Road to Colombia: The Great Mexican Shakedown

All great layovers come with a price, which typically comes in the form of a late arrival, bleeding, every so painfully, into an early departure. This layover was no different, forcing us to wake at  6AM, after a measly, ill-advised, four hours of sleep and one or five tequilas. It would come to cost us far, far, more in the end, but we’ll get there when the time is right. In the hotel cafeteria, a machine pumped out miniature, saccharine cups of coffee to aid in our recovery, and we ubered, bleary eyed and shell-shocked, to Benito Juarez International.

Once through security, we sat at a cantina worthy of old town Tijuana, an intoxicating place full of Mexican charisma, from the bar stools, perched ever so perilously along a long, narrow, step, to the fetching young servers clad in classic black vests and button up suit shirts.

C Cantina

It was vacation, and it was impossibly early, and we were, in our tired bewilderment, about to board a four and half hour flight; in turn, we ordered a little tequila, for the sake of being unconscious en route, which turned into preposterously large, straight to the vein, knock down, drag out, gut punch, juggernaut “shots.”

C tequila

Fearing a hunger emergency would strike before meal service, we added an order of nachos, draped with tepid cheese sauce, black beans, tomato, and raw onion. For some unknown reason, the cheese dusted guacamole showed up as a side, with two plain chips standing at attention.

C nachos

While the nachos were satisfying, this biscuit was memorable, in the way only Mexican baked goods can be; dense, sweet, and warm, with soft, salty butter and a jiggly square of Heinz strawberry marmalade.

C Biscuit

About twenty minutes before boarding time, I registered a troubling announcement; boarding would be denied to any passenger not in possession of their immigration form.

Immigration forms, at every other airport on the planet, are the stuff of arrivals, not departures; not so in Mexico. A perforated section of the form is handed back to all passengers upon entry, and if you aren’t paying attention after your long flight, which we weren’t, you would not know that that little square piece of nothing, that dumb piece of paper with your name, address, and passport number on it, is the key to your exit.

This set in motion a comedy of errors that would end in a missed flight, $1200 in change fees, 14 hours in the airport, 2 episodes of severe food poisoning, and 1 disturbingly blacked out drunk.

When your FFM form (as I’ve come to know it) goes missing, and most especially, if you are American, you are then met with a series of unhelpful, if not hostile, airport employees telling you to “find the office,” while providing no actual directions, which results in lots of frantic running and arm waving and hang wringing, a discovery that “the office” is on the other side of security, where one, bullet proof glass protected jerk, dressed like a soldier, smugly “helps” the steady stream of people who have lost this tiny piece of paper, requires cash payment for a replacement paper, points you to a money exchange counter for pesos, the money exchange counter demands your passport and form filling in order to change your non-bribe currency into acceptable bribe currency, which takes juuuust long enough to ensure that you do, in fact, miss your flight, after which, you go, defeated, shaking, and deflated, to the AeroMerxico counter, where they laugh at you knowingly when you say you missed your flight and then charge you $1200 for a new one.

Our heads were spinning with sleepless delirium and adrenaline, both of us, trying to comprehend what had just happened to us. Our travel companions, for their part, were in the air on the way to Bogota, having tearfully watched our luggage being driven away on the tarmac before takeoff.

Eventually, we made the decision to go back to the hotel to rest until our replacement flight was ready to board, at 1:30AM.

The Minisuites, were, of course, sold out. We used the lobby wifi to spread the good news that we would be in Mexico City for another night and went in search of food. Around the corner, we found a fonda and settled in for a much-needed meal.

C Fonda sign

The fonda had us both bewitched, bustling with weekenders out for a hearty pre-church breakfast. We contentedly watched as they pressed out handmade tortillas

C Fonda Crowd

and grilled meat to order, on a giant, half outside, drum grill, feeling that if we were going to get as screwed as we did, this was the world’s best antidote.

C Fonda Grill

The meal was so simple and spectacular, it restored our faith in humanity and our love for Mexico City, which to be honest, was seriously dropping to “worst to place in the world” on my list. What we didn’t know, at that point, was that we were on the favorable end of all that would eventually happen there. First, a hot bowl of rich broth, rice, chickpeas, and an entire chicken drumstick.

C Fonda Soup

Second, bean filled tortillas, smothered in a complexly flavored salsa verde, a completely different animal than the highly acidic, one note, version most places in the US concoct, covered in soft scrambled eggs, crema, and fresh cheese.

