Monthly Archives: March 2011

Music in the Square

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Eat, Drink, Why Not?

Part of the joy of travel is trying the local foods, even if some of it looks questionable or gross. In Bogota I was offered fried hormigas culonas – those are ants with large derrieres – and although I was really tempted to try the delicacy – if you can call it a delicacy – in

Ready to go to town, Colombian style

the end (no pun intended) I flatly refused.

The day after I thought what a wasted opportunity. When again, if ever, will I ever get a chance to eat fried ants that locals say are delicious. The delicacy, there’s that word again, is from Bucaramanga, Colombia, and when in Bucaramanga, why not do as Bucaramangans, right?

In seafood heaven in Medellin

“Porque no?”  – “Why not?” is the philosophy Kahyda Rivera adheres to. I met Kahyda in Barranquilla in northern Colombia. She’s from Machala, Ecuador, and was on vacation. Kahyda had me swear that if ever such a food opportunity presented itself my response should simply be two little words: “Why not?”

Bandeja Paisa: chorizo, plantains, egg, arepa, minced meat, beans, avocado

And so there have been a lot of “why not” moments since Kahyda turned up. I have since given another try to bandeja paisa and ate the chicharrón – fried pork rinds – that comes with the dish. But these don’t look like the pork rinds you get at your local supermarket in the United States. They look like the spine of a small mammal. Or perhaps the tail bone of the pig. When I first laid eyes on the thing I wasn’t crazy about it, and when I took my first bite I almost spit it out. One bite was enough for me. But then I was chastised by Colombians who hail from the region where the dish was invented for having tried it in Bogota “where they don’t know how to cook it”. If you are going to eat a bandeja paisa, you must try it in Paisa country – that is Medellin and the region that surrounds it. And so I did. And guess what? I liked it. I’m not going to say loved it, but I liked it. It was tasty and edible, not burned to crisp or requiring you to chew and chew to get the thing down. So learn this lesson:  Stay as local as possible with the foods – or at least find the places with locals who know how to cook the thing. I tried foods from the Choco region on the Pacific Coast, for instance, without setting foot in Choco. But the food was made by people who are from the Choco, even if they were now operating a restaurant in Medellin.

Pollo asado, one of my favorites

Here I must say asking “why not?” has been a fantastic way of trying foods I otherwise would not try. One of the best meals I had in Colombia was from a food cart parked on the street in Barranquilla. It was arepas rellenos con queso y pollo – a sort of bread made of ground corn dough or precooked corn flour – and it was so good I went back for more.

Still asking “why not?”, I discovered my favorite snack,  buñuelos, a round mass of flour and cheese fried in lots of oil. Now, truth be told, when I took a look at the oil it was fried in I for a moment wondered if I was putting my health at risk. How long had they been using that oil to fry just about everything they served in the kitchen? But the thing was so good that I merrily ate and figured I would deal with any consequences later.

A note about consequences: You have to take responsibility for your own health and safety.  I ask “why not” but I proceed with caution, meaning a tiny bite to taste and if I like I go further. You will get sick if you throw caution to the wind and eat anything someone sticks in front of you. If that’s a risk you are willing to take, as one English woman I met, go for it. Her thinking was that you’d only be sick for a day or two, if at all. True, but those can be two days of hell – two of your precious vacation days you will never get back. When I first arrived in Colombia I was super careful, very picky about what I ate.  And it didn’t do me much good because I still got sick. After being in the country for a longer period of time, I became less choosy and more adventurous and I have enjoyed some great meals. But one time, in Supia, I ate a chorizo that gave me stomach pain and cramps the next morning. It didn’t help my condition having to travel three hours back to Medellin on a winding road that made me even queasier.  I was so sick, it sidelined me for two days. That was Tuesday and I’m still recovering from.

Fish, Cartagena style

So my point is, try the foods, but as you ask “why not” be honest with yourself and say “because it just doesn’t taste right”. After all, would you eat foods at home that were not well-prepared or had gone bad?

Don’t be foolish, yes, but don’t outright deny yourself the local culinary pleasures.

Buñuelos

Local meats in San Antonio

Natalia enjoys in San Antonio

Coffee with aguardiente

Inside the buñuelo

Really good pizza, but they supposedly don't do right by their employees

There's always this American option

Fernando fries up goodies in Medellin

Not Starbucks, Juan Valdez rules

Anon

Best beer in town - out of Medellin

Donde L'Italiano in Santa Marta, Colombia

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Medellin Sin Pablo

There was a time I could never have stepped foot in this city, as I have now done, or safely walked its streets without worrying about being kidnapped, shot to death or blown to pieces.

Medellin was one of the deadliest places on Earth as drug cartels unleashed terror on each other and anybody who stood in their pesos-paved path. This city – with Cali to the south – was the mecca of drug-trafficking, kidnappings and murder. You’d essentially be committing suicide by traveling to Medellin during the 1980s and years beyond.

