Showing up in Medellin, Colombia, an adventurous traveller best be ready to get a good taste of local flavours. From its traditional recipes to its fresh, tropical fruits, Medellin doesn’t come up short when it comes to offering visitors delicious flavours. When I first visited the city in the spring of 2016, I fell in love with the flavour of a crunchy, beef empanada with a cold, refreshing beer on a hot afternoon. Now, two years later, I live in the South American city and my list of favourite foods and drinks has grown. Below, my recommendations on the most mouth-watering menu picks that a tourist simply can’t miss out on.
Trout: For me, you can’t go wrong with an order of trout in one of Medellin’s traditional restaurants. Always one of my go-to choices, the trout here is fresh and filling and in a region of the world that skews towards rich, red meat mains, trout is a great lighter option when the appetite isn’t raging.
Buñuelos: To a Canadian, these spherical, doughy treats look like Colombia’s answer to the timbit. These deep-fried desserts are a great morning treat with a cup of coffee or, when peckish, they make for a great on-the-go snack. The region where I live – Sabaneta – is known for having giant buñuelos. Just don’t make a habit of these treats… they don’t exactly score a lot of health points.
Aguardiente: Don’t dare leave Medellin without having a proper night out with friends and shots of aguardiente. This local spirit tastes a lot like black liquorice and will be found in every single bar. Those from Medellin will say it’s supposed to be shared with friends so make this known to pals ahead of time.
Empanadas: For me, empanadas are the perfect snack after my morning Spanish class. The novelty from two years ago never quite wore off…
Guanabana: Personally, I feel this spiky, green fruit looks more like an alien than the delicious fruit that it is. Guanabanas are large, nearly watermelon-sized fruits that are delicious in juices or smoothies. Flavour-wise they taste tart but slightly coconutty at the same time.
Chicharron: Boarding the return flight home from Medellin without having tried chicharron would be a terrible mistake. This fried pork belly delight graces the menus of most authentic Colombian restaurants. Bacon lovers won’t know what hit them.
Limonada de coco: In my opinion, this is the best beverage on the menu. Period. On a hot day, it’s a refreshing drink to sip on and it’s worth the extra pesos. When done right, a limonada de coco is creamy like a milkshake with the zesty, tartness of lemonade.
Earlier this spring, I turned 27 and for the first time in my life, I celebrated my birthday outside of Canada’s borders and thousands of kilometres away from the place I call home. My birthday came just weeks after I left Toronto to pursue a year of working and travelling in South America.
They say when it comes to birthdays, there are two types of people: those who love it and those who hate it. I’m the latter. Not dissimilar to New Year’s, birthdays, I feel, are a time for reflection and goal setting. A marker of another year past and a new age just starting, birthdays can be anxiety filled and stressful. For some, it’s a dreaded time of year when worries about getting old are at their strongest. Aging, for me, is not of a particular concern. Rather, I’m faced with asking myself the tough questions. Am I where I want to be in life at this moment? Did I make the most of the year that just passed? Is there anything I’d like to change going forward? Am I wiser or just older now? As the questions continue to pop into my mind, it’s no wonder that my anxiety levels rise.
This year though, that changed. Having set foot in Colombia in the last days of February with a teeny wardrobe squeezed into a pack and an even smaller Spanish vocabulary, I set out to live my day-to-day quite differently. Turning up in a new country where little was familiar, I set a precedent to go with the flow as much as possible because, well, given the circumstances, there just didn’t seem to be another option. Plus, having put myself far outside of my comfort zone, little seemed in my control. Worrying wasn’t going to change that. As such, when my birthday neared, I learned to give up my panic routine. I ended up booking a stay in a hostel high in the mountains an hour outside of the city where strong rays of sunshine made for the perfect day of poolside lounging next to a yard of mango trees and avocados.
There were some things I learned during that weekend when I finally learned to just chill out and take things as they come. Below, are just a few.
Expectation management is key.
