Surviving a long-haul bus ride in South America

IMG_2749
The view from a bus seat on the way to Medellín.

So you’re looking to get from point A to B in Central/South America, and for either price or accessibility reasons you’ve opted for the long-haul bus ride. Congratulations! You’ll be travelling like the locals do, so you’ll likely meet great people and have amazing adventures. But before you break out the camera to capture those perfectly unique memories you’d never have on a flight or tour, here are some pointers to help make your ride as easy and enjoyable as possible.

First, let’s talk about what you’re signing up for: a long-haul bus ride is one that’s 6 hours or longer in a large bus like the one above and usually leaves from a bus terminal. They’re used all over South America for transport, but tickets are cheaper than airlines for a reason: the trip takes longer and often has poorer amenities compared to a plane. So if you’re going to be taking one of these trips, the best thing you can do is plan ahead and be prepared.

Below, I’ll explain how to plan your long-haul bus ride to ensure three things: safety (for yourself), security (for your belongings), and comfort (for a relaxing trip). I’ll walk through the whole process, from choosing a bus company and purchasing the ticket to arriving intact with your belongings at your next destination. While there are dangers out there on the road, people regularly use long-haul buses with no trouble, and a bit of preparation can save you a lot of trouble.

IMG_1472
This is the type of bus you’ll likely be riding, although long haul buses also come in the even more exciting two-story format!

Is a long haul bus right for you?

Before you opt for the long-haul bus ride, learn about the bus route from point A to B and make sure it will work for you. If your schedule is tight and you MUST be at point B not long after your bus arrives, don’t take the bus—the buses are generally on time, but it’s just not worth the stress if it is late. Likewise, if the bus will travel through dangerous areas like active warzones, lawless regions, and natural disaster zones, consider whether it’s worth the risk to travel by bus. After all, you have to live to tell about your adventures.

To figure out the bus route, I usually use Rome2Rio and choose the bus option. If that fails, I move to Google Maps and plug in any stops I know the bus will be making to get a good idea of its route.

IMG_6472
Waiting at the Peruvian-Chilean border in traffic. While buses are normally on time, circumstances like these can happen.

Picking a bus company

The goal is to find a reputable company with a good safety and security record. Google once again comes in handy; searching the names of your start and end points and “bus” usually gets you a few company names. Searching the individual bus company names then gives you a good idea of their safety and security record, from positive reviews to possible negative incidents like accidents and robberies. Locals usually have advice on bus companies so feel free to ask them as well. While the companies with poorer safety and security records are often cheaper, keep in mind that money gets made up somewhere and you don’t want to be the victim of a modern-day coach robbery.

Now, pick the BEST seat…

You can usually view a seat map of the bus online or at the terminal, and yes, there are certain seats that will increase your security and comfort . The ideal seats on a single story bus are near the middle, while the ideal seats on a two-story bus depend on the fare class: if there’s only one fare class, the best seats are at the very front of the second story. If there’s an ‘executive’ class, the best seats are in the back on the ‘executive’ first floor or the front on the second story. These seats minimize the number of people passing and loitering near your seat (who might take the chance to steal something), but are far enough from the smell of the urinal at the back of the bus. You’ll also find that seats vary in their ability to recline, with ‘standard’ or ‘semi-cama’ usually meaning a 120 degree recline, and ‘executive’ or ‘cama’ meaning a 170 degree recline. If reclining affects your ability to sleep, factor this into your seat choice as well.

Buy that ticket!

Once you’ve got your ideal seat, you can purchase the ticket in two ways: the more expensive online purchase, or the less-expensive bus terminal purchase. Online purchase lets you book immediately so you’re likely to get your ideal seat, but you’ll pay surcharges for booking online. Purchasing at the bus terminal will be cheaper (especially if you’re savvy and negotiate a discounted price), but you may not get your ideal seat and some buses sell out in advance. Choose the best option for you based on your budget and schedule needs.

IMG_6465

AWESOME, you have your ticket. Now it’s time to put together your survival kit.

Your ticket goes a long way in ensuring your safety, security, and comfort on a long haul bus, but a good travel kit is essential for those 6+ hours on a bus. Sure, the bus temperature might be perfect and the scenery might entertain you the whole way. Or the temperature could vary wildly and the scenery might be terrible.

IMG_4036Below is an outline of our perfect travel kit; we made sure we always had these things on a bus trip:

  1. Clothing layers for temperatures from 50F to 90F – Prepare for all temperature possibilities here, from freezing to sweltering because the air conditioner is ‘broken’. For the top half, we wear light shirts and carry jackets that pack into small volumes, like the Patagonia Nano Puff. For the bottom half, we usually wear zip-off pants that become shorts; they may not be fashionable, but they’re SO useful for adjusting to any temperature.
  2. Compression socks – This is for all of us with terrible circulation that get swollen feet after sitting for several hours. Even on the most luxurious buses there’s still not much room to shift your legs, so compression socks can work wonders in reducing foot swelling and travel misery.
  3. A sleeping kit – What do you need to sleep? A blanket? A pillow? Bring it. Our kit consists of one of our sleeping bags that we shared like a blanket, two inflatable camping pillows, and earplugs to cancel out noise.
  4. A med kit – A long bus ride can become unbearable if you get a headache or motion sickness. We always carry a medkit in a plastic sandwich bag with pain medications (paracetamol, naproxen, ibuprofen) and stomach upset medications (Pepto-bismol and Immodium). If you’re prone to motion sickness, even in the slightest, bring some dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) with you as well – winding roads and mountain passes can be incredibly nausea inducing.
  5. Tissues – for both your nose and your bathroom visits, since the bus probably won’t have any. We carry a roll of toilet paper squashed into a sandwich bag.
  6. Water – This can be hard to come by, especially for buses that travel overnight or make few stops. We carry 1L per person for up to 8 hours, but your needs may vary. Just don’t expect any drinkable water on the bus.
  7. Snacks – great for staving off the hangries. We pack at least two servings per person in snacks, and always tried to have a mix of savory and sweet. Honey-roasted peanuts and whole wheat biscuits are wondrous because they provide protein and fiber. You don’t need to bring a whole meal because the buses usually have a scheduled stop at a cafeteria to eat. Executive class on some bus lines will also provide a meal.
  8. Cash – You should always have local currency in South America. It will help you buy food along the way, as most places don’t take credit cards. Carrying enough for your next step is also a good way to avoid the ‘is there an ATM’ headache. We always carried enough to cover the average cost of a room and two meals, just in case.
  9. Entertainment in the form of games, music, podcasts, etc. – This is mostly up to you, but we found it helpful. Don’t expect to have an internet connection (buses may claim to have one but it’s often shoddy at best), but offline phone games, pocket game sets (like magnet chess), and music/podcasts help pass the time. While you can bring a book, don’t rely on it exclusively for entertainment because the ride is often so rough that reading will give you a headache.

IMG_3562
Watching people board a bus from our bus window near Ipiales, Colombia.

Time to board the bus!

By now you’re prepared for almost any type of bus ride, so there’s not much you need to do except make sure you get to the bus terminal before departure, onto the bus, and into the right seat.

IMG_6464
Waiting to depart at a bus terminal in Arequipa, Peru.

But before you board the bus, follow these four steps:

      1. Poop now. There will only be a urinal on the bus, so grab some of your tissue and head for the restroom or you may be holding it. Thankfully, some drivers will stop along the way if you really need to go, but don’t always count on it.
      2. Check whether there’s a departure tax and if so, pay it. Several bus stations in South America charge this small fee (~ $1 USD or less) to use the bus station. To find out, ask a company employee “¿Hay una impuesta de salida?” If they say yes (Sí), ask “¿Donde pago?” and they should point you to a kiosk. In return for payment, the kiosk attendant at the kiosk will give you a small paper slip. Keep this slip, as you’ll be denied entry onto the bus without it.
      3. Find your bus. The buses will have company names written on the side and placards or signboards displaying the bus destination. If you’re totally lost, find a terminal employee or security guard and show them your ticket—they’ll point you in the right direction.
      4. Get your “check-in” bags tagged. Bring your large bags to an attendant before or during boarding and they should tag it, then rip off the bottom half of the tag and give it to you. Keep this stub to reclaim your luggage. This method goes a long way in preventing casual baggage theft (i.e. someone just ‘walks away’ with your bags), so make sure the attendant tags your bag.

