The National Diet Relationship Rollercoaster

Medellin

The road curved and wove through the mountains as we left Medellin behind. The van swayed with each turn, and the driver pursued our arrival in Armenia with a relentless foot on the pedal. The views were lush, green, and speckled with palmas and rolling hills. I vomited the entire time.

The afternoon before we departed for Salento in Colombia’s cafetero region, my visiting friend, Seleste, and I struck out on the town for a traditional lunch. Mondongo, my roommates insisted, was a must-try for any tourist in Colombia. It’s a sopa tipica made with peppers, carrots, onion, cilantro, and tripe, which is meat from the stomach of a cow. We found a small table in the back of Ajiacos y Mondongos in Poblado. I’d read that Anthony Bourdain ate there on one of his many visits to Colombia. So, obviously, if you’re going to be a tourist in your new city, you might as well follow this guy’s lead. The tiny restaurant—with its warm yellow walls and pitchers of fresh guava juice right outside of the kitchen—was packed with locals on their lunch break.

Mondongo

I ordered a vegetarian-ized bowl of a bean soup similar to a cazuela. With slices of banana, cilantro, and a spoonful of picante, it offered a subtle spice and a comforting, filling meal—like diving into a deep dish of chili on the couch at my parents’ home on a Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, I tasted this cozy soup again the next morning on the bus, for a consecutive five hours. But! These are the expected side effects of travel. You’ve got to know what you’re getting yourself into.

After another stomach episode following a late-night arepa binge (stuffed with huevos revueltos, cheese, and mushrooms), street food and I went on a break. We haven’t totally divorced, but I’m definitely more cautious of these flat top-fried friends’ intentions. Unfortunately, it took a visit to the emergency room for me to learn when to say no, gracias to this new national diet. That’s also when I realized that I hadn’t renewed my travel health insurance, but we can’t be on top of everything at once, right? After all, I haven’t yet claimed to be fully adult.

Although simply feeding oneself can be a task in of itself, there’s nothing quite like cooking at home, wherever that may be. My shared apartment’s kitchen eternally remains the central hub of the eight locals with whom I live. Sometimes I struggle to cook rehydrated beans over our one functioning burner at 10:30 at night, intending to make my own version of the restaurant’s bean soup that I enjoyed the first time around. But at the very least, I can count on a stomach that has mostly resolved its attitude problems, along with snippets of interesting late-night conversation.

El Pacífico: La Barra

IMG_6270

I visited Cali, Colombia during Semana Santa, planning to take some salsa classes but finding the entire city to be closed. During Holy Week, everyone seems to vacate town. So there was only one thing to do: follow their lead and head to the beach. Cali is only about three hours away from Buenaventura by bus. From Buenaventura, you can take a lancha (a small motor boat) to Juanchaco, and from Juanchaco, ride on the back of a motorbike on a muddy unpaved road to reach La Barra. My motorbike driver dropped me off here, and suggested I walk until I find the hostel.

IMG_6243

“Está cerca,” he promised. But I’d been in Latin America long enough to understand that 1) when asking for directions, nothing is as near as people say, and 2) if you’re lost and see a dog, you should probably follow it; they always know where the food’s at.

I stayed at the cozy Casa Majagua, a two-story home built on stilts and supplied with blankets of mosquito nets. The owners were the sweetest young couple, one woman from Bogota, and a man from Spain. If you go to visit La Barra, plan to carry any snacks, produce, and water with you that you will need for your stay (and carry any trash back out). The limited fresh produce available is reserved for the locals, and bottled water is hard to come by, as it all must arrive first by boat, and then by motorbike. Luckily, the neighboring hostel doubled as a restaurant. They serve fresh fish every day. (La Barra locals also eat very little meat, as that, too, must travel far before reaching their plates.) My veggie alternative included frijoles and plátanos with every meal before hitting the beach and slipping into a food coma.

