Monday, 25 February 2013

'Horse it into ya'

For westerners travelling in what you might call ‘developing’ countries, one of the many pieces of advice they’ll get from home is to be careful about what they eat. ‘You can never be too sure what’s on your plate is what the locals might say it is’ is a common refrain – particularly so when it comes to meat. Well in a ‘shocking’ reversal of fortunes, it seems a large portion of ‘developed’ Europe has been, not quite ‘taken for a ride’ on a horse, but actually eating one – or more than one it would seem.
Living horses in the flesh, as we're used to seeing them
Holy horses

For instead of the meat content of some packaged products consisting of only beef as they were meant to, it turns out a little bit of horse meat was thrown in too, to give it a bit of a ‘kick’ we can only guess. Now for some people, depending perhaps on their country of origin, this isn’t that big of a deal. But for others, especially those in Ireland and Britain, not only is the thought of eating a horse a little unsettling, it’s actually illegal. Back in the old country, we do just about everything else with horses except eat them. In one sense this might be seen as a little unfair – why single out the horse for special treatment – but that’s just the way it is.

Whatever about your own thoughts on eating horse meat – we’re not fussy in this regard as any meat is a rare ‘treat’ these days – the bigger issue here of course is the break down in trust between the consumer and the supplier. When people buy these packaged meats, they expect it to be what it says on the packet – regardless if the actual true meat content is minuscule. There is also the problem of quality assurance and standards. As most horses are not raised for human consumption, they and their meat are not treated as food stuff in the same way that cattle, pigs and sheep are (or at least should be) and therefore generally not subject to the same standards. This is especially so in terms of what injections and medication they receive throughout their life.

The fact however that this ‘scandal’ has been limited, so far at least, to relatively cheap packaged meals – ready made lasagne, meat pies and such like – has seen the debate also centre on the people that buy them and why. Regardless of whatever kind of meat is in these ‘meal-in-a-minute’ style products, many of them firmly fall into the junk food category, despite what the manufacturers might say; high in fat, salt, carbohydrates, sugar even and loaded with other ‘enhancers’ while the protein levels are pretty low.
A satisfying vegetable dish - we don't always have to have meat with our main meals
Healthy, home made grub

People who buy them – and from what we’ve witnessed in the past it’s not just those from the poorest backgrounds – point to the fact that they are cheap and extremely convenient. No labouring in the kitchen required. Both aspects are true, but you can get many different types of fresh fruit and vegetables (both root and over-ground) for similar, if not cheaper prices. As for the convenience, it doesn’t take that long to put together a tasty vegetable stir-fry where you control what kind of flavours are added. Heck, chop up a few spuds and put them on the boil and they’re ready in less than 30 minutes – OK, it’s not as quick as five minutes in the microwave but when your health and well-being’s at stake, what’s half an hour? We tend to find too that if you wash the pots and pans you used in cooking before you sit down to eat, it makes the meal all the tastier.

‘Ah, but what about the meat’ you ask. Well for one, as pointed out earlier, there’s not much of that in the majority of those ‘all-in-one’ meals – at best the ‘scratchings’ from a butcher. Plus, do we really need to eat meat everyday of the week or even at least twice a day as it is for some? No is the simple answer, we don’t.

Many of us have become so accustomed to having some sort of meat with most of our snacks that anything we eat without it just doesn’t seem right. It’s a safe bet though that if we all had to personally kill our own animals there’d be plenty more vegetarians about – and no one would be any the worse-off. Indeed there might be a reduction in obesity because of it, considering the quality of meat, or lack thereof as the case is, that many consume these days.

There’s a lot of satisfying, healthy fun you can have with cooking an array of different vegetables that can be ready to eat in minutes. Yet, even in times where in many parts of the world the abundance of a variety of ‘green’ foods has never been greater, our willingness to experiment with them is quite low in general.
The horseradish plant - not to be confused with the 'horse', the animal
HorseRADISH (pic from

Our native land often comes in for criticism on this front. Climatically and historically though, we Irish have an excuse – the land naturally isn’t brimming full of different types of fruit and veg all year round. That’s far less the case however here in our adopted country of Colombia. Most of the locals though seem unwilling to embrace a varied vegetable diet, even though plenty of them are available and at very cheap prices. In fact the standard plate here generally comes with three starchy carbohydrates – rice, potatoes and pasta – mushy beans or peas, a token piece of meat or fish and a bit of a salad that a snail would devour in seconds. You’d find more colour and variety at a Ku Klux Klan meeting compared to the offerings on a standard Colombian dish.

