Horses, caffeine, and explosive drinking games - Hello Coffee Country!
Our next stop in Colombia was the small town of Salento to spend a week in coffee country. While Medellin was advanced and modern, the roads out of town and into the countryside were not. Within about an hour of the six hour drive, I had to take a Dramamine to guard my equilibrium against the constant turns and dips on the windy, potholed, mountain roads. Every so often Jake and I would start to drift off to sleep only to wake when we felt ourselves slipping out of the seats - seat belts would have been helpful on the descents! And, like most other drivers in South America, ours thought he was Mario Andretti and that we were in a non-existent race against all others cars on the road. Thankfully we arrived in one piece, as usual.
I didn't know what to expect from Salento, so I was surprised when I found myself wishing we could stay longer when it was time to move on. The adorable, sleepy town had a mix of paved and dirt roads, brightly painted houses and buildings around the main square, cute stray puppies everywhere, and gorgeous green hillsides that went on and on. We stayed at in a private room at a hostel called La Serrana, located about 2km from town down a dirt road, on a large grassy property with terracotta colored buildings and tile roofs, an herb garden in the back, a bonfire circle, and three puppies of its own. It didn't feel like a hostel, more like a casual hotel on a farm. My favorite thing about the hostel was the dining room - every morning a gorgeous breakfast was prepared (eggs, toast, the best fruit I've ever had, tea, coffee, pancakes, ham) and laid out at communal tables for guests to share and mingle with the other guests. Breakfast was included, and every night we could opt in for dinner, too! The chefs at La Serrana were awesome, and we enjoyed dinner there every night, under the sparkling twinkle lights strung up along the banisters, in between hanging empty wine bottles in the rustic room with exposed wood beams and Spanish tile floor.
It was at one of these great dinners that we met our new friends Raj and Liz. These two doctors (Raj a doctor of psychiatry and Liz an MD) from the UK were traveling for a couple months before Liz started a six month long volunteer rotation at a hospital on an island in the Caribbean. We enjoyed chatting with them about travel, the differences between our home countries and the places we've been, the American healthcare system and the ACA, and of course, the elections and Donald Trump. (It's a common thing - most people ask us about Trump when we tell them we're Americans. It's interesting to see how many people around the world are fascinated by him.) We hit it off with these two and really enjoyed getting to know them.
One night after dinner, Raj and Liz invited us to join them and a group of people they had met in town for a few beers and a round of Tejo, a popular and social game in the area. Tejo is very much like cornhole - you throw something at a circle on a slanted platform and the person who is the closest to the center gets the most points. The only differences are:
- Instead of a wooden platform with a hole in the middle, it's a slanted base of clay with a metal ring in the middle.
- Instead of bean bags, we throw heavy stones shaped like hockey pucks
- Stuff explodes. Wait, what?
Yes! On the metal ring in the center are placed little triangle packets of gun powder - they're about the size of a table top football piece, or a sugar packet folded into a triangle. The idea is that whoever can make those things explode gets the most points. So when Raj and Liz proposed a game where things blow up and we get to drink beer, we weren't about to turn it down! And, as expected, we had a great time! There was 9 of us, so we split into three teams of three. I don't remember who won or how our teams did, but I do remember that everyone was equally terrible at it, and the game pretty much dissolved into everyone dropping the stones directly onto the gunpowder packets just to make them blow up. It was a great night!
Since we were in coffee country, we had to take advantage of the chance to learn about how the most popular beverage in the world is made! We took a tour, in English thankfully, at the nearby finca, Ocaso Coffee Farm. In two hours we learned the differences in the two coffee plants (one grows tall and one grows short, and most now are the short ones because they're easier to pick), the coffee beans are the seeds in the middle of the cherries that grow on the trees, and when the cherries are red they are ready to be picked. We even got our own baskets and set off into the trees to pick as many red cherries as we could in one minute. Considering it wasn't harvest time and there weren't very many ripe berries, it was a hard task! We each were able to scrounge up a small handful, and I had the most (no, I'm not competitive at all!)! During our lesson among the coffee plants, we learned about what a time-consuming and manual process making coffee is. First, the berries are picked by hand through several rounds of harvest. Next, the beans must be removed from the cherry, inspected for quality, sorted, and dried in the sun. Lastly, they're roasted, bagged, and shipped. It's no wonder that great coffee costs a so much! The care and precision that is applied to each step reminded me of winemaking - the producers that do everything by hand charge a whole lot more per bottle than Gallos of the world. So it makes sense to me that great coffee would also come with a higher price tag.
