Working and travelling in Colombia, how cool!

Best Meal of the Summer September 7, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelleincolombia @ 1:43 am

Hello Readers!  Sorry I have not written in a while.  My internship with the Colombia Green Building Council finished a few weeks ago and I have been travelling up a storm since!  I spent nearly a week on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia where I visited Tayrona National Natural Park, a beautiful and secluded area teeming with wildlife, boasting dozens of pristine beaches and hot, humid weather.  I next jetted off to the island of Roatan, part of the world-famous Bay Islands in Honduras, for some more beach time and scuba diving on the second largest reef system on earth.  And my last week was spent in Guatemala where Sarah, a friend from school, came to meet me.  We visited the incredible Mayan site, Tikal, explored caves by candlelight, and wandered around Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, renowned for its well-preserved baroque architecture and spectacular ruins, most dated back over 400 years.

Now that I am back home and getting settled into my life as I knew it, I have had an opportunity to reflect on my experiences of the past four months, and I have a lot to share so expect more posts this week!

Best Meal of the Summer 

To be perfectly honest, overall, I was not terribly impressed with the food in Colombia (lo siento, mis amigos colombianos!).  In general, I found the food to be bland.   However, I really liked their use of plantains in entrees or as a side, and loved all the fresh fruits available for purchase by street vendors.  But take arepas for example.  Arepas are a corn-based patty often filled with cheese or meat and baked or grilled.  Most Colombians that I met ate them for breakfast and throughout the day, they are a staple.  Not only did my stomach not agree with this traditional meal (I cannot eat corn) but neither did my taste buds, they have little flavour and are a bit dry.  That said however, there are a few pretty remarkable meals that I thought worthy of sharing.

There is one dish that I came to adore while in Bogota, called ajiaco.  Ajiaco is a potato stew typically served with chunks of corn on the cob (that I was able to remove thankfully), rice, chicken, two or three kinds of potatoes, and chilled avocado.  The broth is made from scratch with the use of these ingredients, along with garlic and guasca (which I have recently learned is the only herb that can be used for this dish and considered a weed in most of the world), for flavouring.  It is also served with crema de leche, and sometimes capers.  The first time that I tried ajiaco, my coworker, Angela, had invited me to her place for lunch.  Her maid (yes, it is very common here to have a maid!) had made her the dish and I was instantly hooked.  Since that day, I had my maid make at least four portions of the masterpiece for me every week and had even inquired about it in other cities on weekend trips, to try some different variations.  As it turns out, ajiaco is a Bogotano creation, and is not as common in other parts of the country (could be partly the cool climate in Bogota, unlike other parts of the country, that compels them to eat stews often).                         

My parents came to visit me in Colombia for nearly three weeks, and we had some really fantastic meals.  The most memorable was that at Andres D.C, a famous steakhouse in Bogota’s Zona Rosa that is known more for the experience than the food.  I had heard so much about this place from Colombians and expats alike that I knew I needed to check it out at least once.  The place was incredible, unlike any other restaurant I have been.  The menu, a 60 page magazine, offered steaks and seafood to arepas and empanadas, and everything in between.  The venue is filled to the brim with kitschy items and artwork.  We were served sizzling steaks while wearing bibs and being serenaded by a group of musicians and singers while being showered with heart-shaped confetti!  We received goody bags filled with treats when leaving and took many pictures of the interesting decor in the four-story gem.

The only difficulty we had that evening was when trying to order our steaks “rare”.  They tend to like their meat very well done in Colombia, so when trying to order a steak “rare” at Andres, we found ourselves surrounded by a  group of waiters attempting to understand what we wanted, even after trying the dictionary’s translation. The steaks, however, came out perfect (and “rare”), and the atmosphere and experience of Andres was well worth the trouble.                                                                                                                                     


For the Love of Music and Dance July 23, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelleincolombia @ 10:13 pm

Music is a big part of everyday life here in Colombia.  From the minibuses to the tiendas (corner stores), everyone is sharing their favourite tunes for those around to enjoy.  Music is very important to me, so I can appreciate their love of music and have taken full advantage of having radio access on my cellphone here!  Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am rarely caught not listening to music and that I will develop a nervous tic if I don’t go out dancing at least once a week!  There is an impressive supply of talented Colombian artists, much like in Canada, and I am sure I don’t know the half of it.  Straddled by both the Pacific and Caribbean, Colombia has been affected by so many different musical genres and influences over the years, it is not surprising that there are many different musical styles found within the country representing a very dynamic musical environment.

For those who have never been to Colombia, or Latin America, or for anyone just interested, I would like to share some of my favourite Colombian artists, as well as some of my roommate, Angela’s favourites.  So, in the spirit of Hillside Festival, which I am sad to be missing this weekend, and in preparation for a Saturday night out dancing, enjoy!

