Buenos Aires: The Steak-Eating Chronicles

If you know a few basic things about Argentina, chances are you’ve heard about its abundance of red meat and red wine. During our first twelve days in the country, all spent in the beautiful city of Buenos AIres, we ate and drank our share of beef and malbec at various parillas, aka Argentine steakhouses. Most of it was pretty darn good.

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Here are a few things we learned along the way about eating at parillas.

  • Generally speaking, unless you’re famished or a raging carnivore, one steak between two people will be more than enough to fill you up. The steaks are often close to a pound and sometimes even heftier, and although Zevi claimed he could eat a whole one himself, I seriously doubt that I could have. You’ll also be given lots of free bread, which is perfect for sopping up that extra steak juice.
  • Order the provoleta, which I think might actually be the best part of the parilla experience. That’s sacreligious, I know, but a hunk of melty grilled cheese with a caramelized crunchy crust will make you say some crazy things. I know that having more protein with your protein might seem a little over the top, but you don’t want to miss out on this. Topped with some olive oil and a bit of dried oregano, provoleta gives halloumi a serious run for its money in the grilled cheese department.
  • When you order a steak, the assumption will be made that you want it cooked medium, or a punto. Your server won’t ask you how you want it done, so if you don’t say anything that’s how it’ll come. If you like your meat a little more red on the inside, ask for your steak to be cooked jugoso, and you’ll get something that’s more in the neighbourhood of rare to medium rare. I like my meat to be almost mooing, so we ordered it this way almost every time. It’s worth noting, though, that the one time we forgot to say the magic word, the steak was still extremely tender even though it was cooked through a little bit more. As someone who would never dream of ordering a medium steak, I was very pleasantly surprised.

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While all of the steaks we ate were pretty top notch specimens, El Desnivel in the neighbourhood of San Telmo was head and shoulders above the rest. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that we never went to parillas expecting great service or trendy atmosphere. We were there for the steak, and the steak at El Desnivel was, without question, the best slab of beef I’ve ever eaten. It was so unbelievably tender that you could almost cut it with a spoon. The texture was close to what you’d get from something that was slow cooked or marinated for hours, even though our steak had gone through neither of those processes. I don’t know how they do it! I’m usually not the one who super excited about steak – that’s Zevi’s territory – but this one had me wishing we’d ordered a second one. We have an extra day in BA before our flight leaves for Chile in a couple of weeks, and I’m hoping that maybe we’ll be able to sneak over to El Desnivel to see if their meat is just as tender and juicy the second time around

Las Cabras in Palermo Hollywood was the first parilla that we tried. The outdoor seating there was great, although we were lucky to snag a table as it filled up pretty soon after we got there around 9:00. And, yes, that is a very normal time to eat dinner in Buenos Aires, if not a little on the early side. We had a great bottle of Malbec and enjoyed sitting outside watching the hustle and bustle around us. Unfortunately the food didn’t live up to the atmosphere, and the steak, although still good, wasn’t among the best we had. I did like that you could order a sharing board, where the steak came with cheese, fries, and some other vegetables. It was our first time trying provoleta, and although I liked it at the time, I realized later that it wasn’t a very good iteration as it was cold rather than warm and melty.

Don Julio came highly recommended and was the fanciest of the parillas we tried. While most of those that we visited might be described as a close cousin to the Canadian”family restaurant”, with fluorescent lighting and little-to-no ambience, this place was more upscale, with dark wood accents and a large and very elegant bar. The prices reflected this, and although our meal was good, I didn’t think it was good enough to warrant paying almost double what we’d spent elsewhere. Sitting outside at 11:00PM eating delicious meat and cheese as we watched the world go by was certainly novel, but it’s also something we could have done at countless other places and had more pesos left in our wallet to show for it.

In the Recoleta neighbourhood we checked out Rodi Bar. The grilled peppers were garlicky and perfectly roasted, the wine was affordable and delicious, and the provoleta was delectably crispy. The star of the show is the steak, though, and it was good, but nothing I’ll remember.

Near the end of our stay we finally tried El Trapiche. I say finally, because it was half a block from our door, and we’d been walking past the sign proclaiming the 10% discount if you pay with cash for days. We gratefully scarfed down the mixed salad that came alongside our striploin, as all the steak and cheese had us craving a little bit of greenery. The meat was middle of the road – certainly nothing to complain about, but not coming up to El Desnivel’s high levels of deliciousness.

