Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Colombia. Coffee and Culture

Feeling a bit worn out from Christmas and New Year, and upon recommendation, we headed for what was described as a small bit of paradise outside the historic city of Manizales.

As we entered the town , we hit the congestion. Manizales was just starting to celebrate its Feria (Fair). Thousands of tourist flock to this event and most of the industry in the area packs up for the week to take part in this annual festival, which sadly revolved around the historic and once popular practice of "Bull Fighting"

Manizales is one of the few remaining locations in Colombia that has an active Bull Ring. Although distasteful to many, Bull Fighting has played a huge part in Colombian culture and tradition. For the Matadors who take part, winning a tournament is similar to winning an Olympic gold medal or the World Cup.  Statues of previous immortal heroes adorn the town.

Having spent an hour or so feeding though the very steep streets of the town we arrived  at Camping Santa Luis perched on the very  top of large hill about 2 km outside town.

Our online Camp site guide ( ioverlander )  and some friends who had recently visited the site both suggested that the size of our vehicle wouldn't be a problem.  The last 100m of the the long single track pathway to the site got narrower and narrower. With 25m to go and our mirrors folded back we ground to a halt. A bank of earth on the right, a steep drop on the left and overhanging trees stopped us in our tracks with no way forward or backward.

After  a few stressful minutes salvation appeared in the form of the owner Patricia, armed with a large saw and a shovel. Thirty minutes later the path was 1 meter wider and the trees were all looking trimmed.

The descriptions were  correct. The site was perched on an outcrop with  270 degree views into 3 different valleys. It was fantastic.

The owner Patricia was wonderful, and we knew that leaving this place wasn't going to be easy.

Our plan was to stay for the weekend. However, two weeks later we were still struggling to get the enthusiasm to pack up and leave. It was heaven. We were lucky enough to meet Catalina and Juan, from Bogota  . Wonderful people who very kindly asked us to join them on a coffee plantation tour called           " Hacienda Venecia. This place couldn't have been more different to the small family run plantation we visited previously in Salento. Many of the larger plantations work in conjuction with other similar ones to ensure a stable supply and yield. Unlike the Salento plantation this one employed hundreds of mainly seasonal workers to plant, grow, harvest and prepare the coffee beans for roasting. 

At the end of a long hot tour, discovering that the plantation also had a swimming pool was a bonus 

Whilst chilling out at camp in Santa Luis, two other great things happened. Firstly we got a surprise visit from a fellow traveller "Francis" who we had previously met in Filandia over Christmas  and secondly Pat decided we needed a holiday in Brazil. Buts that's another story for a later blog entry. 

The day came when we had to leave and tears were shed when saying farewell to the beautiful owner Patricia, who had made our stay there very special.

The three and a half hour , 128 km, drive to the pretty town of Jardin took 2 days. It was mostly off road but a really great drive .

Jardin is a similar town to Filandia in that it revolves around a large colourfully painted town square, flanked with nice restaurants and cafe's. A pleasant place for a few days. 

Throughout Ecuador and Colombia we have made several efforts to get a glimpse of a rare bird known as "The Cock of the Rock".

Rumour  had it that they might be seen in a private garden on the edge of town. Armed with our best anoraks and binoculars we set off for the location.

We got lucky 

The pretty town of Jerico will always be remembered for the worst reasons. 

Having spent three days camping at the take off point of a local Paragliding centre enjoying the beautiful views and the local town's festival, our peace was shattered.

By coincidence the festival in question was the Literary "Hay Festival". We tried to claim that we were delegates from the UK and that our surname proved that we were from the festivals founding family. Didn't work  

This location is on the bucket list for many experienced or would be paragliders and its easy to see why . It was beautiful, the steep views down into the valley below were stunning. We spent hours chatting with pilots from many nationalities who were waiting for the perfect moment to launch.

It was during the afternoon of day three that we heard a commotion occurring at the centre. Upon investigation we discovered that a very experienced American pilot  had not checked in upon landing and his personal GPS was suggesting that he was located in a very dense jungle area and hadn't moved for the the last two hours.

Everyone was very concerned and a search and rescue  party was  assembled. I obviously grabbed some water, a couple of torches and my boots and set off , hoping for the best.

We drove to as near as we could get to the signal and along with some volunteer firemen we set of into the night on foot. The high altitude, humidity, constant steep incline and millions of biting insects made the 3 hour hike into the dense forest pretty tough. Eventually with our lungs screaming  and hearts beating out of our chests we arrived at an area that was within 25 meters of the GPS beacon. 

Despite shouting and searching we could not find the pilots exact location.   

We found ourseves standing on the top edge of a very high cliff that was densly covered in thick vegetation.

