We were up and out walking the railway tracks back into Suesca village at the crack of dawn. We crammed onto a small bus packed with commuters commuting to Bogota. For the first time in months we felt like we were part of the rat race again. I didn't miss it. Once on the outskirts we squeezed into another bus to cross the city, then another out of town up into the hills.
It was a great road winding through banana tree covered hillsides and lush tropical valleys that disappeared below us. After driving up into the clouds and back down again we rolled into Armenia and took our final bus just out of the city to Caragabi Hostel where we were meeting Andy from the cargo boat, Jair the owner and his puppy Jaguar, who likes to toddle about in a bandana. Although being slightly more dear than our usual hostel choice, it was an amazing place. We had a double room with private bathroom and a balcony behind brightly painted wooden shutters. It's a really tranquil relaxing place and the owner Jair is a legend.
We spent the first night playing pool by the pool, listening to Irish music and drinking whiskey. It was St Patrick's day after all. There was an odd looking game next to the bar. It was a sort of cabinet full of holes with a yawning frog in the middle. Apparently it's called Juego De La Rana and is played throughout Colombia. I instantly fell in love with it as it's the 'annoyingly addictive, can't do anything else until I have made that frog eat my metal disc' kind of a game that will keep one busy all night. It reminded me of another pub game we got addicted to in Tonsi where you have to swing a ring attached to a string onto a hook at the far end of the bar. Awfully simple awfully hard. I couldn't wait to take this back home and start the Rana craze in England. Unfortunately after a spot of research (Thanks Wikipedia for bursting my bubble) I learned that it is already a much loved pub game in Essex and there is a major international competition, run by Lewes Lions Club every year. So much for my get rich quick scheme. Still, we were hooked however the more whiskey we drank the more times the little rings made their way into the pool, luckily followed by Andy (to fish them out) who appeared to be quite impressionable after he's had a few.
Don Leo's Coffee Finca
Jair recommend to us a coffee farm tour about two hours away in the tiny town of Buena Vista (Good View) high up in the hills. So after a leisurely pancake breakfast we hopped on a bus out of town.
Thickets of bamboo, banana and other fruit trees filled all available space on the steep slopes below us as we twisted our way back and forth upwards. Every now and then we stop by charming little villages of colourful shutters and crumbly walls. A man boards the bus with a large machete dangling by his side like a sword. No one bats an eyelid, I guess here this is normal.
We were met outside Buena Vista's cathedral by Jesus. At the moment he is working as a translator for the Hane Coffee's Caficultur coffee tours. He lead us over to a little cafe in the main square and introduced us to Don Leo. A smiley weathered man probably in his late sixties sitting completely at ease with a small cup of black coffee and a big white Panama hat. He was 100% Colombian as was his coffee. We joined him and two others and tried one of his special coffees. It was delicious and smelt strongly of chocolate and caramel.
We followed Don and Jesus across the square towards a leafy track leading off towards his Finca (Farm). He said it's important for any farmer to know everything growing on his land. He then proved it by pointing out, picking, eating, and smelling almost everything we past.
As we followed the path steeply down through thick plantain and banana trees (one of which are smaller and greener, the other are bigger and browner, but don't ask me which is which as I've forgotten). He started to tell us his life story, and every now and then stopping and doing the odd bit of weeding, pruning and at one point rushing back up the path to show us a beautiful blue bird with funny long tail perched on the bamboo overhead. I didn't get a shot of the bird but this painting on the walls of the farm house will have to do.
Don was sent to school by his parents briefly to learn to read and write then had to leave to work in the coffee fields. Coffee wasn't a bad trade to be in until one year when Brazil lost most of their crop causing Colombian coffee to jump in worth from $1 to $100. The government took full advantage and inflated the prices of almost everything in the country except for the coffee farmers wages. Many of the farmers became incredibly poor and disillusioned. At this time the FARC guerrillas who were at war with the government went around recruiting young angry coffee workers under the pretence of getting them a better deal.
