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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eje cafetero: day 3: coffee farm tours

On the third day of the most relaxing vacation ever, Seth and I awoke early and planned to take the day a bit easy. We were both somewhat sore from the previous day’s ten-hour excursion, so we thought we would take our time with our morning coffee before going on a couple of coffee tours for, well, more coffee.

At breakfast we met two young Irish men named Julian and Stephen and their Swedish travel buddy Victoria. They had been traveling in and around Colombia for the past month, and they were finishing their adventure in Salento. Since the three of them were going to be staying at our hostel the entire week, we resolved to spend plenty of time together.

After our usual meal of fried eggs and pan de queso paipa, Seth and I embarked on our hourlong walk to two of Salento’s well-known coffee farms, El Ocaso and Don Elias.

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On our first tour at El Ocaso, we met three Argentine guys, none of which were particularly fond of coffee. We learned about the two different types of coffee plants—the red kind (Arabica) and the yellow kind (Colombia); both types of plants are green when unripe, but their colors vary once they are ready to pick. When no one was looking, I sneaked a taste of each type. In their pure, raw form, their flavor was surprisingly similar, so I could understand why the coffee farms tend to throw both colors into the same batch and hope for the best.

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On our second tour at Don Elias, we met two Austrian girls, one lone Londoner, and a British couple. The two Austrian girls hardly spoke a word of Spanish or English, so they had a difficult time understanding our guide; the Londoner was particularly snobby, constantly complaining about how much she had despised her trip to Colombia; and the British couple, Katie and John, were the friendliest of all, and they told us a lot about their past travels. Out of all the countries they had visited in South America—and believe me, they had visited quite a few—they liked Bolivia the most. Seth and I likely will not be visiting Bolivia any time soon due to their costly travel visa requirements for Americans, but it was still lovely to hear about it.

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After sampling a cup of coffee at each farm, Seth and I were sufficiently tweeked and beginning to get a little hungry. We walked back to Salento’s main plaza for a hearty meal. The restaurant we happened to choose was very crowded, but a welcoming family from Armenia had a couple of extra place settings to share and offered us seats at their picnic table. They noticed that we were quite sweaty and sunburned, so they ordered us a pitcher of límonada and passed us one of their empanaditas. While we waited for our food, we talked with them about Colombia and the United States. Throughout our entire trip, the locals were constantly asking us what we thought of Colombia, insisting that we should leave Bogotá more often, and recommending more and more sites for us to visit. By the time my bandeja paisa and Seth’s trucha gratinada came out of the kitchen, we were ravenous and ceased almost all conversation.

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After lunch we hobbled over to an artisan commune that we had spotted on the previous day’s walk. I bought a beaded bracelet from one of the shops, and the owner showed us around the complex. We walked through a couple of stalls, a garden, and an outdoor kitchen and workshop. About twenty people approached us one after the other, all asking the same questions. “Where are you from? Where are you staying? How long will you be in Colombia?” Seth and I quickly tired of regurgitating the same answers, so we walked back to the hostel to relax and watch the sunset.

Seth and I made the mistake of eating lunch far too late, and by the time dinner rolled around we had not yet regained our appetites. That morning we had signed up to eat at the hostel, where they were serving chicken tikka masala with rice and stewed vegetables. Although I took most of the meal to go for the next day’s lunch, what little I did manage to eat of the curry was absolutely delicious. It was much spicier and more flavorful than any version that had ever come out of my kitchen, possibly due to the chef’s heavy-handed usage of ginger and cloves. Seth and I dined with Julian, Stephen, and Victoria and made plans to watch the Colombia-Venezuela football match with them the following night.

eje cafetero: day 2: reserva natural sacha mama

Thanks to ten hours of solid sleep and the natural alarm clock of La Serrana‘s roosters, Seth and I awoke at 6:30 ready for breakfast. We walked over to the eco farm & hostel’s “restaurant room,” where we shared our table with a family of four—an early thirty-something American couple and the husband’s parents—and ate two fried farm-fresh eggs, pan de queso paipa, and two cups of coffee with unpasteurized milk. As we admired the beautiful views beyond the building’s generous glass windows, we talked about where we were from, what we did, and where we were going. The younger couple of the two was living and working in Bogotá just a few blocks from our apartment; the husband was a teacher at an international school, and his wife was seven months pregnant with their first child. (Don’t worry; she was careful to avoid the farm-fresh milk.) Although we did have a few other breakfasts with them over the days, we failed to exchange contact information. Since they live so close, though, I am hoping to run into them on the street or at our neighborhood grocery store.

