Travelling Shoes and Moka in Colombia - Zona Cafetera

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December 21st 2008
Published: December 21st 2008
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Valle de CocoraValle de CocoraValle de Cocora

Were Mountains come and go

Travelling Shoes and Moka in Colombia - Zona Cafetera

We made it back to Bogota!! Kidnapping fund still intact. Ok, so I always kept the door locked and was reluctant to leave my window fully down, but no-one stole the shirts from our backs while we were stopped at a red light. In fact we were entertained by juggling clowns at the red lights! Rather than my fear of being followed by suspicious, and generally dodgy looking men in the streets, a lovely lady carrying a massive basket on her head warned us to be careful with our cameras - one of many ‘nice’ people we came across on our trip to the coffee zone, (Zona Cafetera).

Thanks for the comments on last week’s entry about frogs and eagles, it is really encouraging to get feedback. Vicky I am glad that all my talk of food encouraged you to go cook dinner, and yes if I manage to be brave enough and try hot chocolate with cheese you will be the first to know. And Helen I am glad you got past the part about Iceland’s electoral system.

We drove a good 7 hours south east of Bogota
Valle de CocoraValle de CocoraValle de Cocora

A misty magical land
to a land full of arepas, tinto, wax palms, butterflies and machetes. Moka and I did our usual camping thing, got covered in mosquito bites, cleaned in cold water, nearly died on several occasions whilst driving, but as usual we had an ‘excellent adventure’!

‘Dos tintos por favor.’ I ask at ‘Café & Licores’, one of the square side cafés in Filandia. We have decided, after a couple of energetic days of exploring, to take it easy, drink coffee and simply absorb the town (pueblo).
(Café & Licores is a welcoming family owned business that has been in the town for a couple of generations, they serve over 13 kinds of coffee and a wide range of other drinks, well worth a quick stop if not a long one.)

Drinking coffee and people watching

Here in Colombia the traditional coffee is called tinto, made in an Olleta, as I mentioned in last weeks entry. You can have it campisino style - which is ‘countryside style’ sweetened with panela or just straight, and it always seems to come with two servings of sugar even though the cup is only slightly larger than a shot glass. Strong and sweet, the aroma is divine.

Filandia is a lot smaller and quieter than other pueblos we have been to, it is relaxing and ideal for ‘people watching’. White ‘cowboy style’ hats, ponchos, machetes and Jeep willys are everywhere, a mule walks by with milk containers, army soldiers with big guns loiter on street corners, families stroll across the main square and old men take a rest on the benches.

There is a clear difference between people that live in the cities and those that live rurally in small pueblos like Filandia and Salento. Living in Armenia or Manizales is like living in any city of the western world, jeans, over priced Nike t-shirts etc. In pueblos the farmers come to trade and drink tinto with friends. Almost everyone wears a white hat, carries a poncho over his shoulder or wears it if it is cold, and has a machete tied around his waist. Machetes are used for everything from peeling a banana to chopping down a tree. It is carried on a belt and sits in a holster of leather with various designs and tassels. The ponchos are a lot thinner than I expected and are comparable to a teatowel, and used here in the hotter climates, in colder parts of Colombia like Boyaca, where we will be next week, people wear a Ruana. A Ruana is like a thick blanket, Moka has a nice brown one at home that is warm, soft and comfortable to wear, not to mention super cool. Hats reveal what part of the country you are from. In the north of the country people wear a large brimmed straw hat that is tan and brown coloured with traditional designs. In the Zona Cafetera, they tend to have small brimmed white straw hats with a black band wrapped around the base - A popular image maker for Colombian ‘drug-lords’ in Hollywood movies. We also saw a huge range of colours, sizes and designs in between, they tend to cost about £10, but I am determined to get a better price.

Jeep Willys piled high with people, coffee, green bananas (platano), chickens, pigs and anything else that needs to be transported, are an icon in the area. They line a whole side of the square here in Filandia and will later fill to the point of nearly tipping backwards. Watching half a dozen people holding onto the back of a jeep while the top is piled high with produce is a surprisingly common site. When the region has festivals the Willys will have competitions to see who can do the longest wheelie - you can imagine the madness.

