One of the things I love most about traveling far and wide is the food. Finger-licking street food, exotic fruits and veggies, delicious local specialties, fresh drinks, hole-in-the-wall joints – everywhere I go there is something new and exciting to introduce my tastebuds to. More often than not, in fact, I plan my day (and even trips!) around where and what I want to eat.
Since I love food so much, I try to delve deep in the local food scene at least once during trip (usually many times more). In the past this has included a cooking class in Laos, pinxto tasting in Spain, street food sampling in Oaxaca, a farm-to-table dinner in England, buying fresh cheese from a remote dairy in France, etc… you get the point. I like local foods and local food culture.
These past few days in Colombia have been no different – I’ve sampled the traditional Colombian stew – ajiaco – piled high with toppings, I’ve eaten buttery and cheesy arepas from street vendors, I’ve gulped down freshly made guarapo (sugarcane and lime), and I’ve eaten the best churro I’ve ever had in my life – it was perfectly deep fried, lightly coated with sugar, and filled with a delicious sweet custardy caramel!
But in addition to sampling local foods, I wanted to do something a bit more educational so I signed up for an Exotic Fruit tour at the Minorista Market, a huge food market in downtown Medellin that sells everything from bananas to corn off the cob to fresh queso.
Now I’m not one to usually do tours, my style of travel is typically to do some research on the places I’m interested in visiting then strike out on my own to explore and hopefully not get lost. But the more I travel, the more I’ve come to enjoy small, well-crafted, off-the-beaten-path tours. I’ve learned that I actually miss quite a bit when I don’t have a local to show me around.
Before the tour started, though, I had one obstacle to overcome – figuring out how to ride the metro system. Public transportation is always a bit intimidating for me (and I’m sure many other people) when I’m in a new country because there are so many different ways things could go wrong: get on the wrong bus, head in the opposite direction, miss a stop, get pickpocketed, etc… but I’ve found that once you jump in and start working out the system, it’s really not that hard at all. The Metro in Medellin is actually one of the easiest, cleanest, and safest transit systems I’ve ever taken, including the US!
Quick side story – the people of Medellin are incredibly proud (not in a bad way) people because of the violent, terrible history they’ve endured during Pablo Escobar’s reign and the FARC. Since Escobar’s death and the FARC’s downfall, though, the city has undergone a major renaissance and it’s quite miraculous how efficient, clean, progressive, and community-orientated the city is. The metro was one of their major city improvements in the early 2000’s and they’re extremely proud of it. There are two lines of Metro trains that run above the city, two Metroplus bus lines that have their on lanes on the roads, and five cable cars (or gondolas) that whisk people away up the sides of the valley’s mountainous walls. It’s quite the system and it works to a T. Since it’s the pride of the city, it’s also quite safe and very clean.
So once I found my way to the entrance of the Minorista Market (45 minutes early because I wasn’t sure how the metro would go), I met three other gringos who were on the tour and Diana, our Colombian tour guide who would take us through the market.
We entered through a side entrance and were immediately met with a slew of different smells, colors, textures, and sounds. There were stalls displaying just fruits, stalls piled high with eggs, stalls with men slicing corn kernels off the cob, stalls with women cooking arepas over hot coals, and stalls jam-packed with traditional medicines and potions. Colombians are very superstitious and have remedies for everything from love elixirs to garnering luck for gambling. Later, we came across the stalls selling blocks of fresh cheese, stalls displaying fresh and dried meats, and stalls showcasing all sorts of different seafood.
Our focus for the day, though, were the fresh fruits. In all, we tasted about 15 different Colombian-grown fruits. Some of them I’ve had before, like guava and passion fruit, and others I had never even set eyes on before, like the west Indian locust and Spanish limes. All were tasty, but admittedly some better than others. I wasn’t a fan of the peach palm until we covered it with salt and honey, then it was delicious, and I could take or leave the tomato de arbol. The west Indian locust was a trip too. The outer pod is incredibly hard and typically cracked open by a very special too – a hammer. Inside, the fruit is light brown color and resembles freeze dried ice cream. Seriously. It’s chalky and powdery, but the taste is actually quite good – nothing like anything I’ve every tasted before. After ruminating on it a bit, I gave it the thumbs up!
My favorites out of all the fruits, though, were the Spanish limes, known as mamonchillos, and dragon fruit, which I think are a lot of people’s favorites. Mamonchillos reminded me of lychees – they’re small and round and have a huge pit in the middle surrounded by a fleshy sweet/sour fruit. You suck on them and slowly peel the fruit off with your teeth. Diana told us that parents give their kids mamonchillos when they’re making too much noise.
After about 2 1/2 hours in the market we had made our way through 15 different fruits, 1 arepa, and 1 glass of freshly made juice. I was more than full and slightly queasy from all the different things churning around in my stomach, but I was definitely glad I had signed up for the tour. It had answered my questions about what many of the fruits were that I had been eyeing throughout this trip and throughout many of my previous trips to other tropical places around the world. Now I won’t be relying solely on mangos and bananas when I visit the local markets 🙂