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After breakfast Seth and I began the two-hour trek to the Reserva Natural Sacha Mama, a—you guessed it—natural reserve. The walk was more or less made up of three segments: the first, from the hostel to the viewing point, was mostly at level; the second, from the viewing point to the river, was a steep downhill; and the third, from the river to Sacha Mama, was a shallow uphill.

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Pedro, the owner of the reserve, only gives one tour of his property per day, so Seth and I had to give him a call from the hostel and notify him when to expect us. Sure enough, he and his peppy puppy Simba (King of the Reserve) greeted us at the gate and promptly led us to the main building—a small, open-air house furnished with little more than a dining room table, a tent, and some lounge chairs. Upon arriving Seth and I removed our shoes, climbed the stairs, and began an hourlong session of bird-watching and coffee-sipping. We identified the different species on his chart and talked about different recipes for coffee drinks. (Pedro’s wife seemed especially interested in our iced coffee recipe, which features both panela and canela. Perfect for the warmer months, she thought.)

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Once we were properly caffeinated, Pedro led Seth and me on a slow hike through his personal rainforest. He allowed us to sample at least four different types of bananas, encouraged us to taste the coffee cerises (“cherries”) straight from the plant, and took our picture next to his oldest and largest tree, of which he was rightfully very proud. We discussed the exorbitant expenses of green certifications, and Seth and I were able to liken the process and its costs to LEED certifications by the United States Green Building Council. It was interesting to learn how much we had in common despite our seemingly different backgrounds and trades. Additionally, Seth and I very much enjoyed conducting a different kind of Spanish conversation, something that was not about architecture or the submission of legal documents.

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Pedro then took us back to the house, where he showed us the simple machines he used to remove the coffee beans from their plump red skins. He was an unusually small and careful producer, so his preferred method of drying the beans was to have them sit outside in the sun for two days or until they looked “about done.”

After our morning lesson, we shuffled inside for lunch. Pedro’s wife had prepared us a delightful vegan meal of a papa criolla, eggplant, and onion puree; a red pepper, carrot, broccoli, chayote, and onion sautée; and pineapple.

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Bellies content, we proceeded to the other building on Pedro’s property to learn about the second half of coffee production—the shucking and the roasting. At this point the dried coffee beans looked kind of like little peanuts, but before we could roast them we had to remove their thin shells using a large, loud machine. (Pedro typically uses the shells as stuffing for chairs or other rough outdoor furniture.) Once the beans were completely stripped, we began to roast them. “Twelve minutes,” Pedro insisted, but every two minutes or so he spooned out a few beans from the machine to check their progress. “Are they ready yet?” he would ask. A couple minutes later, “What about now?”

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Once the beans were indeed ready, Pedro transferred them to a very shallow wooden bowl. “Stir them,” he instructed Seth. “They need to cool.” As soon as some of the beans had cooled off, Pedro ground them and brewed a round of coffee—by far the freshest and most delicious I had ever tasted. About thirty minutes later the other beans were ready for bagging. Seth and I bought two of the 250-gram bags for ourselves, thanked Pedro, and began our two-hour hike back to Salento. Simba followed us for about a quarter of a kilometer before his owners summoned him back to his kingdom.

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I cannot speak highly enough about the innumerable shades of green and vivid colors on the reserve and the subtle sounds of the birds and the nearby river. The whole experience was more relaxing and informative than I could have ever imagined. Pedro was so intelligent, so patient, and so passionate about his work.

