Man, we've mentioned the beauty of the countryside a few times in Colombia...but it bares repeating for this journey between Bogotá and the Zona Cafeteria (Coffee Region). The bus wound along precarious roads carved into the side of the mountain affording views both spectacular and harrowing...spectacular when looking out across the valleys and mountains, harrowing when looking down into the abyss that falls away from the road for thousands of feet...it would only take one false move by the driver for...well, you know.
We arrived at Armenia which was the closest big town and then transferred to our final destination, Salento, a tiny, cute colonial town...it's the most pleasant place to hang out while experiencing the caffeinated adventures the Zona cafeteria is known for. An hour's mini van ride from Armenia and we pulled into the little pueblo; the church's bell tower was perched picturesquely in the late afternoon shadows from the surrounding mountains. We set off following the dirt road towards the hostel- it was quiet and peaceful...we most definitely were not in Bogotá anymore. We sucked in a deep breath of cool, crisp mountain air. Ahhh.
After checking in and settling at Plantation House we headed out for a stroll and dinner. We checked out several places then settled on a decent looking spot in the main plaza. We both order 'trucha' (rainbow trout) a regional specialty which came with the largest patacón (fried green plantain) you'll ever see...seriously the thing was two feet in diameter and paper thin, fried hard. The trout was good, and definitely a nice change from the Colombian standard of steak, and fried chicken.
Back at the hostel that evening we discovered a design flaw in the room we were in: the wall it shared with the neighbors was not only super thin, but also had a few gaps along the roof meaning their conversation was beyond audible in our room, it actually felt almost as though it was being amplified through some miracle of acoustics. It wasn't a huge problem till dude fell asleep and we discovered that he snores like a chainsaw and farts like a tuba. Hellish, but at some point he must have rolled over because we found enough silence to finally get to sleep.
In the morning, I headed out to get coffee from the kitchen area and saw the culprit...a grimy looking backpacker with a bull ring in his nose and a lit cigarette hanging off his lips.
"Hey bro...maybe if you laid off the ruts and took that piece of metal out of your breathing hole you wouldn't snore like a banchee." I didn't say it, but you know I thought it.
We got our stuff together then headed for the main plaza to catch a jeep taxi the 20 minutes up the road to the Valle de Cocora where we were headed for a day hike. Getting the taxi was pretty classic...there were at least a dozen people ready to go up to the Valle...easily enough to fill two jeeps, but at first they tried to heard us all into just the one. The driver plus 2 in the front, 7-8 in the back and another 4 hanging of the back....a real life Colombian clown car. Finally after a few protests from people sanity won out and they managed to find another driver and we hopped into another of the many jeeps that were just sitting there...we ended up as 2 of a very reasonable 4 people in the back seat...but of course by the time we pulled out there we're 3 locals hanging off the back. Classic.
The hike through the valley is absolutely stunning. You head up a long valley for several miles passing vast rolling fields and patches of a crazy type of palm tree called Wax Palm which is strangly proportioned...super, super tall and skinny...a little ridiculous looking, almost like something out of a Dr Seuss book. At the end of the valley you enter the forest and start to walk up hill following a river and then crossing it several times on some of the sketchiest foot bridges you'll ever see. Finally you get to a little lodge where you can buy a cup of coffee off the little old lady and enjoy the view and the crazy amount of hummingbirds that are flying all over the place. They say there are 10 species: some looked pretty standard but a few were different: one had a crazy long tail that shone a brilliant iridescent turquoise and another, black and white had a freakishly long beak. Those were our favorites.
After our coffee and hummingbird session we headed back down, perfect timing as the rest the people hiking that day all appeared to be showing up right as we were leaving. The hike back detours off the man trail and takes you up another hill called La Montaña. At the top there are amazing views back down the valley and of a sweet peak across the way. You descend around the valley and at last find yourself back at the jeep taxi stand; a cool 8 miles or so all up. We had a Coke and a water while we waited for there to be enough people to fill the jeep; and fill it they did: we ended up as 2 of the lucky 4 people who had to hang off the back of the jeep. (3 in front, 5 adults and child in the back and 4 of us on the back makes 13 in (and on!) the vehicle if you're counting.) The novelty of hanging onto the back of a moving vehicle wore off about half way back when our feet went numb and our arms started burning from the effort required to hang on around the corners. We were relieved as we hopped off back in the town center.
Dinner was pizza for G and Chicken Tikka Massala for AM, strange considering where we were but hey... we're went with it. That evening our snoring neighbor started sawing logs at 10pm and did not stop. It was awful. We had trouble getting to sleep that evening and finally G resorted to her ear plugs and me to my iPod. I woke up in the middle of the night and it was still ridiculous. I chucked my shoe at the wall and yelled 'Shut up!!!' a few times...to no avail...the face-pierced, cig-burning, dirt-bag just kept going. It wasn't our best night of sleep.
We were a little groggy the next morning, but at least all we had planned was a coffee tour, so the grogginess was easily remedied. The tour started off with an hour chat by the British chap who is the owner of our hostel and the coffee plantation up the street. He gave us a very detailed account of the whole process of growing and producing coffee. It was super interesting and learned quite a bit from him.
After, we took a walk down to the plantation for a demonstration and, at long last, a cup of joe! The guy showed us how to de-husk the dried beans. Gina took a turn helping put them through the loose grinder which handled that process.
Next he threw the beans into a hot pan and proceeded to dry roast the beans, constantly stirring for 10-12 minutes until they started to crackle and turned from the dull green-grey of raw beans to the more familiar dark brown of roasted beans. During the process you could start to smell the coffee flavor as the beans crisped to a perfect roast. When he was done he pulled the beans from the stove and continued to stir as the beans cooled just slightly. Next he poured the still warm beans into the grinder. I was selected to do the grinding...it was harder then I thought, but the reward was the fantastic aroma of freshly roasted coffee being ground by hand. When we'd ground it all he poured it into a filter and poured boiling water over it. Voila, Colombian black gold!! We were handed our cups and sat down to enjoy the deliciousness.
Yeah, it was damn good. Just as we'd been told really good fresh coffee that is roasted relatively lightly is not bitter like darker roasted coffee and actually carries a sweet note. Another bonus to the light roast is that the caffeine content remains higher. I can attest to this being true; we were jacked up! The hellish night of sleep thanks to sir-snores-alot next door was a distant memory.
Buzzed up as we were we took a walk around the farm where we passed coffee plants, banana trees, pineapple bushes, a bamboo forest, avocado trees, and our favorite: blackberry bushes which we cheerfully grazed on as we hiked.
We were still feeling good back at the hostel and with little else on the cards we settled in for a little trip planning session; namely figuring out and buying plane tickets for the remainder of our 3 months in South America and also, gulp...looking into plane tickets home! Yeah; while not exactly apon us yet...the end is within sight; about 100 days to go. The notion was depressing enough to send me scurrying to the corner market for a couple of Club Colombia cervezas.
For dinner we had awesome burgers (black bean for G) at a great little spot in town. Thankfully we'd seen our neighbor the lumber jack pack up his bag and head off for a bus that afternoon. We had hope for a reasonable night of sleep, at last...and, thankfully we got it.
In the morning we packed it up and headed for the plaza to catch the mini bus back to Armenia to catch the big bus down to Popayan; we were heading south and making for Ecuador. The thing is Colombia (South America, really) is so damn big it is going take us 2 stop overs to break it up.
In the mean time another long day on the road awaits!!