IMG_6470
Paper slips given for paying the departure tax.

 

You’re all done! Now get on-board, settle in*, and enjoy the ride.

IMG_20170123_200440
So lovely of you to join us! The executive class from Cusco to Arequipa in Peru.

*P.S. We’ve read all sorts of advice on how to store your carry-on bag to ensure the security of your belongings, but in our experience this didn’t matter much. The days of urchins crawling under your seat and taking your bag or thieves cutting your bag and pulling out the contents seem to be past, at least for reputable companies between well-travelled cities. Just keep your wits about you and if you’re worried, you can always hold your bag in your lap or use it as an extra seat pillow.

Crossing the Colombian-Ecuadorean Border on Christmas Day

We’d heard mixed things about crossing borders on holidays, with the two disparate problems being overcrowding from everyone travelling during the holiday or nobody being able to cross because the border is just…closed. These vary by holiday and border, so we weren’t sure what to expect at the Colombian-Ecuadorean border on Christmas Day. We verified with locals that the border would be open, then after our time at Las Lajas caught a taxi for 20,000 pesos (~USD $6.50) to the nearest border crossing, Rumichaca. It turns out we got the best of both worlds: the border was open, and there were only a handful of people crossing.

IMG_3631
 Colombian migration office on Christmas day. Pretty lonely, but convenient for crossing. Next time, I’ll bring candy or something to hand out along the way.

We visited migration on the Colombian side for our exit stamp and waited in a line consisting for 4 people, including ourselves, for about 5 minutes. The border guard checked our passports, then stamped them and politely waved us out.

IMG_3632
Walking toward the border. There was some vehicle traffic, but only a handful of pedestrians.

Then came the ridiculously easy task of crossing the border. We walked south of the Colombian migration building and walked the yellow footbridge into Ecuador.

IMG_3635
Welcome to Ecuador, almost.

From reading other reports, I’d heard the Ecuadorean side can be a bit more confusing. There’s not a checkpoint directly at the border; it’s the large white building on the left a few hundred meters in. We walked over to get our entry stamps, initially worried they may ask about our plans for onward travel (an issue that’s dogged us more than I imagined on our trip so far). They didn’t, just asked where we were bound next (Quito), and stamped our passports.

IMG_3637
Taxis wait outside of the Ecuadorean migration office. Their rates are higher on Christmas Day (and other major holidays). To save costs, consider sharing an unofficial taxi with other travelers. 

We then encounterd the only disadvantage of traveling on Christams Day: taxi prices on the Ecuadorean side were higher. We shopped around for a bit with the taxis in front of Ecuadorean migration, then crossed the street to the unofficial taxis where we shared a car with two other passengers for $1.70 and swapped travel stories. This ride took us to Tulcan, where we paid $6 for a winding, 5-hour bus ride to the Ecuadorean capital of Quito.

So overall, Christmas Day is a great time to cross the Colombian-Ecuadorean border, and probably any open border for a country that celebrates this holiday. Just remember that the people working are away from their families for the day, so if you can then tip a little extra.

Ipiales/Las Lajas

The town of Ipiales is located in southern Colombia and serves as a rest point for travelers between Colombia and Ecuador. At the elevation of nearly 3000 m, the air is already thinner here and you’ll find yourself heaving as you climb through the hilly streets.

IMG_3589
A statue on the streets of Ipiales.

Unlike Cartagena or Medellín, Ipiales isn’t a tourist town. It looks more run down, there are no glitzy lights, and there isn’t a party street lined with bars. The houses on the streets look more modest, though they’re still decorated with symbols and bright colors. We don’t encounter a single backpacker here besides ourselves, and there are no hostels, so we stay in a cheap hotel. When we walk along the street, people don’t try to hawk goods to us, although they sometimes stop and stare out of curiosity.

IMG_3587
A house in Ipiales

We’re only here for the day, so we walk to the town square and see what’s happening. It’s just after midday on December 24 and the area is full of people buying last minute gifts from the dozen or so stalls that line the square. Some sell stationary and shirts with the Frozen characters on them, others sell cheap jewelry, and others sell food and drink gift baskets. We stop for tamales at one of the food carts, then sit and watch the people bustle by. Several older men are congregating nearby, visibly drunk and laughing and shoving each other. They’ve lined up several empty vodka bottles along a wall and take swigs from the only non-empty bottle remaining.

IMG_3569
The main square of Ipiales.

As the sun dips lower, we notice several people gathered in one corner of the square and wander over to find a procession for the Nativity. Surrounded by priests and trailed by a whole high-school marching band, one young boy carries a plastic infant Jesus. He solemnly marches the street around the square, and then enters the church to deposit Jesus into the manger.

IMG_3565
A boy carries the infant Jesus to the Nativity in the church.

IMG_3568
The marching band procession for the Nativity in Ipiales.

We watch the people file in to pay their respects, and when most have come and gone we enter. Despite the modest houses and buildings in the square, the inside of the church is beautifully decorated. The Nativity scene is sprawled in one corner, a mixed media display of goods and lights, while a statue of Jesus holds up an extension cord that doubles as a barrier around the spectacle. We pay a version of respects and then head back to the hotel for the night.

IMG_3580
The church nativity scene in Ipiales.

The next day is Christmas Day, and we’re up early and bound for arguably the only tourist attraction in the area: the cathedral of Las Lajas. We find taxi drivers in the central square of town and hire one out to the cathedral. One of the nice features of Ipiales is that there are fixed rates to everywhere, including Las Lajas and the border with Ecuador—no negotiations are needed, although you’re welcome to try.

IMG_3590
A view from the road to Las Lajas.

As we speed along the narrow roads out of town, we ask about the area. We expect that given the apparent lack of wealth in the area, the taxi driver will be pessimistic, but we’re pleasantly surprised. “Things are good,” he tells us, “and getting better. There are lots of jobs [for everyone].” We ask about the primary industry in the area, and he says much of the region is dedicated to growing temperate crops such as potatoes and wheat, which the trade with the more tropical northern provinces for bananas and rice. “But there’s almost no tourism here,” he tells us, “If it weren’t for Las Lajas, we would be entirely forgotten.”

IMG_3594
Plaques giving thanks for miracles at Las Lajas.

When we arrive at Las Lajas. There’s no sign of a cathedral, but there’s a narrow sloped road down a hill packed with shopkeepers and restauranteurs, selling everything from candles and rosaries to fried nuts and cuy (roasted guinea pig). This is the first place we’ve seen cuy, so I’m tempted to try it but Stoytcho is less than enthusiastic.  We continue walking down the street, stopping once to purchase a few multicolored candles at one of the vendors for 3000 pesos. The street vendors eventually give way to walls crowded with thousands of plaques, each giving thanks for a miracle from the church and the Virgin of Las Lajas. Finally, near the base of the hill, Las Lajas breaks into view, towering steeples and buttresses suspended hundreds of feet above the Guáitara River gorge.

IMG_3591
The first view of Las Lajas.

The area is thronged with crowds, the cathedral inhaling and exhaling waves of people every few minutes as sessions of Christmas Mass are repeated over and over. The people spill out from the cathedral doors and spread out along the promenade, posing for family portraits taken by wandering photographers for hire, lining up to sprinkle themselves with holy water, and bringing candles to an outdoor altar for lighting.

IMG_3607
Crowds for Mass on Christmas Day at Las Lajas.

We join the mass of people gathered at the altar and hand over our candles to be lit. I’ve never been religious, and I’m at a loss of what to do after I hand my candle over. The best I can guess is that I’m supposed to make a wish or prayer with the lighting of a candle, a bit like a birthday but less selfish, so I do that.

IMG_3608
People light candles at an altar in Las Lajas.

Out past the candle altar, people are lining up to douse themselves with water dispensed by a cherubic statue. They collect it in their hands, then spill it over their hair and wipe it on their faces. One man fills an empty water bottle.

IMG_3613
People douse themselves with holy water dispensed from a cherubic statue.

