Coffee back home vs. coffee in Bogota

This afternoon, I took a break to meet with a San Francisco colleague’s friend who is interested in working at our company. We had coffee together over lattes, I shared with her information about the company, what my role was like, and my general work experiences.

While we were chatting, though, I was thinking about the latte I was drinking with her, and I realized that although it was good, it really paled in comparison to that incredibly smooth and rich latte I had in Bogota just four days before. I felt bad even thinking about it, but I couldn’t help but think about how satisfying every single sip of that Bogota latte was, even after it was no longer hot.

This is really how travel can ruin you.

Sunrise, then long wait in a parking lot

I scheduled my flight to come back to New York at around 3:30 today so that I’d be able to have time to watch the sun rise along the beach, do a beach run, exercise, eat breakfast, and lazily make myself over to the MIA airport this morning. While I got to do and enjoy all of that since all my customer meetings were yesterday, what I did not enjoy was the total traffic jam that welcomed me back as I got into my Uber in the LaGuardia parking lot this afternoon at around 4pm. My driver and I moved about a few inches every few minutes for over 40 minutes. we had basically gotten from one end of the parking lot to the other, never actually exiting until we reached about 45 minutes of being in the exact same line. I was so irritated.

I guess I could have scheduled an earlier flight back, especially since the sun rises at 6:30 at this time of the year, but I was just being lazy. That laziness ultimately cost me probably an hour in excess waiting time to get back home…. definitely cannot do that again given the LGA construction situation.

Miami, again

Going to and from Colombia, we actually connected in Miami. So, you’d think that if I wanted to be somewhat sensible that I just would have stayed in Miami on Monday night since I’d have to come back on Tuesday for work, but nope, I didn’t. Instead, I flew back to New York late Monday night, slept in my own bed that night, then woke up and took an 11:30am flight back to Miami for my three-day work trip.

I was telling my colleagues this today, and they both thought I was crazy. “Why would you do that?” they both asked me. Well, this trip was already booked back in January, and it’s a personal trip. And if I stayed in Miami that night, I would likely have to pay the hotel out of pocket since I wasn’t really there for work at that time, and… well, who wants to do that? And I guess I can always use more miles because why not?

Travel conversations with locals

While on our day trip to Guatape this past Saturday, we spoke a lot with our guide and driver Luis about local life in Medellin, Colombia, and Guatape, as well as his observations when traveling. He also travels quite a bit and has visited the U.S., including New York City. As we were sitting down at lunch in the town of Guatape on Saturday and are enjoying a refajo, freshly squeezed passion fruit juice, and a limonada de coco (coconut limeade), we marveled to him about how good all the local fruits in Colombia are and how much we love this juice, especially with its nice frothy top. He agreed, saying that he loves the local fruit and especially loves mango and blackberries (funnily enough, blackberry juice (de-seeded) is extremely common in Colombia, always seen on the list of juices to choose from at fresh juice squeezing stands, yet in the U.S., that’s pretty much unheard of. “Can I just say that the orange juice in the U.S. is just terrible,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know what that is, but it is not juice from orange.”

We also laughed and agreed. I explained to him that the multiple types and level of processing and pasteurization of the oranges used for juice, predominantly sourced from Florida, basically ruined the flavor of the orange juice, resulting in that disgusting processed flavor. Even when juices say “100% juice” on the label, they’ve deconstructed that orange and made “flavorings” out of the orange that although are artificial, because they are somewhat derived from oranges, no company is required to label their bottles with “additives” or “artificial flavoring.” The food laws in the U.S…. are questionable and sad. In the end, it doesn’t taste anything like the fresh juice you can reliably get in Colombia (or really, any other country) at all.

Yep, in Colombia, you get fresh, real food. In the U.S., we get processed everything. Not everything is better in the land of the rich and “free.”