Coffee farms were now worthless so a group of wealthy entrepreneurs went around buying them all up for nothing and created super plantations. They built big houses for themselves and treated their workers appallingly. Don said they were not far off being treated like slaves, working long hard hours for next to nothing, sleeping on the floor or bags of coffee in large rooms crammed full of workers. He remembered hating his life at this point and dreamed of owning his own coffee finca and building a big house where he and his workers could live and eat like a big family.
Coffee farming was going nowhere at this time so like many others he took a side step and started working in the marijuana and coca fields. After a while he was promoted and started working in the labs and learnt the chemical processes to turn the leaves into Cocaine. He never lost sight of his dream and was able to save enough money to buy a small mini market and got out of the drugs trade.
It grew into a successful business with the help of his son and wife. But he still hadn't fulfilled his dream. So they sold everything they owned and bought an abandoned farm in Buena Vista. He pulled down the derelict little building that stood there and built a big house for his family and all his workers. Just like he said, they all now eat together, his workers have nice rooms with proper beds and are paid a good wage.
Just as we caught up to the present day we arrived at his finca. A red and green painted house tucked away among all kinds of interesting plants. One such plant was a rare type of fern that if you press it firmly on your skin it leaves a white imprint. Surrounding the house were also cotton plants, many different kinds of fruit trees, a garden of herbs and medicinal plants including a small marijuana plant.
The second half of our time with Don was spent walking through the coffee process. From planting a new coffee tree right through to the beans being sold off to merchants for roasting. Coffee cherries are ready for picking when they turn a rich red colour or in some cases yellow. If you squeeze them hard enough two slimy beans will pop out from the skins. The slime is a sort of natural sugar and actually tastes quite sweet if you suck it off the bean. However this is not ideal for roasting as the sugar caramelises causing a more intense roasting process which leads to a more bitter coffee. (Unless the roasting is carefully carried out in small special batches which is something Don is experimenting with)
He showed us into a small dark room which housed a brightly painted green and red machine. Its sole function is to remove the skin from the coffee cherries which are then used as fertiliser. The beans are then left in water for roughly 36 hours to remove the natural sugars leaving a brown sludge. The water is changed many times until it stays clear.
The beans are then poured out onto large sheets and sorted into first second and third grade coffee. First being perfect cream coloured beans with no defects. Grade two and three have more defects from either being picked too early or late. They are left to dry in the sun then stored in large sacks until the coffee is ready to be sold on. (I think this is pretty much the process from what I can remember, sorry Don if I missed so thing)
Colombia exports almost all its coffee as it specialises in high quality coffee which is not really supposed to be drunk with two, three or more sugars as is custom here. Don sells most of his high grade coffee to merchants visiting the farm directly rather than going through the coffee federation as he says they offer only half of what it cost him to produce. He also roasts a small amount to sell to visitors. (Don't worry Christine, we bought a bag to try and it's making my bag smell amazing)
We then went for a short stroll in the plantation. We noticed lots of fruit trees such as banana or guava growing amongst the coffee trees, this has multiple benefits. Not only do the larger trees offer the coffee trees much appreciated shade, the fallen fruit creates a richer soil and flavours the coffee.
Back at his house we all sat together and ate a massive lunch Don's wife had prepared, washed down with fresh Tree Tomato juice. It was delicious. A old jeep appeared which took us back up to the village where we had a quick beer before catching a bus back to the hostel.
It was a pleasure listening to Don Leo's story and how he achieved his life's dream. I'd recommend this tour to anyone with an interest in coffee like me, or someone who doesn't like Helen, as we both really enjoyed spending an afternoon in his company with the help of Jesus.
When we arrived back at the hostel Jair had set up a projector and was screening a documentary across the pool about black history in France. It was really interesting and made us all question a lot of things about the world. Jair is really passionate about using the hostel for more than just pool parties and pillow cases. He is actively using his space to bring exhibits from the museum in the city so that local families and children from the surrounding villages can see them for free. He encourages artists to visit and gives them wall space, and this documentary is just part of using his hostel to help educate and build a positive culture in the area. Good luck to him, I think he's got a good thing going. Drop by if you visit Armenia, you can find out more HERE.
