A drawback of living in Buenos Aires is that it’s geographically far from pretty much everywhere else. Fortunately, people from ‘everywhere else’ are right here in Buenos Aires, transforming the city into an international hub for the cultures of Latin America and beyond. And with approximately sixteen thousand Colombians studying and working right here in Capital, if you want to get to know Colombian culture, you got it. Here are ten ways to check out the sounds, moves, and tastes of Colombia – until you can save up the pesos to travel there.
THE SOUNDS OF COLOMBIA
Caracoli: Hear & Learn Gaita Music from the Caribbean Coast
Caracoli brings us Colombian gaita music, a 300-year-old tradition from the country’s Caribbean coast. The gaita style is transcultural, with representation from the three major currents that have melded into what Colombia is today. “It has an indigenous component — which is the gaitas (a pair of long flutes made of cactus) and the maraca, an Afro component – which is the tambores (drums), and a Spanish component – which is in the musical format, the language, and the circular dance,” explains the group’s gaitero and gaita instructor Jonathan Corzo, from Bogotá.
The original members of Caracoli met in 2013, as they travelled overland from Colombia to study in Buenos Aires. Today, they are a nine-member ensemble under the direction of Javier López, found performing every week or two at rotating venues around Palermo (El Quetzal), Almagro (Ladron Sancho, Mamerta), Once (JJ), and Independencia (Teatro Mandril).
Three of the members also give private classes in individual instruments, a blend of skill-learning, philosophy, and storytelling. Gaita music has a symbolic language of its own that has duality at its core: Each song is a balance between the voices of instrument pairs that represent the macho (male) and hembra (female), between tension and repose, between yin and yang. Many of the pieces are named after animals or landscapes that are evoked by the progression of each song. “Are you tired? It’s because of your breathing. The problem of modern man is that he has forgotten how to breathe,” Corzo tells a student after a particularly lively, high-pitched sequence. “Get that note out, it’s an animal — it’s really an animal!”
Reach out via their Facebook page to get on the teachers’ schedule for classes.
Loco Tambor: Learn Currulao Music from the Pacific Coast
On the Pacific coast of Colombia, the sound and the instruments change and you get the totally distinct musical style currulao. There are four instruments: the bongo and cununos drums, the guasa shaker, and the marimba de chonta (a type of xylophone). The music itself is “a product of the meztizaje of the African roots,” describes Gregorio Quiros, who runs music school Loco Tambor (Centenario). “It has an enormous spiritual charge, and it’s very ancestral.”
Classes are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in a group format. “I try to reproduce the traditional methods of teaching, teaching all the instruments at once,” Quiros describes. Participants of all levels rotate to learn to play all of the instruments that make up the ensemble. “It’s like the traditional context, with the grandfather who knows a lot, and the father who also knows a lot, and the ten-year-old boy who is just learning.”
From Buenos Aires himself, Quiros began to explore this musical style in depth when he travelled to Colombia on a research fellowship to study the similarities between currulao and the chacarera and malambo of Argentina. His first album, Currulao al Sur, was recorded in Colombia with musicians of the Pacific interpreting the Argentine folk tunes.
THE MOVES OF COLOMBIA
Latin Rumba: Dance Salsa Like in Cali
We know that Colombia and salsa are practically synonyms, but where’s the best salsa in Colombia? Cali. “In Cali, you have salsa for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” says Jaime González, director of dance school Latin Rumba. There, you can learn to dance salsa caleña, a style that’s distinct from what you find in most classes throughout the city (which typically teach the Los Angeles or New York styles).
Cali’s flavor of salsa is characterized by “the speed of the legs, agility, and strength,” González describes. You watch it and you see a lot more footwork, a lot more speed, and a lot more ornamentation with the legs than your typical salsa. Classes are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, open to all levels. Once you’ve gotten down the steps and the hips, Latin Rumba also runs a dance group that exhibits at Colombian events and will be competing in the preselection round of the World Latin Dance Cup this year.
