A Travellerspoint blog

The Coffee region

Whats behind the perfect cup of joe

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There`s no doubt that we were a bit disappointed to be leaving Salento, but we were determined to find a way to spend some time on a real Colombian coffee plantation. After all, Colombia is best know to the rest of the world for two things, cocaine and coffee. The two sort of go hand and hand, as Lt. Bogermill says " Drugs are sometimes packed in coffee beans, the scent throws of the dogs."
We arrived into a city called Pereira, and started to inquire. As it turns out it is harder to find than one might think. The coffee region is full of farms that offer hospitality, but they are usually high end B&Bs with meeting facilities, swimming pools, etc.. Not exactly what we were looking for. One night I struck up a conversation with the owner of our hotel (Diego), and as it turned he owns a coffee farm. He offered us free lodging in the old caretakers house, and promised to introduce us around to people who could give us tours of the facilities. A generous offer to say the least, we accepted and were on our way.
Once we arrived to the nearby town of Altagracia, we got situated into our new digs. Modest to say the least, One room was full of horse saddles, and riding gear. The entire place smelled like a horse stable, and we shared the place with every insect and rodent that wanted in. There was no glass in the majority of the windows and the freezing cold water shot out of a pipe in the bathroom wall. I was on spider killing duty just about constantly. The inside of the place wasn't what we were there for and we took advantage of the surroundings. Diego brother had a tangerine orchard and we often passed afternoons sitting on the hillside eating all of the fresh picked fruit we wanted.
The entire area is coffee farms and often fills the air with the enticing aromas of fresh coffee beans. A trip to the nearby town of Arabia we were introduced to a group of coffee farmers who educated us on the entire process. From picking the coffee beans to drinking it.
here is a short recap
This is a typical coffee plantation
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Coffee grows best in Colombia between 800 and 1800 meters above sea level. The plant typically last about 5 years if well maintains, and produces a twice a year harvest. The beans must all be picked by hand. They actually look more like berries than anything else. In Spanish they translate to coffee seeds, which is more accurate than beans in my opinion.
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After the beans turn to a reddish color, they are ready to harvest. The most painstaking part of the process is definitely hand picking every individual coffee bean. The second most difficult part used to be cleaning the coffee. That has been made simpler by a machine with a large hopper that sheds the outer peel, and all of the juices, leaving only the coffee beans. The juices, or syrup are then used to feed the pigs, and other indiscriminate animals.
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Of course, to properly clean the coffee you`ll need one of those fancy machines and a guy with a wife-beater and a shovel. Fortunately we had all of that on hand
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Most of the time the various functions of preparing the coffee are performed in the same farm. However, there are tons of freelances who only complete part of the process. The people I met buy the coffee beans from the farm, then clean it, then sell it to the local cooperative. From there, there are several more phases. A sample of the beans are taken and then milled to further remove remaining dirt and debris.
Here is Jhon taking a sample
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Later the beans are sifted and sorted to determine what percentage of the harvest is good and what percentage is bad. This helps to determine the selling price of the raw beans. The bad stays in Colombia for internal consumption, and the good leaves for export only. So for those of you who think you`ve come to Colombia to drink the best coffee in the world, guess again. Your better off drinking it in your own country. Also for those of you whop have lugged kilos of Colombian coffee for months in your pack, you would have been better off with lama wool!
This is the good and the bad
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Of course the coffee still needs to be toasted, and finally ti can make it into your cup. Most of us put the grounds into the machine without ever considering the number of backbreaking hours, nor the millions of people who livelihoods depend on our consumption.
And for those of you who think your doing your part with Starbucks, think again. Starbucks has decided that African coffee is cheaper, and thus allowing them to charge reasonable prices for the coffee that finds its way into your morning cup.

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Posted by natewhd 16:05 Archived in Colombia Comments (2)

