Right before Thanksgiving, we had the pleasure of traveling to Colombia for Frank’s best friend’s wedding in Bogotá. We were privileged to also be traveling with some fellow friends (and wedding guests) that are originally from Colombia, one from Villavicencio and one from Cali, two regions far outside of metropolitan Bogotá. Frank has visited Colombia once before, when he traveled with the groom to Medellín, but this was my first trip to Colombia and it was quite an eye-opening experience…Viewing Colombia through my lens – the lens of an all-American, good old Florida girl used to enormous grocery stores, meticulously maintained sidewalks, roads, and landscaping, drivers who (generally) follow the rules of the road, and bad attitudes from most people in the service industry – is a unique experience, and I’m sure that anyone who has the opportunity to travel to Colombia will take away very different opinions and memories. This post is meant to share my experiences, and give some suggestions to those intrepid travelers who may end up in the same region sometime in the future and could use some restaurant and food suggestions.
The first thing I noticed about Bogotá, and I’m sure anyone will notice who travels there, is the horrendous traffic. There are lines painted on the road, but they might as well be invisible for the amount of attention drivers and pedestrians alike pay to them. It takes hours to get to a place that should really only take 15-30 minutes, and this is mostly due to the fact that everyone sort of drives in one enormous merge lane, peppered heavily with crazy people on motorcycles constantly trying to sneak through the narrowest spaces between cars and buses. Driving in Bogotá is a true lesson in patience. Once you can move beyond the sheer panic you experience once you hit the streets, your gaze will inevitably move to the stunning views of the mountains surrounding the city. Bogotá is extremely high – for those of you from the United States, it literally puts Denver to shame in terms of elevation – and the city itself sits on a plateau in the Andes Mountains. When you’re out and about in the city, you’re surrounded in the distance by gorgeous, generally cloud-fogged peaks on all sides; it truly is an amazing vista to witness.
Our very first night in Colombia, the bridal party decided to forego the obligatory rehearsal dinner and instead gave all the guests the awesome experience of hitting the streets of Bogotá in a chiva. A chiva or chiva bus is a rustic, colorful, open-air trolley, and the party variety come complete with lights, music, occasionally a very touchy-feely tour guide (in our case), and a small area for dancing. Plus, you can bring along all the alcohol you can manage; in our case, we were taking shots of aguardiente, an anise- or licorice-flavored clear liquor, the entire time.
Our chiva ride took us throughout the main streets of Bogotá, where the Christmas decorations were amazingly gorgeous. Because Colombia doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, the entire month of November is devoted to Christmas just like December here in the States. This is my kind of country for that reason alone! Amazingly, the rickety chiva was able to take us on quite a long and winding path up the mountainside, where we finally stopped close to the top for some late-night snacks and photo ops. One of the wonderful things about Bogotá, and I’m pretty sure most South American countries, is the never-ending availability of delicious food and drink at any one of the myriad roadside restaurants or small food stands you find pretty much every half mile you travel. At our late-night stop, I was able to try, and completely fall in love with, mazorca, which basically translates to grilled corn. But this isn’t your everyday grilled corn. Mazorca has enormous, and I do mean enormous, kernels, and the texture of the corn itself is a little bit grainier than what you’d find at the grocery store back home. But, when it’s grilled and perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper, it’s absolutely fantastic. To wash that down with, we purchased warm, flavorful, steaming fresh out of the pot canelazo, which is a mulled concoction of aguardiente, panela or solidified cane sugar, and water boiled with cinnamon. It is the most delicious hot cocktail you’ll ever put in your mouth…yum. After the mazorca, canelazo, and the multiple aguardiente shots we all took while going up and down the mountain, everyone was ready to call it a night.
The next morning before the wedding festivities got fully underway, we braved the crazy traffic again to visit an older part of Bogotá where the presidential palace, Casa de Nariño, is located. The entire area around the palace, which includes the Plaza de Bolivar and La Catedral Primada, is a much more beautiful portion of the city, where the streets are narrow and reminiscent of what you’d encounter in Europe, and the architecture is an interesting blend of Spanish, English, and French influences.
