Some of you may have read previous trip reports from me – if not, I warn you, I like to write!
First of all, a little bit about us – my husband John has been retired for several years, I still work and we usually try to take a vacation somewhere warm in the winter. This was our first trip to Colombia, and our first trip on Spirit Air and we flew out of Niagara Falls, NY. Crossing the border, the American guard asked us why we were visiting Colombia, how many times we’ve visited Colombia and then he added that Canadians didn’t seem to realize that they could have their heads chopped off by the FARC. The flight left at 2 AM and we were there way too early. The airport is small, and next time we’ll know that we don’t have to get there so early. The biggest challenge was making sure that our 1 bag didn’t weigh more than 40 pounds. We got into Lauderdale around 5:30 in the morning. After a few hours cooling our heels, we were on our way to Cartagena. The flight, unlike the earlier one, had a lot of empty seats. Midway through the flight, I realized that my left leg was very swollen and my ankle looked like a ‘kankle’ – it was huge. (I have some relatively minor problems with arthritis, but I had also had a slight tear in my meniscus last summer, and it hasn’t totally healed – if it ever will.)
We arrived in Cartagena and our 1bag came very quickly. Even though we got the red light, we were basically through in seconds. Marcus, our host, was waiting for us outside and brought us to Les Lezards B&B. Marcus is a really interesting guy – born in Italy, raised in France and lives in Miami and Cartagena. He’s a photographer. He has owned his Cartagena home for several years, and has only recently started to rent out. He’s an excellent host. There is a beautiful Burmese cat called Anais and 2 tortoises. We had a small room, with an even smaller bathroom, but the price is great ($560 for the week) and the property is lovely. I would definitely stay there again. It’s located in Getsamani which I think is a great area. The house is super quiet. That was especially important to us the first night. After getting settled in and having a bite to eat, we laid down and the next thing I knew it was 11 PM and I was definitely not ready to get up. I slept more or less through until about 7:30 AM.
Most days fell into a routine. We’d get up, have a delicious breakfast (included in our room rate – eggs, toast, bacon, cereal, juice and fruit, basically whatever you wanted) and then wander out to see the sights or just roam. One day we took a cab to the fort, but realized it really was within walking distance. It’s 17,000 COP (under $10) each to get in – not sure it’s worth it, but you do get some wonderful views of the city. Another day, we checked out an area (Las Bovedas) where there are a lot of souvenir sellers. It’s a bit numbing – most of them carry the same stuff and it definitely doesn’t look very appealing when it’s all displayed en masse. We did see some molas (nothing as nice as what we had bought on an earlier trip to Panama) and also some bracelets similar to one I had bought in Panama. We visited the Museum of Inquisitions one morning. One of the guides got annoyed when I said we didn’t want his services and then he asked if we were Canadian. I said yes, he then said CANADA in a tone of disgust and we walked away. Now I knew I wasn’t going to use him. We walked a lot in the old city. There are beautifully restored buildings, buildings crumbling, a lot of old statues and modern sculpture (much of that by Sophia Vari, Botero’s wife), and so on. There are a number of vendors, but you just say no. More than a couple of times, we stopped at Juan Valdez for iced coffees and free WIFI. We looked at some very nice hotels, including the Santa Clara, which is lovely.
Cartagena is famous for its emeralds and I admit that I love emeralds, but I don’t know anything about them. I went into the trip saying I wouldn’t buy any jewellery. But of course, I broke down and bought a pair at a store called Adriana Roa. They are quite modern looking and the emeralds are not polished. They’re very ‘wearable’ and not expensive. All of her jewellery is really interesting. They also have a cafe, so we ordered coffee while I debated which earrings I wanted to buy. Nice way to shop! (The saleswomen were drop dead gorgeous, so John wasn’t complaining.)
