Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Raspado, Shaved Ice Drink Heaven

What works best on a hot day, when your mouth is dry and your body is overheating?
A fizzy drink, that doesn’t quite hit that mark and leaves your mouth dry 5 minutes later.
A bottle of water, that may cool you down for a while but just doesn’t satisfy you.
Well in Cartagena there are vendors wandering around with rickety old carts, loaded with bottles of fruit syrups and big blocks of ice waiting to refresh your spirit.
The drink is called Raspado. It literally means grated or shaved, and in this case it’s the ice that is shaved.
A block of ice is shaved into a bowl by an ancient machine that may have been used to do the same thing in his grandfather’s day. The vendor scoops the shaved ice into a paper cup and a fruit syrup of your choice is poured over the top and allowed to soak in. To finish it off, condensed milk is drizzled over.
It’s sweet and fruity, it definitely cools you down and it so hits the mark.
It is an act of faith that the ice is made from clean water, but as people in the Americas have slightly stronger stomachs than us folk in Europe or North America, no one seems to give it a second thought. I seem to have an iron stomach after so many years of travelling in Asia, so I survived this near death experience, as someone would call it.
The choice of syrups was numerous. I choose mora (loganberry), as they are the only berries that you can buy in Medellin, well apart from unripe yellow strawberries and I’d become kinda addicted to its tart taste.
The condensed milk adds a sweetness that works well on this cooling sweet drink. It went down very well, and it was cheap, which in Colombia makes it a hit.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Cartagena – A Very Welcome Change

To say the food in Cartagena was a welcome change is a bit of an understatement. After 6 months of eating nothing but rice, beans and over grilled tough, tasteless meat. La Costa was a slice of paradise. Why we never came here before is beyond me. It really is.
The city is divided into 2 parts. The old walled city, and everything else.
Everything else seemed like anywhere else in Colombia or the Caribbean for that matter. A large, noisy, chaotic, mad city. My kind of town.
The old walled city is like stepping back in time. Well kinda. It’s a piece of paradise.
It is one of the largest and best preserved old cities I have ever been to. There were very few dilapidated buildings around. Everything was well maintained, streets were clean. Not too much traffic. Actually sometimes I had to pinch myself to remember I was still in Colombia.
The food in the old city is a lot better on average than say in Medellin. As they cater to tourists more, the restaurants are a bit modern looking also. Food is a bit more modern too. No beans, rice and meat here. Well kinda, as the menu of the day on the coast is very different from the interior.
The menu del dia on the coast is coconut rice, fried and squashed crispy plantain, and fried or grilled fish, plus the typical Colombia salad. That never changes.
The coconut rice is cooked with a coconut paste, which is derided from a fresh coconut and fried till a dark brown colour. This is then added to the rice and coconut milk and cooked in the normal way. It ends up a dark brown colour but with a fantastic coconut flavour.
Take a green plantain. Cut it in 2cm thick slices. Deep fry it. Then squash it in a machine similar to a tortilla press, but smaller. Then deep fry it again till crispy. Sprinkle it with garlic salt and there you have a patacon. It should resemble a large gold coin. So named after the money of the Spanish colonial era.
The fish is any that is fresh that day. Either fried or grilled. Sometimes over done, but thankfully most of ours was done just right. All this is finished off with a small salad. It’s a Colombian tradition to serve salad with everything. Ask my mother-in-law.
All washed down with a freshly made fruit juice. Not bad for a maximum of £3.
But Colombians are very traditional, inward looking people and I could after six months that I’d be just as mad here as Medellin. Well maybe not, but you get the drift.
But they do offer other coastal delights in the menu del dia. Plus a lot more different items on their a la carte menus, than your normal eatery in the mountains.
As we were in Cartagena in the off season, we missed the Miss Colombia extravaganza by a week or so. Bummer. We actually saw the “supposed” most beautiful woman in Colombia one day. It’s amazing what a touch of make up can do to a woman. As she looked a little rough in the flesh. She was never my choice, but what do I know, I’m not an obsessed observer.
Anyhows, Cartagena was a little empty. A lot of restaurants were empty, with a few jammed packed. As they were in the best areas of the old city.
One of the best and fun places we ate at, was called “Pizza en el Parque”. The pizza was pretty good, but you just sat on a wall opposite the small hole in the wall. The pizza was delivered to you and put on a stool in front of you. The pizzas were good, beer was cold and the prices cheap. Plus you had the added bonus of watching the world go by as you ate. A favourite pass time of mine. The place had some odd combos. Like pears and apple. Please. But we had a good time none the less.
Also big on the coast is Cazuela de Mariscos. A coconut flavoured stew jam packed with fish and shell fish. The ones we had were thick, flavourful and crammed with fish. Yum yum.
Cartagena is possibly the most expensive city in Colombia, but you pay for the location mostly and it was well worth the extra expense. I just wish we’d gone there years ago. As I’m sure we would have headed straight to la coasta instead of the mountains. Hey ho. We know for next time.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Cartagena – There and Back again. A Journey by Bus.