We finish walking around the cathedral and then head up to a nearby hill to get a view of the valley. It’s hotter now, and popsicle vendors have sprouted up on the path, selling bright red gelatins and coconut milk pops. Children play along the path as parents try to corral them for family photos with Las Lajas in the background. The photographers-for-hire waltz between them, taking photos and then guiding the families down the hill to a small outcrop where they take turns printing the photos on a few printers. One photographer asks us, on behalf of a shy family, if we would stand with them in their photo. We happily agree, and we’re immortalized, a giant man and a vaguely ethnic woman, standing surrounded by a Colombian family. They thank us, and they’re gone before we even think to ask for a copy.

IMG_3625
The view of Las Lajas from above.

When we finally reach the top of the hill, we look back over the valley. It’s nearly noon, and the throngs of people have dissipated, but small groups still trickle through. The cathedral’s structure dwarfs all of them, like schools of colorful fish darting through a massive reef. According to the stories, people first started coming here because it was the site of a miracle, where the Virgin Mary appeared to a woman and her daughter. The first shrines were built of hay and wood, and the cathedral, funded by local donations, wasn’t completed until 1949. It’s a true communal project, one without famous architects or multinational construction firms. Just people who came together and wanted to make something bigger than themselves.

Heroes Around the World 2: Tinka Plese and AIUNAU

foto Tinka web
Tinka rehabilitating sloths at AIUNAU. (Photo Credit: Tinka Plese)

Internet fact: everybody loves sloths. They’re universally adored, with a conservation society, fanpages, infinite gifs, and the sloth-or-chocolate croissant meme. There’s even a wikiHow article on how to be a sloth lover. That’s a lot of sloth support, and I think these people are on to something. There’s something endearing about seeing their cute little faces, and so relaxing when watching them climb slowly through the trees. It’s like watching an animal at peace with the world.

Sloths still exist in the wild in Colombia, so we were excited at the chance to see them. But nature isn’t always cooperative and we hadn’t seen any on our hikes in the jungle. Though we still wanted to see sloths, I wasn’t keen on just going to the zoo–we could do that in the U.S. On a whim, I looked around for a wildlife sanctuary for sloths online. That’s how I found Tinka and AIUNAU, the nonprofit foundation she directs to help rehabilitate sloths, anteaters, and other wildlife. We reached out to Tinka about visiting AIUNAU and after a brief exchange of emails, one morning we traveled to rural Antioquia to visit her.

IMG_3419
Men installing telephone lines near our bus stop in rural Antioquia. Increased development in rural areas is one of the many threats to sloths.

We met Tinka at a bus stop and she drove us to her home, which doubles as a site for AIUNAU’s rehabilitation facilities. She doesn’t normally do tours – as she puts it, her work is in helping the animals; she’s not here to run a tourist attraction. All the same, she was cheerful and more than happy to answer our questions. We had many, of course – what she does, how she founded AIUNAU, and what she sees in the future for the sloth species.

Tinka hadn’t intended to found AIUNAU when she arrived in Colombia 30 years ago. Originally from Croatia, she came to Colombia to study sloths as a doctoral student. The locals knew about her research, and soon people began bringing her injured sloths. At first Tinka cared for them informally, but after a decade she founded AIUNAU, a portmanteau of the local names for the two- and three-toed sloths. Through AIUNAU, Tinka and other members now not only rehabilitate Xenarthrans (the animal group comprising sloths, anteaters, and armadillos), but also advocate for policies that protect them.

IMG_3437
A sloth peers out from its rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

Sloths face two major threats in Colombia, Tinka explained. The first comes from habitat loss, which increasingly brings sloths into contact with civilization. Sloths can be hit by cars when crossing roads, or electrocuted if they mistake a power line for a tree branch. And sometimes they’re just picked on by people – she’s received a few sloths injured by curious children who knocked them out of trees.  The second major threat springs, ironically, from the love that people have for sloths. Sloths are the most-trafficked animal in Colombia, with an estimated 60,000 sold as pets in 2013. Many of these sales are to tourists, who are told that sloths are easy to care for and will eat anything. To make matters worse, poachers will often target baby sloths, taking them from their mothers at a young age because their cuteness sells. Many sloths die this way, either abused at the hands of poachers or malnourished in a tourist’s house, far from their Colombian home.

IMG_3441
A sloth rests on a branch in its rehabilitation enclosure. The enclosures, made of wood and plexiglass, measure several meters on each side and provide places for the animals to seek privacy.

Through AIUNAU, Tinka has successfully cared for over a thousand animals in the past 20 years, although not every story has a happy ending. Sloths often arrive at AIUNAU so weak or ill that they’re beyond recovery. Especially for young animals, she says, “often the best you can do is provide a peaceful place for them to die.” Many animals have also recovered under her care, though, and she then releases them into the wild. She emphasizes this strongly to us; in contrast with some other rehabilitation facilities, the animals are not kept as tourist attractions for revenue. Beyond rehabilitation, Tinka has also successfully advocated for better wildlife protection throughout Colombia. She tells us about writing letters to the Colombian Government’s Ministry of the Environment each year, highlighting places where sloth trafficking was prolific and demanding legal action. “I wrote to them for more than a decade, over and over, and finally they reached out to me and we addressed the issue,” she laughs, “finally.” She notes that because of government intervention, sloth trafficking has dropped, “but there’s still so much work to do.”

IMG_3431
A tamandua in her rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

Tinka continues advocating for wildlife protection in spare moments between the daily rehabilitation of animals in her care. She monitors the poaching situation through local contacts and visitors who submit sightings of poachers selling sloths. She then works with law enforcement to shut poaching operations down. Beyond this, Tinka has also worked tirelessly to increase the number of animals being rehabilitated by sharing her knowledge on caring for them. She’s teamed up with engineers to create better tools for animal rehabilitation. “Take a look at this,” she beams, as she shows me a picture on her phone. “It’s a new rehabilitation enclosure we’ve invented that can be assembled and disassembled anywhere. It’s large enough to allow us to care for an animal on site and for an animal to recover in familiar surroundings, which should reduce their stress and lead to a faster recovery.” Amazingly, Tinka’s desire to help sloths has created new tools, ones that could be used to rehabilitate a wide range of animals and improve rehabilitation outcomes.

IMG_3424
In bed early: a sloth sleeps in her blanket-covered basket at AIUNAU.

After more than two hours of talking to Tinka, we took a walk on the grounds to see the animals currently at AIUNAU. Tinka led us around the side of her house to four large enclosures. At the time, she was caring for three animals in these enclosures: two three-toed sloths and a tamandua (a species of anteater). As we approached the enclosures, Tinka spoke in a quiet whisper to avoid agitating the animals. “Because it’s overcast out, they may already be asleep.” We peered into the first enclosure and saw a small clawed hand hanging out from a blanket-covered basket. This sloth had turned in for the night. The sloth of the next enclosure hadn’t yet drifted off, but was clinging sleepily to the top of the branch in his enclosure. His head nodded slowly up and down, and watching him I felt a bout of somnolence creeping on.

IMG_3439
A sloth prepares for sleep in his rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

The guest of the third enclosure, a tamandua, was far more active. On our approach, she rustled and climbed from the floor of her enclosure onto a shelf, and then gracefully reached over and pulled herself onto a branch. Within seconds she had reached the wall of the enclosure closest to us. “She’s excited because she senses us,” Tinka explained, “we shouldn’t stay too long.” After a few minutes of observation, we pulled ourselves away and walked with back to the house with Tinka. We chatted for a few more minutes, and then said our goodbyes. When I asked her what message she wants the world to know, Tinka says: “Don’t buy wild fauna, and don’t torture wild fauna. Let them be wild.”

IMG_3434
A tamandua excitedly greets us from her enclosure.

As we walked back to the bus stop, we passed by fields and pastures that were once jungles inhabited by sloths and other Xenathrans. While sloths are not currently in danger of extinction, continued habitat loss and poaching pose serious threats. But these animals are lucky to have Tinka and AIUNA looking out for them. After all, many people love wild animals. But few have gone as far as Tinka in ensuring that they stay wild and free.

 

If you’re inspired by this story and want to help Tinka and AIUNAU continue their amazing work, consider making a donation here.