P.S.  Please feel free to comment on your favourite or post your own favourite local artists and songs, or of any Colombian greats that I have missed (for my Colombian and expat friends reading).

Artist J Balvin (hottest Colombian Reggaeton artist at present) in Sin Compromiso, with plenty of bikini-clad women in Me Gustas Tu, and with Jay & El Punto (also Colombian artists), Bailemos Otra Vez.

Golpe a Golpe, singing No Se Como se Llama.  I spent a month trying to find out who this artist was, every time I heard the song I would ask anyone around!  Obviously they are not well known yet but with songs like these, they will be…

Amazing videos from Choc Quib Town (Hip hop group nominated and pending results for Best Artist of 2011 in Colombia and won several awards in 2010), that give an interesting look at the Colombian people and countryside – Songs Somos Pacificos, El Bombo (song of Fifa 2011), De Donde Vengo Yo (won several awards in 2010), and Oro (nominated for a Grammy in 2011).

People go crazy on the dancefloor when they hear this song, Fuego, by Bomba Estereo.

An example of the famous Colombian Cumbia, Armando Hernandez with La Zenaida.  And multiple-time Grammy-winner, Carlos Vives, performing the popular style Vallenato, in Carito.  Typical Colombian salsa, En Barranquilla me Quedo, performed by Joe Arroyo.

Artist Jorge Celedon whose song Esta Vida brought me great joy during my last Colombian trip. And another good one of his, Parranda en el Cafetal, with more traditional Colombian sounds.

A very different sound, popular Aterciopelados singing Bolero Falaz.

A nod to Colombian artists would not be complete without mentioning Juanes.  I had Juanes’ A Dios Le Pido on a mixed CD I made in about 2003, around the time he  broke away from his heavy metal band to begin his solo career.  Juanes has won so many musical awards worldwide, here are a few of his hits:  Me Enamora and La Tierra.

Of course, last but not least, Colombia’s most famous singer, Shakira and her lastest tunes, Loca and Rabiosa (English version – I don’t think most locals like her English songs though).

I have really only scratched the surface here and I’m sure I’ve missed many amazing Colombian artists, so please feel free to put your two cents in.  Hope you’ve enjoyed this musical look into the Colombian culture!


A Lesson Learned July 8, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelleincolombia @ 4:15 pm

Colombia is the second most bio-diverse nation on our planet.  Despite its relatively small size, it has a wide range of environments, including snow-capped Andean mountains, lush Amazonian jungle, coffee plantations, desert and coral reef.  Colombia is accessed by both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and provides an important gateway between the Americas.  Colombia also suffers the most natural disasters, most notably flooding, due to climate change of all Latin American countries, according to the United Nations Development Programme.  Colombia bears a heavy burden considering it emits very little carbon as compared to other countries.

Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, scored very well on a recent study of large Latin American countries and their environmental practices, performance and policies.  It ranked above average on all but two categories out of eight including transportation, building and land use, and water.  Colombia is considerably progressive for a developing nation.  From its weekly half-day Ciclovia, to the extensive natural-gas powered Transmilenio rapid bus system that has been built only within the last 10 years and replaced thousands of buses run on carbon-intensive fuels.

I spent this past weekend in the country’s second largest city Medellin and was so impressed by the transit system.  Medellin Metro has incorporated the first cable-propelled system in the world, called Metrocable, aimed at reaching the underdevelopment barrios, previously unreachable by public transit because they are situated high up the hills surrounding the city.  The city prevented 180,000 tons of carbon emissions last year, nearly 1% of the country’s total emissions, because of its very efficient and extensive metro system, not to mention the social benefits associated with better connectivity and access.

I expected to encounter resistance to the “greening” of Colombia’s built environment, when I decided to take the summer internship opportunity with the Colombia Green Building Council.  Considering the country’s abundance of pressing problems including poverty, crime and corruption, I had figured that environmental issues would not be top of mind, but was happily surprised to find that that is not the case.   I have learned that regardless of a country’s (or person’s for that matter) income, reputation, crooked politicians, drug problems and history, it is still very capable of achieving great things and paving the way for other, more developed, and privileged countries.  It is a perfect example of the age-old idiom: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  Colombia has proven this true.  While it still struggles to get a handle on the drug problems, Colombia has made significant advances to curb the violence that it had been synonymous with in the past and improve the standard of living for its residents.

With many other green (and social) initiatives underway, including low-income sustainable housing, methane capture projects, and extensive environmental education for children, we will hear more about the innovative and inspiring country of Colombia, as it manages to create new opportunities amidst great challenges.  Given its conscientious, driven and passionate people, Colombia is sure to remain the innovative environmental leader in Latin America for years to come.