Manage expectations and everything becomes easier. In years past, my birthday bash often had to be just so. I needed every one of my friends to show up and have a great time. I wanted a new outfit and freshly done hair. The night couldn’t end too early and oftentimes, my party had at least two locations. This year though, I couldn’t have any of that. I was without my cluster of friends for one, and secondly, I wasn’t even familiar with my new home. So, I booked the mini getaway determined to have fun during my lowest key birthday yet. I went with one close friend and fussed about none of the details. We enjoyed wine, homemade tacos and a tuk-tuk ride up the mountain. I had a great time. I guess simple is better and giving up control makes for a more enjoyable experience.
Sometimes, you just can’t plan for all the details.
I went with the flow and enjoyed a low-key weekend in a tranquil spot and met a lovely group of people also exploring the area. I chose not to fuss over every single detail and things turned out for the best. You can’t plan every single thing to a tee so it’s best not to try and just enjoy things as they happen. That goes for things like a birthday party but it also applies to travel, work or entering a new phase in life.
You heard it before… don’t take yourself too seriously.
I’m not the best Spanish speaker or salsa dancer but on the night when I turned 27, I did both. I joined the party going on a the pool soon after midnight again, determined just to have a good time and be in the moment. I doubt anyone noticed my amateur dance steps and as for the Spanish, I managed to get my points across through broken phrases. Others were encouraging, not judgmental and it was certainly better than hanging back and being a wallflower all night. I didn’t take myself seriously and it was for the best. Duly noted for my year of travels ahead…
Worrying just makes the problem bigger.
As mentioned, with so much out of my control this year, I just gave up the stressing altogether. I did myself a major favour. Instead of entertaining that birag of self-reflection questions, I opted not to bother. In doing so, the pressure came off and I had a surprisingly awesome time. The lead-up to my birthday was a much less stressful event than it had been in years past. I realized that worrying is a problem in and of itself and I had the power to quash that all along.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but the first time I had sushi I hid it in my purse when no one was looking.
Late in high school, I finally decided to give this raw cuisine a try after hearing my gaggle of best friends rave about California rolls and fresh maki. At that point, I’d never eaten sushi or shellfish of any kind. I sat in the restaurant waiting for my meal to arrive. One bite and I’d be in their sushi-loving club… or so I thought. When my fishy meal came, I could barely tolerate the sight of it. The slabs of slippery, raw salmon on my plate before made me gag. Their texture made my stomach churn. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t a cultured eater at all. I didn’t even know how to use chopsticks. While there way no way I’d be feasting on this seafood dish, I was faced with an even bigger dilemma: all-you-can-eat sushi spots charge extra for that which you do not devour. So, I did something that only a picky eater could understand: I scooped up fistfuls of cold, gooey fish, stuffed them into my purse and left. I must have reeked of fish on the bus ride home.
A few years on, I was living in Toronto still successfully avoiding seafood (and especially the raw kind) when I started dating a man with a Portuguese background and an affinity for shrimp, lobster and, you guessed it, sushi. This person introduced me to the world of seafood, in gradual steps – first serving me the cooked kind. In time, I grew to love a plate of shrimp with a beer or a Friday night out eating lobster. Eventually, I tried a less offensive sushi meal and learned it wasn’t so bad at all.
Learning to love a type of food that I had previously dismissed came in handy when I traveled to new spots, like Brazil, for instance. This nation with its Portuguese roots was obsessed with all the foods which that past boyfriend of mine loved. I’ll never forget the day when, sunbathing alone by the ocean, I managed to order a small bowl of freshly-caught shrimp from a fisherman walking along the beach. My delight of being able to order this snack despite the language barrier quickly waned when I realized the shrimp came with the heads still attached. The freshly-peppered morsels caught just that day were a treat too good to pass up as I sunned myself on the beach though. So, without a second-thought, I removed the heads, doused the rest in lime and enjoyed the perfect Brazilian lunch.