IMG_3438
Homebound: all animals rehabilitated at AIUNAU are released into the wild.

 

Hostel Chocolate Part III, the Thrilling Conclusion

When we last left off, I was turning the cacao nibs we roasted in Costa Rica into powder via an uncooperative coffee grinder. It did not look promising. While the cacao mixture had liquefied as expected, it seemed grainy. I dumped it into a container and then placed in the fridge, where it solidified into this mass by next morning:

IMG_3472
It kind of looks like chocolate, although it looks more like chocolate that has gone off

I paused at this point because after reading various chocolate-making resources, I learned that I wasn’t going to be making anything except the darkest chocolate without cocoa butter. It would be something that hovered around 82% chocolate*, which is definitely not my cup of tea. Or bar of chocolate.

While it was possible we might find cocoa butter somewhere in Medellín, I didn’t have high hopes. Because it’s needed to make chocolate and much of it can be lost in processing cacao, cocoa butter is the most valuable part of the cacao mass. Most chocolate-makers order it from sources online, so what are the odds I’d find some that someone selling it in a shop? We were also heading to the tiny town of Guatapé for two days, so the likelihood I’d find cocoa butter soon was nil. Right?

It turns out that the old adage about finding things in the least likely places is true. While in Guatapé we encountered José, the owner of La Tiendita de Chocolate and full time chocolate-maker. As luck would have it, he had just ordered a huge amount cocoa butter to work with, and he agreed to sell us a couple of ounces for about $2 USD. “It’s funny,” he told us, “I just got cocoa butter for the first time last week. I’ve never had it around before then.” How’s THAT for good timing on our part?

IMG_3473
Our little nibbin of cocoa butter

With cocoa butter in hand**, I returned to Medellín to complete our chocolate making adventure. The first step was to assemble the ingredients: the cocoa mass, the cocoa butter, sugar, and milk powder. Milk powder isn’t generally used in dark chocolate, but I figured I could try making some dark milk chocolate. I took multiple recipes and mashed them together, aiming for roughly the following ratios:

5 parts cocoa mass
1 part cocoa butter
2 parts sugar
2 parts milk powder

The first thing I did was put the coffee grinder through one more round of grinding-things-it-shouldn’t be. I wanted the chocolate to be as smooth as possible, and without water sugar doesn’t dissolve, leaving a sandy texture. I put several tablespoons into the coffee grinder and created a fine powder.

IMG_3477
Sugar, before (left) and after (right) grinding

I did the same with the powdered milk, but it turns out that the powdered milk was indeed powder, and the grinding had no effect:

IMG_3479
Our milk powder, before (left) and after (right) grinding.

Then I got down to working with the cocoa mass. In hopes of making the cocoa particles finer, I tried to give it a second grind in the coffee grinder, but the poor thing had finally had it and started jamming. Thankfully, there was a blender in the hostel kitchen. I broke the cocoa mass into pieces and tossed it into the blender:

IMG_3489
Let’s hope the blender does a better job of grinding the chocolate mass than the coffee grinder did.

After several minutes of grinding, I got powdered cocoa mass but nothing finer. I decided to abandon making it finer and tossed in the ground sugar, so at least the blender would have a chance to start the mixing process:

IMG_3491
Nope, blender does not grind cocoa mass better than a coffee grinder. I added some sugar to start the mixing process.

Now that the cocoa mass-sugar mix was ready, it was time to start the chocolate making process. Since direct heat is anathema to chocolate, I fashioned a double boiler out of pots found in the kitchen.

IMG_3486
The makeshift double boiler; at least the aluminum ensures quick heat transfer.

I let the water heat for a few minutes, then I tossed the cocoa butter (about 1 oz.) into the double boiler. It immediately started to melt and release the most amazing smell ever–think chocolate combined with melted butter and vanilla.

IMG_3488
Cocoa butter melting. If you ever want to make your room smell like heaven, melt some cocoa butter.

Once the cocoa butter was melted, I tossed in the whole chocolate-sugar mixture and began stirring:

IMG_3492

Amazingly, the cocoa mass began to melt and smooth out, so that it was nowhere as grainy as I thought it would be! I kept stirring, and the mass continued to melt until I had shiny, smooth chocolate:

IMG_3495

What followed was a long process of taste-refining. I stuck my finger in the chocolate and found it was still extremely dark and bitter. I tossed in a couple more spoonfuls of sugar, and a bit milk powder, and then tried it again. It was better, but still too dark for my tastes. I repeated this process until I had something that tasted like something between a milk and dark chocolate. The final ratio of ingredients in my chocolate was probably closer to the following:

4 parts cocoa mass
1 part cocoa butter
2.5 parts sugar
2.5 parts milk powder

Having somehow accomplished fermenting, roasting, grinding and melting chocolate all in a hostel setting, I ran into a final challenge: how do I temper chocolate without a concher or some kind of surface to mix it on? Tempering is the mixing of chocolate in the right conditions such that it will form ideal crystals. It’s what gives chocolate its characteristic gloss and snap. There are two tempering methods: you either use a thermometer and mix chocolate continuously at very specific temperatures, or you seed your newly-made chocolate with an already-tempered piece of chocolate and it magically teaches your chocolate to form the right crystals***.

Unsurprisingly, the hostel kitchen didn’t have a thermometer. I also didn’t have any chocolate to seed with. I settled on the solution of instead reheating my chocolate once more on the double boiler while mixing continuously, then continuing to mix for several minutes after taking off the heat. Finally, I spooned the chocolate into molds (our old leftovers container, used previously for the cacao mass):

IMG_3499
I spoon the chocolate into a clean leftovers container for cooling after my approximated tempering attempt.

Since I wasn’t optimistic about the chocolate flavor, I also ground some cloves and sprinkled the clove powder on top of one of the chocolate bars. I figured that at worst, the strong spice of the cloves would help offset any burnt flavors in the chocolate.

I tapped the chocolate containers a few times to remove bubbles, then I left them to set. Unfortunately, a few hours later they were still pretty runny:

IMG_3524
The chocolate bars setting (very) slowly. The bar on the left is plain, while the bar on the right has powdered cloves sprinkled on top.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as Jose had mentioned that too much cocoa butter might prevent the chocolate from solidifying. I had read that I shouldn’t put chocolate in the fridge to set because moisture will damage it or cause seizing. But I figured committing heresy and having poor quality chocolate was better than it spilling everywhere or having it filled with flies who drowned in chocolatey paradise. I placed both bars in a paper bag and slid them into the fridge.

Miraculously, when I pulled the chocolate out an hour later, it wasn’t ruined and had hardened quite nicely. There was some evidence for bloom on the tops of the bars, but it was nowhere as bad as I thought it would be with my tempering job.

IMG_3527

Flipping them out of the molds also revealed that the bars had a fairly nice shine, despite my approximated tempering. Whether I had actually done a good job, I had just been lucky, or the patterns on the molds had helped set the chocolate properly remains to be determined. Maybe it was all three.

IMG_3528

Then came the real test: the taste. Stoytcho and I snapped off bits of each bar and tried it. The chocolate was darker than I expected, losing some of the milky flavor during the cooling phase. The words I would use to describe the flavor profile would be bittersweet, fruity, and slightly burnt. It was definitely not the most balanced set of flavors, but it wasn’t awful. And the cloves bar was actually downright tasty, as the spiciness of the cloves helped offset the vague burnt undertones in the chocolate****.

So there you have it, everyone. Against all odds, poor resources, and an utter lack of experience, I have forged chocolate in hostel kitchens across two countries. I am a cooking god.

IMG_3505
I pose with my creations. This success bodes well for my attempts at ridiculous culinary acrobatics in the future.

Attributions:

This project would not have been possible without the magic of the internet, Google, and the following resources: Kojo Designs, The Ultimate Chocolate Blog, Bean-to-Bar, Chocolate Alchemy, and José from La Tiendita de Chocolate in Guatapé. If you’re looking to make your own chocolate, their knowledge is phenomenal.

Notes:

*Ever wonder how the % on your chocolate bar is worked out? Well, if you’re working with cacao mass like I am, it’s simply the ratio of chocolate to other ingredients by mass. So an 80% chocolate bar is something akin to 5 oz. of chocolate and 1 oz. of sugar.

