a bottle of liquor that looked interesting. Next thing you know I was drinking one of Colombia’s national spirits: Aguardiente! While I guess technically a brandy, this lightly anise-flavored, spirit tasted similar to raki or ouzo and, apparently, has a similar effect! What I later learned is that it ranges from 60 proof to 120 proof, so as my taste was on the lower end, I got off lightly…today!
Our next stop was Mercado de Concordia, located in the central district. Not my favorite stop, I had a small chocolate tasting, which was interrupted by a guide with a pushy couple that emphatically stated they didn’t like anything that wasn’t milk chocolate (not a thing in Colombia) or didn’t have fruit in it.
As I didn’t want them to interfere with my fun day, I simply left to enjoy a tasting of a variety of Colombian fruits; much more interesting and enjoyable!
And then: Magic! We drove to another area, near the old breweries. As I got out of the car, a purple mural just grabbed me. But it wasn’t just the mural, but the “woman in red” sitting on the stoop in front of it. I felt it had to be the woman in the mural. I mentioned it to my guide and he said, “Well, yes it is and we are going over there!”
As we walked up this wonderful old woman stood up, gave a big smile, and immediately moved into her shack pushing aside a door with a sign that read – translated into English – “Dona Tere sells Chicha”. She filled a water bottle with the other Colombian national drink, a still actively fermenting corn-based high-alcohol beverage: Chicha.
Again, I speak very little Spanish, but she charmed the heck out of me, giving me instructions not the close the bottle cap too tight because, as it is still fermenting, the bottle would explode. (I had something similar during my travels in Myanmar and, yes, from my experience there, the bottle will explode from the CO2 that the fermentation releases.)
An interesting note: As beer breweries were introduced, there was a move to make chicha illegal. Clearly, that wasn’t successful as it can be found readily…though it seems like it is more likely sold in a “local’s” shop!
We took our chicha to the next market, Mercado la Perseverancia Distrital, for lunch. One of the mainstays of Bogota working-class cuisine is soups and stews. And it was time to finally try some! The place is a maze of small restaurants (rather, kitchens with tables surrounding them).
La Esquina de Mary (Mary’s Corner) is where we sat. I was immediately distracted by the women who were cooking. They were Afro-Colombian; culturally something I had not yet seen, but that wasn’t it. They were working so hard, but obviously with passion. And every dish was beautiful. I just kept watching them.
Somehow I was able to pull my eyes away to enjoy a rather unique ajiaco, which is a Colombian potato-based soup usually made with chicken or, sometimes, pork. Mine, however, was made with fish along with sides of plantains and coconut rice. The soup was both rich and light with complex flavors. The coconut rice was delicious. I wish I could have eaten it all…but more on that in a minute!
I also tried a dish made from a variety of potatoes. As Colombia has many varieties of potatos, it was a great way to try a number of them. I was warned the largest, weirdest-looking, one was generally the least popular. But for me, it soaked up the delicious broth much better than the others, so it was definitely the best one.
OK, now back to that soup. Our server came over and looked at my unfinished soup and gave me a look that only a disappointed mother or grandmother can give. Fortunately, the guide explained how much we had eaten and then I motioned how good it was. And this was a great opening for me to ask if the woman cooking with the most passion was Mary. She gave me a big smile and said, “Si!”
So I went over to this pretty intimidating, intense, woman and asked if I could take her picture. She immediately turned into a shy little girl. Then my server and the others started to tease her. Eventually, she agreed due to all the teasing. It took a bit more for her to take her mask off so I could see that smile…and it was huge. She wiped the sweat from cooking off her face, looked at me, and did everything she could not to smile in the photograph. Alas, I did get a bit of a smirk…and I gladly accepted that. Charmed the heck out of me. I’m still smiling!
It was a wonderful finish to an eye-opening, delicious, but most importantly, surprisingly friendly day. A great start to my Colombian journey and addressing one of my ghosts from the past.
Next up the actual promotional tour and marketing begin. But it begins with, among other things, a (hopefully) honest discussion of Colombia’s troubled past, it’s recent peace accord, and how life truly is today.
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