Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Murder and Crime in El Salvador

I suppose I can't have a blog about El Salvador without mentioning the crime. When I have visitors coming down, I tell them not to Google "El Salvador".

You'll come up with articles like the recent one in the LA Times saying that San Salvador is the murder capital of the world. This is based on the number of murders per capita. But almost half of all murders are between gangs and involve 15 to 29 year old males living in four areas of the country: San Salvador, La Lib, Soyapango and Usulutan.

But the vast vast majority of people who visit never have any problems and really love the country and the people. Of the many Latin American capitals I have visited, the nice bits of San Salvador are very clean and orderly and it feels like a much smaller town. Friends of mine from Guatemala and Colombia have said that they would move here if they had the chance.

I happen to think that life here is very peaceful and quiet. Perhaps this is because I live in a bubble in San Benito. I can walk down to the Zona Rosa for some excellent beer at the Cadejo Bar. I pass the Taiwanese Embassy, the American School, and the Hilton so there is lots of security in the area. I shop and entertain in Escalon, Santa Elena and Santa Tecla, also safe areas. My elderly parents visited for two months and walked almost every morning to the Parque Maquilishuat, about 15 minutes away.

Walking in public was something a foreigner (or gringo) couldn’t do a few years ago due to all the kidnappings but now it is very common to see people out with their dogs or jogging.

But how to reconcile this with the number of murders in this country – 14 to 17 a day? The vast majority occurs within the gangs and in a few dangerous areas. A lot of these gang members have been deported from the US where they learned their gang skills. They come to ES and end up with the gangs as that is what they know. Plus there is a job shortage in this country and most of the jobs pay terribly.

I have been asking people if they feel it is getting better or worse here compared to five years ago. The answer I am getting is that the crime situation is worse. I ask what that opinion was based on:  were they victims of crime or perhaps their friends or family members were. The answer to that is “no” but they say crime is worse because of they see it in the news. Now like the rest of Latin America, the media outlets (TV, radio and newspapers) are controlled by the wealthy right wing elite. Of course they report on sensationalist issues like crime as that is what sells but they also report on crime to discredit the left wing government.  I think that is what is going on here because the vast majority of Salvadorans are peaceful and want to live in peace.

But gangs have ingrained themselves into the society here and I have read that up to 85% of all businesses pay “renta” or a protection fee. It can be as low as $40 a month for a taxi driver or $100 for a small restaurant but almost everyone pays. For most businesses, it is better to pay each month than to have a waitress killed. I know a huge food company that pays in every neighbourhood where they deliver and sell their product.

So how to stop the problem with the renta when it is easier to pay than not? I know a very honest and hard working woman who opened up a small cafeteria and was paying the renta but had to close her businesses because too many Maras were coming in for free meals. This is an unusual case because the Maras, parasites in this society, are usually smart enough not to ruin their host.

I know one night club where the owner has stood up to the Maras, once kicking out a bunch of them who had stripped down to show their gang tattoos. They came back with 15 guys with guns and the owner stood up to them with three security guys with shotguns.  The Maras said they would be back and he told them that they already were back and that he was ready. The Maras just swore at him and backed out, wanting a softer and easier target. It is possible to stand up to them.


The Maras are also expanding in isolated areas, preying on fincas to the point that it isn’t safe for the owners to go out to their own properties. Clearly this has to be stopped as well. I heard the Government recently received $750M to fight crime and to develop programs to divert young kids from gangs. There is also a new tax on cell phone usage which is to be used for this initiative. I hope they can turn the corner on this problem.

This just in ... Industria La Constancia has just suspended it's Agua Cristal water bottling and distribution system claiming that there is too much crime and it is dangerous for its workers. My first thought was, great, they are refusing to pay the "renta" or extortion fees to the gangs and this will pressure the government to act and that someone had to stand up against the gangs and why not one of the biggest companies in the country. La Constancia is also the main brewer in this country and is owned by SABMiller. Then looking into this a bit further, it looks like Agua Cristal has suspended operations because their water source was running low and the government refused to let them move into another area with limited water resources. The company seems to be trying to strong arm the government to make decisions that will benefit the company while hurting the local population. Plus, this may be part of the right wing initiative to discredit the current government saying that they cannot provide a safe business environment. But why would a huge multinational company like SABMiller get involved in local politics? Or am I being naive by asking that question?

