What do you know about the coffee industry in Colombia?
Do you want to explore a region which is steeped in the little brown beans that so many of us crave each morning?
checking the crop
An innovative project has been set up in a small mountainous region of Colombia which enables the coffee farmers to add value to their product and allows travellers and tourists to explore the natural beauty of this area
Read my article here to learn about this inspirational project and to learn about the hardships and the joy of farming coffee
Living and working abroad and total immersion in the local culture. Differences in attitude and outlook. Travelling with attitude and a robbery.
When I was working at the hostel at the beach at Santa Marianita in Ecuador I met some lovely guests while I was working at the hostel but I disliked the attitude of some of the local residents who made up a large ex-pat community. Mainly hailing from the United States, many of them (but not all of them) spent their time bemoaning the political situation that they had left behind, the taxes that they were trying to avoid paying and they had bought or were thinking of buying up beachfront plots of land so that they could relocate out of the States
Ecuador -who wouldn’t want to live here
Some of these people didn’t want to integrate with the local fishing population that lived in the tiny village further down the beach and they viewed the local Ecuadorians with suspicion – their main priority was a refuge for their money.
A kite-surfers’ paradise
Then I went up into Colombia and while I was staying at a hostel in Cali I met three friends who were on a weekend break. Erin and Tamsin are English teachers and Erin’s fiance Jaime is Colombian. Several months later when I was heading back down south towards the border my route took me close by the town of Pereira where they live so I thought that I might check in to a hostel and take them at their word and call in as I was passing.
Pereira at night
Erin and Jaime very kindly offered me a bed on their couch in their apartment so I stopped by for a couple of nights. Erin was pregnant when I visited with their first child so has left the school where she was working. She now works from home as a copywriter, she offers private English lessons and she is also a travel blogger – the Open Minded Traveler
Erin – the Open Minded Traveler
Jaime is working hard to establish a new business venture and makes and sells chocolate products sourced from cacao grown on his family farm over on the coast. Whilst success of the project is important so that it provides a good income for all of the family, it is also important that it succeeds as it will hopefully encourage the remaining farmers in the coastal region who grow coca to swap to a different crop. And that is important if the drug cartels and the associated crime and lawlessness are to be stopped. Erin explains the process and procedure beautifully in this blog post – click here to read Erin’s article
the lush rich countryside
I have already told you that Erin works from home but in between her writing and teaching she had time to take me out for a day. We caught a local bus into the countryside where we went for a leisurely hike alongside a river. The weather was threateningly thundery but it didn’t spoil our enjoyment. We reached our destination – a rock painted like a fish in the river before turning back to the village in a race against the rain.
street art with a twist
Erin is the total opposite to some other ex-pats that you can find – and you can find them all around the world. You know the ones – they moan because everybody speaks a different language and the food is unfamiliar or they can’t find their favourite beer. Travel, embrace the culture but keep your wits about you because a tiny minority will perceive you to be rich and therefore ‘fair game’ for a scam.
llama foetus at the Witch’s Market, La Paz. Embrace the difference
When I travelled I had my little rituals which I went through to ensure that I didn’t lose anything critical. After ten months I had these down to a fine art, but one day I relaxed one of them, and I taught myself a valuable lesson. I ALWAYS carried my large rucksac on my back and the smaller one which contained my valuables on my front. When I got to the Colombian/Ecudor border in my little colectivo (shared van) I only had to cross the road to enter the Colombian immigration office and sign out of the country. So I swung my little bag onto my back and waddled across the road with my large bag in my arms.
The Colombian flag…and Ecuador and Venezuela too
BIG mistake. Somewhere in those ten minutes I had my purse lifted from the top of my little bag on my back. I believe that it was actually in the queue for the immigration official. Luckily it was only my purse with my Colombian Pesos and my US Dollars and luckily I had a twenty dollar bill stuffed in my bra so I could pay for a colectivo and then a bus to my next destination.
I cursed my own stupidity – but I learnt a valuable lesson. Well, several actually.
1. Don’t vary my safety routines and rituals
2. Never put my little rucksac on my back
3. Keep spare money in my bra
4. If things do go wrong try not to get too stressed. They happen and are a lesson. I stayed calm and I know that I could have coped even if I didn’t have had my secret stash of money tucked away
Erin knows about orchids too
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Erin and Jaime
grafitti artists take over a derelict cottage
OK – let’s backtrack in my story.