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On our walk back Seth and I encountered a bit of rain. We bypassed our hostel in hopes of finding a warm, comforting dinner in Salento. Around six, just in time for sunset, we ducked into La Gran Trucha, a semi-al fresco restaurant on Calle Real. Seth and I both ordered the trucha al ajillo (river trout in a garlic sauce), Salento’s trademark dish. Accompanied by two giant patacones (flattened, fried plantain) and two límonadas, the meal was a perfect end to an already perfect day.

holiday shopping: part two

Back in November, I wrote an entry about the Christmas presents Seth and I bought for our family members. Now that all of the gifts have been, well, gifted, I thought I would share the rest of the loot with you.

A traditional Colombian sombrero for Seth’s cousin, Travis:

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A smaller and darker Greg Norman-style Colombian sombrero for my dad, and a gray alpaca scarf for Mary Lynn:

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A cozy alpaca poncho for Seth’s Gran:

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A painting of the colonial town Villa de Leyva for my Mom and Ken. They immediately hung the artwork next to their wine room, which of course made Seth and me very happy:

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Seth and I had tons of fun sorting through the Colombian artisan markets and choosing the crafts we thought would best suite each person’s interests. We will likely go the more traditional American route next year, unless our friends and family members place specific requests for Colombian goodies.

holiday shopping: part one

Seth and I spent most of this weekend shopping for holiday gifts for our friends and family members. We scoured the covered markets across from the Gold Museum in La Candelaria and the open air markets on top of the hill in Usaquén in search of authentic artisan souvenirs. I realize I am taking a slight risk by publishing this entry, but I am almost positive that the recipients of the following gifts do not subscribe to my blog. (Just to be safe, though, I will make this entry private shortly after hitting the “Publish” button.)

Seth had his heart set on buying two Colombian mochilas—one for himself and another for his brother Eliot. Arhuaco mochilas (pictured above) are natural, bucket-shaped bags hand made ​​by the Arhuaco people of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Conversely, Wayuu mochilas are hand made by the Wayuu people of La Guajira Peninsula. Whereas the neutral-colored, sheeps’ wool mochilas of Arhuaco seem to be most often worn by men in Bogotá, the brightly-colored, cotton-based bags of Wayuu seem to be most frequently fashioned by women. Each of the latter type retails for about COP$80,000-100,000 (US$40-50) and is made by one woman over the span of about twenty days.

Besides the two mochilas, Seth and I also purchased a variety of jams, including five jars of maracuya (passionfruit), nueces (nuts), and brandy; four jars of arazá, cupuaçu, and cocona; and one jar of frutos y pétalos rojos (red forest fruits and flowers). The other gifts I cannot mention.

To end our busy and fruitful weekend of touching beautiful things and making difficult decisions, we sat down for a couple of macchiatos at LaTerra Café in Usaquén. Delicious! Our shopping hiatus continues over the next week as we plan and prepare our Thanksgiving feast.

zipaquirá

As I mentioned last week, Seth and I planned to visit Zipaquirá this weekend. Before we could even begin to formulate a plan, our friend Juancho sent Seth a Facebook message asking if we would like to accompany him and a friend on a mini-tour of the northside of Bogotá. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance.

We started our Sunday bright and early. Juancho and his friend Gabriela picked us up at our apartment just after eight in the morning. We promptly drove to the outskirts of Bogotá, where we stopped at a roadside diner for a quick breakfast. Bellies full, we drove through Cota and walked around for a bit before continuing on our way. By ten o’clock, we found ourselves in Zipaquirá. The four of us climbed the steps to the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral), and Seth and I grabbed a tinto (sans aguardiente, no matter how badly the shopkeep wanted to up-sell me). I snapped a couple photos of the town.

The Catedral de Sal, dubbed The First Wonder of Colombia, is the largest deposit of rock salt in the world. In 1932, decades before any official underground church had been built, the miners carved a small sanctuary in which they could pray to the saints for protection before starting work. In 1954 the first Salt Cathedral, which consisted of three naves and a monumental cross, was dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners. Because it was constructed inside an active mine, the cathedral eventually became too unstable for service and was forced to undergo renovation. In 1995 the second Salt Cathedral was inaugurated. It currently consists of fourteen small chapels (the Stations of the Cross), a dome, and three naves. 250 thousand tons of rock salt had to be extracted in order to build it.