We have had two empty 5 gallon bottles of water outside our door for the past few days and no one has swapped the for full ones. Looks like we are going to have to switch to a competitor until Agua Cristal decides to restart their plant.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Havana and Brasilia

Black flags are down and the Stars and Stripes are up.
Lots more restaurants, bars and lounges in Havana. Not that many changes related to the new rapprochement between Raul and Barack except for this flag making an appearance on the Malecon for the first time in many years. More tourists coming down with the relaxed Treasury Department rules but the embargo is still in place until Congress agrees to lift it so it will probably be around for several more years. Pointers for American tourists:  as a pedestrian, you don’t have the right away so watch out; if you find a date, check their ID (which they will always have on hand or nearby as they will have serious problems if they get asked by a cop) to make sure they are 18 years old; people will be smoking almost everywhere and I am not going to put out my cigar on the outdoor terrace of a restaurant even during the meal; and the more friendly cashiers are with you, the more likely they are ripping you off.


They have a cruise ship that comes twice a week disgorging a boat load of tourists hungry for souvenirs. Those are the days you should avoid Habana Vieja. My friend who works at the Lonja de Comercio across from the cruise ship terminal told me that on those days, there is no water in the afternoon in his building!

Notable new places? Walter the Italian chef with the big pipes (ostensibly from kneeding pizza and pasta dough) opened up a new place located in Miramar called Nero Di Seppia. He proudly gave me a tour of the kitchen which has a wood burning oven and a cold room for salad prep. He showed me a box of ingredients he just got from Italy including anchovies and fresh buffalo mozzarella. How does he do it? I had the Pizza Diablo with extra garlic ... delicious as always. I think we had a party of 26 for Ian’s birthday and they managed to seat us in the front garden and the lovely waitresses got the food out to us super fast. Not that we minded waiting ... we had beers and cigars to while away the time.

The new place across from 304
304 O’Reilly continues to thrive with their great cocktails, solidly cooked food, great art and a funky vibe. They have finished renovations across the street and will have a bigger bar and lounge.


I checked out a place called Habana 61 on Calle Habana e/Cuarteles y Pena Pobre which is close to the edge of Habana Vieja near the Museo de Revolucion.  Very cool and modern place inside which juxtaposed greatly with the typical Old Havana neighbourhood outside. The food was quite good, especially this seafood plate that came with grilled fish, octopus, lobster and shrimp.

On my last trip, we had trouble getting seated at some of our favourite restaurants. Starbien wouldn't seat us outside since they had a reservation for 20 on the front porch. We managed to squeeze around the table in the garden so we could smoke cigars. That party never showed up but the upstairs was filled with older American tourists who couldn't leave without taking pictures of everything and talking very loudly, disturbing our dinner. Then they piled into a bunch of old cars whose Cuban drivers happily blared their novelty horns several times before setting off. Ugh.

Not telling where you can find this.
Very happily, my favourite restaurant hasn't made any of the main travel lists and, blissfully, has tables whenever I go by. I realized that this was my favourite restaurant in the world when I was sitting there, drinking a cold beer, chewing on my favourite pizza, knowing I would have an espresso, a shot of rum, and a cigar afterwards.


Managed to make it to Brasilia twice last year. Why the capital and not the cooler Rio or Salvador de Bahia? Well, because Stefan and Mary moved there. I was there as much to hang out with them as to see a country.  Not that Rio isn’t a mind blowingly beautiful and cool city but Brasilia is pretty cool too. Kind of like Brasil-Lite. Less traffic, less crime, lots of parking, and fewer visible minorities. What does that mean? Well, a decently organized city full of great architecture, big open spaces, lots of great food, and still in a giant country where you can drive to small towns and picturesque nature sites.

Click on the image for a larger view
The Don Bosco Cathedral was an amazing building to visit. All the walls are made up of glass panes from Murano, Venice. An incredibly beautiful and spiritual chapel to visit.
Coming out the entrance of the national cathedral
Ministry of Justice
Walking around the downtown government area was quite interesting and the architecture was amazing. This shiny building was may favourite - the Ministry of Justice I think. Brazilia is pretty high up so the clouds always were quite close and they reflected beautifully in the glass.


