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.

Medellin’s Parque Arví

IMG_3054
The gonodola leading to Medellín’s Parque Arvi.

Parque Arvi is Medellín’s largest park and part of its bid to become a national and international city of distinction. Comprising 16,000 total hectares, this reserve high above the Aburrá Valley encompasses more than 50 km of walking trails, 1,700 hectares of pristine forest, and several pre-Colombian archaeological sites.

IMG_3148
A small mushroom grows among the moss on the forest floor.

The history of the park itself is hard to discern. The first reports of the area come from the Spanish Conquest, where conquistadors chronicled the discovery of crumbling buildings and “roads of chopped rock, wider than those of Cusco [Peru]” that they “dare not follow, for the people who made them must have been many”. The land sat untouched for 450 years, until in 1970 the Colombian government declared it the Río Nare National Park. Then in 2010, as part of a city-wide improvement program and a bid to triple the amount of park space accessible to the citizens of Medellín, the city completed a metro cable connecting the city’s train system with Parque Arvi. Since then, the park has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, both from Colombia and abroad.

IMG_3059
A Metro employee guides people onto the gonodola.

A visit to Parque Arvi is much more than a chance to get some fresh air–it’s a chance to experience first-hand how much Medellín has changed in the past few decades. After repeated recommendations to visit, one sunny afternoon we caught the A line to Acevedo station and bought tickets for the gondola. As we glided over the rooftops of the hillside barrios, we could see people walking on the streets and children playing in the parks. Forty years ago, these neighborhoods were slums, cut off from the city proper and opportunities in the center of the valley.

IMG_3070
Soaring over the hillside barrios

The infamous Pablo Escobar gave a voice to the people of these disconnected and disenfranchised areas, demanding services for them in his brief stint in Colombia’s House of Representatives. After his expulsion from politics, Escobar recruited people from the slums in the drug trade and armed them, calling them to rise up against the wealthier inhabitants of city. Medellín became one of the most dangerous cities on earth, with the highest per-person homicide rate in the world from 1990 to 1999. In the worst year, 1991, the homicide rate was 325 people per 100,000, which is equivalent to the murder of roughly 1 in every 300 people.

IMG_3074
A person navigates the stairs in one of the hillside barrios

Depending on who you ask, Pablo Escobar was either neutralized or assassinated in 1993. From there, government intervention and the election of political outsider and mathematician Sergio Fajardo as mayor brought sweeping improvements to all citizens of Medellín. The metro infrastructure was one of these, enabling people from the hillside barrios to easily travel into the city and find opportunities. The story is wonderfully chronicled here by The Guardian, but the punchline is that Medellín’s homocide rate has dropped to one tenth of what it was in less than thirty years and the poverty rate has fallen below Colombia’s national average. And the city feels it. Everywhere we’ve been, people have greeted and welcomed us. As we rode up on the gondolas, we encountered a man who recounted how bad it used to be in the hillside barrios, and how much things have changed. “Our mayor,” he said in stilted English, “He had a saying – por los pobres, los mejores – for the poor, the best. The best educations, the best buildings, the best everything.”

IMG_3079
The view of Medellin from the gondola to Parque Arvi.

After the first gondola ride, we transferred at Santo Domingo station to the gondola for Parque Arvi. We passed even higher, up through farmland, and finally we soared over forest and touched down at the Parque Arvi station. A market greeted us, full of food and handicrafts.

IMG_3098
The market at the Parque Arvi station, selling food, jewelry, and souvenirs.

The target demographic here was clearly middle class; one stall sold vegetarian portabella burgers and another served up locally-brewed craft beer. The people shopping and milling around the station were clean and well-dressed, and the stray dogs and ambient Spanish were the only indicators of Colombia. After walking the market, we purchased tickets for guided walk around the park. Park rangers lead these 2-hour hikes several times a day, providing information on the history and wildlife of the area. While we waited for the walk to start, we struck up conversation with a man who had brought his family to the park for the day. He tells us that he’s finishing his master’s degree in education, and that while Medellín has improved vastly since the 1990’s, there are still many problems. Education for better-paying jobs can be hard to come by, he attests, and sometimes the jobs themselves are scarce. “Still”, he says cheerfully, “I’m the first person in my family to get a higher education.”

IMG_3136
Our guide shows us flowers found along the trail.

Our guide arrived and we began the hike while she introduced the region’s climate and biology. She explained that the park encompassess multiple types of forest, and that many of the plants growing in these forests have commercial, culinary, or ornamental value. “However now we protect these forests, so we ask that you do not take or damage anything. And those people allowed to take things from the forest can only take things that do not harm the plant, such as seeds,” she says. I thought of what a subtle difference that was from the U.S., where removal of everything is banned in nearly every park. There, everything must be preserved with minimal human intervention. Here, faced with the reality that some people’s livelihoods depend on collecting from the park and that there may be no other jobs up here, Colombians have chosen a compromise.

