Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Travel Dining Itinerary: Colombia

The Mr. and I share a birthday, so we always take the opportunity to fete ourselves and escape our winter doldrums by going somewhere warm and fun for the big day. This year we got a little more adventurous and headed to Colombia. And to answer your next question, no, there was no cocaine involved. You would be amazed at how many people asked us that!

Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota
Cartagena in particular is having a moment. Gone are the days of rampant violence, replaced instead with swanky restaurants and glamorous spreads in the likes of Town & Country and Bon Appetit. Although increasingly popular and fairly safe, Colombia is still relatively unknown by most Americans, so you can still feel like a cutting edge bon vivante for going.

A few things to know about Colombia:

First, it's a mere 4-5 hour flight direct from Atlanta on Delta and in the same time zone, so traveling there is easy. If my experience is any indication, you can get a Skymiles award seat to Bogota way easier than to a tropical island. The only draw back is that you can't get from Atlanta direct to Cartagena, and given the flight times your best itinerary begins and ends with a night stay in Bogota.

Second, the people are warm and welcoming, even if they speak little English. If you are like me and don't know any Spanish. be prepared for some conversational challenges. And their beauty pageant dominance is no fluke, the women are indeed gorgeous and plastic surgery is popular (read: no shortage of giant boobies).

Third, and most relevant to this article, there's a burgeoning foodie scene and a great combination of high and low dining options. The downside is that prices are higher than you might anticipate. Expect dinner at upscale restaurants to run you as much as it would at a high end restaurant in Atlanta. Street food on the other hand is dirt cheap. Fortunately taxis are cheap, too, so getting around to all these great eats is easy.

Interested in checking Colombia out? Here's more on our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive late in Bogota. We were able to be ever so slightly late for an 11 pm Harry Sasson reservation. This restaurant is in an old house with a gorgeous modern addition. We were wowed by how gorgeous it is - definitely prettier than any restaurant I can think of here in Atlanta.

Harry Sasson

Day 2: Spend the day touring Bogota with a guide (or try out the popular but harrowing bike tour, which we skipped). We opted to see Monserrate and Candelaria, the latter includes the Botero Museum (great) and the Gold Museum (well regarded but so boring!) Then on our driver's recommendation we drove to El Oasis de Charly for the most sweet and gooey, all 'round fabulous arepas you can imagine. Unlike the Venezuelan versions I'd had in the US before, these Bogota style arepas were made with wonderfully sweet corn. I can honestly say that all the pricey food we ate in Colombia paled in comparison to this. I could have eaten these morning, noon and night! Their empanadas are pretty darn good, too, and we washed it all down with a Colombiana soda.

El Oasis de Charly Arepas
That night we met up with Chef Lance Gummere's sister-in-law (thanks for the intro, Lance!) and her husband and headed out to Chia for dinner at the famed Andres Carne de Res. When we first asked people for advice, this name came up over and over. And now I know why. There is quite simply nowhere in the world quite like Andres Carne de Res. It's filled to the brim with tchotkes, music, meat and revelers.

Andres Carne de Res

Our pics (below) don't do it justice. The restaurant is about 40 minutes outside of town (your hotel can arrane a ride there). Once there, you're greeted with a sprawling space, so large in fact that it has now overtaken an actual road, so partiers can pour out onto the (now closed) street on crowded nights. Different music is playing several rooms, and people alternate among eating, drinking and dancing throughout the night, often staying into the wee hours. Even the Mr, not known for his love of dancing, indulged in some salsa action.

Andres Carne de Res
Our hosts were oh-so fun and ensured that Jeff and I were properly celebrated for our birthdays, complete with sashes and crowns. We let them do the ordering and were rewarded with meaty chicharrones, craveable arepas de choclo (corn cakes filled with cheese and served with a sort of sour cream), and a sizzling platter of  all variety of meats, all washed down with self made cuba libres. Considering how absolutely crazy and fun this place is, my food expectations weren't that high, but this really was one of my favorite meals of the trip. At $85 a couple, it was comparatively cheap, too.

Andres Carne de Res
Day 3: Morning flight to Cartagena. After a late night at Andres the night before, we were zonked for much of this day. Attempt for a quick and cheap lunch at La Cocina de Soccorro was thwarted by incredibly slow service, high prices, and worst of all...totally mediocre food. Don't believe the hype, this was our worst meal of the trip.

Portale de los Dulces
Next, we took an easy stroll around Cartagena's candy colored old town. Enter through the gate by the Portale de los Dulces where vendors sell little fruit candies. To me, they sounded and looked better than they tasted, but it's still fun to check out.

