A Travellerspoint blog

Buzzing in Salento

Coffee region

sunny 80 °F

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The bus out of Medellin swirled precariously around the seemingly over lush mountainsides, miraculously clinging effortlessly to the road- much to our relief. All the travelers we met told us that Medellin can and will suck you in to its hip ways keeping you in the city longer than expected. They were right. The city welcomes you with gorgeous weather, beautiful women, and contemporary art. It spills out of the confining valley, draping the surrounding mountainsides with thousands of brick homes, twinkling lights, and vertical walkways. To add to the eye candy of the city, little cable cars are rhythmically scattered overhead connecting the city together. The heart of Medellin is no doubt Botero park, where large naked bronze beauties exquisitely reveal their plumpness without any shame. Botero´s work obviously carries on to the psyche of the Medellinos with the women proudly displaying their bodies with the same attitude as if they were bronze statues themselves. It doesn’t matter if bodies are small, thick, large, thin or fat, they walk with an air of body love and acceptance that can only make one smile. In the few days of being in Medellin I had this desire to purchase a pair of tight booty jeans complete with rhinestones, high heels, and a corset top- luckily Adam had all the money. The allure of the city captivated us for days however it was time to leave the city towards the coffee growing region.

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The zona cafetera lies about four hours south of Medellin where suddenly the glossy leaf coffee plants replace the tall banana trees. We settled on the small sleepy village of Salento, a much needed change from the hustle and bustle of Medellin. The road to Salento was a breeze, just a quick one hour minibus ride from Armenia and we were let off in the town square so delicately painted in white and pastels. A small church greeted us along with no electricity as we peeked our heads into the candlelit shops and restaurants along the main street a little after the sun had set. Tired of staying in typical gringo backpacker haunts where you spend more time talking to other travelers than Colombianos, we decided to simply try our luck and walk the town in search for a room. A small boy befriended us instantly and took us to his family''s house that rented rooms. We hesitantly came to a large bright blue door in the main plaza with the simple lettering "hospedaje" and out came Holanda, a robust Salentina who kindly showed us in. We smiled, agreed on a price, and instantly fell the country charm of this place along with the luxury of having a towel and a bar of soap. The next day we were on our search for a coffee plantation within walking distance from town.
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We found the finca de Don Elias outside of Salento, about an hour walking downhill from the village (mind you- Laurita steps not Adam steps). The farm was overshadowed by the larger farm before it which advertised tours in fancy letterings. We were not easily swayed by the overt capitalistic display so we pressed ahead. We continued on and were rewarded by a tiny farm owned by a man wearing a sombrero and calf high rubber boots, a small basket was tied around his waist. He greeted us with a smile and led us on a pleasant walk about his property. What we found out from Don Elias is that many of the neighboring farms practice intensive production of coffee complete with heavy use of pesticides that is slowly creating an ecological trouble zone in the area. Don Elias is part of an organic cooperative that produces small batches of coffee for exportation along with growing bananas, pineapples, yucca, avocados, and oranges on his small farm. As he led us from tree to tree, he showed us the difference between the original Arabico coffee bean and it’s eventual child, the Colombian bean. The small berries are reddish to yellow coloring and look just like that, a shiny round berry. We picked several berries and placed them into the basket with Don Elias occasionally taking the berries, smashing them with his fingers to produce a pale green nut inside the berry. Green Gold indeed!

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From time to time, Don Elias would find diseased beans which he put into his pocket to eventually burn back home to contain the spread of disease and critters from the rest of the plants. After we had collected enough beans, we returned to his house where he peeled the berries, placed them in a greenhouse to dry, then taking us to the roasting stage. Don Elias’s house reminded me of my grandparent’s house in San Roque containing a small fire pit for cooking where he placed the beans inside a frying pan to roast. The best part of the tour was drinking a fresh cup of coffee using familiar beans from Don Elias’s farm. The cup of coffee we shared with Don Elias was more than just a basic cup of coffee, it transformed into a cup full of history and experience, easily turning into the best cup of coffee we both had ever had.

