TUESDAY, MAY 21
Bogotá was just so we could catch an early flight south to Colombia’s “coffee triangle.” Now we are here, enjoying the town of MANIZALES. We are staying in HOTEL VARUNA in the “Zona Rosa” district. Hoping for a good meal, we looked up Japanese and the most highly rated was . . . right next door to our hotel! And it was delicious sushi. Finally.
Now we will explore Colombia’s coffee area. We knew little about what to do in the “coffee triangle,” so called because there are three main towns here, so we pulled out our on-line travel guides and set about making a plan. That was fun. We work well together.
They all tell us that the best coffee gets exported and what they drink here is the left over. It’s kind of a joke, because they are extremely proud of their coffee too, and we find it to be delicious.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 22 – MANIZALES
The weather here is cool and rainy, and somewhat overcast in the morning, clearing to blue skies and white, puffy clouds by afternoon. We find our light down jackets are on, then off, then on, then off.
Today is the day to explore the town of MANIZALES. It is not a pretty town. It looks like they built a lot of ugly buildings in the 50s and then let them deteriorate. There are some prettier areas, and an occasional modern building, but all in all, I would not want to live here.
We taxied to the down town area to take the highly recommended tour of the main cathedral, and are glad we did.
This city was founded in 1849 when conflicts forced people inland from the coasts. In 1922, 1924, and 1925, the city suffered huge fires that destroyed city blocks. This building was started in 1928 and completed in 1939. The reason it took so long to build is that all the materials had to be imported. They architect was French, and all the European cathedrals are concrete, as this one would be. But Colombia does not have the ingredients for concrete, so it all had to be shipped over.
But the exciting thing about this tour is that we got to climb way up to the top of the steeple: 465 steps. Hey, that’s nothing for us. Last year we climbed 769 steps to the top of the monolith in Guatapé! The church has many gorgeous stained glass windows, all imported from Europe, and half way up, we were directly opposite them for close up views. There were areas where we were on narrow walkways outdoors – with sturdy railings! I had the feelings that I think are what people must feel who have a “fear of heights,” but for me, it’s more of a thrill. My body gets this tingly feeling all over. If it weren’t for the railings, I’d be extremely scared. But it was a thrill to be so high up and look straight down. From the small viewing platform at the top, the 360 view of the town and the surrounding mountains was spectacular, and we are happy that it was pretty darn clear. We could see seven layers of mountain ranges.
These are the old wooden stairs next to the new metal stairs, MUCH safer.
Throughout the tour, mass was taking place, so we got to hear the Allen pipe organ, installed in 2015, filling the huge church with its glorious sound. There were about 100 people scattered around the pews, and there are three masses a day. The town has 63 churches, many of them big and gorgeous, and every one that we entered had many worshipers scattered among the pews.
Then we walked to the market area, small and mostly about meat, not very beautiful produce.
We taxied to the terminal of the aerial tramway. This is part of the municipal transportation system, but for us it was all about more views. The outstanding observation is that, whereas roofs in all the rest or Colombia we’ve seen are lovely red tile, all of the rooftops here are metal, and many are rusted. When we asked about this, they said the zinc roofs are so much cheaper, and that in more prosperous areas they do use tile.
Next we taxied to the CHIPRE area, the highest in the town. Again, the views are stunning, with distant mountain ranges, and views of the city. From up here, the city is gorgeous because it is so green. Buildings are in clumps, on ridges or in valleys with lots of green in between. And the other feature up here is an extraordinary bronze sculpture with many parts, called “Agony and Ecstasy” depicting the settling of Manizales in 1834, with pioneers pushing inland to avoid strife on the coasts and in the cities. There were oxen dragging heavy burdens, stuck in mud and families climbing hills and finally arriving, quite a brilliant piece of artwork.
After a nice break at the hotel, we set out for dinner, aware that we are located in “Zona Rosa,” said to be a newer, trendy area with excellent restaurants and shops. We decided to explore. Two doors up from the hotel, we checked out an Italian place with a great menu but cheap cafe ambiance, with a TV blaring. We pushed on, but as we walked, we discovered that we are the wrong generation for this area. It was all bars or nightspots selling hot dogs (seem to be very big here) or empanadas along with boom, boom noise that passes for music in this generation, and clientele all under 30. We enjoyed the walk all over, making lots of jokes, and finally realized our best bet was to return to the Italian place near our hotel. We sat at an outdoor table with no TV and enjoyed a fabulous pizza!
