It always seems to be the rural areas where you understand a countries mentality best. Cities are cities - crime, party, shopping and business unite most cities in the world but get to the wild green yonder and here you start to unravel the true nature of a place and people.
Salento attracts Colombian tourists as well as the international contingent but it does so because it has refused to be changed or altered. It is what it is and let's the whirl of tourism happen amongst its daily life. Here the service is appalling but that's good because it's run by farmers and small town families giving it a go. The food is incredible because they do what they do best. No pies and chips here. The scenery is unspoilt as it's here they rear their cattle and let their horses graze. It's here where you learn of tejo, the national sport and wax palms, the national plant. It's a taster of all things Colombian.
Simon and I caught up with those illusive Nixon's finally and as our ultra-mini mini bus rolled in we saw them tucking into coffee and yuka fries in the open and colourful square. It was colder here compared to Medellin so arriving to fog and rain in flip flops looked a little daft. Together again! We trundled the 1km to our hostel perched on an empty hill overlooking a valley. The hostel was clearly a farm back in the day and now the owners seemed to be having a go at hostel owning. With fountains in the reception area, a good sized kitchen, it's own cheap as chips restaurant who could want for more? Well apart from the right key. Oh and apart from other people sleeping in your bed. Oh and of course not having to move rooms three times in four nights. The service definitely needed a polish but for all their lack of knowledge in the hospitality industry it was a beautiful spot and they were certainly trying their best. The pancakes swung it for Simon. He was their favourite so he got extra. He does that to people....
The first night Scott and Ang took us out for a burger and tejo night. A typical activity in Colombia which involves copious amounts of beer or rum or in fact both, a clay pit, explosives and a very heavy metal shot put. Sounds like disaster I hear you say?? It is astounding how few accidents happen. For the tejo naive let me explain the concept. Take one group of friends. Mix with beer and rum until battered. Tenderise a square clay pit with a giant steel pummel until level. Place a metal disc in the centre and decorate with envelopes of gunpowder. Take battered individual, place a heavy metal lump in his hand and allow him to lob it in the general area of the clay pit. If you're lucky there is a almighty boom, puff of smoke and raucous cheering/ boo-ing depending if it was your team that struck gold... Or struck ear drum damage. It was clear that neither Simon or I had a innate talent for the game. Luckily the rules and points are largely irrelevant and it's more about who achieves the biggest explosion.
After waking up with a sore head and ringing ears the next Colombian education would be the trek into the wilderness and to find the wax palms. A very cramped and bumpy ride in a Willy (a precariously assembled jeep) spits you out at the start of a trail that winds through muddy paths and cow fields up into forest with wobbly rope bridges with every other wooden board missing. Very Indiana Jones. With Scott trying to keep his trainers clean and Simon jumping up and down on the highest wobbly bridges we all needed a rest and so headed up into the hills to see the humming birds feed. As these tiny, pretty creatures fluttered around our heads in a flurry of bright blues and greens we supped honey tea and cheese. An hour or two later of humid and hurt filled hills we finally reached the incredible view where the wax palms grow. The incredible view totally obscured by fog. Fortunately Simon was placated by adopting another rather smelly canine friend and the Nixon's and I found a nest with the tiniest little hummingbird baby. Cute factor eased the pain. As we started our decent we walked through the cloud and out into a crystal clear day. Here the promised views of the wax palms unfolded. These spindly figures reach incredible heights and seem to defy the wind despite their frail appearance. Hillsides are decorated with the stars of green at their summit making for a true 'wow' moment. Boys being boys found a toppled tree and used it as a spring board. Another impending Simon injury was predicted but fortunately on this occasion I was spared having to try to look sympathetic.
That evening the Nixon's friends arrived. Three Colombian doctors travelled to the sticks to join us in more tejo and over indulgence in rum. It got messy. Not least when after game 2 Simon got a serious case of drunk hunger. The tejo manager couldn't help but said he would bring him something back. It was an ugly sight. With fried onions, mayo and bun crumbs stuck in his beard, juices dripping down his fingers and onto his jeans and the largest wonkiest grin Simon claimed with a full mouth (and still does to this day) that it was the finest burger ever to have passed his lips...