**Well, not really in hand. It would have melted. The melting temperature of cocoa butter is just under human body temperature, which is why chocolate melts in your hand (or your mouth).

***It’s not actually magic, but the more amazing power of science! “Seeding” a solution with a seed crystal, a piece of the material where the molecules have settled down the way you want, is fairly common in chemistry. You can use it to make awesome crystals.

****I should note here that the love of the clove bar was not universal; Stoytcho most definitely preferred the plain dark chocolate bar. But he likes extremely bitter, dark chocolate, which makes him weird. Right? RIGHT???

Heroes Around the World: José of La Tiendita de Chocolate

Heroes Around the World highlights amazing people we meet on our travels. From pursuing their dreams to changing the world, we find their stories inspiring. We hope you do too.

IMG_3396
The street leading to La Tiendita de Chocolate.

Down at the end of this street, near the base of the stairs, is a little chocolate shop that goes by the apt name of La Tiendita De Chocolate. Located in the Colombian town of Guatapé, La Tiendita sells delectable chocolate desserts of all kinds, from bars of pure dark chocolate to creamy bonbons. The chocolate bars shimmer in their clear wrappers, boasting flavors like Himalayan sea salt and pink peppercorns. The bonbons, wrapped in tissue paper and foil, carry equally refined taste combinations: almond, rum, tequila, or caramel with roasted cacao nibs.

Every piece of chocolate is handmade onsite by the owner and man behind La Tiendita, José, his wife, or their assistants. When we visited, José was busy behind the counter showing off some new chocolates. We had initially planned to make a quick purchase to nibble on our walk through town, but the panoply of options made it hard to choose which. José laughed at this, and handed us a piece of chocolate. “Try this,” he said. It was a dark chocolate truffle flavored with tequila and cream.

IMG_3408
Bon-bons filled with caramel and cacao nibs sit in a display case at La Tiendita de Chocolate. The store sells a panoply of chocolate bars and flavors, with a focus on dark chocolate.

I’ve encountered a lot of chocolate in my life, both commercial and gourmet, but nothing quite like what José makes. His focus is on dark chocolate, which he makes from personally-sourced cacao beans. He says he spends a lot of time looking for new bean sources and interesting flavors, which occupies him whenever he’s not shopkeeping. I’d believe it. Biting into a piece of José chocolate reveals complex and fruity flavors. There’s a tang of citrus at the front, followed by a more mellow cherry taste, and the unmistakable bitterness of a dark chocolate that somehow lacks the harsh burnt flavor I’m used to finding in other dark chocolate. I find myself longing for a glass of wine instead of a glass of milk to accompany the chocolate.

Piece after piece, we sample several chocolates in José has on offer. Each is fine blend, with additions to the chocolate playing on its fruitiness. We discuss the flavors with him, and he guides us through his sources for beans on a flavor map of South America: He points out regions that produce cacao beans rich in chocolatey flavors, and other regions that produce beans with lighter, more floral profiles. His knowledge on chocolate is incredible, and we stay with him for hours, taking a virtual trip of South America’s cacao growing regions. At one point, he even pulls a fresh cacao pod out of storage and shares some of the fruit with us.

IMG_3415
Bars of dark chocolate are studded with spicy pink peppercorns. José, the owner, makes his chocolate from bean-to-bar at La Tiendita and has developed all of his own recipes.

We learn that José wasn’t always a chocolate-maker. “I used to work as a field producer for FoxTelecolombia,” he says in perfect English. But he was always experimenting with chocolate. “It was my passion!” he laughs, “And eventually my wife asked ‘Why don’t you quit your job and follow your passion?’ That’s how we got started.” José has been making chocolate ever since, experimenting with everything he can get his hands on and eventually opening La Tiendita here in Guatapé, his wife’s home town. Now he spends his days managing the shop, creating chocolates from his recipes, and crafting new recipes.

But the most inspiring thing about José is his goal of building a gourmet Colombian chocolate an international sensation. He sees a future for Colombian chocolate like that of Ecuador and Peru, whose gourmet chocolate industries have exploded in the past decade as consumers seek higher quality. “Right now, there are very few gourmet chocolate-makers in Colombia and it can be difficult to get supplies,” José says, “We have (the company) Luker, but that’s it, so I make chocolate to show the world how great Colombian chocolate can be.” He tells us how visitors to Guatapé have found his shop and have become obsessed. Once, two Japanese visitors left with two full cases of his chocolate bars. Visitors have also sometimes sent him ingredients he can’t get in Colombia, like flavored liqueurs. All of it has helped him grow La Tiendita and make better chocolate, although he still makes chocolate out of love rather than for profit. “The store may fail, but I will always make chocolate,” he says.

IMG_3413
Truffles flavored with tequila, an alcohol you wouldn’t normally imagine pairing with chocolate. José’s goal is for gourmet Colombian chocolate to be as renowned as chocolate from Ecuador or Peru, but he still makes chocolates out of love for the art, pushing him to create new flavor combinations.

La Piedra: A photoessay for would-be travellers

We set out for the La Piedra at 7:00 am on foot, walking westward along Calle 32. At the edge of town, the sidewalk gave way to a dirt path that ran alongside the road for a few hundred meters, then rose up onto a ridge. We trudged upward with our day packs, and at the top crossed a bridge over the road.

IMG_3278
The bridge across the road

The path on the other side was shaded from the already hot sun by trees and bramble. Blackberries and blueberries grew wild alongside the path, and the hardpack of the dirt suggested this was not just a hiking trail for tourists, but something still used by the locals to travel between Guatapé and El Peñol. The path dipped back down to run alongside the road, passing the lakeshore and local swimming holes. Then it disappeared entirely, and we were left to walk along the road. We had gone less than a hundred meters when a car passing by us honked and slowed. “¿A dónde van?” the driver shouted to us. “¡La Piedra!” we shouted back. What followed was the standard price haggling – he offered us a ride for 8000 pesos, and we laughed and declined. “We’re already halfway there, and we don’t have much money for a ride.” He laughed too and said “Fine, fine. But either you pay for a ride, or you have to pay for new shoes when those wear out from walking. 3000 pesos.” We accepted, and got in the car.

IMG_3281
Our ride to La Piedra

The ride reduced our remaining journey time to mere minutes. We sat in the back on leather seats as our driver quizzed us on the usual. “Where are you from?” “The United States” “Ah, traveling?” “Yes, around the world!” “Hm, wow…” We arrived at the base of La Piedra, and our driver insisted on driving us up the hill to the entrance. At the top he let us out and we paid. That’s when I got a good look at the car. Clean and polished, it was clearly a prized possession. We didn’t get picked up by a taxi driver, but by an enterprising guy out for his daily drive. I asked to take a picture. “Sure,” he smiled, and polished the hood of the car.

IMG_3279
Our driver shines his car so I can take a photo

La Piedra, the monolith

You don’t realize how tall La Piedra is until you’re at its base. At 200 meters high, this granite monolith towers over everything else in the countryside. And with everything that sticks out from the surrounding countryside, there have been lots of ideas about how it got there, from fallen meteorite to aliens (I couldn’t find any source on the internet to confirm that anyone actually believed this). Geologic studies of the rock, though, suggest that it’s the natural product of the shifting tectonic plates; as the Nazca and South American tectonic plates collided, they pushed up the cooled remnants of giant, ancient magma chambers. La Piedra is one of these remnants, called granitoid plutons (described here in these video flavors: fun or extensive). Millions of years of environmental exposure then weathered La Piedra into the smooth monolith.

IMG_3373
The stairs to the top of La Piedra, as viewed from the bottom

While the native people of the area originally worshipped the stone, the local farmers largely viewed it as a nuisance. After three locals scaled it for the first time in 1954 using wooden planks wedged into a crevice, someone must have realized the tourist potential. The three climbers were immortalized with plaques at the base of La Piedra, and one even got his own statue.

