Sweet Rewards: Pedaling to Panela

March 13, 2015

Ask anyone who knows me well, and they'd tell you I have a sweet tooth ... Well, a whole mouth full of sweet teeth. Pedaling a bicycle long distances has allowed me to consume way more sugar than I should have, without it showing to a great degree on my person, so far.

Kat and I spent most of our time in Colombia on the back mountain roads of the Andes. It was slow, hard going, and our calorie-to-mile ratio was as high as it will ever be. There are moments in an arduous bike tour when you wonder if it is possible to pack enough calories in your panniers.

We were having one of those days, when we rounded a switch-backed, dirt road corner and found ourselves at a trapiche (a panela factory). Panela is a sweet treat in one of its purest forms. It is the unrefined result of cooking down pure squeezed sugar cane juice.

If you have ever been around a sugar cane harvest, you know it is a messy, sticky business. First, large bundles of sugar cane are fed through gas powered masticating presses.

Furnaces heat up the juice to a boiling point and at least half of the liquid is burned off. The juice goes from clear to brown. It is then transferred to large troughs for the cooling process. The thick, scalding hot mixture is cooled with the help workers who aerate it by stirring and lifting it into the air with large paddles.

It is then placed into wooden molds that resemble large muffin tins, for further cooling. Before they fully harden, the golden brown discs are stamped with the companies mark. 

It was amazing to watch this whole process, but depressing at the same time. Because a sign in bold letters states that "this was a production facility only, and NO panela will be sold to the public".

But if you are fortunate, as we were, a couple of young boys will be given permission to bring a few luscious discs of panela out back and gift them to the traveling cyclists.

The taste is earthy, sweet, a bit like molasses, but truly unique. From that day on, we always searched out panela in local stores. It packs easily. It doesn't spoil. And it is loaded with sweet calories. Enough to power you over the Andes and beyond.

Photos by Willie Weir

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS is posted every other Friday. Willie Weir is a columnist for Adventure Cyclist magazine. His books, Travels with Willie and Spokesongs, will inspire you to hit the road, and might change the way you approach bicycle travel. He lives in Seattle with his wife Kat. You can read about their adventures at http://yellowtentadventures.com.


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