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Published: February 25th 2016
High Flying Palm Trees
These 60m-high palm trees are dotted all over the Valle de Cocora.
For the first time since Brazil
– so right at the start of the trip – I was to catch a plane instead of a bus! I was quite excited about it. Unlike a lot of people, I love airports and going to them. They’re not dodgy like airport and there is always the excitement of knowing you going somewhere. Going places – that is what travelling is all about and I love it.
I was so tired though. Having been out the night before
, I only got a few hours’ sleep before a 6.30am start. I wasn’t hungover though – thanks to the fact that I only drank beer the previous night.
My tiredness however was enough to make the mistake of being dropped at the wrong terminal at Bogota’s airport – luckily the taxi ride was shorter than I had anticipated and I could use the extra time available to get to the right terminal.
The plane was nice and the flight was good. I was passed out for the one hour it took get to Armenia, in the heart of the Colombia’s coffee region, known as the Zona Cafetera
. Domestic flights in Colombia are cheap as chips and are only marginally more
My view while enjoying an arroz paisa.
expensive than a bus ride; if you could save yourself hours and hours on a bus for just a few thousand more pesos, than you’d be a fool not to. And I was over buses a bit by this stage.
The taxi from the airport to Armenia’s bus station went fine – apart from yet another unscrupulous taxista
overcharging me for the ride (I agreed a price before we took off, only to discover he had a meter than ran to a lot less than the agreed price) – and there were no hiccups on the bus from Armenia to Salento either.
Coffee is of course, an important export for Colombia and Colombian coffee of course, is considered some of, if not the
, best in the world. Much of it comes from the zona cafetera
and I was here to sample some it; to find out just why it is so good.
I did this by visiting a couple of coffee farms, about an hour’s walk outside of Salento.
The first farm I visited was the farm of Don Elias, a small 100%!o(MISSING)rganic farm.
A kid not far past his teens led me on my personal tour and
Pretty and colourful town where I stayed in the Zona Cafetera.
he spoke excellent English; what he had to say was very interesting as well. It is just not coffee trees that are grown on the plantation – other plants such as pineapple trees and tomato vines are grown together with the coffee trees but not for production but to act as natural pesticides by attracting insects to their fruits keeping them away from the coffee plants. Plantain and banana trees give the coffee trees shade and their fruits also act as a natural fertiliser when they drop to the ground. Dead plants are heaped into a compost and this compost is then used as a natural fertiliser too.
All of this ensures that final product is pesticide free and 100% organic – it was very interesting to see nature work in harmony to produce the desired results.
Perhaps the most important ingredient however, is the altitude of the zona cafeteria. At 1,900m, this height is optimal for coffee trees to be at the most productive.
I also saw the hand operated machine that skins the mature, red fruits to capture the beans inside and also the sunning deck that dries the beans. The beans are then roasted and the ground
Parque de Las Luces
Square in Medellin that resemble a lit-up, artificial version of the Valle de Cocora.
to produce the final product – which made through a filter, tasted delicious. 100% natural and 100% delicious – delicious enough for me to buy a packet of it, despite not having anything to make it with…
Right next door to Don Elias is El Ocaso, which is a bigger, more commercial farm. I was interested to see the difference in practices between this bigger, more industrial farm and the small, organic one I had just seen.
With more trees and more beans (which are still hand-picked, even here) to process, there are bigger, automated machines here in order to speed things up. Pesticides are used here so the product is only 75% organic, although our guide was keen to point out the slew of ecological certifications that the farm had, to offset so to speak, the non-organic 25%. I had a cup of El Ocaso coffee both before and after the tour – the coffee, like the one from Don Elias, required no sugar and could be drunk black with no problems – this is because the coffee was naturally already very sweet. Delicious.
The El Ocaso tour was in Spanish and it was a bit embarrassing
Salento's most colourful street.
when I couldn’t understand a simple questions directed at me right at the start of it. In front of a group of native Spanish speakers, I quickly had the confidence I had built up over the last two weeks completely knocked out of me. The other guide even asked if I should really be on the Spanish tour! At least I understood that bit, I suppose.
The girl had just spoken too fast for me. It also doesn’t help when people don’t pronounce words properly – particularly older, uneducated men – and use different words and sentence structures than I am used to. I genuinely believe Colombians use a version of Spanish not seen anywhere else I have been and have trouble understanding a lot of them.
Despite how tired I was, three coffees in the afternoon were enough to keep me awake all night…with the help of bedbugs! Fuck, not again. Can you believe it? And in our peculiar two-bed dorm, of course the guy in the bed next to me didn’t get a single bite. As Mario Balotelli once said, “why always me?”