That’s not to say we don’t like what they eat here, but they could be a little more ‘adventurous’ in the kitchen at times*. For example a little more horseradish and less, erm, horse. Are you listening Europe?

*For our like of the 'famed' arepas in particular, check out 'Six of the best in 2012 (well kind of)'

+In case you're wondering, the 'inspiration' for the title of this post came from this particular 'gem' of a song:

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The path not taken

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
The great Pacific Ocean - like on the seas though, life isn't always plain sailing
'Sail away' as Enya once advised

An inspiring quote for many that, from the American author Mark Twain. Of course it does make a lot of sense in a number of ways, encouraging you to take on challenges and test yourself. However, the fact that you may be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do in your life over the ones you did is pretty much unavoidable really. Most people, if not all of us, will have doubts, questions and in some cases even regrets over things we could have done but didn’t. There will always be a path we didn’t take. Life is all about decisions – choosing one thing over another, or not as the case may be. Throw in the fact that we only live once – well as far as most of us believe and are aware that is the case – and it becomes extremely difficult to do everything that we desire.

The most important part in Twain’s words, from our point of view, is “Sail away from the safe harbour.” In other words, get out of your comfort zone when and where possible. If you feel your life has become stale and staid, that’s usually a good sign to make a ‘fresh break’, spice things up so to speak. Obviously for some this should be relatively easier to do than others. For example, those who are married or have long-term partners must balance their own desires with those of their ‘significant other’ if they are serious about their relationship. The ‘freedom’ you might have to “Explore. Dream. Discover” becomes even more compromised if you have children. Much of your responsibility becomes tied up in their development and desires – well at least it should.
Sunset in the Sahara Desert
"Which way 'Wrong Way'?"

Even without such ‘constraints’ on your ability to sail away or opt for a new direction, it can be difficult to leave behind your current life, even if it’s not exactly making you happy or giving you a sense of fulfilment. Very often a human being’s adventurous spirit is hindered by his/her fear of the unknown. It’s in this scenario where Twain’s quote comes into play. This is when you must ask yourself if the path you’re currently on is really the right one. Whatever about choosing one thing over another where the correct option doesn’t seem that obvious or indeed there isn’t a clear right or wrong choice, sticking with something that isn’t delivering you happiness, never mind not challenging you, is unwise to say the least. At times all it may require is a short break from a certain way of life or location – it doesn’t always have to be a complete transformation – to get you back on track, re-energise you so to speak. Even in the most restrictive of situations, dire even, there is an out, a new way.

Some may argue that financial constraints can make changing the course of your life difficult. Yes money or the lack of it can play a part. For somebody who might be struggling to know where their next meal is coming from, seeing a way out of such a life can be difficult to envisage. Plus from a western, ‘developed world’ perspective (or minority world view as some countries outside of this ‘group’ quite accurately term it) quite literally ‘sailing away’ can be much easier than for those in the ‘developing world’.
An obstructed route in Maicao, Colombia
'Wrong way, turn back'

But we can, all of us, strive for change or look to alter the direction of our life, if that is our want. If you know deep inside that the path you’re currently on is not the right one for you and you have the ability to change it, then the plan should be to seek to do just that. To “throw off the bowlines” as Twain puts it. Eliminating regrets from your life may be difficult to achieve, but at the very least you can try to reduce them.

* For related articles see: "'Wrong Way' begins" & 'Taking stock'

Monday, 11 February 2013

Finding Filandia

Despite hailing from an island, we’ve always felt more at home inland. That we were brought up in a landlocked county in our native Ireland probably has something to do with our mindset in this regard – our ability in deep water matching that of a handicapped cat has also played its part no doubt.
'Wrong Way's' terrain, high up in the hills!
At home in the hills

Now we don’t have an irrational fear of water. Heck we’ve snorkelled on the planet’s great oceans as well as scuba-dived in them. Plus, as last week’s story detailed (‘Lesser-spotted Colombia: Bahía Solano’, we’ve no problem sailing the high seas. It’s just up in the hills has always felt a bit better (after over a year living in Bogotá, it would want to).

