Monday, February 28, 2011

Thank You Colombia

Three months in Colombia came to an end today. I can't believe it's only been three was an amazing trip.

As is the case with most people from the U.S., and perhaps around the world, I was honestly afraid to go to Colombia. Pretty much all I knew about the country was that coffee, bananas, and illegal drugs come from here. I knew about the drug lords, the violence, and the bad history. But unlike some, I could identify it on a map. :-)

What I didn't know about was that Colombia is an amazing place. Some of the many things I love about California are the mild climate and variety of scenery (oceans, beaches, mountains, deserts, snow, and everything in between). Colombia has all of that and a jungle too. I was amazed by the variety of what I've seen here.

There are definitely problems too. There's crime, violence, corruption (I'm told), and other things but I'm guessing that it's way better here than it used to be. There are police pretty much on every corner and I didn't witness anything the whole time I was here. In this respect, it didn't seem all that much different than some other places I've been. If it continues to improve and Colombia can better market itself to the world, there are huge tourism opportunities.

It's time to say my thanks and goodbyes, so first, thanks Karina, Julian, and the entire Rosales family in Puerto Inirida for being amazing hosts during my visit. I got to see and experience amazing things including some incredible hospitality. I'll always remember the beach outing where we had 24 people and all our stuff in one bongo. Actually, I'll remember that there were almost that many people at everything we did...what a big family! Muchas gracias por todo!

And of course, many thanks to the Peña family for putting up with me and letting me stay for so long without any complaints, or at least any I could understand. :-) Thanks to Fidelia for the fabulous meals and Joaquin for all the afternoon coffees we shared. Thanks also for the adventures in the Zona Cafetera and the fun times in Chiquinquira. I'll never forget it. Also, a special thanks to Ignacio for the use of his car...sorry about the scratch...seriously. I'll miss you guys (Pepe and Risis too) very much and can't wait to see you all again soon! Next time I hope to be able to speak something other than my crappy-Philadelphia-accented-Mexican-Barcelona Spanish with you!

And finally, special thanks to Diana for sharing your country and, more importantly, your family with me. Both are amazing and I'll never forget my time here.

Muchas gracias again and nos vemos pronto Colombia. No puedo esperar para regresar! Please remember to save me some Bandeja Paisa.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Spam Texts

I've been in Colombia for exactly 89 days and during this time I've had cell phone service with a company called Tigo. It's a prepaid service with no contract that costs like 35,000 Pesos (~$18 U.S.) per month and includes approximately 100 minutes and 2GB of data. The data connection is relatively slow (because it's using the old-fashioned Edge network system instead of the newer 3G or 4G networks that we're more familiar with now) but coverage has been pretty good as I've only been in a couple of places where I didn't have service. Overall, as a relatively cheap connection to the outside world, I give it one thumbs-up for the (relatively) large data allowance, which is important to me.

What I haven't been as excited about are the (at least) 73 spam text messages that Tigo's sent to me in the 80 days that I've had the service. It's almost one per day but there have been days where I've gotten like three different messages. They're usually asking me to add minutes or text service by responding some code. Nothing too exciting in other words but it still seems like a lot. Oh well, I guess that it's the (low) cost of staying connected!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Catedral De Sal (Salt Cathedral)

I've been to Superman's Fortress of Solitude and it's inside a hill in the small town of Zippaquira just north of Bogotá:

If you're a bit rusty on your Superman references, the Fortress of Solitude was Superman's vacation home. He'd go there to rest, reflect, and get his strength back. Unfortunately, I've lied and the Fortress of Solitude isn't in Zippaquira but what is there is just as cool. Inside this mountain is a Halite (rock salt) mine that they created a church in, thus the name Catedral De Sal:

The mine has been in use for almost seven thousand years (!!!) and continues to be worked today. Miners first built a chapel in the 1930s as a place to pray for protection while they worked. Over the years, the church was made bigger and was in use until 1990 when it had to be closed due to structural issues. The new church was started in 1991 and is located about 200 feet deeper than the original. To get to it, you enter through the door in the photo above and walk down a mine shaft that's about 10 feet tall. Note the salt leeching through the rock:

As you walk down, down, down to the main church, you pass 14 small chapels along the way. Each stop is a station of the cross. (By the way, it's not as dark and claustro as the photos make it look.)

