Cultural Spotlight – Vallenato

For my last blog post regarding Colombian culture for a while, I’d like to focus on a form of dance that is very popular there, especially on the Caribbean coast. Similar to cumbia, vallenato is a form of Colombian folk music that is both traditional and innovative in its’ instrumentation, interpretation. If we were to translate vallenato to English, it would roughly mean, “born in the valley,” which refers to vallenato’s roots coming from the Caribbean region of Colombia.

The valley that is being referenced as having started this popular music is located between Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Serrania de Perija. Vallenato is also partly named after the Colombian city of Valledupar where this genre of music originated. Vallenato has become so popular not just in Colombia but also in rest of Latin America making it apart of mainstream Latin music that is apart of the cultural heritage of that country and that region of the world.

Vallenato originated from the tradition of farmers who would travel from Colombian village to village on long journeys in their quest to sell cattle in local fairs or look for greener pastures for them. During these trips, the farmers would sing together, play guitars and other instruments like gaita flutes (kuisis), which were indigenous to the local culture. Since these farmers would travel often, they would often bring news and information to the different towns that they visited. Sometimes, these messages to the village folk would be delivered in the song form so that the towns would know what’s going on nearby in the valley.

Vallenato is an eclectic mix of different kinds of world music such as Spanish, African, and Amerindian. Vallenato songs started to become common during the early 1900’s from the Caribbean region of Colombia. The early forms of vallenato would come with instruments such as gaita flutes, guacharaca (percussion), caja, bass guitar, and acoustic guitar. Additionally, you could make the sounds more European by adding instruments like the accordion or the piano.

Since the early days of vallenato, the accordion has become an increasingly large part of the sound of the songs of this particular genre of music. While vallenato was originally a genre of music for lower class folk and farmers in particular, it has since become popular across all spectrums and social classes within Colombian society. Many subgenres have come out of traditional vallenato such as romantic vallenato, commercial vallenato, and new wave vallenato.

Since the heart of the vallenato genre deals with telling stories, it is a very social form of music. You can drink liquor, enjoy a nice meal, and even dance with a partner to this genre. Listening to vallenato can go well with having a family party, attending a festival, or checking out a carnival. Vallenato has become so popular that there are two main festivals devoted to it: the Vallenato Legend Festival and the Cradle of Accordions festival. Valledupar has also become one of Colombia’s most famous cities given the fact that it was the birthplace of one of its most popular music genres, Vallenato.

When it comes to vallenato, you cannot have a song without the caja, the guacharaca, and the accordion to flesh out the sound and rhythm. The caja, is a small drum, that you can place between your knees and play with your bare hands. This drum was originally brought over by the Europeans during colonization and was mainly used by African slaves for entertainment.

The guacharaca, a wooden, ribbed stick that most looks like sugar cane can be rubbed together with a small fork in order to create a scraping sound. This instrument is meant to imitate the sound of the guacharaco bird from the Cesar region of Colombia, who is known to hunt for food and dance to perform the mating ritual. Lastly, you can’t forget to use the accordion of German origin in order to get the different tones needed to fill out the vallenato sound. By using the right buttons and hitting the right reeds, you should be able to get the rhythm down.

Speaking of the rhythms of vallenato, there are four different beats that create a rhythmic structure and a melody chord structure to form the basis for a song. The four rhythms are known as son, paseo, merengue, and puya. The son and paseo are played in a 2/4 time while the merengue and puya are played in a 6/8 time or ¾ time structure. ‘Son’ is known as being the slowest and most somber movement of vallenato and also has a heavy cadence. ‘Paseo’ is probably the most widely recorded rhythm of vallenato is known as being the most consistent of the four rhythms.

When it comes to ‘puya’, it’s the easiest rhythm of vallenato for each musician to have a solo with one of the three main instruments. It also has a faster up-tempo and is the oldest of the four rhythms. ‘Merengue’, which is not the same type of music as the original genre, but is the fourth and last vallenato rhythm, and was brought to Colombia by some African tribal groups. It’s a more narrative style of vallenato and is played in decimas, which is a 10-line format with Spanish internal rhythms the came over to Colombia originally during the 16th century.

There have been many composers, singers, and groups of Vallenato bands that have emerged over the past century who have helped to contribute to this genre of music. Perhaps the most famous Colombian composer of Vallenato was Rafael Escalona, who composed a number of famous songs and was one of the co-founders of the Vallenato Legend Festival along with Consuelo Araujo and Alfonso Lopez Michelsen.

