Thursday, 28 April 2011

andres carne de res.

Hi everyone,

It's been a while, I know... But I’m back. After an exhilarating 10 days or so in Mexico filled with pyramids, sunshine and tequila, I took off for South America. As most of you are aware, my next “natural” stop was Peru. I say natural because that was the next stop in my rtw flight itinerary. Nonetheless, a good friend – Maria Andrea – convinced me that a pit stop in Colombia was a must and so after only one day in Lima I took off for Bogota.  Before getting into my c. 5 day stay in Colombia, I will shortly share with you the adventures of my brief, yet intense, single day in Lima. After landing in Lima at c. 6:30am, I checked my big backpack into the baggage check room at the airport and took off to explore Lima. I had to be back at the airport at 7pm the same day to catch a plane to Bogota, so I had just about 12 hours to wander around the city. Before leaving the airport, though, I went to the information desk of the various local airlines to see if I could, in some shape or form, try to weave in a trip to Cusco (given that I had every intention to visit the city, the surrounding Secret Valley as well as Machu Picchu). From my online research, most plane tickets were quite expensive (+ USD 400) as Peru non-doms do not have access to special discount air fares (for some reason, a special “foreigner” tax is applicable). After trying all the ticketing desks of the various airlines, to no avail, I asked at Peruvian Air (yes, never heard of it before... but what the heck) and was incredibly please to hear that they had a one-price-for-all policy. So, after doing some quick math and briefly going through my itinerary in my head I purchased the tickets for a mere USD 150 (there and back). Afterwards, I left the airport and got on a “colectivo” (across Latin America refers to small privately-run urban buses with capacity of c. 20 people and which are typically complemented by the most beautiful of decorations, both on the inside and the outside) that was due to take me to the downtown neighbourhood of Miraflores on a “parcours” across the coastline. Miraflores is meant to be a nice part of town, traditionally very residential and where most of the Liman “bourgeoisie”. According to the dude at the tourist information desk, it was “relatively” close to downtown and he thought it would be a wise idea for me to go there, on a direct “colectivo” as there are no direct lines running to downtown (a fact which, to this day, I am still struggling to agree with) resides. Turns out there was “nothing major” down there and given the time of day (remember it was c. 8am) and the time of year (Semana Santa / Easter), there was not much “activity” on the streets, to say the least. I did manage to quickly find my way around and took off, by foot, towards city centre (or where the Colonial city was founded). After asking a very friendly front-desk clerk at a local hostel for directions, I got on Avenida Arequipa, which is the city’s main North-South traffic artery. The guy at the hostel had warned me that I could take up to 2.5 hours to walk from one end (where I was, in Miraflores) to the city centre. After my now legendary “I have all the time in the world” speech, he was convinced that I wasn’t kidding. The “random” walk did live up to its expectations in terms of duration and was exactly just that... random. Didn’t find too many interesting things along the way and the only thing that I had checked on my map of the city – Huaca Pucllana –, which are some recently-discovered urban Inca ruins was closed as a result of the “holy” holiday season. A few hours later, I finally got to downtown Lima and boy was I in for a surprise. It turned out that all the people that seemed to have disappeared from the areas I had walked by on my stroll towards the North were actually all gathered in or around the main square, mostly buzzing around the Cathedral and surrounding churches. One cannot really come to terms with the magnitude of the religious conviction and dedication in most Latin American countries. Religion, at times, seems more nested into people’s lives and society as a whole than politics or any other personal, professional or social matter. Thumbs up to the effective indoctrination of the 16th century Spanish “conquistadores”! Literally thousands of people filled the streets around the main square, most of whom were desperately trying to weave their way around the crowd and reach the Cathedral, supposedly in order to devote themselves to Jesus, God and all other forms of Semana Santa Catholic spirituality. I followed the crowd and entered the packed Cathedral for a few minutes. A few pictures taken, I was ready to move on. What really struck me, though, was that most people filling those Liman streets were actually from outside the city limits and had come on pilgrimage from all corners of Peru. Kind of like the Peruvian “Mecca”. Interesting indeed. As, by that point, I was beginning to feel the lack of sleep from the last couple of days (whenever I could find that sleep it was not a bed per se – I think at that point I had accumulated 3 nights straight in a non-bed environment!), I decided to take the rest of the day easy. I had lunch at a nearby Peruvian restaurant and spent the rest of the afternoon around downtown. In the late afternoon, to ensure a smoother (and by all means quicker) ride to the airport, I decided to catch a cab. What would have seemed like quite an easy task (as nearly 50% of the traffic in large South American metropoli consists of taxis) was slightly more farfetched than I would have hoped. I had to hail about four taxis before I could actually get one to take me to the airport. It turns out that there is a Police checkpoint at the airport entrance where taxi drivers are asked to show their various pieces of ID and car papers. As some (or maybe most?) don’t have these in order, they declined to take me for a ride. I nevertheless managed to get to Lima airport safely and in time to catch my flight to Bogota (via Guayaquil, Ecuador – where a 6-hour layover awaited. Gosh I love being on a student budget!).            