When we arrived in Colombia I thought I was going to be able to get some incredible coffee every morning, thinking that since we were close to the source, that it wouldn't be hard to find. Well, I was wrong. The coffee I drank in Colombia was usually the instant kind. That's because most of the country's top quality coffee is exported. The country keeps the lower quality stuff for local consumption. At the finca we got to see and smell the difference in these two classes of roasted beans - the top quality beans look perfect and smell even better, like a Portland coffee house. The lower quality beans vary in color and bean size (some beans were in bits and pieces), and smell much less delicious, not nearly as rich or robust, and more bitter and burned. Before we left we got to taste some freshly roasted beans by steeping the grounds (ground by Jake!) in a cheesecloth called "Grandma's sock", because it looks like an old sock. And, as I said, it wasn't the best coffee I've ever had. In fact, I didn't like it all that much. But I still happily drank my cup, and Jake's.
One of the biggest attractions of the Salento area is the Cocora Valley, part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park. As we made our way through the valley on a cloudy and rainy morning, we walked through giant white bark trees, over rivers on suspended bridges, and in between cow pastures. At the end of the beautiful valley is a "hummingbird sanctuary" called Acaime that many fellow travelers had raved about back at our hostel. We weren't sure about this little attraction as it just seemed so strange…I mean, we've seen hummingbirds before. What would be so cool about it? Why did everyone love it so much? As we stood at the bottom of the stairs, contemplating whether or not we wanted to walk up the 1km path to the hut, a girl came down and exclaimed "You simply must go! It's so lovely! You have to see it!" Well, I'm sure I've told you how Jake and I feel about people saying "You have to do this", and we rolled our eyes at it, but against our better judgement we decided to go up. The entrance fee is a small 4,000 pesos each, and got us a couple of hot chocolates, but we should have stuck to our guts - there was really nothing to see up there. Sure, there were some bird feeders and hummingbirds around, and a really strange looking raccoon-like animal called a croatie that had long claws and looked particularly mean (especially when it swiped at a chicken that got too close to it and took out some tail feathers!), but there was no view, and the bathrooms cost extra. It was pretty weird. So would we recommend it to other hikers? No.
On and off all day we'd had rain, and while we were grateful that it wasn't hot and we didn't need sunscreen, we were bummed that we didn't have the views we were hoping for. After leaving the hummingbird sanctuary, we started our climb up the Mountain Trail to the valley ridge where we would have been able to see the valley of the wax palms, Colombia's national tree and the tallest tree in the world. All we could see from a distance, though, was grey clouds. As we got closer, we could make out the faint outlines of the palm giants, so tall and skinny that they didn't look real. The closer we got the more Dr. Seuss-like I thought they became - I've never seen palm trees like this before! The clouds got thinner as we descended back down into the valley, and they trees came into better view. They dotted the hillsides while cows grazed next to them. It's hard to describe them - they were like skyscrapers climbing into the clouds above lush green hills of the valley. Gorgeous!
Since we were in Salento for six days, we didn't have a very strict schedule, and we could lounge and relax as we pleased. So we were more than happy to spend almost a full day chatting with our new Australian friend Kimberly. We met her over breakfast one morning and started talking, which lead us to continue our conversation about everything and nothing outside. Hours later we realized we were all hungry again, and that we'd been talking for the better part of four or five hours! So we decided to head into town to find some lunch together. Kimberly led us to a place she'd eaten at before, one where a full meal including a drink and dessert was only about $2 US. And it was good! Jake got the chorizo, I got the fish, and we devoured every bite. Since we hadn't been very impressed with local Colombian food, we were excited about this little find. After lunch Kimberly went off to do some shopping and we went back to the hostel to get some work done.
Remember Arturo and Melissa from our Guatape tour out of Medellin? Well they decided to take our advice and head to Salento for a few days, too! On their last night they came over to La Serrana to have some beers with us in the cool evening. Arturo also surprised us with some mezcal! They brought the bottle with them from home and intended to drink it all on their vacation, but they still had about a third of it left, so we gladly helped them make a dent in it. We'd never had mezcal before, so it was fun to try it! It was smokey and set our throats on fire. I liked it, Jake not so much. As we drank, we laughed and shared stories and gave each other various movie recommendations, and taught each other phrases for getting out of awkward situations. You know when we tell a bad story and we say, " And then I found $20."? Well they have their own phrase. In Arturo's family, they break the ice of awkward convos with "Susanita got married at 16." Apparently that's what his grandpa would say randomly, at any time, and so now it has evolved into their go-to line, in Spanish of course! Melissa also taught us some Mexican cocktails we need to try when we get home (get ready for us, El Portal) - the Corona Echelada, with lime and salt, and the Michelada, which is like a Bloody Mary with beer - yum! A few hours later our new buddies headed back to town to catch their bus. We hugged and kissed as we said goodbye, missing them already. We will definitely stay in touch with these two, and we'll hopefully visit them in Mexico someday! They are always welcome to our future house!