An odd occurrence has developed since leaving the UK and that would be my ability to handle my alcohol. I had to head home as my neck stopped being able to hold my head up and my arms were numb. Simon and the gang headed back to their cottage and carried on until the wee small hours. Well carried on until the security guard was called to tell them to pipe down. A small tete a tete ensued and I was rudely awoken by a stumbling Simon who promptly passed out naked on top of the covers and snored. Even a sharp dig in the ribs failed.
I left the pained man in bed whilst I spent the day exploring the colourful streets, eyeing up hand made jewellery I didn't need and drinking coffee in the square; the perfect people watching position.
It was time to leave and we had already booked a room in a hacienda deep in a coffee plantation. The Nixon's had already been but in convincing us to go had also convinced themselves to go back. They changed their plans and came with us.
Hacienda Venecia has 6 bedrooms, a pool, perfectly positioned hammocks, humming birds on the veranda and bright banana coloured birds in the palm trees. Coffee is on tap. The sun is in abundance. The conversation interesting as the charismatic plantation owner Juan shared his own travel stories. The laughs were loud whilst beer, swimming and the easy life was shared. This is where pug love began. The ugliest dog alive, Milo, with his boggly blood shot eyes, long sticky tongue, wrinkled skin and a pungent fragrance shows you that beauty is not a scale. He was so ugly he had gone full circle and become beautiful.
We spent a morning being shown the coffee fields and how little red berries end up being our morning saviour. We were shown the main hacienda house with its bright red veranda, peacocks in all their glory, ponds sprinkled with pink waterlilies; straight out of a 1930's Southern America plantation. We were taught how to find your perfect roast. Simon was given a stern look when asking where to find the sugar and milk. Despite all the talk of vanilla overtones and smoked undertones and cinnamon after taste Simon's now educated opinion was; "coffee sucks without sugar." Ah well. You can take the horse to water but he still might prefer it sweet.
One lazy hour after another lazy hour. One more coffee after another. Angela and I were itching to do something. We headed to thriving Manizales to go food shopping and rode the cable car on one day and went for a walk the next. What started as a pleasant stroll amongst the coffee bushes ended up with a steep muddy decent mostly on our bums or hugging branches. After almost losing a flip flop in the river, collecting mud under our finger nails and ruining our shorts we decided we would head back and stick to poolside.
Leaving the coffee zone was a hardship. As it so happened more of a hardship than just leaving our hammocks and the heartbreak suffered from my Milo separation. Another Nixon goodbye was pending and we all needed to fly to Bogota to start our separate journeys. We booked a taxi to take us to the nearest airport, a luxury not usually afforded but with all of us needing to eek out every possible last minute on the veranda we treated ourselves. The taxi was late. As the clock ticked the taxi was very late and by the time we saw him roll into the plantation we were all in a state of panic. We threw ourselves and our bags into the truck before he had even stopped and urged him to put the pedal to the metal! We were making good enough time to reach the check in before it closed when suddenly the traffic clogged and blue lights flashed. An accident just 20 metres ahead of us. The driver and all of us resigned to hours of waiting and wrote off our flight. Within minutes the injured were bundled into ambulances. Lady Luck was with us once again and the game was on. There was still chance. As we all grew in confidence and counted spare minutes our jubilation was once again squashed as now a car was on fire and the entire highway was closed!!! Resignation to a night bus and a missed flight once again. Our driver by this time had suffered the highs and lows with us and refused to give in. He wended his way through small alleys, went the wrong way up one way streets, broke all speed limits and screeched just metres way from the small check in desk. A small Colombian miracle.
We arrived at Bogota for our very definite final supper. The only consolation we had as I snivelled and we waved them off to their hostel was that the Caribbean awaited. A flight to the Colombian island of San Andres would take us to shark dives, beaches and a Caribbean vibe.