Living in Colombia, in a world of Spanish, when my doorman still sounds like he’s speaking Mandarin to me (I don’t speak Mandarin), I’m reminded of Spanish class and watching Destinos, the telenovela made for Spanish learners.
So when I visited Buenos Aires, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the Destinos locations, as part of my own “Hollywood tour.” It’s not the Oscars but it certainly is cultural.
I also decided that this gives me a good reason to visit Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Spain… not that I need one.
Colombia is so green and there are many cows so I expected the dairy products to be amazing. When I first got here, I’d go to Carulla and admire the rows and rows of dairy products. But, then I realized that most of the dairy products were various yogurt drinks. I like yogurt drinks but I really love fresh milk. Carulla does have two brands of fresh milk (and someone, a birdie, told me that on Tuesdays, they carry a third brand) in full-fat, low-fat, and lactose free.
On one of the weekend adventures, I made a point of visiting the “Alpina Lecheria” in Sopo, as I had been told that this was a good place to visit. As we approached the dairy, there was a traffic jam — all traffic coming out of the dairy! Higher up on the hill, the large steel tanks glinted like giant sized milk containers. Sadly, there was no tour of the dairy, no lines of cows chewing their cud, and no Heidi with braids. The main attraction was the outlet shop selling dairy products, ice cream, sandwiches, and gift baskets of dairy products. In front of the store, hundreds of people sat on the grass enjoying their dairy.
I went in the store. I looked for the fresh milk. I found long life milk. No fresh milk. I asked an employee for the fresh milk. He lead me to the same milk that I had just looked at. Long life milk. Expiration date in April. I told him that I was looking for milk that would go bad in a few days, not in three months. He told me that I needed to go to the countryside if I wanted fresh milk. Not sure if he thought I should find someone milking a cow…
Imagine that is an inky morning, just before dawn, six hundred years ago. A warming amber light spreads first on the crest of the crater, and then rays of light rush, like happy children, down the banks of the emerald green slope, to skim like eagles across the opal water. Your eyes are fixed on the center of the lagoon. On a youth covered in gold dust. From the shore, he is small, like a pebble. As dawn breaks, he appears, his body, nude but for gold dust, shimmering like flecks of sunrise on a lake. When his raft reaches the center of the sacred lagoon, the youth offers gold artifacts into the water. He then performs ablutions in the lake, the gold dust disseminating like a million stars on the milky way. Once again, he, the golden seed, has impregnated the female lagoon. The cycle of life ensured once again.
That is the tale you will hear, sort of, from the guide as he tells you about the Muisca people who lived in the area outside Bogota before it became Bogota.The guide will tell you about the local people and the pitiful grams of gold that the Spaniards and others dredged out of Gautavita Lagoon, centuries ago, and then again, a century ago. Until, finally the Colombian government put a stop to it. It took longer for the government to make this area a protected area, but it is now. About a decade ago, the organization that runs the tours, was set up and now, it runs like Disney for adults.
The Details: I recommend making a day of it via the town of Guatavita and the reservoir, not to be confused with the lagoon. Try to go in an SUV as the last stretch of road is a dirt road pitted with potholes (perhaps also take motion sickness pills if you don’t take well to being jerked about in a car. Or swaying and sashaying up the “dangerous curves” of lovely Colombia). From Bogota, set out to the east along the toll road (it costs around 3,000 pesos or $2). It’s a pleasant drive that starts with a good view of the mega-city. Then it goes through some industrial looking towns before a turn off at a mango stand. Once you get to the town of Guatavita, stop at a bakery and pick up some guava bread or some other snack.
Along the way, one of the towns is Guasca (like the herb they put in ajiaco), also known as the town of the Muisca people. It is a village and has a pleasant feel to it. I enjoy seeing all the old men in hats and ponchos.
Then head off to the sacred lagoon. The last seven kilometers (about 5 miles) is dirt road. There are many great photo opportunities along the way like picturesque fincas (country houses), cows being milked by hand, and great swathes of countryside that looks like New Zealand.
Once you get to the entrance of Guatavita Lagoon, take a tour to the actual lagoon (you may not walk their by yourself). The tours start every half hour and are guided. The cost is around 17,000 pesos ($7), but I can’t remember the exact amount. There are gift shops and bathrooms. The tour actually takes about two and half hours and is one way, up a lot of muddy steps. The end of the tour is at a local corn and drinks stand. To return to your car, there is a bus service that costs 1,500 pesos ($.75), or you can have your driver bring the car to the end point.