Mules rather than horses are used to pull carts, carry produce and transport people. And I am surprisingly unstartled to see one parked outside the dairy, (tienda) between two cars. (Yes, despite all my time away from NZ I still call the local store a dairy!)

The presence of the army is everywhere, from highways to town squares, creating a sense of security and safety. Their presence is a strong reminder that Colombia is a country at war. Although the president Alvaro Uribe has made a lot of the county safer to travel in, the FARC / guerrilla group (a leftist political party that began at the end of the cold war and later replaced it’s communist ideals with capitalist trade, and is now, basically, a terrorist group that dominates the drug business in Colombia) still threaten peoples daily lives. Farmers livestock and produce were and are taken by the FARC, this resulted in the government allowing people to defend themselves. Which then grew into what is now known as Paramilitaries, basically paid mercenaries.

Geography, fauna and flora

You can see on the map that there are three main Mountian Ridges that are the tail end of the Andes and end in the north of the country. They are commonly refered to as the west, central and east “cordilleras”. The climate change between the valleys and the mountains is dramatic and rapid. As soon as we head down from the 2600 masl, (metres above sea level) of Bogota into the Magdalena valley of 500 masl, we cross the river with the same name- the main river running between the central and east ranges. The humidity is so heavy that even talking takes so much effort, I feel like I am shouting to someone a mile away, even though Moka is within arms reach in the drivers seat. Images of mangos being sold road side, maiz and soy flash by the window. We stop for a break in Espinal were Moka introduces me to avena, (a porridge like drink that is the consistency of milk and served with flakes of ice) it is a pure
Heliconias - A popular flower!Heliconias - A popular flower!Heliconias - A popular flower!

However the real flower is inside this colourful casing
delight, especially in this heat - best bought from a small corner shop next to the square and enjoyed with cotudos, (a crunchy bread in a kind of donut shape with a thin brittle spreading of merainge on top).

It takes a few hours to find a place to stay, but it was worth the effort. Guyacanes camping is easily better than any camp site we have been to in Eurpoe. Fernando brings a table and chairs over to our ‘plot’ and plugs a light into a nearby socket on the fence. Next to the tent is a tap and a round of rocks that he offers to make a fire in for us later in the day. After quick evening outing to the store for rice (arrroz) and sausages (salchichas) we have cook in the glow of the near full moon.

We wake with the sun and spend our second day away at the Café Park, as suggested by friends and books. It is very famous, but more a ‘Disneyland park’ than a place about coffee. I have learnt more about coffee from the leaves at the bottom of a cup. That’s a little harsh I know, but given that every scrap of land I have seen seems to be filled with a coffee plant or banana tree I thought a Cafe park might live up to it’s name, and offer some information on the coffee culture of Colombia. As a consolation prize however, there is some nice coffee cream, a bit like Bailey’s, sold across the road.

One place that the Lonely Planet did not mention, and they really should, is the Botanical Gardens. It sounds dull, but with a huge butterfly house and spectacular bird watching, it is well worth a visit and far from boring. The tour takes a couple of hours and you have a guide explaining everything and answering all your questions.
Diego, our guide, told us a small encyclopaedia worth, of facts and figures on the varieties of palms, orchids and ferns the country boasts while pointing them out along the path.

The Guadua grows in abundance in this warm environment and is worth a mention. It looks like a huge bamboo, as thick as both my arms, and is the fastest growing tree in the world at an insane rate of 10-15cm per day reaching up to 29 metres in length. It lives fast and dies young though, and begins to decay at about 7 years of age, so most are harvested at 2 years. They are used for building houses, bridges, and furniture.

A bird watching hut with a mirrored front allows you to watch several native species eat food in a wild environment. One of my favourites was the Ciriri. There is a common saying that if someone is behaving a little grumpy, you call them a Ciriri, (Seh-re-re). Why? They are yellow birds that are generally unfriendly. I watched them repeatedly push other birds away from food!

Butterflies have evolved their camflaging abilities to such a degree that it can be quite impossible to find them unless you shake trees. They are however content to sit on your finger if you put one under their legs. Or in my case they just kept landing on me. I guess I am as sweet as sugar, or perhaps I smell funny?
I was surprised to hear that the varities of night butterflies / moths, outnumber day butterflies by more than 12 to 1, and the scales on moths wings are cultivated to be used in microchips.