Of course what I wanted the most was to eat and drink. We shopped at the bizarrely empty Sam’s Club on a early Saturday morning and got the big three Brazilian products: cachaca, beef and Havaianas. Also hit the big farmers market where we picked up some amazingly fresh veggies and fruit. Also artisanal cheeses and hot sauces and spices like star anise. We also took the opportunity to snack on tapioca wraps. Very interesting cooking method – they take dried tapioca powder and put it on an electric grill until it melts and forms a crunchy and chewy pancake. Then they fill it with whatever you want – I picked cheese and Canadian bacon. Very delicious but very filling. Then Stefan insisted I have a fresh empanada and I got a deep fried one with beef and gravy inside .... also delicious and ready to be rolled into the car.


There was, of course, good sushi in Brasilia. I have pretty much given up on sushi in Latin America.  There are so many ways that it can be done badly. In Cuba, when the kitchen is 30 degrees, they send the sushi out hot. In Panama, they served me sashimi that was still melting on my plate leaving it in a puddle. In Quito, they claimed that the sushi chefs were properly trained but the rolls came out bizarrely compressed and hard. In Bogota, the chefs received one week of training and didn’t actually have a clear idea of what sushi was about. And in El Salvador, bring on the cream cheese and mayo! But Brasil, with its sizeable Japanese population, they know what they are doing.

One of the many kilo restaurants I went to.
Other notable dining places ... I really enjoyed the kilo restaurants. You load up your food from a huge buffet and pay by the weight. I usually took all the arugula, added some shrimps and some chicharrones.


The female president of Korea was in town visiting the female president of Brazil. We stood around for a while watching the honorary guard practising their maneuvers. Nice to see the Korean flag flying all over.
We made it to one churrascaria but frankly, it is just way too much food for me to enjoy. I want to try everything but then I end of eating too much and feeling ill. Quite a silly way of trying to enjoy food.

Stefan asked for a complimentary shot of cachaca for me and they gave me triple!
Also managed to drive a few hours out of town to various country restaurants that featured large buffets of local foods along with coffee, cinnamon milk, or aguardiente to finish the meal.
Hotdogs, bacon, cheese and potato crisps, all in one little package.

Fried quails and cold beer!
Not much in the way of street food but I did go to the most popular hotdog stand which featured grilled dogs with real bacon bits and crispy potato sticks. I should also mention the restaurant that kindly set up a table on the street so we could enjoy deep fried quails, icy cold beer, and cigars.

Power shopping
Also made it out to the Premium Outlet Mall about an hour outside of the city. They have lots of great shops representing some of Brazil’s best retailers. With the local currency being very weak right now, the bargains were even greater. Hitting all the shops takes about 3 hours moving at a fairly brisk pace but they have a good food court with interesting Brazilian food like Acai ice cream and little cheese buns.


I bought lots of clothes and purses for Fatima and was ably assisted by Mary, a former model, who was always willing to try on outfits.

Old Havana crew
Had the chance to catch up with some old friends from Havana. Anthony, the Reuters correspondent, and his lovely wife Fiona came for a BBQ.



My friend Shania taught me how to make Moqueca. An amazing fish stew from her home town of Bahia made with coconut milk, palm hearts, lime juice, parsley and Dende (red palm seed) oil. I make it every few weeks in San Salvador now.

Hoping to return to Brazilia with Fatima in a few months. It isn't Rio but it is still Brazil and full of great food and people.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Living in a Coffee Growing Land


In my two decades in El Salvador, I have always been on the hunt for great coffee. I should clarify ... great coffee at a great price. You can go to any high end coffee shop and pay $12/lb for their good stuff. But I am not fond of paying retail! I have been given bags of coffee from family and their friends. I have gotten coffee at various co-ops such as the one in Ahuachapan and bought coffee directly from small fincas. I have even traded cigars for coffee from a finca owner.