We’ve only scratched the surface of the parilla experience. I’d still like to try some of the tougher cuts of meat, like skirt and flank steak, and I might just be brave enough to sample some of the entrails that are commonly grilled up, although I know that Zevi won’t be up for that. Luckily we still have a couple more weeks in Argentina, so there’s plenty more time to appease our inner carnivores.

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Modern History in Cusco

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Most people come to Cusco to see the remnants of history that lie in and around it. If you’re in to that sort of thing, you certainly won’t be disappointed. The city and its surrounding area have enough Inca-age stones to fill a hundred Peru Rail train cars and still have some to spare. If you want a peek into ancient times, the era before the Europeans broke on to the scene and altered the course of the Americas, you’ll find it there.

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That’s not all that Cusco has to offer, though. Despite the hordes of camera-toting tour groups and hiking boot-clad foreigners, or perhaps even because of them, Cusco holds a lot of charm and beauty. The centre of the city is very walkable, and holds more quality restaurants than we came across during all of our time in Colombia combined. Viewpoints offer panoramas of strikingly orange clay tile-roofed buildings that stretch as far as the eye can see. The absence of modern glass and steel structures on the skyline lead you to imagine that you really could be a couple hundred years back in time.

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As Cusqueños get squeezed out of their downtown by high end hotels and yet another tour office, they respond by trying any number of creative money making solutions. Women in traditional clothing sit at every corner selling everything from snacks to cell phone minutes. Llamas on leashes stand with their owners, waiting for their photo opp. Teenagers strum away at guitars on busy pedestrian streets, hoping for some coins to drop in to their case. Girls carry baby goats in costume, trying to entice tourists to pose for a picture. It’ll cost you, of course. Travellers, far more than I’ve seen anywhere else on our trip, are streaming in with full pockets, and these opportunists are hoping that some of the cash will trickle down to them.

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I’m often turned off by places that seem overly tourist oriented, but somehow Cusco managed to keep me in its clutches. Even after five days, I wasn’t tired of walking down its narrow cobblestone streets, some of which are still partially intact from the Inca days, or taking in those orange roofs from above. If you look past the groups of guidebook-studiers and iPad picture takers, it’s pretty easy to get swept away by the mix of colonial-era cathedrals and Inca remnants that you’ll come across at every turn.

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Machu Picchu

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The big kahuna. The mustest of the must sees. The one place among all places in our three month trip that we knew we absolutely could not miss. That’s where we were set to head two weeks ago. It was finally time to go to Machu Picchu.

For all of the importance we and everyone else put upon it, you’d think we’d have made sure all of our ducks were in a row a little further in advance than the night before. We happened to do a quick check on how ticketing would work for the train ride we’d be taking to get there, and came to the stomach-dropping realization that we needed to have printed tickets to get on the train. Oh no. It was 9:30 on Saturday night and we needed to get up before 5 the next morning to make it to the train on time. In the age of e-tickets and smartphones we barely put a second of thought in to printing these days, but there was no getting around it this time. Some frantic searching and help from various policemen finally led us to what felt like the holy grail – an Internet Cafe with a printer. We were going to make it to Machu Picchu after all.

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The three hour Vistadome class Peru Rail train ride was very pleasant on our way to Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu pueblo. We got a nice little breakfast, only minimal Peru Rail product pushing, and some great descriptions of the areas we were passing through. Be prepared to pay a premium for this train trip – even the cheapest class of train was upwards of $75 Canadian per person each way. Machu Picchu is like Paris. They know you’re going to visit no matter what so they don’t hesitate to charge you an arm and a leg for your trouble. In both cases it’s all worth it when you get there, though, so all you can do is try and forget about your quickly-emptying wallet and enjoy.

We could have saved a bit of money and done the two hour walk up to the site, but we were worried about running short on time and exhausting our legs before having to climb the long flights of stairs at Machu Picchu. Instead, we hopped on the bus for the half-hour trip up a series of sharp switchbacks that revealed more amazing mountain views at every turn. And then, there it was. Or at least a little corner of it.

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The skies decided to open up just as we arrived at the entrance gate, but we refused to let it dampen our enthusiasm. We tried to stay upbeat, anyways. To be honest, we were a little worried that it would rain all day and that we really wouldn’t be able to get any good pictures at all. You know what they say – pics or it didn’t happen, right? Luckily, the rainclouds didn’t stop us from getting what I can only describe as a jaw-dropping view as we got a little ways in to the site. To think about how much work it must have taken to bring all of those stones up to that isolated spot and painstakingly place them to form buildings and public spaces, well, it’s pretty mind blowing. Pictures really don’t do justice to the magnitude of Machu Picchu. The fact that it’s so well preserved after all this time is pretty astonishing as well. There’s been some restoration work done, but much of the structures are just as they were when the Incas lived in them hundreds of years ago, unlike so many of the structures that were hugely changed or mostly destroyed by the conquering Spanish. To be able to see something still so intact from that time was quite the priviledge.