I won’t spoil the tour for you by explaining it. That said, without the legend, it does just look like a small pond (hence why most Bogotanos seem more into visiting the “lago” which is really the reservoir). It’s basically a 45 minute walk interspersed with 90 minutes of educational talk (about the planet, about nature, and preserving the native plants, oh, and about the legend), and about 40 minutes of selfie-stick photo ops. The nice part is that once you get to the top, the guide leaves you to take lots of photos and walk downhill by yourself. In terms of difficulty, I’d guess that this is about 900 steps at 9,000 feet elevation. But, mostly, the steps are done in small segments. Just enough to make you regret the guava bread or empanada that you ate for breakfast.
I would have liked a laser and smoke show with an ethereal gilded (hence “el dorado”) youth appearing out of the water. Apparently, there is one somewhere nearby.
After a refreshing three hour walk, it’s nice to settle in back at Guatavita town and enjoy a lunch. Guatavita town was re-located 40 years ago when the Bogota reservoir (“reprisa” in Spanish) flooded the old town. The town has a museum, tourist shops, lots of bathrooms, and restaurants. It is also possible to rent a horse to ride down to the reservoir. Or you can walk, drive down, or take the mini-train. At the reservoir’s edge, people like to picnic and enjoy the view. Up until two years ago, it was possible to rent a launch and visit some of the islands and ruins. I noticed lots of yachts and yacht clubs but for the common folk, well, I don’t know if they are allowed out on the water anymore. The reservoir is very large (the hydroelectric dam provides the power for 8.5 million Bogotanos) and beautiful.
But, it’s not a sacred lagoon (or maybe it is since it creates the power which fuels Bogota) where legends start and greedy conquistadors project their dreams of wealth. Gold was the oil of their time. Perhaps the guide was right that conserving the planet is the new quest. Perhaps, the quest for potable water is the new el dorado.
To continue my Korean restaurant collection, I have now eaten at all the Korean restaurants in Bogota. Previously, there were more Korean restaurants in Bogota and on many of the online sites, the addresses are not updated (Degusta, Bogota Brilliance, etc.). As of January 2015, in Bogota, there are seven Korean restaurants and one Japanese one where they will serve you Korean food. Here they are according to my opinion of their food.
Arirang (Carrera 14, 106A-86. Closed on Sundays. The sign for the restaurant is tiny. The restaurant is cream-colored house set back from the road. There may be a rooftop area as well.), 12/13: It’s a clean and neat looking restaurant. The food is fairly authentic. The spicy pork belly was flavorful and delicious, and probably the spiciest food I’ve had here other than at the Taiwanese restaurant (generally, people in Bogota are of the “if it’s spicy, I can’t taste it” school of eaters. There is no black pepper on the table ever). The beef lightly marinated in soy sauce (not bulgogi) was a high quality cut of meat and tasty. I asked for the “salsa con sal” and they brought the traditional sesame oil dipping sauce. The kimchi is sour (so, good if you like sour), the banchan includes a red pepper leek dish which I liked. And one of the days, one of the panchan was an egg battered hotdog — and who doesn’t love meat in a tube! The mandu were thin-skinned, meaty, and pan fried. There are lots of stews on the menu and kalbi (beef rib). No haemul pajeon (seafood pancake). The fish stew was fishy. I found all the flavors a little different than I expected but it could be the kind of oil she uses. The restaurant has been in existence for 18 years and the owner said that there are about 4,000 Koreans in Bogota. Oh, and at the table which had two gas burners (thumbs up for the decor and logistics), there is a bell on the table to call for service, and one gets a pitcher of that pale amber warm barley corn tea that I like so much. The owner and the waitress were friendly. This is a place one could bring business colleagues.
Motomachi, Carrera 13A, No. 96-65 (this is a Japanese restaurant) 12/13: This restaurant is two years old. The interior design is my favorite. Wood paneled ceilings and view of an Asian garden. The owner is Korean and she doesn’t speak Spanish so if you want Korean food, you have to speak Korean or Japanese (The tables are Korean style with a gas burner sunken into the center — but the first I was here, I couldn’t make myself understood. The nice waitress didn’t understand that I wanted Korean food — it’s not on the menu — only kimchi is listed as a “cold appetizer”). The chef is a long-time Bogota resident and he is Japanese (but he stays back in the kitchen. The sushi chef is a Colombian). The Japanese sushi was some of the best I’ve had in Bogota. The Korean food is good but it is what I would call Japanese-Korean fusion. It’s light and elegant. No fiery red bowls or raw garlic. The mandu/potstickers/empanadas de japon etc. are good. The bulgogi was more like a shabu shabu filet cooked as bulgogi, and the owner seems to try to recommend that everyone eat this meat as its good. Kind of funny to me. She doesn’t serve a lot of “panchan” or small dishes as so many Korean-food-fans rave about, but what she serves are well done. The kimchi is good but not spicy. The small fried fish were great and the spiced dried burdock root also good. I’ve been there three times so far and each time, the second small plate is different. The japchae (stir fried rice noodles) is good (there are always those that order this just as I always order the seafood pancake). The “haemul pajeon” or seafood pancake is different each time but still good. The first time I had it, it was made more like a Japanese dish and the second time, it was smaller and less doughy. The first time I went there, I had Japanese food and didn’t find the tonkatsu edible but the sushi was fine. I shall be back many more times. This restaurant is hard to find due to all the one-way roads surrounding it so it’s best to walk. It’s located near a small pedestrian street.