To get to our next destination, Quito, Ecuador, we were taking a night bus to Bogota and then catching a plane from there, so we had all day to spend in Salento on our last day. We took advantage of the time by taking trail ride down to the waterfall at the bottom of the valley! Many of our friends at the hostel had raved about the fun horseback riding excursion they did, and exclaimed how cheap it was, so we decided to go for it. I wasn't going to pass up a good chance to get on a horse! The trail ride was led by a young man who, with his father, tends to their 20 horses. As more and more tourists have started to come through Salento, their trail ride business has grown a lot! Luckily, they had some space for us in the morning, and Jake and I got to go on a private ride.
The horses, while adorable of course, were much smaller than the horses I'm used to. Not only were they rather short, they were also very skinny! The withers and shoulders of my horse were barely larger than the width of my own shoulders. From the get-go I felt uncomfortable riding these delicate looking ponies, and I just couldn't wrap my head around the fact that these were work horses when they weren't taking tourists on the trail. As I looked around for something to use as a mounting block so as not to put too much weight or pressure on the stirrup as I mounted, our guide instructed me to just stick my foot in it and hoist myself up. Ugh - I'm not happy about how this is starting. I should have known just then that what was supposed to be a leisurely, stress free, easy ride down the canyon to the waterfall would be one of my least favorite experiences. I know, right? How could riding a horse be one of my least favorite experiences? Because I was near tears for most of the ride.
Trails at home are pretty tame. The ones I've been on are not particularly steep, and the footing is usually pretty good (thanks to California's drought, I'm sure). Footing that's too soft and squishy is something I've avoided, and been trained to avoid, in the arena during my lessons - bad footing can cause the horse to slip, trip, or stumble, and possibly get injured. So when the three of us arrived at the actual trail head after taking a nice walk through town and I saw that the trail was a very steep hill with thick, slippery mud several inches deep, I started to panic. Images of the horses slipping on the mud or falling because they're hooves got stuck came flooding into my mind. What if my horse breaks his leg? I kept thinking. Oh my God I'm going to be responsible for killing this horse. As our guide was telling us to go ahead of him, explaining that the path is safe, his horse takes a step forward and places a hoof in the wrong spot, making him slip and buckle. I gasped and held my breath. The horse got up and was fine, but I was shaken. As we made our way down, I sat back as far as I could, trying hard to keep my weight balanced and be as light as possible to help my poor, fragile looking horse, all the while thinking "Please don't fall, please don't fall." For 30 minutes I was a mess, almost in tears. Jake was behind me reminding me, "These horses do this trail every day, sometimes more than once. They know it. They're fine. And the owners wouldn't come this way if it were dangerous. These horses are their livelihood, they're not going to put them in danger." I tried hard to believe him.
Finally we got to the bottom, where the road meets the trail, and the rest of the ride to the waterfall was fairly flat. And I started breathing again. Phew! We made it down! Once we hit the open fields near the river, all of the horses galloped at full speed, showing me that they were feeling just fine. The last 100 meters of the trail had to be done on foot, so we left the horses hitched at a small outpost where a man sold hot chocolate and chips as we went in to explore. The waterfall and river were quite pretty; nothing super special, just a little waterfall hidden by the shade of the trees. We spent a few minutes looking around and guessing how cold the water was (we did not jump in to find out), before making our way back to our ponies. Just as we arrived, dark clouds that had been threatening us all morning opened up and heavy rain started pouring down around us. Within just a few minutes there were giant puddles on the ground, at least an inch deep! We decided to try to wait the storm out and chatted under the roof of the little outpost while our guide covered the saddles with heavy ponchos. Twenty minutes later, the rain hadn't stopped. But it did lighten up a bit, so we put on our ponchos and got back in the saddle. The ride back in the rain wasn't so bad, and by the time we got back to the dreaded hill it had stopped. Fortunately, going up the hill was much less treacherous than going down, and my skinny little horse took it like a champ. We were back on the streets of town in no time and made our way back to La Serrana. All in all, the ride was…fine. But it was not my favorite experience on a horse! Upon returning to the hostel, we took showers, packed our wet clothes in our backpacks (not ideal!), and checked out.