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After spending the first two or three hours carefully sheltering our cameras from the the rain drops and trying to get some good shots through the clouds, the skies began to lighten. More and more patches of blue sky started to appear, and then the sun came out! You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief throughout the site as people shed their ponchos and felt their wet feet starting to dry. And let’s be honest, rain jackets don’t exactly provide the most flattering silhouette in photos. We went back up to the top near the caretaker’s hut and enjoyed the incredible cloud-free view.

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I feel so fortunate that we got the chance to see Machu Picchu on this trip. Getting stuck behind a twenty person tour group as you walk around can be frustrating – it’s certainly not one of those hidden gems that you’ll have to yourself. That’s the price you pay for getting to see a wonder like this, though, and I’d say it’s worth it.

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Salinas de Maras

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Anyone who’s been to the Cusco area can probably attest to the fact that it can be overwhelming trying to figure out what to see and do. There’s so much ancient history and so many different preserved cultural sites that you see something different every day for a week and still not cover it all. We knew we’d go to Machu Picchu, but what else should we see? Our time was relatively limited and we didn’t want to blow our budget, so we had to choose wisely.

We thought about getting the boleto turistico, a ticket that allows you to see a number of different Inca ruins for a set price over either one or a few days. It wasn’t cheap, though, and we realized that as interesting some people might consider them, we didn’t actually want to spend our time and precious soles travelling around seeing a bunch of different old stone structures. It’s probably a bit sacrilegious for me to admit that, but it’s the truth. The fact that most of the sites apparently don’t have much in the way of signage so they’d be pretty meaningless without a guide, which we couldn’t really afford, was another reason for us to skip them. There’s often a lot of value in seeing the stuff that everyone says you have to see, but it also pays to realize that you don’t need to do everything that Lonely Planet recommends. Anyone else struggle with this?

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We ultimately decided to veer a little bit off the beaten path on one of our Cusco days and head to Salinas de Maras. The Salinas are a grouping of hundreds of salt pools owned and harvested by the surrounding community. This spot wasn’t on our radar at all until we saw it a little ways down Trip Advisor’s Top Attractions in Cusco list, but we were intrigued by the pictures and the fact that it was something different from the Inca ruins we knew we’d be seeing lots of already. After doing some more research on how to get there, and with a bit of guidance from our hostel owner, we were on our way.

You know that old saying, “sometimes the journey is more important than the destination”? Well, our destination on this day was pretty incredible, but the journey was also a major part of the adventure. We’d been told that in order to catch a collectivo, basically a large shared taxi van, we’d need to go down a certain street. We didn’t have many details about how the system worked, but we were under the impression we should just watch for a van driving by and flag it down. After waiting on a street that seemed all too quiet for twenty minutes or so we decided we’d better walk down the block and ask someone for more guidance, only to discover that there was a guy very obviously advertising the destinations we were looking for. It’s a good thing we decided to move, or we would have been stuck waiting a block away out of luck!

Unfortunately we were some of the first to get in the van, so we had to wait almost an hour for it to fill up. Despite the driver’s yells and assurances to passersby that we only had two seats left to fill even when there were actually five or six empty, travellers were slow to trickle in. When we finally had a full house, we were on our way.

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Another moment of confusion came when it was time for us to get off the bus. Based on what our hostel owner had told us, we thought we should disembark in the town of Urubamba and then take a cab to Salinas de Maras from there. Our bus driver disagreed when we told him where we we were going, though, saying that we should have gotten off much earlier. Oops. He insisted that we get back in the van and instead let us off at a small dirt road, pointing to a trail zigzagging up a mountain and telling us that we should walk up that way. Okay…? He drove off and left us standing on the side of a deserted rural Peruvian road feeling more confused than ever. We weren’t mentally prepared for any kind of hiking that day, and we really didn’t know if his estimate of ten to fifteen minutes was accurate for us, or whether it applied more to people who were a little more adept at climbing in high altitudes. Needless to say, we were a little concerned, but we didn’t really have much of a choice, so we headed towards the trail he’d pointed out. Luckily the locals we encountered were very kind and were quick to give us guidance when they sensed our confusion. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the landscape was in the area, and I was happy to marvel at the desert covered mountains even if it did mean climbing a little more than we’d bargained for.

