BOGOTA - Luis Eduardo Lopez, 26, hands over 2,000 pesos in exchange for a warm brown paper bag, which he cradles like gold.
"I've spent years trying to find the best chicharron in the city," he says, as he reveals crouton-sized nuggets of deep-fried pork belly.
The vendor, who sells her chicharron to hungry shoppers in the Lago neighborhood, hovers over a pot of oil full of slowly rendering slabs of pork belly, yellow plantains, and white corn arepas (the ubiquitous corn patties of which one can find more than a half dozen varieties on this block alone).
The belly emerges golden-brown with a thin, crisp, and salty shell surrounding a meltingly soft center that coats the tongue in a wash of pork flavor. It makes bacon seem positively bland by comparison.
After his mid-Saturday morning pork-belly snack, Luis Eduardo joins his father, Alvaro, 56, a computer scientist by week and adventurous foodie by weekend, and the rest of the Lopez family - mother Marta Lucia, 52, and sisters Adriana, 22, and Ana Maria, 27 - to eat their way up and down the narrow road that leads from eastern Bogota to La Calera, a small town in the mountains just outside Bogota known for its dangerous roads, outdoor food stalls, and spectacular sprawling views of the 600-square-mile city below.
Alvaro downshifts his Jeep at 8,700 feet to muscle up a steep bank, narrowly avoiding a biker. Like many of the other weekend travelers, his first stop is only halfway up, where great clouds of smoke billow out from under a corrugated tin roof. The smell of charred pork fat lingers in the thin mountain air. Aurora Ayala, 40, owner of the popular piqueteadero El Chorote, greets Alvaro with a warm smile as she manages the buzzing crowd while rattling off an order to her brother Luis, who's busy slicing chunchullo: crispy grilled cow's intestine.
Alvaro first met Aurora in 1988 when she was just starting her cooking career at La Mazorca, one of the many jury-rigged tents that dotted the roadside serving nothing but the large-kernelled Andean corn charred over coal fires and slathered with fresh butter and salt. "I was her first customer back when all she had was a primitive grill," he recalls.
Today her bricks-and-mortar kitchen is fully staffed by seven family members who serve up hubcap-size plates full of garlicky chorizo, pork blood and rice-filled morcilla, papas criollas (creamy yellow potatoes native to the Andes), and arepas de chocolo, made with a sweet-corn batter fried to a deep golden brown on a cast-iron griddle. While in America, this casual meal might be picked up in a drive-through window, here, even the most casual meal is taken sitting down - El Chorote offers overturned tree stumps, where Alvaro's family lingers over a plastic bowl of refajo, a mixture of the crisp local lager and fruit-flavored Colombiana soda.
Meat forms one of the three pillars of the Colombian diet (the other two are corn and potatoes) and their next stop, another 500 feet higher, is unapologetically carnivore-friendly. Humo Y Sabor is an open-air food stall that specializes in llanera - meat slowly cooked on vertical spits over wooden fires. "They've renovated," says Adriana, referring to the glass windscreen recently installed to protect the small array of spits driven into the ground. Today's selection includes ternera (smoky veal shoulder) and chiguirro, a giant guinea pig native to the Colombian savannah that has a sweet, pork-like flavor with a slight gaminess balanced by a bowl of cilantro-packed aji, the Colombian version of salsa that's served with nearly every meal.
The final stop in the Lopezes' morning-long mobile fiesta is at the town of La Calera itself, where Adriana breaks a thick yellow-corn arepa in half, its queso fresco filling stretching like pizza cheese and scenting the air with its characteristic sour milk flavor. They eat slowly, relax in the chilly mountain air, and digest their morning endeavors: There's still the drive down to prepare for.