After this preliminary background regarding my trip to Colombia let me get, as has become a tradition that all of you thoroughly appreciate (hehehe), to the title of the post. For the non South/Latin Americans in the audience, the term “carne de res” refers to beef. Back home, we would typically call it “ternera” but here an alternative expression is used. So, what exactly do I mean by “andres carne de res”. I could maybe define it as a place, maybe as a restaurant, maybe as a place to “rumbear”, maybe as a nightclub... above all it is an EXPERIENCE. In essence, it is indeed a restaurant, one of the most well-know inside and outside Colombia, particularly for its traditional cuisine, fine spirits (Aguardiente. Ay ay ay...) and unique atmosphere. For one goes to “andres” (as it is called colloquially by the locals) to enjoy a truly vibrant night... that will last for hours and in which one will be surrounded by great company, traditional beats and succulent food. Before going to Colombia, I had been told by a couple of friends that “andres” was a true must – that I couldn’t leave Bogota without spending a quality evening there. What I experienced was truly above all expectations. Of the two locations, my friends decided to head to the classic and more traditional venue, located in the northern municipality of Chia – about a 1 hour drive from Bogota. Upon arrival, one seems to enter a world of fantasy... something half way between a theme park and a carnival. Hundreds of people and cars fill the extensive and brightly and colourfully-lit premises and one is submerged in a sea of colour and sound... well, and obviously food (but that only comes later). Once the party parks their car and in the short interval before reaching the main entrance to the restaurant, a group of “conductores” enquires about the party’s plans for the night. How so? Well, the Colombians have it all figured out you see... Assuming that most people will get too smashed to drive back safely back to their homes, the restaurant offers a paid-for “chauffer” service by nights end. According to my friends, the relatively large conductores crew set out to drive the various parties home in their respective cars. Once everyone has been dropped off, a shuttle service – run by the restaurant – picks up its various conductores across Bogota. I think we should learn from this... particularly in countries, such as Spain, where a drink-and-drive attitude proliferates. What happens inside andres can hardly be described... it is a true feast of the senses. One can only really understand what it’s like if one experiences it first-hand. Before dinner... beers, spirits and chicharrones (corteza de cerdo for those of you in Spain) are what’s hot. Foodwise, one can choose from a c. 20 page menu – although tradition dictates a carnivorous mix from the never-ending parrilla menu. In our case it was costillas de cerdo (pork ribs) and lomo al trapo (beef tenderloin) – truly delicious. Once the exquisite drink and food mix begins to settle into everyone’s digestive systems, it is time for some rumba. Nonetheless, apparently one can only hit the dance floor (yes, within the restaurant  - which, by the way, has a capacity for c. 1000 people! – there are about 3 huge dance floors) if one is accompanied. So there I was, looking from afar and unable to display my skills to the crowd. And from there... the night just goes on and on. A truly memorable experience and an absolute must for anyone visiting Bogota. No reservations accepted though... One can only provide an “aviso de llegada” (arrival announcement), which works as a de facto reservation but without any guarantee related to timing of table availability. Unfortunately... Viguera didn’t bring his camera out to play so no pictures of the epic night. For the curious ones, here’s an interesting link to vaguely picture what I have tried to describe above - http://vimeo.com/4007125.    

