When we pulled into the parking lot, the place was already swarming. It was a Sunday, and it seemed as if half the city had flocked to the northern outskirts to eat themselves into a gut-busting stupor. We wound through the open-air building, packed with rickety wooden tables and plastic chairs, all full of families grabbing food off large silver trays piled with glistening cuts of meat and puffed up whorls of chicharrón, potatoes and flat white mounds of yuca. A happy clamor drifted across the simple concrete floor and low walls, mingling with the smoky scent of barbequing beef.
Once we’d snagged a table nestled in the very back of the long hall, we divided – half our group to hold our spot, the other to order food and wrestle the trays through the crowd. The wait seemed everlasting. It was already edging past 3 p.m., and my stomach was growling, the morning’s arepa and scrambled eggs feeling frighteningly distant. I worried the salt shaker between my fingers, wondering if a few grains might sharpen or dull the pangs, when David’s dad swooped to the table bearing a basket of grilled corn on the cob, thick yellow pearls scrubbed with black char, butter, and salt. Mazorca. The kernels were sweet and slightly powdery, almost popcorn-like. He also set down a pitcher of refajo, a mix of pale Aguila beer with sweet Colombiana soda, and we poured a round into our small plastic cups.
And then, like an answered prayer, the food was there. Soup, slightly thickened and a little bitter with herbs, with tender strands of chicken and a few vegetables – just enough to whet your appetite for the giant tray heaped with fist-sized cuts of beef, charred from an open flame and dripping with juices. There were tiny scrubbed and buttered potatoes, the biggest plantains I’d ever seen roasted in sugary syrup until silky, and fat links of blood sausage stuffed with rice. And then there were the arepas, soft with sourish, stringy cheese – a teasing contrast to the corn sweet as dessert mixed in with the dough. Dragged through the last oily juices left on the tray, they were beguilingly good.
When we had eaten every last bite, we heaved a collective sigh, our bellies full to burst. The breeze had picked up, tousling a line of brightly colored squares of cloth, and the sky was dimming as the sun dipped behind the stark mountain range that encircles Bogotá. In the car, my eyelids slipped shut, and the lurch of traffic was like a rocking cradle, a gentle lullaby soothing me to sleep.
In Villa de Leyva, the streets were lined with restaurants advertising fixed price lunch plates, but we were feeling cramped and sweaty from the bus ride, and ducked into the first place that looked promising. Through a low doorway and down a short set of red stone steps was a squat walkway lined on either side with round straw huts that housed one wooden table each and two benches. At the back, a group of locals sat drinking at tables covered with red-checkered plastic tablecloths as the cook languidly worked an open kitchen.
We sat in one of the little huts, and a waitress soon came came to take our orders. For the equivalent of less than three euros, we could choose from one of two lunch plates – fried fish or roasted bone-in ribs. David ordered one, I ordered the other.
She set down two glasses of fresh juice – guava whisked to a fine froth with cold water – and plates of sweet, sliced papaya. I had forgotten how good fruit in Colombia is. Fruit that tastes like real fruit, that makes German fruit taste like wet cardboard. The papaya was sliced thick, still glistening from where the knife had peeled away its skin.
It had been raining all morning, but now the clouds were parting overhead and it felt as if the damp were lifting. The wind was still brisk, but inside the small huts, there was shelter from it and from any last stray sprays.
Close on the heels of the last click of fork on plate, the waitress reappeared with our meals. For me, a small fried mojarra, still clenching its jaws in a fishy frown, the tail fin crisp as a potato chip, nestled against pillowy rice, a slice of fried plantain, a vinegary salad with avocado, and stewed peas with what might have been nopales. Neither of us could quite tell. David’s plate was much the same, but in place of the fish were two knuckles of beef stuck with thick bone.
It was a simple lunch, but filling – straightforward food prepared well and eaten with gusto. A stray dog nipped up to our table, glancing at us with big, hungry eyes, but by then all that remained on our plates were bones sucked clean. When we got up to go, there was a weak sun tickling through the gray and the uneven, cobbled streets of Villa de Leyva beckoned.