Casa de Corea – original location (Calle 104A, 11B-61. M-F 12-13 & 6-10. Weekends 12-10.) 11/13: Supposedly, according to themselves, theirs is the best kimchi. I’d agree. The bulgogi is also good, marinated for a minute right before being brought to the table. The seafood soup was mild and warming on a cold night. They brought a ladle and small bowls for sharing. The dumplings, mandu, are also good but are deep fried like an empanada. The Colombian cook has been cooking Korean for 30 years and she is on point. The service is also friendly. Now, I am annoyed that this place is not located in my apartment building. If it was, I’d eat there every day. Prices were average at about 20 U.S. dollars per person. This place is too “dumpy” to take business guests.
Casa de Corea – Previously Deum Jang, affiliated with Casa de Coreana at the old location (Carrera 14B, No. 106-18. M-F 12-13 & 6-10. Weekends 12-10.) 11/13: Supposedly, according to themselves, theirs is the best kimchi. I’d agree. New location is also on a residential street. Inside is nicer and more modern than the original location. There’s a fire pit and a TV on the wall. Cozier. The food is the same as at the other location. This location is fine for taking guests.
Biwon (Carrera 7D, #108A-33. Tel: 215-4773. Closed on Sundays. Also hard to find. It’s in a house on a twisty residential street, and comically, across from it is posted a sign which says, “no businesses allowed.”) 10/13: The bulgogi is actually the best here. Instead of being shaved flakes of stringy meat like most places, here, the strips are like I’d make at home. The meat used is tender and actually has some flavor. The bulgogi is served with lettuce for lettuce wraps. The kimchi was also slightly sour and not a deep red color. The haemul pajeon was thick and soggy. I didn’t find the staff all that friendly. Also, fine for business meals.
Asiari (Cra 18B, No. 108 – 05. Closed on Sundays. Asian fusion. It is really hard to find this street. When going west on 109, look for the red Banco sign on the left corner. Turn left on that street.), 9/13: This place made decent Korean food. It appears to be run by two Korean ladies. The restaurant has various kinds of seating, from the cafe outdoors, the cafe indoors, upstairs private rooms, the shuttered back room, and so on. Plus, the bathrooms have quirky art and fancy faucets. The chicken wings were okay but the sushi roll was terrible. I enjoyed it more than I expected to. They have Korean tea and serve it in a large teapot which I appreciated. When I asked to pay, I was told that they lady in the back had already paid for me. Some strange things are nice.
Maki Roll (Carrera 11, No. 95-01. All days, 12-11.) 6/13: This place also sells some Korean items including the red pepper paste (kochugang) that is distinctly Korean. The meals include a starter of cold marinated chicken wings and small pancake (pajeon). The banchan were inedible. The bulgogi, while a good sized portion, was too chewy. The staff are friendly. This place is a cafe so very casual or, as I noticed, hip enough (all white decor) to attract dating couples out for a nosh.
Senor Kim, Calle 78, No. 12-09 (old address is Calle 39, #18-34. Was also called Mini Nyam Nyam, I think), 3/13: Well, hola Senor Kim! When out exploring, we stumbled across the sixth Korean restaurant in Bogota. They moved in the summer of 2014… so only their Facebook page has the correct address. This is a small caf’ style place. Although this is a new location, it’s dark and cramped which makes it feel a touch old school. Located on a through street between Carrera 11 and Carrera 13. I really wanted to like this place because the young couple who own it are so cute. I think that their best dish is their bowl of rice with stuff = bibimbap. The kimchi was not bad but it was more like a cabbage with red sauce.
That concludes my Korean restaurant search in Bogota. I may have to start cooking at home as delivery (domicilio) doesn’t seem like such a good idea with Korean food.