Day 161 – 10 Aug, 2015
When you think of Colombia, what comes to mind? Many people think of Pablo Escobar, hot temperatures, lush jungle, pristine beaches, and, of course, rich coffee. In most of South America, the coffee comes in the form of flakes that are dissolved in water, otherwise known as Nescafé. Finding real coffee is not as easy as it would seem. But now I am in Colombia, one of the premier coffee growing regions of the world!
After spending the first few days between Pasto and Popayan, making my way north, I soon discovered that good coffee was still a novelty. In Pasto, I stayed in the apartment of Emily, Kaitlyn, and Camille, friends I first met in Ecuador. They are teaching English in Pasto and offered me a place to sleep. Emily sadly informed me that nearly all of the “good” coffee is exported and in order to find an extraordinary brew, you have to ask for it and be willing to pay premium prices.
My search wasn’t over. My sights were set on Salento, the coffee-growing region located about 8 hours southwest of Bogota and 8 hours southeast of Medellin. Surely, this is where I would find the golden cup. When I finally arrived in Salento, amid more bus drama that I won’t write about here, I was pleasantly surprised with the town itself. Albeit, there is a strong sense of tourism here with restaurants called Brunch Diner and Beta Bar & Grill (even though I admittedly ate well in Salento), but it was subtle. There were no aggressive tour operators trying to sell you package excursions and only a few street vendors with random trinkets to buy. So much time in the south has soured me a bit on aggressive salespeople and Salento was a lovely respite. The population is only about 7000 people and the warmth of the residents was felt immediately. A woman out for a walk with her dog personally walked me to the hostel so I wouldn’t be lost. The people of Colombia are strongly recognized for their kindness.
From the town, you can walk a short way down a peaceful country road to the coffee farms. When I say down, I do mean downhill. I joined up with Jade (from Trinidad) and Josee (from Canada), whom I met upon arrival, and we meandered along the dirt route, admiring magnificent views, about an hour before we came to Finca Don Eduardo. It almost looked closed the place was so small. A few dogs and cats greeted us when we approached and we were led to the front of a dilapidated building for a tour of the property. We followed Don’s son through the plantation that grows not only coffee, but also bananas, avocado, papaya, and cassava. The result is a sustainable organic farm that adds beauty to the landscape with its varied output. We learned what causes a bean to be “bad,” when it is damaged in some way, and that those damaged beans are sent to mass consumers like….Starbucks. True story. Afterward, we watched as the most recently dried beans were ground into a fresh cup. True perfection. But don’t be fooled that this kind of coffee can easily be found elsewhere in Salento. It’s universally true that you have to specify that you want something from their “gourmet” variety or else it might come from a jar of flakes. Just sayin.
The real jewel of Salento is the Cocora Valley, only about 30 mins away via open air jeep that is packed with about 10 passengers clinging on to any piece of metal that is fastened down. The circuit itself takes about 4 hours to walk around a grove of the world’s tallest palm trees to a mirador spanning the entire valley, back down to a hummingbird reserve and finishing with a dip in a waterfall. I had seen photos of Cocora before I arrived and I knew it was stunning. I was not disappointed. The palm trees are so unique and add such a character to the valley I could have stayed in this spot all day just to recognize how small one can feel next to a 160 ft tree.
Alas, we must continue. I met an Italian guy on the jeep ride to the valley who had just started his travels. We walked together for most of the day. At one point, there was a sign that read “Cascada 3.5 km” with an arrow pointing off the trail. The Italian, just arriving in South America and full of enthusiasm, wanted to take this 4 mile round trip detour. Now, in true form of how jaded I have become, I have to assume that a waterfall not denoted on the map and no one has yet to mention is probably not that impressive, a trickle at best. My opinion was that we should skip it because I was sure it was not a “good” waterfall and he would have many more opportunities. I have since laughed at my negative attitude and wherever he is, I apologize to the energetic Italian who might enjoy walking 4 extra miles to see a trickle. Who am I to judge??
All said, I could have stayed in Salento longer than I did. I can’t say why. Sometimes you find that place that feels comfortable or relaxing or in some obscure way reminds you of home. Even when you can’t determine the source of the hold a place may have, you know it’s there and you know you’ll return one day.
***A special thank you to Emily, Kaitlyn and Camille for your hospitality, for letting me lounge in my pajamas for an entire day in your apartment, and for making me a healthy and delicious dinner and breakfast. I hope I can return the favor one day!***