In terms of evening entertainment, we didn’t do a whole lot beyond going out for dinner. One night however, we went to Cafe Havana, a very popular bar that features live music. It cost 10,000 COP (about $5.60) to get in and the most popular drink seems to be the mojito (fairly strong mojitos). The band started at 11:30 and the place quickly got crowded with locals. We don’t dance, but I wish I did! I’d highly recommend this place if you want to dance and have a good time. We weren’t there all that late, but I expect it goes on until the wee hours of the morning. Another evening, we wandered down to Calle Media Luna (same street as Cafe Havana) and listened to live music at another bar. That area is filled with hostels and backpackers, so it’s quite lively.
What we didn’t do – well, there’s probably a lot we didn’t do, but this is what we decided against. We debated visiting the Bazurto market, but by all accounts, it’s not a tourist friendly location. We thought about taking a tour to the mud bath at the volcano, but decided that we weren’t all that interested in getting muddy. We’re jazz fans, and we thought that we might end up at the new jazz bar nearby, but it just seemed kind of odd – when we dropped by to ask when the live music would start, the place was empty and the guy showed us pictures of fancy cocktails. It didn’t feel relaxed to us.
We also didn’t spend a lot of time at the beach. The set up on Bocagrande is quite pleasant, with a long row of canvas shelters set up and you ‘rent’ one for the day. We didn’t ask what the cost was, and I’m sure you could barter with the vendors. We ordered a couple of bottles of water, and later I had 2 mojitos. The mojitos were very good. Cost for all of that was 85,000 COP (about $48), so not inexpensive, but we really didn’t want to argue. The beach itself is grey sand, and you can go out a long way. The water felt great. Lots of beach vendors selling t-shirts, jewellery, fruit, beer and so on, and that does get a little tiresome. A lot of the women try to sell a massage which I really didn’t want, and I inadvertently got caught up in a ‘turf war’ between 2 of the women. After refusing several vendors, I agreed to a leg massage from a woman called Tatiana. I really enjoyed talking to her and better yet, she wasn’t pushy. As soon as she started massaging my left leg, a woman I had turned down earlier grabbed my right leg and started massaging it. She started yelling at Tatiana. I felt like a wishbone Exhausting and I don’t think I’d want to go through that very often!
We really enjoyed Marcus’s place. Marcus is very helpful and an excellent host. Breakfasts were always good, and one morning he offered us arepas con huevo – they were huge and delicious. The juices were wonderful. We got into the habit of wandering back there in the afternoon and using the jacuzzi. It really helped my ankle and my sore feet. The house is close to the Plaza de Trinidad, where you can buy a beer from the corner store, fresh juice from the ‘juice lady’ or a hotdog from one of the other vendors. There are a fair number of students learning Spanish nearby, but there are also a lot of locals. Getsamani is really lively at night – lots of people outside, especially on the weekend. On one of the narrow streets (barely wide enough for a car), people set up tables and chairs and music blares out of several homes. There are also bicycles for rent and many more people are biking around town.
We had one really fun experience. I’ve been following a trip report written by Glover on Fodors. We joked that maybe we’d run into one another in Cartagena since our trips overlapped by a day or 2. So guess who we run into? Luckily Cartagena is very quiet on Sunday morning and I recognized them by her description. We introduced ourselves and decided to have lunch together. We really enjoyed talking with Judie and Ed. They are birders who have been in Colombia since the New Year, and their itinerary wore me out just reading about it!
Food in Cartagena is very good, and while it may be more expensive than other areas in the country, we didn’t find it outrageously expensive. Like other places, you can go high end and spend a lot or you can spend very little. (I should mention that John does not drink, so that probably helps to keep prices down!)
We celebrated our 25th anniversary on Feb 7 at 8-18, a lovely restaurant in the old city. It was a fabulous dinner. I started with a special daiquiri – I don’t know what the fruit was, but it was excellent. I ordered the seafood soup in coconut milk and John ordered the grouper carpaccio, both excellent, although I think I preferred the carpaccio. It was so fresh and tart! For my main, I ordered a risotto with blue cheese and squid. The waiter literally gave me the thumbs up on that choice and John ordered the oxtail in a red wine sauce with mashed potatoes (probably the most popular choice on the menu). Both meals were very rich, very delicious. We finished the meal with a molten chocolate cake & ice cream – definitely one of the better ones and a sambuca for me, cafe con leche for John. (They were out of 2 of the 4 desserts.) Total bill came to about $130 – pricey, but definitely not out of line for what we had.