Colombian coffee experience

Once upon a time, Colombia, although known internationally for producing some of the best coffee in the world, did not actually consume much of its own coffee due to it being too expensive for locals. They exported the vast majority of their coffee so the rest of the world could enjoy it, but they themselves did not enjoy the literal fruits of their own land. In recent times, this has changed quite a bit, with farmers being financially incentivized to trade in their heroine and cocaine crops instead for coffee beans, and Colombians embracing their own products. With this came many fun and new coffee shops popping up all over major cities domestically like Bogota and Medellin, with coffee tasting offerings representing the different coffee bean regions of the country (six major ones exist), coffee latte and cappuccino art (you can ask for your foam to be in the design of an elephant, a butterfly, or even the Taj Mahal!), and the ability to customize what method your chosen coffee type is brewed in (French press? Chemex? Japanese pour-over? Yama glass, anyone?).

On our first day in Bogota on Thursday, we happened upon this artsy, quaint coffee shop in La Candelaria called Arte y Pasion Cafe. Given that it looked pretty cozy and seemed to have a vast selection of coffee beans, we decided to pop in to have a taste. We decided upon a tasting of coffee representing four different regions. Like with wine, our server arranged them from lightest in flavor to strongest. He quickly told us the regions (he said it so quickly that the only one I caught was Santander). The server then presented the cups with filters propped up, allowed us to smell the freshly ground beans of each, then very neatly poured each coffee type into the filter. He followed this up by gracefully pouring hot water from a kettle into each filter from high up, allowing each to slowly drip and steep the grinds to produce the coffee liquid below it. When he was done, he took a quick taste of each with a spoon to ensure that each was of quality and represented what he thought they should taste like, smiled, then took away the filters and kettle and left us to ourselves to enjoy.

These may easily have been the deepest and most complex coffees I’d ever tasted in my life. The first two of the lighter varieties were delicious and fruity, while the second two were extremely layered, deep, borderline chocolatey with one even being a bit smokey. These were quite generous pours, too; we essentially had four full cups of coffee for the equivalent of about $7 USD.

I’m not a big coffee drinker; I’m an avid tea drinker who strongly prefers loose leaf over bags (bags are really just for the office out of convenience). But because I grew up with my dad drinking and enjoying good, strong coffee, I’ve always enjoyed the smell and taste of coffee and can recognize the good stuff from the crap. But this experience was really special and memorable. And we followed this up by going to two more coffee shops on our last day today, first Bourbon Coffee Roasters, where Chris had the filtered coffee of the day and I enjoyed what was likely the best latte of my life; then, we finished our mini coffee shop tour with an end at Cafe Cultor, where they had beautiful graffiti-like art work decorating their front wall, a brew bar and comfortable seating area inside, an outdoor garden area with ample seating, plus their own roastery in the back. Cafe Cultor is a bit quirky because they originally opened up in a recycled shipping container. They’re also very involved in their local community, as they help farmers in high risk and conflict areas and also work directly with local indigenous communities who produce the coffee they sell.

At Cafe Cultor, the server at the front knew some English, so she explained to us the different bags of beans and told us that they recently had won some major coffee awards. We ended up buying three different bags, plus some local chocolate bars to take back with us. I couldn’t stop smelling the coffee beans. They just smelled so fragrant and delicious.

We have definitely had a very delicious and spoiled food and drink experience while in Colombia. I left today feeling very grateful for not only our culinary adventures and the beautiful sights we saw, but also for all of the kind and welcoming people we met everywhere along the way.

Bogota Graffiti Tour

After leaving Medellin this morning, we arrived back in Bogota to have a leisurely lunch near our hotel, and then spent most of the afternoon exploring La Candelaria with the Bogota Graffiti Tour walking group. The Bogota Graffiti Tour started back in 2011 and is the original, free graffiti art walking tour in Bogota that operates on donations only. While showing you the local art on the streets, the guide also talks you through the historical, political, and social aspects of all these artists who have created these works, activists, and the daily lives of Colombians. They work in partnership with the local community and artists to fund community events and also local street art.

I’ve always really enjoyed street art culture in any city we’ve visited that had a lot of it, and Bogota and Medellin are definitely on steroids when it comes to the sheer amount of street art we have seen literally everywhere. The last time I felt we saw anywhere as much was for the brief time we had visited Sao Paulo, Brazil, back in June 2014.