So after spending the day in Lima, I got on a 10pm flight to Bogota. As mentioned earlier, due to my constrained finances and my truly flexible timetable, I am always looking to book the cheapest possible flights, sometimes risking a random layover. This time it was in Guayaquil, Ecuador. I arrived at 12am and my flight to Bogota was not due to depart until 6am that morning so.... you guessed it right: night at the airport. A true classic by now. Not too bad considering free wifi in a lot of these places – God bless Telefonica (TEF.MC for the investors out there). Uneventful “night” in which I was able to catch a tiny bit of sleep (max 3 hours and at intervals at best). In the morning, my friend Maria Andrea, whom I know from my time at Penn, and her boyfriend Rafa (kudos to both not only for that but also for being totally awesome hosts!) were kind enough to pick me up at the El Dorado airport in Bogota. Funny story the name... turns out that during the time of the Spanish colonisation of South America, the conquistadores believed modern Colombia was the place where they would find gold. And thus plenty of excavations were made (most to no avail) throughout the Colombian geography. Upon arrival and after a magnificent home-made breakfast (arepas con queso, papaya and hot chocolote) we decided to have a “brief” (c. 2 hour) nap. I did have a shower first though as it had been three days since I hadn’t taken one (give me a break – had been sleeping in buses and airports since I left Zipolite in southern Mexico). After that much needed cleansing and resting, we took off to visit the city. I did say my hosts were awesome – they took me around the Museo del Oro (where one can find some of the most remarkable golden items and garments from the prehispanic times) and the city centre. We then hit up a cafe close to Maria’s for a snack before embarking on our trip up North to Andres de Chia. In the meantime, my cool hosts also provided me with a list of must do’s / must see’s for my stay in Bogota, including museums, restaurants, cool areas in the city, etc. I tried to follow their advice closely... and it sure wasn’t disappointing. So after a legendary night at Andres Carne de Res, again too amazing to properly describe on paper, we went alongside two other friends of theirs to Maria’s uncle’s “finca” in the suburban area of Bogota called La Calera. There, we had some very deep and interesting conversation over the most philosophical of topics... of course over “tetrapacked” aguardiente (yeap, like sangria in Spain!).

The next morning, we prepared huevos pericos (scrambled eggs with tomate and onions), which is apparently a traditional Colombian dish, for breakfast and took off for a c. 2 hour trek in the vicinity of the finca – breathtaking scenery of the “Sabana bogotana” (literally translated to Bogotan Savannah due to its resemblance of the landscape and terrain. In the evening we returned to Bogota and had to face some serious “trancon” (or traffic) as it was the last Sunday of Semana Santa and the urban population was making its way back into town ahead of the “rentree”. Before calling it a day, we did check out the northern neighbourhood of Usaquen, which is meant to be the soho/Greenwich village equivalent – a trendy, hip neighbourhood with a permanent vibe resulting from the many street performers/artisan vendors and “in” bars and restaurants. After a pint at Bogota Beer Company, where they apparently brew their own honey, (http://www.bogotabeercompany.com/home.html) and a fantastic dinner at Crepes and Waffles, a classic Bogotan restaurant chain which has been around forever and which has some very interesting and positive employment policies, such as only hiring female waitresses who are “heads of family”, (http://crepesywaffles.com/websiteftp/index1.html), we returned home for some well-deserved post-weekend rest.

