La Comida de Colombia

As a cyclist, I’m always looking to pack on calories. One way to do that is to continuously search out new foods to try. Colombia sticks out for its fruit.  There are endless types here that I have never heard of. Guanábana, Tomate de Arbol, Lulo, Pitaya, Granadilla, and Maracuyá to name a few.

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Granadilla by Elizabeth Ellis

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Lulo by Elizabeth Ellis

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Maracuyá

Much more obscure are pinuele and guaba. You won’t find these at the fruit stand or on Google. I’ve tried. They are an indigenous snack foraged from the wild. Estan muy rico.

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Pinuele from the Paramo

Not only are there new types of fruit but there are odd varieties of tropical classics. Fruit vendors may have three different varieties of pineapple that range in flavor from watery and mild to sweet and tart. The same can be said about the papaya.

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Piña by Elizabeth Ellis

Many of these fruits are taken as jugo naturale con agua or leche. Restaurants come equipped with blenders ready to make your order. A granizado incorporates ice into the blended juice for a refreshingly cold treat. This is particularly wonderful in the hot climates of low elevation Colombia where one’s daily liquid intake es muy importante.

I meant to make this post just about fruit but the food of Colombia goes beyond that. Want a tinto, chocolate, or agua de panela? All are served hot and take the chill off a rainy day in the high Andes. Add some aguardiente to your aguapanela for a true South American hot toddy.

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Chocolate by Elizabeth Ellis

All good Colombian cafes serve buñuelos, empanadas, and a new favorite, papas rellenas. Not all papas rellenas are created equal. The basic version is a hard boiled egg covered with mashed potatoes and fried. My favorite papa rellena is a variation on a shepard’s pie. Spiced ground beef, hard boiled egg, all enveloped in moist mashed potatoes and fried. They go down super easy, even when cold, and are a big calorie bonus for a hungry cyclist. I can often be found stuffing my frame bag with these on big cycling days.

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Papa Rellena by Elizabeth Ellis

Arepas? Those happened too. Do you smell butter? Butter? Butter was all but non existent in Mexico and Guatemala. Not the case in Colombia. Arepas can be sweet or savory but all come dripping in butter. The best arepas aren’t found by looking. They are found with the nose. Smell browning butter? Go check it out! My favorite arepas are filled with queso and golden brown. The best street vendors add a dollop of butter to the arepa and then wrap it in a silver space blanket to keep warm.

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Arepas de Choclo by Elizabeth Ellis

Lastly, I’ll touch on almuerzo. Or lunch. It’s big and cheap. Almuerzo comes standard with soup, rice, beans, salad, meat, and an unlimited supply of juice. Other ingredients often making an appearance are potatoes, yuca, and plantains. I’ve also eaten chicken feet, stomach, and tongue. I hate to draw this comparison but it’s very close to cafeteria food in the states. It’s the closest thing we have found to a well balanced meal and it’s offered at a great price. It’s not fancy. It’s plain, simple home cooking.  It’s the food of Colombia and I’m a fan.

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Almuerzo by Elizabeth Ellis

The Long Way to Ecuador

In Pasto we find a new camera. For $1.50 I have a new zipper sewn into my front bag. For the same price, a new brake lever. Things come back together. We slowly make our through Pasto, stopping at the cafes on every corner.

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Everyone is talking about Ecuador. Supplies are being amassed to send south. A woman arrives at our hotel. She was camping on the beach when the earthquake hit.

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Pasto is only a day’s ride from Ecuador, but we’re not ready to leave Colombia. We detour around Volcan Galeras. Holstein cows dot the hillside. Fresh cheese and yogurt is found in every town. The road drops a bit in elevation and coffee plants cling to the hillsides amid plantains and sugar cane.

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It’s only a short ride to Sandona where we stop for the day. Suddenly, there’s a crash. I turn and see a man in the air and a woman laying on the ground. Neither stopped to look both ways at the intersection and they crashed their motos. A crowd forms. The man is up and moving around. The woman is not. She’s carried off on a back board, then put into a truck bed. I am told there’s a hospital in town. Everyone has motos here. It’s how they get around. I’m surprised this is the first crash we have seen.

Our brakes have been making a racket. We take a few things apart and inspect them. Tyndall declares his rear set toast. Then says mine are just as bad. We only have one spare set until we arrive in Quito. He gets the new ones and we shuffle the front pads from my bike to the rear, trying to eek out a bit more life. I’m told to brake when really necessary. It’s only the Andes. It’s fine.

Sandona has a Saturday market. Whatever you need, it’s there.

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Our detour around the volcano spits us out onto the PanAm. Tyndall’s Dad emails. He has made dinner reservations for May 1 at 7:00 pm in Quito. It’s time to get a move on.

For awhile, we follow the PanAm. It’s a particularly scenic section and past Pedregal the traffic diminishes. It’s Sunday and road bikers from Ipiales are out. They are all men. I wonder where the women are, but then see three up ahead, carrying bundles of reeds on their shoulders.