Seafood and sushi are now favourite foods of mine. I’m glad I learned to become open-minded rather than dismissive of these dishes. That goes especially when travelling to places where these sorts of foods are the region’s pride and joy. I’ve found that being open to them while away from home has enriched vacation experiences. I gobbled mini octopus in Cuba on a white sandy beach with my brother. I munched on barbecued conch at a Bahamian cocktail party. I swallowed back ice-cold, butter-flavoured oysters in Boston after a long day spent reporting on the Boston Marathon. I fueled a Cape Cod relay race with a lobster roll and when I visited Nova Scotia, armed with a bib, ample napkins and tools for the occasion, I learned to crack my first lobster. More recently, in Vancouver, I sat by a sunny street and ordered a plate of sushi because you just can’t go to the west coast city without doing so. After I finished, I ordered an extra serving of two pieces of salmon sushi. My favourite.
The girl who once hid raw fish in her purse to avoid eating it has grown to be much more adventurous with fresh ocean foods. The menu items that once caused me to grimace have become a routine part of my diet – and a luxury when travelling. And so, I write this as a sort of open letter to the picky eaters out there because these are the ones I hope to convince to say yes to new flavours. Though it cost me a purse, my introduction to seafood has allowed me to better experience tastes from abroad.
When I told people of my plans to live abroad in South America for a year, the most common response I got was: “I wish I did that when I was your age.” I’m in my mid-twenties and as my departure date got closer and closer, this response became more and more normal for me to hear from those ten or twenty years my senior. In the months leading up to this adventure, I became accustomed to hearing “I wish” over and over again and though I never asked, I usually silently thought to myself: “Well, why didn’t you?” That question was one I genuinely wanted the answer to. By the time I was headed to the gate with my boarding pass in hand, I had a good feeling I already knew the answer. I had just said goodbye to my family, friends, job and home and it felt like I had gone through several breakups in a condensed period of time. Six weeks later, I still suspect that many of those people didn’t bother because hitting pause on life and travelling away from home is so damn uncomfortable.
This is the first time I’m giving the whole living abroad thing a shot and I’ve never felt more vulnerable in my life. The past month and a half has been great yet at the same time, I’ve been well outside my comfort zone almost every time I’ve left my apartment. I see why many opt not to do this, but after spending weeks fumbling through conversations, getting lost and feeling very, very new in town, I’ve noticed a few things that are likely true for those who do book that one-way ticket. Below, a few realizations I’ve had through the chaotic times.
Many people will genuinely want to help.
My first assumption was that Spanish speakers and Colombian people would surely think of me as an idiot tourist. I expected looks of judgement or for locals to simply overlook my struggles when, say, ordering a coffee or navigating the subway. That has not been the case. Rather than judging, most people want to see others thrive. Here, locals are quick to switch to English if they speak it and when I got lost during my second week, more than one person on my bus kept an eye out for my stop.
The definition of intimidating changes.
A great way to make small problems go away is to replace them with larger ones. I’ve noticed that my definition of intimidating has changed immensely since arriving in Medellin in late February. Before I left, intimidating would have meant going out for dinner alone in Toronto on a Friday evening. Now, that pales in comparison to last Friday’s plans which were to navigate the metro system to get across the city to meet up with strangers to then go on the most exhausting hike way up in the mountains. Afterwards, I then went out for dinner alone… and had to order in a different language. Dining alone in Toronto? Yeah, not so bad…
Small gains become victories.
I had no idea about all the small things I took for granted back home. Basic conversational skills, being aware of my surroundings and having many friends willing to meet up for a spur-of-the-moment beer are all examples. Once in a totally unfamiliar place, the smallest accomplishments seem massive. During my first week, that meant being able to successfully buy three empanadas. Now, I’m still happy with minor things like making a new friend or constructing basic sentences in Spanish.
Consider lifelong interests a fallback plan.
While I’m away from family, friends and all things familiar, I’m finding that my hobbies and interests have been my way of feeling grounded. For example, I write almost every day and as an active and outdoorsy person, I’m enjoying mountain terrain and working out regularly. Knowing your interests and committing to the things you actually like certainly enrich the travel experience.