The next morning, I woke up to the beats of my blackberry alarm as I wanted to make the most out of my first full day in Bogota. Contrary to the advice Maria Andrea had given me (hehehe), I decided to walk all the way down to the centre, where most museums and other recommendations on my “to do” list are located. It took me nearly 2 hours to walk the c. 70 blocks between 85th street (Maria’s place) and the downtown area of La Candelaria. Closeby, at Los Andes University, I meat Maria for lunch (following a cool tour of the university, which is right on the Andes mountain side – hence the name. The buildings are intertwined within dense vegetation and progressively climb up the hillside – truly impressive. All that toppled with “invasions”, or illegal housing settlements, here and there). I took in an impressive view of the Andes while having a Calentado (http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_KiS5dwirMJw/TCIhQLPwP1I/AAAAAAAAAdg/la3keO0hS_U/s1600/DSCN2845.JPG) and set out to do some sight-seeing. First stop, I went up (on a funicular) to Monserrate, a church in the “cerro”, or mountain, right in the centre of Bogota. Some amazing pics later (some below) and after wandering about the monastery (I think it was a monastery?), I returned downtown and explored the city centre some more. After plaza Bolivar, where the main cathedral and the Palace of Justice are located, I went to Museo Botero, where I could see first-hand some of the most amazing pieces of art from the Medellin-born figurative artist Fernando Botero. In it, one can find not only some of his most impressive works, but also his private collection (Picassos, Bacons and Ernsts included), which he donated to the Colombian Ministry of Culture. It must have been c. 7pm by the time I left the museum and without any time to hit up any other “cultural venues” that day, I walked back to Maria’s – another c. 2 hour walk. Consolation (or actually motivation) is that it was serving as preparation for the Inca Trek I am about to begin (I am in Cusco, Peru now – just arrived). Dinner was light but very well prepared by Maria and better accompanied by a Club Colombia (a fantastic nationally-brewed beer). Early night in order to rest up ahead of the day trip I had in sight for the next day.

After a c. 5:30am wake-up (yes, even though I am on holidays sometimes I do need to wake up early... very early!) I took a bus to the northern train station (Portal Norte). There, I was due to catch a suburban bus to Villa de Leyva, a beautiful little colonial town about 3 hours north of Bogota and which has remained almost intact as it once was during Hispanic times (16th-18th centuries). There, I explored the little town, went around its endless monasteries, learnt about Antonio Nariño (who contrary to popular belief is considered the true and most important political and social figure in Colombian contemporary history and libertador, above Simon Bolivar - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Nari%C3%B1o) and had lunch in a local eatery for 7000 pesos (c. EUR 2). A few hours later, I took the bus back to Bogota as I was due to meet Maria and Rafa for dinner. Not sure I mentioned this already but it had recently rained heavily in the region, and across Colombia as a whole. So, the regional and small roads winding around the Andes were very much subject landslides. So you guessed it... about an hour into the bus ride back to Bogota, the bus suddenly stopped. Much to our surprise, we were informed that it would be a while before we could get moving, no further details provided by the bus driver – out of curiosity, I stepped out of the bus and walked up the road to see what the big hold up was. Turns out there had been a landslide ahead of us a few hours earlier and the road was blocked by rocks and mud. Can’t miss pics below... The Colombian rescue team even used explosives to clear the debris on the road. Everyday winter thing for Colombians... once in a lifetime thing for your narrator. The delay “only” amounted to c. 1 hour and managed to make it in time for the dinner we had planned at Club Colombia (preceded by an improvised jammin’ session at Maria’s with a few friends of hers), a traditional restaurant set in a very well-maintained colonial house in downtown Bogota. We had some local delicatessen such as (can’t remember it all guys... sorry!) Ajiaco, Yuca frita, Arepa de Huevo and so on. Really amazing stuff! Could have never guessed Colombian cuisine would be so succulent. Thumbs up!

The next morning, I woke up early again and went to the National Museum – a cool and pretty big place where one can navigate through the various stages of Colombian history, everything from prehistoric times to contemporary liberal movements and the constitution of 1991. Thrilling place where I spent almost 4 hours. After a quick lunch at a nearby restaurant Maria had recommended I headed back home to pack. Had to catch a plane to Lima (this time direct!) in the evening.2.5 hour flight, arrival in Lima at 12am and 6-hour layover before catching a flight to Cusco. During that thrilling 6 hour wait I began drafting this post, and here I am wrapping it up at the hostel in Cusco. Next up Inca trail, but that calls for another tale – likely to hit ad infinitum in a few days. For the time being, here are some pics for you all to enjoy.

Peace.

pv