Twice we had ceviche at El Boliche Cebecheria, a small restaurant in Getsamani, that was recommended by Marcus and our fellow guests (2 final year medical students from the US). The ceviche was fabulous – we each ordered a separate dish and shared – the flavours were amazing and they were served with thin plantain chips. The chef makes the ceviche to order, and it’s so fresh and delicious. I can’t remember the prices, but it was very reasonable.
Twice we had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant (Di Silvio Trattoria) that I would highly recommend. It’s in Getsamani and is located just off Plaza Trinidad. Their pizzas are amazing – super thin crisp crust and the toppings are wonderful. (Example, when we ordered a Hawaiian pizza, the pineapple was caramelized before it was put on the pizza.) We ordered a spaghetti carbonara one evening, and it was as good as the one I make (and I think I make a pretty good version of it). Desserts are served in little shot glasses – perfect size after dinner. We ordered a pasta, a pizza and a couple of drinks and it came to about $30. It’s a neighbourhood restaurant, and I wish it was in my neighbourhood!
We also had lunch twice at Crepes & Waffles, a Colombian chain. Both times, we each ordered the salad bar (which is quite a good deal with quinoa, white beans, egg, etc. as well as various vegetables) and a crepe. Prices are really reasonable (under $30 for the 2 of us). We ate in 2 different Crepes & Waffles and it seems to be entirely staffed by women (as far as we could tell) – apparently it is their policy to hire women in need.
One day, we had lunch at La Mulata, a restaurant in el centro. It was packed with locals. John ordered the seafood rice, which had my first choice, but I ended up ordering the chicken dish. Both meals came with soup. His dish was really tasty, mine was ... well, unexpected. It was a huge chicken breast, cut in half and pounded a little thinner. There were mozzarella cheese melted on it (ok), but it also came with a little bit of salad, some French fries and a hotdog (wiener). It was the wiener that seemed odd to me! I could only eat maybe ½ the meal – it was way too much food. We both ordered the limonada de coco (delicious). Again the bill was very reasonable.
Another evening, we had dinner at D’Arte, which is on the corner of our street and is owned by Edgardo Carmona, the artist responsible for many of the wonderful and amusing metal sculptures in the city. A bonus was that there was live music scheduled for later in the evening. Truth be told, I wasn’t all that hungry, but I ordered the tuna with the coconut rice. The tuna was covered with sesame seeds and was perfectly cooked, nice and pink in the centre. The rice was to die for! John had the shrimps with the same rice. Service was erratic. Our waiter reminded me of a co-worker of mine – he looks efficient and busy, but seems out of it somehow. After dinner I ordered a brandy. He came back 15 minutes later to tell me that they had no brandy. So I ordered sambuca. He brought me a glass of ice with a shot of what turned out to be vodka. Ugh. But it was still a pleasant evening and it only came to $50 for the 2 of us. The artist, btw, was present at the restaurant – very friendly guy and I wish we had gotten to talk to him. He had a couple of posters displayed of past exhibitions in France. The art in the restaurant is all music based. He also had some art that was done on tiles, some of it with metal . I wished I had $ to buy. (And room in my luggage allowance).
Another lunch was at a restaurant called Krioyo. They have a lovely patio area, but we sat inside where it was cooler. I ordered an avocado salad with shrimp & crab and John ordered a Serrano ham sandwich. My salad had too much dressing on it, but it was really delicious and definitely enough. John was thrilled with his sandwich. Interesting art on the walls, fairly good service, a nice place that I’d recommend.