Fatima guarding the Chaparra.
Most of the coffee here for local consumption is lightly roasted “clara” and a favoured bean is the Pacamara which produces a mild coffee with low acid.
I generally prefer a stronger coffee so I lean towards the Bourbon Arabica bean, first developed by the French on the Island of Bourbon. I like a cerezo process where the ripe red beans are dried in the sun as opposed to being run through machines with lots of water which strips the fruit from the green beans. Cerezo is more time consuming but oddly cheaper and produces a more intense flavour.
Bags of washed and cerezo beans.
The best coffee I have had have been from friends who own fincas at a high altitude – 1,800 m above sea level. One of the big coffee companies here, Quality Grains, owns a chain of cafes and they sell an excellent gourmet dark roast at $7/lb wholesale.
The mechanical stripper.
I am heading to Canada soon and wanted to bring about 35 lbs of coffee with me. My friend’s stock is a bit low due to the low yield from last year so I decided to try my luck with the beans at the Santa Tecla Roastery. My friend uses this place to process, roast and bag his coffee and I know they always have Bourbon Arabica and Pacamara coffee for sale.
The machine to separate the chaff.
I went in shortly after 9 am and spoke with the owner and made a deal to get 40 lbs of Bourbon Arabica roasted extra dark (but short of Italian roast). This required 50 lbs of beans and they had some from San Vicente grown at around 1,500 m.  This would normally produce 42 lbs of roasted beans (weight is loss as moisture comes out) but with a dark roast, it would be closer to 40 lbs. Their normal price for clara cerezo is $2.80 a pound but they gave me that same price for my volume purchase even though they would get less weight due to the darker roast.

Before being run through the hand screen. You can see some of the dried cherries.
The cerezo dried coffee cherries were run through a mechanical stripper and then a couple of cleaners to remove the chaff – one mechanical and one a hand screen. This isn’t always 100% so a few dried husks got into the roaster.
The Roaster
The gas furnace was turned on and the 200 year old German roaster started to warm up. They ran another load first and the beans came out light brown with very little smoke and I think a “pop” as the beans cracked only once.
Starting to smoke
My load went in and Roberto, the master roaster who has been there for about 20 years, said it should take about 25 minutes. It starts off slow but near the end, the beans get dark very fast. He kept pulling out samples as the machine started smoking and I kept telling him to hold off for a bit longer. We started seeing some almost burnt beans coming out and some large clouds of smoke so he dumped the load into the cooling well. At this point, you could hear a lot of secondary cracks as the coffee was turned in the hopper. I think it came out close to a Vienna roast – dark brown and some shine on the beans.
Cooling in the spin hopper
When the beans had cooled down, I had my choice of grinders and bags. The main grinder they have was converted from a corn grinder. It works very quickly but the final product is fairly course and not very uniform. I elected to have them put through a finer grounder and the 25 lbs took about 20 minutes to grind. I also chose to have the coffee packed into gold mylar plastic which cost 20 cents more a bag so the coffee worked out to be $3/lb or $120 for 40 lbs. I also asked for a big burlap sack which they gave me at the discounted price of $3. 
Roberto, the master roaster, bagging my coffee.
I shared fresh Cuban cigars with the owner and a guy named Ricardo who was helping out. Ricardo helped move coffee around and also tried to sell me a coffee finca – I think his main line of business. A coffee farmer came in and gave him some home distilled Chaparro (aguardiente?) in a 600 ml water bottle. He offered me a taste and when I said I liked it, he gave it to me to say thanks for the cigar.
Coffee running through the fine grinders
When I got home, I took a small bit of coffee that was left over from the bagging process and ran it through my burr grinder to an espresso powder. I put it into my Aeropress and added the water. Very fresh coffee as it bloomed up very high. I pressed the coffee into a mug and had a sip. Very deep strong flavours with a balanced bitterness and acid. Delicious. Then I added some water to make an Americano and that was delicious too.
A rustic and charming spot in Santa Tecla
  The whole process took about 90 minutes and it was a lot of fun. They gave us coffee to drink and a couple of chairs under the shade of an enormous tree beside their roasting shed. I had the run of the place and they didn’t mind me taking pictures and poking around everywhere. 40 lbs of Bourbon Arabica, single origin, high altitude dark roast coffee and a free bottle of Chaparra.  A very pleasant way of spending a morning in Santa Tecla, 15 minutes from my house.
 
