Back home Ben and I would consider ourselves city people. But while traveling, we usually gravitate towards villages and small towns, and find ourselves staying much longer than most the backpackers we meet. I think being in a place with fewer people and in a more relaxed atmosphere, feels easier to make a connection with other people.
After a few days in the busy streets of Medellin, that all too familiar feeling came over us and we left. We took a bus a few hours south to Salento, the heart of Colombia’s coffee country. With a population of 4,000 and surrounded with bright green mountains, Salento was exactly what we needed.
Our first day we took a beautiful one-hour walk through the mountains to a coffee finca (farm) called Don Elias. A man working at the finca greeted us with fresh cups of coffee and agreed to show us around.
Ben and I love coffee! Since arriving here we’ve been averaging about 3 cups a day. The funny thing about drinking coffee here is that the quality is second-rate, all the best beans have been exported back home and to Europe. It’s was hard not to laugh a little as we sat there drinking our coffees, on a coffee farm in Colombia, to know that anyone back home popping a Colombian Roast k-cup into their Keurig, is drinking better quality stuff.
After getting a sufficient coffee buzz going, our guide took us out to the plants and we picked a few beans while he explained how the coffee industry works here. Just a few factoids about the coffee here: The beans mature at different times on each plant, so they must be handpicked. It’s a very long and tedious process.
Colombia is the only producer in the world that grows exclusively Arabica beans. This area of the country has a cool mountain climate which allows the beans to mature slower. This results in a less bitter and more consistent flavor when roasted. The frequent rainfall allows for two harvests per year and the plants thrive in the volcanic-based soil. Like most farms here, Don Elias exports the beans unroasted to U.S. and European firms. They are then combined with the beans from many other fincas and mass-roasted.
The most notable difference between Colombian coffee and that of the rest of the world is that the beans here are washed after the shells are removed. The water is very clean in this region, so they are able to wash and remove a layer of bitter fruit surrounding the bean prior to drying them. This takes a lot of the acidity out, making the flavor much richer.
We celebrated our new-found knowledge of coffee production with another cup of coffee. Just when I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest from too much caffeine, he took us down the road to get a couple beers and play a typical country game called Tejo. Tejo is pretty much like corn-hole, except instead of a hole in the middle of the board, there are packets of gun power. And instead of throwing innocent little bean bags, you throw heavy lead weights and aim for an explosion. Upon realizing that the other travelers there were either from the US or England, we decide to separate into two teams. A few beers and a few explosions later, the US was sadly defeated.
We spent the next day hiking with two girls from Switzerland in one of the most beautiful and unusual landscapes I’ve ever seen in the Valle de Cocora. We started off in a thick rainforest and descended into a valley of bright green rolling hills. The only trees in the valley were oddly shaped palm trees called Wax Palms. I felt like I was in Dr Seus’s The Lorax while walking through the valley. I’m not sure our photos do this place any justice, it was incredible.
After a few days of relaxing in Salento we decided more hiking was in order and took a bus to the city of Manizales, where we still are right now. Manizales is the gateway to Parque Los Nevados, one of Colombia’s highest mountain chains.
Yesterday we did a day trip up to one of the park’s highest peaks, Santa Isabel sitting at about 16,700 ft. I would like to say that I had an amazing experience but that would be a lie.
It started out perfectly. The drive there was breathtaking with mountains that were lush and tropical. We passed farms and waterfalls and I felt great! Then we got to the base of Santa Isabel and began our ascent. Somewhere in between the hurricane-force winds that began to blow, the wet cloud that blanketed us and the trail, the frigid rain that drenched my cotton pants, or my wet gloves that turned my hands into ice pops, things changed and I stopped having fun. Each step felt colder and wetter and windier than the last and I spent most of the ascent wondering why I actually paid money for this trip.
By the time we made it to the glacier I couldn’t feel my hands and began to break down a little. Thankfully Ben let me put my freezing hands under all his clothes, directly on his warm stomach to defrost them. “This is love” is all I managed to say through my tears. After the feeling came back to my hands, I walked around the glacier a little but couldn’t seem to lift my spirits. Ben on the other hand was thriving. He couldn’t take the smile off his face and skipped around taking go pro videos. (When you watch the video, the girl pacing miserably in the back next to the snow is me.)
After a few minutes at the top, we turned around to head back down the way we came. While Ben was making friends with a couple from Germany, I walked alone, grumbling at the idea of walking back down the trail. About half way down, the best thing that could possibly happen happened. The sun came out and the clouds lifted, unmasking the sheer beauty of Los Nevados, and reminding me that I really do love hiking.
I’d like to think of myself as an extreme outdoorswoman, but that´s just not the case. I love hiking and being in nature, but I do have my limits. Maybe traversing snowy mountain peaks isn’t for me. Or maybe I should have just bought a pair of waterproof pants and gloves?
On Monday we are moving on to another beautiful and mountainous area of Colombia. With more hikes in our near future, I’d like to think there are more opportunities for redemption.
Click images for slideshow…