The Coffee Song

Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
Trip End Oct 22, 2012

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Flag of Colombia  , Quindio Department,
Saturday, July 7, 2012

After the urban sprawl that was Medellin it was nice to get to the sleepy mountain town of Salento. The drive through the mountains to get there was beautifully scenic but like all these beautiful mountain journeys they will remain as memories not photos as its not wise to go flashing cameras around on the local busses.   We stayed at Plantation House which as the name suggests is the old house from a coffee plantation.  We had a room with a view, instantly changed our booking for an extra night and wished we had time to stay for several weeks.

In the midst of the Zona Cafeteria, Salento is surrounded by lush green mountains dotted with coffee plantations, cloud forest and wax palm trees.  It's unusual to find palm trees high in the mountains in temperate climate and the wax palm is the biggest of them all.  Salento is next to the Valle de Cocora which is a popular spot for walking amid these giants but unfortunately cattle farming has meant that the population of wax palms has dwindled and so you can only find a few hundred trees here clinging to the hillside.  We were told about an area which is a bit higher up in the mountains at 4000m above sea level where there are thousands of wax palms in a protected area which is privately owned and so off we set in our old Willys 4WD jeep with our awesome guide Omar into the Carbonara.

The Wax Palms are protected by law in Colombia and this area is national park but the land is individually owned.  Unfortunately most of the locals in the area sold their land some time ago (mostly to a Canadian pine tree plantation) because the FARC gorillas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) ran the area.  Apart from driving down the value of their land this was also a time of kidnappings and sufferings at the hands of the guerrillas.  If the FARC wanted your farm or its profits you had little choice but to play along.  Omar’s family are one of the few to keep hold of their land but they lost family in the fight to keep it and so paid the consequences.  He is a fascinating man and it is interesting to talk with him about Colombia’s past and present. He told us about a guy who was on the news that day as having hired an entire island off the coast for his birthday party... "one of your modern day Pablo’s if I ever saw one, I mean really who else has that kind of money".

Omar took us to an old school building that was until recently used as a FARC headquarters.  You can see why they chose it as it overlooks the valley and all the access roads.  Thankfully for the locals here the FARC presence has now gone and is focussed mainly in the jungle areas of Colombia in the South East. The FARC are not the only problem for citizens of Colombia however.  There are many other guerrilla groups out there one of the most famous being the infamous Los Pepes who were pivotal in the downfall of Pablo Escobar by targeting his family to bring him out of hiding.  Los Pepes were formed by a secret collaboration with the government and paramilitaries in a mission to stop Pablo Escobar.  Other guerrilla groups were formed under similar circumstances to stop FARC and the cartels. Unfortunately these guerrilla groups are now just as bad and behind much of the countries extortion and kidnappings.

 The third part to this story so to speak is the army and here you find the world of the 'false positives’.  The army has been known to go into slum areas under the guise of recruiting and offering large sums of money and brighter futures etc, only to assassinate the volunteers and dress them up as guerrillas to artificially boost enemy kill counts and receive government incentive-based benefits.  This practice was first exposed in 2008 and is now rife, in fact it’s quite interesting to see how many headlines come up when you Google ‘Colombia false positives’.  Their victims are usually the poorest of the poor and, preferably for them, ones without proper paperwork. Recently there were 3 false positives killed at the old FARC base and there is a cross there in respect for the victims.

Anyhow, back to the beautiful mountains and lush green scenery.... now FARC and guerrilla free you can enjoy the thousands and thousands of wax palms in the Carbonara close up.  Omar took us to his friends house for coffee where you can see humming birds close up and then we bundled back into the jeep back to Plantation House to watch the sunset with a cold beer.

Being the Zona Cafeteria it would be rude not to learn something about the black stuff.  Normally a tea drinker myself (how English of me) both Will and I have become quite partial to a cup of decent coffee this trip, perhaps because we have travelled through the areas where the best coffee is produced.  At Plantation House the owner Tim takes you on a tour of his coffee farm where they grow a mixture of traditional and modern coffee as well as bananas, pineapples and other bits and bobs.  He takes you through the whole process of making coffee from seed to cup which was really interesting.  We then got to roam the farm ourselves and strolled through the bamboo forest.  Local bamboo is called Guadua, it is huge and grows fast and so is used for a lot of construction and local furniture.  It is harvested on the darkest night of the month as it is full of water the level of which changes with the tides and so the darkest night has the least water in it.

The following day we volunteered on the farm for a day, picking out the black beans from the white (the black ones are for local coffee the white for export – all the best coffee is exported, buy it in a supermarket in Europe and its better than the local stuff), weeding the nursery and other odd jobs on the farm.  We got a free lunch and chatted to the local workers, it was nice to be doing some cultural immersion and chatting with locals as we are now on such a tight timescale that we don’t seem to be doing enough of that.

We also spent an afternoon with a rather eccentric Spaniard who taught us about the different methods of brewing coffee.  Both a bit wired after that we headed out to the local bar with an English/Romanian couple to play the local game Tejo.  Only in Colombia really... ok so you have a box full of clay at each end with a metal ring in it and on the metal ring are packets of gun powder, there is also a back board to stop your puck.  So you throw a metal puck and score points, first to 21 wins.  If you get an explosion you get higher points!  It’s not as easy as it sounds but Will did manage to make 3 explosions and we won after 2 hours of effort and a little rule bending.  We were playing the tourist version too!  On Sunday in Salento a market sets up and all the local artisans come to sell their wares.  There’s all sorts for kids, bubble blowers, men with fake horses and cars who will pull you around the square for a penny or two, delicious strawberries and cream and if you fancy some crisps or chocolate you can shoot for it!

We absolutely loved Salento, the people the place, the mountains, the vibe, let alone the beautifully coloured houses and fantastic coffee.  We were sad to leave as we set off on a long long journey to Ecuador.  After an 8 hour bus journey we arrived in the pretty colonial town of Popayan and stayed on the square where we spotted our first Lama.  The next day a 7 hour bus to Ipiales on the border. The following morning we got up early to go to Las Lajas Cathedral perched on a bridge in a ravine and built into the cliff so that the back wall of the Cathedral is the cliff.  Then back to Ipiales to cross the border and another 6 hour bus and taxi journey to Quito.
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