Booze of the world

Booze of the World 6: Chile

Sandwiched between the sparkling Pacific and the majestic Andes, Chileans are surrounded by so much beauty that it’s impossible not to raise a glass or two to Mother Nature

Pisco: Ah, Pisco. I first came to love Pisco in Peru but it wouldn’t do to admit that in front of a Chilean. The neighbouring countries have had a few beefs over the years, not least of which is the (at times legal) dispute over which country is the birthplace of the stuff.

Pisco is a type of brandy invented by 16th-century Spanish sailors and most commonly drunk in the form of my favourite cocktail, the Pisco Sour.

In Peru, the recipe is pisco, lime, sweet syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters. The Chileans miss out the egg white and Angostura, a mistake in my view.

A Pisco sour

Pisco Sour WITH egg white. Sorry Chile, it’s just better this way.

A great way to find out more about Pisco, and enjoy some stunning scenery besides, is to visit the Elqui Valley near the seaside town of La Serena.

Here you can visit some of the oldest Pisco distilleries. I did the day trip alone, as Franki was feeling under the weather, but still had a marvellous day out. I mean…just look at the place.

Elqui Valley

Pisco vines in the beautiful Elqui Valley. Stunning.

OK, one more Elqui Valley picture because…well…damn…
I  took a cheap shared collectivo taxi to the town of Vicuna, from where you can get the bus to Pisco Elqui, or even further to the wonderful Fundo de los Nichos distillery, founded in 1868. Foolishly, I walked the three miles from Pisco Elqui in blazing sunshine, not realising that the bus route continues along the same road.

The distillery tour was in Spanish, as I happened to arrive at the wrong time for the English tour, but it was still fascinating. The place is dripping with tipsy history. Here’s a mural commemorating (if my Spanish serves me well) the day when women were allowed into the distillery for the first time.

Mural at Fundo de los Nichos

I’m not sure if this is a good advert for Pisco but why not?

A kindly Chilean family gave me a lift back to Pisco Elqui (having seen me tramping along in the heat earlier). There I also visited the Pisco Mistral distillery, named after Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral, who came from the Elqui Valley. This is a larger operation than Fundo de los Nichos, with a fantastic restaurant attached. Their English tour was a fascinating insight into the distillation process…

Pisco distillation vats

When the tour guide isn’t looking, you can dive right into those vats.

…and the tasting enlightened me to the fact that premium Pisco can be drunk neat, like any other brandy.

Anyway, the Elqui Valley: Education, booze and scenery, what’s not to love?

If you’re in Santiago, check out the Chipe Libre restaurant on Lastarria. The food wasn’t stunning but they offer both Peruvian and Chilean versions of the famous drink, plus a tasting flight for would be connoiseurs.

Wine: While Argentina is the home of Malbec, Chile is probably better known for reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere. It also has a reputation in some parts of the world (I’m looking at you, hypocritical Australia!) for producing some cheap and terrible wines.

Britons will probably be most familiar with Casillero del Diablo, famous for being the wine people bring to a dinner party chiefly because of its ubiquity on the shelves of every corner shop in the country.

Chile certainly does export some rubbish, as anyone who has travelled in Asia will know. But it’s such a large country (well, north to south at least) that it has plenty of top wine-making regions, such as the Maipo and Colchagua valleys.

We weren’t here for long enough to sample that many but one recommendation is this Novas Viognier from the organic Emiliana vineria.

Novas Viognier

My notes also include a smiley face next to a picture of Hoyco del Limor Reserva Especial Pinot Noir 2013. I can’t for the life of me remember anything about it and a Google search suggests it doesn’t exist. Perhaps I dreamt it.

If you’re in Santiago, do not miss the wonderful bar/resto Bocanariz, where delicate tapas dishes are paired with an excellent selection of wines from all over Chile.

Beer: Chile is a very wealthy country by South American standards and as such, it has a wealth of very good craft beers. One great place to sample them is the kaleidoscope of colour that is the UNESCO heritage town of Valparaiso (read about this beautiful town here).

The Casa Cervecera Altamira has a wonderful range from light ales to smoky German Altbiers, right in the bustling heart of Valparaiso and, thankfully, at the bottom of one of it’s extremely steep hills.Altamira beer menuMost bars also have a decent range of bottled craft beers, such as this crisp and refreshing Granizo, seen here being menaced by a two-headed dinosaur.

Granizo beer

Alcoholism, not meteorites, killed off the two-headed dinosaur. True story.

The verdict

Top tipple: Seeing as i’ve already declared it my favourite cocktail, the winner has to the Pisco Sour. I’ll confess to preferring the Peruvian version but the Chileans do a fine job too.

Bubbling under: Altamira’s American Pale Ale went down a treat with Franki so we’ll go with that.

Gourmet’s choice: Pisco Mistral 35. Dark yellow, woody, a very expensive and delicious way of clearing out the cobwebs from your entire respiratory system.

What to slur drunkenly: Pisco de Peru? Andate a la chucha! This is best left untranslated.

Next up in Booze of the World, it’s a 13-hour flight across the Pacific to New Zealand as the wine leg of our world tour continues…

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Booze of the World 5: Argentina

It’s finally here! After three long months of wine-free gloom, we arrive in Argentina, home of the world’s best Malbec and plenty more Bacchanalian delights besides.