When Juancho, Gabriela, Seth, and I first entered the grayish-white Cathedral, we could smell the sulfur wafting through the dark corners of the cave. What started out as a quiet and eerie journey quickly became a flashy and animated one. Each Station of the Cross boasted its own large, chunky cross and multicolor light show. I tried to snap most of my photos during the shows’ neutral phases, but alas, I did not always have such good luck or timing.

While the fourteen small chapels left something to be desired, the view of the main altar from the “westwork” was especially striking. The nave was incomprehensibly vast.

After spending a good two hours strolling around the Cathedral, we began our guided behind-the-scenes tour. We secured our hard hats and tiptoed blindly through the darkest corners of the mine. We learned how to hold a pickaxe and how to manually ventilate the shaft.

By two-thirty or so, it was time for lunch. Juancho, Seth, and I ordered costillas de cerdo (pork ribs) at a cozy restaurant at the bottom of the mountain, while Gabriela asked for ajiaco en cazuela. We drank some oh-so-fresh jugo de mora to wash it all down.

Afterwards we decided to walk off our calories in the central plaza of Zipaquirá. We admired the colonial architecture of the Palacio Municipal de Zipaquirá and the Catedral de la Santísima Trinidad y San Antonio de Padua de Zipaquirá, known simply as the Catedral Diocesana de Zipaquirá. I vowed to return to Zipaquirá on a Saturday in the not-so-distant future so that I could document the inside of the church without disturbing its faithful parishioners.

Juancho grew impatient with what little he thought Zipaquirá had to offer, so he hurried us back to the car. Next stop: the Cabaña Alpina complex in Sopó for postres (dessert). The four of us independently scoured the factory for the most delicious looking treats before eventually settling on the merengón de kiwi (kiwi merengue), cheesecake con salsa de mora (cheesecake with berry sauce), cheesecake de chocolate (chocolate cheesecake), queso con mora y arequipe (cheese with berries and a caramel-type sauce), and Colombian quesillo—a weird anise flavored cheese that I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat. Five desserts for four people? Sounds legit. We arranged our desserts on a patch of grass and enjoyed the sunset. I admired the houses sitting on the mountains in the distance, like a tiny toy village atop a serene and snowy hill. It was a sweet ending to an already perfect day.

To see more photos of our trip to Zipaquirá and Sopó, click here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/aclearglimmer/sets/72157632003167023/

el corrientazo

Literally, el corrientazo translates to “the electric shock.” Colloquially, it translates to either “the lunch hour” or “the restaurant that serves home-cooked food during the lunch hour.” (For the sake of this entry, I will use the phrase to signify the latter, as that is how Seth and I most often speak of it at home.) The likening of such a restaurant to an electric shock is a testament to the speed at which its food is served and eaten—lightning fast.

There is at least one corrientazo on nearly every block of Chapinero. Most are largely unassuming, bearing only a small dry-erase board and a few unadorned tables and chairs. The menú del dia often reads much like the picture—with sopa (stew), crema (soup), or consomé (broth) of the day; two to four meat options; frijoles (beans) or pasta; an ensalada (salad), verdura (cooked vegetable), or torta (a vegetable cake, more or less); arroz (rice), papa salada (salted potato), and maduro (plantain); jugo (juice) o limonada (limeade); and, if it is a nicer corrientazo, a small postre (dessert). Nearly all items are optional and/or open to substitutions; for example, if you prefer your meal sans soup, you can ask for more vegetables. Seth and I like to try as many new foods as possible, so we usually order our lunches con todo (with everything).

I like to decide my menu before I even step foot in a corrientazo because as soon as I do, I am expected to place my order. (Waiters and waitresses at these establishments do not take kindly to lengthy pauses of indecision.) Not a minute after I rattle off my preferences, the server brings silverware and napkins, a bowl of soup, and a plastic cup of juice to the table. Once I have sipped maybe two spoonfuls of soup, my plateful of food arrives. Sensory overload!

