things i learned: medellín edition

Behold a top ten list of my most valuable discoveries:

  1. Unlike Bogotanos, Paisas love to see foreigners roaming their city. Pablo informed us that Paisas see gringos as symbols of safety and security. Meanwhile, I think that Bogotanos see gringos as symbols of paternalism and gentrification. The result: Paisas are welcoming, while Bogotanos are hostile.
  2. Momentum = optimism. Paisas feel continually optimistic about where Medellín is going, so Medellín continually moves forward and progresses… so Paisas feel continually optimistic about where Medellín is going, and so on.
  3. Whether it is picking up trash or helping others navigate a train station, everyone does their part to contribute to their city’s maintenance and development. In return, no job is thankless, and no effort goes unnoticed. Because citizens feel like an important piece in Medellín’s puzzle, they are more invested in making it a better place to live. Praise and encouragement (positive reinforcement), not shame or guilt (negative reinforcement), motivate them to be responsible.
  4. I covered this a bit in my last entry, but it was so startling that I have to repeat it: Medellín’s Metro stations and trains are spotless. Seriously, they are by far the cleanest I had ever seen.
  5. Paisas are a cooperative people. They pay attention to others’ spatial needs.
  6. Locals maintain a purposeful, energetic walking pace. Meanwhile, Bogotanos walk so impossibly slowly, as if every step is yet another burden on their already traumatic lives.
  7. Contrary to what I heard before visiting, Paisa women dress more modestly and professionally than do their Bogotana counterparts.
  8. Medellín is a very layered, integrated city. At times pedestrians, bikes, cars, and trains occupy the same footprint but on different vertical planes.
  9. Architects in Medellín seem more invested in city building than do architects in Bogotá. They seem more willing to help themselves, whereas Bogotanos wait to be “saved” by foreign planners.
  10. If I had chosen to live in Medellín, would I have been working on more interesting projects? Would I have been contributing to drastic change? Would I have had the true Latin American experience? While I might have lived more comfortably in Medelín, I might have had a skewed perception of the Colombian struggle.

things i learned: cartagena edition

Behold a top ten list of my most valuable discoveries:

  1. By American standards, sunscreen is ridiculously expensive, like, US$15-per-bottle expensive.
  2. Cartageneros embrace their hot and humid environment. Despite the sky-high temperatures and sticky air, many people forego air conditioning in favor of ice-cold limeade.
  3. Locals are not judgmental, and race is not a taboo subject. I saw people of all shades, and I was never called a mona or a gringa.
  4. Cartageneros are proud first to be Caribbean and second to be Colombian. They brag about their local environment, handicrafts, clothing, and customs.
  5. Chiquita Bananas are real, but fair warning: the fruit they carry atop their heads commands an absurd price.
  6. Locals are more adept to city living. They move aside when someone tries to pass. They maintain a reasonable walking pace.
  7. Bocagrande is basically a rich man’s ghetto. When not completely absent, the sidewalks are poorly maintained; even the condominiums, which were laughably constructed in the first place, are in desperate need of repair. A vast majority of the license plates read “Bogotá,” so I have to infer that Bogotanos are those leading the surge against walkable communities. As a result, Bocagrande is void of all sense of place, all character and charm—a stark contrast to the nearby walled city of Cartagena.
  8. Cartageneros have embraced the art of mixed juices and smoothies, and the result is so, so delicious.
  9. Whereas many of the tourists Seth and I encountered in the Eje Cafetero were Irish, in Cartagena we met mostly Germans.
  10. Despite the lack of abundant private security, Cartagena feels safer than Bogotá (Bocagrande not included).

masa

Despite having dined at Masa four times since the beginning of May, I have somehow avoided writing about it until now. I first learned about the Zona G bakery-slash-restaurant via my former coworker Kata. Although she was a self-professed fanatic of their lunch offerings, she was even more enthusiastic about their brunch. “It is the absolute best in the city,” she insisted. I filed her suggestion away for later.

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The first time I visited, I ate their foraged mushroom sandwich on rustic Italian bread with ooey-gooey fontina. On my second trip, I ordered the exact same thing. (Shameful, I know, but it was just too decadent to pass up.) The third time I visited, I gained the courage to try something new: their lime chicken sandwich on country sour bread with sauteed red peppers, arugula, and pesto. Topped off with a slice of carrot cake and an espresso, it was the perfect lunch.