Wine: We’ve been greedily awaiting this moment like vultures circling a wounded wildebeest. Argentina’s wines are many and marvellous. They are also inexpensive as long as you’re changing your money on the blue market (read about how to do that in our upcoming blog Argentina: The Debrief).

Malbec

The Malbec grape was brought to Argentina in the 19th century at the request of Argentine statesman Domingo Sarmiento. They’re still naming streets after the guy in Mendoza, where wine is such a big part of the culture that they even have fountains of the stuff.

Wine fountain

Disclaimer: Didn’t actually try it but i’m pretty sure this isn’t actual wine.

The city of Mendoza is the beating red heart of wine country and its dry, hot and mountainous terrain makes for some incredible Malbecs. From here you can tour the traditional wine-making valleys of Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu, or the Uco Valley, which is globally renowned for the art of high-altitude wine-making. Check out our post on Mendoza wine tours here.

Alta Vista winery Argentina

It would take a whole separate blog to go into the glory of Argentinian Malbecs but here are some of our faves, either from tastings (in which case potentially unaffordable to buy by the bottle!) or meals out:-

Alta Vista Premium (any year)

Domaine Bousquet Gran Reserva 2011

Pulmary’s Donaria Reserva 2008

Gimenez Riili Gran Familia 2014

Altos Las Hormigas 2011

Domaine Bousquet

Visit Domaine Bousquet on the Ampora Wine Tour

Not Malbec

Malbec isn’t the only red wine in town. You can find good Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Bonarda. And while red wine is dominant here, we fell in love with Torrontes, Argentina’s only native grape. It makes a delicious white wine, sometimes nicknamed ‘The Liar’ because it is very sweet and fruity on the nose (reminiscent of Gewurztraminers or Muscat) but crisp on the palate.

I was partial to Sol Fa Sol and the Sylvestra (pictured below), but Alta Vista also do a nice Torrontes.

Sylvestra Torrontes

Goes beautifully with the fish at Maria Antonieta in the city

Remember, if you’re in Mendoza, you mustn’t miss out on the fantastic wine tours, which you can do by bus or by bike, visiting beautiful wineries set in stunning scenery. Tastings are cheap and generous, while there are also great places to have lunch along the way too. We did no fewer than three tours while we were in town – read about them here.

One last thing to mention… Argentina is the only place we’ve ever been where you can buy wine by the pinguino. This is obviously an opportunity not to be missed.

Pinguino of wine

It might look like this penguin has suffered horrific internal injuries…

Beer: The omnipresent local brew is Quilmes, nothing too special but a cut above the watery pilsners available in neighbouring Brazil.

However, there is a delightful range of craft lagers and ales as well. In Buenos Aires, the Antares restaurant and brewery serves up bar-snack style food with a large range of brews such as Stout, Porter, Koelsch and IPA (pronounced ‘eepa’ here).

But the real highlight for beer-lovers is Patagonia. This wild and beautiful region is home to some amazing small breweries churning out cracking cervezas artesanales.

For the most part, you’re offered a simple choice of rubia (meaning ‘blonde’ but really just a golden ale), roja (red/amber) or negra (bock). The quality varies greatly as some of these places are really small operations out in the middle of nowhere.

El Bolson craft beer

The El Bolson brewery in the hippy town of the same name has an incredible malty red ale that I absolutely fell in love with.

The Berlina cerveceria, in the small village of Colonia Suiza near Bariloche, is another winner.

Berlina beer Patagonia

They also sell it in bars

If you find yourself in the trekking and back-country skiing mecca of El Chalten, way down in the south, there’s a wonderful little bar called La Vineria that has a huge range you should check out.

But I’ll reserve particular praise for the Manush bar and restaurant in Bariloche. Unlike Antares, you won’t find their stuff selling for top dollar in Buenos Aires supermarkets. I didn’t see it anywhere but in the bar itself but my God was it good. Their IPA is rich, powerful and smooth, erring on the right side of uber-hoppy. My favourite though, German lager fanatic that I am, was the Koelsch. Smoky but fresh, it was the best example of the style I’ve sampled outside the Ruhr.

Fernet: Very popular among locals, this is an incredibly bitter spirit usually drunk with full-fat Coke, presumably the only thing sweet enough to render it drinkable. I can see how it might be an acquired taste but when there’s Malbec and craft beer on offer, I can’t fathom why you’d opt for this.

The verdict

Top tipple: It ought to be a Malbec oughtn’t it? But that Manush Koelsch lager won my heart. Name your price Manush, I’ll have that stuff shipped over by the boatload when I get home.

Gourmet’s choice: Alta Vista Reserve Malbec

Bubbling under: Sol Fa Sol Torrontes

What to slur drunkenly: ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’. They are literally never going to stop going on about this so you may as well join in.

Colonia Suiza Argentina

Rob enjoying a local brew at a festival in Colonia Suiza

Malbec grapes

Mendoza: A feast for the soul in Argentina’s wine capital

Whether you’ve been scaling mountains in Patagonia or dancing a frenetic tango in Buenos Aires, Mendoza is the place to come and indulge in the less wholesome pleasures of stuffing your face with food and glugging gallons of wine.

To be fair to Mendoza, there’s more to this city than just wine and meat. It is blessed with wide, leafy streets and a large, attractive central square, surrounded by four smaller plazas designed in contrasting styles.

But most people come here to visit one of Mendoza’s hundreds of wineries, so here’s a rundown of how to do it.

