My first stop in Colombia, unless you count the night spent in Pasto, was more of an afterthought or a convenience stop to break up the long journey up to Calí. Popayán, very creatively billed as The White City due to the prevalence of white colonial style buildings, was suggested to me as a point in transit to break up the 12-15 hour journey from the Colombian border to Calí. The stay itself was largely uneventful, serving more as a restful spot after the hectic days of hiking in Otavalo and crossing the border and an introduction to Colombian culture.
I’ll address the obvious to start. Colombia surely still has problems with corruption, drugs and violence, but it is also not as outrageous as some people make it out to be. It’s certainly not a lawless society where gun battles in the streets are a common occurrence and everyone passes out cocaine like candy. You’re thinking of a Hollywood movie set. But getting back to point, unfortunately, Americans and Europeans are still highly ignorant when it comes down to what the real Colombia is like. Before coming here someone said to me, “You better be careful, you know how those Colombians are”, and I thought, “Actually I don’t and I’m pretty sure you don’t either seeing as how neither of us have ever so much as spoken to a Colombian before.” Quite frankly, I’m more worried about getting shot in the state of Florida than I am here in Colombia.
Again though, I digress. Colombia has had a violent past, but the Colombian people are putting forth their best efforts these days to move on from the past and show the world that they’re a peace loving country just like any other. This can be seen in the observation that Colombian people are often noted throughout South America as the “friendliest”. So far, I can attest to this with my few interactions. Not only are Colombians friendly, but they’re extremely talkative, almost up to a fault in my opinion. Everytime I went to Parque Caldas to relax and have a snack, I was engaged in conversation with random citizens within five minutes of sitting down. First there was a school teacher, then the group of retirees discussing the Euro Cup, and finally a guy who looked suspiciously like my Uncle Carlos. What was really interesting too was that most people just dove straight into conversation as if we’ve known each other forever. Obviously, they knew I was a foreigner, but everything flowed so naturally I couldn’t help but wonder if they were a part of some designated Colombian welcome wagon to assure skeptical tourists that they would be safe. In summary, your biggest safety concern should be choking on corn while trying to keep up with the pace of conversation.
Street Food Delights
One of the first things I’ve noticed about Colombia is the stronger prevalence of street food vendors, a welcome change-up from the usual restaurant options. In Popayán, my first venture was in shaved ice, known as cholados here and Italian ice around the rest of the world and I will say, the cholados are highly superior. First, the old school crank that they use to carve ice chips off a block of ice is fun to watch and then the exotic fruit flavors of berries and passion fruit taste a lot more natural than the chemically saturated cherry flavor of the famous 7-Eleven Slurpee. To complete the refreshing dessert, they cover it in condensed milk to sweeten up the flavor profile. It’s a win-win for the parched street dweller and until I came to Calí, the best shaved ice genre of dessert I’ve ever had.
My next street food temptation was the universal corn on the cob. It’s a rather unexotic choice, but I became obsessed with corn on the cob when I was traveling in Indonesia with my Portuguese friends. The corn there was smothered in some type of sweet and salty butter that made it irresistible. Ever since then I’ve tried to replicate the recipe at many a picnic in the parks of Amsterdam to share the delights of a food as simple as corn with my friends. As I travel now, I’m always on the lookout for more corn. Sadly, my corn on the cob in Parque Caldas was a bland disappointment so the search for the Indonesian equal continues.
I took a break from the street food one night in Popayán and went to a restaurant, La Viña, because a review said they had high quality beef. Looking at the menu and seeing Chateaubriand, which if I remember correctly from a night at Sotto Sopra in Baltimore the waiter told me that was a higher quality than Filet Mignon, I was convinced and ordered a Filet Mignon. This is when some weirdness ensued. First there was the wine incident. I tried to order a glass of vino tinto to go along with my dinner and when it arrived at my table, the glass was filled to about a quarter, much less than the standard pour to which I was accustomed. I even checked the glass for a few minutes to make sure it wasn’t simply a ridiculously oversized glass and I was misjudging the volume. When I brought this to the waiter’s attention, he went back to the bar and returned with a single serving bottle, which appeared to now be a standard glass and a half, but 4x times the previous price. I refused to be served a sip and a half or pay through the nose for a proper glass, so I gave up and accepted my beverage-less fate for dinner. Then came the filet, which was about 3x the size of a standard cut and covered in an unexpected gravy sauce, strips of beef bacon and mushrooms. I ignored that part and dove into the beef which after all of the hoopla from the restaurant review was actually really delicious. Thus, the quality of the food is great, but the cooks are a little wacky. The final part of the evening was the waiter asking me how was the food, and before I can respond, he says, “Be honest, tell me what you really think.” Whoa! Super genuinely concerned waiter wants genuine answer! I told him in a polite voice the genuine answer so if you perchance go to La Viña and the filet comes without mushrooms and gravy, let me know!