What takes a Greek from the beauty of Thessaloniki and a beloved football team to the uncharted territory of Colombia?

I know what you’re thinking, a plan. And a desire to take a part of Greece and leave an impression where there is precious little Greek culture in a nation of 52 million people.

Well for one Greek, Giorgos Sitaras, he took off with a friend from Thessaloniki in 2013 during the Greek financial crisis to leave part of their culture in Cartagena. The beautiful seaside Cartagena suddenly had an authentic Greek restaurant. I asked my friend Yeynnifer from Cartegena if she knew about Greek food and Hellenes in her city. She told me she was aware of Griego food however Greek people were almost non exist. I’m the first Griego she ever met.

Five years after taking a gamble to open in Cartagena, Giorgos made another brave move, going to Bogotá to establish a restaurant. After meeting Giorgos, it’s not hard to understand why he named his restaurant, Salonika! Though I probably think he may have considered going for Aris, his favourite football team.

I’m not a Gringo I’m Griego (I’m not white I’m Greek). Photo: Supplied

My friend Alejandra, who is originally from Venezuela, and I decided, to visit Salonica and Giorgos upon the recommendation of another mate, Savvas from Kalymnos.

After over-ordering, or enough to feed what appears to be my impending twins, we had a drink. Watching my Amiga down Tsipouro for the first time was comedy and poetry in motion as she went from mild mannered to headache hang over reaction in a matter of seconds! One of the strongest drinks we ever consumed. I think I’m still trying to finish mine though.

A sign leading to a Greek Orthodox church. Photo: Supplied

For days Alejandra raved about the food. As a vegetarian, her first foray into the delicious culinary delights of the Hellenes, commenced with a spanakopita. She was soon learning Greek words as we munched away. Impressively pronouncing the words, we single handedly “improved” the number of Greek speakers in a few hours of culinary explorations.

There is precious little Greek being taught in Colombia. Giorgos is set to help with classes in the near future, with most Colombian-Greeks not speaking the language fluently, every contribution matters.

A shoe store named Santorini. Photo: Supplied

As we bade the restaurant good night, I was able to meet Giorgos for a Freddo the next day! He explained that he actually has two Greek eateries in Bogotá and is about to open a zaharoplasteio with coffee and sweets. He took me for a sneak peak of the new shop which has a Greek mountain feel to it.

Relaxed, Giorgos plays with a komboloi and says hello to everyone who passes within a km of his business! He learned Spanish in Cartagena and hasn’t looked back, easily blending in with the locals, though the komboloi and evil eye may give away that he is a Griego.

The Greek Orthodox Church. Photo: Supplied

He explained there would be 50 Greeks in Bogotá. Many Greeks and expats make their way to his eateries and he gets to know them.

I asked him how he came to operate hospitality businesses. He explained, “I was a barrista in Thessaloniki and of course I learned recipes from my family, grandparents, friends and my own research, allowing me to create the menus we have.”

Cotsis being proudly Greek in Colombia. Photo: Supplied

To understand his situation in the context of migrating to Columbia, we settled on the following to exemplify his adventures, “Brave but stupid!” It certainly paid off despite missing his football team.

Giorgos isn’t of course alone as a Greek in Columbia. It is estimated there are between 100-200 Greeks overall. Some have had public success such as film director Spiros Stathoulopoulos and Miss Universe 2008 Runner Up, Taliana Vargas, others have opened Greek restaurants. The first Greeks to land in Columbia preceded Giorgos by over a century, with Spyridon Galakatos, an engineer from Kefalonia recognised as one of the first. Smyrna, Crete, Peloponnese, Cyprus being the usual origins. It’s possible that with Greek expertise in shipping and the fact many nations such as Chile and Brasil had Greek arrivals from the early 1800s, other Greeks may have preceded Spyridon.

Greek street food in Colombia. Photo: Supplied

Having met the Greek Ambassador, Eleni Lianidou in Lima, I was also told of a Greek church which exists about 15 minutes from Saloniki. On the Ambassador’s advice, I visited the serene Iglesia Orthodox Griego and was glad to see it functioning. It generates more non-Greek attendees than Greeks and has a service every Sunday.

I also had the pleasure to connect with a Columbian man who spent over 22 years in Greece, meeting his first wife, a Greek woman and having his child born there. He has since moved back to Columbia, Daniel Vergara Peláez is a Griego-Colombian even if he didn’t originally have Greek heritage.

Whether one is “Brave but Stupid,” Columbia is a home for a small pocket of ‘Griegos’, diligently waving the Greek flag.

Greeks in Bogotá

*Billy Cotsis is the author of The Aegean Seven Take Back The Stolen Marbles.