Like I mentioned, the mine is in active use. There are parts of the mine that are accessible, especially when you visit the restrooms, that are "unfinished". This is what the mine looks like when they're done removing the rock and salt from an area:

What they've done, very well I might add, is to take the previously-excavated areas of a working mine and transform them into a series of amazing spaces. Your first view of one of the main parts of the church is what's below. The scale of what you're looking at is not clear from the photo. My guess is that this particular room is 60 feet wide and 120 feet tall. I can't even estimate how far away that cross is. Those black squares on the ground are rows of pews. Also, note the cool "marbling" texture on the ceiling.

The space is impressive. The salt and rock textures on the walls and ceilings are highlighted with various colors of lights and the whole experience is a bit like what Superman's Man Cave could have been if it weren't white crystal.

I think this photo of two of the four large columns that have been cut out of the rock along with the people and pews helps to give you some idea of the scale. My guess is that the columns are 15 to 20 feet in diameter.

Here's a photo that shows the salt-and-rock texture of the ceilings and walls. You can also see a "waterfall of salt" effect (where the pink lighting is) on the front wall of this part of the church.

After taking the tour, and probably just like when you're hanging out at Superman's fortress, you can grab a drink while you're here. Yep. This church has a cafe inside!

The Catedral De Sal is very well done. To see the architectural design alone is worth a visit. It's probably the most spectacular "building" that I've seen in Colombia and definitely the most unique church.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

La Colombiana

Just like Coke in the U.S, Inca Kola in Peru, and Calpis in Japan, Colombia's got its own national-favorite soft drink. Colombia's is called, conveniently enough, (La) Colombiana:

This pinkish-peachy-colored beverage advertises that it's kola-flavored. I really didn't, and still don't, know what kola tastes like. I had to look it up just to see what it is. Apparently, kola flavoring is derived from the nut of the kola tree, which is native to the rain forests of Africa but now is grown in the tropics around the world.

Colombiana's smell is something along the lines of an artificial banana flavor. I got excited when I had Colombiana for the first time because of the smell. You see, I absolutely absolutely absolutely love love love fake banana flavoring but, unfortunately, the taste is more like a cream soda, which I don't all. I've had a few of them while here, including the diet version which is similarly flavored, but I'm not a fan. If you like (orange) Creamsicles you'll probably like the soda. It's huge here so I guess there are enough people who like that flavor.

One interesting thing that I've seen here that I don't think that I've seen an equivalent for before is that people add Colombiana soda to local-favorite Aguila (Eagle) beer. They put one can of soda in the pitcher and then fill the remaining space with the beer. The combo is called Cola and Pola ("pola" is an informal/casual way to say "beer" in Colombia):

Since I hate the taste of beer and don't really like Colombiana all that much, I passed on a chance to try out the combo. I think I'll stick with diet Coke and diet Mountain Dew for now, unless of course, I come across an Inca Kola or Calpis for a change.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Colombia, and especially Bogotá, has proven to be fairly progressive and successful in its attempts to create alternative transportation options. Bogotá has things like the Transmilenio bus system, an annual day without private vehicles on the road, as well as a large network of dedicated bike lanes while Medellin has a beautiful Metro and the Metrocable. Both cities, along with many others in Colombia, also have Ciclovia.

Ciclovia is an event held every Sunday and on all major holidays. Major streets throughout the city are blocked off from vehicle traffic and pedestrians, bicycles, and skaters are encouraged to come out and enjoy the roads.

What was to become Ciclovia was created in Bogotá in 1974 and has been taking place in the city ever since. The streets are closed from 7:30am until around 2:00pm and many locations along the routes have permitted vendors in official event tents doing bike repairs or selling snacks and drinks. Answering the question "Where is Risis Now?", here she is with me on Calle 116 in Bogotá during this week's Ciclovia:

Bogotá's Ciclovia routes are very popular. One that goes along a boulevard named La Boyaca, which runs almost the entire length of the city, is packed with people each week. The idea of Ciclovia has spread to other cities and countries but very few places hold them every week of the year like they do in Colombia. This is a photo of one of Medellin's Ciclovia routes, which runs along a river:

I think part of the success is that Bogota has a year-round-springtime climate, which allows people to come out regularly. Couple that with the crazy drivers and traffic here that makes bicycling on the roads into an extreme sport and I can understand why folks look forward to Sunday. Hats off to Bogotá for the success of the program!

