Doing It In a Van

Sometimes a day goes by with so many surprises, twists and turns that it seems to last longer than a day should. Let me tell you of one of those days that I recently had the pleasure of enjoying in Medellín, Colombia. But first, do me a favor, close your eyes for a second and imagine how the scene would unfold if you were told a guy named Rafa was going to pick you up in a van and take you on a tour of a nearby lake. I’ll give you a minute…

Good. Now if your imagine is anything like mine then you were pretty spot on…

The Man and His Van

Rafa, short for Rafael, embodies my pre-formed opinion of what a laid back Colombian would look like. Long dark hair held down by a slightly worn white wide brimmed hat, tattered jeans hanging over worn flip flops and a big warm greeting as if he had known you for years. His smile must come from the fact that he knows of all the surprises he’s holding back on sharing just yet. As you stand there with a curious grin on your face after eying the white and red van nearly as old as you are, he is at work learning the names of everyone in the group and ushering us to sit down so we can hit the road. His Paisa accent comes through when he speaks English, which in his words is “not very good”, yet great conversation flows easily all day. Off we go driving through some of the less visited areas of the city as he waits for us to ask questions as opposed to playing tour guide. The old van creaks a bit around turns and shudders over every bump, but it’s a perfectly fitting chariot given the circumstances.

We wind up and around barrios that offer quite a different view of the city than Poblado does. As I watch the houses and shops pass by through the rain drop stained windows, there’s not an obvious anglo in sight. As I catch glimpses of street carts serving arepas and buñuelos, I imagine the food tastes a bit better here. I catch a fragrant whiff off and on, and wish we had the time to stop, though my van mates are aching to see “the sites”. On the final turn out of one of the last barrios before we trade red brick buildings for mountains of towering green trees, a young man runs into the street towards the van. He’s holding out a bag of snacks that Rafa grabs, without slowing much, and offers a quick “Buenos!” and passes back small packages of sweet doughy treats. It was such a quick exchange that it went unnoticed by most of the passengers. The first of many coordinated surprises for the day…

Just up the road we take a few minutes to stop and take in a view of the Aburrá Valley that Medellín sits in. Ringed with dark green forest, the clouds and smog trapped by the mountains, looking down upon the city I have seen from the street every day for the past few weeks it seems more serene and quiet. Back in the van, and just a few more curves before Rafa veers onto the shoulder while saying “the live music is free, but he appreciates tips”. We’re all a bit confused as a teenage boy jumps in the van and straddles the console, facing us in the back. He tucks his drum between his legs and adjusts his harmonica (for lack of a better name…), smiles wide and starts jamming away.

Twenty minutes more and we turn off the pavement onto a dirt road that winds between homes, ranches, gardens and pastures until Rafa beeps the horn twice and we pull into his home’s driveway. That horn honking will be the key to surprises throughout the day I imagine, as his wife starts a procession of food to the tables set in the front yard overlooking the valley of homes below. Fresh baked breads, eggs with tomato or spinach, eggplant, fruits, avocado, hot chocolate (with cheese!) and more blow our expectations out of the water. I’m smiling at the photo of Bob Marley, Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh that hangs over the patio table and how fitting it is for the little I know of Rafa. When it’s time for us to go, he points us all to the top of the van. Up the stairs and onto the roof rack, we go one by one expecting a photo opp before we continue down the mountain. Instead we all climb up and take places around the perimeter as directed. He hops in the driver’s seat and fires up the motor. Lots of quick, confused conversation follows as we back up and head down the driveway into the valley. I have to say that though I was hesitant at first I cannot imagine a better vantage point to take in the sites of rural Colombia! Just watch out for branches…

La Piedra

The whole point of this trip was to see the lake and town known as Guatapé, I had almost forgotten about this as we wound our way through the mountains. Stops along the way for grenadillas and a drive by the local livestock trading market added a few minutes but a lot of interest to the drive. Then as we pass a sign for Piedra El Peñol, what we think is our next destination, the vans turns down another dirt road…

We bounce along the one lane, muddy, road with the Rolling Stones up just a bit too loud on the radio which almost drowns out two quick beeps from the horn. I know something good must be coming up as we round a turn and stop in front of a good sized yellow bridge that stretches over one of the fingers of the lake. Time for a quick swim, and a jump for those daring enough. (Sidebar… it was pretty high up, and I like my feet to be on the ground so there was no chance for me. But Emily made the rest of us look like sissies as we watched her take the plunge from the safety of the shore.) Sure enough, as we hit the beach a man rows a kayak to the shore with blankets, a friendly dog and a twelve pack of cold beers. After a cold beer, a visit to Rafa’s hostel on the lake where we grabbed bananas straight from the bunch and he stocked up the van we hit the road yet again for the huge stone monolith we set out for.

659 steps to the top were a small price to pay for the views. Stretched out through valleys in every direction, lake Guatapé seems to go on forever. Houses and fincas dot the shore’s edge, larger darts of land are the home of hotels and resorts, boats weave in and out of bays that I imagine are way too easy to get lost in. I have to imagine the awe in the mind of the first person to crest this rock, they had no stairs or handrails but were blessed with an unmolested view of mountain tops and valley bottoms full of the unique Colombian flora and fauna. However many years later the damned reservoir is still a site to see and seemingly popular with local tourists filling the area.

The Picnic

I probably made you wait too long, but you had to have a little context to the story to appreciate it. As we returned from the top of the rock, tired and sweaty form the hike up the stairs, we were greeted with a perfect picnic spread. I could smell the deliciousness as we walked up, and we discussed what lunch might hold. I somewhat expected a soup and some sandwiches, but luckily I was wrong. Stewed garbanzo beans, roasted beets, stir fried pork, chicken and beef dishes, salads of pineapple, starfruit and two rices were laid out on the bright red blanket. I took a peak again at the back of the van and it’s tiny fold out kitchen, back to the food, back at the van… From I guy that has prided himself on serving some great meals to guests without much to cook on, I was seriously impressed! As we sat to eat I was even happier. Each dish was full of flavor, different from the others and offered up a diversity of flavors I have yet to see in Colombia.

On chatting with David, the same guy that paddled our beers over at the lake, I learned that he too was a chef and helped Rafa prepare lunch. We chatted food and restaurants for a bit, and I smiled as I was again in the company of my kind so far from home. If you didn’t know, us chefs have this weird unspoken bond that usually manifests itself in a heated conversation about traditional versus good when it comes to food. In David’s opinion, Colombia needs more flavor and new techniques. In mine, I appreciate the history and heritage that is just now starting to change as the country opens itself up to tourists and trade other than cocaine and coffee. Happily, the day’s lunch brought both with it’s combination of classic Colombian fare of beans and rice combined with a touch of Asian influence in stir fries and the heat of Mexico in the salads. Dare I say this is the best meal I have had in Colombia? Not only was the food great, but the laughs and chat as we sat on a patch of lawn or the seats from the van overlooking the lake surely added to the experience.

The moral of the story? If you ever end up in Colombia and a local pulls his van up and asks you to jump in, it may just be best to say yes and go with the flow!

Seriously though, look up Rafa and the Van por Colombia and book a trip you won’t regret instead of waiting for a stranger to pick you up.

2018-04-16T15:15:22+00:00 April 16th, 2018|
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