Medellin and moving south

Crossing over to the other side

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After a good time rafting and hiking in San Gil and Villa de Levya, we decided to cross over to the western side of the country to Medellin. Originally we only planned to spend a day in Medellin, and then head of to the coffee region. Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia and only 15 years ago it was virtually prohibited to visit. The city sits in a valley with the majority of the poor population stacked on top of each other along the hillsides. Many people recognize the name Medellin as having been associated with the drug empire of Pablo Escobar (the Godfather of Colombia).
Medellin is an extremely interesting city with a dynamic mix of people. The natives of Medellin call themselves paisas and take great pride in occupying what they say is the heart of Colombia. After years of Organized crime and guerilla warfare the city and its people have been left permanently marked by the distress. The main center has a park called Botero Park. There you can see dozens of the most famous sculptures of Fernando Botero. Botero is famed for having created all of his works to over exaggerate the obesity of his object. In San Antonio Park he placed the famous "bird of peace." In 1996 it was partially destroyed by a Guerilla bomb, it was left damaged and a replica was placed beside to express the damage and futility of violence.
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Some good films to give you a bit of a feel for what life was like just a few years back in Medellin are Rosario Tijeras and the documentary The Sierra or La Sierra They both have a lot to do with the violent hillside slums of Medellin. If you take a ride on the subway, your ticket includes a cable car that takes you up to the top. You get a view from the window, although walking around is not recommended. A young Australian who was with me told me he just loved those types of places and wanted to walk around. I enjoyed the view from the top and headed back. Overly cautions? Maybe, but if you see La Sierra you`ll understand.
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After 5 days (it was supposed to be 1) we were finally ready to head of for the coffee region. A kilometer and a half worth of landslides turned our 4 hour journey into 13, but we arrived safely to Manizales. Manizales as a town/city leaves a lot to be desired, so we didn`t stay long. Instead we decided to head to the small town of Salento.
I did however, like the attitude in Manizales about kidnapping translates say no to abduction
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Salento is home to the national tree of Colombia, the waxed palm. The trees grow to up to 200 feet and tower high above the forest. The trunk is coated with a thick white wax that protects it from insects and gives it the strength to withstand the high winds and its top-heavy nature. A 30 minute jeep ride takes you to the Valley of Corcora where you can set of a 8 mile hike through a nature reserve and finally to the peak where the palms grow. A Dutch biologist discovered the trees and said that they formed a canopy above the canopy, unlike any other in the world.
I’ve placed a few photos here because this place is spectacular.
Here’s one of a lonesome palm just before sunset
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Here is a field of them that reminded me of a windmill farm in California
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The hike takes you up to two small farms. These farms have their own trout ponds, cattle ranches, fruit orchards, and coffee fields. The finca Montaña has amazing views of the nearby central mountain range and the snow capped volcanoes. They offer lodging and if I had been better informed I would have taken them up on it. We tried to go back a few days later, and arrived on horseback. However, catching a 7:30 jeep is harder than it seems for a couple of travelers and we had to make other plans.
Our next plan was get a move on to the nearby city of Pereira and look for an opportunity to stay for a while on a coffee farm.
Befoire leaving the center we were treated to a marching band in the center. The buses are called "Chivas" and are really traditional Colombia transportation. They all have names, and some sort of painted theme. Pasengers can be seen riding inside, outside, and on top. Everything is transported this way in most rural parts of Colombia.
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Posted by natewhd 12:37 Archived in Colombia Comments (4)

It just keeps getting better

Villa de Leyva

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While Zipaquira was a charming city, it was lacking in real adventure tourism. After many months of travel I was definitely overly anxious to get out and have some fun. We headed out to a small town called Villa de Leyva. Villa de Leyva is particularly famous for being a well preserved colonial town, with classic Colombian architecture and charm. In that respect it certainly didn’t disappoint. But it definitely has built up as reputation with the residents of a Bogotá as a weekend retreat. This means that the cheap Colombian prices I was getting accustomed to were about go up.

This is probably a good time to talk about that. I always thought Mexico was inexpensive but it can’t hold a candle to Colombia. Most hostels in Colombia charge between 10 and 15,000 pesos per night, or 5 to 7 dollars. They are usually clean and nice, and have free Colombian coffee all day. A good meal is between 4 and 6,000 pesos, or 2 to 3 dollars. Beers go for about 75 cents a pop, but are virtually undrinkable. The food leaves a bit to be desired as well, but is edible. They love to cook with tomatoes here, and apparently haven’t discovered condiments yet. The Colombian tortilla is called an "Arepa" and couldn’t have less flavour. Taking all of the above into consideration I was getting used to the Arepas, and the prices. After 6 months out of the country I don’t even think in terms of what things cost back home, just what they cost here.