What 40 lbs of coffee look like





Friday, May 2, 2014

Havana and the Top Ten Reasons to Visit Bogota

Hanging out with the cool kids at Cocinero.
Another week in Havana and another fun trip through the airport. For some reason, they sent our plane to a gate with a broken bridge so instead of a quick exit from the front of the plane, we had to deplane from the back of the plane, down the stairs and onto buses. As it was, we got to the terminal pretty rapidly as the first busload had to come back to where our second bus loaded since there were apparently 8 Cubans returning from Ecuador without their passports. Some of them were in business class and none of them seemed particularly worried while Immigration officers came onto the bus and went over their documents.
Plane, bridge, airport. What am I doing on this bus?

Then to the airport and my bags came off quite quickly but my three tags were covered in customs gobbly-gook. Luckily I was sent to the search line quickly so I was first in line. Unluckily, there were only two desks opened and both had women returning from Ecuador with the huge bags full of hundreds of items of clothes. The wait lasted about 40 minutes by which time there were about 10 people behind me. Three or four were tourists who almost made it out before being stopped by the mean final customs officer by the exit doors and sent back for checks. They all went to one of the two desks hoping for a quick search before being sent into the growing line up behind me. This being Cuba, the supervisor spotted a couple with a 4 year old daughter and told a customs officer to man a desk and check them out. After doing so, he went away again and left all of us still in the line. After being properly seasoned, the supervisor took me and the guy behind me to an xray machine and ran out bags through. She asked what I had and I replied “mostly food”. She said okay, I could go ... and proceeded out of the customs area to be stopped by that final woman who told me I had to get my bags checked. I explained that I had just come from the line and the supervisor had xrayed my bags and told me I could leave. She asked which supervisor and I said the tall blonde woman at which point they yelled out a conversation across the customs area with the first woman insisting that I had to open my bags and the other one saying let him go. And the supervisor won and I was out into the heat and humidity of Havana.

My friend Boris was there to pick me up and we stopped at the first gas station for some beers. This being Cuba, of course there was no Cuban beer and our choice was Heineken or Becks. Picked up two moderately cold greenies and off down the road.
Cohen enjoying the dancing girls!
The week was quite busy with work and spending time with one of my closest friends, Tracey who had lived in Havana for about 16 months a decade ago, visiting with her son Cohen. My first night there, went to the Meson de la Flota to catch the flamenco company Grupo Ecos. They were excellent as always and the dancers remarked at how serious but very attentive Cohen was, watching them.  Food was pretty good as well with the camarones el ajillo, garbanzos fritos, and seafood brochettas being the highlights. Then big fat cigars with lots of Cuban rum of course.
The new brew pub in Old Havana
Ended up going to the new Salm brewpub on the harbour road in Old Havana three times. Food was just like the first place in Plaza Vieja, quite poor but the beer was excellent. It looked like Habaguanex had purchased a top of the line system worth probably a few million dollars. Won’t take them long to pay for it since the place was completely full over the 3 hours we spent there on a Sunday afternoon with a continuous line up running outside. 
Claudio cutting me off.

And very nice to see that the vast majority of people were Cubans. Tourists will come of course since the place was directly adjacent to the Artisan’s Fair with their many fine painting vendors. We sat at the bar and found a great beer maid named Ismary who was super fast with the beers, filled the mugs up nicely, and always had a friendly smile.

I have heard that the Government intends to move all commercial shipping to the new Mariel Port and to convert the huge Havana harbour into a more commercial and tourism oriented area with a marina. Sounds like a great plan.

Of course the highlight of the trip was eating out in Havana. I have been kind of against eating at State run places since they don’t really seem to care but there are exceptions. El Palenque has a new and younger manager who has been working hard to get the standards back to where they used to be. Cuba is a communist state so the workers have a lot of rights and sometimes they just don’t want to work. Palenque is famous for its charcoal grilled pork which is served chopped up and covered in mojo (a sauce made of garlic, oil, lime juice and onions). It can be quite delicious, especially when you specify that you want it cooked and hot. Don’t make the assumption that the waiter knows this!