Wine tours and tastings

There are plenty of tours to choose from but the best way to check out the local wine hotspots (assuming you’re blessed with moderate levels of fitness) is by bicycle.

Lujan de Cuyo: This valley is a wonderfully green stretch of some of Argentina’s best vineyards, usually known as bodegas, all within a few kilometres of one another.

It’s pretty easy (with the advice of your hostel or a friendly local) to get a local bus for the 45-minute trip out to Chacras de Coria and rent a bike from Baccus.

Bacchus bikes Mendoza

They’ll give you a handy map of local bodegas and some suggestions on where to go.

If you arrive around lunchtime, stop in at Pulmary for utterly delicious Argentinian steak and a tasting tour.

Steaks at Pulmary bodega

This is an organic winery, usually a red flag for me as my experience with European organic wines hasn’t been great. But the reliable climate means they can produce delicious wine without the need for additives.

Pulmary bodega Mendoza

Wine and sunshine in Pulmary’s pretty garden

On the larger and slightly more upmarket side, check out Alta Vista.

Alta Vista Premium

The Alta Vista Premium Malbec is among the best we had and we liked the Torrontes (pictured) so much we went back for seconds.

Here’s a quick wine porn pic for you…the personal collection of the owner (who also owns Taittinger champagne and Hungary’s Tokay dessert wine).

Wine collection at Alta Vista

Further down the road there’s Carmelo Patti, a small operation where Senor Patti offers free tastings, partly for the sheer, unadulterated love of wine and partly as cheap publicity. He’s a charming old fella and his wines aren’t bad either. Here’s Franki enjoying his patter and his wine at the same time.

Franki at Carmello Patti

Valle de Uco: This is the place to pair top quality high-altitude wine with stunning scenery. At up to 1200m, this is high by any standard of viticulture but it makes for some amazing wines. It’s far from Mendoza though so a bus tour is the best way to do this (and ensures you can sleep on the way back).

We splashed out with Ampora wine tours but it was certainly worth it. They whisked us around some breathtakingly beautiful wineries and plied us with plenty of tastings.

Gimenez Riili Mendoza

Sampling young wine straight out the the vat

Lunch, one of the best we had in Argentina and included in the price, was at O Fournier, a striking hotel of ultra-modern design set in the grounds of a large vineyard with views of the snow-capped Andes. These were unfortunately hidden from view, as we visited on one of Mendoza’s dozen or so rainy days per year. In the absence of a great Andes shot, here’s the annual harvest getting underway.

Harvest time at O Fournier

Another highlight was Bodega Gimenez Riili, where the tasting was accompanied by some light snacks. One of the elder statesman of the family dropped by and took a liking to me because I spoke some Spanish. He was kind enough to top me up with a bit extra of the most expensive wine on the tasting, so that’s as good a reason as any to speak Spanish.

Rob and winery owner
Me, one of the Gimenez Riili clan and some random Australian bloke.

Maipu: This valley boasts some of Argentina’s oldest vineyards. We got here by public bus and rented bikes from Mr Hugo, a jovial character who has become something of an institution in these parts. There is a fantastic range of wineries here, from historic old places such as Di Tommaso, to snazzy glass and concrete bodegas such as Tempus Alba, where we stayed for an extra glass.

Last glass of the day at Tempus Alba

Despite being one of the best areas for great tastings and tours, Maipu sadly isn’t as easy to get around as Lujan de Cuyo. The road is long, potholed and busy with heavy goods vehicles so cycling can be arduous and hair-raising at times, especially after the first few tastings. I reckon we cycled about 20km on the day, not something that should be accompanied by alcohol. So I’d suggest taking a bus tour for this one.

Mendoza bike tour

Our new Dutch friends were better at cycling while drunk

Back in the city, try the tasting room run by The Vines of Mendoza for a tasting in a more relaxed setting, where you can stagger home on foot rather than having to weave around startled pedestrians on a bike.

Tasting at The Vines

Eating out

In most parts of the world, wine accompanies the meal. In Mendoza, their priorities are reversed. However, there are some mouthwatering meals to be had at the city’s upmarket eateries if you really must have something to go with your wine.

We went above our usual budget here, as a mix-up with currency meant we had a lot of pesos and not much time to spend them before leaving for Chile. As no-one wants Argentinian pesos (the exchange rate on the Chilean border is miserly) we felt we might as well spend the cash on great food rather than lose half of it at the bureau de change.

Here are our highlights. Click on the restaurant name for TripAdvisor reviews:-

Siete Cocinas 10/10

The undisputed king of our Mendoza meals. The ethos of this classic and peaceful establishment is to draw together the cuisine of seven regions in Argentina (hence the name, meaning Seven Cuisines). It was here that we fulfilled our ambition of managing two bottles of wine with dinner, a degustation menu packed with a succession of delights.

Azafran 7/10

Meaning ‘saffron’, this place is listed among Mendoza’s top restaurants but we thought it was a touch overrated. They make a big deal of the sommelier’s wine suggestions but by the time he got to us, we were halfway through the meal and it was too late to order a bottle. However, the lamb cutlets were juicy and delicious, which is about as important as anything else in life.

Anna Bistro 8/10

Less pretentious (and cheaper) than the first two but a really nice spot with a beautiful garden. I’d say it’s better as a lunch venue, with a good value Menu Ejecutivo (best translation: ‘working lunch menu’). Try a delicious pasta nicoise and indulge yourselves with the macaroons and other pastries from the bakery a few doors down.