When we had lunch with Judie and Ed, we went to La Cevicheria, made famous by Anthony Bourdain. I found the ceviche quite expensive, especially compared to ‘our’ cevicheria in the neighbourhood. I didn’t order ceviche, but I ordered a vegetarian sandwich. I was expecting slices of grilled eggplant and peppers on pita bread, according to the description on the menu. What I got was more like baba ganoush – quite pleasant, but not what I was looking for.
Our final dinner in Cartagena was at La Vitrola. The food and service were excellent. I started with a warm tomato, grilled cheese and Serrano ham appetizer. John had beef carpaccio. Both were excellent, but I’d say mine ‘won’. For our mains, John chose fish in a tamarind sauce and I chose a seafood rice. Dessert though was the highpoint – we shared a piece of coconut cake with vanilla ice cream. Sounds simple, but it was fabulous. Cost came to about $125. There was also a band playing Cuban style music – pleasant enough and not too loud. The restaurant was quite busy with locals.
Cartagena has a number of places where you can have ice cream, and one of them looks like a genuine ice cream parlour. The choices were incredible and over a couple of visits, we had zapote, tamarindo, uchuva, lolu and maracuyi ice cream. I think that uchuva was my favourite, but they were all delicious.
After a week, it was time to leave Cartagena. Marcus had arranged for us to take a Marsol shuttle to Santa Marta. The shuttle costs less than $25 each (they don’t take visa – you have to pay the driver in cash.) The shuttle was packed and John and I ended up getting the front seats, next to the driver. The trip was relatively uneventful and takes about 3 ½ hours.
The shuttle dropped us off right at our hotel in the old part of the city. It’s called Casa Verde and we immediately knew we had made the right choice. It’s in an old restored building in El Centro – high ceilings, white walls, grey & green tiles that look original (but aren’t) on the floor and a wood ceiling. Our room, which cost 165,000 COP (about $93), was one of 5 in the hotel. They have a small dipping pool (definitely welcome after walking around in the heat). The owner / manager lived in Toronto for 10 years, so his English is very good. They also have a sweet little black & white female cat called Cafucha. This is really a beautiful hotel and for the price, I don’t think it can be beat in Santa Marta.
We explored the area that first afternoon, had lunch in a beach front restaurant and got oriented. El Centro has undergone a fair amount of restoration – some of the old buildings are being converted into luxury apartments and the area is filled with bars and restaurants. All the banks and ATMs seem to be clustered in one area. The beach there looks quite pleasant if you look straight ahead, but it’s fairly industrial looking at either end. We didn’t have dinner that night – just a drink at a place called Cafe Lulo. Nice little place, and if we had more time, we probably would have gone back there to eat.
The next morning, we got going a little later than we expected. We took a taxi to Taganga, a small place outside of Santa Marta, where we could apparently catch a boat to Tayrona, a park known for its beaches. We had been recommended to get to Taganga by 8:30. Taganga was probably heavenly about 25 years ago – now it’s just a beach town that doesn’t look too appealing. We found out that there was no boat until 10:30 and it was only 9:30 AM. I suggested to John that we go to the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino instead of waiting. They have a museum, a modern art gallery and botanical gardens. So we got into a taxi and went back to the hotel to regroup for the hacienda. Taxi there was only 5,000 COP (about $2.80) since it’s in Santa Marta. It’s quite pleasant, very quiet and peaceful. The connection with Simon Bolivar seems a little exaggerated – he spent only 15 or 16 days there before dying of physical and ‘moral’ illnesses. (But as John pointed out to me, there are lots of places where Abe Lincoln apparently slept in for only a night, and people still brag about them.) We spent a very pleasant couple of hours there.
For dinner that night, we went to Agave Azul, a Mexican restaurant owned by a New Yorker. The food was excellent. It was Valentine’s Day. We split an appetizer plate, I had a mojito (actually 2 because it was happy hour) and I had the pescado blanco served w/ those wonderful little yellow potatoes (roasted) and avocado & tomato salad. John ordered fish as well, but the dish was more veracruzano style – equally delicious. For dessert, we ordered the special postre – lulo and mango flambéed with tequila served with ice cream. Muy delicioso! The whole meal came to about $50.
