Monday 01st August 2016 –
Innocent a lad as I am, I have always associated Colombia with coffee more than anything else. Sure, I knew about the finer powder, and was vaguely familiar with the rather bad rep that Colombia had been blessed with, but I wasn’t a font of knowledge on the legacy left to the locals. Instead, I focused on tasty coffee, something you can legally snort when you first open that packet, and leaves you with your nose still intact.
Which is why I arrived in Salento, my first real stop in Colombia, after changes of buses in Ipiales, Cali and Armenia, and pretty much skipping the south altogether. Sorry Colombia! Still it’s the centre (or rather tourist hotspot) of the coffee region, and thus home to good coffee, many fincas and some rather nice landscape. After Quito, it was nice to be back in the country again.
I had met Simone, an American who had spent the previous few months volunteering in Quito and Arequipa, at the Colombian border, and after bring rather easily persuaded to come to Salento to she came on a trek, too. We hadn’t really looked too much into it – only heard that there was supposed to be a trek – and set off relatively unprepared. At least I managed to bring some biscuits and a big sandwich. Simone was in sandals.
This was crucial because it was muddy. I mean very muddy. As many times as you declare your non regret for sandal wear, I would suggest the argument becomes moot once you’ve slipped over a dozen times and are caked in mud. I didn’t stifle my laughter. I did hold off on bragging about my non muddy self until the end though. Just in case.
It wasn’t all about the mud though – it was a lovely walk by all rights. First along the valley floor, crossing a dozen rickety bridges (still fun to test their security while other people are on them) and around boggy pathways. Then up the hill through muggy semi tropical forest and drizzle to Estrella de Agua, the point that Simone had picked out for us to get to. Apparently, there was something there – some sort of interesting site. Two and a half hours later there wasn’t. Estrella de Agua turned out to solely be the first significant stop on a far larger hike – that explained why I’d barely met a soul all day. As soon as Simone caught up we went back down.
We stopped at a little house on the way back down, home to many hummingbirds, for a brew. That was the main attraction for me, but the hummingbirds were a really cool surprise. From jet black and long beaked to bright metallic blue with extended tails, they flitted to and fro between the sugar bowls, a dance show for anyone around. The speedy buggers are remarkably difficult to get a clear picture of though. Considering I didn’t see any in the rest of the forest, I reckon there must be some sneaky shenanigans going on – that sugar water must be addictive.
It was getting lateish after our unintended detour, but we’d finally figured out where we’d been supposed to go – up a different path to La Montaña (actually about 500m lower than we climbed to) and down back to Colorado where we started. Apparently there were wax palms there. One of the women said it was three hours to get there from the bottom of the hill though, and by the time we were at the bottom we only had two hours 20 minutes till the last jeep back. I left it up to Simone.
She really wanted to see those palm trees. It was a good decision too, as the estimated hour to La Montaña turned out to be less than 20 minutes. From there it was easy downhill. Gazing over the wax palms surreally dotted over the green grassland hills wasn’t too bad either.
The next day it was coffee time! True to my starved of coffee self (South America has an overall dearth of remotely acceptable coffee) I woke and got up late, and subsequently had to rush to get any breakfast. Eventually though, I set off with an Irish guy from the hostel. It was a decently long road, and as the sun bobbed out from behind the morning clouds, I started to regret my choice of trousers over shorts. It was sweaty.
As luck would have it, we arrived at the Ocasa finca just as a tour was about to start, and thereby jumped on. We had a short lecture on how to make coffee, the necessary conditions and different plants used, as well as a tour of the grounds and demonstrations of several parts of the process. We were also recruited to help with picking some beans. I would normally have classed this as some sort of slave labour (that we’d paid for!), but we were so predictably bad there’s no way we would have been of any use. charged with picking only fully red of hope beans (ie. nothing with green on) over about ten minutes, my haul of 14 was by far the best. Bear in mind that the guys that work in season get paid a relative pittance per kilo, we would have been hungry workers.
After our hard graft we finally got some coffee, and just as promised the natural sweetness of Colombian coffee we’d been told so much about came through. Oh, and we had the opportunity to buy some as well. I’d like to say I held strong, but I didn’t. As the cloud breezed over and absolutely poured down on us as we made our way back, I did my best to protect the magical little bags under my shirt. Food and beer was required to make ourselves feel better.
It pissed it down the next day too, as I made my way to the bus stop at 7AM. Not how I’d wanted to start the day. It didnt get any better though. The supposed 5-6 hour bus trip to Medellin turned into nine hours, swinging around windy roads the whole way while inexplicably driving far past the west of Medellin before eventually curving back in. The good food I’d eaten the day before was turning out to be possibly not so good – especially given my continued queasiness on reaching my destination. Fortunately by morning I was better and ready to enjoy Medellin.