Maria Antonieta 7/10

A great spot to sit outdoors and watch the world go by as you feast. This place seemed very popular with locals and for good reason. I wouldn’t call it haute cuisine exactly but the simple fish dish I had was cooked to perfection, flaky but with substance and bags of flavour.

* A quick word as well for Hostel Lao, one of the best hostels we found in Latin America. Friendly, helpful staff, clean and quiet room, fast WiFi, good kitchen, nice guests and a decent location, all for good value. Stay here if you can.*

Booze of the World 4: Brazil

Unlike we reserved Englishmen, the Brazilians don’t need a drop of alcohol to start dancing in the streets. Still, once the caipirinhas are flowing, the party ramps up a notch…

Caipirinha: Where else to start but with Brazil’s most famous poison. Bewilderingly strong and insanely sugary, the main ingredient of this simple cocktail is cachaça, a spirit made from sugar cane. Mix it up with lime and yet more sugar, and you’ve got yourself a Samba party in a glass. The big difference between caipirinhas is the quality of the cachaça. At one end of the scale there’s the eye-wateringly potent stuff you get from street vendors for about 8 reals a pop (about £1.80). Here’s a Peruvian guy we met who set up a little stall in Lapa after someone sold him the cart.
Caipirinha stall in Lapa

We met this guy a few times but i’m damned if I can remember his name…

At the other end of the scale, ‘The Original’, available at the prestigious Skye Bar at the top of the Hotel Unique, will set you back a wallet-busting 38 reals (£8.50), largely because it’s made with the extra premium Cachaca Yaguara.

'The Original' caipirinha at the Skye Bar, Hotel Unique, Sao Paolo

Posh caipirinhas may not be authentic but they’re tudo bem. Tudo bem indeed.

The Skye Bar version (a birthday treat for me) was certainly the smoothest and best tasting. But for value and authenticity, give me the three-in-the-morning street caipirinha in Rio’s party district of Lapa.

Beer: The first thing to know about Brazilian cerveja is that they like it so cold that you can hardly taste it. That’s good news though, as most of it is dishwater. Itaipava, Schin, Devassa, Skol, Bohemia, Antarctica…it wouldn’t come as a surprise to find they were all the same weak product with different branding. Mind you, when it’s 40 degrees and you’re thirsty, flavour has to take a back seat sometimes.

Not all is lost. You can find a great range of craft beers, mostly hailing from the south, which has a substantial population of German descent.

Trouble is, good quality is just as expensive, if not more so, than what you’d find in London or New York. Still, if you’re fed up of the Pisswasser on offer elsewhere you’ll be ready to fork out. My recommendation is the Therezopolis Gold, smooth with a lightly sweet malt finish. Yum.

Therezopolis Gold

Smooth, golden and tasty. And the beer ain’t bad either…

For a huge range of Brazilian and foreign brews, head to the Boteco Carioquinha on Rua Gomes Freire in Lapa. It’ll set you back a bob or two but if you’re splashing out on beer, this is the best place to do it.

Beers at Boteco Carioquinha

Brewdog is just as expensive in Brazil…nice taste of home though

One last thing to know about Brazilian beer is that it tends to be served in two forms. One is Chopp, roughly a half-pint usually with a sizeable head. The other is Longneck, a large bottle of around 500ml, usually served in a cooler to keep it as near to freezing as possible.

Other: Coconuts abound anywhere near the coast, so there’s always the default Latin American beach tipple Cocoloco (see Booze of the World: Central America), a coconut with the top hacked off and some rum mixed with to the delicious nectar inside.

I’m sure the Amazonian regions have some crazy local firewater but we didn’t venture that far.

There is Brazilian wine but, for the most part, stay well away if you value your taste buds. However, over Christmas at the stunningly awesome Capim Santo hotel in the hippy beach town of Trancoso we stumbled upon the Casa Valduga ‘Indentidade’ Gewurztraminer, which was fairly complex, floral but not too sweet and very very drinkable. Wonders never cease.

Casa Valduga Gewurztraminer

Try saying Gewurztraminer in a Brazilian accent. Go on, try it!

The verdict

Top tipple: Street caipirinhas. Cheap, authentic and damn effective.

Gourmet’s choice: ‘The Original’ at Sao Paolo’s Skye Bar

Bubbling under: Therezopolis Gold

What to slur drunkenly: Brazilian Portuguese sounds like drunken Spanish anyway, so pretty much anything works. However, ‘tudo bem’ is your all-purpose expression of merry contentment.

Special ‘Actually that’s not too bad’ award: Casa Valduga ‘Identidade’ Brazilian Gewurztraminer.

Booze of the World 3: Colombia

On to Colombia now. It may be famous more for its intoxicating powders than its beverages but there’s a craft beer revolution stirring…
 
Aguardiente: Found in different forms across Latin America, aguardiente literally means ‘fire water’. In Colombia it’s a grimace-inducing concoction made of sugar cane and flavoured, unfathomably in my opinion, with aniseed.
Aguardiente Antiuqueno

Warning: This beverage can seriously contort your face (Source: Wikipedia)

You’ll see the stuff being ordered by the bottle and shared around at parties and bars, particularly in the high mountainous regions. I’m probably not the fairest judge because I loathe aniseed and Colombian Aguardiente tastes like some evil genius fermented Liquorice Allsorts. Imagine someone extracted everything that makes Sambucca vaguely drinkable and you’re halfway to understanding the awfulness.