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All summer I kept Kata’s suggestion at the back of my mind, and last weekend I finally dragged Seth to a proper brunch. At ten a.m. the line was six parties out the door, but I knew it would not be long before we were seated. (Colombians dine at an alarmingly rapid pace.) Sure enough, fifteen minutes later we placed our order. We first received two lattes and a basket of freshly baked goods of our choosing—two butter croissants, a mini baguette, an agráz danish with homemade sprinkles, and a cinnamon roll. The croissants were the best Seth and I had tried outside of Paris, while the baguette was simply delightful. The other two pastries we had to take home for later, along with a pair of pan au chocolat. For our main course, Seth ordered the Masa breakfast sandwich—a fancified Egg McMuffin with fluffy eggs, queso holandés, and crunchy bacon—while I ordered a spinach frittata. The sandwich was satisfyingly savory, while the frittata was ridiculously rich. One bite in, I instantly regretted not trying it sooner.

Moreso than their lunch, Masa’s brunch is surprisingly affordable. A frittata, croissant, and latte combo will only set you back about USD$6.75 (COP$7000 + COP$2000 + COP$3800 = COP$12800).

Masa might be one of Bogotá’s only brunch options (save for the neighborhood fruterías), but it is also hands-down the best. Spanish for “dough,” the bakery offers world-class breads and pastries. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, do not be intimidated by the wait; Masa vale la pena.

[Masa: Calle 70 # 4-83, Bogotá-Colombia]

les amis bizcochería

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Les Amis Bizcochería is a sugar lover’s paradise near Parque Virrey. Seth and I initially tried to visit on October 5, but the bakery was closed for renovations. The owner was sitting outside passing out pastries to disappointed customers as an incentive for our eventual return. After devouring a mini quiche lorraine, a mini quiche florentine, and a petite carrot cake, Seth and I vowed to return the following Saturday.

On our second trip, we selected a wide variety of goodies: a mini mazorca and ahuyama quiche, a mini mushroom quiche, a sweet onion tart, a beef empanada, a pan au chocolat, a guayaba cake, a feijoa cake, and a chocolate cone filled with arequipe.

My recommendation: on a sunny afternoon, grab a couple of sweet and savory pastries—perhaps a mini mazorca and ahuyama quiche, a beef empanada, and a petite carrot cake—and head for Parque Virrey. Along the way, stop for an iced latte at the Juan Valdez at Carrera 15 and Calle 87. Take your box of treats and your cup of caffeine to the park, watch the puppies frolic, and enjoy the day.

[Les Amis Bizcochería: Carrera 14 # 86A – 12, Bogotá-Colombia]

bubble tea in bogotá

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That’s right. Just as Seth and I found a bubble tea shop in Paris, we found one in Bogotá.

A few months ago our friend Jeremy recommended that we visit the Bubble Tea Bar in Container City, a refurbished shipping container alcove near Parque 93. We put it off and put it off until two weeks ago when a foiled plan to visit nearby bakery Les Amis forced us to find another place to satisfy our sweet teeth. I remembered Jeremy’s suggestion, and we decided to give it a shot.

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Surrounded by Italian, Japanese, and Mediterranean restaurants and coffee, frozen yogurt, and tea shops, the Bubble Tea Bar is a bright niche in the corner of Container City’s interior courtyard. We located it easily and scanned the menu. Despite the array of options—black tea, green tea, or fruit; gel, pudding, or tapioca; light, regular, or extra sugar; light, regular, or extra ice; etc.—we opted for a round of no-nonsense milk tea with tapioca.

Our verdict: the drink was too light on the tea and too heavy on the cream. All things considered, though, the Bubble Tea Bar (and Container City in general) was an enjoyable experience. The Bubble Tea Bar’s product may not be the best, but it will certainly do in a pinch.

[Container City: Calle 93 # 12 – 11, Bogotá-Colombia]

caryn arrives

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At the end of August Seth and I were overjoyed to welcome our first visitor to Bogotá. Caryn, one of our closest classmates from architecture school, stepped off her plane a little after midnight on Thursday night. The three of us promptly shuffled into a taxi, took a celebratory shot of Aguardiente, and went to sleep in preparation for busy days ahead.