Many Vallenato groups have also become orchestras in both their large size and instrumentation. The most popular of these orchestras are Binomio de Oro de America, Carlos Vives y la provincia, and Los Diablitos del Vallenato. You also can’t talk about Vallenato without mentioning Silvestre Dangond, who has become maybe the most famous modern day singer and composer of songs in this genre.

He has become popular not only in his native Colombia but also in Latin America and worldwide. While originally a genre of music from Colombia, Vallenato has expanded its’ popularity to Latin America and the rest of the world to share with its’ listeners both the joys, sadness, and romance of life itself.

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Cuisine Spotlight – Patacones

Patacones are one of my favorite side dishes or entrees that you can find in Latin America. It’s a versatile kind of food that can be a side dish with fish, chicken, or beef but you can also make it a kind of entrée by putting two patacones together with a type of meat or fish inside along with lettuce, tomatoes, and other toppings. This food also makes for a wonderful snack if you want to munch on something between lunch and dinner. Patacones are relatively easy to make and don’t take too much skill because the recipe is pretty simple to follow.

Commonly known as ‘Tostones’, which comes from the verb tostar, “to toast” in Spanish are slices or pieces of plantain that have been fried twice over. While they are known as ‘tostones’ in countries such as Puerto Rico, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, etc. They also have a different nickname of ‘tachinos’ (Cuba), ‘bananas pesees’ (Haiti). However, since I have been living in Colombia for almost a year now, I will refer to this delicious food as ‘Patacones’, which is the common name here and also in countries like Panama, Peru, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. You can find patacones of all shapes and sizes across both Central and South America, and there are many ways to put this food to good use.

When it comes to preparing and cooking patacones, you first have to pick up a few unripe plantains (green in color) from the local food market. After buying the plantains, you’re going to have to peel them and then slice into individual pieces that are circular in appearance. You should make sure that they’re big enough in length and width before you decide to begin frying them.

It’s important to put enough cooking oil in your frying pan, and to heat up the pan sufficiently first before putting the raw slices of plantains in there. For the first time, you’re going to want to fry the plantains for one to two minutes on each side until they start to look cooked enough by showing a golden color. One time isn’t enough to make patacones so you’re going to want to fry these patacones a second time to finish the job. However, before you decide to do that, it’s important to remove the patacones from the frying pan for a few minutes in order to get rid of excess cooking oil.

The patacones should be patted down and flattened before being fried a second time in the pan. For the second frying, the patacones should only be fried for a minute or two on each side before they are finished cooking. After they have been thoroughly fried, you should make sure to pound them flat with some kind of utensil that has a large flat surface like a bowl or a pot cover. By the time you’re done, your patacones should be golden, and crispy brown. It’s pretty common to add extra ingredients like salt, or some seasoning depending on if you want this food to be a bit spicy or not.

Patacones can also be served with garlic sauce (ajo in Spanish) or with hogao sauce as is done here in Colombia. You can make the comparison that Patacones are almost like French fries in that you can have them as a side dish or snack without too much effort. It’s easy to make between six to ten patacones to serve you and your guests. If you’re looking for an appetizer or a snack dish to serve friends and family at a house party, patacones are a great option. Patacones have their origin in West African cuisine, and made their way over to Latin America within the colonial period of Gran Colombia during the eighteenth century.

The best thing about a dish like patacones is how versatile it is. You can put anything on top of it whether its’ shrimp ceviche or avocado paste. It can function as a sandwich if you put two of them together with a kind of meat or fish in between to add additional flavor. They’re easy to cook, prepare, and delicious to eat. Be careful though because it’s likely you won’t be able to stop at just eating one patacone.

Whether it’s in the Caribbean, or in Latin America, or throughout the rest of the world, you’re likely to find patacones being served at a restaurant, or being sold as the original plantains in the supermarket. Personally, I look forward to learn how to cook patacones, and serving them to friends and family in the future. Now that I’ve tasted patacones many times and enjoyed this food, I’d like to make my own and have a taste of Colombia when I’m outside of this lovely country.

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.

Bahia Solano & Nuqui

If you’re visiting Colombia and you are really looking for an off-the-beaten track experience that most tourists who visit the country don’t get to experience, then you may want to consider visiting Bahia Solano and Nuqui.

Before you start to book your trip to these two beautiful and distinct places in Colombia, it’s important to do your research first on how you can get there, what to do when you get there, and how to make the most of this mostly undiscovered part of the Pacific coast. Although Bahia Solano and Nuqui fly under the radar in terms of destinations to visit in Colombia, both of these places are becoming more and more popular as more tourists strive to discover these hidden gems.