Check out this blog for a witty account of the horror of aguardiente.

Beer: As we move out of Central America, the beer situation improves markedly. Yes, you are still assaulted with Latin much-of-a-muchness pilsners, such as Aguila, Pilsen and the slightly more complex Club Colombia.

But Colombians have noted the micro-brewing revolutions going on elsewhere and are responding, with varying degrees of success. 3 Cordilleras, Moonshine and Apostol all boast a strong range including Pale Ales, Weizen and Ambers, most of which offer a decent alternative to light pilsner without being particularly memorable. They can be found in many supermarkets and some bars in the bigger cities too.

The most successful among the new brewing breed is the Bogota Beer Company, which has the most impressive armoury of anywhere I’ve found in Latin America so far.

Bogota Beer Company

Three of BBC’s impressive range of brews (Source: http://www.creadictos.com)

Its range includes a 5% ABV ‘English recipe’ Chapinero Porter, the Candelaria Clasica IPA and the Monserrate Roja (red ale). I was particularly pleased with the Cajica Honey Ale, which succeeds in avoiding the sickliness you get with some honeyed beers.

The highlight though was the Raquel pale ale from the Chelarte brewery, a robust and hoppy American ale at 5% ABV that could hold its own among what you’d find in any bar in Portland or San Francisco. Here it is alongside a tasty Moonshine Amber Ale, served with dinner at Bogota’s wonderful Salvo Patria restaurant (featured in Franki’s ‘How to be a hipster in Bogota’ post).

Raquel and Moonshine cervezas

Raquel and Moonshine, not two strippers but some great Colombian beers

Other: Slim pickings beyond beer and aguardiente i’m afraid. Colombia’s big cities all have some high-end restaurants but if you’re drinking wine you will be emptying your wallet pretty quickly.

If you like gin (hello Franki!) be prepared for a shock. It may be among the cheapest drinks in Anglo-Saxon countries but it sells for the price of a small car in Colombia. Honourable mention goes to the Agua de Mar restaurant in Cartagena, which has a comprehensive gin list, albeit for a king’s ransom.

Being Caribbean, Cartagena also has plenty of rum on offer but nothing local to write home about.

The verdict

Top tipple: Un Cajica Honey Ale por favor.

Gourmet’s choice: The Raquel pale ale from Chelarte

Bubbling under: A gin and tonic at Agua de Mar, Cartagena

What to slur drunkenly: “I frickin’ HATE aniseed!!

Next stop on Booze of the World: Caipirinha time…it’s Brazil

* Sobering tip: Do not leave your drink unattended. Drink-spiking with the aim of robbing or sexually assaulting people is a problem in Colombia. Be aware of where your drink is at all times and don’t accept anything from strangers that isn’t sealed when you get it.

Cartagena street art

Love in a town of colour: Exploring romantic Cartagena

When my dad heard I was going to Colombia he did what most parents would do and gave me some parental advice. Not, as you might expect, about the dangers of travelling through the still-unstable rural areas. He did not tell me to steer clear of the perilous borderlands, nor lecture me on the dangers of illegal drugs, no.

What he said was: “Don’t take the bus to Cartagena.”

[No time to read? Skip to the end for my top 5 things to do in Cartagena.]

If you don’t get the reference, don’t worry, neither did I. Luckily my dad was only too happy to enlighten me.

For those unfamiliar with the 1984 classic Romancing The Stone, this is what happens to Kathleen Turner when she hops on a bus to the northern coastal city (the first 30 seconds pretty much covers it).

Yikes. In the end I flew to Cartagena. Not because I was worried about ending up in a ditch (in fact I am afraid of flying so on most occasions I would far rather take the bus), but because the bus from Bogota to Cartagena takes 20 hours while a flight takes an hour and fifteen minutes.

Cartagena was somewhere I’d been looking forward to. Mixing Spanish heritage with Caribbean climate, not only is it intensely attractive but it’s history and culture makes it unique within Colombia.

Cartagena street art

The city, perched on the edge of the Caribbean Sea was once among the most important ports in the whole of Latin America. Founded in 1553, Cartagena de Indias (to give it its full title) became a crucial stopping point on the way east from Peru and Ecuador onward to Cuba and Puerto Rico and back across the Atlantic to Spain.

The Spanish quickly found gold in Colombia, as they did elsewhere, and Cartagena itself was home to many indigenous burial sites, all filled with treasures that could be traded and sold. Unsurprisingly with so much gold passing through the port, the city was also a prime target for pirates – something that probably only adds to its story-book appeal.

But the uncomfortable truth is that a lot of Cartagena’s wealth came from the slave trade. In the 17th century the city became an official slave-trading centre – only the second in Latin America (the other was in Mexico). In fact many of the old city’s buildings were built on money made this way. Suddenly they don’t seem quite as charming, do they?

Beneath Cartagena’s dreamy surface lies a history at best uneasy and at times really quite dark. It’s a place of legend and mystery, romance and cruelty. It’s the town that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ fictional coastal setting in Love In A Time Of Cholera (in fact the city did suffer a major cholera outbreak in the 1800s) and after just a few days here, I think I can see why.

Cartagena street

The walled Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Outside this, it’s an ordinary working city and port with the majority of its 1million+ inhabitants working in maritime logistics, manufacture and exports (eg coal, petrol, sugar, and coffee), and of course tourism.