El Pacifico

There were hardly any people in sight– a complete escape from the rest of the world, with only a sprinkling of humans on the shoreline opening up to the Pacific. Once every afternoon, someone would roll by with a fruit cart. And obviously, when you’re hanging out on a beach seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it’s your obligation to wave them down and try whatever it is they’re selling. This is a variation of a cholado, a mix of papaya, mango, and pineapple doused in lechera, a super-sweet sauce of condensed milk. As a kid, I liked to sprinkle sugar on strawberries. But this takes Sugar Intake to a whole new level. Beach food really is a category of its own. In the States, we usually think of salty french fries, beer, watermelon and frozen grapes. La Barra delivers another palate: savory fried plantains, sticky cocadas, syrup-covered fruits and aguapanela.

IMG_6266

And with a very full stomach and skin somehow sunburn-free, it was only a short walk back to bed.

IMG_6279

 

 

 

La Casa Amarilla

In Baños, Ecuador, I hiked from the tiny town in the valley to La Casa del Arbol above. It’s that famous swing on the edge of a cliff, basically a required tourist photo opp:

Casa del arbol

The hike is a short two-and-a-half hours, but entirely up-hill as you leave the city behind.

Baños, EcuadorLuckily, part-way up, I came across La Casa Armarilla. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of juice ladies at the central markets. Mango, mora, naranja, piña– no matter the flavor, they’ve always had my back. So when I encountered a mountainside sign reading “Jugos frescos,” I had to stop inside. There, the nicest man runs a hostel and cafe overlooking Baños. It’s the perfect rest stop as you begin the hike, and fresh papaya juice provided extra motivation to keep going.

La Casa Armarilla

IMG_5919

IMG_5918

A Colombian friend recently told me about his travels to France, where a restaurant offered him water or wine with lunch. “I thought I was in a jail,” he said, craving the fresh fruit juices he drinks at home. And now I understand why: with a wide variety of accessible produce here, I want to start every morning with a blended juice. Outside most Medellín Metro stations, street vendors will press oranges for only 1.000- 2.000 COP per glass. A simple juice is a much-appreciated midmorning (or mid-hike) boost, whether served in a fancy glass or a flimsy plastic cup, to-go.

Dulces, Postres, y Panaderias

Cacao

Playing with cacao beans in El Museo de Chocolate at Ecuador’s Mitad del Mundo

While in Peru, I expected to eat chocolate with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But just as I’ve recently learned about Colombian coffee, most of Peru’s rich dark chocolates are exported. Cusco’s Mercado San Pedro is a great place to stock up on a few bars to take home. They range in price anywhere from eight – 25 soles for a shareable bar, depending on size and flavor. A small shop in Arequipa, Peru called Chaqchao even sells decadent homemade, fair-trade chocolates, sprinkled with a dusting of spicy rocoto, coconut, or dried fruit for only eight – 10 soles. Otherwise, your chocolate craving solutions are limited to cheap milk chocolate in your average tienda, and sometimes the taste resembles that of leftover Easter candy unwrapped in June: a little aged and not-so-satisfying.

When I wouldn’t splurge on a fancy bar, I got my chocolate fix in panaderias, where bakers top donas (donuts) with frosting and stuff them with dulce de leche, coat moist chocolate trufas with tiny pearl sprinkles for the perfect bite-sized sugar fix, and fill puff pastry with chocolate spreads. There’s no shortage of sweets in Latin America. And when you’re hopping from one bus to another, hiking up a mountain, or converting kilometers to miles on a tour around a new city, it’s hard to look the other way when you pass a panaderia, even if you’re not that hungry. I’ve found that it’s better to give in to temptation in the name of “experiencing the local culture.” Eating chocolates and pastries in another country? Sounds like “study-abroad” to me.

A necessary snack on a rainy day in Cusco, Peru

A necessary snack on a rainy day in Cusco, Peru

A blurry "trufa" overlooking tiny Otavalo, Ecuador

A blurry “trufa” overlooking tiny Otavalo, Ecuador

Mantequilla is a way of life here; everything sweet and savory is buttered-up, whether it’s a chocolate donut or a fried plantain. If you want to avoid animal products like butter all together, you’ll miss out on more than a few delicious snacks, but maybe your body will thank you for it. I temporarily gave in and gave up, because sometimes a backpacking girl requires a bag full of churros. ¡Buen provecho!

Churros

Every smart traveler carries a sixth sense: fried food radar