Last night I dreamt that Ellen and I were visiting an Amazonian village. Our host had laid in a stock of cherry-flavoured soft drinks for us, in glass bottles (as all soft drinks are sold here). When we asked if she could provide some other beverage rather than pop (least of all artificial cherry flavour, which will always taste like cough syrup to me) the only other drink she could reluctantly provide was hot chocolate. Later that evening, we went to the communal village kitchen, and the only food was a variety of different McDonald’s hamburgers, still wrapped in paper, laid out on a silver tray. Coyotes and wolves would come in from the jungle and scavenge from the kitchen, stealing paper-wrapped burgers. The animals would take the burgers to the edge of the village and, to the amusement of the local children, delicately unwrap the burgers with their teeth before eating them. When dinner time rolled around and we didn’t have enough burgers left for everybody, the children were less amused.

One thing in particular struck me as odd about my dream: I’ve never seen anybody eating fast food hamburgers in Colombia. We had a gourmet buffalo burger in Medellin (which was delicious, by the way), and we walked past a Hard Rock Cafe selling burgers in Cartagena, but the golden arches are conspicuous by their absence here. In our month in Colombia, we haven’t seen one fast food outlet that we recognized from home, with the exception of a McDonald’s cafe selling ice cream in a food court.

That’s not to say Colombians don’t eat anything unhealthy or on the run. Fried chicken restaurants seem to be everywhere, and a variety of juice bars and pizza places also claim to sell hamburgers, although we’ve never seen any evidence that anybody orders them. The go-to on-the-run food seems to be arepas – thick corn tortillas, cooked over hot coals on a street-side barbecue, served buttered and topped with cheese. Rather than taking them wrapped to go, though, most Colombians eat them at the street stand. In fact, whenever we’ve stopped for a bit to eat, the street vendor insists on seating us on a nearby park bench and chatting with us until we’ve finished eating or drinking before allowing us to pay.

Here volunteering at the hostel, though, Ellen and I are avoiding eating out. As volunteers, we don’t have to pay for accommodation, but food is one of those expenses that can add up. Many times when travelling, though, I’ve found it cheaper to eat out than to try to cook for myself when I don’t know the region. Cooking for myself, I often spend a lot of money buying the ingredients I recognize and know how to use, when the cheapest food is what the locals eat. After a month in Colombia, though, Ellen and I feel fairly confident trying our hands at cooking local food. Now, with three weeks ahead of us here to cook for ourselves with free access to a kitchen, we’re looking forward to playing around with local ingredients and flavours.

One of the fruit and vegetable stalls at the market in Santa Rosa

One of the fruit and vegetable stalls at the market in Santa Rosa

Yesterday I went to the market and wandered around aimlessly looking at fruit and vegetable displays for awhile. When every vegetable stall looks the same, it’s hard to decide where to shop! A friendly husband and wife team of vendors greeted me cheerfully and called me over to their stall to show me their wares. Not only did I get all the ingredients for a simple meal of beans and rice that Ellen and I had agreed on, but they also recommended several fruits for making juice. They were enthusiastically explaining how to prepare the different fruits and vegetables, and I’m sure they would have gladly kept me there half the afternoon discussing Colombian food, but I was hungry and wanted to get back to the hostel to make lunch.

Our first day’s experiment cooking Colombian food for ourselves was, in my opinion, a success. We made ourselves beans, rice, salsa, and fried bananas for a late lunch. (Despite what we read on the internet, fresh beans take more than 45 minutes to cook. Ours took closer to three hours.) The resulting meal wasn’t a full Colombian almuerzo lunch, which usually includes juice, soup, rice, beans, meat, plantains, and salad, but it was certainly sufficient for us. Later in the evening, Ellen took some of the unidentified fruit from the market (guava, we believe) and made it into a fruit smoothie with bananas and milk. I’m sure future experiments will taste even better!

One of my goals for this trip was to get an idea of what typical Latin American food is like. Now that we’ve eaten lots of it, the next logical step is to try to make it ourselves. Over the next few weeks, Ellen and I are going to play around with local ingredients and traditional Colombian dishes. Who knows what amazing things we might learn? And hopefully my next food dream is about something a little more Colombian than burgers.