Colombia Tierra Viva: Regional Folk Dances
Dancing through the festivals of Buenos Aires is Colombia Tierra Viva, a folk group whose lively choreography represents three different regions of Colombia: the Andes, the Pacific, and the Caribbean. Through their dances, performed in regional costume, the group conveys an animated story about each region’s festivities and attitudes.
The varied influences on Colombia’s folklore – from the Spanish, from the indigenous cultures, and from the African slaves – come through, as do the local economies and the shared propensity to celebrate. Whether the party is around the day’s fish catch (on the coast) or the collection of coffee berries (in the country’s interior), there’s always a party… and there’s always flirting. “In the Andes region… the courtship between the man and the woman is very timid. The attire is long skirts, blouses with lace, colorful ribbons,” one of the dancers narrates. “But in the coffee region the weather lends itself to not having so much clothing on top! There’s also courtship, and this time it’s around the celebration of the coffee harvest.”
All this is portrayed in the performances of Colombia Tierra Viva, which has member representation from Colombia and Argentina as well as Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, Chile, and Brazil. “Many things unite us: immigrating, missing the homeland, and expressing all that nostalgia with art,” one member tells us. Another shares, “It’s an honor, as a Latin American, to share in the roots and culture of another Latin American country.”
Directors Luz Ramírez and Sergio Andrés Vargas Arango hold an open call for new members every March. Once the season kicks off, the group exhibits at numerous events every year, with especially big shows at Buenos Aires Celebra Colombia in July and the Day of the Immigrant in September.
THE TASTES OF COLOMBIA
Los Recuerdos: Eat Like You’re in Colombia
Just about as traditional as you can get, Los Recuerdos (Uruguay 943) is the place in BA that is most evocative of Colombia with both its flavors and its ambiance. It’s also a delicious starting point for a broad sampling of the cuisine, with a solid version of just about each classic Colombian dish.
The menu goes like this: First, the star appetizer is the Colombian empanada. Nothing like its Argentine cousin, it’s made of fried yellow corn flour and stuffed with chicken or beef with potato. Next up are the arepas, the flat, round corn cakes with a savory filling. Then you have the patacón pisao (literally: “plantain that has been stepped on”), a giant pancake of mashed green plantain with a topping of your choice.
And you need to experience the heartiness that is a large bowl of Colombian soup: Ajiaco is a Bogota original traditionally made with three kinds of potatoes, while sancocho is beef or chicken cooked in a flavorful broth with yucca, plantain, corn on the husk, and of course, potatoes. Colombians also have their variation of mondongo, which comes with a banana on the side so that you can slice it into the soup, like into a bowl of cereal. (Do it.)
The most exciting page on the menu at Los Recuerdos is the “Mountain Dishes.” Here’s where you find liver, tongue, and the famous bandeja paisa: a glorious plate of seasoned beans, rice, ground beef, pork rinds, chorizo, fried egg, green fried plantain, avocado, and a mini arepa to boot.
If you haven’t realized it by now, you’ll need to come back many times to try it all. Luckily, Los Recuerdos opens early and doesn’t close in the afternoon – go for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or an afternoon snack with a glass of tropical fresh juice.
Rapidos y Jugosos: So Many Tropical Smoothies
At most BA restaurants, there are at most three kinds of smoothies on the menu… but not at Rapidos y Jugosos. This little Colombian takeaway spot serves up more than 20 tropical juices and smoothies, including better-known crowd-pleasers like maracuya (passion fruit) and more adventurous tastes like guanabana (soursop) and lulo.
After the success of their first location, which opened up three years ago at Malabia 1211, the Bogotano owners decided to expand to Plaza Armenia (Costa Rica 4737) and Abasto (Boulogne Sur Mer 470), where they found a market among the Peruvian and Dominican neighbors. The folks from these countries, like the Colombians, also missed the tropical fruits from back home. “On one hand it’s good business,” a server tells us. “On the other hand it’s something chevere.”