IMG_3132
A species of blueberry (mortiños) growing in the park. Colombia is home to dozens of species from the blueberry family, Ericaceae.

Still, the biodiversity is impressive and we see a lot in our two hours of walking. Our guide shows us various various species of trees, bushes, and orchids. She points out some wild-growing blueberries which look like no blueberry I’ve ever encountered because it’s a different species; Colombia has the highest number of blueberry species in the world.

IMG_3171
Inhabitants of Parque Arvi. Instead of purchasing land outright, the government pays landowners to preserve forests and care for the land.

After more than an hour of hiking through thick jungle and forest, we enter a pastoral area where houses dot the hillside. We ask the guide whether we’re still in the park and she nods. When we ask about the people, she says that this is their land. “When we wanted to expand the park, we didn’t force people to sell the land,” she explains. “Instead, we paid people to care for it.” This lease system provides an incentive for landowners to preserve forest on their private lands.

IMG_3169
Campers along the river in the park.

We arrive to the camping area at the bottom of the hill where the hike ends along the river. Here people can picnic or spend the night for the fee of a camper’s permit. Looking at the campers among the pine trees, it’s easy to mistake this for some part of the pacific northwest, maybe just south of Seattle or along the coast in northern California. The woman with red hair could even be an engineer for Google. This is Colombia, and she’s (probably) not. But the similarity is proof of how much Medellín has changed.

IMG_3115
A hawk or sphinx moth rests on an outcrop of dirt.

The food of Medellín’s Zona Rosa: Eat Your Heart Out

Zona Rosa

IMG_2851
People sit in front of a Christmas lights display at a park in Zona Rosa

Zona Rosa is Medellín’s happening tourist spot, with all of the hippest shops, bars, and restaurants. Stroll down one of these streets and you could easily imagine you’re in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or any other major metropolitan hub. And while the prices definitely reflect the area, clocking in around 1.5-3 times that of other places in the city, they’re still highly affordable if you’re coming from a country like the U.S. or Canada.

We spent most of our time in Zona Rosa enjoying the relative comfort of the Panela Hostel 2 and eating amazing food. We covered the delicious dessert options of Zona Rosa in our previous post. This post will cover awesome main meal options we discovered: two restaurants offering traditional foods, and one spotlight on a great health/vegetarian restauarant. Regardless of what you choose, get ready to eat to your heart’s content.

The Comida Tipica

There are two must try’s here: the Mondongo and the buñelos.

Since the locals almost always know best, we asked around for the ONE thing we should try in Zona Rosa before leaving. And every time, from the kids in high school to the abuelitas out for an afternoon stroll, we got one answer: get the Mondongo at Mondongo’s.

Mondongo’s is an institution in Medellín, serving up hearty soups and grilled meats to the hungry Colombian locals. On the afternoon we wandered in, we found a quiet patio with attentive waiters. They even insisted on helping us put our bags on to the chairs instead of on the floor:

IMG_3190
Our bags, our ever constant traveling companions.

When it came to ordering, we were a bit nervous because Mondongo’s was really expensive by Colombian standards (a Mondongo costs around $10 USD, or 30,000 COP). Wondering if we could share, we asked the waiter about the size of the Mondongo and he pointed over to a nearby table with a bucket-sized bowl of soup, a plate of rice, slices of avocado, bananas, and arepas. We had to double check that was indeed one order. We asked to share, and even then we couldn’t finish the whole thing. The great part was that while we were struggling to finish our food, a pair of abuelitas came in, each ordered a Mondongo, and demolished them. They were tiny, so I have no idea where that food went. Perhaps their stomachs were part of some kind of space-time distortion.

IMG_3188
The HALF Mondongo. When we asked to share one, they kindly pre-split the soup for us, so this is half the amount you’d normally get.

As for how the Mondongo tasted, here’s the best description I can muster: a rich, meaty tomato broth, loaded with FOUR kinds of meat (beef, pork, chicken, and tripe), potatoes, and onions. You’re supposed to dump the rice, avocado slices, and banana slices directly into the mix, but we ate them in separate spoonfuls for a delightful contrast in flavors and textures.

IMG_3189
The whole Mondongo meal. Why yes, that avocado is nearly the size of a banana. That’s the normal size of avocadoes in Colombia.

Recommendation: Bring a friend. You’re going to need their help against the massive Mondongo.