The guide of our tour was actually born in Bogota, but raised in New York City and Miami. He decided to move back to Bogota from Miami about 14 years ago and considers Bogota his real home. During the tour, he said to us, “I’m pretty sure that when you told your friends and family you were coming to Colombia that they either thought you were crazy or questioned how safe it was for you to come here. Now, you can all go back home and tell them that you had a great time, it was safe, and now they should come, too!” Colombia is full of people who just want to make a living for their families and live a somewhat meaningful life. In that sense, they’re just like any other people anywhere in the world; they are hardly more dangerous than anyone else. So, our guide said that the worst thing we could do is to continue watching Narcos on Netflix or perpetuating Pablo Escobar-era stories of drugs and crime and violence of Colombia; instead, we should encourage more tourism into cities like Bogota, which are still in the process of getting accustomed to having visitors from all over the world. Yes, crime and violence exist here. Corruption at the government level exists here. But is that really any different than the U.S. at the end of the day, with a current administration which encourages anti-Semitism, hatred of immigrants (both legal and illegal) and people of color, sexism, and praises dictators from other countries? Really, the only difference for Americans like me is that we’ve basically become numb to President Dipshit’s stupidity and hatred, to his encouragement of violence, to mass and school shootings that are literally happening every single day; that is part of our everyday life, our daily consumption of the media. However, what is not day to day for us, at least in proximity, is drug trafficking, drug violence, and cocaine being grown on farms. That is unfamiliar to us, and what is unfamiliar to us scares us as a people. The familiar, no matter how screwed up it is, won’t scare us because that is our version of “normal.” Isn’t that kind of sad to think about, that somehow, hearing about *yet another* mass shooting is just numbing to us and oftentimes today, is met with indifference, yet if we were to hear (in the U.S.) of car bombings or shots being fired due to drug violence, that that would freak us out?

Colors and water everywhere

While doing research for this trip, I read two travel blogs that said we’d be making a huge mistake by coming to Medellin and not doing a day trip to Guatape, a small town located about two hours east of Medellin and has about 6,000 people. It is known for la Piedra de Penol, or the Penol Rock, which has 740 steps to get to the top, from which you can see incredible views of the massive (man-made) lake below and all of the little “inlets” and “islands” within it. 740 steps doesn’t sound like much… until you do it and are doing it on an incline. It definitely felt a bit rough, probably also for us with the difference in altitude. But the views alone were worth that moderate hike. I kept staring at the turquoise-teal waters and the bright green trees and shrubs everywhere, wondering how something this stunning was actually right before us. More people need to come here, I thought. How can a place as gorgeous as this only have had two travel blogs that I found mention it?! Most of the tourists who were climbing with us seemed to be local Colombians (or maybe traveling from other South American countries, as they were mostly speaking Spanish).

As a town, Guatape is known to be the most colorful town in all of Colombia, if not the world. The houses and shops are all lined with “zocalos,” or little rectangular friezes that are painted in bright colors, often decorated with something that family is known for (e.g. florists have orchids painted on theirs, bakers have breads and pastries) or that the family likes. When walking up and down the streets, it’s almost like a play land of color everywhere. I felt like all I did was go house to house, taking photos of everyone’s gorgeous and vibrant zocalos! The colors were overwhelming. After visiting a place as vibrant and brightly colored as this, almost every other place will seem dull and plain in comparison. Walking up and down the streets and stairs and hills, I felt like this was one of the cutest, quaintest, most charming little towns we’ve ever visited. And of course, we had delicious local food there, from the pan de queso made with local farmer’s cheese, to the local trout grilled and smothered in garlic, to the sancocho, or old hen’s chicken soup. We also had refajao for the first time, which is a mix of local beer, soda, and juice, and enjoyed our very first freshly squeezed passion fruit juice of this trip, so fresh that a thick layer of froth awaited us on the top of the glass.

Chris originally wondered whether we were really giving ourselves enough time to see Medellin if we were dedicating nearly a whole day for this trip to Guatape, as visiting Guatape would really mean we’d have only one full, proper day to see Medellin. But every minute of today I loved, and I have zero regrets for planning this excursion. This was already one of the biggest highlights of this trip — a “highlight” literally because of how bright it was there.