The next day, with our time running out in Santa Marta, we had to go to Tayrona. We made sure we were up early and took a taxi to Taganga early. Then we found out that there was no early boat, just the 10:30 AM boat. What now? We asked around and found a taxi that would take us both for 60,000 COP, which was cheaper than the boat for the 2 of us. So we took a taxi. Our driver was Schneider (I swear that’s what he said when he introduced himself). Interesting guy – he had stowed away on a banana boat and spent several years in the US, where he was illegal. He finally came back to Colombia and had worked his way up to cab driver. He credits a lot of his learning to the Bible, but definitely an interesting guy and we were glad to have him. He took us right to the gate, where we joined a lineup to enter the park. Cost to enter is 17,000 COP, I think (less than $10). It seemed to take a lot of time to get through the line – you should have your passport (or a photocopy of it) when you enter, but I still don’t know why it took so long to get into the park. There’s a shuttle just inside the gate that takes you as far as you can go by vehicle (2,000 COP) and it’s worth it – you’ll do a lot of walking after the shuttle drops you off. We must have walked at least an hour through the jungle before we hit the first beach. We saw army ants, beautiful flowers, butterflies, trees, etc. The first beach isn’t safe for swimming, so we walked another ½ hour to the next beach, then finally another ½ hour to the beach where we decided to stop. It’s lovely – no vendors on the beach and the water is fabulous. We hung out there for a couple or 3 hours, then started our way back. The boats from Taganga, btw, don’t go to this beach – they go to a beach further out, so if you don’t want to take a boat both ways, you have to walk a very long way to the park entrance. We got back to the first beach, where we stopped and had a late lunch of ½ a chicken. (Quite tough chicken and I’m not sure what half it was.) We then walked back to the area where the shuttle drops you off and waited for the shuttle back to the entrance. At the entrance, we walked out to the road and caught a local bus going back to the city. That was an adventure. At one point, the bus was pulled over by customs & tax authorities. We all had to get off the bus and wait by the road. The authorities removed at least 8 or 9 packages from the bus – no idea what they contained. After ½ hour or so, the bus continued (without the packages), but it didn’t go to the Mercado like it was supposed to. Again we all got out, with no idea where we were in Santa Marta, and we ended up sharing a taxi to El Centro with another couple (from Quebec). Finally we were back at our hotel and I was exhausted. First thing I did was shower and wash my hair. I don’t think my feet ever got clean.
I don’t think I’m a beach person – it’s too exhausting.
We really weren’t up to much of a dinner, so we headed to a little local place that John had read about – Delicentro Bavaro. We split a cubano sandwich for 12,000 COP (about $6.75). They were huge and one was more than enough for the 2 of us.
Next morning, we took a taxi from the hotel to the airport, where we caught a Copa Air flight to Bogota. We were worried about Bogota – apart from it being dangerous, everyone told us it was cold, very cold. There were even reports of hail. But when we arrived, we were very pleasantly surprised. We caught a cab to the huge bus terminal. We randomly picked a bus company and found out that they had a directo bus to VDL at 1:30, just 2 hours time. So we bought 2 tickets (20,000 COP each) and sat down to wait. John bought a couple of snacks – one looked like the one from the other night, but it was filled with egg, meat, potatoes – delicious. Finally we saw our bus. It was not a big bus, more like a microbus, and it didn’t leave until 2 PM. The driver trawled the street, with his assistant calling out constantly trying to get more passengers. At this rate, we knew it would be dark when we got to VDL. The scenery was gorgeous but I honestly can’t say I enjoyed the ride. A double line means nada here – drivers pass whenever they can, and I could see over the driver’s shoulder for the whole trip. I was terrified most of the time.