The second must try are the buñelos from Buñelos supreme, a tasty deep-fried breakfast treat made of  flour, tapioca flour, and cheese. At 500 COP (17 US cents) a pop, it’s easy to down 5 or 6 of these for breakfast alongside an egg-filled arepa.

IMG_3554
Fresh hot buñelos nestled together in a bowl.

And since people regularly come in and order 30 at a time, you can watch them being made all morning:

IMG_3557
The buñelo-maker, hard at work. Each buñelo is expertly hand-formed and fried by him.

Note that buñelos are sold at practically every bakery in Medellin, but Buñelos Supreme is where we found the best.

IMG_3181
The fried egg arepa: an egg somehow cracked into an arepa and then all fried together. Two of these make a heavy, filling breakfast.

Recommendation: If you’re a lover of deep-fried breakfast treats, pull up a seat here and a few buñelos with a fried egg arepa and drink of your choice—I’d go with a hot Milo.

The Vegetarian

Finding vegetables can be hard while travelling, even when you’re not looking to eat exclusively vegetarian food. Plates at restaurants tend to be meat-centric and occasionally come with a sad lettuce-and-tomato vegetable pile, although more often they’re heaped with fries. After the meat fatigue, we were delighted to come across an entirely vegetarian restaurant in Zona Rosa by the name of Lenteja Express. It serves vegetarian starters, burgers, and wraps made from lentils or chickpeas.

IMG_20161223_172711
Oh, and a pretty good vegetarian lasagna, but limited to certain days of the week.

We went a few times and had the ceviche (which was a beany, mango-y, salsa-y wonder), burgers (great flavor, but they haven’t quite worked out a way to keep the patty moist), and burrito (seriously huge, share it). The biggest highlight though was the humble side dish of griddle-cooked baby gold potatoes, called papas criollas, which by some witchcraft of spices were elevated to a dish fit for kings. On one occasion we just ordered a whole plate of these potatoes and shared them doused with the equally amazing whole grain mustard that Lenteja Express has on tap.

IMG_20161223_172701
The burrito, paired with their mysteriously fantastic papas criollas

Recommend: This is a must, if only to try the amazing seasoned potatoes with (what I would guess is) homemade whole grain mustard. If you’re getting a burger, pay extra for guac or douse it in another sauce to combat how dry the veggie patty can get.

If you can’t pop down to Colombia to try these amazing foods, here are a few recipes to tide you over. Since we’re still on the road and don’t have much of the way in kitchen supplies, we haven’t been able to taste-test them ourselves. But given the ingredients, they look like the real deal:

Recipe for buñelos

Recipe for mondongo – Disclaimer: there are TONS of different recipes for mondongo online, and each varies in the meats, vegetables, and spices that go in. I suspect this is one of those each-grandmother-has-her-own-way type dishes. This version was chosen because its ingredient list looks the closest to what we had at Mondongo’s.

Recipe for papas criollas – We asked Lenteja Express’s owner how they made their papas, and got the following instructions: take small gold potatoes and season with rosemary (romero). Place them on a hot griddle (a la plancha) for a few minutes, then put them in a bowl or bag, douse with paprika and salt, and shake/toss to coat. Or you could try the Serious Eats recipe here.

The food of Medellín’s Zona Rosa: Dessert

Zona Rosa

IMG_2851
People sit in front of a Christmas lights display at a park in Zona Rosa

Zona Rosa is Medellín’s happening tourist spot, with all of the hippest shops, bars, and restaurants. Stroll down one of these streets and you could easily imagine you’re in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or any other major metropolitan hub. And while the prices definitely reflect the area, clocking in around 1.5-3 times that of other places in the city, they’re still highly affordable if you’re coming from a country like the U.S. or Canada.

We spent most of our time in Zona Rosa enjoying the relative comfort of the Panela Hostel 2 and eating amazing food. Because around here we like to eat dessert first, this post will be about the desserts of Zona Rosa. Our second post will cover other meal options. But seriously, you can eat dessert first.

The Dessert Tour

Our first Zona Rosa tour began with my insatiable sweet tooth. Stoytcho and I looked up all of the dessert places nearby by searching for “chocolate” on TripAdvisor and we committed to trying the following:  MeLate Chocolate, Como Pez en el Agua, and Arte Dolce.

IMG_2824
The MeLate storefront

MeLate Chocolate was a true chocolate paradise, with chocolate bonbons, chocolate baked goods, and chocolate drinks. Nearly everything on the menu was touched by chocolate in some way. We ordered the traditional hot chocolate, which was perfect, and a white hot chocolate with lime, which was a bit too sweet for our tastes. Next up was the Encanto, a flourless chocolate cake with berry compote and whipped cream. This was absolutely phenomenal and was probably the best thing we had on the menu while there. And finally, last but not least, the chocolate bonbons filled with maracuyá (passionfruit) jam. Although the chocolate alone was overly sweet and had a mild burnt taste to it, the combination with the fruit filling was lovely.

