Colombia’s Zona Cafetera

Another adventurous bus ride, Quentin looking as white as death for several hours thanks to the hundreds of narrow curves on the road combined with the driver’s attempt to reach the speed of sound (we spent more time on the left, opposite traffic lane than on our own). 100km before our destination they told us we had to do a detour of about 300km through a mountain pass due to some sudden constructions (that had apparently already been going on for years…). Finally, we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere in complete darkness, and were lucky to find the road where the tiny bus to Salento passed a bit later and picked us up (while we were shaking the lights of our phones hysterically in order to be noticed).

Salento

Salento is a small, touristy but super colourful village that is famous for coffee tours and the Cocora Valley.

We were keen for a hike in the beautiful valley and took one of the small jeeps that brings you there. Although there were 6 seats only they managed to stuff 12 of us in the jeep, and we actually had to stand at the outside of the car, holding ourselves to the trunk’s frame, occasionally diving our heads down to avoid branches from slashing our faces and piercing our eyes out. It was quite fun though. The hike in the Cocora Valley was beautiful thanks to its famous wax palm trees, the highest ones in the world (and Quentin looks very small next to them! ^_^). They can grow up to 60m and give a really picturesque appearance to the Cocora Valley, especially considering that the latter is often filled with thick layers of fog.

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After several hours of hiking between those giant trees we reached a little wooden house in the middle of the jungle and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Colibris flying around, brushing past our ears with their humming wings.

After an hour staring in awe at those colibris, we made our way back to Salento, first walking through the jungle over wacky wooden bridges and then back in one of those overpopulated jeeps. When we arrived in Salento, the whole town was bursting with life, its streets full of people that came to celebrate Colombia’s independence day.

The region is famous for trout, so we tried it grilled over vegetables or gratinated with cheese (not the most convincing option). Oh and it is worth mentioning buñuelos, balls of deep-fried breaded cheese that you can get in any bakery in Colombia – a delightful treat when it’s still warm!

Jardin

Yet another full day spent in the bus, 11 hours to be exact, to cover what should have been less than 180km… Well, we should be used to it by now… Anyway, we made it to the little town of Jardin, in the northern part of the Zona Cafetera (yes, Salento is also in the Zona Cafetera but we haven’t talked about it yet) at about 1800m of altitude. We were first surprised that this rumoredly sleepy town was bustling with activity when we got there, the main square being crowded with hundreds of people. When we started looking for a hostel we understood we were actually in the middle of a film festival and that all accommodations were over-booked… Quentin started running around, looking for a place to sleep while Rebekka sat in front of the church with the backpacks (hoping we wouldn’t have to ask the church to shelter us). The search wasn’t very successful at first: Quentin was first offered to sleep on the floor of a hostel lobby, then a guy took him through a parking lot into a building under construction and offered him to sleep in an unfinished flat where the furniture consisted of working tools, pieces of wood and broken tiles… “don’t worry, I’ll bring a bed!” said the guy, “but it will cost 30USD” (more than double our budget).

Our deluxe double-room.

Quentin politely declined, and finally found a hotel that had some rooms in their basement. We even had a bed (!) and we spent the night rocked by the gentle snoring of our neighbour leaking through the 5cm gap between the brick wall and the ceiling (that was 165cm high btw…).

The next day the festival was over and the town slowly emptied itself. We got ourselves a real room and spent the day strolling around town, enjoying the colourful architecture and the very relaxed atmosphere of Jardin. Somehow, it seems that the locals’ main activity revolves around wearing cool sombreros on the head and neatly folded ponchos on the shoulder while sitting all day on colourful wooden chairs at a café on the main square, alone or chatting with old friends.

IMG_20180722_105959It had only been a few days that we had arrived in Colombia, yet these days were already filled with so many great encounters with helpful, open and extremely friendly people. One of those unforgettable memories was in the streets of Jardin: we walked past one of the colourful houses while curiously looking into a door that led to a green garden. We were tempted to walk in until a cute old man popped up and actually invited us in. After several handshakes and greeting with the old men and women that were scurrying about in the house and garden, our host proudly made us taste the dozens of different herbs growing in his garden as well as his giant avocado tree growing baby-watermelon-sized avocados.

One of our goals was to visit a coffee farm, but all tours seemed largely overpriced. However, we met a guy sitting in front of a tours advertisement poster and the conversation pretty much went like this (with our broken Spanish): “You want a tour?” – “Yes, how much would it be?” – “80’000 pesos” – “That’s too expensive for us.” – “Oh! Ok then I’ll find you something cheaper that doesn’t include all the touristy bullshit.” – “Ok.” – “Lunch will be included also.” – “Ok.” – “I’ll call my cousin”.

So the next morning the cousin Juan picked us up from our hotel and we took a moto-taxi to his finca in the middle of the hills in a neighbouring valley. His wife was excited to meet us and sent Juan to fetch some oranges in the garden to make us some fresh juice. Juan then gave us a basket and put us to work: from his house we slowly walked all the way up to the top of his fields, collecting ripe coffee beans along the way – and the way was veeeery steep. It was Juan’s first time guiding tourists through his finca and he was very excited to show us everything, also very proud of the quality of his coffee and the view from the top of his land. The view was indeed stunning! It gave over several valleys covered in coffee and banana trees, everything declined in innumerable shades of green.IMG_4339

Juan explained us that the higher we walked the better the coffee, because the fruits grow slower with the cold and are thus more refined. We also learnt that if managed well, the plants produce coffee all year round with two peaks, in June and October/November. One plant can produce 5kg of fresh beans per year, which gives 1kg of torrefied coffee in the end. Over the course of our 1.5 hour hike we collected about 11kg of beans, at the costs of some scratches and roughly a hundred mosquito/fly bites. We were rewarded by a delicious lunch prepared by Juan’s wife: patacon (a kind of flatbread made out of plantain), chicharron (fried pork belly skin), frijoles (beans, of course), banana, rice, and some falafel-looking things made out of fresh corn and green onion. We were more than stuffed, and completed lunch with a cup of Juan’s own coffee, which was light and slightly citrusy. Juan explained that coffee absorbs smells and that his coffee gets its flavour from the multiple lemon and orange trees around the finca. And by the way, you can eat the red beans also like this – tastes sweet, like fruit with a hint of coffee.

We had a nice chat about coffee and life and in the afternoon Juan brought us back to town and said goodbye. We felt sad to part and promised to stay and help in the finca for a few days next time we come (with some insect repellent this time!). With this we closed our Zona Cafetera chapter and headed further north toward the city of Medellin!

Little extra: Here’s a Chiva, one of the local buses driving around in the region. Pretty fancy, eh?

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