The cool outdoor space of BellaCiao
I hit some of the regular and great paladars. BellaCiao for the great ravioli y amazing spaghetti arrabiata – the latter was done extra al dente and extra spciy. 
Server of the week - at BellaCiao
Amazing service as well – very attentive and with a real authentic smile like she really wanted us to have a nice dinner and was happy that we enjoyed the food.
Amazing shrimp at a restaurant that I cannot publicly mention. If you want the name, PM me.
Also went to an Italian restaurant a bit off the beaten path in Playa. We had a large table of 14 and the owner just sent out one appetizer after another. An oven baked cheese covered berenjena, asparagus covered in blue cheese and bacon, beef carpaccio, and the freshest, sweetest shrimps I have ever had. They were so fresh, in fact, that they were only delivered by the fisherman after we had arrived at the place. All this was followed by three kinds of fresh made pasta served family style for all of us to share. I would tell you the name and location but the people I ate with asked me not to since they didn’t want to see this place overrun.

Returned to the Litoral on the Malecon. My three friends all had the small mesa fria – a $7.50 small plate that you could load up with cheeses, salamis, olives, quail eggs etc  - and that was enough to fill them up.  I had a longish conversation with the waitress about what was their freshest fish. She said the owner of the restaurant was a fisherman and served the fish he caught. We settled on a red snapper dish that consisted on a rolled filet served on a bed of mash potatoes and a pastry wafer with a white wine sauce. The fish wad delicious ... but the very last end of the fillet had an ammonia smell which contradicted her claim of freshness. Oh well, I have been lied to about fish in many many countries.
Old boys night.
Hung out one night at Las Terrazas on the third floor of the Centro Andalusia and came across an old friend from a decade ago. Erwann from France is back in Cuba and doing some good work. We used to go to Megano for beach volleyball and bbq's and lots of dominoes nights. He is also a great surfer (from Brittany) and taught me how to surf in Santa Maria. After a nice grilled dinner, we retired to the cigar lounge where PJ unearthed a rare bottle of the best white rum produced in Cuba.
Yes, the rum was indeed exquisite.
One thing I haven’t done in about a year is to have a dominoes night. We used to have huge parties at Delia’s house with up to 175 people spread out through the house. Live jazz band on the ground floor, salsa and meringue on the terrace, chill out lounge on the third floor balcony and the drunks on the roofs with their bottles. We used to order whole roast pigs and have cases of beer and rum. Then the parties got smaller and smaller and duller and duller until they were so bad, we had to put them out of their misery. What happened? We got old and lost our mojo.

So I called up Yeye and said, let’s do a dinner and a small domino night. The first thing she said? “I am not going to cook dinner!” to which I replied, “Yeye, I have known you for 18 years, of course I know you aren’t going to cook.” So Boris and I took off in her car and picked up 4 orders of El Aljibe roast chicken dinner special and a case of beer and a couple of bottles of rum.  We brought our own large plastic bucket which they filled up with about a gallon of their delicious black beans. We had specified fresh chicken (not lunch leftovers) and they insisted that that is what they packed  ... but I forgot to specify moist chicken or extra sauce so it was pretty dry. Mind you, I ate mostly the rice and beans.
Domino! Proximo!
Very small group at first, just Delia, Boris, Jhonny and myself. Then Jan came by with his gf, Fito, Victor from Fla and the murderous pair of Victor and Emanuel who proceeded to destroy everyone at dominoes. They looked like twins and I was pretty sure that they were communicating telepathically but they eventually lost. Plenty of food for all and we didn’t finish the beer or rum despite playing until 4:30 am. Ah, just like the good old days.

Flying back home I decided to go through Quito and Bogota. Quito was supposed to be a 5 hour stopover and I was looking forward to catching a nap in their nice sleeping room … until they announced that all transit passengers had to clear immigration and pick up their bags. Now does that make any sense? Was this to save themselves the hassle of having to man one door for me to go through and one security shift to xray my bag? Yikes. Okay, immigration seemed amused that I planned to visit their country for 3 hours. Get my bags, xray again and out the door to a cold terminal but at least a lot of shops were open. Or rather, they were in business but all of the staff appeared to be lounging together in one of the seating areas.

I knew the check in counter wouldn’t open for a few hours so I headed outside to spark up a cigar. Luckily I had a few tetraboxes of Cuban Planchao rum so I cracked one open to sip while I smoked for the next hour. I have a cigar smoking buddy in Quito and I texted him to come out to the airport for a cigar and a drink but, alas, it was 1:30 am and he was probably asleep.

