Written for Vancity Buzz by Vacay.ca writer Guillermo Serrano
Whenever I travel, I am in search of the perfect cup of coffee.
And I am not talking about coffee with aspirations to someday be dessert—the kind mixed with whip cream, drizzles and caramel or even, God forbid, pumpkin spice.
So I decided to take my coffee quest for the perfect fresh cup to Bogotá, Colombia, a vibrant city that is once again becoming a must-see destination.
After a five-hour flight from Toronto, I arrived at the capital of Colombia in the corner of South America, a city 2300 metres above the sea and hidden in the Andes mountains.
At this very central location close to restaurants, bars and shopping malls, this hotel is great for those wanting to get in and out of the area, as it is close to Carrera 15, allowing for easy movement around Bogotá’s traffic.
The place resembles an old pharmacy with glass containers, from alcohol to salts, elegantly placed around the cafe. Hardwood floors, soft lighting and a texturized ceiling complement the atmosphere. Try the Toro Latte, a gourmet coffee with notes of cocoa, vanilla, cherry and almond. Tomas Duran, who has lived in Medellín and Miami, says coffee is such a big part of the culture in Bogotá that people are always looking for unique independent coffee houses like Devoción. “It’s the neighbourhood place you go to every day and in some cases, for some people, they go a couple times a day,” he says.
Seafood lovers who want to try the best ceviche in town know this is the place to be. The interior decor, with wooden logs weaved together, gives the appearance of dining on fresh shrimp and other seafood while inside a forest.
You could go into one of the many bars and late-night stores in the area, but this iconic park is an entertainment venue on its own, with temporary art installations and cultural exhibits and festivals.
The locals consider this area as Bogotá’s little town in the city. You’ll see people bustling about the main square, Plaza de Usaquen, the location of the Iglesia de Santa Bárbara, a colonial church dating back to the 1600s. Walk over to Tienda de Café where you can have traditional breakfast, including local baked goods like almojabanas (Colombian cheese bread) and tropical fresh juice.
In this jam-packed tiny space, this independent bookstore is a treasure trove for literature lovers of all ages. The booksellers will give you personalized attention if you ask and help you discover something new – or find that old favourite you’ve been wanting to re-read.
I arrived at Catación Pública to drink a cup of coffee and I ended up having a full coffee experience. Under the guidance of a knowledgeable barista, I learned to taste, smell and appreciate the types of coffee from the different Colombian regions. The place has gained international recognition as a coffee hub and I met people from all over the world attending a coffee seminar that day, including Lee Wan, a barista aficionado from China, who came from the other side of the planet to learn about his favourite drink. “People in Hong Kong love coffee. Down there, life is in the fast lane and coffee helps us be more productive,” says Lee.
In some neighbourhoods in Bogotá, a great place to meet locals and get a meal you really can’t find elsewhere is the community centre. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one of those places where neighbours are getting together and they’ll welcome strangers as they cook Sancocho de Gallina – a Colombian soup made with chicken, potatoes, cassava, plantain and herbs. The smoky flavour from cooking the soup in a big pot over an open fire is amazing. After cooking together, everyone eats the soup served with avocado, white rice and aji (spicy pico de gallo with cilantro).
You’ve had a great meal and it’s time to hike it off at Bogota’s highest peak. Monserrate is a large staircase made out of stones. It’s as tough as the Grouse Grind, a 70-minute, three-kilometre workout that challenges your cardio. Take the funicular or cable car down ($7,500 Colombia pesos or $3.20).
This is the oldest restaurant in the country and it doesn’t have a website. But don’t worry, everyone knows where it is. During a visit to Colombia, Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, had the tamal, a slab of corn dough filled with meat and vegetables and referred to it as a “thing of beauty.”
Each Sunday from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m., certain main streets in Bogotá are blocked off for pedestrians, runners, skaters, and bicyclists. Travel along the 120 kilometres of car-free streets and you’ll encounter side acts to motivate you to keep moving, with help from aerobics instructors, yoga teachers and musicians. I rode my bike for 90 minutes from the north end of Bogotá all the way to downtown. During the ride, I made stops for tropical fruits and all kind of healthy snacks from street vendors.
In downtown Bogotá I went to Museo del Oro, the most famous museum in Colombia. It contains more than 55,000 pieces of gold and other materials from all the major pre-Hispanic cultures and early colonial period of what is now Colombia. The collection is so overwhelming that the helpful guided tours are a necessity. You’ll learn about history, cultures, gold and how the peoples of the region created objects and rituals that allowed them to get through their days.
Inside the Gold Museum is San Alberto Café. I ordered a single origin medium roast ground café. For an amateur coffee connoisseur like me, the “siphon” brewing method they used looked more like a ritual to obtain the secret flavours within the coffee bean.
The architecture of the historic neighbourhood downtown is full of old houses, churches and buildings with Spanish colonial heritage. My favourite is “Chorro de Quevedo.” This tiny plaza with a water fountain and a mini church is the birthplace of Bogotá in 1538.
This restaurant chain started in Bogotá and has spread to other countries, but sadly isn’t yet here in Canada. My favourite is the “Marco Polo Panne Cook”, a crepe filled with prawns in the house sauce. The restaurant’s desserts are also famous, especially their “Crepes y Waffles Fondue” which is five flavours of ice cream. A full-course lunch costs $15.
Botero’s world is chubby: hands, oranges, women, moustached men, children, birds and politicians. You don’t need to be an art connoisseur to relate and enjoy the robust Botero’s paintings at the museum. There are also exhibited works by Picasso, Chagall, Renoir, Monet and Miró, and some sculptures by Dalí.
A live band welcomes you to this open concept, colourful and fun restaurant. The place is like a market filled with kiosks specializing in seafood, salads, meats, desserts and juices. I ordered “ceviche de camarón y pescado”, raw seafood marinated in fresh lime juice, spices and cilantro, long enough to give it a cooked texture, with sides of “patacon,” waffle-size fried plantain, and a generous helping of guacamole. For a drink, try the “lulada”, a bitter tropical fruit in chunks sweetened with raw sugar. There’s always room for dessert, so try the Colombian specialty of “cuajada con melao” – curd cheese with sugar cane syrup.
A friend recommended having coffee at Juan Valdez Café but he warned me, “You will have electricity coming out of your fingers after a cup of coffee there.” So before taking my plane back home, I went and enjoyed the rich chocolate flavour and rainforest aroma of the Nariño Café latte. And he was right – the coffee did have an electrical zing and gave me a jolt of memories of a city filled with surprises.