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Published: August 7th 2018
Driving in Colombia has kept Ken on his toes more than he could ever have expected, or wished for! There is barely a flat or straight stretch of road in the entire country, so you inevitably end up stuck behind one slow truck/bus after another as you crawl up or down one huge mountain after another. Throw in never-ending roadworks, landslides, police checkpoints, local parades, suicidal stray dogs and crazy motorcylists, and you get an idea of why it can take up to 8 hours to drive 100 miles! There's never a dull moment, that's for certain. On the plus side, the scenery has been stunning without exception and reminds us often of the more spectacular parts of New Zealand's North Island.
So we left Medellin after a week at the Al Bosque hostel, where we bumped into a Swiss couple - Marcel & Graziella - whom we had first met back in January in Baja, Mexico. It was great to reconnect with them, and meet a few other overlanders too, most of them travelling south like us. It took 2 long days of driving to get down to the Zona Cafetera (coffee region) and the lovely small town of
If this is a motel room, I wouldn't want to see what a jail cell looks like!
This was our $10 hotel room at a truck stop on the way to the coffee region! It actually looked better in real life, and had good A/C as well as a bathroom and TV!
Salento. This area quickly became our favourite place in Colombia, mainly because of the gorgeous landscapes, which are so green and mountainous, with coffee plantations on every cultivable inch of land. We stayed at La Serrana hostel/campground, about a mile outside of Salento, and immediately made ourselves quite at home there, enjoying clean bathrooms, hot water (some of the time), free breakfasts, amazing views, a cozy lounge area and a good overlander crowd of mainly German and Swiss travelers from our Medellin campground. There was also a collection of friendly four-legged critters, including a skinny mutt whom we named Yellow Dog (my favourite), and a ridiculously relaxed cat, aka Sleepy Cat. These animals did pretty well once they realized that they could visit all the different campervans and receive a tasty snack and a healthy dose of affection from every one of them!
One of the highlights of our week in this area was a tour of a working coffee farm, where we got to don little wicker baskets and go out into the plantation to try to collect the cherries (the fruit that yields the coffee bean). Well, we rooted around in the bushes for a while and
La Serrana campground, Salento
Ken and Marcel at our favourite campground in Colombia. This place was great and even provided a free breakfast every day of coffee, eggs, bread and bananas!
found about 5 ripe cherries between the two of us - not much when you consider that local coffee pickers get paid about 20 cents per kilo of cherries picked! At our dismal picking rate it would have taken a week to harvest just 1 kilo!! To Ken's credit, he also came back with an inedible, under ripe plantain, a couple of sticks that fell in his basket, and several mosquito bites. We were then shown how to skin the cherries, revealing the slimy 'bean' inside, which is subsequently washed, dried and then roasted before it ends up in your coffee mug. The finca was beautiful and we really enjoyed learning about the coffee process and tasting the final product (well I did...Ken doesn't like coffee (what?!!) so had a beer instead!) We rode back to the hostel on a WWII Willy's Jeep, which is the preferred form of transport in this area and is great fun when you stand on the back of the vehicle on a little metal step, clinging to the roof rack! Apparently, surplus American Jeeps were introduced to the region after World War II; the locals loved their durability and ability to negotiate the steep
and unforgiving terrain. Hence, they proliferated, and many 60+ year old Jeeps are still plying the bumpy roads to this day. We took another of these jeeps the next day to the village of Cocora, about 30 mins from Salento, where we did a 15km hike through the Cocora valley. As we arrived at a viewpoint early on in the hike and were taking pictures of the famous wax palms (which can grow to 60 metres tall), a huge condor appeared from the mist and glided above us in circles for several minutes, perhaps only 30 metres or so above our heads. It was an incredible experience and we were very lucky to see one so close - in fact, lucky to see one at all, as a park ranger told us that there is only the one condor in this area! The hike was wonderful and quite exhausting as there was a lot of up and down, as well as slippy trails, rickety wooden bridges crisscrossing the river, and the higher altitude to contend with. The highlight was definitely seeing the condor though.
We finally tore ourselves away from Salento (an area that we could perhaps picture ourselves
living in) and continued south, on yet more winding and slow roads until we reached the outskirts of Popayan, a colonial city of about 280,000 people. We've been a bit spoiled with colonial cities after spending so much time in Mexico, so we weren't overly impressed with Popayan, but we took the time to take a bus into the city from our campground and walk around the pretty central plaza and see the whitewashed buildings of the old town. Ken was just happy to leave the campground for a few hours, which had been taken over by a group of young hippy travelers who were blasting out new age music all day and perfecting their slack-lining technique - two activities which he doesn't have much use for! They took great pride and delight explaining to us as we arrived that a big festival was about to take place on Saturday (2 days away), whereby 50-60 of their friends would be descending upon our idyllic campground. With a jaw-clenched and forced smile, Ken told them how great that all sounded, as he turned to me a second later and said, "we're outta here on Saturday morning, I don't care if we
have to sleep in a gas station parking lot." As we may have mentioned in earlier blogs, Colombia is quite a noisy country and sure enough that night we were kept awake until about 4am by a local bar blasting out reggaeton and salsa tunes to the surrounding (and otherwise tranquil!) countryside! So feeling a little tired, and ready to find some drier weather as it had been raining quite a lot for the last few days, we decided to keep pushing south towards the Ecuadorian border. We made a last stop at Laguna de la Cocha, a beautiful lake in the cloud forest near Pasto, and it would have been great if the sun had come out. But we still enjoyed camping in the grassy parking area of a Swiss chalet, where we were given a key to a room in the hotel so we could have our own private bathroom access! It was the best shower I've had in Colombia! We were also treated to more ear-splitting music coming from another nearby bar/hall/church/whatever, this time only until 2am... on a Sunday night. To be fair though, we were not in the ear-splitting noise radius, but we were within
Ken the coffee picker
This tour was great. We got to see the whole process from picking the cherries, to skinning them, drying out the inside bean and finally roasting them. Coffee pickers get around 20 cents per kilo and can pick up to 100 kilos a day. Not much pay for a tough day's work.
Ken's unwanted-noise annoyance radius. "Doesn't anyone in this town have to go to work in the morning?!" was Ken's frequent lament.
We're now at the border town of Ipiales and hoping to cross into Ecuador early tomorrow morning, all being well. We've been in Colombia for about 7 weeks in total and have had a great time. It's a beautiful country, the people are indeed warm and friendly as everyone had told us they would be, and we're glad to have had the opportunity to spend so much time here. And Ken really hasn't been as grumpy as he may come across in this blog; he's actually enjoyed most of our time here. We're also excited about crossing into Ecuador and seeing what that has to offer, but who knows - we might one day be back in Colombia to spend some more time in the coffee region. We'll see! For now, we hope you enjoy this blog post and please take a look at the photos below - there are 25 altogether. Thanks for following our trip!
~ Ken and Fi
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