This is an article about a recent trip to Colombia that was featured in the regional newspaper El Diario del Huila.
Growing up near San Francisco, California, we didn’t learn much about Colombia in school. For instance, geography classes focused more on Europe and history teachers rarely mentioned (if at all) Simón Bolívar. Students who took Spanish classes mostly learned about Mexican or Spanish culture. As an adult I became aware that American’s view of Colombia was heavily influenced by pop culture. Shakira taught us that Colombian women were attractive and that their music was great for dancing. Additionally, the Netflix show Narcos told us that drugs were omnipresent. Surely, this wasn’t all true. Not every American owns a gun nor do we all eat hamburgers, so these generalizations couldn’t be accurate about Colombia.
One day, I recently found myself on vacation in Neiva. My previous knowledge of the city and department of Huila was equal to my experience in outer space: none whatsoever. With the help of some special people I received a more genuine Colombian education.
Respectful Even though I stood out like a sore thumb, most of the people I met in Huila were very welcoming. They also were exceedingly formal when speaking not only to me, but with each other. “Si señor” and “Como le ha ido” were phrases I heard frequently. Regardless of age or who they were, everyone was treated with respect. The only place where people weren’t polite was on the road. With motorbikes outnumbering cars, the idea of politeness didn’t exist anymore.
Love for Huila When speaking to locals in Neiva one thing was clear: People loved their department of Huila. They were also highly proud of their history and culture. It seemed like everyone I interacted with already knew that I was going to love being in Huila and they were right.
Food paradise Neiva immediately held a special place in my heart the moment I tried achiras for the first time. A fan of salty snacks, rice, and coffee, I was smitten with the cuisine in Huila. Hot chocolate, guayaba candy, lechona, tamales, and the famous Asado Huilense made my spirit feel nourished.
Land of abundance After spending time in Neiva I learned that both Huila and Colombia are vibrant. They offer stunning landscapes, wonderful people, and a beautiful culture that I still hardly understand. Experiencing this part of the world brought one question to mind:
One day back in April I found myself in Neiva, Colombia visiting my girlfriend Yesi and her mom Piedad...
“Are you hungry?”
“I slept pretty well, thanks,” I replied to the question in a heavy gringo accent.
Yesi responded to me in English, “My mom asked if you were ready for some breakfast.” She gave me a look of anticipation as if she knew I was in for a surprise.
It was still pretty early in the morning and I was half-asleep. My ears hadn’t been trained to the way Yesi’s mom, Piedad, spoke. I could tell she had slowed down her speech so I could understand but it would still take some practice.
Attempting a groggy smile I responded to my two hosts, “Yes, please.”
My senses already had already known the answer because the aroma of something delicious was emanating from the kitchen. I’d only been in Neiva, Colombia for about 12 hours so this would be the first breakfast the three of us would share together.
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I could hear inspiration to one day write a blog post about this growling in my stomach. I was a newcomer in a foreign environment but it was a relief knowing that the first meal of the day was going to involve delicious food.
There was a time when I was a recovering coffee drinker. Now, I admit, I’m back to drinking coffee albeit no more espresso and fewer cups a day. After traveling to Colombia, a refreshing cup of joe felt like a treat.
Yesi placed a warm cup in front of me and inside I leaped for joy. The sensation of parched lips and thirst made this new beverage look very inviting as I dove in for a first sip. Burning my tongue, the flavor was…sweet…and to my surprise it wasn’t coffee. It was hot chocolate. Yesi told me that in Colombia having a cup of hot chocolate was as common as drinking coffee.
Yesi and her mom presented to me the choclatera and molinillo in the kitchen. This was homemade and soon the beverage became more abundant in flavor. The process of creating hot chocolate included melting actual bars of chocolate in a metallic kettle (chocolatera) and then whisking them with a wooden stick (molinillo). The three of us each had a cup and it was a pleasant start to the day. Serving cheese to dip into the drink was also common in Neiva but at this moment we didn’t partake.
Bizcocho Piedad and Yesi knew I was tired so they offered me a coffee with breakfast, which I gratefully accepted. They handed me a cup that rested on a small plate. It wasn’t just coffee they gave me, but also a spoon and what looked like small round crackers.
“We call these bizcocho de cuajada, this is similar to what I gave you in the car yesterday.” Yesi’s words refreshed the brain fog. The night prior when I arrived in Neiva she welcomed me with a soda from Huila called Kola Cóndor and a bag of crunchy baked snacks that reminded me of my favorite Goldfish crackers. Those snacks were larger, called achiras, but Yesi explained they were part of the same baked snack family called bizcocho.
Looking at this new accompaniment, I followed Yesi as she motioned me to drop the bizcocho de cuajada into the drink. Italian biscottis came to mind as I witnessed the coalescence of two items I’d never seen together before. The end result was a coffee with enhanced flavor and softer snacks that were easier to eat. It was better than I expected. Bizcocho would soon become my new vice while in Colombia.
The experience of homemade hot chocolate and coffee with bizcocho made me feel grateful, but neither was the source of the kitchen’s incredible aroma. Soon I caught sight of something familiar: A wrapped green plantain leaf encompassing a hidden treasure on a plate. The sight reminded me of a tamal and in fact that’s exactly what it was. This version was unique: the sight before my eyes wasn’t made with corn (maíz) but rice. Also, unlike the tamales I’ve tried in California, this was exceptionally large. This was a homemade Tamal Huilense, named after the department of Huila where Neiva is located, prepared by one of Yesi’s colleagues. Inside were tender pieces of chicken and a thick piece of carrot. Piedad and Yesi said to avoid the carrot because it was used to absorb grease. Typically tamales back home have left me wanting at least two more. In this case, the Tamal Huilense made me want to skip lunch because I was so satisfied and full.
Later in the week, while Yesi was at work, Piedad took the time to teach me how to make breakfast using bananas. One dish that stood out was the torta (cake), more specifically a dish called a pancake de avena (flour). The ingredients were simple: One banana, flour, and eggs. First, we mashed the banana in a bowl until it became a rather thick-looking paste then added about a cup of flour. Finally, we cracked two eggs and whisked them all together. Over low heat, the mixture was poured onto a frying pan to cook. Piedad is a professional so only one flip was necessary. A simple slice with a knife told us it was ready to be served. The final result was similar to a traditional pancake in the US but more nutritional with a balanced combination of flavors. I have since begun practicing this dish at home and a variation includes oatmeal instead of flour.
Juice The juices in Colombia are kind of a wildcard because they are not just a staple of breakfast, but of every meal of the day. I learned that Colombia has copious kinds of fruits and each department (state) boasts its own unique varieties that can’t be found anywhere else. Pineapple, maracuya, and mango juice were staples of my stay in Neiva. Similar to making hot chocolate, there was a process involved when making juice. Washing, chopping, straining, and serving were steps needed in order to create delicious homemade juice. At grocery stores, one could find great brands like Nectar or Frutto but it wasn’t the same experience as having it made at home.
Thank you Thank you for reading my blog! I hope you found some useful information and aren’t too hungry after reading. Also, thank you Yesi and Piedad for introducing me to your culture and welcoming me to your home.
Before I say goodbye, I’d like to hear from you! Have you been to Colombia or Neiva before? What was your favorite food?