IMG_3377
One of the three climbers that first summited La Piedra

Nowadays, climbing La Piedra is pretty easy. An enterprising individual or group from Guatapé has built a set of stairs to the top, and 740 vertical steps upward will take you to the highest point. And at 18,000 pesos per person for foreigners, they’re probably making a fair bit of money. This roused the neighboring town of El Peñol, who also laid claim to La Piedra. To put an end to the dispute, Guatapé once commissioned painters to write the town’s name on the rock. They got as far as “G” and a single line of the “U” before a supposed mob from El Peñol and legal action put a permanent stop to the painting (the “GI” can still be seen today). The anecdote seems amusingly provincial until you realize that it’s a zero-sum fight for tourism in a country where a quarter of people live in poverty. And that tourist money means less backbreaking work in the fields.

IMG_3285
La Piedra, from entrance kiosk to the top

We bought our tickets at the kiosk above and began to climb. While the staircase is an impressive engineering feat, it’s easy to find places where poor planning and reality collide. There are seemingly random platforms separating staircases, some sets of stairs lead to nowhere, and looking down the whole thing looks like a funhouse.

IMG_3367
A view down the flights of stairs. This picture includes stairs a flight below us (left), stairs from the ascent (top-right), and a dead-viewing platform (bottom-right). Yeah, it’s disorienting.

The stairs aren’t the only thing clinging to La Piedra. As we ascend, we can see plants growing directly on the rock face. They’re bromeliads–plants that we’re used to seeing on trees in the jungle. Here, they use their adhesive roots to cling to the rock, while their leaves capture rainfall and mist for water, channeling it down to the roots. This same water carries all of the nutrients the plant needs, often in the form of fine dust blown from around the world.

IMG_3291
Bromeliads flourish on the sheer rockface of La Piedra

We keep climbing, and about halfway up we reach a small viewing platform with a Virgin Mary statue, somehow lugged up 350 stairs. From the number of rosaries, it looks like many come here to pray.

IMG_3298
A statue of the Virgin Mary greets climbers halfway up. The sheer volume of rosaries suggests this is a popular prayer location.

Finally, after 647 stairs, we’ve reached the top of the rock! The remaining 93 stairs are part of a tower built on the top of the rock, but we’ve got to take a breather. We get some ice cream and enjoy the scenery. It’s nearly 10:00 am now, and the sun’s rays are intense, searing everything they touch. We seek shelter in the shade.

IMG_3330
Resting at the top of La Piedra, before we climb the tower.

Even this high up, we’re not alone. Small wasps flit around, lapping up any moisture they can find. They’re particularly fond of drops of molten ice cream.

IMG_3356
A wasp rests with us in the shade. Despite their small size (they’re as large as a grain of rice), they do sting, although the pain is brief.

After half an hour’s rest, we tackle the last 93 stairs to the top. The tower is narrow and has a single winding staircase to the top, with three side doorways that open to souvenir shops. The stairwell is brilliantly built to only accommodate traffic in one direction, so as people come down the stairs we have to duck into one of these shops, giving us a chance to browse the wares. If we didn’t have ten more months of travel after this where I had to carry every possession on my back, I probably would’ve bought something.

Finally, after 83 steps, we emerge onto a viewing platform where the final ten steps to the top await. We take turns taking pictures of each other from the vantage point of step number 740:

IMG_3337
The view from the top of the tower.

Looking down, everything seems miniature. Tiny houses and trees dot the lakeshore, a palette of forest green vegetation on emerald green water.

IMG_3344
Houses along the waterfont below us

Slivers of road snake off into the distance, back towards Medellín, which helped create Guatapé’s aquatic beauty. The water pictured here isn’t from a natural lake, but a reservoir created when the public utility of Medellín, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), built a hydroelectric dam along the Nare River in 1970. The project resulted in the resettlement of 5,000 people and eventually flooded more than 2,000 hectares of land, including the original town of El Peñol and part of Guatapé. It’s also driven a boom in tourism, with boat tours and aquatic play parks.

IMG_3306
Calle 32 snakes around the water and runs back toward Medellín

The reservoir is visible from the ground, but the scale of change it wrought on the landscape isn’t evident until we come up here. A speedboat slides soundlessly along the water’s surface, leaving ripples that radiate outward for miles.

IMG_3312
A speedboat on the water leaves ripples that extend for miles.

The reservoir stretches seemingly endlessly, flooded valleys interrupted by islands and peninsulas. The only noise besides the chatter of tourists is the wind whooshing across the platform. The clouds drift lazily by in the distance. We could stay here for hours watching them go by, but we’re getting sunburned.

IMG_3314
View stretching out toward towards the mountains

We climb back down the tower and then head down the descending stairwell, which is a separate path mercifully shaded by the ascending stairwell. We watch people’s heads bob up and down along the ascending path, and looking out, we can barely see the reservoir and forests on the ground.

IMG_3358
Taking the descending stairs, with the ascending stairs zig-zagging above us.

Seven-hundred and forty stairs later, we’re back on the ground at the base of La Piedra. We’ve heard rumors from town that there are caves at the base of the rock, so we skip the main road down and take a dirt path that hugs the side of the rock. We wander through what I’m pretty sure is someone’s backyard. The path continues alongside La Piedra, eventually leaving behind houses for open field. Then, a quarter of the way around the rock, we hit a barbed wire fence. We could cross it, but it’s been patched several times, so whoever owns this land clearly wants this fence here, so we abandon our quest.

Back at the entrance La Piedra, we ask a few locals about the existence of caves. No one we ask knows of any caves in the area, and one man points us out to the mountains in the distance. If there are any caves into La Piedra, they’re a well-kept secret–the entrance may be on private property, or may have been submerged by waters of reservoir. It’s possible there never were caves, that their existence was a myth. But without exploring the whole area, it’s impossible to know.

IMG_3389
An orb weaver spider (likely Argiope argentata) weaves a web in the weeds at the base of La Piedra

Technical Specs

  • Getting there: Take a moto-taxi or walk westward from Guatape along the main road, Calle 32.
  • Cost: We spent 3000 COP on a ride halfway there, 18,000 COP per person for admission, and 4,000 COP for an ice cream at the top. Total: 43,000 COP (~$14.00 USD)
  • Time spent: 1.5 hours travelling to/from, 3 hours at La Piedra.

IMG_3303

Guatapé: Medellín’s little lakeside town

IMG_3304
The scenery of Guatapé

While Colombia’s major cities have undergone a Renaissance in tourism in the past decade, many of its smaller towns remain quiet bastions of pastoral life less visited by tourists. Located 80 km east of Medellín’s, Guatapé is one such town, boasting a population of less than 6,000 inhabitants and hundreds of kilometers of lakes and forests. While primarily a farming community, part the region was intentionally inundated after construction of at 2600 MW hydroelectric dam by Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) in the 1970’s along the Nare River. The resulting reservoir flooded more than 2,000 hectares of land, creating the patchwork of emerald hills and lakes you see above. The beautiful scenery and local charm combine to make Guatapé a relaxing getaway only a few  hours away from the hustle and bustle of Medellín.

IMG_3275
The edge of town

Getting there:

While there are many tours available, most pack too much into a single day and then drop you back off in Medellín, AND can be pretty expensive to boot. Guatapé is a place to slow down and enjoy the scenery, so plan to spend at least one night in the town to truly savor the experience. This means that planning your own transportation is cheapest and easiest, since overnight stays tend to drive up tour costs. The cheapest way to get to Guatapé is by bus from Medellín’s North Bus Station, located at the Caribe stop on the metro line. There are two bus lines that run to Guatapé, but because it’s a popular weekend destination with the locals keep in mind:

    1. As of writing, buses from Medellín to Guatapé run from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, buses from Guatapé to Medellín run from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, and tickets should cost around 13,500 COP ($4.50 USD) per person. Always double check bus times with staff at the station when you buy your tickets, because holidays change this schedule.
  • Try to plan your trip around low times, as the bus is far more pleasant to ride. As with most buses in Colombia, the driver will pick up people along the way and it can get pretty cramped during busy times.
  • If you’re planning on taking the last bus back to Medellín, buy your ticket at the Guatapé bus kiosk at least an hour before departure or on the previous day. The final bus tends to sell out in advance, leaving last minute travelers stranded in the town. While this isn’t the worst place to be stranded, it can put a damper on any plans you had back in Medellín.