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As it turned out, his estimate really wasn’t that far off and we spotted Salinas de Maras little more than twenty minutes after we’d set off. From the first moment we laid eyes on it, we were both in awe. Rows and rows of salt water ponds covered the hills for a kilometre or more. The contrast between the white salt “walls” of the pools and the water, which came in shades from dark brown to light blue, was incredibly striking. As an added bonus, we basically had the area to ourselves, other than a few groups of locals that were working to harvest the salt. They were very kind and had no problem with us walking around as they worked and taking pictures. And we certainly weren’t stingy with the pictures. Every few steps we were struck by a different angle and perspective on this amazing place.

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Salinas de Maras will most definitely go down as one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen. It may be a little bit off the beaten path, but in an area so saturated with tourists I’m shocked that it’s not more heavily visited. Add the fact that it only costs seven soles to enter to it’s very unique beauty, and there’s no reason not to go if you’re in the Cusco area. Just make sure you’ve got a handle on the transportation situation before you go. Or don’t, because sometimes getting a little bit lost makes for the best stories.

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Travelling and Making Connections

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We’ve had plenty of opportunities to meet new people on our trip. Staying in hostels and going on walking tours and taking classes has introduced us to people from around the world, and it’s really neat to be able to share stories with others who are often doing something similar to what we are. They fill us in on what hostels to stay in and what walking tours to go on and what classes to take at our next destinations, and we explain that no, Colombia is not actually a dangerous places filled with drugs and crime, and tell them about the wonders of La Seranna and Tejo and the Medellin walking tour, among other things. Other travellers have really been our most valuable resource when it comes to finding our way to the best spots on this trip. Hopefully we’ve been able to help some people along the way as well.

At home it’s so easy to stick within our cozy circle of friends, who we love and miss, and rarely do I find myself making what I would consider to be a new friend. Meeting people on the road is drastically different, and friendships can form pretty instantaneously. Since we’re all so far from home, everyone’s thirsty for some kind of connection outside of the person we’ve been travelling with for who knows how long, and that makes us all so much more eager to open ourselves up to new people in a way that we wouldn’t at home. We also have nothing to lose. If it turns out that the guy sitting next to us at breakfast rubs us the wrong way it’s no big deal, because there’s a good chance we’ll never see him again. Travel friendships are like one night stands – they get serious quickly, but they’re over in a blink of an eye. You might exchange some contact info, but chances are you’ll have trouble remembering each other’s names in a few months.

We may not share many interests and might never have connected in our day to day lives, but we do have one thing in common: we love to travel. That’s enough to at least get us talking. Zevi and I often joke about the “traveller conversation” that almost always covers the following topics.

- Nationality
– How long we’re travelling for. Most people at home thought that three months was a long time to be gone, but the majority of the people we’ve talked to are on the road for longer than that.
– What point we’re at on our respective trips, and when we’re going home.
– Where we’re going and where we’ve been.
– Whether or not we quit our jobs, and what we do, or did, for a living.

Sometimes we find that we have more in common and the conversation continues, and sometimes there’s nothing more to talk about and we go our separate ways. At times I find it incredibly exhausting to keep starting from scratch with new people at each new stop. It’s like doing a phone interview with a potential employer every four days – the conversation is superficial and you’re trying not to make a fool of yourself because you’re hoping that maybe they’ll want to talk to you again (we usually avoid talking about salary expectations, though). We keep at it because it’s worth it when you find the right fit and things just click. This certainly doesn’t happen everywhere we go, but we’ve been lucky to meet a few really great people along the way.

I’ve come to realize that for us as humans, connection is everything. We’re always trying to build a bridge, to find that commonality that brings us together and allows us to relate to each other. Sometimes it’s easy to find, and sometimes it just isn’t there, but we’ll try and try again to create those fleeting bonds that travel can foster.

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At the Peruvian Market

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Markets are always high on my list of places to visit. Being a lover of food, I find it so interesting to see the things that people are selling that are different from what I might see at home. Markets, at least here in Peru, are also a good place to get some relief from the touristy mayhem that surrounds us a lot of the time. It’s nice to go to a place where locals are actually going about their day to day lives and people are selling things to their neighbours rather than hawking them to foreigners. Even though we’re surrounded by them, I often find it difficult to actually get an idea of how Peruvians spend their days, especially in places like Cusco where you probably see two or three tourists for every Cusqueno in the downtown area. Going to the market is an easy way to get a small window into their world.