Having searched the area at the top to no avail we could only conclude that the pilot must either be trapped out of site on the cliff face or at the bottom of the cliff.

The fire Officers very carefully lowered themselves over the cliff on what could only be described as a totally inadequate piece of rope.  After several descents they announced that they could see the canopy of the glider entangled in the vegetation on the cliff about 10 meters below them. They couldn't however see the pilot or decend any lower as the rope was just too short.

Getting to him was impossible.

At 3 am we all sat on the top of the cliff and made the very painful decision that we were unable to progress any further and despite locating the pilot, we had to abandon the rescue and return to base. 

The journey back down was very quiet and everyones spirits were rock bottom.

The next day a search and rescue team was from Medellin was despatched and very sadly the Pilots body was recovered from the cliff  face. 

This was a very very sad experience. 

We are not really city people, preferring to spend our time relaxing in open spaces and countryside. 

We do however make an effort, but usually find that a few days in a city is our maximum. Medellin was no exception.

Once the Murder capital of the world, Medellin has over the last decade cleaned its act up and has now become very popular tourist destination. This change has partly come about by the glamorising of the ruthless drug dealing murderer Pablo Escobar who lived there. 

I have no doubt people will forget what he stood for and the thousands of people he murdered.  In 20 years time we will all be wearing T shirts with the a black and white image of his face on it, like Che Guavara .

We camped in the city in a small town square and did the tour. We didnt do the Escobar tour opting for the cultural experience.

Medellin, in the district of Antioquia, is Colombia second largest city and is home to about 2.5 million people. 

It is divided into "Communes" which have both names and numbers. One popular Commune for tourists is that of "San Javier" also known as district 13.

This area was once the most violent, lawless regions. It was ruled totally by the drug cartels. With one of the highest murder rates in the world Comuna 13 was not on the tourist menu.  Its steep hillside Favelas look across and down onto the city. 

Now however, after huge investment and law enforcement, it has become probably the number one attraction in the city. People come from all over the world to see the amazing street art, painted by locals. 

Young people who's futures would have been uncertain now embrace the changes by turning their attention to more creative trades.

Another very popular feature in the city centre is Plaza Botero. This is the home of 23 Bronze sculptures that were created by locally born artist Fernando Botero. 

These figures are famous for their unique style, depicting slightly out of proprtion characters. 

Although, Botero now resides in Italy he still invests a huge amount promoting culture and art within the city. 

Our tour guides for the day were Luis and Carolina of Super Tours Medellin . Just Brilliant. Very Recommended 

Still within the region of Antioquia, the Lake district of Guatape lies about 100km east of Medellin.

This large man made lake called the "Penol Guatape Reservoir" is overlooked by a peculiar outcrop of stone called the "Piedra de Penol".   Its summit is 200m above the lake and it takes 649 steps to reach the top.

Colombia is without doubt a beautiful country full of amazing landscapes and hidden gems.

Hasta Luego    

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Christmas and New Year in Colombia

Being a predominantly Christian country Colombians love Christmas. The streets and houses are brightly decorated with a big hint of competitiveness.

We had arranged many months before entering the country that we were spending Christmas at a well know travellers hostel called Steel Horse, in the picturesque town of Filandia . 

Because we didn't want to leave Ecuador,  we left it to the last minute to enter the country so found ourselves racing north to make Filandia in time.  

Its hard to estimate travelling time accurately. Sometimes you plot a route of lets say 150 km, thinking it will take 3 to 4 hours and it  turns out to be a long day due to the terrain, road works  and negotiating large towns and cities. 

We stopped on the way at a camp site called           "La Bonanza Chez Kika" near the town of Silvia.

This amazing place has been developed over the last couple of years by a wonderful Moroccan family who stumbled into this beautiful area whilst travelling and then made it their home .

Many Colombian families observe the custom of Novena. This practise requires families, friends and the community in general to gather on each of the 9 days prior to Christmas and conduct ceremonies, prayers and singing.

Whilst at Bonanza were were  invited into the home of the neighbours to take part in this event.  Although not religious ourselves it was an absolute honour to be included.

Several families were all crammed into a relatively small room and each member including all the children played their part. 

It was a fantastic evening that finished with a hot, but very sweet drinking chocholate with cheese in it.

It seemed only fair that having been invited into their home that I reciprocate and invite them to our home the next morning with the promise that all the children would get a present.

Believing that only a few would turn up we were quite taken aback when bang on 9 o'clock everyone turned up .

Luckily Pat's endless supply of London Pencils, Key Rings and Hair clips held out.

These events have become highlights for us and its very humbling to be included in such occasions . 

Having said our endless goodbyes and withe the promise of our return, we set of heading north. 

