South America, Part 5 – Colombia

One of the sweetest articles I read this morning was about the villagers from Turbaco in northern Colombia who organized a massive donkeyback ride yesterday to remind President Barack Obama of his long-outstanding invitation to visit their little village; dozens of locals and more than 50 donkeys took a ride so that international media would remind the president that they’ve been inviting him for years to no avail! Leading the march was a young donkey named Demo who will be their gift to their hero!

I’d be very interested to see photographs of the donkey relaxing on the luxurious White House lawns! The mayor, Sr. Carrasquilla, assured the president, via Il Tiempo, that “Demo has already been given all its vaccinations and is ready and able to be taken.”  The idea is not as far fetched as all that because Turbaco is located only four miles from the coastal city of Cartagena where the president will be visiting on Friday for the 6th Summit of the Americas. Better still, this is coffee territory and I’m sure there’s always time for a cup of coffee – after all, some of the best coffee in the world comes from here. As a matter of fact the coffee region, once called the Coffee-Growers Axis or Coffee Triangle has been renamed & is now called the Coffee Cultural Landscape which is preferable if the region is to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Before I get started, here’s a recipe for a delicious typically Colombian snack to munch on while you read.


I found this cute recipe by Ariel Safdie online, tried it and it’s a must make!



  • 500 ml pre-cooked corn meal (if you can’t buy it locally, buy quick cooking polenta & make it yourself)
  • 500 ml hot water
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp soft butter, divided
  • 12 slices mozzarella cheese – the large ones, not the small ones


  • Combine the flour, the salt, the water & the butter in a bowl & knead everything well for about 3 minutes, moistening your hands with water as you work so that the dough doesn’t stick to your hands.
  • Divide this into 6 small balls & then use parchment paper to flatten each ball to about 1 cm thick.
  • Add the butter to a large non-stick pan placed over medium heat & put the arepas in the pan, cooking each one until they’re golden brown (about 2 minutes a side)
  • Slice the arepas and stuff them with two slices of mozzarella cheese, then place a skillet on high heat & fry the arepas until the cheese begins to melt – around 2 minutes per side.

Colombia is situated in northwestern South America where it’s home to just over 46 million people; if you love the sun, keep in mind that its the only country in South America with beaches on both the Pacific & the Atlantic. The country is producer of coffee, flowers, emeralds, coal and oil. Before the Spaniards arrived in 1499, the country was inhabited by indigenous tribes, amongst which were the Muisca, the the Quimbaya & the Tairona and they lived relatively peaceful lives but the Spanish changed all that; it didn’t take long for politicians and greed to enter the fray and in no time at all, violence and hatred reared it’s ugly head and bred  the Thousand Days War (1899–1902) and La Violencia which began in 1948. In the 1960’s the armed struggle between the left-wing insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries began & they’ve been at it every since, increasing in the late 1970’s when world interest in cocaine escalated; since 2000 the violence began decreasing dramatically, mainly because many paramilitary groups demobilized & the guerrillas started losing control of a huge part of the territories they once controlled.  The homicide rate almost halved between 2002 and 2006 but despite all this, the country is still the largest producer of cocaine in the world – and that despite the fact that cocaine production has been falling steadily.



  • 4 green plantains (the riper ones taste ghastly)
  • Vegetable or grape seed oil for frying
  • Sea salt to taste


  • Peel the plantain & cut width wise into 3 or 4 pieces, then fry on both sides until the pieces are golden; remove from the pan & place on a plate covered with absorbent paper
  • Now flatten the fried plantain by placing the pieces individually between 2 pieces of waxed paper & flattening them with your hands (don’t use too much pressure or the plantain will stick to the wax paper).
  • Once you’ve done this, re-fry until both sides are golden brown, drain on absorbent kitchen paper and sprinkle with rough salt; serve immediately with thin slices of queso blanco.

Colombia was named for Christopher Columbus (in Italian his name is Cristoforo Colombo & he was Italian by birtth) by the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda & the official name of  Colombia is República de Colombia. In ancient times the country was a corridor through which the people of  Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, the Andes and the Amazon passed when they travelled up or down; the oldest archaeological finds are from sites at Monsú & Pubenza & dated to 20,000 BC. In Puerto Hormiga the oldest pottery ever found in America was discovered – it dates back to 3000 BC.  Around 10,000 BC, the area that now called Colombia was home to the the Muisca, Quimbaya &Tairona – they were hunter gatherers & probably lived peacefully near present-day Bogotá; they traded with other cultures living in the Magdalena River Valley. At the start of the first millennium BC the early Colombians formed a political systems called cacicazgos which were pyramidal power structures of power headed by caciques.