Cartagena's fruit ladies in Plaza de Bolivar
A tastier snack comes from one of the cities many fruit vendors. Colombia has incredible tropic fruits, many of which I'd never heard of before. Don't miss lulo (or as the Mr. called them, hooker berries - don't ask) and nispero. The latter makes an even better juice, available for a pittance at the juice shop across from our hotel (Casa Lola on Calle del Guerrero in Getsemani).

After a siesta, our evening began with cocktails and people watching in the Plaza Santo Domingo. Friends recommended dinners at 9:30 each night. In hindsight, I think that's right on target for weekends, and a little late for weeknights. We had our first meal at 8-18, known for their ceviches and oxtail in a red wine reduction with mashed potatoes.

We managed to stay awake long enough for a stiff mojito and a quick dance at the famous Havana Club near our hotel.

Day 4: Took the full day to tour Cartagena, starting at the fortress and spending most of the day just wandering the streets. It is an unbelievably pretty town and very easy to navigate on foot. An arepa purchased for a snack from a street vendor was much saltier than the Bogota version but still very tasty.

La Perla ceviche

Sundowner cocktails at the famous Cafe del Mar overlooking the water. It's a perfect, albeit pricey and slow, place to enjoy one of Colombia's amazing lemonada con cocos, basically limeade with fresh coconut juice served with or without rum. I am addicted to these now. They offer the perfect balance of sweet and tart. Yum!

Dinner at La Perla, serving Peruvian cuisine, which is all the rage throughout South America. As such, there are lots of ceviches on offer and delicioso pisco cocktails. Service in Colombia is generally much slacker than Americans prefer, but the service at La Perla was top notch. Both ceviches we tried were super fresh and flavorful with ample citrus kick and a nice crunch from hard little corn kernels.

We opted to split the suckling pig dish, and we're glad we did. Even split in half, it was more than I could eat. The meat was tender and full of porky goodness.

La Perla ceviche
Day 5: We had heard mixed reviews of trips to the Rosario Islands. The Sofitel's trip was highly recommended but full when we try to book it. So they instead recommended Isla del Sol, which turned out to be a great, and much cheaper, option. Just be sure if you book that you are taking one of the small, fast boats. Our ride was about 45 minutes, but it can be as long as almost 2 hours. We rode out, enjoyed an afternoon on the beach and a seafood buffet, all for about $50/person (compared to around $100 for the Sofitel trip.)

Since this was our actual birthday, we splurged for our fanciest meal of the trip, at Vera at the trendy Tcherassi Hotel. The chef trained under Mario Battali, and the setting is stylish and visually stunning. The food didn't disappoint - ceviche was just as pretty as the dining room and again had a great balance of fish, citrus and crunch.

Vera ceviche
 At their recommendation, I went for the pork belly, which was even better than the already very tasty La Perla pork. I especially appreciated the crunch of the crackly pork skin - like a giant chicharone.

Vera pork belly
Day 6: Lunch at Mila, popular for it's breakfast and baked goods. The Mr. is a sucker for dulce de leche, so he loved that they served it with their pancakes. I couldn't resist one last arepa, this time served with egg and a hollendaise type sauce, akin to a Colombian eggs benedict.

Mila pancakes with dulce de leche (at back of plate), syrup, and bacon
Mila areaps con huevo

Return on an afternoon flight to Bogota. We had dinner at Leo Cocina y Cava in the Macarena neighborhood. The restaurant is well regarded for being the first to highlight indigenous ingredients in a haute cuisine way. Their Esquinas Maracuya (made with rum and macerated golden passion fruit) may well have been the best cocktail of the trip. I couldn't resist digging out every last little passion fruit seed and definitely want to make this at home. An appetizer of little rabbit croquettes (carimaƱolas) was spectacular - pillowy and meaty at the same time.

Unfortunately the entrees didn't live up the meal's promise. My Cartagena style beef was composed of outputting chewy little squares of beef, and the Mr's tuna was just so-so. A dessert of banana cake and ice cream was tasty enough to wipe away some of that, but with prices this steep, I expected better.

Practical details:

We recommend arranging pick up from the airport because there are oodles of "drivers" just waiting to flim flam (or worse!) you at the airport. Fortunately, we were put in touch with Nestor, who spends most of his time driving Americans. I cannot recommend him highly enough - drop me an email and I'd be happy to pass along his email address and phone number.   He's fluent in English, knowledgeable about Colombia and just really darn nice. He saved the day when LAN (boo, hiss!) tried to botch our flight from Cartagena to Bogota.

Cite Hotel -was the perfect homebase for Bogota. It's well located, inexpensive and very stylish and quiet. Don't miss their chocolate con queso (yes that's hot chocolate with cheese).

Carrera, 15 No 88-10
57 (6) 467777

Hotel Casa Lola - not quiet as nice as Cite, but it's close to old town (in the slightly seedier Getsemani neighborhood), well priced and cute.

29-108/29-118 Guerrero Street
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