Okay, check back in, make it into the lounge, hit the sleeping room and have a brief rest before boarding the next plane to Bogota. I have no recollection of that flight but it did land in Bogota and my bags did come out quickly and my buddy Kyoharu was waiting to pick me up. Kyo’s wife works for a foreign oil company so he had a security driver who was very nice and came in very handy when we were out and about.

My friend Mark had recently moved from the funky and bohemian Candeleria area to Chapinero which was much more centrally located, close to the places he taught English, and much closer to the Transmillenium public transport lines. One thing he didn’t know was that the area is called Chapigay due to the dozens of gay clubs in the area. You could call his immediate neighbourhood Chapisupergay since there were 4-5 clubs directly below and around his apartment. Made for noisy evenings but at least there always taxis around. We went for a walk looking for some beers and everyone was super friendly and invited us into their clubs even though I said we were straight. Like doormen the world over, one guy was a big fan of cigars and was chuffed when I gave him a fresh Habano.
How spicy do you want it? Hot, hotter, or WTF?!
Mark told me that a friend of his ignited a medium sized internet storm when he posted an article on the 10 things he hated about Bogota. I think this is it - https://medium.com/medium-colombia/2a97ffa790e0.
Street meat in Bogota!
Now I have visited Bogota 4 times in the last few years and I can say that I really like the city and here are my 10 reasons why:

1.  Bogota is a giant, cosmopolitan, busy, noisy, bustling and active city. Having grown up in Toronto but having lived in the smaller and quieter Havana and San Salvador for the past few decades, I have really missed the great urban vibe.


Empenadas, chicharrones, sausage, morcilla y patacones.

Colombian soup counter.