Special thanks to my friend cyberHag in Los Angeles for the inspiration to do this story.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The History Of Coffee

I grew up in a house where coffee was always taken with Half-n-Half and lots of white sugar. I really didn't appreciate coffee growing up but I'm trying to make up for it now. The history of coffee looks something like this...

Pre-1992 = Never drank coffee. Just Acme black tea with milk - probably with a bunch of sugar.
Circa 1993 = Mocha. Lots of chocolate.
Circa 1997 = Drip coffee with Half-n-Half or milk with a tablespoon of "raw" sugar.
Circa 2003 = Drip coffee with milk and like three Splendas.
Circa 2007 = Latte with three Splendas later reduced to two then finally one.
December 2009 = In Japan I started to drink drip coffee with only milk (no sugar).
December 2010 = Whatever coffee I can get. Black with no milk or sugar.

I find that I have no desire for milk or sugar in my coffee anymore. I really think what's next is to just eat the coffee grounds. Seriously, I'm going to make some coffee right now...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Monserrate And Short Brown Girls

Right next to the downtown area of Bogotá is the mountain Monserrate. It pretty much dominates the skyline of the whole city since it rises about 2,000 feet above the city (10,341 feet / 3,152 meters -- Bogotá is at 8,612 feet / 2,625 meters). If the name Monserrate sounds somewhat familiar, maybe you've been paying attention to my blog (Thanks!) because I had been to and written about a mountain called Montserrat (note the different spelling) near Barcelona last year. Yes, it's confusing...this Monserrate was named for that Montserrat.

Anyway, Bogota's Monserrate has a church, shrine, restaurants, touristy shops, and some hiking trails at the top. You get up to the top via a cable car or funicular vehicle depending on the time of day (each is open only part of the day). The views of the city on the way up in the cable car are great.

The church was originally built in the mid 1600s at the time in the name of the Virgen Morena de Montserrat (Brown Virgin of Montserrat) whose sanctuary was in Barcelona Spain, thus the connection (other than me of course).

The inside of the church is nice...if you're into churches I guess. (I'm not a super big fan of either churches or museums as you may already know.)

Off to the left side is a small shrine dedicated to the morenita (short brown girl) who you can see below. There's nothing like a Latina Mary statue to spice up a church. Unlike churches and museums, I've always been a big fan of morenitas... :-) By the way, it's funny to be in Colombia and find a Catalan flag (note: not the Spanish flag). On the left is the Catalan flag and on the right is the Colombian flag.

Fortunately, I had some time to kill so I did a few confessions while I was there. For that, two Hail Marys and one Our Father and you're good to go...

Out back of the church is an area where there are a bunch of restaurants and shops. The day I went, a weekday, was completely dead so many of the places were closed. I guess on the weekend the place sometimes gets mobbed.

After walking down the "hallway" between the shops you end up in a nature preserve that looks out over the valley on the opposite side of the hill from Bogotá. The difference is startling since on one side you've got a giant city with eight million people and on the other side is the Parque Corredor Ecologico (Ecological Corridor Park) where there are rolling hills, mountains, and lots of green. It reminds me a little of Topanga State Park in Los Angeles because you have this huge open space in the middle of a dense urban area.

There were a handful of horses and donkeys hanging around, which was kinda' cool. I'm not sure if they were wild but I doubt it since they seemed to be in great, well-cared-for shape. Where's Waldo exercise: there are three animals in the photo.

Monserrate is a great place to visit but the highlight for sure is the views. It's a very peaceful spot and you can see pretty much the entire city from one location. If you need me, I'll be looking out for a morenita!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Coffee Carts Of Colombia

In the U.S., if you want some coffee and you're not at home or in the office, you'll probably go to a Starbucks or perhaps a convenience store like Wawa. In Spain, you might take your break at a cafeteria-style place or perhaps go to Cafe de L'Opera. Well, as I wrote back in December, the way that people in Colombia get their coffee fix is a little different. If you don't remember, the story talked about what Tinto was, how much a coffee cost, and, more importantly, it showed some of the mobile-coffee vendors I encountered. Since I wrote that story, I've come across many more mobile coffee vendors/carts that I snapped pictures of. Today, I'd like to share some of the photos.