For more information about green initiatives in Latin American cities, as well as cities around the world including Toronto, see the green city studies conducted by Siemens at:


Movement June 21, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelleincolombia @ 10:54 pm

There is an incredible phenomenon in Bogotá every Sunday and holiday morning called Ciclovia.  From 7am until 2pm, approximately 120kms of Bogotá’s busiest streets are closed to cars and buses and opened up for bicyclists, runners, walkers, skateboarders, roller bladers, and even unicyclists (yes, I saw one once!) without being bothered by noise and traffic.  Apparently these types of events have been going on in Bogotá for over 30 years and became a permanent weekly occurrence 10 years ago.  Ciclovia was originally introduced to encourage Bogotanos to get outdoors and exercise, and became a way to promote the integration of different social groups over the years.  Young, old, singles, families – it is hard to describe the sense of community and togetherness that I felt walking my first Ciclovia.  I had actually overslept that morning, for there wasn’t an outrageous amount of noise from mufflers and horns coming from the busy street outside my hostel.  That first Ciclovia, I had come across a group of people practicing the Brazilian martial art, Capoeira, in the park and another group running obstacle courses on their roller blades down a side street.

This has become routine for Bogotanos, and they appear to be much happier for it.  According to some websites (thanks wikipedia), some 30% of citizens participate in this weekly event, roughly 2.5 million people.  After experiencing my first Ciclovia, I was just amazed, and had to ask every person I could what they thought of it.  For many, it seems to provide a real sense of pride and joy, one that was not felt before.  A way to connect to their city and fellow citizens, as well as their families.  Politics, poverty, traffic and crime have very negatively affected this city for quite some time but by paying attention to pedestrian malls in working-class barrios and offering free outdoor aerobics classes to everyone, the quality of life seems to have improved significantly.  I know that it has contributed in a positive way to my time in Bogotá.  Every Sunday, I take to the streets to explore a new area of the city, whether La Candelaria – the historic centre, or Usaquen – the bustling flea market, and I’ve even now tried an aerobics class in Parque Nacional.

I was surprised after googling Ciclovia, to see that there are actually a few of these types of events happening in Canada, although none in Toronto as of yet.  I love seeing the marathoners some Sundays in the summer going down Yonge Street, why not make that a weekly event all throughout the city?  I know what you’re thinking, it would cause too much traffic congestion.   While I’m certain that there would be backlash from car owners, as was the case here many years ago, if a city of 9 million people can do it, surely Toronto could too.  What a great way to get people active and moving!

Check out this great video about Ciclovia:


Extreme sport capital and “the most beautiful colonial town” in Colombia June 17, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelleincolombia @ 6:09 pm

My first long weekend of the summer was coming up and I was sure to take advantage.  I had missed the Canadian “May 2-4”, and needed to make up for it with something fantastic.  San Gil and Barichara were just what I needed.  Located about a 7 hour drive north of Bogotá, San Gil is known as the Colombian capital for extreme sports enthusiasts, where people can participate in everything from rafting and rappelling, to paragliding and caving.  And Barichara has been named by several guide books and tourism specialists “the most beautiful colonial town in Colombia”.  I couldn’t wait!

My weekend started with an over 8-hour journey to San Gil.  I took a flight to nearby (not as near as I had thought) Bucaramanga and experienced the most stunning landing of my life.  Set high in the mountains, the Bucaramanga landing strip boasts picture-perfect peaks and valleys on every side.  I had been told that the highways out of Bogotá can be a nightmare on long weekends, so opted for the flight to save some time and frustration but the whole trip including bus transfer took just as, if not longer than the bus would have!  I arrived to San Gil late in the afternoon and immediately went walking around the town.  Having spent the last month in traffic crazed Bogotá of 9 million people, it was a nice change of pace to be in a town of no more than 50,000, where you are not covering your mouth and nose most of the time for the black smoke billowing out of the thousands of decades-old minibuses and cars.

I made friends at the hostel with a Brazilian guy and Irish girl, and we went out for dinner to a place serving a typical Colombian set menu.  It still amazes me that you can get a 4 course meal including drink in Colombia for just over $5!  That evening we hung out in the main square of town, with everyone else from San Gil for beers and good conversation.  We were joined by my hostel roommies, some French folk, who as it turns out are staying in Bogotá for several months as well, and live only 6 blocks from me!  We became friendly with some nearby boys (couldn’t have been more than 15) that were trying to convince us to chip in for some Aguardiente (translated to “firewater” for its up to 60% alcohol content).  They must have recognized the old man that was cleaning up beer cans and cups, called out something to him that none of us understood (but we now know must not have been complimentary) and the elderly man chucked a glass bottle at our group, smashing it on the sidewalk where we were sitting!  Needless to say, our group of foreigners was shocked, a little bit freaked out, and the other girl with me was bleeding slightly on her food.  We decided it was time to head back to the hostel.