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I love my hometown farmers markets, but these present a completely different shopping experience. There’s no mention of where the food comes from, how it was grown, or how far it had to travel to get to us. One woman did tell me that the strawberries she was selling were organic, but that was the only time I saw or heard that word, which is so commonly thrown around in North America. Everything’s just a little bit, or maybe even a lot, more chaotic. Stuff is piled everywhere, and sometimes it’s hard to even find the stall keeper hidden behind rows and rows of vegetables or fruit or mammoth bags of grains.

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Pretty much everything you could ever need can be found at the market. Need a hat? You’ve got a choice between about a hundred different types. Pots and pans? They’re piled sky high in every shape and size. Want some snacks for the road? Huge bulk bins of chips, crackers, dried fruits, and other sweet and salty snacks are waiting to be emptied. The market in Puerto Maldonado even had a row of ladies repairing clothing at sewing machines. It really is a one stop shop.

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The meat section is pretty astonishing. Whole chickens reach out at you with their sharp talons, looking ready to claw you if they were only still able to run around. A pig’s head sits smiling at you on one counter, and a pile of cows noses perches on another. Every part of the animal, from testicles to stomach to intestines, to regular old steaks, is represented. The army of flies and lack of refrigeration made me feel a bit reluctant to buy anything, but really, what do I know?

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Though I didn’t get a photo, I don’t think I’ll forget the old, wrinkled woman sitting on the ground selling frogs legs at the Cusco market any time soon. You just never know what you’re going to find at a Peruvian market, and I think that’s why I find them so fascinating.

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Lima: La Mar Cebicheria

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Whew, I’m behind! We’re leaving Peru in a couple of days, and I haven’t even written anything about it yet. How did that happen?

Peru has been an amazing whirlwind of outdoor adventures and some cool cities, too. We also both got sick, which put a bit of a damper on things for a few days, but we still managed to make the best of our time here. Two and a half weeks certainly doesn’t feel like long enough to explore this country. We’ve seen and done so much but it feels like there’s way more to explore. I guess we’ll just have to come back ;).

Our first stop in Peru was Lima. We’d heard very few good things about Peru’s capital, and many people told us they’d only stayed for a night or skipped it altogether. I was keen to go, though, because I’d heard that Lima has a pretty amazing food scene, and you know that that’s what it’s all about for me.

After staying in hostel that was so social, our Lima guesthouse was a bit of a shock, as it was very quiet and small. We stayed in the neighbourhood of Miraflores, which is one of the wealthier Lima suburbs filled with American fast food chains and big shopping malls. It also holds a huge number of Lima’s best restaurants, which is obviously why we chose to stay there.

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Many of the award-winning restaurants in the city were a stretch for our backpacker budget, but there was one highly touted restaurant I thought our wallets could handle. La Mar Cebicheria, part of Gaston Acurio’s empire that spans Peru and beyond, was first on my list and I didn’t want to waste any time, so on our first afternoon in Lima we walked a few blocks from our hotel and arrived at this very hip spot. We weren’t the only ones excited for some great ceviche – the restaurant was packed when we got there and we were told that it would be an hour before we could be seated. We’d been expecting to wait a while so that wasn’t a problem, especially since we were able to order some pisco sours and snack on cancha salada. I can thank La Mar for bringing my addiction to those crunchy, salty pieces of corn.

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We got lucky and snagged a table after only half an hour, which was probably a good thing because I might have eaten my weight in cancha salada otherwise. There were more free snacks waiting for us when we sat down, so we munched on sweet potato and plantain chips with a bunch of dips while we decided what to order. As we discovered that day and have witnessed since, Peru’s restaurants aren’t stingy on the freebies! Our waiter spoke very good English and the restaurant even had full English menus – this isn’t exactly a prime hangout spot for the locals. Deciding what to order was no easy task. In the end, I went with the ceviche trio so that I could sample a few different things, which is exactly how I like to eat. I wish more restaurants offered three mini portions in one so I wouldn’t always have to eat off of Zevi’s plate. Who are we kidding? I’d still do that.

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The trio came with a classic fish ceviche, a mixed seafood ceviche, and a Japanese-inspired, or nikkei, ceviche. The texture of the fish was beautiful and the pieces were cut to perfectly uniform size. The classic was, well, classic. It had the typical flavours you’d expect in a ceviche – lots of bright lime and some raw but slightly softened onions for textural contrast. I really liked this one, and Zevi had a full portion of the classic and enjoyed it as well. The seafood was my least favourite. I didn’t love the taste or the texture of the octopus and shrimp nearly as much as the fish, but I did like the spicier broth they came in. It’s not something I would rush to order again, but it certainly wasn’t bad. The nikkei, on the other hand was something else. Isn’t it great when you find out you’ve saved the best for last? Being a sucker for Asian flavours, it’s no surprised that this tuna was far and away my favourite. The broth was a little less acidic and a little more salty, and brought to mind the flavours of tuna sashimi dipped in soy sauce. There was still some citrusy brightness, though, and the onions appeared again for the all-important crunch. I could have eaten four bowls of that and probably would have still wanted more!