The first few were located in the main plaza of the town of Cartago in the Zona Cafetera. This first one made a mean "cafe con leche" (coffee with steamed milk). The owner said that her cart was custom made and cost about $2,500 U.S. I liked the "50's-style" stainless-steel metal work:

One of the things that's very cool about these carts is that they are completely self-contained and have all the important tools to make good coffee. For example, this cart has a coffee-bean roaster, a coffee grinder, and a propane (steam) powered coffee maker with a milk-steaming wand:

This is a close-up of the steam-powered, old-fashioned coffee and espresso maker:

This was another similar cart that I also ordered a cafe con leche to compare. It was even better than the first...

I liked the coffee-bean-shaped stand on this other cart:

There were probably six or more coffee carts in this one plaza. They were all similar and had similar pricing. I would have tried a coffee from each one but I think I might have OD'ed on caffeine.

I've run into these "mobile Starbucks" all over Colombia. One of my favorites and, by far, most visited is this cart that you can find all over the pueblo of Chiquinquira. Each time I'm there, I look for this guy (with the striped shirt) because his coffee is amazing. He uses a light-roast and puts a tiny bit of cinnamon on top. Yum!

The next photo was taken in Villavicencio and, although it's not a coffee cart per se, it's definitely mobile. This coffee entrepreneur has the cups, stirrers, sugar, and coffee creamer in a hip pack in front and the coffee spout just behind his left hand. I didn't try his coffee but he's probably my favorite vendor so far.

And finally, it's not coffee related but I love this photo of a mobile goat-milk vendor. Yep, you'll see pretty much everything if you look hard enough. Since my dad is the only person I know who likes goat milk, this photo is for him:

As Juan Valdez might say, Colombian Coffee, It's Different!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fernando Botero: Super Size Me!

I was talking to my friend Will just before my trip to Medellin and he was giving me advice on what I needed to do while there. See, he's been there a few times for work and was pretty familiar with the city. Other than the food, which he said was really good and that I needed to eat lots of it, he told me that I MUST visit the Botero Museum. At the time, I honestly had no idea what or who Botero was but I filed it away as a must-do.

About a week later, by chance, I found myself in a plaza in downtown Medellin where there are a bunch of sculptures of odd-shaped people and animals like this one:

Turns out that this was the Plaza Botero, which is just in front of the Botero Museum of Medellin. Fernando Botero is a Colombian artist who was born in Medellin and does (mostly) painting and sculpture. His subjects, whether human, animal, or still life, appear to be incredibly overweight but are, what he says, "exaggerated [human] forms".

Regardless of how you describe them, they are definitely different and interesting. In my opinion, they're a cross between adult forms, child-like forms, and small-person forms that have their features exaggerated to the point of parody, or super-sized! In other words, like a super-sized meal, they kinda' make you laugh when you see how ridiculous they are.

From what I could tell, he likes creating works based on the themes of bull fighting and politics. He has a whole bunch of paintings of bull fighters both in and out of the ring, which might be reminiscent of the two years he spent in matador school (!!!) as a teenager. Botero's political side includes a series of works called Abu Ghraib, where he criticizes the American treatment of prisoners during the Iraq war. He also has some works that portray Colombian social and political issues such as this one called "Pablo Escobar's Death", which recounts the famous drug lord's death on the roof of a house:

One other feature that's common in Botero's paintings are what I originally thought looked like Homer Simpson's googly eyes. Most of his subjects have eyes that go in two different directions like Homer Simpson does. It wasn't until later, back in Chiquinquira with the cows again, that I realized that they're actually cow eyes. Looking straight-on at both eyes of one cow, I saw Botero's "eyes"...