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These days Don Elias produces just enough coffee to sell to the people who visit his farm. We bought a pound of beans to thank him for giving us such a personal tour then he slipped us a handful of bananas, nuts, and oranges into our bag, sending us on our way back up the hill to Salento. We opted to take the local jeep bus as nightfall was quickly approaching, thankfully as my thighs were hurting just thinking of the hour uphill climb we would have to do.
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Posted by lramos1 09:26 Archived in Colombia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (8)

Rio Claro y Medellin

Day 5 in Colombia, and more

sunny

It was time to move on to explore other places in Colombia although Bogota has this charm where one can easily spend months or years living in the city. Bogota appears to be the end point for many travelers and so we were fortunate enough to cross paths with folks from all over the world who showered us with knowledge about South America. Initially we planned to make it north to Cartagena but realized that it was quite the jaunt up north with our interests more in southern region of Colombia. Stories from other travelers led us to venture out towards Medellin, stopping at the refugio Rio Claro for a few days of camping in the colombian rain forest.

Following a blurb from the lonely planet book on Rio Claro, we hopped on a bus around noon expecting to be at the park way before nightfall. Being fresh on the road, we are still rather naive when it comes to following the lonely planet guide which is seriously outdated by 3 years. Our 5 hour bus ride turned into a 9 hour ride where we had thought perhaps the bus driver simply forgot to inform us where to get off for Rio Claro. We shrugged and quickly picked a hostel for Medellin expecting to reach the city any minute. As we were doing this the bus came to a sudden halt with the the driver's assistant quickly rushing us off, throwing our bags to the side of the road in pitch blackness. The driver smiled, muttered Rio Claro and was gone in a matter of seconds. Once we realized that the bus didn't miss Rio claro is just took a little longer than expected we quickly assessed the area and saw a hotel by the side of the road where we inquired about where we might be able to set up camp to a young security guard blaring Michael Jackson. He shouted some directions, we followed them down the road only to walk into a military training camp where another young kid with a AK-47 advised us that all we needed to do was cross the street back where we originally were. We headed back, broke out the flashlights and hiked a dirt road into the woods, found a comforting sign that said "camping" and set up camp for the night.

We awoke to the sound of birds, the rushing river, and a half naked man wearing a machete who politely issued us a camping voucher. We were indeed in the Refugio. After shifting our camp to a more scenic area by the river we then spent hours swimming about, hiking in the forest, and simply enjoying the beauty of life. The insects, birds, and flora were all new to me (Adam) since it was my first time in the rain forest. Also my love of animals was quite satisfied by a young all black mutt of which I named "pajarito" (little bird) a new word I had been struggling to pronounce. He stayed by our side for our entire visit, and kept all the birds from invading our picnics. It is quite difficult to describe the beauty that was Rio Claro so I think I'll pass and just say that it was magical and unlike any forest or river that we have ever experienced.

After a few days we packed up camp, flagged a bus and arrived in Medellin, a thriving modern city of 3 million set within a hot and tropical valley encased by the Andes on either side. Medellin, once the center of the cocaine industry, is now a center of culture, art, music, etc... Thriving with an enormous student population and every commodity known, Medellin feels like NYC with a Colombian flare. All store fronts are wide open to the street mobbed with pedestrians and people peddling anything from ice cream (helado) to inflatable pools with plastic palm trees, while old men and drunkards dance and sing traditional Colombian folk songs. Yesterday we trekked ten miles of the city and today we shall do it again since there is too much to see and too little time. From here we are not sure where the next stop will be. We are considering heading out to the lake district outside the city limits and then south to the coffee region. Stay tuned, and check out the new pics.