For all of those reasons, Villa de Leyva left me shell shocked. The first restaurant I went to didn’t have a meal on the menu for less than 15,000. Dirt cheap in the states, but this is Colombia! My accommodation was double the price, and not much better than what I was used to. I have no reason to spend my time in tourist traps, especially when it’s not enjoyable. On my last afternoon in town I met a local guy named Oscar who is a biologist. He recommended me a couple of great hikes in the countryside that didn’t cost a dime.
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The first hike we took was to the Perequeria falls. It is a series of 7 waterfalls on a trail that winds you down into the canyon. The trail is not extremely well marked which leads a lot of people to hire a guide. However, it is perfectly manageable solo. It was a bit too cold to take a swim, but when we made it down to the bottom I was thinking of a taking a dip anyway. From the last fall there is a series of about 400 steps that take you up to the rim of the canyon. From there you can hike back into town along the canyon rim worth views of the entire valley. Really a spectacular time and only cost the bus fare to get there.
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Oscar has a mountain house a bit out of town where he rents rooms. We decided to stay a few extra days in his place, and do some more exploring. The following day we rented some mountain bikes and headed out to get to know our surroundings more. It easy to see why some many tourists are attracted to the area, because the surroundings are spectacular. Mountain views are everywhere, forest, jungle, waterfalls, and red rock cliffs line the panorama. We finished our day at the Muisca Indian arqueological park. The Muiscas erected stones in the park to help them observe astrological changes and to aid them to know when to plant and when to harvest. Behind that was a field of tall narrow tones that looked a lot like, well, male genitalia Brenda said I was just being childish, but low and behold there we were in a field of penises. The Muiscas decided to erect sculptures of male genitalia to help the fertilization of the land. Now these are my kind of people. Throwing gold into lakes and worshiping the male genitalia.
Here’s a shot of me contemplating .......
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The following morning we headed from the back of Oscars place to another hour and half hike to the lookout. The hike takes you up to another fantastic panorama of the Colombian countryside. Sadly we readied our stuff and headed out from the town of San Gil. San Gil is famous for adventure tourism and boasts the best white water rafting in Colombia.
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There are three forms of overland transport in Colombia. You have your first class bus, which takes you just about everywhere in comfort, but is slow. Then you have a collectivo or a minivan that zips through the country side passing everyone on two lane roads with nothing but blind corners. Needless to say you don’t go anywhere in comfort in on of those, but they get you there quick. The third is the "Chiva" which is a Colombian Tradition. They are usually used school buses from the US, painted all kinds of colors on the outside. They are commonly boarded by people travelling with chickens and hens, and take forever to get you anywhere. I usually prefer the colectivos, fast, cheap, dangerous, but usually pretty entertaining. The trip to San Gil was windy, and I got the drift when they gave us plastic bags upon boarding. After a pretty exciting trip we arrived safely into San Gil, dizzy but alive.

Brenda had never been rafting before and was definitely nervous about her first trip down the most dangerous river in Colombia. I on the hand have been several times and successfully convinced here that there was nothing to fear. The Suarez River is about a three hour trip of consecutive class 4 and 5 rapids. The likelihood that the boat will flip is 33%, and that someone will fall out is 100%. Fortunately this was all information I got from an English guide, and I decided not to share it with Brenda. The Spanish speaking rafting guide did divulge all of those stats before heading into the water which was just about enough to send her packing. Too embarrassed to go home, she stayed on.

This was by far the most exiting rafting trip I had ever been on, and also the most physically exhausting. Passing one of the most dangerous rapids (named the labyrinth for the maze of rocks you have navigate to get through safely) the guide shouted "everybody inside" as i slid into the boat a wave swept under me and washed me right out of the raft. Clutching my paddle and the cord on the raft for life, it was a series of waves splashing over my back and my body into jagged rocks before I was successfully back into the boat. The funny thing is that I was more concerned about loosing my shorts than anything else. After having lost about 15 pounds, my trunks don’t exactly fit snug anymore. As it turned out I was the only one to go in, and thus had to by beers for the whole boat when we got back. A small price to pay for the rescue, and an overall fantastic time.

Afterwards were were moving on the othe other side of the valley to the city of Medellin.

Don`t forget to check out the map to keep up with where we are now

Posted by natewhd 16:02 Archived in Colombia Comments (5)

Colombia

They couldn`t have been more wrong

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Ok, so after a few weeks recovering in Mexico I started worrying about my travel schedule and the rainy season in C.A. and S.A. A little internet browsing and I found cheap tickets to Peru, which convinced me to change my itinerary and head straight to S.A. visiting C.A. on the return leg. 5 Days later, BAM! The most devastating earthquake to ever strike Peru, and on the exact same day we went to the Peruvian Consulate to get the tourist visa. With only a week before the flight it was a bit of a scramble to get all of the details organized, especially because Brenda was going to be traveling with me, and had only just decided to do so a few weeks prior.