Cartagena skyline

Cartagena port

It’s as popular a holiday destination with Colombians as it is with foreigners and most people stay in one of the many chic hotels in the Old Town itself, in hostels in nearby Getsemaní, or in one of the purpose-built tower block hotels in affluent Bocagrande

I arrived alone on a Friday afternoon in December. Rob had left Bogota two days earlier to go to Valle Dupar for work and so I was going solo for the first time since we’d left the UK. I meandered idly round the vibrant streets and alleyways of Getsemaní – the ‘popular’ quarter just outside the walled city – taking pictures, enjoying being answerable only to myself.

Getsemani Cartagena

Getsemani Cartagena

Getsemani Cartagena

But as the evening drew in and I made my way towards to twinkling Christmas lights of the walled city, I began to miss my travel buddy. Not just for his Spanish-speaking skills (although they would have come in handy when I tried to explain to the hostel receptionist that to simply tell me “There six beds and only five lockers and yours is the one without the locker – sorry, is that ok?” was really not ok), but because Cartagena is seriously romantic.

Tiny, tucked-away restaurants, leafy plazas full of fairy lights, candlelit bars perched high on the old walls, overlooking the ocean, music, dancing – we’re talking picture-postcard levels of romance here.

Cartagena walled city

In fact I’d go as far as to say Cartagena is the second-prettiest city I’ve ever been to. I’ll give you to the end of this blog post to guess what the first is!

I consoled myself in Rob’s absence as any pining lover would: by going to the Spanish Inquisition Museum and looking at torture devices.

Cartagena was a key tribunal site for the Spanish Inquisition, with over 1000 people questioned and tortured here between 1610, when the tribunal was established, and 1700. The Palacio de la Inquisición, in Plaza de Bolíva is small and there isn’t an awful lot to see. But you can check out some of the more grisly means of interrogation and gauge whether you’d have passed the questioning. (Spoiler: You wouldn’t have.)

Spanish inquisition

Rob arrived on Saturday evening, tired, sweaty and, having eaten little more than an empanada and a bag of Colombian Wotsits in the last 24 hours, very much looking forward to a decent meal. We went to La Cevicheria, a seafood restaurant I’d scoped out, knowing that both of us love Peruvian ceviche and having heard that they did it pretty well in Cartagena. It was one of the best meals we had in Colombia.

Reinvigorated by delicious fresh fish and a bottle of House White, we decided to check out Havana, a Cuban-themed club on the corner of Media Luna and Carrera 10 in Getsemaní. We took our place in the (mercifully short) queue, paid our 20,000 peso (£5.60) entry and went through the velvet curtain to emerge in a high-ceilinged hall dominated by an old-fashioned brass bar that starts at the back wall, runs almost the full length of the room before curving back round towards the far side once again. The place exuded an easy glamour, all twinkling lamps, clinking glasses and a nine-piece live salsa band. Photos of Cuban musicians and politicians decorated the walls and around the bar, tables were pushed back against the wall to allow people to dance… which we did, with varying degrees of aptitude and indeed coordination as the night wore on.

Havana club Cartagena

We nursed our hangovers, the following day, up at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The fort was built in in the mid 1500s and it one of the biggest and strongest ever built by the Spaniards. What remains today appears at first glance to be a rather ugly stack of stone. But it does have some pretty good tunnels, climbing between one level and another. For someone who still, at the age of 30, feels a flutter of childlike excitement at the thought of a secret passage, this seemed a decent trade-off.

The fort is also where the video for Colombian salsa singer Joe Arroyo’s hit La Rebelion was filmed, a song we discovered in Cartagena and which is now on our ‘travel playlist’ alongside some seriously dodgy Guatemalan hip hop and a lot of Latin power pop. Drawing on the history of the city it tells the story of a slave and his wife who decide to rebel and escape their masters.

If you’re on holiday or travelling it is customary to try to be on a beach on Monday morning so as to be able to post a smug “Monday morning… doesn’t look so bad from here ;)” comment for the benefit of all your buddies back at home, who are easing themselves into a new working week. Of course, in Cartagena, the majority of your morning will be spent fending off tour agents, all of whom want to convince you their identical (and more or less identically priced) trip is the one to sign up to. Then, when you’ve finally agreed to part with some cash, flung your name on the nearest clipboard, and been issued with your tickets, you will spend another hour or two waiting on the dock while everyone around you seems to be getting on a boat until finally your name is called and you set off. The tedious rigmarole is such that I’d almost tell you not to bother. But if this is likely to be your only taste of the Caribbean, as it was for us, then you should go for it. And the beach, when you finally get there, is pretty heavenly.

Playa Blanca Cartagena

We rounded the Cartagena leg of our trip off with a visit to the Totumo Mud Volcano ($35,000/£10 each and we booked it through our hostel). The legend goes that it was once an active volcano which was exorcised by a priest who sprinkled holy water into its crater and turned its fire and ash to nourishing mud. According to locals, the mud is so rich in volcanic minerals that ten minutes inside will make you look ten years younger. I know, ridiculous.

We’d also heard tales of tourists, herded in to be summarily scrubbed and washed and filed out like a production line, with each person along the way demanding a handful of pesos for their services. At least one traveller told us categorically that it wasn’t worth doing. We did it anyway.

With it being the Christmas holidays, our tour bus was made up almost exclusively of vacationing Colombians whose infectious enthusiasm quickly dispelled any doubts we had about the trip. It was also where we met Ivan and his family, a Paisa who a few days later would show us round his home town of Medellin with equal enthusiasm.