Before going to the bus station we stopped by what turned out to be one of our favorite restaurants, a little spot called Brunch. It's run by an old guy from Portland, OR, who is somewhat of a legend around the hostel crowd. His food is cheap, generously portioned (and that's an understatement) and OH SO good. And he is really nice to boot! We ordered the "Navajo tacos", which was kind of like a tostada on a thick, deep fried shell rather than a thin one, and the guacamole burger, which is what all other guacamole burgers on the planet should strive to taste like. Seriously. Every time I have ever ordered a guac burger I have always wanted it to taste like this. YUM. And we definitely could have shared one of these orders - they were just ginormous! But could and should are two different things. And even though we were stuffed from our dinners, we couldn't leave without ordering his famous dessert - a warm homemade brownie with homemade peanut butter in the middle, topped with homemade peanut butter and chocolate ice creams. Just leave me in Salento! I'm in heaven!
We rolled ourselves down the street to the bus when it was time to go. We needed to take one bus from Salento to a town called Armenia where we would catch our overnight bus to Quito. The bus to Armenia was only supposed to take about an hour, and we left with plenty of time in case something took a bit longer. Well, the one hour drive somehow turned into a two hour drive, and our buffer got pretty small! It seems that, as we got closer and closer to the bus terminal, the driver was dropping off all of the passengers at their individual houses! Every time someone wanted off, he would just stop the bus! Needless to say, we were running late and getting pretty stressed out as we needed to arrive at the bus terminal by 9pm to pay for our reservations or else our seats would be given away! When we got to the station at 8:58 I bolted off the bus to find the right counter while Jake got our bags from below. Thankfully, there was a line at the desk and we were totally fine. Phew! Thank goodness that everything runs on "South American Time"!
A few hours later we boarded our bus and put our things on our laps to sleep for the night. We'd read several stories about thieves on overnight buses in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, so we were careful to keep everything on our lap instead of on the floor. Even while sleeping with their bags between their feet people have had items stolen from out of them! The worst story we read about warned us of small children - apparently parents will send their tiny kids to crawl beneath the seats, cut bags open, and take things from the hole they slashed. Unreal! Thankfully we didn't have any trouble and we arrived in Bogota around 6am. We were only spending the day in the big city, and we're glad of that - even though we weren't there for long, we didn't really like it much.
We caught a cab from the bus station to take us to a hostel that I had contacted earlier in the week about storing our bags while we explored the historical district, Candelaria, for the day. Thankfully, the hostel welcomed us with open arms and let us store our things in their locked storage room for free! That's certainly a plus of the hostel community - they tend to want to help backpackers, especially in exchange for a positive review on Trip Advisor (which I will dole out freely for good experiences!). After relieving ourselves of our bags, we set out to find breakfast before joining a free Graffiti Walking Tour a couple hours later. We happily found a Juan Valdez, Colombia's equivalent of Starbucks that we spend so much time in in Cartagena, and I happily sipped my latte and Jake enjoyed his banana bread as we looked through the windows at the bustling streets outside. Our first impression of Bogota - it's dirty, and actually reminded us of Marseille in the grime category! The coffee shop was located across the street from the main park, which had about a dozen homeless people sleeping on the grass. Litter was everywhere - in the gutters, on the sidewalk, in the park. Buses sent up giant plumes of exhaust. And no one seemed particularly happy. Sure, it was a weekday and people were heading to work, but no one was smiling, no one looked friendly. We decided that it was a good thing that we weren't spending more than a few hours in Bogota.
The Graffiti Walking Tour, fortunately, was really good. It was only about two hours long and wandered through Candelaria. We learned the difference in graffiti and street art, and even became able to identify the work of specific artists. I'd never paid much attention to graffiti before, and only ever thought that it was an ugly stain on the walls of cities (and a lot of it still is), but learning the difference in the use of letters to tag wall space, the techniques behind spray paint, adhesive, stencil, and sculpture, as well as some of the politics behind it all was really interesting. Do I still think that letters just look like gang signs? Yes. But the art, the actual pictures that were painted, are really cool. It's not illegal to decorate the walls of the city, but the graffiti artists must get the permission of the owner of the wall prior to painting. Some graffiti and street artists are even commissioned by the government to put up murals around town to prevent gang tags. And it works, too, because taggers have respect for the work of certain well known artists, and will not tag on top of it. It's interesting to see the interaction and respect between the artists by way of how long a piece will stay up, untouched.
After a quick lunch we'd had about enough of Bogota, so we collected our bags and headed to the airport. Colombia sure has a lot to offer, and there's so much more for us to see! I think we'll definitely be back here someday.
Off we go to Quito and its recently active volcano!