When you order a juice or smoothie here, pick one or two fruits and choose whether you want it made with water or milk. While the Colombians will have a pretty strict formula for this (usually, the acidic fruits are combined with water), the Dominican customers almost always choose milk for their smoothies. Feel free to follow your own tastebuds.
iLatina: Upscale Closed Door Experience
Intimate and elegant, iLatina (Villa Crespo) is a celebrated member of Buenos Aires’ unique closed door restaurant scene. In its beautiful space, Chef Santiago Macías and his siblings, from Bogotá, present diners with a culinary propuesta that goes beyond the borders of their native Colombia. “We are trying to show: What is Latin America? What are the things that we share amongst us, and what are the things that make us different?” The gorgeously orchestrated nine-course experience that is iLatina is an exploration of these questions.
“For example,” Macías relates, “maize is an ingredient that is the spinal column of Latin America, but everyone does something different with it. This is because the techniques that are used to cook maize have to do with the materials that people have on hand.” The different ways of preparing food with this central ingredient arise from Latin America’s diversity of natural environments and ways of life, whether in the rainforest, in the mountains, near rivers, or on the coast. iLatina’s classic first paso, “Oda al Maíz,” plays with the ways peoples and cultures have adapted the staple.
And the menu changes every few months. The team travels several times a year to discover and rediscover Latin American food. After visiting markets up and down the continent and bringing back fresh ideas, the they begin to experiment. “First we construct the concept for a new course, and then we begin to work on it,” Macías says. This is exactly how seeing stands selling fresh mango sprinkled with ají in Mexico led the team to develop a dessert for the current menu: an egg-shaped scoop of mango sorbet sitting on a disk of merengue, paired with chamoy fruit and spiked with tequila, lime, and spice. Each course is a fusion of tastes, textures, and visual arrangements that tell us an intriguing story about the Latin American identity.
Baru: Carribean Resto Lounge
Neighborhood newcomer Baru (Cabrera 4602), named after an island off Cartagena, popped up in Palermo Soho in February, wowing diners and bar-goers with its artsy-industrial-tropical vibe and its flavors of the Caribbean. Brother and sister owner duo Greicy and Edgardo Stevenson hail from Barranquilla, but they’ve decided to mix Colombian and Venezuelan concepts on their inventive menu for a broader taste of coastal cuisine. And you know it has to be good, because their mother is also a part of it.
Open Thursday to Sunday, Baru serves creative twists on traditional, filling almuerzos and small plates by night, when the place turns into a funky lounge. Visitors enjoy the food alongside original cocktails with flavors like guava and tamarind – or with one of the many rums and whiskies on offer – while relaxing to a playlist of salsa and alternative tropical tunes.
Though Baru is the Stevensons’ first restaurant, there are some big names involved. The cocktail menu was created by world-class barman Matias Granatra, and the murals that decorate it are by street artist Falopapas. The owners are excited about how the project is evolving. “Some of our friends still haven’t been here because I used to tell them, ‘Wait, don’t come yet, we’re going to add some decorations,’ or ‘we’re going to add a new dish to the menu,’” Greicy Stevenson recalls. “But I don’t do that anymore, because we’ve realized that there’s always going to be something new.”
Colombian Film Festival: On Screen and Free
Bringing Colombia to life on the movie screen, the first Festival de Cine Colombiano is taking over part of Centro Cultural San Martin for the week of July 2-8. After two smaller Ciclos de Cine Colombiano in 2017, the full-fledged 2018 festival will be a prodigious exhibition of a range of genres of Colombian film. Through them, viewers can start to get to know the country’s diversity and cultural idiosyncrasy. Bonus: the movies are free.
Buenos Aires Celebra Colombia: Cultural Immersion
Also in July, head down to microcentro for a colorful and delicious Colombian festival, which takes place every year as part of the city’s Buenos Aires Celebra series. An opportunity to get a true feel for Colombia in Buenos Aires with food, music, performances, artisan crafts, and more food, the festival always draws a large crowd. Keep an eye on the city’s web page for exact dates.