This involved a trip to a shopping centre to buy some flash drives to back up my photos. Theyre expensive in Ecuador! A bit of coffee too, in a place conveniently marked on my hostel provided map as the best in Medellin, and also conveniently owned by the same guy. Sneaky. Then a bit of the other authentic Colombian experience – booking a flight! Since my decision that I was actually going to go home I had been searching, but not found anything realistic – £650 for a 40+ hour flight with several stops that actually gets me home after my insurance finishes? Not exactly deal of the century, yet this seemed to be all that Kayak, Momondo, Skyscanner (other flight search websites available) and my own personal dodgy flight connection searches could come up with. That is until something made me think of the package holiday companies. People like going to Mexico on the cheap, so maybe it would be worth looking (and being British they would price in pounds not dollars). I stuck gold(ish). It wasn’t Mexico, but Bogota to Stansted via Orlando, landing just before my insurance runs out and less than 20 hours (theoretically). All for £500, decent considering the fall of the pound. I snapped it up on the third card verification attempt. Now I really had a time limit, and I vowed to change my ways. I would travel quickly, like the other tourists in this land.
Eventually I got doing something. Flight prep finished, I made my way out to Parque Poblado where it seemed a third of Medellin must have been. The rest were obviously in Parque Lleras or the stadium where Atletico Nacional of Medellin were playing Independiente del Valle of Quito, Ecuador in the Copa Libertadores final second leg. In case you don’t know what the Copa Libertadores is, it’s pretty much the equivalent of Europe’s Champions League, so rather a big deal. The Paisas of Medellin seemed to think so anyway.
Squirty foam and flour filled the sky as everyone around filled themselves with beer and agua diente, a sambuca like spirit that people seem to have a taste for here, and cheered and jeered at the giant television ahead. It was nothing though, compared to the moment the deal was sealed. Nacional had secured a solitary goal to none and Medellin went wild, the crowd spilt out onto the streets and all out mayhem began. People chased eachother down the street with foam, flour was thrust into the faces of the unexpected and fireworks were set off by hand. Any car that tried to make its way down the streets was assaulted by a sticky foam/flour mix, caking windscreen wipers and coating those inside. Noone minded though. It was a night for all of Medellin to celebrate.
Somehow I woke early enough to partake in a walking tour the next day. It’s a good job, too, because otherwise I wouldn’t have gone – never before have I seen a walking tour with a requirement to sign up beforehand and actually has a person limit as well! Moving on anyway, most unlike the deathly boring one in Lima, this one was great – the main reason being that our guide was insanely enthusiastic. She obviously hadn’t been out the night before as the rest of us were noticeably more sluggish.
There’s obviously a lot of contentious history involving Medellin, mostly surrounding the infamous Pablo Escobar (drug lord and leader of the Medellin Cartel, would be politician, definite mass murderer and all round stand up bloke) and while international opinion on him is rather more absolute, local opinion is a bit more variable. He built 300 houses in a poor neighbourhood for example, and could be generous with his gifts. For some, this still outshines the drugs, killing and bombs that assaulted the city and country later in his tenure, and the thousands of destroyed lives seem forgotten. That’s not to say it’s the same for everyone, but enough to make it awkward to talk about it in the street. Thus, Pablo became He Who Must Not Be Named, only referred to in hushed whispers and oddly reminiscent of a certain Harry Potter character. Has JK Rowling been to Medellin? Blatant plagiarism if so.
So long as we spoke in English, and left His name out, we were safe from distraction. To a certain extent, anyway. An elderly gentleman did follow us about to tell us about the improvements in recent times. I got the feeling this was a common occurrence. Many Colombians were also found to be sticking their heads into the group to listen, mouths agape, normally with no understanding of what was being said. That or quizzing our guide about all sorts. She brushed off the interest with the expertise of one who goes through the same every day. I’ve never seen locals so interested in what goes on in a walking tour though, and so willing to just talk.
That in itself is a commonly attributed aspect to Colombians. They’re friendly. At least, that’s what you get told by other foreigners anyway, but it certainly turns out to be true. Happy to talk and stop for a random chat – just generally generous with their time. It’s an undervalued trait (see London) that totally changes how you see a place.
Why are they like this though? Our guide put it really nicely as we visited Plaza San Antonio, the site of one particular bomb that was hidden within a sculpture; Colombians have a bad reputation internationally, these past events having created a black stain over their country. Being nice and friendly means that maybe tourists go back to their friends and say ‘actually Colombians are lovely’, and if enough people do eventually public perception might change. That’s as simple a wish as there is.
NB. Due to unfortunate circumstances, many photos that would have featured in this blog no longer exist. I’ll explain another time. Upsetting as it is, I hope you still enjoyed reading it.