Posted by lramos1 05:28 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Zipaquira

Salt cathedral near bogota

overcast 54 °F

Adam thinks we must have been moles in our previous lives as things pertaining to the underground seem to call out to us. Thus a visit to the salt mines and cathedral in Zipaquira became something we just couldn't miss out on. The trip began lazily, as you might have guessed, but by noon we suddenly had three people joining us that we had just met mere minutes ago from our hostel. A peppy Brazilian and two shy teenagers from Copenhagen were by our side for a trip to the salt mines.

Bogota as a city is easily navigable, north and south streets have a numbering system making it impossible to get lost. We caught the new transmilenio bus from las aguas down the street from our hostel and for about 60 cents you can ride it all the way to the end of the line where the outside buses are ready to wisk you away to wherever you wish to go outside of bogota. The transmileno has it's own lanes, operating more like a subway system than a bus. It took us about an hour to go through Bogota to Portal Norte where we caught the little bus to Zipaquira. When we arrived into Zipaquira, we found a sleepy town with many shops closed. We walked up, found a little place that served us the set lunch. For about $2 we lunched on fried chicken, beans, carrot salad, rice, plantain, and lentil soup with freshly made quava juice- what a deal! These set lunches are found everywhere, i guess as a way to provide a nutritious and inexpensive meal to students, the working world, and now budget travelers.

The town of Zipaquira was named after two Native Americans, Zipa and Quira who married and founded the city (thanks Javier the tour guide). They were Muisca Indians that settled in the area to exploit a large reserve of salt that formed over 250 million years ago when the oceans receded, leaving pockets of salt water that evaporated. The evaporated water formed thick salt flats that were folded in when tectonic activity shaped the Andes, creating a large pocket of salt under the earth. The Muisca would dig down for the salt, collect it, boil it down and make large salt cakes used for later consumption and trade. The area was continuously exploited and today the salt mines are still in operation, digging out new chambers and drifts in this elaborate three story system reaching as far down as 180 meters. Javier says the salt pocket reaches a depth of 500 meters. The salt contains no iodine, evidently that is the main difference between sea salt and ground salt so only 5% is used for human consumption and the rest for commercial purposes.

The salt cathedral was carved into one of the chambers. As work in the mines was pretty dangerous with explosives and gases, the cathedral was built as a place for the miners to pray before departing for the day's grim job working in the mines. The original cathedral collapsed due to structural damage as once the salt is exposed, moisture slowly begins to eat away at the integrity of the walls causing them to crumble. The cathedral was rebuilt 16 years ago and is carefully monitored by the miners who take constant measurements of the ceiling. When the find areas of crumbling salt, they chip it away leaving a fresh layer. Javier our tour guide told us that if the ceiling falls more than 10 centimeters, the cathedral would have to be closed down again.

Our descent into the cathedral was welcomed by strong sulphuric gases, tickling our nose hairs. We were told that the smell is good for ailments of the chest and lungs with a new hospital currently being built into one of the chambers underground. Pretty cool however we all found the smell a bit awkward and musty, reminded me of being in a big pot of chicken and onion soup that is about to go bad. The walls reminded me of Petra, with these gorgeous layers of coal, salt crystals, and clay swirling together so fluidly it looked like rivers of glitter. In some places, the salt cascaded down like waterfalls turning black from the coal in some spots. The cathedral even carved out a baptism pool out of the salt, all you do is add water and the salt leaches out turning it into a salt bath. Upon touching the salt walls you feel a warmth, not a coldness of granite but a soft heat radiating out of the walls.

The cathedral was huge, much larger than we anticipated with a long walk with the Stations of the Cross. I suddenly had flashbacks of being in Mrs. Hickather´s class acting out the Stations of the Cross. Mass is held every Sunday and weddings are quite common inside the cathedral with the president even having his own personal access car into the mines while all the other peons have to walk. At the end our tour of the cathedral we tacked on a tour of the salt mines. The best part of the whole tour was getting to don on some serious hard hats with nifty lights attached to the front. We stumbled through some tight caves without our lights on as Javier wanted us to feel what it was like to be in the mines in the dark. Very spooky. There is no light at all and we had to feel around the cave walls to reach the end.

