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 -
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.