Personal comforts are way too easy to come by.
It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the secret to acquiring a cozy household is to first blow hundreds of dollars at Bed Bath and Beyond and consult with hygge gurus to get everything just so. I arrived to my new home with nothing but a (very stuffed) MEC duffle bag and have found that I’m able to find comfort in the objects I have. Like the cards from my mom, sister and best friend, my favourite sweater, a bottle of mint essential oil and a calendar of prints from an artist local to my hometown. I’m making do without favourite beers and comfort foods and all the items that made my bedroom the perfect chillout zone. Surprisingly though, that hasn’t been that hard.
When St. Patrick’s Day rolled around each year while I was growing up in Alberta, my mom and I would get to work whipping up batches upon batches of clover-shaped cookies. In the middle of March, winter showed no signs of letting up in the Prairies and so it only seemed natural to stay inside, roll out the dough and fill the house with the agonizingly sweet smell of nearly-baked goods. In our prep, we’d throw into the bowl flour as powdery as the snow heaps outside and whirl it together with crystals of white sugar. While they baked, we mixed up the icing – green of course – ready to coat each little clover with a generous layer. Then, I’d proudly bring them to school to share with my classmates. Being the Irish kid in the class, it was my special treat.
As traditions go, this possibly was simply an idea one year, before carrying on to the next and the next. Eventually, supplying my peers with these shamrock treats became part of my St. Patrick’s Day routine. Once, I even remember when Paddy’s Day eve rolled around and we had both forgotten so we woke up extra early and baked a double batch together in the indigo blue pre-dawn hours.
At school, I’d pass around the green snacks, press play to an accordion tune and perform one of the jigs which I learned at dance practice in Edmonton’s Irish club. During those years, St. Patrick’s Day was the celebration of the country where both my parents were born and lived in until their mid-twenties. For me, it was green cookies and dancing and, of course, church and Irish brunch.
The latter would be standard for many Irish households living both in the stocking-shaped emerald isle or abroad – like us. The former though, are traditions we created ourselves. When the calendar turns to March 17, many in Canada will celebrate by clinking pints of Guinness or green-dyed beer. Packs of university students in North America will wear obnoxious amounts of green with probably at least one top hat and kiss-me-I’m-Irish sash in every group. In Ireland, some relatives of mine will take in mass and a breakfast of eggs and sausages after. Green sugar cookies will be few and far between, I know.
Though we religiously kept up our tradition for years, it eventually faded. I grew past the age where it would have been appropriate to pass around baked goods in class and we moved across the country, well away from our Alberta kitchen with the snow piles out the window. While the sugary clover cutouts became a thing of the past, my mother’s and my love for working with food didn’t wane. Out were the cookies, in was the baked soda bread (a classic) or a piping hot pot of Irish stew (even more classic). Together, we busied our hands putting together recipes that were, this time, symbolic of the place where my mom grew up.
When I left home and moved to Toronto, I kept up our tradition of making food on this day even though we no longer lived in the same household. Just as I did when I was seven, I again made a point of sharing it with school friends. For a few years during this chapter in my life, I avoided the tacky party celebrations and instead whipped up a pot of Irish stew and a fresh loaf of bread for my best lady friend. Together, we drank beer well into the evening.
The food that I now make on this day is traditional, yes. But my tradition of working away in the kitchen on (or just before) March 17, and sharing with friends has nothing to do with Paddy’s Day really. That habit stems from the days I spent mixing sugar cookies with my mom. The food has changed over time, the activity has not. This is how I, a daughter of two Irish immigrant parents, choose to spend this day. It’s interesting, how the customs we make for ourselves somehow have the most importance. Our personalized celebrations often trump how holidays are typically celebrated by the masses.