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For her first day in the city, Seth and I wanted to show Caryn some of the major touristy sites. We were a bit worried that because of the ongoing paros (strikes) we would not be able to forge our way into the city center. However, on Friday morning President Santos deployed some 50,000 troops across the country “to assure normality,” thus making our stroll to the Plaza Simón Bolivar a cakewalk. We started our morning with a chocolate completo at La Puerta Falsa, followed by a quick visit to the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez. Around one in the afternoon our friend Jeremy met us in the Plaza, and we proceeded to hike up Avenida Jiménez to the Monserrate cable car station. The weather was chilly and rainy, but lucky for us it cleared up just long enough to snap a few photos at the top. When it got cold again, we stopped at a food stall for some fried cow organs, potatoes, and plantains.

Feeling cold, wet, and tired, we took the cable car back down to the city and ducked into an artisan alcove in La Candelaria for a round of coffee. We browsed the goods for mochilas and other souvenirs for Caryn’s friends and family but to no avail. Jeremy then headed home while Caryn, Seth, and I wandered around La Macarena and admired Rogelio Salmona’s brick architecture. For dinner we enjoyed small bites and pan con tomate at Tapas Macarena, one of my favorite restaurants in all of Boogtá. The highlights of the evening included a peppery Tempranillo, jamón serrano gran reserva (18-month cured serrano ham), champiñones queso azul (mushrooms in a blue cheese sauce), pinchos de pollo Ketjap (chicken skewers in an Indonesian soy and peanut sauce), and langostinos cajun (cajun shrimp).

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Saturday, of course, was the first day of college football season. While Seth watched the Rice vs. A&M game, Caryn and I ate lunch at my beloved neighborhood corrientazo and drank beer in La Zona T. She had read about the Bogotá Beer Company in one of her travel guides, so we stopped in for a pint of Monserrate Roja (her) and Cajica Miel (me). After some much-needed girl talk, we returned home for a low-key evening of wine, cheese, and a movie.

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Sunday was probably my favorite day of the entire visit. Caryn, Seth, and I started the morning at home with a strong cup of coffee and decadent Nutella toast before walking fifty blocks along the Ciclovía route to Usaquén. There we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at Abasto, which consisted of sparkling Chilean wine, fresh-baked focaccia, grilled octopus in a summer vegetable ratatouille, and shrimp in an achiote-coconut sauce with plantain puree and starfruit. In order to recover from our food comas, we grabbed a round of espresso and explored the neighborhood shops. Caryn bought a painting, two tins of Colombian coffee, and I think eight jars of tropical fruit jams. Meanwhile, Seth and I finally found the perfect autumn-colored mochila for his mother. Exhausted from spending the entire day out and about, we opted for another relaxing night in.

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On Monday the three of us skipped breakfast in favor of a colossal lunch at Fulanitos, a vallecaucano restaurant. I insisted that Caryn order the bandeja, as it is one of the most traditional and iconic dishes in the country. Seth followed suit. All of those meats and starches, plus a serving of lulada, had everyone stuffed. Somehow, though, we were able to walk the fifty blocks along Calle 63 to the Biblioteca Virgilio Barco. After admiring more of Salmona’s architecture, we continued over to the Parque Simón Bolivar and then to the Jardín Botánico. We were a little cold, wet, and grumpy due to the rain, but we managed to flag down a buseta and warm up in the comfort of our apartment. Since it was Caryn’s last full night in the city, we decided that it was only right to celebrate with pizza, wine, and grappa at one of our favorite spots, Julia in Zona G.

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Caryn’s last day included a series of snacks. We first stopped into a frutería for avena (a milk and oatmeal drink), jugo (juice), and buñuelos (fried doughy balls). We then walked to 7 de agosto—first, to have a look at the various tropical fruits in stock and second, to sample an ensalada de frutas (fruit salad), jugo de feijoa (pineapple guava juice), and jugo de maracuyá (passionfruit juice). For our next stop, we braved the violent hail for Restaurante Las Margaritas‘s famous empanaditas. We finished off our day of local flavor with a visit to Café Devotion (La Botica de Café) for a gourmet coffee tasting. Caryn, Seth, and I returned to our apartment with enough time for our visitor to pack and for us to say our goodbyes. Quite appropriately, on the way to the airport we just so happened to hire the most erratic and unstable of drivers, thus catapulting Caryn back to the United States in true Colombian fashion.