Travel warnings from locals

We took an early morning flight from Bogota to Medellin this morning. When we arrived, it was very clear that Medellin was a very different city than Bogota: we drove down and up mountains just to get from the airport to the hotel! The “City of Eternal Spring” as Medellin is called is full of hills and mountains with houses built atop them everywhere; it’s kind of like the land-locked version of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

When we checked into the hotel, a bellman insisted on helping us with our bags. Once he set them down in our room, he asked us what we were planning to do and how we were planning to get around. He then started telling us that although Medellin has changed quite a lot over the last 10 or so years and is much safer now that we had to be very careful, not take random cabs, always watch our surroundings and bags, etc. We said we understood and thanked him.

Then again, as we were waiting in the lobby for our Uber, he comes back up to us asking where we were headed and how we were getting there. Chris told him we’d be taking an Uber into the town, to which the bellman said, “Oh, that’s a very different place than it is here.. It’s much more crowded. Just be very careful and watch your things. Beware of your surroundings. There are a lot of good people in Medellin, but also a lot of bad people here, a lot of homeless.”

Then, I could feel myself starting to feel uneasy. He really doesn’t think tourists are safe here, huh?

Then to make matters worse, after we ate lunch near the plaza in the city, the next Uber driver who took us from the plaza area to Commune 13 (formerly what was the most violent neighborhood in Medellin, but now has been cleaned up, with escalators that provide easy up-and-down transit access for both locals and tourists, and also has a lively street art scene) didn’t want us to get out of the car when we arrived at the bottom of the escalators built there. He was speaking with us in Spanish, and although I could not tell word for word what he was saying, I could decipher that he was trying to say that he didn’t think it was safe for us to walk around on our own there and that we really need to be in a bigger group or with a guide. Then, as soon as he saw a group of white tourists with cameras and maps, his face is relieved, and he said, “Okay, okay,” and seemed willing to “release us.”

All I could think of when our Uber driver was having this broken lost-in-translation back and forth with us was… I just spent over $1,500 on my new mirrorless camera and its fancy zoom lens… I cannot get this camera stolen on its very first international trip. And we’re carrying it in a bag right now. Please, please don’t get stolen. 

Then, as we finally started opening the car doors, a guy on the outside of the car tried to open my door. Another tick: I don’t like anyone touching me or my stuff when I’m traveling if they are a stranger (okay, the car is not mine, but you know what I mean). That type of thing makes me uneasy. In the end, this guy was just trying to ask if we wanted a guided tour of the graffiti art. He was looking to make some money with some tourists — not a big deal. Still, I didn’t like it.

Because of the bellman’s repeated concerns, the Uber driver’s stated worries, and now, this guy who touched the car door, I was hesitant when Chris asked if I wanted to take my camera out. “I can use this,” I insisted, taking out my iPhone (yeah, because that’s just $1,000, but hey, I have to use what I have).

As we rode the escalators to the top, I started feeling less edgy as I saw more locals doing normal everyday things — chit chatting, teasing each other, biking, selling items. I saw more tourists, and I also noticed security guards and police officers walking around. I finally took the camera out when we got to the top and saw the incredible views of the city. This is just another neighborhood where people live and are just trying to get through their day-to-day lives, I thought. And now, it has all this amazing street art that attracts visitors like Chris and me. Yes, it has a violent past, but that isn’t really the case anymore. Plus, it’s the day time. What’s the worst thing that could happen in this place that has so many people in it?

As I was standing up there taking photos of the graffiti art and the views, I realized that the bellman and the Uber driver’s concerns were rubbing off on me, and that was really what was getting me annoyed. I know they were just saying these things to us out of concern and to look out for us since we’re tourists on vacation, but I’d personally preferred not to be told this kind of thing. It just makes me second-guess everything, which I hate. I read enough about safety when traveling to different countries I haven’t been before far before any trip begins, so it’s not like I am an unaware traveler.

Colombian cuisine

I have yet to visit a country where I did not enjoy its food. Although I’ll be honest and say that Germany, Hungary, and Austria were relatively bland, but their food was still enjoyable for the time we were there, though it would not even be in my first 50 cuisines if I had to list them out. Before researching this trip, I didn’t know much about Colombian food at all, other than knowing that a) the variety of fruit would be incredible, b) their cuisine has a lot of overlap with other Latin American countries (arepas, fried plantains, rice and beans, lechon pork, chicharron), and c) I had to make sure that before the end of the trip that we had tried hot chocolate with local cheese dipped in it, as that’s a “thing” here.