Anyway, by the time we got to VDL, it was almost dark. That’s when I realized that I had made a really stupid rookie mistake – I had the name of the hotel (little inn really) and my email confirmation all in Spanish, but NO ADDRESS and no immediate access to internet. Fortunately a really nice woman, who spoke excellent English, offered to help. (She had just gotten off a big bus that had arrived from Bogota.) She also didn’t know where it was, but she knew of several hotels in town and offered to take us to a street where there were at least 4 in a row. She recommended Hospederia El Ocabo – family run, very clean and not expensive. She walked with us over there, and we ended up with a lovely quiet room for only 80,000 COP (about $45). No wifi and no b/fast (but the rooms all have flat screen TVs that get a couple of English channels!). The hotel garden is really pretty – hummingbirds and orchids, other beautiful flowers. We cleaned up a bit, then headed out for dinner. We ate in a restaurant on the huge square – John ordered lamb (which he said was delicious) and I ordered pork tenderloin. My meat was cooked a little too much, but the blue cheese sauce and the fries definitely made up for it. It came to $40 for the 2 of us, so not expensive.
Next morning, after having slept for several hours, we ventured out for b/fast. We both felt so much better, although the air is really thin here. VDL is gorgeous. The area around the giant square is all cobblestones and the buildings are old. We found a wonderful little French bakery (La Panaderia on calle 11) – fresh croissants, fresh bread, omelettes, delicious coffee – heaven. (We had breakfast there twice.) One of the pastries is called panecillo de cuajada – delicious! We spent the day wandering around. The weather was fabulous. For lunch, we ate at Casa Blanca, a restaurant that was recommended by the hotel owners and our Good Samaritan from the previous night. We both ordered ajiaco – a thick soup with chicken, potatoes, corn, capers, peas, etc. served with a ½ avocado and serving of rice. It came in a traditional pot, boiling hot. Delicious! Also very filling.
Not much wifi in VDL – no Juan Valdez – but there are internet places. A place called the Van Gogh cafe offers free wifi, so we stopped there a couple of times for drinks. Lots of cute stores, but most of it seems to be the same kind of stuff. Later when we went out, I found a fabulous woven wrap – the designer is Soledad Castellano. I immediately bought it and would have bought more if I had the budget to do so (and the room in my suitcase)! We had seen a place earlier that was next to a meat market – they were grilling sausages, little potatoes, etc. and we thought we would go there for dinner. But it wasn’t open when we went by (I guess it is only open during the day), so we ended up going back to the bakery and having a sandwich there. Most of their bread & pastries were gone by that time – they are obviously doing well.
On Saturday, there is a local market and we always enjoy that kind of activity. All the amazing fruits and vegetables, plus people were grilling the little potatoes and sausages – so tempting. (Too bad we weren’t hungry.) Dinner that night was at Zarina – I ordered the trout with almond sauce (local fish), John had a thai beef dish. We shared a couple of Middle Eastern appetizers – it’s a real fusion kind of restaurant. The food was quite tasty and came to $52 for the 2 of us.
VDL is a lovely town. There are a lot of hotels, so obviously lots of tourists visit, but it’s beautiful. We are very glad we spent 3 nights there. We debated doing some sort of tour outside of the town, but it was really nice to relax and enjoy the town. The weather was superb, although the last night we had rain off and on. (Luckily the hotel owner lent me an umbrella.) I enjoyed spending time in a hammock at the hotel and reading my Kobo (love my e-reader)! The town was much busier on the weekend – it’s a very popular destination with Bogotanos. There was a wedding going on at the big church on the square – what was interesting was that several of the men were wearing kilts! Believe me, that got a lot of attention.
We took the noon bus to Bogota after a good b/fast at Estar de la Villa, just off the big square. (“Our” bakery was too crowded.) The arepas (boyacense style) were great. The bus was the same price as the one to VDL, but much more comfortable. We got into Bogota and caught a cab (under 11,000 COP) to Hotel Casa Deco in La Candelaria. It was the most expensive hotel during our trip at $135/night, but the hotel is lovely. Our room was large, with a king sized bed, good bathroom. They have a lovely rooftop terrace, that we enjoyed a couple of times. B/fast at the hotel is quite good – choice of cereal or eggs (scrambled with ham, tomatoes and cheese is the usual) or pancakes and fruits. I wasn’t crazy about their juices though – they don’t seem to have a lot of flavour, although they don’t appear to be watered down.