P.S. We were able to successfully negotiate at Medellín for a lower bus fare than that stated above, but failed to get a lower rate when we tried to negotiate in Guatapé.

IMG_3395
A street in Guatapé with one of the local moto-taxis

Stay:

Located on the quiet eastern side of town, Lake View Hostel is an affordable backpacker accommodation with several perks. The building is clean and airy, with a central hangout area on the first floor. Lake View’s staff are bilingual (English/Spanish), and can offer great recommendations on what to do and where to eat in the local area. They’re also insanely nice–they gave us a whole 4-bed room for a private room rate when the private rooms got overbooked. When we visited in December, rooms cost 46,000 COP (~ $15.50 USD) per night via HostelWorld.

Asking the staff about Guatapé’s current events also nets interesting stories. As of December 2016, the reservoir is the fullest it’s ever been and Guatapé’s waterfront real estate prices are soaring. “People are buying like crazy, and it is crazy,” a staff member laughs and tells us, “because this water doesn’t belong to Guatapé. It could disappear at any time.” He explains that the reservoir exists solely to store water for EPM’s dam, which in turn creates hydroelectric energy on demand. If EPM finds additional buyers for electricity, it draws more water from the reservoir through the dam, lowering water levels and leaving previously waterfront properties landlocked. The water level is currently high because last year Venezuela defaulted on paying EPM, so EPM cut them off. The water level has been rising ever since. Guatapé may be a small town, but even isn’t isolated from global events: the economic crisis in Venezuela is fueling a real estate bubble here.

Eat:

Guatapé’s local specialty is trout (trucha) that is caught locally from the reservoir. Nearly every place will offer a version of this, either grilled in foil with butter or fried on the griddle. Steak and other grilled meats are also common. Most plates will come with rice, plantains or french fries, and a small salad. And as with elsewhere in Colombia, fresh fruit juice is easy to come by in most restaurants.

After asking both hostel staff and locals for the best restaurant in town, we found that the overwhelming consensus was La Fogata, a grill located conveniently along the town’s main street right next to the bus kiosk (where you’re first dropped off in town). La Fogata serves grilled meat of every kind, from steak and pork to fish, including trout. The prices here are high for Colombia–expect to pay around 50,000 COP (~ $17 USD) for two entrees and drinks. But the fine preparation of dishes like the fried trout and grilled salmon make it worth it. If you’re feeling particularly carnivorous, you can also go all-out and order their steak, which comes smothered in grilled bacon and a mushroom-cream sauce.

IMG_3268
The open grill at La Fogata

There’s also a second, more secret culinary specialty in this town: chocolate. Hidden in a corner of the Plazoleta de Los Zócalos, La Tiendita de Chocolate is dedicated to the small scale, bean-to-bar creation of chocolate delights. Gourmet chocolates range from 2,000 COP ($0.67 USD) per piece to 5,000 COP ($ 1.67 USD) per bar. The focus here is on dark chocolate (although milk and white chocolate are available) and exciting flavors (think peppercorns, sea salt, and tequila). Each chocolate is handmade on the premises.

IMG_3413
Chocolates at La Tiendita de Chocolate

Do:

Despite its billing as a relaxing destination, Guatapé has a surprising amount to keep you busy for several days. Here’s a brief overview of what we found

#1. Take in the town’s charm

Guatapé may be small, but its narrow streets are packed with brightly-painted buildings and its open-air squares are gorgeous. It’s a local tradition to create panels of art on each building depicting floral patterns or scenes from pastoral life and the local area.

IMG_3391
Buildings with panels depicting La Piedra

Similarly, the local squares are decorated differently for each holiday. Take time to wander the streets and admire the houses and shops. Two particularly good places to visit are the local squares: Plazoleta de Los Zócalos is a square with open-air seating, restaurants, and souvenir shops, while Parque Guatapé is the main town square and a great place to people-watch.

IMG_3401
La Plazoleta de Los Zócalos–can you tell this one is a hit with the tourists?

IMG_3267
Parque Guatapé, with bright lights for Christmas

#2. Climb La Piedra

By far Guatapé’s most iconic attraction, La Piedra is a volcanic remnant that towers 200 meters (~650 ft) above the ground. Enterprising locals have built a stairway to the top, and for a small fee you can climb up and enjoy breathtaking views of the region. There’s even a shop at the top that sells ice cream as a reward for making the hike. Make sure you bring water, a hat, and sunblock, as the 740-stair climb can get hot.

IMG_3214
A view of La Piedra (upper left) from Guatapé

This rock goes by multiple names because both Guatapé and the neighboring town of Peñol claim ownership of it; you’ll often hear it referred to as either La Piedra Del Peñol or El Peñón de Guatapé by locals. I don’t know much about the history of the dispute and who’s in the right, but I hear it can be a touchy topic.

#3. Enjoy the water

With all that water in the reservoir, there are tons of aquatic activities to do, including a water park in the area and daily boat tours. To find any of these things, just walk down the main street (Calle 32, where you’re dropped off by the bus when arriving). You’ll find water taxis to take you around the reservoir or out to one of the uninhabited islands.

IMG_3196
Amusement rides and water slides along the waterfront

If you ask around at Lake View Hostel, they also know several areas for good trout fishing. There’s even a spot in the hills where you can fish and a local family will cook your catch up right away for you to enjoy.

IMG_3203
A sculpture along the waterfront

Guatapé may seem tiny, but our two days there were overpacked and we loved every minute of it. We can’t wait to go back.

Hostel Chocolate, Part II

IMG_20161218_214423
Processing the cacao

We’ve come so far, through Panama and northern Colombia, with nary a moment to think about the roasted and somewhat ground cocoa beans we’ve been carrying. We needed a coffee grinder to turn our current cocoa product into the final product*, chocolate. Since we finally have a breather in Medellín, we went in search of a coffee grinder to continue our Hostel Chocolate adventure.

 

Part 1: The search for a coffee grinder

Colombia is one of the top three coffee exporters and is rewnowned for some high-quality brews, but getting a coffee grinder here is nearly impossible. Good coffee gets exported and the people here mostly drink the pre-ground, freeze-dried coffee, so grinding your own coffee just isn’t a thing. We started our search at big-box stores such as Falabella and Exito, big-box stores like Wal-Mart that sell appliances. While they offered coffee-makers, they had no coffee grinders. The next day we tried three independent coffee shops in the Zona Rosa district—two had no coffee grinders, and the last only had a high-end Japanese glass grinder for $100 USD. Eesh. We asked this last coffee shop where we might be able to find an electric coffee grinder, and they suggested a mall in the next district. So we caught a bus there and hunted around until we found a department store. We asked if they had a coffee grinder and indeed they did! But then we asked how much it was, and they said it wasn’t for sale. The grinder was only available as a free gift with the purchase of a KitchenAid mixer for hundreds of dollars. Defeated, we returned to our hostel.

IMG_2824
Coffee and chocolate shops everywhere, but not a coffee grinder in sight. This store suggested we try the mall, but we had no luck bying a coffee grinder there either.

The next day we stopped by a Juan Valdez for a cup of tea, and lo and behold, they had an electric coffee grinder for $25 USD! It was the last one and a bit dented, so I tried to talk them down in price, but the manager said no to my attempts. All the same, WE HAD OUR COFFEE GRINDER! Thinking I could try making milk chocolate without cacao butter, I grabbed some powdered milk on the way home as well. At the time I didn’t notice it says “fortified with iron”. When I realized it I just figured, “the chocolate will be extra healthy?” Hooray!

IMG_3180
Our ingredients: the bag of somewhat ground, roasted cacao beans and a bag of powdered milk. I accidentally bought the one fortified with iron (hierro), so we’ll see how that affects the chocolate.

 

Part 2: Cacao’s time to grind

That night, I got to grinding the chocolate in hopes of finally completing our chocolate, only to run into the problems of capacity and viscosity. The first problem was capacity—we had roughly 300 g of chocolate, but the machine had capacity for only 50 g at a time.

IMG_20161218_223956
~50 g of our starting product in the coffee grinder.