All in all, La Mar lived up to my high expectations and then some. It’s not somewhere we’d eat every day on a trip like this, but the prices really weren’t exorbitant considering the quality of the food. I’ve had ceviche a couple of times since and, while it’s been good, it certainly hasn’t come up to the bar that La Mar set for me. The restaurant has a location in San Francisco, which is a little closer to home, so I can hold out hope that maybe I’ll be able to try that nikkei ceviche again sooner rather than later.

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Sacha Mama Coffee Tour

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Coffee. I can’t live without it. Well, I can – I don’t think I’m one of those people who’s super addicted to caffeine and can’t go a day without having a cup, but I certainly don’t like to. Our experience with coffee in Colombia was definitely not what you’d expect from one of the top coffee exporters in the world. We had some decent cups, but for the most part Colombia doesn’t really have a cafe culture as they export the majority of their good stuff. It seems that the beans are just too valuable to keep in the country for the average joe to consume. Luckily I had done some reading beforehand so we knew that this would be the case and weren’t overly disappointed.

We were pretty excited to get to the coffee growing region of Colombia, though, because we knew we’d be able to get a little bit more up close and personal with the coffee and hopefully try some right from the source. Getting something straight from the source is almost always better, right? That’s what all of those farm to table pundits would have us believe, anyways. I tend to agree with them, so I was looking forward to touring a real live working coffee farm.

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We originally thought we’d go to a farm where there was an English speaking tour available, since Zevi’s understanding of Spanish is pretty basic. After talking to some of our new friends at the hostel, though, and doing some googling and trip advisor-ing (something we spend many an hour doing these days), we found out that that tour was short and pretty bare bones. Our hostel advertised another tour at a farm called Sacha Mama that came highly recommended, and although there wasn’t an English speaking guide, we’d gotten the sense that Zevi could get by with some translation from me and some slow talking from the guide. We set off from La Seranna through farmers fields and past some very friendly dogs who just couldn’t get enough of Zevi. Two hours later, we arrived at Sacha Mama, very hot and sweaty from the humidity and ready to get caffeinated!

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After Pedro, the owner of Sacha Mama, invited us to sit down for a much needed rest and some birdwatching, we tasted our first cup of his coffee. It was incredible. Not only was it by far the best coffee I had in Colombia, it was one of the best things I ate or drank while I was there, period. I couldn’t believe how much depth of flavour it had. There were so many different notes to it, and I didn’t miss the milk at all. With stuff this good, I don’t think I’d drink it any other way but black! I most definitely went back for seconds, and would have gone for thirds and fourths if I wasn’t trying to be a little bit polite.

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Once we were adequately recovered from our trek and had savoured our first cups of delicious java, we went out to explore Pedro’s land. When he bought the farm several years ago, he didn’t plan on turning it into a tourist enterprise. His main goal was to restore the land back to its natural state. He told us that while the area was once filled with coffee farms, coffee prices crashed in the eighties, prompting most of the farmers to forgo their former crop in favour of raising cows. Cattle farming isn’t necessarily as lucrative, but it’s much less labour intensive, and you don’t have to put so much cash in up front for machinery and farmhand wages. Much of Pedro’s land had been used as cow pasture, and a lot of the natural jungle had been cut down so that grass could grow in its place. There was still some evidence of this, but bit by bit, Pedro and his family have been guiding the land back to dense forest filled with a myriad of plants, trees, and bushes. In slow and clear Spanish, and always mindful to give us time to translate if necessary, Pedro quizzed us on different kinds of fruits, roots, seeds and weeds to help us gain a better appreciation for the environment. He explained that his coffee plants are scattered throughout the jungle, unlike most commercial farms where plants are in more traditional rows, in order to maintain the integrity of the land.

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It was time for lunch, and Pedro’s wife had made us a delicious vegetarian soup with a side of crunchy tostones, and pineapple for desert. It was so nice to eat a vegetable based meal after a lot of meat and starch-heavy fare through the rest of our time in Colombia. Many of the fruits and veggies had been grown in their garden, so they were about as fresh as can be.