For some strange reason, I had never been to Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Shameful I know. Even more shameful is that I had never set foot in the old walled city of Cartagena. I’m told that you have to visit Cartagena or you’ve never been to Colombia.
So as we have decided to leave Colombia and return to Europe. I felt I had to see this wondrous city at least once. I wish I’d done it 10 years ago. What had I been missing?
So on the spur of the moment, we decided to take a trip there. But how were we going to travel there? By plane. As we only decided to go about 72 hours before hand. It would have been very unlikely that any seats would have been available. But as Colombia is hideously expensive to travel in, especially by air. We shelved that idea. So the only alternative was by bus. 12 hours it was then.
Thankfully for this long journey the buses are pretty good. Air-con, not by Malaysian standards, where without thermal underwear and artic socks, you will get a touch of frostbite. That actually happened to me once in a cinema in KL.
We were told by the two bus companies that have the best buses between Medellin and Cartagena, that the journey time was 12 or 13 hours.
We took the early morning bus from Terminal del Norte. Amazingly busy at 6am. I’m sure I haven’t woken up before 7am since we arrived to Colombia back in May. It was difficult to say the least, and I slept the first 3 hours on the bus.
Now, on all buses I have travelled on in my many travels in the world. The buses always stop somewhere enroute for us weary passengers to grab a breath of fresh air, stretch our legs and grab a bite to eat.
Amazingly this driver only decided to stop once. At 9am in the freezing heights near Yarumal. A beautiful town, set upon the slopes of a mountain.
The pit stop we stopped at was a normal place where they sell overpriced bad food. Couldn’t face anything, except a bad empanada and a papa rellena. Why people sell shit food at truck stops amazes me. Especially when it’s so expensive.
This was our only stop of the day. The driver later reckoned he told us to eat all we could, as we weren’t stopping. He finally relented at 3pm, and gave us an extra 5 minutes somewhere in La Costa to buy a few treats.
The trip through the mountains, plains and finally the Caribbean coast of Colombia took us over 15 hours. I was climbing the walls to get off it.
We passed some great towns, like Piedras (Stones), Planeta Rica (Rich Planet). The scenery was pretty spectacular as well, going from mountains to plains to coast.
Thankfully I had my Ipod with me, and was catching up on 3 weeks off podcasts. Got my fill of Premiership football.
When we finally arrived, the heat that greeted me was like a slap in the face. Damn it was hot, and this was nearing 9pm.
After a blissful week there. The return journey over night was blissfully smooth and short.
It took me a week to persuade Lina to travel by night, as she was still remembering the dark times in Colombian history, where travelling by night included the extra entertainment of being robbed by bandits.
Thankfully nowadays under the leadership of this president, those days are long gone. Hopefully never to return.