After leaving the hustle and bustle of Medellin I was looking forward to a nice few days. just relaxing in a smaller town, this being Salento. The guidebooks describe this place as, “A little town situated well in the foothills of the Cordillera and is the oldest settlement in Quindio, once a sleepy village not anymore as backpackers have found this little haven,so the streets are much busier yet the town is still a charming place.” Sounds perfect.
We were staying in the most recommended place, The Plantation House, which had everything we needed including the most prized possession; a hot shower, we have become accustomed to cold or luke warm water over the past few months. The “hot” water was piping hot so everyone was happy and actually clean for once. I digress…
As we had arrived in the evening there wasn’t any real time to explore, therefore this could only mean one thing, a spot of Tejo. Tejo is a traditional sport in Colombia whereby you throw a lead weight from behind a marked line into a clay mound which is lined with explosives in the centre circle, if the weight connects with the explosives they go boom and you get 3 points, the first to 21 wins. The entrance fee to play the game was to buy an alcoholic beverage, so as this is traditionally an alcohol fueled game, I am not too sure how respected it actually is. However since here and a few places outside of Bogota still play, we were definitely going to give it a go.
I knew I was going to be absolutely rubbish at this, I can’t throw a ball to save my life, no matter a what weight. My first attempt proved this as I launched it high in the air into the next line making everyone scatter for dear life. It was going to be a long night. It was an absolute necessary that we moved the start lines forward as hardly any of us could actually reach the target otherwise, we got into groups of six and started to play. I obviously was rubbish again and bounced off the floor but I didn’t feel too bad as Andrea was also just as rubbish as me. A few were hitting the targets but not setting the explosives off, one being Stu who was not impressed as he had a direct hit, so he kept saying theirs were faulty. Deflated, I stepped up for another horrendous throw but this time, boom! That’s correct I hit the target and set the explosives off, and that is also correct, before Stu. I may have done a celebratory dance and a few high fives. My time was done playing Tejo, I retired on a high. I don’t think Stu ever actually set the explosives off with a proper throw, instead he stood right in front of the target, trying to set it off by slamming the lead weights down, bless!
You cannot stay on a coffee plantation and not take the tour, especially if you are called Stuart Chaffe who everyday for the last 6 months has been experimenting with South American coffees. The Finca Don Eduardo Plantation is owned by a British born Aussie now living in Columbia called Tim, a quirky, passionate man about his coffee, yet he actually produces very little as his aim for his coffee is to let people lease it for there own personal consumption, some think crazy, I think it’s quite a great Christmas present.
After a 10 minute walk, we arrived at his farm, which was situated between two huge mountains in the valley which was cut by a river, the views were absolutely stunning. He gave us an in-depth explanation about the two different types if commercial coffee, arabica and robusta and that Columbia only made arabica coffee, which can be split into traditional and modern both needing different growing techniques. Also on Tim’s farm he grew pineapples, avocados, oranges, lemons and blackberries.
He did have a pretty cool set up on his farm, a drying area with a roll off roof, a sustainable water system through collecting rainwater, several different drying stations using a wooden triangle structure, meshing and a newly built look out point. This bamboo view point looked over the magnificent valley and other farmed land you could see the river cutting through the mountainside but what made it was the peaceful silence, definitely a great spot to have a hammock.
In the house is where Tim went through the 17 stages of coffee making they did here on this farm, and other small coffee plantations. Coffee beans are planted in the correct environments depending on the type of coffee being grown. The little coffee shoots at five months are ready for planting, once a white coffee flower starts to grow this means the coffee cherries will soon be following. The green coffee cherries are the unripe ones and are not ready for picking. The signal for picking is one when the wet season begins and the coffee cherries turn red. This usually means that coffee is being handpicked in the pouring rain, which in turn means that the picking buckets get filled with cherries and water, therefore Tim has developed a practical solution, piercing two holes in the bottom of the buckets, acting as a drainage source.
The coffee cherries are then fed into a machine which presses the outer skin in order to reveal the two beans inside. Once the cherries skins are removed the fermentation process begins. This is where the beans are covered in drinking water and the top layer of sugar is washed off. This process is repeated until the water turns from dark brown to clear, signalling there is no sugar remaining.
The final few stages, the staff on Tim’s farm do is the drying, raking and coffee selection. The beans are laid out either on the rolling roof or in the triangle structures to be dried, this is difficult because of the rainy season, hence the rolling roof. However after about 3 weeks and several times beings raked the beans are dried and ready to be sorted through. The black or abnormal beans are removed and destroyed, the rest are bagged and weighed ready for sale. This process is repeated all year round.
On Tim’s tour he actually shows you the entire process right to a cup of coffee, at this stage his administrator, Andreas continued the tour. The next point was the Trilladora, the removing of the second layer of skin which produces the green bean which can then be made into coffee. He fed these beans into another pressing machine as to not damage the beans yet avoid removing the skins by hand. These little green beans were then poured into a saucepan and fried, well, roasted. You could immediately smell a coffee scent, there is an art to roasting the beans to get the prefect taste and not burning them and Andreas seemed to know how.
Popping away like popcorn, signalled the time to remove them from the gas and into the grinder. With a bit of man power turning the handle the beans soon became the coffee powder I know. It was time for the final stage, the taste test.
He then used a filter and poured hot water into a jug, allowing the freshly brewed coffee to flow through. 10 minutes later the coffee was ready for consumption, honesty I didn’t like it, Stu had to pile in the sugar, it definitely needed some sugar. The first cup was a modern mix the second a traditional mix, nether Nescafé but what would I know.