So with that in mind plus our desire to check out quiet, slow-paced places on our recent escape from the Colombian capital, our final short stop ticked many boxes. Perched at an altitude of 1,900 metres, the quaint little town of Filandia** in Colombia’s famed ‘Eje Cafetero’ (‘Coffee-Growers Axis’ or ‘Coffee Triangle’ as it’s also known as) is, as far as we’re concerned, a close to perfect inland location to unwind.
Filandia's neat & tidy main square
Filandia's main square - where it all happens

Eye-catching scenery among the green rolling hills, tranquil country roads to ramble aimlessly about with warm, but not unbearable, daytime temperatures – just like the friendly locals – along with a well-kept town (we're not always in search of dirty places - see 'Buenaventura's dirty delights' all contribute to make this a highly enjoyable place to visit. Throw in the fact that it’s not quite as well known as nearby Salento and thus sees fewer tourists, it’s hard to find a fault if a bit of peace and quiet in the countryside air is what you’re looking for.

In many ways, the place is a picture-postcard image of rural, old-school Colombia: A colourful little main plaza replete with a stand-out Catholic church; the compact, door-less, plastic-top Jeep Willis used to transport coffee, people and whatever else you fancy; farm animals wandering, without a care, about the streets; and of course the middle-aged/elderly local men kitted out in trademark poncho and wide hat (or ‘aguadeño’ in the native lingo) with most sporting a little moustache. 
Typically dressed Colombian men
The 'boyos'!

A tasty little touch for us was the way that almost every second dwelling in the town seemed to sell char-grilled arepas in the morning and again in the evening (we do like an arepa from time-to-time as discussed in ‘Six of the best in 2012 (well kind of)’ Plain arepas with a touch of butter and/or salt they may just have been – the odd few houses offered cheese – but they hit the spot (in fairness for $300 pesos a pop – about $0.15US – you really can’t go wrong).

After a couple or more of those, you’re in no better place to wash them down with a nice cup of coffee. There’s no shortage of options in this regard – all very reasonably priced as well for the hard-pressed, as, you may have guessed, we are.
Filandia's big business - arepas
Arepas, lots of arepas - yummy!

If you do happen to get bored with things in the town and its surrounds – our stay was much too short for this to happen – there is a coffee park about 20km away that’s meant to be worth a visit (we didn’t get to it, this time) while the city of Armenia is less than an hour bus ride away if you’re perhaps looking for a bit more ‘action’ (not something we wanted though, as pointed out above).

For us, the relative peace and serenity in the comfortable hillside surroundings was more than enough. Enough, in any case, to leave a desire in us to go back for more.

*In terms of accommodation, the hostel/’hospedaje’ ‘Eden de Filandia’ (above ‘Droguería Bristol’, the pharmacy on the square) offers basic rooms – although with a balcony where you can see the square – for the giveaway price of $12,000 pesos per night, less than $7US. There are other, slightly more expensive options too, if you feel like ‘splashing the cash’.

** As you’ll discover should you visit, the name ‘Filandia’ has nothing to do with the country Finland (which is ‘Finlandia’ in Spanish) as some people mistakenly think. It comes from the Latin ‘fila’ meaning daughter and ‘andia’ referring to the Andes Mountains. So basically the town’s name means ‘Daughter of the Andes’. Now you know!

Monday, 4 February 2013

Lesser-spotted Colombia: Bahía Solano

Very often when travelling the old adage, ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey getting there’ holds true. For our recent trip to Bahía Solano, on Colombia’s secluded Pacific coast, this was partially the case. The route we took to get there was certainly interesting, yet the destination was also pretty impressive.
Bahía Solano from a high
Bahía Solano.
Considering it is cut off from most of the country in terms of the road network, there are just two standard ways of getting to Bahía Solano – by sea or by air. Well there is the option of trekking through dense tropical jungle, but due to some commitments over the next few months, we’re not willing to take a gamble on our life just yet. We’re not ruling out doing it at some stage though.

We decided to take the more relaxed, slower route by sea, departing from the delightfully dirty city of Buenaventura (see last week’s ‘Buenaventura’s dirty delights’ Depending on the time of year, a fast boat is available which would have you in Bahía Solano in about ten hours. This, however, was not an option at this time. In any case, the thoughts of a couple of days steadily sailing on the ocean was more appealing than a rough speed boat ride – if you’re travelling around Colombia’s Pacific coast, it’s best not to be in a rush.
Loading our boat up with the essentials - crates & crates of beer
Stocking up.