THURSDAY, MAY 23 – SALENTO
We hired a private car and driver for the two-hour ride to Salento. The entire two hours, it was pouring rain, a real downpour. It made us worry about the weather for the outdoor adventures we planned, but as it turned out, we had near perfect weather for the next three days. We always carried our umbrellas, but pulled them out only once the whole time.
We settled into our HOTEL BETA and walked around the square. Salento is a beautiful small town. All of the buildings are painted in gorgeous, bright color combinations. The main square is large and tranquil with no cars parked around blocking the views of these beautiful colors.
Imagine a whole town of this with many different color combinations!
Jeeps are the only way to travel around here, so we took the public jeep for the half-hour drive to COCORA VALLEY. We decided to ride horses into the valley, with a guide, figuring we could go deeper and higher than if we hiked. It was totally the right decision. – I may have seen scenery this dramatic and spectacular in my back packing days in the high Si
erras (very different!), but apart from that, this may will be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. The valley is known for the tallest palm trees in the world, called wax palms, and they are amazingly tall, indeed, and fun to see, looking up, up, up even higher. But the undulating green hills of the valley are simply gorgeous, and probably hard to capture in a photo, but we tried.
So sweet: Way up high, someone had planted a lovely rose garden.
The photos just can’t capture the stunning beauty of this area, because the vistas are far and wide. I looked up the geological history of the area, because I’ve never seen such undulating hills. It’s way complex and a combination of tectonic plates, sediment, erosion, earthquakes, and volcanoes, not any one activity that caused all this.
Back in town, we had time to walk all over town before dinner, with craft stores and coffee shops all lined up. The craft and clothing stores were nice, but had nothing even close to the beautiful crafts we saw at the EXPO in Medellin, and of course, nothing of any interest to us, but fun to browse.
FRIDAY, MAY 24 – COFFEE TOUR
We walked to Plantation House to meet our guide for the coffee tour, a lively Brit who moved here twelve years ago and bought this coffee farm to fulfill his passion: Don Eduardo. He was funny and entertaining and included his big, black Newfoundland and his older Collie as part of the tour guides. The dogs were well trained and quite impressive and fun.
We walked twenty minutes on a dirt, rock, and mud path, again beautiful, down to the coffee farm itself. They thoughtfully provided us with calf high marine boots, which we definitely needed. Then we, and two other couples with us, got a lecture and demonstrations for a couple of hours. I learned way more about coffee than I ever really need to know, but it was fascinating! A few highlights (but this skims the surface of all we learned):
- The country that produces the most coffee, 1/3 of all the coffee in the world, is Brazil. They have quantity but not quality. Colombia produces the best coffee. The second largest producer of coffee in the world is . . . . you’d never guess . . . Vietnam! Colombia is third in quantity. Indonesia is fourth. Mexico is fifth.
- Traditional coffee is a pure type. The vast majority of planters plant “modern” coffee plants, which are hybrids. They plant a variety of types and blend all the beans together as they process them. Don Eduardo plants and produces only pure, traditional coffee.
- The coffee plant produces what looks like, and is called, a cherry. That’s what the pickers pick. They are “half man, half mountain goat,” and Don Eduardo says they are amazing to watch because they never fall. Coffee is planted on steep slopes, not always, but that is simply the terrain here. He has tried to pick coffee and always falls.
- First, a machine pops the coffee beans out of the cherry. Most cherries have two beans inside, usually the same size. But about a sixth of the time, one of the beans is small and round. These are called “pea beans.” They contain 80% of the flavor of that cherry. Most growers just throw them in. However, it is possible to buy coffee that is made only from the pea beans (rare but possible in places like Salento.)
- Next the beans are soaked in water for 18 to 30 hours to remove the slimy outer layer, which is sugar. It turns coffee bitter, so must be removed. It is possible to make wine out of the sugar water, and Don Eduardo had some there, which he let us taste. It’s really good, slightly sweet. If I were not traveling so light, I’d have bought a bottle.
- Then the beans have to dry out. There are a number of methods for doing this. Once it is dry, this is the stage to plant the coffee beans to produce more plants. This is also the stage of the bean that coffee growers take to the coffee producers. These are huge factories that complete the processing. The next steps are there are two skins that must be removed: the outer or “parchment” skin and then the thin “silver skin” (like the skin on a red peanut). Then the coffee is roasted.