C Fonda Egg

We joked that the meal was worth $1200 and a missed day in Bogota, a sentiment we felt, of course, before we knew it had poisoned us.

We tried to make the best of it, being in DF. We walked around a bit. But it was Sunday, and Mexico is a religious country. Also, we were by the airport, which is an area for the most part, devoid of anything resembling charm (auto body & parts shops), and our exhaustion had become physically painful.

So we went back to the airport to find a place to lay down. And there we stayed for the next fourteen hours.

C airport lay down

My food poising arrived in concert with Jake’s blackout, which, as you can imagine, was incredibly inconvenient. When it struck, it stuck so hard, and so fierce, that I wished death would find me there, under those godforsaken holes in the airport walls. I couldn’t see, as though I was cross-eyed. Walking was near impossible. My heart beat irregularly. The two Tramadol and one Vicodin I took, inconsequential to the searing pain in my head. I threw up violently, for hours, until I dry heaved, painfully, over, and over, and over. I was too weak, and too sick, to talk. To tell Jake, who couldn’t remember that I was sick, that not only was I sick, but I was damn sure it was fatal.

We managed to get on the flight, a spectacle to our fellow passengers, who stared at us, horrified, willing the airline to do something about us. Me, unable to open my eyes, stand up straight, talk, or be touched. Jake, well.

His food poisoning hit around 2AM, 37,000 feet up, in the middle seat, all sweat, and barf bag vomit and violent coughing, the entire flight wishing we would somehow disappear.

In Bogota, at 6AM, the barfing into bags continued, through two hours worth of customs/immigration, and a diesel soaked cab ride through morning gridlock. We had to pull over three times so that he could wretch onto the sidewalks of Bogota.

But, we’d made it. We finally arrived, me throwing Randi aside as she opened the door to greet us, to make way for Jake, who ran straight to the toilet to vomit.

Our Airbnb was a lovely apartment, hosted by German, the literal host of all hosts, who provided numerous restaurant recommendations, arranged a house call from a doctor, coordinated transportation for our entire stay in Colombia, and arranged two, in person meetings.

C Airbnb

German’s apartment is located in Chapinero Alto, a charming neighborhood nestled at the foot of the Andes

C Bogota mts

That part of Chapinero is absolutely riddled with excellent restaurants; on Calle 57, mere blocks from the Airbnb, is Empanadas Castana al Horno, widely held as Bogota’s best empanada spot; high praise indeed (verified, during multiple visits over the next three days). A few doors down from that, Mistral, a bistro/bakery that cranks out excellent kouign amans, and slightly further but within walking distance, a veritable hit list of Bogota’s top spots, such as Mesa Franca, Amor Perfecto, El Cielo, Grazia, and Mini-Mal.

On this day, I was not able to think clearly, and couldn’t quite direct us to where we wanted to go, so we stopped in at Marie Antoinette café, and sat on the small sunny patio, where we watched streams of well dressed passers-by with their dog(s).

C Marie Ant outside

At Marie Antoinette, my body was gingerly reintroduced to food and coffee, by virtue of artichoke quiche and a smooth, creamy latte

C Quiche

A short three blocks away is Mini-Mal,  which is located on the edge of Parque Republica Portugal, a city park bustling with Colombian youth, recreating in distinctly non-American ways; soccer, gymnastics.

C park

Mini-Mal’s exterior is unmistakably Bogotan, all brick and patterned window bars, an architectural asset in those parts, as opposed to the US, where they tend to signal that robbery is imminent.

C Minimal ext

Mini-Mal’s mission is to serve indigenous ingredients, from all corners of the country, prepared using traditional Colombian methods. Of course, Colombia is known both for the insane array of fruit that grows there, and its two distinctly different coastlines, Pacific and Caribbean. The focus on fruit flavors is evident in dishes like “delirium,” a shrimp dish sauced with maracuya, a bright tropical fruit, or, “Let’s go to the Beach;” blowfish dressed with acidic lulo fruit, served with coconut rice. Pre-Hispanic ingredients such as ants, tucupi sauce (cassava extract with ants) and manoco are peppered throughout the menu, though ants for some reason, are only “sometimes” available.

Mini Mal Menu

These Palmira rolls, soft slices of pork crackling, fresh cheese, plantain and avocado, were mild flavored without being bland, a smooth, effortless start.

C Sushi

The Pica Pica rolls were slightly more aggressive, being fried and all, but my depleted soul was more than ready for revival at the hand of fried of cheese and pickled chiles.