Jair mentioned we should visit the small town of Génova about a two hour journey away, nestled high up in between rolling hills of every type of green. Similar to the day before, our little bus wound round steep mountain roads with amazing views. The tips of large hills disappeared into the clouds, their bottoms into valleys. Even though they were incredibly steep, small farm houses could be seen clinging to the hillside in amongst all the greenery.
Génova was a very pretty village, with many brightly painted houses as seems to be the done thing in these parts. Helen accidentally ordered a streak for lunch which came as a nice surprise however as soon as she touched the steak with the folk it bent in half at such an angle Uri Geller would have been proud. At first we weren't sure whether it was a bad fork or a bad steak... it was both. The town was surrounded by more steep green hillsides, so following lunch in the main square we followed a path out of town up into the hills.
After stretching our legs a little and walking off our lunch we headed backwards into town in search of a good cup of coffee. Our waiter had mentioned an orange house on the edge of town so we went for a look. It was a grand old place painted bright orange and blue with a wooden terrace running around the front and side. Funnily enough our waiter from earlier appeared and took great delight in showing us around the place and all his coffee making paraphernalia. I assume this is his real passion. He made us a couple of smooth black coffees using an AeroPress and whipped up a tasty arepa (fried ground maize dough) filled with all kinds of tasty stuff. We sat on the terrace whiling away the afternoon. Coffee became beer then eventually we dragged ourselves back into the main square to catch our bus back.
Just as we boarded the bus a bunch of focused men on horse back trotted past in the most peculiar way. It looked like they were trotting over hot coals picking up their hoofs very quickly. It was kind of the horsey equivalent of the sport of speed walking which too looks a little odd. The guys on horseback looked amazing in large brimmed hats with tasseled fabrics draped around their shoulders. They rode all around the town with heads held high enjoying the attention of admiring onlookers. I wondered if this was as close as it gets to celebrity in this remote little place.
In the evening we teamed up with Jair plus some other folk staying at Caragabi and caught the last bus to the next town to seek out a Tejo arena. Tejo is Colombia's explosive national sport. It consists of lobbing a thick metal puck/disc (about the size of your hand), weighing approximately 680 grams, down an alley at a distance of approximately twenty metres, to a one metre by one metre board covered with clay and set at a forty-five degree angle. This metal puck is the "Tejo" itself. In the centre of the clay is a metal ring covered with explosives. You get one point if after everyone has thrown you are the closest to the ring. You get three for exploding any of the explosives, six if you land in the centre and nine if you land in the centre and cause an explosion.
Tejo goes hand in hand with heavy drinking so to fit in we ordered a large plastic crate of beer and started successfully missing the entire board clattering metal Tejo's into the concrete floor or wooden back wall. A small group of locals gathered to watch us gringos and took a lot of delight in our lack of skill. We played only half court as launching heavy metal pucks twenty meters straight off while half cut on beer seemed a tad dangerous, then again I think that's the point of this game.
An interesting slightly unbalanced character joined us. He was one of those people that you couldn't really place his age or how long it was since he had been sober. I reckon about fifty years for both but I'm still unsure. He couldn't speak a word of English and due to the way he was slurring his words I doubt he got many Spanish words out either. One thing was for sure he has probably been practicing Tejo for the same amount of time he has been practicing drinking and busied himself preparing the clay, trying to give us tips and drinking our beer. He was alright and had some weird obsession with the singer Shakira. At the mention of her name he would launch into a sort of unerotic bendy dance which often involved his leg eventually going behind his head and him falling over. I enjoyed his company!
In the first game Me and H represented England and played against France, America and Colombia. We did pretty rubbish for most of the game and kind of became the joke team. I tried to argue it was because of our ludicrous health and safety laws. Eventually we started to get the hang of it and towards the end had a pretty good run. It started with me finally landing a puck on the explosive metal ring shooting it back out of the clay in a small cloud of smoke, this was followed by a bullseye landing the Tejo directly in the centre for six. Helen was grumbling she hadn't exploded anything. It's worrying when words like this come out of you fiancee's mouth. On her next go she caused a massive explosion giving England the win to the surprise of all the countries especially England! We carried on until the early hours until the crate of beer was empty, good job tomorrows journey to Salento is a short one.