One of the fabulous things about this part of the city is the huge selection of small bakeries and breakfast restaurants that, oddly enough, all advertise exactly the same sweets, breads, and hot items for purchase in each storefront. There are nearly a dozen different types of colorful, glazed baked goods, mostly made out of new and interesting tropical fruits I’d never heard of, lined up in the windows of every shop that will make you feel like it’s absolutely necessary to stop and try just one. But once you go in to order your sweets, you’re immediately overcome by the warm, fragrant aroma of boiling tamales, and you have no choice but to sit down and order one right away. Tamales come in many different forms, not only unique to different South American countries, but also unique to different regions or states within a particular country, and I honestly know next to nothing about what type of filling is found in each unique breed of tamale. The common denominator to nearly all of them is the outer wrapping of banana leaves, which provide the perfect vehicle for wrapping the filling and keeping it safe while heat is applied to the outside of the leaves. Once the steaming tamale makes it out of the pot and onto your plate, you can carefully unwrap the banana leaves, much like you’d unwrap a present on Christmas morning (and with just about as much excitement), and the delicious scent of cooked meats which have been marinating overnight, masa, or corn meal cooked down with broth and seasonings, and whatever vegetables have been thrown in for good measure come wafting out and literally make your mouth water. Now, in all honesty, I personally don’t like tamales very much. They smell amazing, and in theory, just by looking at the ingredient list, they should similarly taste amazing, but I’m a texture eater, and the sort of mushy, gooey consistency of the masa just doesn’t do it for me. I did try the breakfast tamale we ordered, and the flavor profile was fantastic, but I couldn’t get past the less-than-desirable (to me, personally) texture, and so I filled up on café con leche and cheese instead.
The wedding that evening was one of the most beautiful events I’ve ever had the privilege of attending. The setting was a stunning event center, complete with an authentic stone chapel for the ceremony, high up on top of the mountain outside of the city; the reception room where we ate dinner (and then danced like crazy people for hours) was lined with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the city lights…it was absolutely gorgeous.
Our dinner started out with an appetizer course of patacón con mariscos, a beautifully arranged “purse” of sorts made out of fried plantains and filled on the inside with an assortment of perfectly marinated seafood. Unfortunately, we were starving and way too excited to take a picture at that point, but we were able to grab a shot of the main course, a duo of amazing steak with a wine and red cherry sauce, and a chicken breast glazed with an Asian-style marinade. Both were amazing, and the plate was just the perfect amount of food to fill us up without filling us out and keeping us too stuffed to dance off the meal. The wedding cake was similarly delicious, but I can’t say with 100% certainty what was in it. It was a yellow layer cake of sorts, with what I think was a guava filling between two layers, and some type of creamy, sweet filling between the other two. I ate it so fast I can hardly remember the exact flavors!
After a much needed quality night’s rest (which was completely necessary, as the wedding lasted well past 2 AM…), we got up early the next morning and took to the streets again; this time we were leaving the city of Bogotá, at least temporarily, and heading out of the mountains and into the plains of Colombia to a small region called Villavicencio. Honestly, our road trip out of the mountains was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I usually curl up with a good magazine or book on long road trips to keep myself entertained, as I’m one of those rare types that doesn’t get car sick while reading, but I was completely enthralled during the entire trip by the gorgeous views on the road. At first, the morning was rainy and most of the mountain tops were covered by fog and clouds, but as we headed down from the high elevation regions, the sun started peeking out and we were treated to the most beautiful scenery of steep cliffs and mountains, lush foliage everywhere you looked, small houses dotting the mountainside here and there, little towns lining the road every few miles, and a couple of natural and absolutely wonderful waterfalls.
But that wasn’t the only good part about the road trip – there was also the food. We stopped about three times on our 2-hour drive to snack, and boy was it worth every second added to the trip. Our first stop was at a place that you absolutely, and I do mean absolutely, must visit if you’re ever traveling along the frighteningly narrow two-lane road (Highway 40) that winds its way out of the Andes and into the plains of the Colombian countryside. The place of which I speak is Lacteos Tequendama, a family-owned, tourist-friendly restaurant/deli-style counter/bakery that it so amazing they had to set up shop on both sides of the road so you can treat yourself when you’re coming and going. Lacteos Tequendama specializes in fresh farmer’s cheese, which is soft, crumbly, and very mild-flavored. The cheese alone is fantastic, but when they layer it with a big hunk of guava paste (queso con bocadillo), it is absolutely out-of-this-world delicious. I’m not even a fan of guava (go figure, after living in Miami for 5 years…), but the saltiness of the cheese and the tart, extremely sweet flavor of the guava meld into a heavenly treat that you just can’t turn your nose up at. We, of course, had absolutely no choice but to also pick up a hot, fresh, fried beef empanada, because when you see an empanada, you must eat an empanada. The empanada alone was great, but the crowning glory was the huge bowl of freshly-made aji, a spicy salsa, to top your empanada with sitting on the countertop. Customers were literally standing at the counter around this bowl, spooning little amounts of the aji onto each bite of their empanada with the solitary plastic spoon provided. The aji at Lacteos Tequendama was extremely spicy, due mostly to what I discovered is a pepper also known as aji, which lies somewhere in the chile pepper family between jalapeños and habaneros. The flavor of the aji pepper packs a perfect punch and adds a lot of brightness to the salsa. We were able to find some of the aji peppers at the grocery store back in Bogotá, and I snuck some out with me in my suitcase, but they, sadly enough, were long past the point of being used by the time we got back home.