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bogotá barbecue

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Feeling exhausted from our job hunt and nostalgic for Texas summers, Seth and I went in search of some good ol’-fashioned barbecue. If you recall correctly, the only positive experience we’d had of smoked meats in Colombia was during our trip to Chía—nine months ago. I had recently read about La Fama, a restaurant in our neighborhood owned by a Colombian with devout respect for North American barbecue. (He reportedly flew Tom Mylan and Brent Young of Brooklyn’s The Meat Hook into Bogotá to serve as consultants!) Needless to say, we were looking for any opportunity to sample the fare.

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The place was a bit difficult to find, mostly due to my error in writing down the address. As soon as we stepped into the covered porch, though, we felt our stomachs grumble in response to the heavenly aroma of wood chips, smoked meat, and tangy sauce. Our host led us to one of the only non-reserved tables available (Reservations at a barbecue establishment? What?!), and we immediately ordered two iced teas. Sweet but not Wanda Neuvar sweet, the sugary drink hit the spot just right. We then followed up with an order of jalapeño and pepper jack cheese sausages. As we enjoyed the sausages’ surprising amount of spice and flavor, our eyes wandered around the space. The exposed brick walls, coupled with the picnic tables and barbecue pit, really made the restaurant feel legitimately rustic. Seth watched group after group order a round of draft beer, and before he knew it he was summoning our waiter for a Club Colombia of his very own.

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Soon came the real star of any barbecue restaurant: the barbecue! The menu suggests each person spend about COP$40,000 (US$20), so for our bandeja we ordered three meats—morillo (hump, or moist brisket), pecho (lean brisket), and cerdo desmechado (pulled pork)—with two sides—mac and cheese and papas criollas  con suero ahumado y chimichurri (bite-sized Colombian potatoes with smoked sour cream and chimichurri). Because the barbecue sauce predictably leaned on the sweet and tangy side à la North Carolina, it paired best with the oh-so-tender pulled pork. Both cuts of brisket were perfectly delicious, but we were especially impressed by the sides; the mac and cheese was smoky and rich, while the papas criollas introduced a pleasant Colombian spin on the Texan staple of potato salad. With no room left for dessert, we waddled out of the restaurant sa-tis-fied.

La Fama is good barbecue, period. New York or North Carolina, Texas or Colombia, this establishment holds its own.

[first photo courtesy of Carlos Beltrán and La Fama]

[La Fama: Calle 65 BIS # 4-85, Bogotá-Colombia]

parque simón bolivar

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The month before Seth and I left for Texas was largely uneventful. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say that; we both made a lot of headway in our personal projects—Seth with his parking graphics and I with my essay—but in exchange we had to put our city explorations on hold. So for our first weekend back we decided to keep our laptops shut and instead visit the biggest park in the city, Parque Simón Bolivar.

Including the neighboring Parque de los Novios and Biblioteca Virgilio Barco, the Parque Simón Bolivar extension spans nearly 1000 acres, making it 148 acres larger than New York’s Central Park extension. Seth and I spent the majority of our time in the Parque Central. We strolled around a manmade lake where people rented paddle boats and swung about helplessly in the water. Sitting on the shore, I felt like I was in a live-action version of Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte, only Colombian.

home brunch

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Saturday was our portfolio kickoff, so to get us going Seth and I woke up early to prepare a satisfying pre-work brunch.

We munched on crêpes with leeks, Greek yogurt, and chives; home fries; a Finnish baked pancake with strawberries; and of course, berry mimosas. We were stuffed.

The next day our last Macbook charger died, so I had to semi-sprint to the “Mac Store” after today’s lunch break to buy a replacement. After spending COP$190,000 (US$100) on this technological necessity, I am sad to reveal that our dining-out budget has been sacrificed. In other words, you can expect more home-cookin’ blog entries in the month of June.