IMG_2815
Some of the dessert offerings at MeLate

IMG_2829
The Encanto with frutas rojas (berry) compote

Recommendation: For those with a craving for chocolate, this is a one stop shop. Try the traditional hot chocolate and the encanto covered in puree de frutas rojas.

IMG_2842
The storefront of Como Pez en el Agua

Next stop, Como Pez en el Agua! This venue is a full-scale coffee shop and bakery, offering up high-quality tea and coffee alongside gorgeous cakes and pastries. The tea selection is wide and all of it is high quality, and if you get the chance you can also order fruit infusions that taste like fresher, cleaner versions of herbal teas—think berry or wild-rose hip tea if it hadn’t been sitting powdered in a sachet for months before you used it. If you’re a coffee snob, this is the place for you, because for 3000 COP ($1 USD) they’ll freshly grind beans that you bring in and make you either a French press or Chemex cup of coffee. Ironically, we’re tea people in Colombia, so we didn’t try much of the coffee. As for the pastries, we visited a few times and tried the following: the hazelnut Nutella brownie, the mini-cheesecake with wine-poached pear, and the Margarita (a lime-mousse cake). We weren’t wowed by the Margarita as it seemed a bit bland, but the brownie and the cheesecake were both fantastic. CPA also offers brunch until noon, which while we were there included bruchetta with fresh cherry tomato and onion jam. While on the pricier side for the portions, the taste is just right.

IMG_2830
Desserts at Como Pez en el Agua

IMG_2841
The mini cheesecake with wine-poached pear

Recommendation: A perfect place for brunch or afternoon tea, but it may take you a couple tries to find the perfect dessert. Don’t be afraid to ask the staff for recommendations.

IMG_2844
The gelato of Arte Dolce

Arte Dolce was our third stop and turned out to be an amazing little gelato spot with a side of French bakery. The baked goods they offer were fairly limited, though we found the sundried tomato and basil quiche to be excellent when warmed. But where Arte Dolce really shines is the gelato, and in particular the Amarena, a sour liqueur-soaked cherry and cream gelato that sandwiches perfectly between their chocolate crumb coating. You can get it with an extra scoop of ice cream and fresh cream for 12,000 COP (around $4 USD), and it’s definitely a dessert for two.

IMG_2846
One of the baked goods that Arte Dolce offers

IMG_3025
An amarena gelato sandwich with chocolate crumble and an extra scoop of berry gelato.

Recommended: If you’re looking for a cool treat on a hot night, Arte Dolce hits the spot. It’s especially good for those looking for options on the less sweet side, as they offer gelatos such as the Amarena and tangy berry sorbets.

Happy Holidays!

(This post is a bit out of order, but is too good to not do for Christmas.)

IMG_2946
A giant illuminated Christmas ornament

A belated happy holidays post from the two of us to everyone out there! While we were in transit to Quito for most of Christmas Eve and Day, here are a couple of amazing shots from the pre-Christmas celebrations of Parque Norte in Medellín. This city in Colombia goes absolutely crazy for Christmas, decking out major streets and parks with lights and larger-than life figures known collectively as “Los Alumbradores”.

IMG_3000
Crowds on a park path lined with figures of giant illuminated flowers. One of the three kings from the Nativity story looms in the background.

IMG_2967
Children gather around a larger-than-life kitchen table in one of the Los Alumbradores figures.

For the week or two leading up to Christmas, families visit major parks and admire the lights, taking pictures, eating festival food, and generally being merry. People also dress up as clowns, Santa Claus, superheroes, and comical characters for circuis performances and pictures with children. They’ll also poke fun at adults, so as a foreigner be ready to be the butt of a few good-natured jokes. They didn’t seem to be there to busk or make tips though, so you don’t need to give them money.

 

IMG_2965
A Christmas “elf” catches sight of us. What followed was a 5 minute fictional interview of where we were from, a couple of jokes, and a “Merry Christmas!” 

If you’re looking for a place to merrily spend the holidays, Medellín is probably one of the best. The celebration is huge and you’ll meet all sorts of wonderful people. Los Alumbradores really brings everyone from the city out for the evening.

IMG_2937
A huddle of nuns out to view Los Alumbradores

And because Parque Norte is also an amusement park with rides, it led to this unintentionally hilarious and creepy picture of the Nativity:

Happy Holidays...
Yeah, this pretty much sums up how I feel about the year 2016.

So once again, Happy Holidays! Whomever you are and whatever you celebrate, do it with a full heart and gusto as we bid farewell to 2016.