Even a trip to the ATM is an adventure, plus ‘The Best Thing I Ever Ate’

Gato Negro Cafe

the “gato negro” in front of Gato Negro Cafe

I really should have assumed that there would only be one ATM in the little fishing village of Taganga, Colombia, and that it would probably be broken. But I didn’t, and it was.

The closest one was in Santa Marta, a nearby bustling city I did not really have intentions of visiting. But I was out of money and kind of wanted to eat again during my last two days here so…. off to the city it was.

Public transportation to Santa Marta is in the form of big clattering vans, and unfortunately being the first one in, I got to ride in circles around town while the driver honked and yelled at people until it filled up. After a while I was starting to get the feeling my driver was a little insane. Sure enough after yelling something at another driver he pulled up next to, he jumped out and proceeded to shout and bang on this poor guy’s van. While more incomprehensible yelling followed, me and the Colombian man inside noticed our van rolling forward and heading straight for a wall. We yelled for the driver, who nonchalantly hopped back in just in time to jam the emergency break on, and jumped back out to continue his yelling. It was going to be an exciting ride.

Following the verbal fight was a battle of the vans, both drivers cutting each other off on the narrow dirt roads and tailing as close as they could. Finally our driver gave up as he saw more passengers outside eager to give him money. It was kind of upsetting to lose the race… but needless to say I was glad to finally step out of the van in Santa Marta in one piece. The first ATM I came upon worked (!) so I was feeling pretty lucky. The streets in Santa Marta seemed a bit livelier than in Taganga with stands selling local sweets, spices and teas, and freshly sliced fruit which I was missing hard from Cartagena (why there aren’t any of these stands in Taganga beats me). I picked up some galletas de huevo (similar to meringues) and a bag of coca leaves for tea (hoping they aren’t taken in the airport!!)

And then. I stumled across this café called Lulo, which seemed to be calling (shouting) my name with its ‘gourmet’ yet cheap arepas filled with combinations of beans, eggs, chorizo, plantains, tropical salads, and queso. In addition they offered ‘ceviche a maracuya (passion fruit) y mango’, and smoothies galore made with organic tropical fruits. I was planning on getting lunch back in Taganga at a recommended sandwich shop, but the call of this café was too strong to ignore.

After annoying the waitress for deliberating so long on my order, I settled on the ‘arepa vegetariana’. First came out a large bowl of soup, as is typical with lunch. But this soup was no ordinary Colombian potato-mystery meat soup – it was a deliciously complex roasted tomato and herb soup, topped with mozzarella and strips of toasted bread. Impressed already.

Next the arepa, which was even further from ordinary. The waitress set before me a grilled corn patty piled 5 inches (literally) high with deliciousness. Ohhh how I wish I had my camera! Upon slicing into it I knew instantly this was the best thing I had eaten so far in Colombia. And if I were a celebrity chef, it would no doubt qualify as ‘The Best Thing I Ever Ate’ …ever. In all seriousness. The cheesey grilled arepa sat underneath a pile of tender grilled eggplant, strips of lightly fried plantain, big red beans, purple cabbage, paper-thin radish slices, diced tomato, green onion and a dollop of light cream. My favorite combination of foods and flavors — all cooked perfectly, seasoned perfectly, and blended perfectly together.

At that moment I really wished I was with someone who I could express my emotions with, as all I could do was tell the waitress how incredible it was. She just smiled at me in a way that said, “yeah, I know.”

view over Taganga, Colombia

view over Taganga, Colombia

The trip back to Taganga was almost as exciting as we played the game of ‘how many people can we fit into an 8-person van’. I’d say we were approaching 20 by the time we left town. Although I could not understand the mumbling-laughter  of the lady next to me, I knew she was joking with me about our situation. It’s really all you can do when it’s 95+ degrees and you’re crammed in a van with 12 more people than it was meant for.

Days like these, when a seemingly trivial trip to the ATM becomes an adventure in itself (and a delicious one at that), remind me what I love about travel.

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