I never thought I would tick this place off my bucket list so soon. After all, how often does one get a chance to travel to South America — a long travel of almost 24 hours  — distant but truly memorable.

Colombia is, of course, famous for the iconic “mule and farmer” image of 100 percent Colombian coffee, Juan Valdez. I remember reading the Colombian Coffee book when we first started the Philippine Coffee Board, along with marketing and coffee enthusiast Bill Luz. We wanted Philippine coffee to be as iconic as that of Juan Valdez and his mule.  Colombia was our inspiration for coming up with KAPE ISLA, the seal for Philippine coffee.

 

The journey

Colombia has three mountain ranges or cordillera, and part of the trip I signed up for was a coffee farm tour to Pereira and its environs, a 35-minute plane ride to the coffee fincas or farms. Bogota is the usual entry point to Colombia, and is the seat or capital of this South American coffee producer.  What we were not expecting is Bogota’s altitude of 2500 meters above sea level (masl). You can almost plant coffee anywhere in the city with this elevation! However, some visitors may not acclimatise to this altitude and may have symptoms of High Altitude Sickness or HAS. Headaches, nausea and, sometimes, pulmonary complications could also arise. Best to check with your doctor before travelling to Bogota. The locals say the cure is only rest and coca tea. One of our companions did try the coca tea and had good results, plus adding  immediate travel to lower elevations like Pereira which is only 1200-1500 masl.

 

More than amazing coffee

In Bogota, there are many museums like the Museo del Oro for metallurgy and gold; The Botero Museum for the famous artist who drew hefty women; and, the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Center in downtown Candelaria. There is, also, a nearby Montserrate which is a sanctuary a funicular ride away, which promises a panoramic view of Bogota City.

What I truly enjoyed in Bogota is the food. They have gastronomic everyday dishes or tipico comidas — Ajiaco, Sancocho, and Bandeja de Pais. The sweets are also interesting like the Moras y arequipe or the local streetside Obleas, which are wafer rounds spread with dulce de leche , cheese, moras jam, and coconut. All these are made into this sweet decadent sandwich.

The juices are from tropical fruits like lulo, guayaba, moras and fresas (strawberries). A spread of fresh fruit slices and whole fruits, like passion fruit and starfruit (balimbing), are also served at most meals.

Ajiaco is a creamy but more starchy soup with potatoes, yucca, sweet corn, and chicken breast pieces — served with cream and capers along with a cup of  rice boiled in a rich stock with aguacate or a slice of avocado as a side. Mix the capers and cream with the creamy starchy soup and the textures and flavors explode in the mouth.

Sancocho is like Puchero but with a clearer broth garnished with minced celery and cilantro. Its main ingredient is tender chicken quarters and yucca, taro, potatoes and plantains. It is also eaten with boiled rice and a slice of avocado (aguacate).

Bandeja de Pais is a platter full of beans (frijoles), ground meat ala arroz ala cubana, chorizo, chicharon (tender crunchy cut of fried salted pork), and fried bananas with a fried egg on top of boiled rice. It’s good for sharing as the meats are plenty and filling.

The dessert we loved is Moras y arequipe — syrupy stewed berries served with dollops of Arequipe, which is a caramel or reduction of milk with sugar like dulce de leche.

Of course, nothing is complete without Colombian coffee. A drive to a more local Oma café (Juan Valdez is found to be very touristy) for cortado or Café filtro (filtered coffee) also known as Tinto is a good finish after a hearty local meal.

What else does Bogota offer? Lots of shopping for the souvenir hunter — bags called Mochilla are all handmade from colourful cotton weaves with a signature woven cotton strap. There are solid colours as well as typical Colombian geometric patterns which even men can wear like a messenger bag or body bag. There are gold and gold-filled earrings, filigree pendants, and bracelets. There are native sweets like guava candy, arequipe in little jars, and lots of chocolate-covered coffee beans.

The Colombian woven hats are also aplenty as well as woven hammocks, ponchos, and jackets. As the weather can range from cool to warm within the same hour, and the sun as erratic as the unpredictable showers, one will find jackets and hats very useful while walking the busy streets of Bogota.

There is so much street art too. There are building facades with graphic art and interesting visuals, as well as the usual graffiti made by budding artists cum vandals. It seems the whole city has become a canvas for the artistic Colombians.

 

Finding your way around Colombia 

Taxis are an economical way to zip through the city, and driver-guides can be hired with their taxis for as low as COP 22,000 or a little less than USD 10 dollars. The driver-guides we hired spoke some English and will walk with you, and will oblige if you invited them to eat with you. They can wait as you shop or visit museums, and take your photos when asked, avoiding the need to take selfies and groufie photos.

The hotel rates are affordable, too. We stayed in a new five-star hotel called Movich Buro 26, which is a stone’s throw from the airport. And with Bogota’s traffic, one can never be sure to get to the airport on time, making Movich a perfect choice for the “Women in Coffee” convention attendees.

We really had fun despite the long travel from the Far East. Different permutations and combinations for flights nevertheless take anywhere from 24-30 hours including transit times. But it is all worth the trip and I would not mind doing it again. Flight delays and changes included as part of managing expectations.

So, remember, it’s Colombia not Columbia, in spite of being named after Christopher Columbus who discovered the Americas. Go and plan a trip to coffee country. You may just like it, and decide to stay a bit longer.

Tags: South America, Chit Juan, Colombia, Juan Valdez, Bogota, Kape Isla, Coffee, Pereira