Quick Colombia Tips

From Medellin to Cartagena, here are just a few quick tips based on my experience in Colombia.

A few years ago I spent a month exploring Colombia, and a colleague recently asked for tips. I wrote up a quick doc for her professing my recommended highlights, and thought others might appreciate it, as well. Without further ado…

Read before you go:

Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but specifically Love in the Time of Cholera; here’s a blog entry I wrote about Cartagena.

Eat while in Colombia:

Arepas (I personally find sweet corn arepas and the plain ones to be meh)–go for the ones like Arepa con Huevo or Chicharron.

Papas rellenas.

Empanadas.

Fried fish with coconut rice and plantains — a must have when on the coast.

Bandeja Paisa–a big plate of meat and meat and carbs and starch. This is a popular meal in the more rural and mountainous regions.

Trout (La Trucha) especially if in the Coffee Triangle.

Casuela de Frijoles— sort of a bean stew. You can get a great bowl of it at Ajiaco y Mondongo’s in Medellin

Mondongo, of course, is a garlicky, creamy soup most popular in Bogota.

Patacón con Todo— Heaped onto a styrofoam plate with the routine precision of a Michelin star chef, I saved this baby for last. Patacón is the same as Tostones, or twice fried plantains. On top of this is seemingly everything you’d want on a mountain of plantains. You’ve got your sausage, your shredded chicken, your onions and cheese and beans. Top it with potato sticks and three kinds of sauce (my guess is pineapple, ketchup and mayo), and there you have a perfectly edible munchie meal, one that’s good enough to write home about. Where can you find this delicacy? I popped my Patacon cherry at a stand along the borders of the Plaza in front of the Iglesia de la Trinidad in Cartagena.

 

Medellin Breakdown:

Where to stay: The neighborhood El Poblado is where a lot of backpackers stay. A bit nicer and trendier.  What to do: Visit Parque Botero, eat a nasty hot dog. Take a salsa class and go dancing at El Eslabon Prendido! Go paragliding because you’ll never be able to afford it here and the views are increíble. Take a Pablo Escobar tour and find out why Medellin used to be the murder capital of the world.

Bogota Breakdown:

Bogota is the kind of city where you want to spend some time. Similar to New York, it’s hard to feel as if you’ve gotten an understanding of the place if you’re just passing through. However, if you must, some highlights are: Go on a graffiti tour Watch the sunset at the top of Montserrat Learn about gold at the Museo de Oro Shop. You’ll find your market somewhere. ……… You can read a bit further about my Bogota experience here.

Salento Breakdown:

Salento is the type of small Andean town in the middle of Colombia’s coffee triangle where you can expect to find men walking between colorful craft shops in small ponchos and cowboy hats, where you can perch yourself on a hillside hacienda drinking freshly roasted coffee and looking out at the snow-capped peaks of Los Nevados National Park. The town itself is lovely, so make sure not to just pass through it, as it’s not to be overlooked. Coffee farms surround the small town, so make sure to take a coffee plantation tour. But the main allure of Salento is its role as a gateway to Cocora Valley, the home of the stately wax palm trees, a national symbol.

Cartagena Breakdown:

Where to stay: I stayed at El Viajero Hostel, close to Monumenta India Catalina and the best damn arepa stand in the city. Many tourists like to stay on the lively Calle Media Luna. If you’re looking to stay on the beach, there are a ton of high rises in Marbella, but the beach isn’t incredibly impressive. The city is far more fascinating. The neighborhood of Getsemani is the new hot spot in Cartagena, so might be worth checking out hotels there.

**if you do decide that you love the reviews of el viajero and want a hostel vibe, it is worth noting that the private rooms, while air conditioned, are directly next to the courtyard where you will never get a peaceful night’s sleep. Not that you want one in Cartagena…

What to do: Beach is nice, but as you see if you read my post, I just loved walking around and eating, drinking, smoking, napping, getting caught in torrential downpours. It’s fucking hot in Cartagena.

A lot of people go to the mud volcano which I heard was over touristy, or take a day trip to Playa Blanca which is meant to be gorgeous, but I didn’t go…

Santa Marta Breakdown:

Santa Marta is a great gateway to other cool parts of the coast like Tayrona National Park, Minca, Palomino, Taganga, etc. The city itself is really not that cool (although some may disagree), but The Dreamer Hostel was actually a dream. You can see some of the pics from there in a blog post here.

Taganga Breakdown:

Alternately, you can even stay in Taganga, although I don’t have recommendations for where. Known in Colombia as “the backpacker’s ghetto”, it’s a sleepy fishing village, a little gritty, but absolutely lovely. We partied there one night at arguably my favorite club in all South America called El Mirador. As its name suggests, it looks out over the port. There’s a ton of different indoor and outdoor dance floors, a good mix of tourists and locals, and you can party till the sun rises and you can see little fishing boats bobbing calmly in the water. You can also walk along the beach during the party to look for drugs or arepas. And there’s always an after party.