Chicken Ajiaco

2.  The food is great, and I am not talking about “international food” or any lame Latin American fusion bullshit. I am talking about the great local food like Ajiaco (chicken soup with potatoes and garnished with avocado and cream), hot crispy and meaty Chicharrones, and Chunchullo which are grilled beef intestines. 
Chunchullos with fresh arepas!
Not only is all this local food great, but the locals actually like it! I have been in many countries where the more refined (white) people won’t eat the local specialities like sopa de patas here in El Salvador. And the street food is pretty good from the Chorriperros (grilled sausage on a big bun with fried onions, crispy potatoes and lots of mayo, ketchup and mustard) to the fresh cooked potato chips. I don’t know how these old guys get chips so crisp with their tiny pots of oil on their pushcarts but they do – make sure to ask for the hot ones fresh out of the oil. 
A corriente in the Restrepo market. Thick fish soup, then a big ol plate of carbs with corn, yucca, potato, rice, avocado and onions and tender beef in gravy with home made hot sauce.
And for lunch, there are hundreds of places selling Corrientes from between $1.50 to $5.00 which consist of a hearty soup with a plate of rice, veggies and a protein (chicken, beef or a fried fish) and unlimited fresh juices. Always varied and always interesting. 
Bandeja paisa
And if you are really really hungry, try tackling a bandeja paisa – a large platter covered in rice, a bean stew, ground beef, arepas, avocados, fried eggs and hot chicharrones fresh out of the oil. Oh, and sausages. I went to one place along Carrera 7 and thought I was hungry and ordered the dish. Barely got through a third of it. Asked them to pack it up and, outside in the rain, a teenager was asking for money for food. So I asked him if he wanted the rest of my baneja paisa and he said yes – asked for a fork and the staff were bemused as I handed over the food to the kid. Oh, I should mention that there are great hot sauces – if you want it hot, you will get it hot.
Very excited to be seated in the front row of the Transmilenio Falcon!
3.  The Transmilenio. I know, this is very contentious because most people hate the system and there are huge demonstrations against them. And hard for me to say since I have only used it about 6 or 7 times and never had to wait an hour to get to my bus loading a half a block away or watched the fourth full bus pass the station. But no system is perfect and it still moves over a million people a day for less than a dollar a ride and the system was far less costly to set up than an underground subway system (which, admittedly, would be better in the long term and  which is being looked at now). Using it at certain times, it is much faster than taking a cab and a pretty interesting ride. I actually got bounced out of my seat in the very last row of a double articulated bus (they have triples too) and got about 3 inches of air.
Two of my favourite people - Dani and Gaby, about to dig into
Cochinito Pibil pulled pork tacos.
4.  Friendly people who are happy to have a conversation and aren’t afraid to speak or don’t think they are better than you – a common occurrence in this region. I have met interesting people in all kinds of places. Stand beside one of the big bbq restaurants with the big hanging grill over the big wood fire and the grill man will cut a piece of meat and hand it to you. For free!
Not sure if Angela is laughing with me or at me.
5.  Great places to hang out from the high end Andres Carne de Res in Chia to the low end Cuerdas Acero Rock Bar. 
After lunch cigars with coffee, rum and live music in Chia. What else do you need?
The first place took 3 hours to drive there and back but the food was worth it. The second place, we needed to use a washroom having drank many pints in the Candeleria BBC and walking back to Macarena – we bought a beer out of guilt and ended up staying for the next four hours. They had the video or song of every song we could think of from Elvis to Metallica to MJ and they played them all for us in their 15 seat bar.
On the Transmilenio heading across the city.
6.  Great neighbourhoods and party areas. So so far, I have stayed in a working class area in the south, in Macarena and now in Chapigay. I have visited the Zona T party area a few times and have always had a great meal. Candeleria is funky and bohemian, Parque 93 has numerous places to hang out and my favourite BBC where I can sometimes smoke a cigar (depending on which way the wind is blowing), Usaquen with its old colonial buildings (and a BBC of course), and numerous other places I don’t know the names of.
Simple food at a fancy place in the Zona T
7.  Stuff to buy like leather goods in Restrepo. Now if you know me, you know that I am a fan of brief cases and shoulder bags. Man bags, satchels, murses, whatever …. I carry around cigars, cutters, lighters, sunglasses, cell phones, cameras, umbrellas, and an iPad and this shit won’t fit into my pockets. Much cheaper than El Salvador, Argentina or Ecudador, Colombia produces very high quality bags and I just picked up three of them in Restrepo. They wanted 100K, 90K and 80K for the three bags and negotiated a price of 240K pesos which is about $120. My problem is that everyone sees the bags and wants to have one so I keep having to buy new ones. 
Closing the deal at the jade shop.
Also, very good jade although good luck trying to buy one. I spent 4 trips trying to find a trustworthy contact and in the end, I just jumped in and started visiting shops. I was looking for a stone for $1,000 and eventually found some that I liked. A bit less than a carat but nice colour, nice clarity but with a lot of occlusions. Had no idea if they had been heat or chemically treated (everyone said that they only used oil) but I did get the price down from the initial $1,600 to $1,000 so I figured that was okay. Then found another place that had a better and bigger stone for the same price. Then went to the washroom at this jewellery centre and was buzzed in by a woman so had to look at her stones. Found one I liked and she let me walk it downstairs to the other dealer where I compared stones. So out of about 20 stones at three dealers, found the one I liked. Still not sure if I got a good deal or if I was ripped off!
A nice selection of beer at a tiny bar. In a car park!
8.  Beer. Oddly with neighbouring Chile and Argentina producing so much wine, Colombians love their beer. From the local Aguilar and Poker to the slightly more expensive Club Colombia (clara, roja y negra), to the high end Apostle and Tres Cordilleros, the beer is excellent. And the best of them all is the Bogota Beer Company with their 19 (and growing) locations. I think I have been to about 8 of them and the draft beer is awesome.

9.  Modern and efficient airport and really cheap taxis! Visiting Toronto, the thought of taking a taxi from downtown (say a club a John and Richmond) to my folk’s condo at Yonge south of Finch, makes me physically ill. That ride would probably cost $50 which is a weeks pay in El Salvador (and 2 months pay in Cuba). In Bogota, you can take a cab for a half an hour through half the city and it will still be less than $10. And a ride to the airport is about 25K pesos or $12.50. Awesome.
Ivonne looking particularly fetching trying to unload food off her plate.
10.  Women. Hope this doesn’t come across as sexist but there are many beautiful women in Colombian and of all shapes and sizes and colouring. I sometimes would see the most stunning woman walk by or working as cashiers at the supermarket. I should say that there are also a lot of good looking guys – something that isn’t true of every country in the region. Sometimes the DNA mix works … and sometimes it doesn’t.


So that is my list of the top ten reasons I think Bogota is a great place. I look forward to visiting again and again to drink the beer, eat the food, and to hang out in a great city.