This year, the tradition, for me, has changed yet again. For the first time, I won’t be in Canada for this Irish holiday. I now reside in Colombia – over 6,000 kilometres away from that Alberta home and 4,000 kilometres away from my mom. The traditions I’ve set for myself will continue to evolve as I celebrate this holiday and the ones to come. As we head into Paddy’s Day, my mom and I have already discussed our menus. She’ll make her St. Patrick’s Day stew on the weekend whereas I’ve made mine already. The difference: mine contained a cup not of Guinness, but a local beer: Club Colombia Negra.
The phone call that determined my present lifestyle happened nearly two years ago in the midst of a bout of post-travel blues and a too-short adventure in Colombia. I had just come back from two weeks in Medellin and returning to the grind brought on a feeling not dissimilar to the familiar nag one gets upon putting off a major project. I knew I wanted to travel more extensively, but didn’t know when. When I expressed this to my nomad of an older brother, he gave it to me straight: “Before you look for your next job, just take a year or six months off.”
I have just taken that plunge.
If each job is a stepping stone, my latest move is the first block on a detour that’s taking me South, back to The City of Eternal Spring to travel and freelance from a new place. I‘ve left my job and rid my apartment of the possessions that made it more than just a configuration of walls and halls. My plan: say adios to Toronto and travel South America for a year – tops. This is not, however, a stunt to escape my line of work. I’m part of the group of people who love their work. I’m ambitious. I always was. Since journalism is well-equipped to be transient, I’m taking my assignments – and new ones – with me to Colombia.
During this chapter I’m my own boss, and that is equal parts thrilling as it is uncomfortable. This is week number one of a lifestyle I’ve decided to sample for 12 months. I’m leaving my comfort zone approximately 4,000 kilometres away because I’m curious to know what happens when you hit pause and realize the person you most have to answer to is yourself. Contrary to my routine up until this point, I’m the one who sets my pace and the expectations. I’m the one responsible for the re-evaluations that come with that too. I’m the one who creates the assignment, even if it’s daunting.
This is a decision that comes during an era where articles geared towards career-minded women like me reflect the cultural climate, using words like ”entrepreneur” and “side hustle,” but also terms like “burnout” and “imposter syndrome.” I’m still early in my career and yet I relate to all four of those terms. The first two empower and motivate. As for the latter two… not so much, and I’m not willing to be confined by them.
I’m part of the large group of women who love their work, but I’m also part of the large group of women who spread themselves too thin, self criticize, and go about their work giving more without receiving more, and then judging the final product too harshly. Call me a millennial, but I think that cycle begs for a revamp – and I don’t feel bad for saying that. There is so much I’m appreciative of (my physical being is healthy and intact, I finally have a degree and years of hard work to my name, I’m financially stable, I have a solid support network) that I now want to build upon that, pen stories that have an impact, and not let it go to waste.
In overhauling the day-to-day routine, you decide what you toss out and you move forward with what can make you better. Sometimes, that’s a tough call to make and yes, it’s often daunting, but rarely has succumbing to intimidation led to the best path.
On dark, quiet nights, I often sat alone at my desk after a long work day in commitment to the side hustles that padded the bank account and afforded me the chance to do this. My current exercise: making sure I don’t tear down what I built for myself in confidence.
Popular vacations typically include European back-packing trips or Caribbean cruises, but let us not forget about South America and all the beauty this continent has to offer. Truly different than the North — South America is home to some of the world’s most natural wonders as well as culture, activity, food, and dance. Here is a breakdown of the top places you should visit in South America, if you are looking for a different type of vacation. Let us explore, eat, and take ease:
In the past few years, many travellers have decided to indulge in vacation spots that have more to offer in terms of eco-tourism. With pristine rainforests and exotic wildlife, every day in South America is an adventure.
The Amazon adventure: Colombia is home to about 55 natural reserves and 23 of them have park rangers to help tourists engage in safe and fun adventures. The Amazonia also occupies 42 per cent of Colombia. The Amazon River that passes through Colombia is home to famous Anaconda snakes and pink dolphins. The Amacayacu Park is the most easily accessible spot and is located on the southern side of the Amazon River near the city of Leticia. The visitor’s centre of the park has been closed since 2012 due to severe flooding, but accommodations have been made with several Indigenous communities in the area that offer camping, cultural display, and craft activities.
