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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia

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Cuisine Spotlight – Arepa

You can’t come to South America, especially Colombia, Venezuela, and even Panama without trying the local cuisine staple of the Arepa. The Arepa may be the most popular food to try and there is a lot of variety to this food, which makes it quite popular to eat. In countries such as Colombia or Venezuela, Arepas are eaten on a daily basis and are usually served with breakfast but they can also be served with lunch or dinner depending on the consumer’s preferences. Arepas can also be found in other countries such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, etc. where they are less popular but still part of the local cuisine.

When compared to other Latin America staple foods, the Arepa is most similar to the Mexican gordita and the Salvadoran pupusa. What would surprise most people to learn about the Arepa is that an indigenous group of people known as the Timoto-Cuica created this food to feed the two separate tribes of the Timoto and the Cuica on a daily basis. This indigenous group was based out of the Andean region of western Venezuela and was made up of thousands of people total who were apart of those two tribes.

There are many different types of Arepas and you can mix and match with different ingredients depending upon your own preferences. Usually though, the Arepa is most often made up of ground maize dough or cooked flour to form the basis of this food. Sometimes, you can also substitute flour for yellow cornmeal that is popular in the Santander region of Colombia in the north of the country. In terms of appearance, an Arepa will be flat, round, and unleavened although sometimes they can be served as leavened especially when they are made in the street stalls late at night.

One of the great things about Arepas is there are many different ways in which you can cook them. An Arepa can be baked, grilled, steamed, fried, or boiled. The color, size, thickness, and appearance of an Arepa can vary from country to country or from one region to another. Perhaps, most importantly, you can add any kind of ingredients to fill out your arepa as a delicious sandwich or a platter.

The options are nearly limitless in that you can put on or within your Arepa such as foods like eggs, meat, fruits, vegetables, cheese, fish, shrimp, salad, etc. You can also simply eat it without any additional ingredients too if you just want to have a simple arepa for breakfast. However, if it’s late at night and you have had a few adult beverages to drink earlier, you may want to have an arepa sandwich with a lot of toppings to fill you up.

In order to make Arepas yourself, you need to have a good amount of water and salt to mix with your flour along with some additional ingredients like cooking oil, butter, eggs, and milk. Then, you’ll need to form the dough and shape it so it fits into the form of an Arepa and afterwards you can put it on the grill or stove to start cooking. Arepas can only take a couple of minutes to prepare and cook so it’s one of those foods that you can make in great quantities without too much effort or skill. Still though, that is part of what makes the Arepa such a daily staple of the cuisine is that it is simple yet delicious and there is a lot of variety to it if you are able to put in some extra effort.

When it comes to Colombia, it is probably the most popular food in the country and you can find it in practically every region of the country. In addition, there are dozens of variations on the Arepa depending on where in the country you find yourself. Despite the differences between Medellin and Cartagena, Bogota and Bucaramanga, each of these cities prides itself on their Arepas and would like to claim that they have the best Arepas in Colombia. In the past, the Arepa has become a cultural symbol of Colombia and is sometimes served with every meal of the day regardless of the circumstances, which is often the case particularly in the Antioquia region of the country.

You can find Arepas in many different places whether it’s been pre-packaged at the grocery store or if it’s being freshly prepared by hand late at night at the local street stall in your neighborhood. Wherever you visit in Colombia, you’re likely to be only a stone’s throw away from the nearest restaurant or cafeteria that will be able to serve you a delicious Arepa.

The Arepa has become so popular in Colombia that there is an annual festival devoted to this cuisine staple called the ‘Colombian Arepa Festival’, which is celebrated in the major cities of Bogota, Barranquilla, Medellin, Cali, and Bucaramanga. The festival in each of these five cities usually takes place sometime in between the months of August to December. If you haven’t figured it out already, the Arepa has a long-standing region in South America especially in Colombia. If you can’t stop your mouth from watering, you may want to buy a plane ticket and try this food out for yourself. Be careful though because if you eat them everyday, you may end up gaining some extra weight.