The point of the corrientazo is not to politely course out its customers’ meals and to wait on them hand and foot; it is to feed as many of them as possible as much food as possible, as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible. (Whew.) The least expensive corrientazo I have spotted charged COP$4,000 (US$2.00), while the most expensive cost COP$12,000 (US$6.00). An American might be alarmed at the promise of a full seafood meal for COP$10,000 (US$5.00), but Colombians embrace it. (Seth and I have, too, and we walked away satisfied and sans food poisoning.)

The corrientazo is a comforting commodity to which I have grown financially and emotionally attached. It is a calm refuge in an otherwise bustling city where I can enjoy a quiet, home-cooked lunch for less than an hour’s work.

[photo courtesy of Bogotá Positiva]

la manzana cultural + la puerta falsa

On Saturday afternoon, Seth and I visited La Manzana Cultural (The Cultural Block) of Bogotá. Located between Carerras 5 & 6 and Calles 10 & 11, the square is home to El Museo Botero (the Art Museum) and La Casa de Moneda (the Mint). We enjoyed perusing hundreds of works of art and admiring the serenity of the architecture and the views of the surrounding mountains.

After immersing ourselves in Colombian culture for a few hours, we walked to La Puerta Falsa, an historic, traditional restaurant in the heart of the city. Known for their chocolate completo and their tamales, the nearly two-hundred year-old restaurant offers a few cozy tables and friendly service. Their chocolate completo consists not only of chocolate caliente but also of buttered bread, an almojábana, and a generous slice of queso fresco. Meanwhile, their tamales, unlike their Mexican counterparts, are wrapped in a banana leaf and filled with chicken. (Oh, and they are about half the size of a football.) The atmosphere was just what we were looking for after a day of exploring—calm and comforting.

[La Puerta Falsa: Calle 11 # 6-50, Bogotá-Colombia]

museo del oro + colombian snacks

After hearing rave reviews from my coworkers, Seth and I finally decided to spend a Saturday visiting Bogotá’s Museo del Oro (the Gold Museum). Located in the city’s historic center at the intersection of Carrera 5 and Calle 16, the museum displays the world’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold work. It contains close to 34,000 gold pieces, plus 20,000 bone, stone, ceramic, and textile articles belonging to 13 Pre-Hispanic societies: Tumaco, Nariño, Cauca, Calima, San Agustín, Tierradentro, Tolima, Quimbaya, Muisca, Urabá and Chocó, Malagana, Zenú, and Tairona. It was a unique experience to visit a museum that houses a permanent indigenous exhibition. It certainly embodies the sense of pride Colombians have in their country’s history.

Unlike some cities in the United States, Bogotá seems to think of museums more as educational institutions than as tourist destinations. Most are free on Saturdays, Sundays, or both, which makes it possible for families to spend at least an entire day together enjoying their city. (Meanwhile, Seattle’s Art Museum offers free admission one day a month—on a Thursday, when most people are working—and I think Philadelphia’s Art Museum is free to the public only one day a year—on International Museum Day.) I appreciate the investment, as I believe it contributes to a more knowledgeable and civic-minded population. It also promotes a collective ownership of culture and memory, one that its citizens feel obligated to protect and preserve.

After our tour of the museum, we walked along Avenida Jimenez and grabbed a quick bite to eat: chicharrón and jugo de mandarina (fried pork rinds and mandarine juice). Served in a paper bag with chunks of ground corn dough and fried plantains, the greasy, salty snack paired perfectly with the fresh, sweet juice.

biblioteca virgilio barco

At the suggestion of my coworkers, Seth and I spent our Sunday afternoon touring La Biblioteca Virgilio Barco. Located within a large park between the Chapinero and Teusaquillo neighborhoods, the building looks more like a fortress than a library. Not only is it cylindrical in shape, but it is also surrounded by—get this—a moat! We had such a blast exploring all of the building’s different grade changes, especially on the roof. There were so many stairs to climb and landscapes to see! After we spent a couple of hours marveling at the library’s exquisite detailing and its generous views of the city, rain began to pour. (After all, ’tis the season.) We packed up my camera, opened our umbrellas, and hurried to the nearest convenience store for some shelter and a hot tinto.

If you would like to see some photos I took of the library, please click here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/aclearglimmer/sets/72157629615571363/