Our next stop was another restaurant that was so good they needed to have two, La Petite Source #2 (we stopped at the second one). Much like Lacteos Tequendama, La Petite Source #2 has a gorgeous array of freshly baked breads and pastries available for purchase at the counter, or you can sit down and enjoy a leisurely meal at a table if you, like us, were enjoying the trip as much as the final destination. The first thing I had, and fell in love with, was a scrumptious little ball of cheesy, doughy goodness known as almojábana. Perfectly round, perfectly baked, perfectly delicious. As we sat down to eat, I couldn’t help but notice the ridiculously oversized “pot”, if that’s what you’d call it, of cooking meats…just look at it! It’s enormous!
We were a little stuffed from all the goodness at Lacteos Tequendama, so we bypassed what was cooking in the “pot”, and opted for some arepa de choclo instead. Arepas, unleavened, thick disks of corn flour, are a huge part of the Colombian food culture, and they can be eaten alone, with butter, or paired up with honestly any other ingredient you might think of. Arepa de choclo is an arepa served with the delicious white farmer’s cheese of Colombia, which has a wonderful chunky texture and the perfect bit of salt. Other items were sampled, but nothing stood out much more than the wonderful arepa de choclo and the almojábana. I believe that Frank was brave enough to order mondongo, a broth-based soup made with cow stomach and vegetables, while we were there, but I’m sorry, I just cannot bring myself to so much as smell mondongo, much less taste it. I may love eating and cooking, but I’m picky, and cow stomach is something I’m just not planning to try…ever. Apparently, it’s a wildly popular dish in Colombia and many people love it, so if you’re an adventurous eater (which I am definitely not), please give it a shot!
Once our flagging appetite was satisfied, we finally finished up the drive and made it into Villavicencio proper, a smaller region of Meta in the plains of Colombia. The temperature in Villavicencio is an extreme change from the chilly, damp air in Bogotá; it was bright, sunny, and hot as hell when we arrived at our friend’s family home. After a few hours of rest and recharging, we were hungry again – go figure. It was a rainy night, but we found an absolutely fabulous restaurant, El Parque, that allowed us to sit outside on the covered patio and enjoy the sound of the rain during our meal. This, in my opinion, was the best meal of the trip hands down.
We started our meal with what was soon to become my absolute favorite Colombian treat, patacones. Patacones are a beefed up version of tostones, fried green plantains flattened into a disk, which are found in many South American cuisines. Patacones are nearly twice as large as a normal tostone, and twice as good as well, in my opinion at least. They can be eaten alone, or topped with any assortment of delicious sauces and cheeses. Patacones con hogao are covered in a chunky, slightly sweet salsa of sorts made of diced tomatoes, onions, and oil. Fabulous, amazing, want to make them immediately.
But even better were the patacones con champinones that we were privileged to be served at El Parque. Perfectly prepared sliced mushrooms cooked in a thick, luscious cream sauce…literally, finger-licking good. Next up – picada. Much of our meals in Colombia were shared among the four of us traveling together, as I was more than happy to leave the ordering up to the Colombians and just try whatever looked appetizing. Picada is definitely a plate for sharing; the four of us, as hungry as we were, barely finished the plate. Picada is basically a large platter of grilled beef, chicken, blood sausage, chorizo, and my favorite, papas criollas. Papas criollas are these tiny, perfectly round potatoes that can be fried, grilled, boiled, or baked, and are generally served as an accompaniment to a meat-based dish. They are so fabulous, even without much seasoning, but I was unhappy to discover that they are extremely expensive to buy here in Atlanta, at least at my local store. I think I ate more papas criollas that night than meat, and I was happy to do so.
