It was seven blocks.
I was in Leticia, Colombia for four days before I realized it was only a 10-minute, sweltering walk across the border to Tabatinga, Brasil. So, lunch time rolled around on my final day and we walked from rural, Amazonian Colombia to an authentic Brazilian steakhouse for lunch.
As quickly as it takes to step over the faded white paint job of the “border,” the entire culture changes. All of a sudden the language was different, the cost of living rose, and the cuisine got heartier. There’s no border control (don’t expect a passport stamp) so I almost wondered if we were actually in Brazil. The unending currency exchange kiosks were the ultimate giveaway.
(ADVICE: Do not convert currency. I recommend not converting currency anywhere in the world. Expect a future post on this.) While vendors may charge slightly more to make up for the exchange rate, they did accept Colombian pesos. At the end of the day, they want your money no matter how you give it to them.
I think you can say you have visited Brazil if you do two things: eat at a steakhouse and get authentic pão de quiejo. The first bakery we came across, I spent all my remaining cash on these amazing cheese balls to enjoy on the plane that afternoon, as well. These rolls are slightly firm on the outside, but soft and doughy on the inside with a mild cheesy consistency. Absolute heaven. Trying to recreate these rolls back home is terribly hard and never quite the same. Eat them hot because they go bad pretty quickly.
The steakhouse we stopped at, Bella Epoca, had just opened for the day and was pulling slabs of beef out of their outdoor fireplace. The man checking on the meat saw us walk in and pure joy washed over his face. I have seen this same expression many times abroad and knew it immediately. Indian men were so proud to show me their skinned goats. Israeli men were so eager to talk with me about the sheep they were going to slaughter for the holiday. It’s like an American dad barbecuing at the grill in his “kiss the cook” apron . There is something primal in men worldwide that in some fashion says “I hunted, gathered, and prepared this food- I must be praised for my efforts.”
Even though I find this comical after so many occasions, I can’t say I have ever been disappointed in their efforts. As a wise doctor once told me, “it ain’t bragging if it’s true!” The man cut a small slice for me to try, excitedly waiting for my expression, and I was very impressed. It more than lived up to the silent hype he had created. Pink on the inside, not bloody, and perfectly seasoned.
The restaurant operated on a weight system that worked very smoothly. They had a little bar of various Brazilian foods to compliment the meat. We walked our plates up to the register, had them weighed, and when we wanted seconds we got a new plate and repeated the process. I definitely recommend starting with a small amount and then going back, in order to be less wasteful and also decide what you like best. At the end we took all of our little tickets up for our total weight. Between two people who gorged themselves, we spent less than $12 USD.
Another Brazilian treat that was quite popular while I was there was Garato Garotices. Our guide on the Amazon journey had put a box of these in our boat to enjoy over the trip and they were fabulous. It was like someone at Willy Wonka’s factory had plucked a little variety of everything to package in a Cheez-It sized yellow box. There were bon bons, chocolates, peanut butter treats, moon caramelos… While they were phenomenal, we didn’t know they were anything too exotic until we were at the airport terminal to fly back to Bogotá and everyone at the gate had multiple boxes. Either it was the time of year, or strictly a Brazilian thing, but we followed suit and purchased some at the airport to take back. Do as the Romans do, right?
The rest of Tabatinga is a little rough. There is not good port access or river views, and the houses get significantly poorer. A local really wanted to take a photo for us and I’m not naive enough to think it wasn’t because he probably wanted to run away with the camera, or at the very least get a tip. I would say after you have gotten some great food, get out of town.
The cuisine alone has me tempted to go back to Brazil. This was the second time in the last year that I have walked across a border and this time was much easier! This little Colombian-Brazilian junction also comes to a point with Peru, though you have to cross the river to get to it. When you are that close, you might as well check it out.