We certainly weren’t and just as well. Our planned sail time of a Saturday afternoon was put back to a dawn departure on Sunday morning as our ‘luxury cruiser’ – well an all-purpose small cargo ship (as you know, our standards on luxury are low) – seemed to take on more stuff than Noah’s Ark. Alas the crates and crates of beer on board were not for passenger consumption.
Sunset & dolphins on the high seas

The delayed departure was far from an inconvenience – we slept on the docked boat that night as well as getting fed, so the $150,000 COP cost (about $80 US) for the initial 36-hour trip became even more reasonable.* When we did get moving, it took about 24 hours to reach our first destination – the little village of Nuquí. The boat ride was comfortable although it seems many Colombians don’t have the best of sea-legs – thankfully sea sickness was not a problem for us. On the way, as a pleasant distraction, we were regularly accompanied by dolphins. This is also the part of Colombia’s Pacific to see Humpback whales; however the season to see them is between July and November.

We docked in Nuquí for a few hours, enough time for us to have a walk around the village, splash in the ocean and grab a refreshing beer. Indeed with the dramatic tide movements around these parts the boat couldn’t move until evening time as it was on dry land for much of the day.
'Docked' in Nuquí

The trip from Nuquí to Bahía Solano took about ten hours, arriving at our destination before dawn on Tuesday. So while it may seem like a bit of an unnecessary long, marathon journey considering you can take a speed boat that gets you there much quicker from Buenaventura, we found it enjoyable. People may use the Spanish expression ‘vale la pena’ (‘worth the pain/effort’ or worthwhile) as regards the trip, but this is a bit erroneous as far as we’re concerned as there is no pain – it’s pleasant.

Even if you do find the boat ride uncomfortable because of sea sickness or whatever, you’ll soon forget all that when you get to Bahía Solano. This is an ideal place to ‘get away from it all’. Relax and unwind, away from the big city madness or work or whatever. Sea, sand and sun practically all to yourself. OK, if you were being critical you might say the beaches aren’t the most pristine in the world, but when there’s no one else around to disturb you, who cares?
A secluded beach outside Bahía Solano

We went to Bahía Solano with one chief aim – to chill out. And on that score it certainly didn’t disappoint. The town itself is sleepy, a population made up of the indigenous Embera, Afro-Colombians and Spanish-Colombians, with a good scattering of this latter group being Paisas (people originally from Medellín and its surrounds – if there’s money to be made, you’ll generally find a Paisa close by). It has everything you’ll need – plenty of little restaurants, quiet bars, grocery stores, internet cafes, ATM, etc. As much of the food stuff has to be transported in by sea from Buenaventura – outside of the plentiful and delicious fish that is – things are generally a little bit more expensive than you’ll find in the bigger Colombian cities, but not by that much.
A refreshing waterfall to cool off in

In terms of what to do outside of relaxing on the beach, there are plenty of gentle treks you can take around the town, exploring the tropical flora and fauna. Now while you may not feel too inclined to go trekking in the intense heat, many of these little walks are refreshingly interrupted with waterfalls – the clear, cool fresh water good enough to drink.

Something perhaps a little less refreshing, but worth a try all the same is ‘biche’ or 'viche', the local brew of the Embera. This clear, moonshine-style spirit, is derived from the palm tree and it certainly packs a punch. It reminded us, in appearance, taste and strength of poitín – the Irish ‘tipple’ typically distilled from potatoes. You can purchase a 200 ml bottle of biche for the giveaway price of $6,000 COP (just over $3 US) from the indigenous themselves – a nice way to support them while getting something in return.
Biche being served by an Embera
Biche time.

About an hour's drive away from Bahía is the neighbouring village of El Valle. This is worth at least a day visit. It appears a little bit more rustic than Bahía (not that the latter is cosmopolitan or anything like it – everything is relative!) with better waves for surfing if that’s your thing, and a bigger beach.

Now the more pig-headed amongst us may subscribe to the notion that ‘the only things that go with the flow are dead fish.’ Yes, there is some truth to that, but in Bahía Solano and surrounds the tides are in control. They tend to decide your movements – be it from when to walk along the beach to when you want to leave by sea. When you’re here, there’s no other option but to just go with the flow. A refreshingly good feeling that can be too.
High tide
* ‘Renacer del Pacifico’ runs boats with spaces for passengers from Buenaventura to Bahía Solano, usually departing on Saturdays and Tuesdays each week. The journey generally shouldn’t take longer than 36 hours (in fact our return journey from Bahía Solano only took 22 hours) and the standard price for a ticket is $150,000 COP with meals and – usually – a bed included.
The office/point of departure is located at: km 4, El Pinal, Buenaventura. Mob: +57-320-726-07-82 / +57-315-402-15-61.

One budget accommodation option in Bahía Solano is ‘Hotel Bahía Solano’ ($20,000 COP a room per night – you may have to bargain for this price though). E-mail: for more information.