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When I attended the launch of Official Bloggers in the elegant De La Opera hotel in Bogota in February, I was almost certainly the oldest person present, even though I am only 51. Colombia is a country of young people and seems to attract travelers who are mostly twenty-something. There is a lot of entertainment and activities for the young in this country, but what does it have for those pushing or over forty, fifty, and beyond somethings? As one of "them," and as a resident of this splendid land, I proffer a series of articles that will help you navigate the areas that interest people like us! For this first installment, let us get night clubbing, dining and shopping out of the way!
The big cities here are famous for their cavernous night clubs and discotheques, and watching the highly skilled Colombians spin and sway to the Latin rhythms is a spectacle, but the crowds and extreme decibel level can be exhausting for people of a certain age! If dancing and music is high on your list, you probably cannot escape the high volume as that is how Colombians like it, but you would probably get more enjoyment from a smaller club. A traditional parranda bar is a sure hit. These mimic rural stores that double as watering holes. Everything is painted in vivid colors and a wild variety of things hanging from the ceiling. People dance between the tables to Colombia's own lively guasca, vallenato and llanera music. Typically, waiters wear traditional clothing and stock your table with plenty of snacks, including green mango wedges, sprinkled with lemon juice and salt, which if you have never tried is a special treat! One of my favorite parranda bars is La Tienda in Envigado's Guanteros entertainment district, or near the central plaza in Sabaneta (Envigado and Sabaneta are Medellin suburbs).
If you like dining out, you will never be short of options. Colombian beef is of very good quality, having nothing to envy of Argentina's, and there are several steak houses that are famous not only for their food but for their dinner shows. In Bogota, everybody makes at least one pilgrimage to Andres Carne de Res, where they dig into huge steaks while watching a revue. In Sabaneta, a suburb of Medellin, there is Alma Llanera, which features slabs of meat roasting on vertical spits, and a show of llanera musicians and dancers who hoof about the stage (the main instrument in llanera music is the harp, which they extract exciting sounds from rather than the dreamy lullabies of Enya!). Another great choice for steak and traditional dishes such as the bandeja Paisa is the Mondongo's restaurant chain, though in this case it is strictly for the food.
Other restaurant chains I strongly recommend is Crepes and Waffles, which exists in just about any Colombian urban area. I have never had a bad meal at one, and the wide variety of fancy desserts can drive you insane. Despite the name, this is a 100% Colombian company, but it could be popular even in New York or Paris. I am also a fan, but to a lesser extent, of J y C and Archie's (pizza and huge hamburgers), as well as "1969" (wood oven pizza) restaurants. None of these are fast food venues -- you will get an above average meal for no more or even less than it would cost you at a Bob Evans (yech!) or Perkins (yech!) in the USA.
For a top notch coffee and a small snack, there is usually a Juan Valdez or Oma counter nearby, even within department stores, and if you are in the Eje Cafetero (Quindio, Caldas, Risaralda), a stop at one of the colorful "coffee jeeps" is mandatory!
Good restaurants seem to grow in the same district, so find out from locals where they are clustered in their city. In Medellin, there is an overabundance of good restaurants in and around the Parque Lleras, which is popular with foreigners. There is a Mondongo's there, and if you want to spend a bit more money, there is Amelia's, where the rich and famous of Colombia can often be seen at a neighboring table.
What to order? Aside from the aforementioned steak and bandeja paisa, other typical Colombian dishes are ajiaco (ah-hee-ahco), and sancocho. Both are a cross between a soup and stew. Colombians eat great quantities of arepas, pancake like bread, which can even be the basis for a meal: an arepa on the bottom and your choice of topping piled on top. If you are on the Caribbean coast, you will absolutely want to start the day with an arepa de huevo, which is an arepa with a fried egg magically slipped inside, and the juice of the zapote costeño (sah-poh-tey cos-teh-gno), a weird but delicious fruit that only grows in that area of the country.
The cities usually have several huge shopping malls that can make those back home look pitiful. For instance, a must stop in both Medellin and Bogota is the Santa Fe mall. Medellin's opened just last year and features a retractable roof as well as cupolas that open and close like a peeled orange. Across the road from the Santa Fe in Medellin is the venerable Oviedo mall which caters to the well heeled shoppers. High up in the mountain backing the Poblado district is the El Tesoro mall. The views of the city and the mountains beyond from this location will take your breath away! This mall has its own midway in its central court, complete with a Ferris wheel.
For the next article in this series we will look at quality lodging and must see attractions.