The two weeks in Mexico were extremely relaxing, and I took advantage of the opportunity to go to the local market and buy all fresh meats and produce. I think I fell in love with that place when the butcher hand sliced the bacon right in front of me. It is the little things you start to miss, and I hadn’t had bacon in almost six months. Much less thick sliced! My stomach definitely thanked me for easing up on the picante, and enjoying a steady diet of fresh foods. The apartment I rented was in a laid back middle of the road type neighborhood. Needless to say I stick out like a sore thumb there. And I was quickly recognized by everyone in the local markets, cafes, etc... But after two weeks of that, I was ready to get moving.

We arrived at the airport all set to hop a plane to Lima. It occurred to me that I would rather start in Bogotá than Lima, and so the change was made on the spot and we went to Colombia instead. With all of the negative publicity that Colombia receives, I was definitely a bit nervous to arrive at 10 p.m. without reservations. All of that was quickly resolved in the airport however and off we went to our hotel. First impressions are everything and I was thoroughly impressed with Bogotá. I was expecting more of the same as what I have seen in capital cities of other Latin American countries but this was nowhere close. The city is extremely modern, and dare I say, safe? By Latin American standards that is. It definitely is not the prettiest city I’ve seen, but I was expecting far worse. Little to no street vendors, beggars, or fire eating acts at traffic lights. It seemed almost European, or Eastern European.
This is the Plaza Bolivar, and a young girl chasing the birds. I`d never seen so many birds, and I kind of wanted to do the same thing
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The Sanctuary of Montserrat is a traditional church set on top of one of the many hills surrounding the city of Bogotá. Every Sunday there is a precession of thousands who climb the 500+ steps to the top, starting from sunrise until about noon. There is music being played, singing and chanting, and overall a pretty impressive sight to see. It was described to us a typical Sunday in Bogotá so I though we’d check it out. There is a cable car that takes you to the top, but we elected to walk up with everyone else then take the cable car down.
Here is a shot of the hillside
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The most famous musem in Bogota is the Gold Museum, with over three floors of gold on display. On the third floor there is a circular room which has thousands of gold objects behind a glass wall. Once inside the lights go downd, and the gold is illuminated from behind creating a three dimesional view, and covering the whole room with a golden glow. As I would soon find out, gold is a major part of Colombian history and would play a major role in their relations with the Spanish.
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After picking up a travel guide for Colombia we started forming out a rough itinerary. After Bogotá we headed north to a small town called Zipaquirà. Zipaquirà is famous for its salt mining and to this day exports more than 500 tons of salt daily. The biggest attraction is the salt cathedral which is a series of 14 salt sculptures is a non working section of the mine. The large cathedral is 180 meters below the mountain peek in the mine, and has a capacity of almost 3000. Almost everything is made out of salt, except for the occasional marble floors. Backlights are used to illuminate the dome ceilings and crosses. It is extremely impressive, and an interesting work even to those not of the Christian persuasion. You can only enter by guided tour which gives you a fantastic appreciation for the time and effort. All of the crosses were made by the miners, and some of them way as much as 4 tons.
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While having dinner one bight in Bogotá the owners of the restaurant sat with us for three hours discussing the various things to do in Colombia. One of the things they said we had to do was go to the Laguna de Gautavita. This is a sacred lake to the Muisca Indians. The legend of El Dorado (the golden man) says that every so often the head of the tribe would take a boat out to the center of the lake and deposit a hand carved solid gold statue into the water. This ritual was practiced to help restore equilibrium in the universe and was considered a gift to the gods. The Muisca believed that when things started to go wrong in the world, it was because the world was falling out of equilibrium. Often times the head of the tribe would cover his body in gold dust and dive into the lake to offer himself to the gods, thus the legend of the Golden man. Needless to say the Spanish found out about this legend, and set out to recuperate the gold from the bottom.