Cultural Spotlight – Tejo

Most visitors and newcomers who arrive in Colombia may be surprised to find out that the national sport of the country is not ‘football’ as most people would guess given how popular the sport is around the country and due to the high quality of the national team shown in international competitions such as the FIFA World Cup. While Colombians may have the most passion for ‘the beautiful game’ of football, the national sport of Colombia is actually the game of ‘Tejo.’ This was actually an official decree made by the Congress of the Republic of Colombia back in 2000. While not as massively popular as football, Tejo is considered the second most widely played sport in the country and actually fields both teams and competitions in different cities.

Tejo is the oldest sport in Colombia and dates back over five hundred years and is said to have originated with the Musica indigenous tribe who speak the Chibcha language and were based in the northwestern part of Modern-day Colombia. Luckily, the game of Tejo hasn’t changed much since the Musica indigenous people first introduced it in the early 1500’s. However, it’s likely that they used a golden disc known as the ‘Zepguagoscua’, and the game of Tejo was known as ‘Turmeque’ back then and was played mainly by the indigenous peoples located in the modern regions of Cundinamarca and Boyacá.

The Spaniards who came to Colombia are known to have used wooden disks when they played the game and focused more on the accuracy of their throws than the distance of the throws, the latter which is more of a factor when playing the modern game today. From gold disks to wooden disks to stone disks to now using iron metal discs for playing, the game has evolved mainly in what material you’re using in order to get the furthest yet most accurate throws.

The main objective of Tejo hasn’t changed that much though in that you’re going to want to take the iron metal disc in your hand and underhand toss it about 15-20 meters so that you’ll hit the metal ring known as the ‘bocin’ as well as the ‘mechas’, which are triangular paper packets that are filled with gunpowder. You get the most points for hitting the bocin in the middle of the clay landing field but you can also receive from three to twelve points from hitting the different mechas and causing some loud explosions that are likely to earn you both some cheers and high fives.

While players should focus on the metal ring, you’ll also want to focus on hitting as many mechas as you can when you step up to throw the iron disk. When you hit the gunpowder packets, there is a loud bang like an actual gunshot and you may even see some white smoke emerge from the exploded triangular packets. Tejo is a pretty simple game to learn and only takes a couple of tries for you to get the hang of it. The iron disk only weights about two kilograms or so and if you get a good arch on the underhand throw, you’re likely to hit the clay field or even the mechas, bocin if you’re lucky. Tejo is a mix of skill and luck in my opinion but it’s quite exciting to play especially when you make some of those gunpowder packets explode for everybody to hear.

Both men and women are welcome to play Tejo and the only difference is that guys use the two kilogram iron disc and the ladies can choose to use a smaller, one kilogram iron disc if they would like to as well as being able to do the underhand throw from about fifteen meters away, which is a bit shorter than the regular distance of twenty meters or so. These rules aren’t mandatory for women so it is up to the individual lady what kind of distance or disc that she intends to use for Tejo.

Tejo is also a team game so you can play with up to five other people on the same time to face another team with the same amount of people. You’re often rooting each other on to hit the bocin or mechas in order to reach a certain amount of total points in order to win the match. There are numerous amounts of teams and competitions that are held all across Colombia and even in the neighboring countries of Venezuela, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, etc. Prize money is often involved in these competitions so certain Tejo players take this game very seriously if you’re playing for more than just bragging rights.

Tejo has become quite a popular sport with tourists and foreigners who come to Colombia and you can include me amongst those people. One of the aspects that Tejo that first time players find to be interesting is the ability to drink alcohol such as beer, rum, or aguardiente during a game. While this next statement can be disputed, it’s possible that you will get better throwing the Tejo at the clay field the more you drink although it depends on the individual player. It’s important to note that you can play Tejo completely stone cold sober and you would still have a lot of fun. Tejo is overall a social sport that should be enjoyed either amongst friends or between close-knit teams.

Unfortunately, it took me about ten months of living here in Colombia to finally play the sport of Tejo but it’s easy to say that I’m glad I finally did. While I wouldn’t play it competitively, it’s a sport that is a lot of fun and a great way to meet new people or locals in your city. The combination of throwing metal discs at gunpowder triangles while drinking a cold beer is a good one overall. Tejo has been apart of Colombian culture going back to over five centuries ago and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.