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The next part of the tour was my favourite. We headed up to a little shack where Pedro prepares all of his coffee beans, and got to see the full process from the removal of the husks, to roasting, to drying, to grinding, to consumption (my very favourite, obviously). Pedro only sells his coffee to the fourty-some guests a month that come for tours, so it’s a pretty small scale affair. As he roasted the beans at temperatures upwards of 200 degrees celcius, he got us to notice the different smells that emanated from the machine. During the majority of the process it didn’t really smell at all like coffee – I even detected the smell of popcorn at one point. He also took the beans out of the roaster at various points during the process so that we could watch them turn from a dull green, to golden, to light brown, and then finally to the dark brown we’ve all come to recognize as coffee coloured. After the beans had cooled they were ground and we got to try the brew once again. As you might imagine, it was just as amazing as the first time.

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As the tour came to a close, we bagged up our own beans to take with us (for an extra $20 Canadian or so). The coffee was so delicious that we couldn’t resist giving up some of our precious backpack space to squish one bag in. I’m excited to enjoy it in Calgary and recall the amazing time we had drinking it on the land where it was grown.

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Hiking the Valle de Cocora

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When we set out to hike the Valle de Cocora near Salento, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. We had heard reports of the trail being extremely muddy and people having to rent gumboots in order to make it through without getting completely soaked. A couple days before, it had poured rain, and people who had gone that day told us that they basically weren’t able to see anything. None of them seemed very enthused about the trek. Others we spoke to told us that it was a relatively easy stroll and that they got through it in four hours with no problem. The map that our hostel gave us told us it would fall somewhere in the five to six hour range, so we were more confused than ever about how long it would take us to make the loop. With our fingers crossed for a sunny day and dry trails, we squished in to a Willy’s jeep with six others adventurers and headed off to see what awaited us.

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After about half an hour of bumpy roads in the squishy jeep front seat listening to the sounds of made-up songs strummed on a guitar by a Chilean fellow traveller, we reached the beginning of the trail. The first section took us through and between farmers’ fields, past horses grazing and cows happily hanging out in the long grasses. The trail wasn’t overly difficult right off the bat. There were some muddy sections and a lot of uneven rocky spots that made me glad to be wearing the hiking boots I’d been complaining about carrying around for the last couple of weeks, but it was relatively flat. The palm trees towered high above us, but they seemed so far away. We figured there was no way we’d be getting anywhere close to that height on our trek.

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The river crossings on this trail are not for the faint of heart. Most of the bridges were made up of a series of small planks of wood held together precariously by cables. They swung and bounced as we gingerly stepped across, trying to avoid the wobbly wood pieces that felt like they might fall in to the river at any moment. One crossing presented us with something even more rudimentary – a few logs lashed together to form a questionably sturdy surface. I don’t think I would have wanted to navigate those bridges in the rain, but in their dry state we made it across each time with no issues.

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The first of the big climbs on the trail is the optional one kilometre hike up to Acaime, a sanctuary where they are attempting to restore the land to its natural state. 5000 Colombian pesos (about 2.50 Canadian) gets you admission to the area, as well as a drink. We went for the apparently traditional hot chocolate and cheese. I’m not sure that we ate it in the proper manner, we just ate the cheese and drank the hot chocolate separately, but it was quite delicious! The cheese was just a little bit salty, and had the texture of a slightly harder mozzarella with the squeak of curds. My cheese intake has really been suffering on this trip, so I was more than happy to gobble the rest Zevi’s slice up when he decided he didn’t want all of it. We watched tens of hummingbirds swoop in to drink from the feeders and tried (mostly in vain) to take photos of their swiftly flitting wings.

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The next part of the hike was by far the most difficult. It’s hard to even enjoy the downhill trek from Acaime because you know you’ll just be slogging uphill again very soon. The trail climbs relentlessly up with switchback after switchback through dense forest that feels like it may never end. In reality it’s not that long of a stretch, and I’m kind of thankful to have climbed Monserrate a week or so earlier because this seemed like a breeze in comparison. The view at the top made it all worth it. The pictures we got of the towering mountain that revealed itself when we got up there really don’t do justice to its majesty. There were also a couple of very cute dogs waiting to greet us, which is always a bonus in my book.

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As we made our way down, we were delighted to find out that the best part of the hike had been saved for last. We rounded a corner and came upon one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. There were mountains on both sides covered in greenery, and an even brighter green valley running between them. Hundreds of wax palms towered as far as we could see. It was breathtaking. The rest of the walk down was spectacular as well. We finally got to walk among the rows and rows of unnaturally tall palm trees, and the fact that it was downhill and beautifully sunny didn’t hurt either.