Rafting was on the agenda for the next morning.  We managed to get a group of 7 from the hostel to go, it was a great activity to do together.  I hadn’t been rafting since maybe 2003 or 2004 in Ottawa.  It was a blast and we even flipped our raft, which I had never experienced before.  There were a few seconds of panic there as I fell directly on someone else in my boat and we got tousled many times over before surfacing.  I got whisked away by the current and found myself really far from my raft and my group.  Fortunately, there was another group nearby and they pulled me up into their raft.  Some of us were hoping to go paragliding that afternoon but when we returned to the hostel, found out that it had been canceled for the day due to a lack of wind.  We decided instead then to head to the beautiful colonial town, Barichara, and got a group of 8 together for the trip.  First on our list of to do’s was big-a** ant eating!  The area is also known for its production of giant size ants for human consumption.  They tasted salty, and a little bit of dirt and/or bacon, and were very crunchy.  I am quite proud that I actually managed to do it: head, legs, big-a** and all!  We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering the cobblestone streets of this quaint little village.  That night we headed out to Club Havaná to dance salsa and reggaeton.  What a perfect day!

Everyone was off to a slow start the next morning, so I opted for a visit to the local fruit market and a wander around town before attempting paragliding again that afternoon.  Fortunately, the winds and weather were right for it and we headed off, again in a group of 8.  I’m not sure if it was my air of confidence or what, but the guides ordered me up first and within 2 minutes of arriving at the site, I was off – 50, 100, 150 metres off the highest peak in the area!  It was an amazing feeling floating high above the bird and trees, weightless.  I felt quite nauseous after a few dips and turns, but managed to stay up for my 15 minutes.  Amazing!

The next morning I attempted hydrospeeding before heading back to Bogotá.  I had never even heard of hydrospeed, also known as riverboarding or white-water sledging in other parts of the world, before my weekend in San Gil.  Basically, it involves going down a river, through the rapids and all, with a big foam board, and fins.  It was really fun but more difficult than I expected.  I certainly got my upper body workout that day from trying to control the board and pull myself up for an hour and a half.  You can imagine that going through those same rapids where we flipped in the raft a few days earlier, were incredibly difficult to manage solo.  But I survived with only a few scrapes and bruises from rocks and other hydrospeeders, and felt quite proud to have again, tried something new.  There was just enough time to shower and have another delicious four course meal before heading out in the bus back to  Bucaramanga, and back again to Bogotá.  Adiós San Gil, muchisimas gracias por la hospitalidad!


Hola Colombia! June 1, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — michelleincolombia @ 9:45 pm

Wow, it’s hard to believe that I have been in Bogotá for nearly four weeks now!  I have been meaning to start this blog since Day 1 but I tend to get caught up with all that is new and exciting around me when I am traveling.  I started a travel blog one other time, when I was backpacking through Latin America in 2007 and it lasted for all of two posts!  I am determined, however, this time around to make a contribution (stories or photos) at least once a week…and I am putting this in writing to keep me honest and accountable!

So, my first impressions of Bogotá (or second – I was here once before in 2008):

1.  It is really wet – there has not been a day yet that it has not rained.  I have not gone anywhere without my umbrella and I am told this will continue indefinitely!  Unfortunately, this is the most evident effect of climate change in Bogotá.  Rainy months used to be April and August but now it is pretty much year round.

2.  The sidewalks can be dangerous.  There is an incredible number of holes and piles of dog s**t, not to mention knee-high curbs and terrible traffic that make walking in Bogotá treacherous.  I have been walking to work and home every day for the past three weeks and have yet to fall in a hole or step in some dog’s droppings (knock on wood).  The scenery is breathtaking – both literally and figuratively – at nearly 3000m above sea level, Bogotá is set to a beautiful backdrop of mountains and greenery.  The altitude wore me out for the first several days but I have now adjusted and am told that when I return to normal heights, I will feel (and act) like a superhero!

3.  The people and music are amazing.  I have several times now had to stop passerby’s for directions or ask about transit etc and they have all be incredibly generous and kind.  There have been people who walked me to my destination, invited me to their nearby home to call someone, and just in general gone out of their way to be helpful.  And I am in love with the music here.  I have been a big fan of cumbia, reggaeton, and salsa since my Latin American trip a few years ago, and it is ever-present in Bogotá and the Colombian culture.  Actually, my favourite song of that trip came from a Colombian artist named, Jorge Celedon.  His song “Esta Vida” is such a beautiful and uplifting song about his love of life and the simple things, a sentiment expressed by most Colombians.

Although exciting in their own right, my first few weeks in Bogotá have been about locating a nice apartment in a good neighborhood, getting settled in at work and finding my way around this massive city, not to mention getting a grip on this beautiful language that I haven’t spoken in three years.  Now that I am feeling settled and a little bit more confident, I am really looking forward to the next few weeks when I’ll begin taking trips outside the city….first up San Gil and Barichara!

Stay tuned 🙂