In the nearby San Antonio Plaza, Botero has several more sculptures displayed. On June 10, 1995, a drug cartel placed a bomb beneath a large bird sculpture and the subsequent explosion killed more than 30 people who were attending an outdoor concert. It is believed that it was an attempt to send a message that the leaders of the cartels didn't want to be extradited to the U.S. during the peak of the war on drugs with Colombia. In 2000, a duplicate sculpture was placed next to the damaged sculpture as a homage against the "stupidity" of the violence.

I very much enjoyed my visit to Medellin. All the Botero art was a bonus. A few days after I had gotten back to Bogotá I (once again) happened to come across another Botero Museum. This one was also excellent and houses mostly Botero paintings. I think I liked his interpretation of the Mona Lisa best because I think it makes me look not-so-super-sized...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Medellin's Other Metro - Metrocable

Lots of cities have Metros. No big deal, right? Subways. Els. Even a Maglev. This is different, a Metro cable car:

Yep, just like at a snow resort, Medellin's has three different (ski) gondola-style lines that serve as part of their Metro system.

The city of Medellin is located in a large, oblong valley and it has two traditional El (Elevated or above-ground) Metro lines; one that runs along the valley floor and another one that extends from the center of the main line towards the mountain. It's a very nice, clean, and modern system that's extra-special because, unlike a subway, you get to look out over the city. At two different points on the lines (the third line extends from the end of one of the two), they've built what they call the Metrocable. This is one of the stations:

It's not what you expect Medellin to look like, is it? :-) Like I've written before, the city's nice...but back to the story...

The original idea was to bring the Metro system to communities located on the sides of the mountain where a traditional Metro would be impossible. These communities are located on such steep hillsides that even buses have a hard time getting through the winding streets. The cool thing is that these communities aren't the rich ones. They're mostly populated by the working poor who would otherwise have to travel for a long time to reach the valley floor. I think that the Metrocable motto, which is "The Metro Culture Also Lives Here", sums it up well.

This is the view of one of the stations, some of the houses and buildings on the hillside, the very-cool-looking Biblioteca Español (Spanish Library - the black cube buildings to the right of the middle cable), and the valley beyond:

The Metrocable has been in operation since 2006 and residents seem to love it. Along the route, they've created park-like environments at each of the poles that hold the system up. I saw playgrounds, parks, and even a small skatepark. The system is very well done and, I think, a point of civic pride.

A ride on the Metro currently costs 1,550 Pesos ($0.80 U.S.) and transfers between the lines, including the Metrocable, are free. It's a pretty good price when you consider that you can cross from one end of the city to the other in about 2o minutes. The other bonus of the Metrocable is the views. Everyone in the car spends the whole trip looking out the windows at the valley below. This shot towards the downtown area of Medellin was taken from the Metro line "K":

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Like Heroin: Bandeja Paisa

Before coming to Colombia, I only had a vague idea of what the food would be like. I had it once while in Barcelona last year but I really don't remember that meal too well. I guess at some level I expected a version of Mexican food. I don't know why, I just did.

Well, as a public service for my fellow Americans, Colombian food is generally a meat-and-potatoes affair, at least in the parts of the country that I've been to. Pretty much every meal has a protein like fish, chicken, or steak along with rice or potato or both. Instead of tortillas or bread, they serve arepas, which are a type of thick white-corn tortilla much like sopes in Mexico. You don't get beans very often and the food's not spicy. Don't get me wrong, the food is great but I hadn't really found that one "to-die-for" meal until...

Just like the state motto of California: Eureka, I have found it! My new Colombian-food addiction. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Bandeja Paisa:

The Bandeja Paisa is a traditional meal served in the Paisa region, which includes both Medellin and the coffee area. It gets its name from the large plate that it's served on, which is called a bandeja in Spanish. The "Paisa Plate" is, as you can see, fairly large and is generally made up of: white rice, beans, ground beef, chicharon (deep-fried pork rind), a pan-fried plantain (a not-very-sweet banana), a fried egg, chorizo (sausage), a slice of avocado, and an arepa. The ingredients are always the same but the flavor varies by location. This is another Bandeja Paisa I had in Bogotá recently:

I know that the Bandeja Paisa won't win any health-food awards but, damn, it's good and it makes me happy. It's a habit that I'm not interested in kicking!