By the time we made it back down to the jeep pick up area, we were exhausted. We had also grossly underestimated the amount of water we would need (oops), so we were very happy to see a small stand selling cold drinks and cold treats. I was pretty giddy to get some ice cream – apparently I’d been dairy deprived on the trip so far because I’d been craving some for a while.

Hiking the Valle de Cocora took us around six hours in total, and clocked in at around 16 kilometres or so, including the detour up and down to the hummingbird sanctuary. I certainly wouldn’t classify it as easy, and I could see it being even tougher on a wet day, but it’s definitely worthwhile and a must-do if you’re in the area. The views were absolutely unreal, and the palms were unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere. It was a taxing trek, but sometimes those are the best kind!

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Four Foodie Things I Take for Granted at Home

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It’s funny the things you take for granted. Let me be clear, this is in no way a post expressing my longing for the comforts of home, because the very definition of travelling is leaving behind the familiar in favour of the unknown. But now that we’ve eaten in a few different spots and cooked in some hostel kitchens, I’ve been thinking about some of the things I take advantage of at home without a second thought. Here are a few of them.

1. Hot sauce: If you know me, you know that I am a lover of all things spicy. I like most of my food to be punched up with some sort of peppery condiment, and especially love those of the Asian variety, namely sriracha, and my all-time favourite, gochujang (thank you Roy Oh and Anju for introducing me to this delicious condiment). We’ve been to a few different grocery stores in Colombia, and so far there has not been one sriracha sighting. Considering that sriracha is almost as ubiquitous as ketchup in Canada these days, at least in the circles that I travel in, this is quite the shock. We’ve been lucky enough to have some great hostel breakfasts that have included scrambled eggs, but every time I eat them I can’t help but think that they would be so much tastier with a little of that red rooster sauce. I’ve seen and tasted a few other varieties of hot sauce in my time here, but none of them really measure up. These Colombians don’t know what they’re missing!

2. Free tap water: You sit down at almost any restaurant in Canada, and a gratis glass of water is pretty much a given. Sure, some restaurants are charging a dollar or two for fancy filtered water nowadays, but you’re basically guaranteed to pay a pittance at most for unlimited agua. Everything we’ve read has told us that the water in Colombia’s major cities is safe to drink, but free-flowing H20 doesn’t seem to be the norm in these parts. Perhaps we’re just not asking the right questions, and bottles of agua sin gas are usually in the one dollar range at convenience stores, but I do have a newfound appreciation for the bottomless water refills we’re privy to in Canadian establishments.

3. A well-stocked kitchen: Being on a three month trip means that there’s no way we can eat out for every meal. It would take a big bite out of our budget, and, as much as I love sampling new restaurants, it honestly gets tiring after a while. We’re generally trying to stay in places with kitchens so that we can whip up some cheap and easy fare for ourselves on most days. I love to cook, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do so on the road, but things are a little bit different when you’re fixing dinner far from home. I can’t reach in to my spice drawer and pull out garlic powder and three types of paprika to spice up my taco meat. I can’t grab my razor sharp Knifewear knife and beautifully dice tomatoes with no squished fruit in sight. I can’t take out my julienne peeler to make zucchini noodles, and then serve them with a ragu that I’ve been simmering for hours in my dutch oven. This is all a bit over the top, albeit not completely unrealistic, but you really do have to be a bit more adaptable when cooking in a kitchen with questionable utensils and little to nothing in the way of pantry staples.

4. Vegetables: I often find myself complaining about the quality of the vegetables at my local Superstore. While they definitely aren’t just-picked-local-farmers-market quality, I think that my gripes will be a bit quieter now that I’ve had to try to shop for vegetables in Colombia. To be fair, the fruit in this country is far superior than what you can get in the average Calgary supermarket. However, the fresh veggie selection has ranged from poor to virtually non-existent in the various grocery stores we’ve visited, and as a person who actually (gasp) loves vegetables, this is a major disappointment. A girl cannot live on complex carbs alone, and I would sure love to see a head of kale on a store shelf. I won’t even complain if it’s a little bit wilty, I promise.

Colombia on the whole has been very good to us, and we’ve had some great meals here. I tried to fit my kitchen in my backpack with no success, so I came in to the trip knowing full well that we wouldn’t have the same culinary luxuries that we have at home. It often takes being away to make you realize how easy some things are when you’re at your home base. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of culinary curveballs will come at us next, and crossing my fingers for a few more vegetables at our next stop.

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