Once up on the ‘volcano’ we shuffled round the edge before climbing down the ladder into the muddy crater. As the warm, grey sludge closed over our limbs, we found ourselves grabbed and ordered to relax and lie back for the massage. Tentatively we did. And while the massage itself is nothing particularly life-changing, the feeling of floating in a pit of mud 15 metres deep was very cool indeed.

Cartagena mud volcano

The mud gives you so much buoyancy that it’s actually difficult to stay upright as your legs keep trying to pop up to the surface. Eventually I managed to manoeuvre myself into a sort of standing position, suspended in the mud and from there could enjoy watching everybody else shriek with delight and bewilderment at the sensation.

Afterwards we made our way down to the lake to wash off with the (unsolicited) help of local women who scrubbed our skin, hair and even – having ordered us to take them off – rinsed and wrung out our swimsuits. Of course, all these people – the masseurs, the washerwomen, and the man who looks after your camera and takes snaps of you – do require paying ($3000/85p apiece). Given the utterly bonkers nature of the whole experience, not to mention how much I’d enjoyed myself, this didn’t seem too unreasonable.

On the bus on the way back, a young lad got on, explained he was saving up to go to music college, and then proceeded to belt out versions of local pop songs while accompanying himself on the guitar. Our new Colombian friends all joined in, looking at us questioningly when they saw we weren’t singing along. Okay, it’s not quite up there with Kathleen Turner’s bus trip experience… but it’s close.

 

Five cool things to do in Cartagena

1. Eat at La Cevicheria.

The classic Peruvian dish ceviche – raw fish and seafood marinated in citrus juices and chilli – can also be found in neighbouring Colombia, particularly on the coast of where the fish is fresh and plentiful. This place, on the corner or Carrera 7 and Calle 39 was fantastic. The blue and white colour theme, with fish and mermaid motifs just manages to squeeze in this side of kitsch and it serves an array of delicious seafood combinations, both hot and cold – all well worth the hour-long wait for a table. NB it’s closed on Tuesdays.

2. Lose yourself in winding cobbled streets.

Did I mention Cartagena was pretty? So pretty in fact that it’s quite easy to while away a day simply wandering around the old town, snapping pictures and stopping for the occasional coffee/beer/fresh coconut. I highly recommend losing at least a morning to its streets.

3.  Take a bath in a mud volcano

We’d heard that this was a bit of a tourist trap. No one is quite sure whether the stories about how the mud volcano came to be are true (the ones about it having been an active volcano, not the ones about the mud god) but the pull of doing something this unusual was too much for us. I can’t vouch for how beneficial it is but I can tell you it’s hilarious fun. We signed up through our hostel and it cost $35,000 (£10).

4. Salsa the night away in a Cuban-themed bar

It says something not very complimentary about our own culture that when we read that Havana, on the corner of Media Luna and Carrera 10, was the city’s best nightclub, we imagined a dingy, sticky-floored dive full of coked-up backpackers and churning out Latin electro-house. Instead what we found behind the curtain was a stylish cocktail bar full of  old-style charm and a live salsa band.

5. Dibble your toes in Caribbean waters

If this is your only  chance to hit the beach in Colombia (it was for us) then you’ll want to make the trip to Playa Blanca. While the city’s own polluted beaches are decidedly unenticing, the nearby Islas del Rosario and Isla Baru have everything you expect of their Caribbean location: white sands, clear turquoise waters, palm trees full of coconuts and beach shacks selling scrummy fried fish.

To get the most out of the beach you really need to stay there for a night or two but this can be prohibitively expensive (on Islas del Rosario) or unappealingly basic (on Playa Blanca). To do it in a day you’ll need to get up early and make your way to the port where ticket touts will compete to sell your their identical tours. Most cost around $60,000 (£17) and take you to visit various parts of Islas del Rosario, including a stop at the reportedly unimpressive aquarium, before dropping you at the beach for about two hours. If you want to skip the tour and go straight to the beach (as we did) you can easily negotiate this and you’ll pay a bit less, too. The return boats leave Playa Blanca no later than 3.30pm so it’s worth setting out early if you want to make a day of it. To work out which boat is likely to get going soonest, ask to see the tout’s clipboard before signing up. The boats leave when they’re full so the clipboard with the most names on it is the one you want to sign!

Cartagena Colombia

Oh by the way, the most attractive city I’ve ever been to is, of course, Venice. Did you guess correctly?

Booze of the World 2: Guatemala and Nicaragua

The second instalment of Booze of the World sees Rob take on Central America, including the world’s best rum

Guatemala

Beer: Back when I first visited in 2003, there were pretty much two beer choices: Gallo (the cockerel logo adorns a million backpackers’ T-shirts) or Moza. Both are made by the Cerveceria Centro Americana, owned by Guatemala’s powerful Castillo dynasty.

Gallo, at 118 years old the country’s first brew, is the archetypal Central American beer: weak, pissy sub-lager with zero flavour and enough gas to power a small industrial city. It resembles Budweiser in that it tastes of nothing, but plasters its name across everything. I was always a Moza man and to this day it’s my favourite of what Guatemala has to offer beer-wise. It’s a dark Bock-style beer, richer and more flavourful than Gallo with a slight brown sugar aftertaste that suits my sweet tooth.