There are also so many museums to visit and many of them are all in that area. On our first day, we visited the Museo de Botero and the Casa de Moneda, both excellent museums. I was very impressed with the artists at the Botero – Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Klimt, Henry Moore and other ‘big’ names. There was also an excellent temporary photography exhibit. Both of these museums are free, which is amazing. All of Botero’s paintings and sculpture are similar – the figures are all fat, with small eyes, noses and mouths. Probably the most well known museum is the Museo del Oro – what a fabulous place! Since we’re both over 60, admission was free, and we went twice. The highlight was a very dark circular space where you enter, then the ‘door’ closes. The room gets very dark, but the walls are then lit up and you hear chanting. The walls are covered with glass, behind which are hundreds of gold objects, arranged by shape. The centre of the room has a circle of glass in the floor, which seems to be like a pool of water. I don’t know how to explain it – it’s amazing and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a museum.
We also visited another place where Bolivar spent time – Quinta de Bolivar. The gardens there are absolutely beautiful and again, they are free for those over 60. We also went to the Plaza de Simon Bolivar (too many pigeons for me – I hate them).
Quinta de Bolivar is also quite close to Monserrate, so from there, we caught a bus up to take the cable car up the mountain to the lookout. Unfortunately we didn’t get around to doing that until Wednesday, the day before we were leaving, and that happened to be the only cloudy cooler day of our trip. But the views were still amazing, and I’m glad we went up there.
We found the food in Bogota to be very good. La Candelaria is dead on Sunday night, so when we arrived, we asked for advice on where to eat and ended up in an Italian restaurant around the corner from the hotel. Food was great (I had vegetarian lasagna with pesto) and we were hungry. The owner is quite a character.
We ate 1 lunch at La Puerta Falsa, a restaurant that dates from the 1800’s. We each ordered the hot chocolate completo – it comes with buttered bread, a roll and cheese – apparently you’re supposed to dip the cheese into the hot chocolate. We also shared the biggest tamal I’ve ever seen. The whole meal came to 15,000 COP (under $8.50 for the 2 of us).
Another evening, we picked up arepas at a little local hole in the wall kind of place. Cheap and delicious, washed down with a big bottle of Colombiano soda.
We did splash out on a couple of our meals. One night we took a taxi to 69 Oyster Bar where we had made a reservation. This was probably my favourite meal of the trip. We started off with a half dozen oyster shooters (I had never eaten raw oysters, but the chef insisted) and then a salad ‘tower’ of eggplant, tomato and cheese. I ordered grouper wrapped in bacon, with black rice and some veggies. John ordered tuna with a balsamic reduction and crispy yucca straws. We shared the chocolate and orange mousse. Cost (including a martini and glass or 2 of wine for me, mineral water for John and 2 coffees) came to $130. The chef there is so friendly, so enthusiastic about the food, and it is terrific. There was a couple of Bogotanos sitting next to us, and we got into a conversation with them – it was just a wonderful evening.
One afternoon, we took a very long taxi ride up to Usaquen. Usaquen was a village at one time, but now that area is part of the city. The main square is still there, and surrounding it are a lot of restaurants and bars. We thought that we had reservations at 80 Sillas (I had made them over the web), but they didn’t seem to have them. 80 Sillas means 80 seats, and that’s what they have, and fortunately we were able to get in. Rather than each ordering an appetizer and a main, we ordered just apps – 2 different ceviches, fish cakes and mushrooms baked in a cream and white wine sauce with cheese. The bread provided by the restaurant is a pita bread, with a hummus type spread. We also split a chocolate mousse with pistachio nut topping and had 2 cafes con leche. All of the dishes were excellent and when we left, we were both very full. 88 Sillas had been recommended by a Colombian friend of mine, plus it was one that John had discovered in his research. It came to about $62 for both of us (including a couple of beers for me).