If you are ready to immerse yourself in a truly natural rainforest experience, Guyana is the place for you. Located along the northern coast of South America, this English-speaking territory is home to vast areas of untouched land, from savannahs to a portion of the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon Rainforest stretches into nine different countries in South America, with the majority in Brazil. The Iwokrama Reserve located in central Guyana is home to the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway in the Mauisparu region. This is the only tourist canopy walkway in the Guyana shield. The canopy, which is located 100 feet above the forest floor, cost US $180,000 to construct and is made using adjustable steel cables and aluminum. The canopy has a unique design that allows trees to grow normally between the four spacious platforms. Tourists can spot wildlife, including the famous spotted jaguar, as well as engage in bird watching and night walks to explore biodiversity in the area. At the base of the canopy walkway is the Atta Rainforest Lodge where guests can stay overnight.
South America is home to many different cultures and meals, including arepas in Venezuela and peanut soup in Suriname. There is something unique to find in every country.
This beautiful and vast South American country is home to one of the most spectacular landmarks, the Andes mountains. Argentina is also known for its food, in particular their steaks. The cut of steak is very important in Argentina and many farmers raise their cattle as free roaming. In Argentina, they also cook the steaks through a process called asado. Asado is similar to what we would refer to as barbecuing, however, it is slower and smokier. The primary base for asado are compressed charcoal pieces instead of propane. There is a popular steakhouse in Buenos Aires called La Brigada where the steaks are so tender they can be cut with a spoon. Some popular choices include ‘Asado De Tira’ which are essentially short ribs and ‘Bife De Chorizo’ which is a juicy sirloin steak.
The love affair with Chile and red wine dates back to the 16th century. The most popular types of wine available is Cabernet Sauvignon, Pais, Carmenere and Merlot. There are many varieties of vineyards in Chile and many are located in the southern region near the flat lands at the base of the Andes Mountains, providing a stunning backdrop for wine tasting and exploring. Chile is voted as one of the top ten wine producers in the world and some one of the most popular spots includes Casablanca Valley, which is located along the coast near Santiago and Valparaiso. One of the most popular times to travel to Chile for wine tasting is during the Grape Harvest Festival, which takes place from March through April.
An important part of a vacation is the relaxation — a time to be lazy and to enjoy the simple things in life, even if that includes reading a book on a sandy beach or relaxing by a midnight bonfire.
This relatively small South American country is landlocked between Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, but still has its own unique cultural experiences to offer. Bolivia is known for the world’s largest salt flats, located in the southern region of Uyuni. The stunning salt flats attract wondering tourists due to its unique ecosystem and stretching views of the glistening salt late. There are, however, many areas in Bolivia that offers different experiences. For something more low key visit the region of Copacabana, located near the border with Peru, which offers a warm and comforting feel of a small town. Copacabana is nestled between two hills near the Titicaca Lake, one of South America’s largest lake. Copacabana is also known for its many churches and religious festivals. The stunning Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana takes up a whole block in this small town. The Basilica is home to the Camarin de la Virgen de Candelaria— a famous 15th century statue. Legend says that if she is removed Lake Titicaca will rise up in rebellion.
This list would not be complete without one of the largest and well known countries of South America —Brazil. Various parts of Brazil provide different experiences, from carnival in Rio de Janeiro to the famous rodeo. If you are looking to relax along a beach you are in the right spot. Copacabana beach is the most famous beach in the country, but if you are looking for something more tranquil and quiet, Prainha beach may be the best choice. Located just a short drive away from the busy Rio de Janeiro, this beach sits at the forefront of rainforest covered mountains. This is the ideal getaway from all the excitement and hectic nature of travelling. For more information and the best rated places to stay in Brazil, consider using a site such as AllTheRooms.com that offers comprehensive event guides for different areas and the best suggested places to stay.
Hope you enjoyed our short trip around South America and let us know in the comments below where you plan to visit next.