The lake is unusual in the sense that it is not fed by any river or body of water. It is completely surrounded by hills on all sides. The first attempt by the Spanish was to cut into the hillside and drain the lake, that didn’t work, later teams of divers and excavators arrived from Europe, but still no dice. As it turns out the lake is fed by an underground current that devoured the heavy gold pieces almost as soon as they hit the bottom. This is a source of great pride for the Muisca Indians as only a few small pieces were ever recovered from their sacred lake. The guided hike around the lake was conducted by one of the Granddaughters of the Muisca Indians who did an amazing job describing the significance of the lake, the flora and fauna of the area, and the way of life of the Muiscas in modern times.
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Colombia was impressing me more and more as we made or way north. The countryside was spectacular and the amount of organization in and preservation of natural parks, transportation, and tourism in general was unlike any I’d seen in Latin America. I was definitely beginning to question just about everything that I had heard about Colombia. All of those who don’t travel to Colombia for fear of propaganda (usually politically motivated), just leave the country a little less crowded and more preserved for the rest of us to enjoy.

Posted by natewhd 11:33 Archived in Colombia Comments (6)

A sudden change of plans

The Isthmus and "la enfermidad"

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After 5 days in Mazunte I knew that it was definitely time to pack up camp and start thinking about my next destination. As I approached the Guatemalan border I was thinking alot more about Guatemala than Mexico, and starting to loose interest. So I decided to focus more on where I was, and read up a bit more about my surroundings. A small town in the Isthmus of Mexico cuaght my eye. The Isthmus is a narrow stretch of land which is actually considered the beginning of Central America. In this area only about 200km of flat jungle seperate the Atlantic from the Pacific. The Isthmus is well know for its heavy Zapotec Indian population and fantastic traditional street markets. The most authentic of all is Tehuantepec, so I decided to go there. It´s is seldom visited by tourist, and I was about to find out why.

The trip to Tehuantepec was realatively uneventful as we wound through small villages and thick jungle for the better part of 5 hours. Upon arrival, I wandered through town to the only budget hotel I found in my guide book. The rooms were about $10 a night and were much more like prison cells than rooms. Concrete and block, the highlight was a tornado fan aimed directly at the bed to combat the 95 degree heat and humidity. After a quick look at the bathroom in the moring I decied that that was out, and headed into town to check out my options. The town luxury hotel was not much better, but did have a bathroom that was a bit cleaner.

The town itself was also lacking charm. The highlight is supposed to be the Zapotec culture, and the Zapotec women who wander the streets in their typical dresses, all hand made and colorful. There was a bit of that, but mostly you saw them riding on the back of the street taxis, which were mopeds with wooden platforms on the back where the passengers stand to be transported through town. The two major events in town were the upcoming political elections and the official town holiday of Santo Domingo. The official name of Tehauntepec is Santo Domingo de Tehuantepec. For this holiday all of the local towns women wear elegant Zapotec dresses, which are hand made and usually take the better part of 6 months to make. The cost of one of the dresses is about the equivalent of three months wages. The dresses are paid in monthly payments as they are being made and the patrons make regular visits to the seamstress to check the progress and make changes to the design. All of this for the opportunity to wear the dress to the big dinner at the town square. Here is a shot of my friend Erika in her dress.
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I was all set to leave Tehauntepec when I met a friend in the city square. Victor is the owner of an English language school, and came over to make conversation. He invited me to come to his school the following day and make conversation with his students. Afterwards out for a beer, and to introduce me to his friends in town. This completely changed my perception of the town for the better. Victor offered me a hammock to sleep in his language school, and I took him up on in and stayed a few days more.

They say that long term travel can present a roller coaster ride of emotions if you let it. There will be times when you will loose yourself in the untamed freedom to go where you want whenever you want without recourse. Other times you’ll find yourself missing friends and family, or a bit homesick. Longing for your favorite meal, a long hot shower, or a soft comfortable bed. I felt pretty fortunate to have traveled the better part of 6 months without having slipped into the lowlands of the travelers blues. But unfortunately that was about to change.

Before arriving to Tehauntepec I had been battling what appeared to be food related stomach sicknesses. This is said to be normal, and part of your body’s natural adjustment to new food types, bacteria, etc.. But for me it was an off and on for about a month and a half. Unfortunately while staying a Victors school this all took a turn for the worse. After passing one of the most miserable couple of days of my life, I found myself longing for a home cooked meal, and a soft comfortable bed. I decied to head back to Mexico for a little recuperation before continuing on.

I had heard from Brenda that she wanted to travel with me, so I decided to return to the city, rent an apartment, cook my own meals, and just take it easy for two weeks before heading out. Sorry there are not more pictures of Tehauntepec, but there is really not much to photograph.

Posted by natewhd 14:38 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

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