Zona Cafetera: Good Food, Great Coffee and Awesome People
|Written by Jared on August 02, 2012|
Start: July 6, Salento
It's been nearly three weeks since I've given y'all an update on our trip. Not because we've been busy, quite the opposite. Our pace has slowed considerably. Many days have been spent relaxing; sipping some of the world's best coffee, cooking good food and meeting tons of friendly Colombians.
Colombia is an easy country to get sucked into. In the past month we've stayed at half a dozen places that I could easily rank in the top ten of this trip. Our stop in Salento was number 100, and a couple days ago we clocked 300 days on the road. With less than a week left to spend in Colombia, I can honestly say I will miss this country more than most.
Our first stop in Zona Cafetera is Salento where we spent five days camping at the eco farm/hostel La Serrana. A combination of perfect weather, free coffee and gorgeous views made it hard to leave this place.
This is a theme that has held through almost all of Colombia - heading to the next stop has never been more difficult. Until we arrive, and find yet another place we don't want to leave.
The town of Salento is a sort of mountain retreat for Colombians staying in the surrounding lowlands. It's packed full of tourists, cafes and great restaurants. Our favorite? This corner shop selling coffee made with a sixty-year-old espresso machine. These people know their coffee.
Aside from wandering the streets of Salento, we took a short excursion up the valley for a hike through Valle de Cocora. The surrounding hills are filled with wax palms. Growing up to 200 feet tall, they are the tallest species of palm tree in the world, and Colombia's national tree.
The trail up the valley starts with this rickety old bridge. One person at a time!
The trail is mostly traversed on horseback, and has obviously been around for centuries. This part passes through a ditch worn deep enough that I can't see over the side. Couple that with dodging incoming horse caravans and it's very slow going.
Back in Salento we grab dinner at Brunch, a restaurant that serves diner-inspired food from the good ol' U.S. of A. On an average day we'd avoid a place like this. You don't travel to eat the same stuff you get at home. But it's been many months since we've had an authentic taste of 'Merica that we didn't cook ourselves. Eventually we had to give in.
Run by an expat from Oregon, this newly-opened restaurant more than delivered on our expectations. Buffalo and teriyaki chicken wings as an appetizer. Jessica has breakfast for dinner: biscuits and gravy with hash browns. And Kobus and I chow down on a couple try-not-to-dislocate-your-jaw burgers. On the way out we pick up a jar of homemade peanut butter, sign our names on the wall and roll ourselves back to the tent.
From Salento we drove north to Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia. Medellin serves as an example of the turnaround Colombia has undergone in the past two decades. Once known as the most violent city in the world, Medellin was the home of Pablo Escobar's drug cartel that controlled 80% of the world's cocaine market at the height of its power in the late 1980s. In 1992, 75 people were murdered here every day.
After Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, with the help of a US task force, crime rates began to decrease. A decade later President Álvaro Uribe ordered military operations to clear out the militias that formed in the wake of Escobar's death and the situation continues to improve.
Medellin feels like a cosmopolitan city struggling to come to terms with the poverty and crime that continues to plague the surrounding districts. The people we met here are overwhelmingly positive, friendly and helpful. It's hard not to look at a city like this, knowing what it used to be like, and not feel a bit awed at how it has changed.
Kobus and I spent a week in Santa Elena, a small town in the hills surrounding Medellin, while Jessica flew back to Atlanta for work. We stayed at La Casa Colombiana, a very relaxing hostel run by a German expat who couldn't be happier living his dream.
Between trips to Medellin to stock up on supplies and to have our brake pads replaced, Kobus and I experiment with rum in a box. Is it cheap? About $1.50 less than the bottle. Is it good? No. Definitely not.
With a full kitchen, oven and indoor grill at our disposal we do our best to convert a few vegetarians to the dark side. Chili and slow-roasted ribs were on the menu. With enough leftovers to get us through two more days. Who needs to go all the way to Atlanta for BBQ?
This time it was Jessica's turn for the resupply run. She returns with a duffel bag full of DEET, tent poles and one fifteen pound dutch oven. After eight months and 68 campgrounds our tents are not exactly in a happy place. It's time for some spring cleaning, waterproofing and fungicide. After an enzyme bath to (hopefully) clear up our Central American mold infestation, I spend four hours peeling and sealing seams. Tent people problems.
From Medellin we turn back south to La Hacienda Venecia, a coffee finca (farm) near Manizales. The roads are clear sailing until we get within a mile of the farm. Torrential rain recently wiped out the bridge and most of the nearby roads. And of course we chose the dark line on the GPS, which is supposed to mean easier going. Good thing a bit of river bed 4x4ing is nothing Blue can't handle.
At La Hacienda Venecia we're given the full tour, which includes instructions on how to operate the espresso machine. Did I mention it's free? Oh, and they roast their own coffee. Jessica downs four shots the first morning and starts to plan how we can possibly extend our stay.
While Jessica's plugged into the coffee IV, Kobus takes an afternoon dip in the pool to sample of some Colombia's finest lager. I'm the one not pictured, mostly because I couldn't be bothered to get out of the hammock I've been living in the past two days. Rough life!
From Manizales we continue our trek south to Ecuador. We stayed one night in Cali where Jess and Kobus reserved a fancy hotel room for their wedding anniversary. This was the only photo I found on their camera from that night. I'll let you be the judge.
After a night in Cali we drove an hour and a half west to the town of Pance. We'd heard there were good places to camp here, although didn't have much clue where any of them were. The road isn't on Google Maps and our GPS maps continue to be practically useless.
With a bit of persistence we kept on driving up the bumpy dirt road until it ended at this place - Reserva Natural La Castellana, which sits next to Farallones de Cali National Park, an area that until recently was controlled by the FARC.
We spent two nights camping and enjoying the wildlife and our gracious hosts. This guy is a blue crowned mot-mot, a fancy bird we've seen a couple times since entering Central America.
Our first night provided a good opportunity to break in our new dutch oven. Beef rib stew was on the menu. While it spent three hours cooking we watched the opening of the Olympics with the folks who lived on the reserve.
The next day Kobus used the leftover stew to bake a few empanadas with a recipe we learned from an Italian cook while staying at La Casa Colombiana in Medellin. They turned out fantastic! Life with a dutch oven is starting to look pretty delicious.
Above are Kobus and I with the managers and owner of La Castellana. This was one of those places we found without any prior planning that we'll always remember. As we've learned repeatedly, when plan A falls through, the result is often unexpectedly awesome. These were quite possibly the friendliest people I've ever met.
Up next: South to Ecuador!