Lili, the owner of the hostel, was a delightful, middle-aged lady was greeted
Don Elias Coffee Farm
With one of the coffee plants and its fruit in the foreground, and the scenic mountains of the Zona Cafetera in the background.
every one of her guests with a big hug and a cup of coffee. I felt really sorry for her when I broke the news of the bedbugs to her the next morning, which included showing her the dead one that I had managed to kill during the night. She was such a nice person and from experience I know that treating bedbugs properly is expensive; and because you need to have the affected room out of action for a couple of weeks, it is potentially financially crippling for a hostel.
As a result, the room and all my bags were doused in this magic spray that they had – knowing that a spray has to be professionally administered and the room left alone for a week rather than a day, with subsequent re-applications, I was doubtful this was going to kill anything.
And so it proved – I got bitten again the second night. Three times in three months and the fourth time in nine months, I’ve had ridiculous luck with bedbugs.
They’re a terrible thing to have, not just because they are expensive ad seemingly impossible to get rid of. The pain and itchiness of the bites as
Valle de Cocora
As if the mountainside wasn't scenic enough, the 60m-high palm trees turn the scenic into the surreal.
well as the fear and knowledge that you will be bitten again, makes it impossible to sleep. Just like I did in Valparaiso, I had to spend the rest of the night on the couch.
In between the sleepless bedbug nights, I went hiking in the surreal landscape of Valle de Cocora with two Canadian girls, two Danish girls and an Australian guy who were also staying at my hostel.
The hills are already quite scenic to begin with and to be honest, we could well have been in New Zealand. But then you have these soaring 60m-high palm trees sticking out of the hills like pins. It makes these picturesque yet normal looking hills, become something surreal and otherworldly.
The hike itself was tough – much tougher than I was expecting. What I thought would be a one-hour stroll ended up being a four hour roundtrip of mostly uphill climbs. We were still at altitude a little so we were also breathing hard. It was still fun though, a good workout.
Also a good workout was the jeep ride back to Salento. We had about 12 people in a 7-seater “Willy” (old American WWII jeep commonly used in
With a few 60m-high palm trees thrown in. In the Valle de Cocora.
the Zona Cafetera) we were crammed tighter than a Indian train carriage, with people standing up in the jeep and people hanging off the back and the sides. I was uncomfortably sitting on the back door and had to hold on for dear life on the uphill stretches.
The Valle de Cocora was one of the more amazing things that I have seen in South America and if you’re into coffee, coming to the Zona Cafetera is well worth it.
Salento itself is a colourful, charming and tourist-friendly town and is an excellent base from which to explore the region.
However it was now time for me to make my way to Medellin which people have raved about. The tourists talk of the perfect climate, the friendly people and the lively nightlife; the locals (men) talk of the beautiful women.
Like most bus rides I have had so far in Colombia, the bus to Medellin was another eventful one. Perhaps this was the most dangerous ride I have taken on the trip – by my estimation, the driver spent more time overtaking on the wrong side of the road than he did staying on his own side of
Farm With A View
In the Valle de Cocora. The cows sure were enjoying it. I think.
the road. The fact that there were seat belts but no buckles – presumably taken out to fit more people on the bus and make things more comfortable – didn’t make me feel any more secure.
Unsurprisingly, the driver thought he was a rally driver which didn’t exactly add to the comfort of his passengers. Looking around at my fellow passengers wasn’t exactly reassuring – when locals are looking worried about the driver’s driving then you really are praying that you will survive the ride.
Medellin has a reputation for having Colombia’s friendliest people.
Tired and indecisive, I couldn’t work out whether to catch a cab – which would be easier and quicker but I wasn’t overly keen given my experiences with taxis in Bogota – or catch a bus.
Having walked to a bus stop from the bus station, before I knew it I had a couple of locals basically walking me all the way off the bus and to the exact metro platform I needed to be on, with the help of yet another stranger along the way. So after just an hour in Medellin, I could almost agree right away that Medellin has Colombia’s friendliest people.
The streets of downtown were filled with people selling everything and anything
After just an hour, I now felt completely comfortable asking anyone, anywhere on the street for directions or help. The only thing stopping me was confidence in my Spanish!
Because again, I struggle to keep pace with how fast they talk here, leading to some pretty embarrassing situations given my level of Spanish. I swear I have had more of these embarrassing situations here than in anywhere else in South America. Or maybe I have had the same number but I excused myself more earlier on in the trip because my Spanish wasn’t as good back then. Who knows.
The area of Laureles, where I was staying, is a nice neighbourhood – vibrant, safe and relatively upmarket although I wouldn’t go as far as calling it flash.