Today, we had several delicious dishes beginning with our breakfast buffet at the hotel. Although many delicious dishes were served, the one that stood out to me in terms of how tasty yet simple it was was the caldo de costilla, or the Colombian beef ribs and potato soup. I felt the same way about this soup as I did the chicken soup I had at a random market in Puebla, Mexico, about nine years ago: it looks simple and plain, but it is really anything but. The beef ribs were juicy and extremely tender; you barely needed to chew to have them totally disintegrate in your mouth. The broth was extremely clear and clean tasting, clearly made with beef bones, cilantro, garlic, potato, maybe some carrots, and who knows what spices. And then, before eating it, you add in a cilantro-parsley “sauce” to it as a condiment, and it’s like a party in your mouth. Even after leaving breakfast, I was thinking about how much I liked the simplicity of that soup.

Next at lunch, we ate ajiaco, which is Colombian chicken and potato soup. This is far richer than the caldo de costilla, with what appears to be potatoes blended into the soup to give it richness, and it was also extremely impressive yet simple. To make it even richer and thicker, you eat it with slices of avocado and even dollops of cream added in! And then, you enjoy it with slightly salted white rice! We also had our very first Colombian tamale, which was wrapped not in a corn husk but in a large banana leaf, and inside was steamed masa with tender chunks of chicken. The texture was far different than the Mexican varieties I’ve enjoyed; during the first few bites, I really thought I was eating yellow rice given the texture of the masa, but in the end, I concluded it was definitely corn based.

And then as if we hadn’t had enough food, for dinner we had the tasting menu at Leo, the famous restaurant owned by Leonor Espinoza, who is known as a celebrity chef in South America. Leo is ranked as number 99 on the top restaurants of the world list as of last year. While other Colombian chefs have risen to prominence for using ingredients across Chile, Argentina, and other South American countries, Espinoza has stayed within the lines of her own country, sourcing as many local and little-known ingredients as possible, even for Colombians. We enjoyed fermented fruit wines of local exotic fruits ranging from coca to borojo, ate poncho, the largest rodent in the world (our server said that this rodent is about 1-meter long!), had limonero ants grated into dishes, and enjoyed herbs and vegetables sourced from the Andes. Other than at Attica in Melbourne, Australia, which obviously has a lot of ingredients that would be completely foreign to me, this meal had the most number of ingredients in it that I’d not only never heard of but wouldn’t even fathom eating. While not everything was something I’d necessarily crave eating again (the salty rum cocktail that tasted like the sea… was a novelty, but not something I loved), I loved the concept and plating of every dish, and am totally won over by how innovative this chef is. And, I’ll be honest: I was even more excited about this restaurant knowing it’s owned and run by a woman.

Exotic fruit galore

After a long layover in Miami to get through the work day, we landed in Bogota this evening and arrived at our hotel, where we were upgraded to a junior suite. Because of Chris’s status, they not only upgraded our room, but they even welcomed us with a massive platter of local fruit to wish us well for our stay.

Fruit is one of the number one reasons I was excited to come to Colombia, as Colombia is known for its expansive selection of local fruit varieties that would be completely foreign and unknown in the U.S., or really any other part of the world. While all of South America is known for its exotic fruit, many are native and grown only in Colombia, so even within this continent, I’ve read about people from neighboring countries doing “fruit tourism” and going to Colombia just to eat its fruit!

Of the exotic fruits on the platter that we are not normally accustomed to eating, we found granadilla, which is like the yellow-colored, sweeter cousin of the passion fruit/maracuya. It is round with thick, slippery smooth skins, and when you cut it open, it has grey flesh that oozes with crunchy seeds, and is extremely sweet without even a hint of the tartness you expect from a regular passion fruit. Then, we had pitahaya, or a yellow variety of dragonfruit. This was extremely sweet, not bland and tasteless like the pink varieties we see in Southeast Asia. Chris was very pleasantly surprised by this one. Lastly, we had zapote, which is an oblong-shaped fruit with brown skin that has the texture of sandpaper, while the inside is orange-hued and creamy.

This has already started out as a delicious and flavor-discovering trip.