The Muiscas lived high up on the Altiplanos &  farmed, amongst others, maize, potato, quinoa and cotton; however, they were also skilled goldsmiths & traded with emeralds, blankets, ceramic handicrafts, coca and salt actively trading these with neighboring nations. The Taironas lived in the north along the isolated  Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.


The Spaniards, led by Rodrigo de Bastidas arrived in the Carribbean in 1499 & soon afterwards Christopher Columbus arrived on the scene – about 1502 but it was 6 years later when Vasco Núñez de Balboa began his conquest (that’s putting it mildly because it was more like a slaughter of the locals) of what we now know as Colombia; the indigenous tribes died in huge numbers, not only because of the ethnic cleansing by the Spaniards, but from diseases (smallpox etc) the Spanish brought with them because they had no immunity to it.

By the 16th century the Europeans brought slaves from Africa; by 1525 Santa Marta was established and in 1549 the town we now know as Bogotá became the capital of New Granada. It didn’t take long for the Spanish Crown to dish out land to the conquerors & the governors with most of the land being turned into huge farms and mines; repopulation was achieved by allowing colonization by farmers who came from Spain & since there were plenty of black slaves now, labour was cheap. As an afterthought and in order to ‘protect’ the indigenous population, Indian reservations were created. Simón Bolívar became the first President of Colombia, with Francisco de Paula Santander being the first Vice President (it wasn’t all moonshine & roses, though – the new republic was more unstable than house of cards).


  • Colombia was the first constitutional government in South America (the Liberal & Conservative parties, founded in 1848 and 1849 respectively, are 2 of the oldest surviving political parties in the Americas).
  • La Violencia refers to a really bloody conflict that took place between the late 1940s & early 1950s and was caused by the two leading political parties when the Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated on the 9th of  April 1948.
  • The only way peace could be brought to Colombia was by the creation of a National Front so that everyone had a bit of power some of the time; essentially the Conservatives and Liberals ruled together & the presidency alternated between conservatives and liberals every 4 years for 16 years; the two parties would have parity in all other elective offices.


Cauca, La Guajira and Guainia have the largest indigenous populations & the 1991 constitution established their native languages as official in their territories & most of them have bilingual education (Indigenous language and Spanish). Some of the indigenous populations are listed below for interest’s sake:

The Wayuu
The Arhuacos
The Muisca
The Kuna
The Paez
The Tucano
The Guahibo.
The Shakira
The Embera Choco


The first & most substantial immigrants were the Spaniards who were followed by a host of Europeans in 1499; in the late 19th & early 20th century some more Europeans & North Americans arrived along with smaller numbers of  Poles, Lithuanians, English, Irish & Croats; in the last decade a good many Venezuelans have arrived because of the horrible political & economic situation in their motherland. Loads of immigrants can be found on the Caribbean coast & more recently immigrants from the Middle East. Barranquilla is home to the largest population of Lebanese, Arabs, Sephardic Jews & Roma people in the country & they live side by side with the Chinese & Japanese people who have made this country their home. In the 16th century many black Africans were imported as slaves & were sent to the coastal lowlands – this continued until slavery was abolished; today large Afro-Colombian communities make their home on the Caribbean & Pacific coasts.


Colombian cuisine is an embodiment of the cooking traditions of all the cultural groups within the country; it is, however, very regional. Colombians generally eat 3 times a day: a generous breakfast, a medium lunch and a light dinner & they drink litres of Colombian coffee probably because it’s so incredibly good! In Bogotá & the Andean region, the traditional dish is a kind of soup called ajiaco – it’s a mixture of chicken, corn, a variety of potatoes, avocados & a local herb called  guascas. Locals add cream & capers to it at the table and it’s served with plain white rice, a lemony salad and a basket of salty tostadas – the dish has Chibcha origins.



  • 1 full cream litre milk
  • 500 ml water
  • 4 eggs
  • ½ cup chopped fresh coriander leaves, plus more for serving
  • 3 scallions chopped
  • Salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • Bread to serve


  • Place the milk and water in a medium sized pot and bring to a boil, then add the scallions, salt and pepper and cook for 3 minutes before reducing the heat to medium and adding the eggs gently without breaking them.
  • Allow the eggs cook for 3 minutes and add the coriander leaves, serve warm with bread on the side and garnish with fresh cilantro.