Minca Breakdown:

Minca is a little village that is known among backpackers for two things– 1) A waterfall; 2) Casa Elemento–Pro tip: book in advance (if they have no beds, you can also pay to sleep in a hammock, which I did). The town is quite small, so if there are other things to do there, I didn’t hear about them.

Whatever hostel you stay at can arrange for you to take a taxi to the waterfall, which is a short trip and not a big hike to the falls.

A taxi can also take you the center of town, where you can take a zigzaggy, adventurous ride up to Casa Elemento, a hostel in the sky boasting the world’s largest hammock!!!. Make sure to find out how much the moto-taxi up will be before you meet with a driver and pay him before you sit down on the back of his bike so that he doesn’t try to get more out of you at the top.

The ride to Casa Elemento is super fun, but about an hour long into the mountains. Can read about my experience with this hostel here. **make sure to bring tons of deet/bug spray and something warm and covered up at night.

Palomino Breakdown: 

Again, stayed here at the Dreamer Hostel sister. It’s the prettier of the two with an excellent bar, restaurant, pool and rooms. It’s right on the beach, as well, and the water has the craziest current I’ve ever seen, so not swimmable but def something to see. You can also go river tubing in Palomino, but I didn’t get around to it.  

Tayrona:

I didn’t make it here because I heard mixed reviews. I think the deal is a massive sweaty hike to a gorgeous beach where you can camp out for the night, sleeping on hammocks or in tents rented from the vendors there. I hear these hammocks and tents are pretty vile and a lot of people said that while gorgeous, the whole ordeal was more of a headache than it was worth.

by Rebecca Bellan

Where The Caffeine Grows…

Touring El Ocaso Finca in Salento, Colombia to see how coffee is made.

See how Salento’s mountain climate is perfect to make the smoothest coffee in the world.

 

After two months of accepting instant coffee and canned milk as my morning fate, I was thrilled to finally make it to Colombia to get a proper caffeine fix in. To see how my favorite addiction is made, I decided to take the scenic 40-minute walk through mountain jungle from my hostel La Serrana in Salento to check out El Ocaso Finca. While there are other fincas and plantations close by, this one was highly recommended. The coffee produced here is only organic and is UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, and 4C Association certified, focusing on their productivity, environmental practices, and ethical codes, respectively.

view on the walk over
view on the walk over
El Ocaso Finca
El Ocaso Finca

When I arrived, I was delighted to see a bustling house amid the gorgeous 23 hectares of plantation, 12 of which are used for coffee. Our small group led by a Spanish-speaking guide began the tour by showing us the crops and explaining the seriously committed process that goes into your morning cup of joe. We picked ripe red berries from the bush and broke them open with our fingers to reveal two coffee beans that were sweet to suck on.

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not yet ripe

 

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Normally, the pickers do the first part of this job, emptying their 80-120 kilogram sacks at noon and the end of the day into the “hopper”, which searches the haul for leaves, sticks or green cherries and sends the good bits down to the “de-pulper.” This 100-year-old machine finishes the job by squeezing the coffee beans from the cherries and separating the pulp from the beans, a process called “wet-milling”. But I digress.

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To even get the coffee cherries requires a lot of time and work. The seed must be planted in sand for 30 days until a bulb has formed. Once it has, the crop will continue to grow for an additional six months before being moved to soil and planted in rows, one meter apart from each plant and two meters from its neighboring rows. From here, it takes 18 months for the plant to grow beautiful white flowers with five petals, which fall off after three days to make room for the coffee fruit to grow over the span of nine months or more. While the fruit starts green, it changes to red or yellow as it ripens. Once the fruit has grown, it will produce for five years, twice a year, from March to May and September to November, the cherries being picked whenever they are ready.

the plants in sand
the plants in sand

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So what happens when you have those beans? The good beans are cleaned and stripped of nearly all outer organic matter and put into big machines to dry, or sometimes, during low harvest seasons, the coffee is taken to the canopy to sun dry. Once it is dry, the handlers check it once more for defective beans, which they use for domestic brews or instant coffees (the good stuff gets exported). Then the dried beans are mashed up with a muddler to remove their skin and then toasted for 70 minutes, constantly being stirred so that they don’t burn. You can tell a lower quality coffee from a higher quality because the bad stuff is darker from being burnt.

dried beans on the table- they called them "almonds"
dried beans on the table- they called them “almonds”

 

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big bad muddler

 

stirring the beans over heat
stirring the beans over heat
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality

Now this is the part of the tour I had been waiting for- a chance to sample the coffee. We ground up the beans in a hand grinder, the thick aroma of fresh coffee beans filling my nostrils. Our tour guide put the ground up coffee into a sieve that rested over a silver coffee pot that looked more like a pitcher to me, and I volunteered to pour the hot water, slowly, around the top circle of the strainer, until the water seeped sultrily through the grounds. The coffee was so mild and tasty that I didn’t even feel the need to bite back at the bitterness with sugar or milk. The cup of coffee that I drank at El Ocaso Finca was the perfect example of how Colombia, while only third after Brazil and Vietnam in coffee production, is the leading producer of the smoothest coffees.

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by Rebecca Bellan