The next day turned out to be my favorite part of the trip, aside from the beautiful wedding and the memorable road trip down out of the mountains, because we were privileged to visit two separate fincas, or farms, owned by our friend’s family. Apparently, in Villavicencio, many people own a finca outside of the main part of the city, which they travel to on the weekends (think New Yorkers hoofing it out to the Hamptons on a Friday afternoon) or rent out to travelers in the region. The first finca we visited, La Primavera, was amazing. Complete with two separate houses, a pool, cows, chickens, horses, and even talking wild parrots (yes, talking wild parrots), La Primavera was truly a gorgeous property with the most stunning views of the mountains.
Before we even arrived at La Primavera, all I’d been able to hear about was sancocho and how amazing it is. As soon as we arrived at the finca, the first thing we discovered was an enormous pot of simmering sancocho just waiting to be demolished by all the hungry guests.
Sancocho is a very traditional Latin American soup made from root vegetables, chicken or meat, and that amazing super-sized corn I first experienced on our chiva ride. It’s hearty, flavorful, and made up of just the perfect amount of things you can pick right up out of the bowl and go to town on. I absolutely loved it, but I enjoyed watching how it was prepared outside on an open flame even more…authentic Colombian cuisine at its best. Another “best” of this meal was the out-of-this-world cake we picked up from a fabulous bakery in downtown Villavicencio, Veracruz, known as the Don Flancho. Part flan, part chocolate cake, drizzled with caramel sauce, 100% amazing. If you ever make it to Villavicencio, you absolutely cannot leave without at least stopping into the Veracruz bakery to gaze longingly at the amazing display of cakes of all sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors beautifully arranged in the store. It’s a mouthwatering experience, and I bet you won’t leave without a cake.
After an amazing lunch, we were lucky enough to be able to go horseback riding and enjoy the stunning sunset at the same time. It was a total blast, and definitely a huge highlight of our entire Colombian adventure. My horse’s name was Margarita, and I took that as a good omen, as I’m quite the fan of margaritas myself. No one was injured, but a few of us did go on a bit of a wild ride because the fouls were less than pleased that their mothers were being ridden, and the babies kept spooking the horses into what I’d call just-under-a-run. We all kept our saddles, but I think we barely avoided disaster due to the nipping fouls and the many holes in the field that the horses had a hard time navigating.
Just as the sun was setting, we headed over to the next finca, La Pancha, where we would be staying the night. We arrived well after dark, and after a very bumpy ride through questionable, pot-hole ridden roads, and so I wasn’t able to appreciate the beauty of La Pancha until the next morning. It was an amazing evening though…we strung up some hammocks, cracked open a couple of Poker beers (a Colombian staple, sort of like PBR here in the United States), did some star-gazing, and enjoyed the sounds of all the strange nightlife in the countryside. In the morning, we walked straight off the patio and grabbed some of these huge globes of goodness to make the freshest, most delicious, orange juice I think I’ve ever tasted.
Unlike La Primavera, La Pancha is a fish farm, and so we spent much of the morning exploring the vast array of different fish types being raised on site. It was hot and muggy, so we beat a hasty retreat from La Pancha well before lunch time to avoid the worst part of the day.
Our last culinary stop in Villavicencio was El Viego Mango, an extremely popular asadero lunch spot for local people craving freshly cooked meats of all types. Frank had mondongo again, but we also all chowed down on huge cuts of ternera or veal fresh off the strangely-designed tee-pee-like grill.
Carne a la llanera is a staple of Villavicencio, and loosely translates into “meat llanero (plains)-style”. I’m not sure if that particular type of grilling imparts any special flavors or textures to the meats, but it sure was delicious. If you end up in Villavicencio at some point, I recommend you stop by this place so you can completely immerse yourself in the crazy lunchtime crowd.
After saying goodbye to family and friends, we hit the treacherous Highway 40 once again to travel back up into the mountains and get ready to fly out of Bogotá the next day. It was a long trip filled with adventures, mostly of the culinary type, but a few close calls with galloping horses, cranky wild parrots, bad drivers, and poor roadways. All in all, I found Colombia to be a gorgeous country, filled with amazing food and vistas in both the mountains and the plains. The people were proud of their heritage, and their food (of course – it’s all amazing!), but the level of happiness and pride that the Colombian people take in their work, no matter what their job may be, was astonishing. I came back to the United States with a new appreciation for many of the everyday things that I take for granted, and also a newfound love of Colombian cuisine. I have frozen papas criollas at home, two ancient Colombian cookbooks I found in the markets of Villavicencio, and a yearning to cook and learn more. I’ll be sure to share whatever Colombian dish I end up trying first; I’m sure there will be many to come.