After spending over two hours under the ground breathing chicken onion soup air and stumbling around in the dark, we left the mines towards fresher air. Instantly the cloudy sky looked beautiful and you just felt better being outside. This made me very appreciative of all the miners, past and present, who spend a good chunk of their days inside the mines. What a tough job-Pete Seeger is smiling somewhere at that comment.

We slowly made our way back to the bus station, stopping at the church in the middle of the plaza for a quick stare. Nightfall was soon approaching so we had a beer waiting for the bus, hopped on and made our way back to Bogota. We were warned by the hostel to not walk after 10pm in the streets of the historic district as thieves are quite common so Adam and I are usually in after nightfall. Partly because we are tired after a day of walking and being safe but when we rolled into the city after Zipaquira we found a different Bogotá. Bogota at night is pumping. The university area is buzzing and so alive, restaurants and bars that are closed off completely during the day are open enticing you to sit and have a glass of wine. Unfortunately our trip put us a few dollars off budget so we spent the night quietly in our hostel, talking with other travelers about where to go next.

Posted by lramos1 09:35 Archived in Colombia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (6)

Bogota

First Day

overcast 60 °F

Buenos dias everyone!!! After two days of airport travel we finally arrived in the Capital City of Bogota, Colombia. The city sits above 5000 ft. (2600 meters) and is surrounded by green lush rising peaks topped with colonial churches and a statue of jesus overlooking the whole city. Our first destination today will be up one of the mountains bordering the city with a ritual Sunday pilgrimage in which the Bogoteños trek all the way up for a church service. We are quite excited to get a good sense of the city's layout from above, and it will certainly help with my navigation within the city itself. We are staying in Candelabra, which is the oldest section of the city, characterized by narrow winding mountain streets and structures dating back 500 years. Check out the pics of the neighborhood and the plaza de Bolivar, the main plaza in Candelabra. Yesterday we had our first taste of Colombian cuisine- mine turned out to be pig intestine soup, i was not expecting this but i did my best to put it down, but i ended up eating the rest of Laura's more appetizing dish of yucca and or potato soup and huge chunks of pig or beef vertebra. Laura dug right in.

The city has this eclectic mix of colonial oldness meets modern hipster flare with dilapidating buildings sandwiched between funky cafes and reggaeton bars. The streets of the candelabra area undulate under the cobblestones, making one lose their breath by simply walking a few blocks. Sundays seem to be the day out in Bogotá and we are excited to not only climb the mountain but stroll the streets to see flea markets, the legendary emerald trading area, and of course hitting the oro museum.

We shall send more word later as the other hostellers are slowly waking up and giving me that eye---get off the computer. Much love.

Adam and Laurita

Posted by lramos1 09:18 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

In the Beginning

predeparture

Summer has suddenly come to an end as the humidity recedes and the soft cool breeze of autumn blows in to send us off on our new adventure. When thoughts of our South American travels were but mere thoughts, September felt like a distant echo. We both could hear it, sense its inevitable crawl through the lines of time yet inexplicably it seemed abstract and intangible. Well September has indeed come, bringing those surges of excitement that if you've ever embarked on a journey- whether physically or mentally, you know what I'm talking about. It's the excitement of the unknown, the delicious possibilities that even the most mundane tasks of daily life may and could bring from taking a bus, buying an apple, or simply smiling at a stranger. A journey is different from taking a holiday in that a holiday allows a temporary escape from life whereas a journey changes life as you know it. This is our three month journey through a small sliver of South America beginning in Columbia and ending in Chile. While Adam and I are both ridiculously inept in keeping up on the technological bandwagon, travel blogging seems to provide an easy way to share our travel experiences with our friends and family while also appearing to look extra cool as "bloggers"- whatever that means. So here we be, we invite you to journey with us in spirit and to lose yourself a bit in our wonderings.

Cheers,

Laurita and Adam

Posted by lramos1 23:56 Comments (2)

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