There are a few other brews finding their way onto the menu in most bars and hostels these days though. The first is Brahva, owned by global giant AB InBev who (according to this BusinessWeek article) are keen on buying Cerveceria Centro Americana.

Unsurprisingly, given that AB InBev make Budweiser, Brahva is if anything like a watered down version of Gallo and to be avoided at all costs. AB InBev’s muscle allows them to undercut Gallo on price too, which should worry anyone who values local production over many-tentacled multinationals. Brahva makes me want to drink Gallo and that shouldn’t happen to anyone with tastebuds.

CCA’s Victoria is also growing in popularity. I prefer it to Gallo but it doesn’t offer much in the way of choice given that it’s also a pale lager. Same goes for their Cabro and Monte Carlo brands…different label, same marginally tweaked weak fizz.

I’d stick to the Moza every time but that’s very much a minority view in Guatemala. And ales? Forget it.

Beer with a twist: One odd quirk I was introduced to in Guatemala this year – although I believe it comes from neighbouring Mexico – is the Chelada and its spicier cousin the Michelada. The former involves adding lime to your beer and salting the rim of the glass, as you would with a Margarita. The latter is much the same only with a variety of spices, or tabasco, added as well.

They both sound hideous. Which is because they are, although i can imagine the limey Chelada might work on a very hot day. Still, if you’re drinking Brahva or Gallo, any added ingredient short of cyanide might be an improvement.

Rum: NOW we’re talking. You’d expect the world’s best rum to come from Jamaica or perhaps Cuba. Not according to many rum experts, who put Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa at the top of the tree. Or should I say the sugar cane.

Its success is despite the fact that its history is relatively brief. It was first produced in 1976 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the eastern Guatemalan town of the same name. They say its quality is down to being stored at altitude in the volcanic highlands. I sampled the stuff in a little wine and rum shop in Antigua, Guatemala almost directly under the famous arch of Santa Catalina.

When I was last in Guatemala there was no way I could have afforded a glass of Ron Zacapa. Much the same is true now but I felt I had to do my duty for Booze of the World. Altruistic, right?

I sampled both the 6-to-23-year-old Zacapa Centenario and the XO, the premium option at 6-to-25 years old. Both embrace you with their warmth from the first sniff, the vapours filling your lungs and circulating a fuzzy glow around your whole body. While the XO is the super-premium brand, I found it almost too subtle. It was so smooth that it lost something of the sugary mouth-burn I like about rum.

The Centenario was a revelation though. Multi-layered, nutty and caramelly without being sickly, with a long aftertaste. You’ll pay top dollar for this stuff anywhere outside Guatemala but if you like rum, you need this in your drinks cabinet.

NB: If you even THINK about putting ice in this, please reseal the bottle and give it to someone who deserves it. And if the word ‘Coca-Cola’ enters your mind, seek professional help.

Quetzalteca: Every country has at least one traditional drink of the people and this is the main one for Chapins (Guatemalans). Named for the Quetzal, the colourful bird that also gives Guatemala’s currency its name, this is a bit like an eau de vie. There are several flavours but I tried the Rosa de Jamaica. It packs a punch but not the body-shuddering donkey-kick you get with some traditional hooches of the peasantry. Surprisingly drinkable although i’m not one for neat spirits.

Nicaragua

Beer: Guatemala ain’t great for beer but Nicaragua is worse. On the first night I tried the Toña, which tastes like someone spilled a thimbleful of Budweiser in your Evian. That’s being kind. A step up from that is Victoria, a pilsen which has a bit more character but is still (can you sense a pattern emerging in Latin America) a pretty uneventful pale lager.

Still, in the baking heat after a long hike in the mountains, it might as well be Ambrosia. Ever seen the film Ice Cold in Alex (look it up here)? Extreme heat is the only way to make Nicaraguan beer taste good.

Oh, there’s also one called Premium aimed at the higher end of the market although the only thing premium about it is the name. All three are produced by Compania Cervecera de Nicaragua, which is in serious need of some competition.

Rum: Nicaraguans are proud of their Flor de Caña and you can’t blame them. It’s got much more character than your bog-standard high-street rum and there are some premium versions too. I can’t say I gave this one the same consideration as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa but then, once you’ve had Ron Zacapa, everything else pales in comparison.

What else?: It’s usually not worth ordering wine with dinner in Guate or Nicaragua unless you want to drink something dreadful or pay top dollar. Franki and I chose to have a few dry meals rather than shell out the same price we’d pay in London for some dodgy ‘vino tinto’ from the part of Argentina they clearly reserve for ‘countries we don’t mind offending’.

As a footnote, no country with a Caribbean coast is ever without the option of a Cocoloco, a coconut sliced in half with a machete and then sloshed with rum to add to the delicious nectar within.

The verdict

Top tipple: It can only be Ron Zacapa. I prefer the Centenario but if you’re the kind of person who likes the most expensive label, give the XO a whirl. Either way, you’ll be feeling more cosy and warm than a Werther’s Original advert.

Gourmet’s choice: Ditto. In this case the most expensive is also the best.

Bubbling under: I’m a sucker for Guatemala’s Moza. Slips down nicely after a day in the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, climbing a volcano or sweating through the jungle of Tikal.

What to slur drunkenly: Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’dentro (Rough translation: “Glasses up, glasses down, glasses to the centre and down it”, said as you slosh your glass about to the relevant motions. Very touristy but fun.)

Next stop on Booze of the World: Colombia