We had only been on the road for half an hour when we were stopped by the local Police who wanted to do a routine search of our vehicle for illicit drugs.

The rather fat drugs dog was deployed. 

Our truck has 6 steps into the cabin area. Sadly the fat drugs dog couldn't manage them so its handler told everyone to stand back whilst he threw it through the door. We all waited outside with eager anticipation. We waited and waited. Nothing happened, the dog was missing in action. 

After 5 minutes the handler decided that we should now enter the cabin to see what he had found. 
The fat drugs dog was curled up fast asleep on our mat. The slightly embarrassed handler gave the dog a firm nudge with his boot. The dog sprang into action, looked around and found a shoe, which it proudly presented to the handler.

The search was duly abandoned and we all opted for a series of selfies instead. 

But only after they had all run back to their vehicle to get their amazing hats on 

Filandia is a very pretty town deep in the heart of the Colombian coffee region.

The Hostel "Steel Horse" is owned and run by a couple of Brits called Yvette and Paul who like the Moroccan family earlier, had fallen in love with the region, whilst travelling on motorcycles.

The Christmas event had been promoted well in advance by Overland Sphere  and about 25 Overlanders, in vehicles and motorcycles, were in attendance. 

A couple of nights before Christmas we all decided to hit the town , get a meal and see the sights.

After dinner we all found ourselves in the basement area of a seedy bar. It looked like it would be an ideal location for cock fighting or cage fighting.

The place was full of drunken locals and the smoke hanging the air was chocking.

It turns out that this is the local arena for the game of " Tejo".  It involves throwing heavy metal weights at explosive charges that are mounted on a wet clay backdrop. The aim is obviously to hit the charges causing a deafening explosion . The owner very patiently explained the 300 rules of the game , which we promptly ignored and just took it turns to try and blow ourselves up.   Alcohol helps with this game.

It was clearly invented by a bunch of drunken cowboys who thought it would be a good idea to throw rocks at shotgun cartridges.

Described as game of skill, the locals were taking it very seriously. We weren't allowed to play on the big courts and were confined to the children's area. Kids throwing rocks at explosives has always sounded good to me .

The triangular bits are the explosives.

A great night was had and we all survived intact.

Christmas day was great. Pat decorated the room and  Paul and Yvette slaved tirelessly in the kitchen  and an amazing meal was produced. 

Overland Sphere kindly donated the wine and the beer..... Thank you

After dinner the silly games started. 

Great Evening, Great company, Great fun.

The next few days were spent relaxing and enjoying the town.

During one of the afternoons , we were sat out chatting when the ground started shaking . For the first time in our lives we were experiencing an earthquake. The truck was swinging side to side and we all looked at each other in astonishment. It was all over in about 20 seconds.

Half an hour later, whilst Pat was sat on the toilet in the truck, the second one arrived. Never seen her move so quick. She was out of the door in 5 seconds. 

The end came all too soon and the good byes were tough

The nearby town of Salento and the Cocora Valley filled the gap between Christmas and New Year.

Salento is a relatively small town that is very popular with both Tourists and Locals .

Just outside the town we visited Finca Momota

This relatively small , but totally organic , coffee plantation is owned and managed by Uri and Carla.
Their dream is to create a very bio diverse Coffee Finca that uses  old traditional values and cultivation methods.

For us it was a bit of an eye opener as I wouldn't have recognised a coffee tree if it fell on me. 
The processes they use are very labour intensive as nearly all tasks from raising seedlings to roasting the beans are done by hand.

Who would have thought that coffee beans are red.

The Cocora Valley is home to a large collection of the very tall Wax Palms . They can grow to between 40 and 50m and can reach well over 100 years in age.


The recently opened camp ground and hostel called "Donkey Sunrise" in La Union in the Valle de Cauca was our New Year destination.

Upon arrival we discovered that quite a number        ( mostly younger )  from the Christmas gathering had the same great idea.

Like Christmas, New Year is a big occasion  in Colombia. Don't expect to get any sleep. 

There are many traditions that take place on the night. These include eating 12 grapes to the chimes of midnight, wearing yellow underwear, filling your pockets with Lentils, running around the block with a suitcase.   However, the more bizarre and slightly sinister  act of blowing up the old year doll is the most popular.

This practise involves making a full size human effigy known as "Ano Nuevo" . You then fill it with explosives and on the first stroke of midnight you blow it to pieces. This symbolises burning away the Old Year and thus making way for the New Year.

In the lead up to the event all the roads are lined with these dolls waiting to be selected for their calling.

The neighbouring bar invited us to witness their sacrifice .  Glad we didn't stand too close .


After all that excitement there was only one thing left to do 

Salsa lessons

Happy New year and

Hasta Luego