The downtown area is really busy. With many a concrete building, parts of it look like it has been trapped in the 70s. Not far from the main tourist spot, I found myself accidentally walking through a rough, red light district – I realised this when I spotted a woman walking around in literally bra and knickers, and then spotting another one wearing the same.
Elsewhere in the city centre, there are
Plazoleta de Esculturas
Square in the middle of Medellin that is home to several Botero sculptures.
so many people selling anything and everything. A bit like La Paz
– but a lot more developed and much less rough.
There isn’t too much to see in Medellin in all honesty.
The ‘Botero Square’, the Plazoleta de Esculturas, has a number of Botero sculptures dotted around it and is a popular hangout spot for the locals. On the square is the Museo de Antioquia which was expensive to enter, but the artefacts and art works inside this awesome Art Deco building was worth it. I ended up spending two hours in there!
I then had a moment sitting in a local restaurant for lunch, watching the busy street in front of me while eating my local dish of arroz paisa
, witnessing the chaos of daily life in downtown Medellin unfolding in front of me. It was another moment
– where I was appreciating where I was and was living in the present, in the here and now.
“I am in Medellin, Colombia”, I thought to myself.
I then made my way to Cerro Nutibara, a hill overlooking the city. The panoramic view was excellent and there is even a replica of a typical Antioquian village (the
province Medellin is in is Antioquia) up there.
As well as having the friendliest people in Colombia, the nightlife in Medellin is also supposed to shit-hot. I was keen to test it out but hadn’t made any friends at the hostel to test it with so it looked like I might be having a quiet Saturday night.
That was until I meant Colombian guy David and Dutch girl Christina.
“Do you want to come with us?”
We went out to the gringo part of town, the flashy district of El Poblado.
I have never seen so many bars, clubs and people rammed into one neighbourhood as I did that night. It was surreal. It was a scene more reminiscent of a music festival, except that it was in a city and was something that happened every weekend.
There was almost too much choice and David, Christina and I had trouble choosing a place to go.
We started out at a more chilled place that wasn’t so crowded and was serving food. The patacones
I had – plantain patties filled with meat and cheese – were delicious.
As usual, and perhaps as expected, most clubs and bars were playing
El Poblado By Night
Medellin's party district was busy - about as busy as downtown was during the day.
latino music, house or reggaeton. Christina and I just wanted to hear something familiar…even Justin Bieber would do. David was more keen on trance, so he decided to up sticks and head to club playing just that – Christina and I settled on a bar playing mainly rock music. Christina wasn’t the biggest fan of System Of A Down or Rage Against The Machine so we up sticks ourselves – only to find that we had managed to get to 4am and that everything in El Poblado was shutting down. A good time to call it in – it was a decent night out in the end and a good sampling of Medellin’s much vaunted nightlife.
The woman? Well, I have to mention them because everyone had gone on and on about them; dolled-up, Barbie types aren’t my thing so I didn’t think that they were the most beautiful women in Colombia like everyone else has been saying. If I have to give my opinion, then from a purely aesthetic perspective, I was more impressed by the girls in Bogota.
I got up around midday the next day and spent all day on Medellin’s public transport. The only city
View Over Medellin
From the San Javier cable car.
in Colombia to have a metro system – and a very efficient one at that – it also has cable cars that link the neighbourhoods in the surrounding hills with the city. As such, one of the best things you can do in Medellin is to simply ride the public cable cars, which offer perhaps the best views over the city.
It is a cheap thing to do as well – one ride (about 50p) will let you travel just about the entire inner city transport network including the cable cars. It was really nice to be using a metro again – every city should have one. It was also really nice not having to rely on taxis.
The San Javier cable car afforded the most magnificent views – the Acevedo cable car connected you with the forests atop one of the mountains where you can visit the Parque Avi for a day out.
The neighbourhoods up in the hills – much like Rio de Janeiro – are where the city’s poorest reside in the city slums. So as well as seeing the amazing views over the city, you also got to see up close that there are always at
In Medellin's Parque de Las Luces.
least two side to every city. There were some pretty makeshift shacks up there.
Nevertheless, the paisas
seem pretty happy with their lot and having spent two whole days there, I will now definitely agree that Medellin have the friendliest people in Colombia – and by default, the friendliest people in South America.
I have a theory on this – I reckon that it is the weather. The climate is perfect – there is sunshine every day and it is nice and hot, but not too hot; it is not humid at all; and evenings are still balmy and perfect for donning your slacks for a night on the tiles in El Poblado.
It was now time however for the most anticipated part of my journey through Colombia – I was now off to Cartagena, supposedly Colombia’s most beautiful city - and the Caribbean for some beach time and proper hot weather. And of course, to meet up with my friends Teo, Sybe and Fleur! I couldn’t wait.
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