Ask any Colombian with tested tires and one of the excuses you’ll hear for leaving town on a weekend is the possibly to enjoy what the road has on offer. And every region prides itself with serving certain delicacies. Take as an example, the 30 minutes from Medellín’s Rionegro airport to downtown. Once you meander the main roundabout, you begin to see the local paisas pulling up in their gleaming bubble SUVs to eat the typical corn cake sizzling over open pit ovens, the arepa. From slightly toasted to bleached soggy patties, there seems to be an endless supply of arepas and motorized clients. Sometimes it’s hard to take in the greenery of the rolling hills due to the many roadside stall and ‘típico’ restaurants. If you decide to open a Thai restaurant on one of these curves, chances are you’ll fail. It seems on this arepa route, global gastronomy is not an option. People decidedly go for corn and a shot glass of firewater, aguardiente.
There are many curiosities on the Colombian road. In Cundinamarca, the weekend is a chance to stock the backseat of the car with oranges and mangoes. Even if granny is nudged between the stalk of freshly cut plantain and the baby seat, Bogotanos like to shop at pit stops. If heading down to the temperate resort town of Anapoima on the weekend or humid La Vega nestled along the scenic Bogotá to Honda highway, fruit is the commodity of choice.
As you begin to approach the department of Tolima, the temperature rises and so does your cholesterol. While focusing on the lorries, the speeding buses, and the free roaming animals by the side of every curve, you are bound to see the word ‘Paradero’ (rest stop) often. Usually, accompanied by a large beer sign and a wooden shack where tires can be mended for $5000 pesos. There are paraderos dedicated to liberty (La Libertad), progress (El Progreso) and happiness (La Felicidad). There’s no deep Hobbesian philosophy happening here, just the basic principle, that we are human beings in motion. Until, of course, we come to a grinding halt, when granny decides to stop for the achiras. Made with the ground flour of the Sago palm, achiras, originated in the Huila department, and have grown in popularity as the weekender’s snack.
Achiras and Manjar Blanco
Between kilometer 74 and 66 on the Bogotá to Apulo road, you can appreciate rows upon rows of achira vendors; usually sold in small plastic bags and when eaten, leave your mouth as dry as the Gobi desert. Another regional delicacy is the manjar blanco: a crystallized and pasty sweet served up in a dried totumo shell. Originally prepared in the homes of the Cauca Valley given the abundance of brown sugar and milk, the manjar blanco has emigrated to every corner of Colombia. Although you can pick one up at your local supermarket – and probably at a fraction of a cost than one sold by the side of the road – the essence of buying it out in the open, tends to appeal to Colombians. Maybe it’s the occasional whiff of carbon monoxide or the proximity to the spray from the local car wash, but Colombians go for their snacks with a purpose.
Fritanga. If you have been living in this country for some time or just new to the ‘typico’ culture, memorizing this word is a must. It’s as important as Yorkshire pudding at an English table, haggis in Glasgow, a masala in Mumbai or the .99 cent dog at Grey’s Papaya in New York. You get my drift. And make no mistake about this: you cannot live in Colombia without lining up for fritanga. Essentially it’s all deep fried and oven cooked. From blood sausage (morcilla) to greasy pork bits, fritanga is served on an aluminum tray and generally accompanied by baby creole potoates and boiled yuca. Even if you are not able to leave the greater Bogotá’s limits, the nearby town of La Calera is famous for its Sunday fritanga fest. Just after you pay the toll at Patios and head to nearby towns such as Guasca and Sopó, you can appreciate the many fritanga restaurants with outdoor grills and gardens with a view.
Weekend grilling is big business for many families across Colombia. These mama/papa businesses vary in size and quality. From small haciendas with pony rides for the kids to brightly painted fondas (typical country home), one of the main protagonists in a fritanga is the chicharrón or pork rind. Ask for yours as ‘tostadito’ (toasted) and devour at your own risk. Virtually every stall, stand and diner offers chicharrón on weekends. With seemingly endless demand, it’s an essential part of the Colombian diet. And a serious public health question.
If you decide to travel the Colombian road, make sudden stops along the way and explore the regional foods, make sure you have plenty of petty cash. There are few ATMs options at gas stations and supermarkets. Many establishments still have to dial in the numbers of your credit card and wait for authorization. This can create unnecessary delays. Also, although many roadside stands sell local beer and spirits, its wise to remember that drinking and driving is a serious offense here, as in one’s native country. So be responsible. The only issues of concern when exploring Colombia’s diverse road side culture are the levels of brake fluid and one’s appetite.