On the Caribbean side plenty of Ceviche is eaten and, as on the African west coast & India, loads of coconut rice! My recipe files are stuffed with really great Ceviche (my son Richardt loves it) so I collect them but I now have a few from this part of the world. One of the reasons I love cultural integration so much is that it’s wonderful for food and Suero, introduced by the Arab communities in Barranquilla is a cross between yogurt & sour cream and a firm favourite here. There are many different kinds of arepa in the Caribbean region and it’s made with eggs, cheese and simply but it’s really worth a try if you like cornmeal.

The Llanos in the east is cowboy country & barbecued meat is common fare with dishes like ternera a la llanera cooked on a vertical spit over an open fire. The region is situated in the Orinoco River Basin that runs between Colombia and Venezuela & is teeming with wildlife, harboring more than 100 species of mammals and over 700 species of birds (as much as there is in the entire USA). Freshwater fish like the amarillo will also appear on the ‘menu’ and the Brazilian & Peruvian influence on local food is evident with local beef & freshwater fish very popular.

The department of Tolima, situated in the Andean region, was founded by Captain Andrés Lopez de Galarza & is famous for tamales Tolimenses which is considered a delicacy in this part of the country: they’re made with corn dough, filled with a mixture of carrots, peas, potatoes, rice, chicken, pork & spices; before being boiled, they’re wrapped in plantain leaves. The Lechona, a speciality famous throughout the country, is a whole roast pig that’s stuffed with rice, veggies & pork and usually only eaten on Sundays.


An enormous amount of fruit is eaten here and you’ll find fruit stands everywhere – particularly on the Caribbean coast; there are a large variety of tropical fruits that you won’t find in other parts of the world, for example zapote, nisperolulo, uchuva, passion fruit, borojó, curuba and several kinds of bananas as well as apples, pears, blackberries, strawberries, guavas and mangos.


  • Frijoles Antioqueños: this generally consists of soup, thickened with potatoes or cassava and containing meat (in other words, you’ll see chicken or beef sanchocho on the menu).
  • Cayeye: is made with green bananas that are first cooke & then mashed &  sautéed in a stew with tomatoes, onions and chopped garlic & achiote; often bananas are simply added to a stew, though. Cayeye is served with grated cheese & whey or butter – it’s also a popular breakfast dish.
  • Caldo de Costilla – is a broth that originated in the Andean region & is a broth made from beef ribs that are simmered in water with  slices of potato, garlic, onions & coriander leaves.
  • Casabe: is a thin, circular unleavened bread made from cassava flour; it’s cooked on a griddle and this has been made since long before the Spaniards graced the shores with their presence.
  • Bofe: this is dried or smoked lungs & it’s served in many different ways.
  • Ajiaco – comes from Bogotá is a chicken, corn & potato stew with a hint of guasca (a local herb). Sancocho – was first created on the north coast & is a soup containing  meat, corn, potatoes, yuca, plantains & local spices.
  • Bandeja Paisa – was born in Antioquia and is a platter containing  beans, chorizo, pork rind, rice & fried eggs as well as a couple of other things, depending on where you live.
  • Tamales – these are corn cakes that are wrapped in banana leaves & steamed; they are traditionally filled with a variety of ingredients like chicken, potatoes, carrots, peas & even rice – the shape & filling really depends pretty much on the region.
  • Fritanga – is made from meat, plantains, chicharrones &  yellow potatoes with aji sauce and eaten throughout Colombia.

Because these cartels affected the history of this beautiful so profoundly, I have to include something about them – if only because the poison they peddled suppressed the appetites of the people who were insane enough to take these drugs.


Colombia gave birth to what was probably the most violent & sophisticated drug trafficking organization on earth: it began with a small marijuana smuggling business that put a little cocaine into suitcases destined for the USA and grew into multi-national cocaine empire with enough funds available to build the almost completed high-tech submarines recently found by the Colombian police. It seems the guys had no intention of giving up because this is the second one the police have found, there was another find in Bogota years earlier.

The Medellin Cartel.