Another interesting note I made while at the botanical gardens was that if a Machacam beetle (‘peanut head beetle’) bites you, the cure is to have sex within 24 hours! In reality however it does not even bite. Too funny?!

After an educational morning at the Botanical gardens, we spent a wonderful afternoon wandering in the Valle de Cocora near Salento. It was a little cloudy but I didn’t mind at all, you could smell the crisp freshness of the grass and the trees and it made me feel peaceful and generally content. The wax palms, (Colombia’s national tree) stood tall and proud in the skyline and across the whole vista, mountains appeared and disappeared in the mists of a magical landscape. It is a definite must.

We got back to the campsite a little late, the sun sets at 7pm year round, (it may vary by 10minutes between the longest and shortest day) but luckily Fernando was still around and he replaced the bulb in our light so we were able to cook our arroz and salchichas in a civilised manner. This time joined by a full honey moon beaming in the night sky.

On our fourth day away we relaxed the morning away in Filandia then headed to Armenia, where we had some of the worlds most delicious arepas. So delicious in fact, that we could not resist going back for a second helping. I also experience Bandeja Paisa. This is a meal that could easily feed a family, it includes kidney beans, rice, avocado, choritzo, mince, pork crackle and an arepa. Luckily Moka offered his services and helped me to finish it.

My eyes slam shut for the hundredth time as we face two trucks coming towards us, one on the right side of the road the other on our side of the road. Apparently the roads are wide enough, (I wouldn’t know as my eyes are tightly shut) and we manage to pass through and continue weaving our way back to Bogota. La Linea is a section of the route that heaves with large trucks carrying goods from the port of Buenaventura into the interior of the country. It is a winding hill pass with a reputation - one that is deserved.


Instead of elaborating on my near death experiences, I will enlighten you on some of the

Me gusta mucho Carro Negro - I like car black a lot.
music we were listening to at the time. We borrowed Hernando’s ipod and tuned it into the radio - such good wee devices. We listened to lots of Carlos Vives and this weeks favourite track is Fruta Fresca (Fresh fruit). Like hats, Colombian music is also very region specific. This is what I have learnt so far:

Hernando is from the east of the country and the main style of music played there is called Joropo, (hoh-roh-poh). It is played with three instruments: a harp, (harpa) a cuatro, (which is a four stringed guitar) and maracas. The songs generally start slow and get quite wild towards the end. Artists include: El Cholo Valderrama, who recently won a grammy, Reynaldo Armas. The dance that accompanies Joropo is a fast foot slapping wonder. The woman wears a bright frilly layered swing dress and the man wears either all black or all white including a hat.

Vallenato, (Vah-jen-ah-toh) is is played on the caribean coast and also has three instruments: a drum, an accordian and a guacharaca, (which is a stick with notches and a metal multi pronged fork that slides over the notches). It is up beat and artists include: Diomedes Diaz and Binomio de Oro.

Salsa is originally from Cuba yet Cali, in the south, is a global hot spot for it and the most famous Colombian artist would probably be Joe Arroyo. Tango, which is from Argentina is also very popular in many areas.

I am learning more every day and imagine things will continue in this manner.

Reflecting back on our five days away, I think we were lucky. Despite the obvious poverty and potential desperation of people in this state, none of the street side sellers or boys on bicycles that follow you around Montenegro, ever became pushy or aggressive. My first road trip in Colombia, or Chibchombia as Moka calls it, was genuinely lots of fun, I saw a mountain of things I have never seen before and on the other hand Ibegan to think about what a ‘tolerance to poverty’ is.

Although we took a lot of photos in the Zona Cafetera there are so many things a lense cannot capture, and these will be the clues for my puzzle in my learning about Colombia

We are currently getting ready for Aurelio’s wedding on Saturday, Moka is Best man, it sounds as if it is going to be quite mad.
I get the impression there are a lot of Christmas traditions that are different to mine: like the day of celebration is the 24th! So I will fill you in on these in my next entry. Assuming I haven’t filled it with 10 pages of wedding details.

Oh and a special thanks to the familia Torres in London, Canada, for their birthday wishes this morning and encouraging me to keep writing.


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