Only 20 kilometers short of the border, we dip off the highway. There’s a small dirt road on the map, paralleling the highway but on the other side of the valley. It has to be better than this. It is.

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Where we rode: Pasto – Sandona – Pedregal – San Juan – Potosi – Ipiales

When the Weather Wins

From San Agustin we make our way to Mocoa, on the edge of the Amazon. The jungle claws at the edges of the city, trying to reclaim what it has lost. Somehow, it doesn’t seem as hot here as I thought it would be. We decide to spend an extra day, knowing we won’t be this low in elevation again for a very long time.

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Fueled by papas rellenos and banana bread, we climb on el trampolín de la muerte. Not all have bounced back, so to speak.

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Sometimes, it’s a squeeze.

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We’re all going up to the mountains. Water is everywhere. There are no bridges.

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Halfway up, we find refuge at El Mirador.  The rain comes down. Even the animals are unenthused.

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We drink agua de panella and eat bread and wait. There’s a military checkpoint just down the way. We ask about a flat, dry place to sleep. I’m shown an old telecom building. It even has two rooms, one for us and one for the bikes, he says. I am given a broom to sweep out the dirt and trash. The roof is sturdy. It doesn’t leak. Perfect.

The police are just as curious about us as we are them. What music is there in Alaska? What fiestas? How do you like Colombia? They spend one month at a time up here. After dark they tell us not to go wandering about by ourselves. They might mistake us for someone else. Noted. We’ll stay here. We don’t ask who the someone else is.

The clouds blow off and the valley spreads out before us. I trace the winding path of a river, imagining it flowing to the Amazon, to the Atlantic. Latin pop music blares from the tienda up the way. I’m not sure what we stumbled upon, but there’s nowhere else I can think of to be right now. There’s so much to take in, so much to think about.

It’s a day of rain.

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I keep thinking it will let up, but it does not. Those rain pants we bought in Bogota are worth their weight in gold. Even if I don’t ever use them again, I’m happy to have them today. Mountains play peek a boo as we climb through the mist and rain. Waterfalls pour off every mountainside. I am happy to have my health, happy to be out in the elements. This is better than sweating through the lowlands.

In San Francisco there is one Warmshowers host. Felipe sends his aunt to meet us, and she brings us to the family finca. A hot cup of mint tea thaws us out. A bit of sun dries out our things. A broken zipper means my dry bag with electronics was sitting in a puddle of water all day. The bag wasn’t up to the task. I take everything apart, wait for it all to dry and hope for the best.

The best doesn’t hapoen.

We ride away from the finca through a lush verdant valley, bursting with produce. Men lead horses carrying milk. A lady mountain biker passes in the other direction. Up at 10,000 feet pockets of paramo peek out of the mist. I try and capture it all with my smartphone, but mostly take photos with my mind. You will have to use yours, too to imagine all the green and all the food. Tyndall says if he had a finca in Colombia, it would be here.

Being without a camera is like missing a friend. I realize how much the photos help to process the journey. Without it, I’m lost. Pasto is a city of half a million, a day’s ride from Ecuador. I hope to find a new one here.

Where we rode: San Agustin – Mocoa – San Francisco – Pasto

Shortly after Mocoa the pavement ends. It’s a rough road, but doesn’t turn to muck in the rain. From San Francisco to Pasto is paved, with the exception of a small portion near the top of the first pass past Santiago.

Colombia 102: Drink Lots of Water, Climb Lots of Mountains

It’s hot, but the only way out is up.

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In Iquiera we pass the afternoon under a giant tree in the town square. I drink two gallons of water today. Men mill about and stop to talk. Where did you come from? Where are you going? We’re experts at answering these questions now.

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We zip along the Páez River to La Plata. From La Plata, it’s a bit of a gravel grind, sharing the road with buses and motos. We’re all trying to get into the Central Cordillera. My bike slides out from under me in a gravel patch and a brake lever snaps. In the space of a week, I have lost a plastic slider, a zipper and now a brake lever. Things fall apart. This country is rugged.

Turn left to climb on pavement to La Argentina. Coffee plantations cover the hillsides. You don’t need to go to “coffee country” to see this.

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Here, the river water is clear, cool and clean. I tell Tyndall to stop. I need to get wet.

Over and over again we’re asked how we like Colombia. We’re told how hard it is for Colombians to visit the US. We learn about organic coffee and the chemicals it takes to grow lulo fruit. We learn about coffee cooperatives. I see signs for fiber optics projects and hydroelectric dams. Natural gas lines run everywhere.

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We spend an afternoon in La Argentina, talking with these teenagers.

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They are witty and smart. We laugh over fumbled words. We learn that university in Colombia is expensive for most, although they would all like to go. The sun sinks lower in the sky, and we head on, hoping to find a quiet campsite.

Instead, we find Mercedes and Mariana.