The taxi ride back was again very long – probably much longer than it should have been because John asked the driver to take us to Parque Simon Bolivar, instead of Plaza Simon Bolivar .......... at least taxis are cheap and we ended up with a bit of a tour of the city!
We also had lunch up on Monserrate. It was surprisingly good. I say ‘surprisingly’ because the mountain is a huge tourist attraction and we weren’t expecting much. But we ordered ceviche (again), a plate of Colombian appetizers and a salad with a whole egg, lots of avocado, heart of palm and good greens. It was all quite good. We also had a dessert – a mild, kind of cream cheese, with uchuva on it and some arequipe (caramel sauce) on the side. It was really tasty.
Our final dinner was at a well known restaurant called Leo Cocina y Cava. I had made a reservation through the web before we came to Colombia. After our experience with 80 Sillas, I decided I should call to confirm. They didn’t understand my Spanish and only 1 person there spoke English, but I thought that it was clear. Anyway, we got to the restaurant and they had reservation for someone called Sara but I’m still not sure if that was supposed to be Susan or someone else. At any rate, we did get a table and it was well worth it. We shared an appetizer of cariminolas (like croquettes) with smoked rabbit, served with sour cream and a pepper sauce. For my entree, I had the sea bass fillet in a snail stew, served with black coconut rice, cooked in a banana leaf. John had the roasted goat leg, marinated in beer, coriander and spices, with a puree of peas and what tasted like sweet potato. He said that it was his favourite entree on the whole trip. I had a fabulous cocktail to start, and also a couple of very good glasses of white wine. Dessert was a banana cake with coconut ice cream, some chocolate sauce and toasted coconut. I think the bill was around $130. Service was quite good, although as I mentioned before, only 1 person there speaks English. They have an English menu, but we only had the Spanish version when we were there. (Luckily we had looked at their website before.)
Finally our trip was over and it was time to leave Colombia. We headed out to the airport and had lunch there. Security was fairly straight forward (i.e., lax), but we then had to go through a second security clearance before we could board the plane. It was ridiculous. They were announcing final boarding and most of us hadn’t even gotten into the departure lounge. I think it’s because we were going to the US. Anyway, they brought in a few more people to check us and we finally boarded the plane. We had to go through customs & immigration in Lauderdale – with 2+ flights arriving at the same time, it was pretty chaotic. We finally arrived in Niagara Falls around 12:30 AM. Long long day.
Coming back into Canada, the Canadian border guard asked us how we enjoyed Colombia and how it compared to Panama. So different from our experience at the start of the trip!
Overall impressions – Colombia is a beautiful country. There’s a huge amount of diversity in the landscape and I’m glad we visited all the places we did. I’m also glad we didn’t start off in Bogota. One thing that we thought was odd was that they have renumbered the streets in the city. So a place might have the original address plate on the building, but now it’s got a new number so the original number is crossed off. Makes it a bit confusing. I also found that I did need to take it slowly in Bogota. I was really affected by the altitude – my legs felt like they weighed a ton, I had some nausea after eating and I had a headache. It did improve over time, but I appreciated being able to come back to the hotel when I need to get some rest. I think that the pollution may also have been a factor – my throat was really scratchy. There are armed police with dogs all over the city, as well as military, all over the country in fact. Oddly enough, we felt quite safe there. (It is a bit disconcerting to see a ‘baby’ soldier with a rifle.) We had one negative experience with a taxi driver coming back from Monserrate. He tried to tell us that the money we had was “malo” but he would make change if we gave him a bigger bill. John told me to get the desk clerk from the hotel and the guy then changed his mind. In general, people are very friendly. Everyone who did speak English (and there weren’t that many overall) wanted to know what we thought of their country.
We would love to go back and see more.