To get the machine to grind the chocolate effectively, I had to grind it for a couple of minutes, open the lid and mix it around, then grind again. I’d repeat this process 2-3 times, so the first batch took about 10 minutes. Despite this, by the end the chocolate had gone from rough grind, to fine powder, then a dark mud, and finally a dense liquid. We had cacao paste, ready for action!

IMG_20161218_215306
The product after several minutes of processing. This is about 75% done.

This is when I encountered the second problem of making cacao in a grinder: the  viscosity. Cacao paste has a higher viscosity than ground coffee, so the coffee maker wasn’t designed to handle the extra resistance. The coffee grinder’s motor worked harder, and coupled with the reduced heat dissipation from a paste (instead of the drier ground coffee), the machine soon began to overheat. After the second batch the grinder produced a burning smell, and I had to take breaks within and between the following batches to keep the grinder from dying entirely.

IMG_20161218_224006
Attempting to reheat the cacao paste in the pan to grind it more finely. Don’t ask about all the spoons.

With these setbacks, the cacao grinding took about 3 hours in total, and at the end I had a still-slightly grainy paste. I tried to improve the consistency by heating it a pan to grind it again (above), but this turned into a massive mess. Unhopeful, I mashed it into a clean leftovers container** and set it aside to cool overnight.

IMG_20161218_230936
The final ground mass of cacao paste. Though blurry, you can see the grainy dots along the surface of the cacao paste.

Not wanting to admit total defeat, I also took one spoonful and dissolved it in some milk made from our powdered milk and sugar, and had myself some chocolate milk. It felt like the spiritual equivalent of making lemons out of lemonade, since we didn’t have high hopes for the cacao paste.

IMG_20161218_234425
Chocolate milk: because I refuse to accept that what I’ve made is totally inedible! It was actually pretty good, so at least I’ve made drinking chocolate.

The next day we took a look at the cacao paste and it didn’t look as bad. It had solidified into a dark mass and seemed less grainy, but some areas had white bloom suggesting the fat had separated from the rest of the cacao mass. We were heading to Guatape that day, so I didn’t have time to move forward with the rest of the recipe. But as you’ll find out soon, this was actually a lucky move.

IMG_3472
The solidifed cocoa mass. The whitish parts are bloom, where the fat has separated out. It doesn’t look terribly edible, does it?

Stay tuned for our adventures in Guatape, the land of many (artificial) lakes, and the culinary conclusion of Hostel Chocolate!

  • Natalie

 

Notes:

* A coffee grinder is actually a subpar tool for making chocolate because the ground cacao particles aren’t small enough and result in somewhat grainy chocolate, but it’s the cheap option. Various kinds of ball mills are used to create small-batch and commercial chocolate, running quickly into the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars category. There are cheap ball mills out there for $150-200 that some people swear by for chocolate-making. But I figured our chance of running into one of those in Colombia was pretty much nil.

** When travelling you’re often short on your standard kitchen gear, so saving food containers from restaurants and takeout is insanely useful. It’s basically +1 item for food storage that you can discard or leave behind when you have to move on. We found the Styrofoam boxes don’t keep well, but plastic ones are wonderful. Even the super flimsy plastic ones (like the one in the final photo above) can be reused a few times.

Arepas of Colombia

IMG_3461
Arepas in their natural habitat: on a griddle.

The arepa is a food both endemic and ubiquitous in Colombia, analogous to the biscuits we get with meals in the U.S. In its most basic form, it is a fried corn pancake that comes in two forms: white cornmeal, known as far as I know only as an arepa, and yellow cornmeal, which is often referred to as a Chocolo/Choclo arepa. These arepas are eaten as sides during meals, stuffed to make portable sandwiches, or used as a base for delicious food towers in meals and snacks. This is an encyclopedia of the arepas we encountered on our travels, where they are found in the wild, and how they taste.

The white corn arepas

This variety of arepa varies in size but has a wide range and is the predominant arepa you’ll find in Colombia. You’ll know them by their snow white color.

The side arepa: an arepa that is given as a side to common meals, including cazuelas (mixed bowls of food—think bibimbap), planchas (plates of meat, beans, fries), and soups. Outside of nearly every food-serving venue, you can buy them premade in markets. It is most often a sad, flavorless hockey puck because it’s made of only white corn flour and water. See anything missing? (Hint: it’s salt and fat. Ever made a biscuit without either of those?)

IMG_3041
The arepa is the round thing to the left. It’s fairly flavorless, and meant to offset the rich flavor of the main dish, here whole-roasted pig with some crackly skin.

The Don Jediondo side arepa: While it may seem that we have an unhealthy obsession with Don Jediondo around here, we promise you this isn’t biased. Unlike the standard side arepa, the Don Jediondo arepa is amazingly good even on its own! It’s served with their soup entrees or can be ordered separately, and tastes both salty and a bit sweet—delicious when dipped into the warm beef stew (Cuchuco) or the chicken soup. It’s also insanely dense, though, and two or three of these could make a meal.

8333642954716505633-account_id=1
The arepa can be found in the upper right corner…with a bite out of it. It’s still photogenic, right?

The arepa sandwich: Found at street stalls, this flat arepa gets stuffed with meats and veggies to make a portable sandwich. During breakfast, you can find them deep-fried with an egg in the middle, while at lunch and dinner they’re pre-grilled and then stuffed. The arepa itself is still a bit tasteless, but is helped by the savory fillings.

IMG_3183
The remnants of a fried egg arepa. This one may actually be yellow corn, or the frying process may have changed the color. Either way, it falls into the less flavorful category of white arepas for us.

The cheesy arepa: This white corn arepa differs in that it’s packed with flavor because there are pieces of cheese mixed into the dough. These cheese bits melt into delicious stringy goo when the arepa is fried on a hot griddle, and the whole thing is then topped with savory or sweet sauces. A dessert favorite is this arepa topped with condensed milk.

IMG_3462
A dessert arepa at a fair. Note the margarine mashed into the hot center of the arepa and the swirl of condensed milk.

The yellow corn arepas (Chocolo/Choclo)

This arepa is on average larger (around 6 inches across) and often has pieces of corn kernels in it. It tends to be more flavorful overall, but rarer, with specific stalls specializing in this type. Look for “arepas de chocolo” written on the wall or in the stall’s name.

The open-faced sandwich: This arepa is frequently eaten for breakfast and as a snack and consists of a chocolo arepa topped with butter or margarine, a slice of deli meat, and a wedge of queso fresco. We found the quality of meat and cheese to be a bit bad in some places, so we often ordered just the arepa with butter, which got us some odd looks.

IMG_2748
Our first chocolo arepa, an open-faced breakfast sandwich made with spam and queso fresco. Breakfast of champions, this is.

The topped chocolo arepa: Studded with cheese and corn bits, this arepa acts as a delicious base for a tower of food. These beautiful dishes are most frequently found in nicer restaurants, and can be topped with vegetables, meat, and seafood and finished with a nice sauce. This was the first arepa I ever encountered thanks to Rubamba’s amazing arepas in New Haven, although we rarely encountered them in Colombia.

IMG_2701
An arepa tower, covered in roasted veggies. We only found these in pricier restaurants, so we encountered them rarely. This may actually be a white corn variant, but the others we encountered (including those at Rubamba in New Haven) were yellow corn.

The dessert/snack Chocolo arepa: This arepa is similar to its white-corn cousin, but instead of being filled with cheese, it’s fried on a griddle in butter and then topped with a wedge of queso fresco and condensed milk or honey. This was arguably our favorite arepa of the bunch.

IMG_3023
For a snack that’s both savory and sweet (and has some fiber from corn bits), look no further than this arepa.

Arepa distribution and DIY at home

Arepas drop off abruptly as you enter Ecuador to the south or Panama to the north, so get your arepa fix in Colombia (and Venezuela to the east). If there are any we missed (like the rare whole wheat arepa we encountered at Mercado Minorista—we didn’t get to try them), add them in the comments below.

IMG_3019
An arepa stall at Mercado Minorista, with a baffling array of arepa and arepa ingredients.

For those of you looking to make your own arepas, here’s some help:

Serious Eats arepa guide, where there’s a link to a recipe

Chocolo Arepas – This is the first recipe I’m trying when I get home