Nuqui is both a town and municipality located on the Pacific coast of Colombia and is not a very big place when compared to Cartagena, Santa Marta, or Cali. There are only eight thousand residents of Nuqui in total and is located within the department of Choco specifically. The Choco department is wedged between the Baudo Mountains and the Pacific Ocean making the scenery quite unique and appealing to visitors.

There’s a lot of diversity, both culturally and ethnically to discover in Nuqui, and it’s a great chance for tourists to experience the Pacifico culture in Colombia while meeting the friendly and down-to-earth locals. Similar to Bahia Solano and the rest of the Choco department, the majority of the population there are Afro-Colombians or are the descendants of the various indigenous tribes that still call Colombia home to this day. You’ll get a chance to experience a different regional culture that is very different when compared to other regions such as Antioquia or Santander.

What may draw some tourists specifically to visiting Nuqui is the fact that there is an extremely diverse amount of flora and fauna to see and explore. It’s only a short trip from Nuqui to visit the mangroves of PNN Utria where you also have the option to go snorkeling or relax at the Playa Blanca. The main draw of Nuqui is considered to be the pristine beach of Guachalito that is mostly empty but is filled with mocha-colored sand next to a nearby jungle. Between checking out the marine life, hanging out on the mostly untouched beaches, and wading through the deep jungles, there’s plenty to do when it comes to visiting Nuqui.

There are also numerous other activities that you can do in Nuqui as well. If you want to chill out, you can hang out at some thermal springs and rub some healthy mud all over your body. You can do some ecological hikes just a stone’s throw from the beaches and check out some waterfalls where you can do some swimming to cool off. The most popular waterfall is known as the ‘Terco’ waterfall, which is about a four-hour hike but is worth the effort to get there.

If you happen to visit Nuqui between the months of June to October, you can check out whale watching and get up close to those beautiful mammals. Don’t be afraid to hit up the surf with the massive waves that can be found in Nuqui especially ‘Cabo Corriente’ if you’re up for the challenge at a more advanced level. Lastly, you can also tour the Jovi river especially by canoe if you would like to get some exercise into your trip.

In order to get to Nuqui, it’s possible by flying from the Olaya Herrera airport in Medellin or from Bogota with a stopover in the city of Quibdo. You can also take a boat to Nuqui from the beach of Guachalito, which will take about an hour or so.

Bahia Solano is pretty similar to Nuqui in terms of location as they are both located in the Choco department of Colombia. However, compared to Nuqui, Bahia Solano is considered the tourist capital of the Pacific coast of Colombia due to its’ location and its’ relatively cheap cost of touristic activities. Bahia Solano has the only airport on the Pacific coast or in Choco so you can fly to there first from other cities in Colombia before you travel on to Nuqui or another part of the Choco department.

There’s also a seaport, which will allow you to travel there by boat from other parts of the Pacific Coast if that is what you choose to do. Bahia Solano has a little bit of everything to offer the seasoned traveler or tourist. Between the mangroves, marshes, rivers, beaches, mountains, and scenic coasts, Bahia Solano has a natural biodiversity that is unmatched when compared to other destinations in Colombia. The flora, fauna, and overall biodiversity will draw you in as well as other sport activities such as surfing, fishing, and scuba diving. Bahia Solano is very close to other tourist draws such as the beach town of ‘El Valle’ and the nearby Ensenada de Utria National Park, which is also accessible from Nuqui too.

If you are looking for an organized tour within Bahia Solano, you may want to check out Pacifico tours. It will be a good chance to meet new people and explore the undiscovered Pacific coast with customizable trips that focus on your outdoor activity preferences. You can also partake in surfing and whale watching (June through October) through these tours or on your own.

‘Huina’ is a beautiful, remote beach in Bahia Solano that is popular with the locals and hasn’t been spoiled yet. You can choose a number of hikes to do that last from four to six hours to destinations like the ‘el Tigre’ waterfall from playa Aljemal or to the ‘Boro Boro’ area to explore the jungle part of Choco. If you want to do canoeing in Bahia Solano, you can tour the Rio Tundo to combine exploring the coast with exploring the jungle by passing through this river.

Whatever you decide to choose to do, Nuqui and Bahia Solano have a lot to offer the average tourist or traveler. You are going to be impressed by the natural beauty, warm people, and agreeable climate that you will encounter when you visit this part of the Pacific coast of Colombia. Have a good time and remember to take some pictures and video to remember this unique travel experience.

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Note: For this blog post, while I haven’t been to either of these places yet, I did some thorough research regarding these two destinations as well as talking to other Colombians and friends of mine about these places. They have been highly recommended to me and I hope to visit Bahia Solano and Nuqui in the future.