- There are 300,000 coffee farms in Colombia. Most are smallish. They take the partially processed beans to producers. When you take in your beans to the processors, first they check to see how dry the beans are. If there is still moisture, you won’t get paid as much.
- Don Eduardo completed the process for us that is usually done in the plants, first removing the outer “parchment” skin, and then the thin “silver skin,”using two different antique coffee grinders to do this. (We have both of these antique machines in the gallery.) Then he roasted those beans in a wok over a flame, and made coffee for us from them. It was good! We also tasted different varieties of coffee and different types of roasting. We learned how coffee is graded and with the international standard for coffee are.
- Coffee farms also plant banana trees to provide shade for the coffee and tobacco, because the insects greatly prefer tobacco and leave the coffee plants alone!
We hiked back up out of the farm and headed straight for the Jesus Martin coffee shop, which Don Eduardo had recommended for a cup of “pea bean” coffee. It truly was good, full of flavor and very smooth! So was the carrot cake to accompany it!
For dinner, we had the local specialty, river trout, and I loved it!
SATURDAY, MAY 25 – FILANDIA
I’m not sure why all the local transportation is in jeeps, maybe it’s tradition, but that’s how you get around here. So we took the scheduled jeep to the next little coffee town, ½ hour away: Filandia. It si not as pretty as Salento, with lots of wires (Salento has buried all their wires, a great blessing!) and more traffic in the square. It had more of the same crafts, fun streets to walk along and some beautiful vista points for more of the spectacular scenery.
And THEN, walking along one street, we saw some beautiful hand-made baskets, different from anything we’d seen. There was also a basket museum. These are the kinds of crafts we love, carefully hand crafted and utilitarian in origin. Of course, the baskets were all made for the coffee industry. There were the ones worn around the waist for picking, and other shapes used for other parts of the coffee processing. The craft is dying out because plastic buckets are so much cheaper (so sad), but there are still families keeping the craft alive and a few young people taking it up. Now they are making more decorative designs. The museum was small but beautifully done, and there was a wonderful shop. Mayer still had one unused duffel we could hand carry, so we bought as many baskets as we thought we could pack in.
We were so happy to find these traditional baskets! It’s surprising none of the “craft stores” carry them at all. This is the only place we’ve seen them. They are all made from a variety of vines.
Back in Solento, we headed to the “happening” restaurant we had been passing, filled with people including back packers and with a totally Berkeley atmosphere. It’s called “Brunch,” but serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner! We loved it, started chatting with folks, and enjoyed a wonderful salad. We wandered into a back room with couches and found the owner there, Jeff Bailey, an American who opened this place eleven years ago. We ended up talking with him for two hours and enjoyed him immensely. He told us he is building a new place two doors over and invited us to tour it the next day. He was also a fountain of information about what to do here, and suggested our next day activity. We like him very much, and agreed to meet he next day.
SUNDAY, MAY 26 – SANTA RITA FALLS
After breakfast at Brunch Restaurant and more fun back packers, we walked to another horse rental place and, again with a lovely guide, rode to Santa Rita Falls. The entire ride was beautiful. These horses were more frisky and like to trot some, which added to the fun, but is also hard work! On the way, we went through some tunnels built in the early 20th century when they thought they’d be running a train through this area. It’s hard to imagine, it is such wilderness. We had to ford a stream, no problem for the horses. The final twenty minutes was a hike including a rope bridge over the river.
That evening, we again got together with Jeff and saw the quite remarkable building he is constructing for his new restaurant, including a workshop for him in the basement, a large apartment for him and his new Colombian wife (whom we also met, Cecelia, quite a delight), a small shop to sell backpacking equipment, and many innovations he was proud of like an air extracting system for the whole building, holes in the floor of the kitchen to cool it from the basement, and so on. He says he is mainly an inventor, has built a lot of houses, run other restaurants, etc. Quite a fun guy!
People say a lot, “Colombia is so beautiful.” Now I know what they mean. It’s true. It is green, green, green. Every plant looks like it is on steroids. And the rolling landscape and distant views are, well . . . beautiful. And the people are as friendly and outgoing as any I’ve encountered anywhere.
MONDAY, May 27 – Homeward Bound
This is a day of travel. Flight to Bogata, then to Mexico City where we’ll spend the night and get a bus home on Tuesday.
An Unforgettable Experience of México