C minimal food

Not pictured, and the most rejuvenating dish of the bunch, was the citric soup, a clear, slightly sour broth with mushroom, greens, cheese, tiger shrimp and rice-cardamom balls. I’ve found myself longing for that soup in the days since and the genius of it is, I completely lack the ability to recreate it on my own.

All in all, Mini-Mal provided just the right meal for a pensive toe dip back into the food pond. Outside, buff young Bogotans flung themselves through air in twists and spirals, always finding purchase on the bar from which they launched.

C Minimal Window

That night, we Ubered over to Huerta Bar Cocterleria (a word on Uber, Bogota: the stated rate is never the actual rate, but the actual rate is never a total gouge, and you are at least armed with map of the trip, a route the driver does, in fact, adhere to) an artisanal cocktail bar located on the Calle 69A loop, a street that circles a sweet little park, where, it would end up, no less than four of the restaurants I had on my list were located.

C Huerta Exterior

Huerta’s entrance was a little odd and off-putting, the bottom floor a large, empty, hostless room, which made us feel like we had wandered into someone’s pool house. It was, however, a Monday, the night of the week when no restaurant lives up to its ambience potential.

C Huerta Entrance

The design, upstairs, could be described as “instagramably hip,” with a nature driven motif all raw wood, knotty tree branches, and greenery.  They claim, both in server spiel and on their website, to be in possession of 100 herbs and plants, which are ever so delicately muddled and twisted and lit on fire to enhance the drinking experience. The neon sign, pictured below, casts the room in a soft red glow, and also, I was proud that my newfound Spanish skills enabled me to translate: Changing the world one cocktail at a time. Thanks, Duolingo.

C Huerta Sign

We weren’t totally alone on that Monday, though I’m fairly certain all of those people work there.

C Huerta Bar

It’s a pretty spot, and soothing, especially for one who feels as though they have been put in the washing machine on the spin cycle, due to a horrific turn of food poisoning coupled with extortion.

C Huerta interior

I was even able, at that point, to appreciate their bathroom, with its diorama of miniatures and tower of plants

C Huerta Bathroom

Later, we would meet a bartender who was pretty critical of Huerta, for being too handsy with the sugary stuff. But on that night, a pineapple tiki drink with shaved ice and a  flaming cockscomb garnish was exactly what the doctor ordered. On the food menu, they offer an entire dish of dehydrated fruits, which just seemed….stupid, until the dehydrated lemon wedged in that cocktail made its way to our tongues. Had we known when we ordered what we knew then, that dish would have been top of the list.

C Huerta Tiki

This shrimp toast was unimpressive and underwhelming, a medley of bland and mealy ingredients

C Huerta Shrimp bread

This chicharron ceviche, however, was impossibly perfect, rich with flavor and texture, chewy cubes of meat balanced with tangy citrus, crunchy corn nuts, and sharp red onion.

C Huerta Pork

Across the park from Huerta is La Grande Cevicheria, our dinner destination that evening

C La grande exterior

We were, again, the only people there, shocking the staff awake with our Monday night arrival. We set up camp at the bar, across from their day of the dead styled chalk mural

C Grande Pre Cocktail

Bogota’s cocktail scene is in its infancy, which has a strange effect on bartenders, making them contort and dance, shaker in hand, as though a snake had just crawled up their pant leg. They do put on a helluva show, dramatically pouring long streams a great distance between shaker and glass, whipping out lighters and dry ice and tweezers when needed.

C La Grande finished drinks

We were given chips to snack on, as we admired the bar’s collection of spices, syrups, and tinctures

C La Grande Chips

Behind us loomed this tiger mural, reminiscent of a smoky night spent in Prague, years ago.

C La Grande mural

Were I anywhere else in the world, mango and passion fruit ceviche would not be my first choice, but, at a cevicheria in a country obsessed with both ceviche and fruit, it seemed like the right time to give her a go.

C Grande mango ceviche

The syrupy liquid collected at the bottom of the bowl was reminiscent, in texture and flavor, of a childhood favorite; Kerns mango nectar. I may never order mango ceviche again, but I thoroughly enjoyed that one.

Our second ceviche took us all by surprise when it arrived, hot and sizzling in a cast iron pan, a mixture of hot avocado (not my favorite) with rich, buttery, octopus and shrimp (my favorite).

C Hot Ceviche

Back at the AirBnB, Jake wrestled with the last remnants of bacterial venom, and I finally, blissfully, slept.


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