After overdosing on coffee, Tim said we should go for a walk around some of his farm as there were a few trails. It was actually only a short loop around but we went passed a few pineapple trees, blackberries, lemons, very large bamboo and of course, coffee, yet I think it was more about the stunning views of the valley that made it special. We also had a little companion, iPod, Tim’s very fluffy white polar bear / husky dog, he was gorgeous. I kept saying to Stu can I have one!
Once back we decided to take a look at the town, but first we had been recommended a very spicy chilli in a local cafe called, Brunch. I had the spicy, Stu the ass kicking, mine I thought was boiling and my lips were tingling on the first mouthful, Stu said his was ok, hot but nothing too bad. I tried it and it was ridiculously hot.
The map had an artisan community highlighted on it so we thought we should take a look, I believe it was built in 1999 after an earthquake in the neighbouring town of Armenia. We passed the cemetery as the map said and we did find some very colourful traditional houses, yet everything was closed, it was very bizarre. A little girl came over to talk to us in Spanish and pretty much said follow me, so we did, down a little path to what looked like someone’s back garden, there were loads of banana trees making the shade and there were different types of very colourful plants growing. We walked around very conscious that maybe we shouldn’t be there, took a few photos and left. So there was no handicrafts for sale but a little secret garden to look at.
There were two main miradors in the little town of Salento so they were next on the list, first up the steps to the cross. I know you get better photographs if you go high but this country everywhere we go there are tonnes of steps to climb, to this mirador was no exception. At the top the views back over the town were ok, mainly corrugated steel roofs, yet it was the views of the valley which were beautiful. There was even a swing which obviously I went on, it felt like Banos all over again. Luckily for us the two miradors were linked by a short path, no going back on ourselves for once. I think this view beats that of the cross, even though it’s the same valley we were looking at, it really was absolutely stunning, which is probably why we spent a while just looking out.
Cocora valley came with high recommendations from everyone we had spoken to, including Tim. The Cocora valley is located in the Central Cordillera of the Andean mountains. “Cocora” was the name of a Quimbayan princess, daughter of the local chief Acaime, and means “star of water” which in Spanish means estrella de agua. It is the principal location of the national tree and symbol of Colombia, the Quindío wax palm, which is protected under the Park’s national status.
Nine of us jumped into a jeep, Jesus hanging off the back ready for the short drive to Cocora. The drive into the valley was stunning and very winding as we followed the river up to the start point. We had decided to do the one day loop which consisted of 4.6km hike to Acaime, cross at La Montaña another 800m, then back to Cocora which was about 6km, roughly 20km in total.
The path started off pretty flat but full of loose rocks and a lot of mud, it was definitely designed more for cattle and horses than the human foot. After a balancing act to avoid the barbed wire the bridges started. I think we crossed about five rickety, wooden bridges, with wire handrails some of which swung quite a bit, and not being so nimble on my feet I was wobbling everywhere, this was to Stu’s delight, especially when he was shaking the bridge.
We finally arrived at our first proper sign, one arrow pointing to Acaime, one to La Montaña and another to Estrella de Agua. Acaime was the first destination on our loop so we continued uphill for the last 1km until we came to the entrance. I had read that here there was a spectacular humming bird view point and you could try the Colombian speciality of hot chocolate and cheese. Sweating away we sat at the view point and ordered our chocolate and cheese and then we were surrounded by hummingbirds, easily 20 of them, flying in and out of either the little bird houses or feeders. Stu was obviously absolutely fascinated and was poised with the camera for every single shot. I on the other hand could sit back and enjoy the spectacular view of so many hummingbirds and the beautiful colours they showed, pinks, greens and iridescent blues, stunning. The chocolate and cheese however was not so amazing, I won’t be having it again in a rush.
After spending quite a while watching the hummingbirds whizz in and out it was time to leave. We had decided to add another 4km each way to Estrella de Agua as we had made good time on the first leg. The owner of Acaime had said it was about a 2 hour uphill hike to Estrella de Agua, then four hours back to complete the loop, this was very doable we thought. He really was not joking, it was literally 2 hours uphill and it was torture all over again, we had to climb up to 3170m and I was really hoping it would be worth it. We came into another valley and started to drop down, all I could think of was all that hard work was being undone and we still weren’t there. Finally in the distance we saw the Estrella de Agua hut, sadly we got there and it was a campsite, nothing so spectacular to see but it was a good feeling to have completed this difficult section. We stopped for a rest and lunch, Stu found a friend in a little cat and some chickens, breaking him away, we set off again. Downhill this time, whoooo, 6.7km all downhill, it was a great feeling to be flying down the hill, yet it was a bit rough on the knees.
Back to the sign again, this time it was the 800m up to La Montaña, a short period to go up just over 100m so again another tough uphill climb. I was moaning away, where is the top? is this the right way? Finally in the distance we saw the house what felt like miles in front. Zigzagging up and dripping in sweat we got there and the views, we’ll lets just say we’re not the best, thick cloud had rolled in and completely covered the valley. Nevertheless we had made it so there is a success in there somewhere.
At least the next hour was all down hill and luckily for us we soon dropped below the clouds which revealed the valley. Row after row of wax palms, all standing several metres high, they did look pretty cool. We spotted an insect carrying a tarantula which it had paralysed, eventually it would bury its eggs in the tarantula, I fantastic sight, poor tarantula, at least this one can’t scare me now though.
Our aim was to get the 5pm jeep back to Salento which in theory worked, we were in a queue of gringos and locals and two jeeps arrived. We crammed 13 into our jeep, Stu was hanging off the back, I was wedged up against the edge of the truck and a very chatty Colombian man. With a numb bum we meandered back through the town to the Plantation House for a well deserved rest. I think we managed to tick off the main things to see in the little town of Salento.