If governments around the world warned their citizens to stay out of Colombia because of a decades-old guerilla and paramilitary war against the government, they practically banned visits to Medellin..

Today Medellin is a different place. It has undergone an amazing transformation, and it’s a very livable city. With a mass transportation system that is the envy of other cities, there are fantastic commercial centers offering great shopping, a thriving art scene, top-notch museums, parks, plazas and a bevy of activities and festivities that draw thousands of visitors annually.

"Pablo Escobar Muerto" - "Pablo Escobar Dead" - oil on canvas painting by Fernando Botero in the national museum, Medellin, Colombia

Yet, the city has not completely been able to shed its unwanted and now unwarranted image as a dangerous place. So many of my friends have asked if it’s safe for visitors. I’ve received “be careful” warnings from them.  Thanks to the days of the “Medellin Cartel”, when big drug boss Pablo Escobar was king of the hill, the city’s history is one of bloodshed. And years after his death, Escobar in some circles is considered a patron saint, Colombians say. But to the vast majority, good ol’ Pablo did more harm than good with his ill-gotten gains. Some say he flood the streets of Medellin with money and built things. But he also tore things down, namely the image of Colombia as a place to be avoided at all cost. Medellin is now crawling with visitors and Colombians couldn’t be more ecstatic. They show it by embracing visitors like family or longtime friends. They ask “where are you from?” and pray that you are having a good time.

The Medellin metro. Spotless!

But you must come to Medellin to see for yourself. Yes, the drug-trafficking hasn’t been completely erased – as long as there is demand there will be supply – but the violence and crime has dropped dramatically and industry increased. Some neighborhoods are still not safe, but doesn’t every major metropolitan area have a no-go zone?

I couldn’t wait to get to Medellin after I heard so much about it from other visitors and Colombians themselves. They talked up a storm about this city!

When  two couch surfers from Slovakia I hosted in Miami – Martin and Lucia [love you guys! 🙂 ] – told me they were ready to end their trip around the world and stay put in Medellin, I was floored because they had seen some incredible cities around the world during their journey. What was it about Medellin that would have them relocate to Colombia? Others expressed similar feelings about Medellin and so I put the city high on my list of places to visit. And here I am,now part of the “we love Medellin” bandwagon.

About 45 minutes to an hour outside the city there are some fantastic towns, with much to offer, including colonial charm, great dining, and incredible landscape. I went with friends to just one such place where incredible desserts are the order of the day. I tried some local foods and despite the rainfall, loved walking around exploring.

Botero Plaza - works of the famed Colombian artist all over the square

I judge a city based on a number of factors, including weather, walkability, activities, friendliness, cleanliness, and general quality of life. Medellin gets high marks on all. For instance, it has a metro transportation system that is so clean you could eat off the floor. It’s spotless. And I’m told by Colombians that if someone dare try to spray graffiti or throw trash on the floor or in any way vandalize the train system they will meet the wrath of other riders. People in Medellin guard their metro system as if it’s their personal property.

And while Colombians are generally friendly, people in Medellin are even more so. Example? Every time I ask for directions of one person, everybody within earshot steps in to offer help and advice, in some cases walking with me whole way.

Last night I was on a bus heading from the center to the home of my hosts Chucho and Ana in Envigado. I asked the bus driver to let me know when I arrived at my stop because I was unfamiliar with the area. The woman seated in front of me said she would tell me. Another who got off the bus at the same stop not only pointed the way, but walked with me talking to me as if we were old friends. This has happened over and over again in Medellin, as locals reach out to make sure a visitor’s stay is safe and enjoyable. They tell you where you should go and where you should avoid. Unlike some places I’ve visited in the world (are you listening Paris?) not once has anyone frowned and walked away unwilling to help with directions.

It is now rainy season in Colombia, but generally the weather is fantastic in Medellin, not too hot, not too cold. That’s why it’s known as “the city of eternal spring”.

Colonial church near Botero Square

Gone are the kidnappings. The violence in the streets. There is police presence everywhere!  You can’t take two steps without bumping into two cops. Or the military and security guards in many places. It is a safe city. Certainly safer than it once was. And I have been enjoying my time here from the moment I stepped off the bus from Cartagena, another great Colombian destination. And Colombians, I see now why you – and visitors – are mad about Medellin. I could live here. But alas, I must move on.

MORE MEDELLIN IMAGES

Legend has it that if you come to Medellin and touch this sculpture - The Roman Soldier - by Botero, you will find love. So sometimes it's hard to get a shot of the sculpture without people - especially women - hanging on to it 🙂

Only available in Medellin and in select establishments

San Antonio near Medellin, with couchsurfing hosts Ana and Chucho and friend Natalia. We shared the best desserts!

Head massager. Chucho turns into a happy kid, laughing uncontrollably with this thing 🙂

San Antonio

Medellin from El Parque del Tesoro commercial center

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