  • Rogriquez Gacha – he was involved in the emerald trade, shady as it was.
  • The Ochoa brothers – came from a well respected ranching & horsing family.
  • Pablo Escoba – he was a common street thief.
  • Carlos Lehder – he began as young marijuana smuggler.

It all began when Lehder approached the men from the Medellin & convinced them that the suitcase smuggling took too much time & effort & that they should fly the cocaine directly into the USA because the Americans had an appetite for cocaine bar none & huge money could be made; it took little convincing and soon aeroplanes were purchased, labs were established & an island on the Caribbean was found so that the ‘planes could refuel. However, it wasn’t all moonshine & roses for them because Pablo Escobar was a violent pig with a power lust second to none and it didn’t take too long before his need to control the government resulted in a stand-off between his organization and the government. In the 1980’s when the government threatened to extradite all traffickers arrested to the USA Escobar exploded and it’s commonly believed that he was responsible for the assassination & murder of hundreds of judges, prosecutors, police, government officials & even journalists, never mind innocent bystanders who were caught in the cross fire. As violence increased & the cartel became more powerful, greed & moral deterioration caused the inevitable to happen, it began to self-destruct somewhat. Gacha was gunned down by the police (and not a minute to soon), Jorge, Juan David & Fabio Ochoa negotiated lenient prison terms with the Colombian government and turned themselves in and Pablo Escobar was famously hunted down & shot by the Colombian police in the end.

Cali Cartel

The Medellin cartel’s downfall was due, in part, to the less flashy Rodriguez Orejuela brothers & Santacruz Londono who controlled the Colombian city of Cali; they were brilliant businessmen who smuggled with style using a more sophisticated business model & re-investing their profits in legitimate businesses. They loathed Escobar & began to attack the Medellin cartel when it interfered in their own businesses; things got violent, they retaliated & eventually they formed the PEPES (People Against Pablo Ecobar) & targeted Escobar’s business, homes & lieutenants. They also began to supply the DEA & the  Colombian police with information about Pablo Escobar’s actions & whereabouts & were so successful that by 1994, Escobar was alone and running for his life – at which point the Colombian police tracked him down & rid the planet of him. And then the Cali But businessmen stepped into the cocaine trade & employed some interesting techniques:  they separated their workers into cells, with each cell knowing almost nothing about other employees, they hired internationally renowned lawyers to study the moves of the DEA and the US prosecutors & they started to become tech savvy and hired the best & the brightest geeks to design communications equipment that couldn’t be bugged. They got stinking rich & when the USA lost interest in cocaine, they simply sent more to Asia & Europe. Today the experts believe they still own massive landholdings in Colombia & innumerable legitimate businesses; because they’re brilliant businessmen, they’ve also invested heavily in political protection and many senators, congressmen and even a former president have been accused of being on the payroll of the Rodriguez Orejuala brothers. Despite all this, the leaders were arrested in the mid-1990’s serving short 10 – 15 year prison terms and, I have no doubt, they’re still running their businesses from their prison cells but not too well. They younger lieutenants probably learnt from the mistakes of their elders and the businesses seem to have broken down into smaller, more controllable groups that specialize in certain fields of operation (someone does the jungle labs, someone does the exports to this country, another to that and so on). I never know who to believe in a case like this and information on current smuggling is very hard to come by, especially for someone like me, but it seems that there’s definitely a link between the Colombian Marxists guerilla groups & the cocaine trade with the former protecting the fields & the laboratories in remote zones of Colombia (like we see in the movies) in exchange for a large tax that the latter pay back to them; it’s also believed that the right wing paramilitary groups control the smuggling routes amongst others & so the sad & sorry mess just goes on to the detriment of Colombia. The powers that be believe that there are about 300 highly profitable drug smuggling operations shipping cocaine to almost every industrialized nation in the world today.

Constitution of 1991

The new Constitution provides for political, ethnic, human and gender rights with an interesting provision that prohibits the extradition of Colombian nationals (something the drug cartels really wanted badly). In 1996 the provision was repealed.


  • FARC – a guerrilla insurgency; their leader Alfonso Cano was shot & killed by security forces in November last year (2011) & replaced by Timoleón Jiménez.
  • AUC – also called Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, a paramilitary group
  • Los Rastrojos – neo-paramilitary group
  • Los Urabeños – neo-paramilitary group
  • Ejército de Liberación Naci – a smallish rebel group (about 3,000 – 5,000 members strong)

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