We go for a scramble among the coffee plants. It is some of the steepest sidehilling I have ever done. Mariana shows us ancient rocks along the way. I fail to fully understand, but believe the rocks have to do with her ancient, indigenous culture. She nimbly scales the mountainside while we try and keep up, stepping gingerly over trails of red ants.

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We’re given a dinner, a shower and a bed for the night. We’re told stories that we can barely understand about guerilla fighters and religion and moto accidents.

In the morning our bags are filled with fruit and we’re fortified with multiple cups of tinto before climbing up into the misty mountains. Dense forest surrounds the top of the pass, giving a glimpse of what used to be before coffee and cows.

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Down the other side we fill up on bread and bocodillo. I fill up water bottles. A man wants me to drink a glass straight from the tap, it’s fine he tells me. Not wanting to offend, I drink a small sip and hope for the best. We’ll Steripen the rest down the road.

In Bordones we’re looking for a campsite when Julian invites us in. His sister watches me intently as I prepare our dinner. Not sure the reason for her scrutiny, I keep at what I’m doing and try and make conversation. It falls, dead in the water.

We follow back roads to San Agustin, diligently visiting archeological sites along the way.

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After 10 days of travel through rugged country, we find a quiet place to spend a couple days, complete with Pug puppies.

Where we went: Teruel – Iquiera – Tesalia –  La Plata – Gallego – La Argentina – Oporapa – Saldoblanco – Bordones – San Jose de Isnos – San Agustin

Colombia 101: From Bogota to the Tatacoa Desert

Our improvised packaging works, and everything comes out the other end as intended in Bogota. Next, we need cash. Lately, sometimes Tyndall’s debit card works and sometimes it doesn’t. Tonight is one of those times it doesn’t. The bank claims the card is fine. I give mine a go and instantly feel rich. Prices here are in the thousands. I quickly try and recall those big Spanish numbers.

A taxi ride through the night takes us to Ambrose and Becky’s doorstep. They give us a home base to use for a few days, exploring the city on the many bike paths.

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We’re staying in the north part of Bogota. To exit, we need to travel the length of it – all the way south. Bike paths help us get there, but the going is slow. Car lanes are next to bike lanes are next to pedestrian lanes. In a big crowded city, everyone shares. Imagine that.

We take a few wrong turns, but slowly the city relinquishes its hold. The only other things leaving are trucks and buses. We take a right, and I can hear the birds again. The Bogota River rushes beside us. It’s almost perfect, except the color of the water: black, with frothy white soap suds. It’s distressing, but reality. There’s no Clean Water Act here. Then, we come around a corner and are floored by this. From far away, it’s almost impossible to tell it’s polluted.

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The road gets smaller and smaller. The riding gets better and better. Guillermo and Mercedes give us a place to sleep for the night. Rain pounds down on the tin roof. I watch it fall in sheets from the porch, thankful for the sturdy protection tonight. In the morning, we’re fed fresh eggs and fruit from their finca.

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Again the road narrows, the only traffic we see is a truck driven by what looks like a ten year old. He expertly navigates the ruts and curves while we stand aside. The rain picks up again, but it’s too hot for rain gear. We wonder about the integrity of our dry bags, not tested since sometime in Canada.

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As our altitude plummets the mercury rises. The humidity sets in. I buy ice cream from a passing motorbike vendor. In Suarez, a cold shower is in order. Washing away the mud and the sweat improves moral.

In Prado, the standard lunch fair wins again. For $2 USD, all this.

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We linger in the shade, then over ice cream, before setting out in the heat. Our progress slows. Every spot of shade has us stopping. The road narrows. Como voy Villaviaja we ask. Again and again, we’re waved onwards.

Near dusk, we slip through a gate to a field and camp. The stars are bright. I find the southern cross. Lightning flashes on both horizons. Even laying still, I am sweating. By morning, it’s raining again. The double track become a single track becomes a washed out, rock strewn, muddy mule path. Still, we’re urged onward. Wheel sucking mud slows our progress. Everything is caked with it but the mosquitos keep us moving. Just as we are about to give up, a truck engine revs in the distance. We perk up our ears and press on. First the motorbike tracks return, then the truck tracks. We’re spit out into a lush, flat floodplain, skirting the edge of the Tatacoa Desert. Bug bites and dried mud make my legs itch. I do a dance and shake it out. Gunabana juice and empanadas wash it all away.

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The pool at El Peñon del Constantina provides relief from the heat while my eyes soak up the desert landscape. Instead of sweating in the tent, we splurge on a thatch roofed whimsical structure with a bit more space to spread out and sleep. In the desert, the mosquitos are absent.

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Past Neiva we leave the Rio Magdalena behind, slowly heading for the mountains. We need to find some cooler, bug free temperatures.

Where we went: Bogota – El Charquito – San Gabriel – Nilo – Suarez – Prado –  San Alfonzo – La Victoria – Villaviaja – Desierto de Tatacoa – Palmero