After Emy, Lio and I finally ran out of time cavorting on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and I survived my attempted mugging unscathed, I returned to Cartagena. Originally I intended to just stay a couple of nights as I had already spent almost a week there previously.
The old town, Cartagena
My hostel of choice (the Mamallena) was full so we found another in the same street. This one had a totally different vibe to the Mamallena – it was small and charming and run by a lovely family. I opted for the cheapest dorm without air con, but it comprised just one set (or should that be pile) of bunk beds and I ended up having it all to myself for the majority of my stay.
It seemed that the French were in town that week andwhilst it was very sad to finally say goodbye to Lio after some big adventures I was still surrounded by those wicked French accents and gallic humour.
Backstreets of Cartagena
So why did I linger so long in Cartagena?
For the same reason that I lingered in Medellin and Amaga, Cuenca and Santa Marianita. The people that I met. And in Cartagena I got my mojo back.
The place has a laid back Caribbean vibe and it was too hot to go charging about. The food is a bit different, the rum flows freely and the architecture is stunning. The buildings and the people and the lifestyle reminded me very much of Cuba – hot steamy nights and life lived to thumping beats of salsa and rum.
A local fiesta
As I was working at my laptop in the tiny little common area of the hostel a traveller from Poland (Luna) arrived one morning following her five day sail boat from Panama. I greeted her and as I told her that the hostel was like a little family home there was one of those moments when you just know that you will click with someone. And in Cartagena we all just kept clicking.
A couple from South Africa were travelling and were one reason that I didn’t move on – Dirk was an inspiration as he worked away on his laptop and I would often emulate him and work on mine. Many times I wanted to give up and get out in the sunshine but it is a lot easier to work in an ‘office’ environment with others – even if that office constitutes a bean bag or the local coffee shop. Sune, Dirk’s wife also worked too – she was volunteering in the hostel and when she wasn’t cleaning or cooking she was sketching or writing a book.
There was Don Pedro and his wife Celis, Quitto who had hidden talents as a tailor and a frazzled Fin who was sick and was holed up in one of the rooms. There were the guys from Mexico and Argentina and as I have already mentioned, a steady stream of French men, some amazing local dancers and the dashing Danny. I met up again with another incredible Dani – we had originally been friends in Medellin. She and her partner were Argentinian and were heading steadily north, he playing his drums and she making and selling beautiful sandals and bracelets. Another beautiful couple, full of strength, love and generosity I was so happy sat on the street just being with them, doing my best to chat as they plied their wares or jammed with other musicians on a street corner or in a square.
Artisan selling Argentinians
Myself, Luna and Canela from the States hit it off and we formed our little gang of three in which we inspired, encouraged and supported each other. We perched high up on the ancient city walls overlooking the sea and chatted long into the night as the warm breeze swept off the sea or we sat in a line on the doorstep of the hostel, emulating the prostitutes who sat on the doorsteps all along the road opposite. We went into the clubs and pubs and danced until four am, taking lessons in reggaeton from local women – grinding and swirling sandwiched between them and then champeta lessons from the men. We felt the rhythm of life swaying and moving with Danny on the roof terrace and another night we went along to Don Pedro’s birthday party where we salsa’d and shook our stuff in his home with his neighbours and family.
Afro Colombian fruit seller
We shared our dreams and worries and told each other that we were beautiful. None of us wanted our time here to end and we would have deep and meaningful conversations or just sit in contented silence happy to just be. We jumped on the local bus and went to a local beach where we were the only non- Colombians around. We sat in Plaza de la Trinidad at two in the morning drinking rum and coke out of the plastic cups so thoughtfully supplied at the corner shop and one day we sat fully clothed in a rainstorm on the roof terrace for an hour not wanting to interrupt our conversation.
Putting the world to rights on the historic city walls
One night we had a cocktail party at the hostel and Dirk spent a couple of hours making coconut milk for the pina coladas from real coconuts which proved to be a lot harder than the recipes on the internet stated and another night we pulled mattresses onto the roof terrace and opened every door and window when the power cut out and the fans and aircon went off whislt the thermometer climbed above thirty four degrees.
Thanks to these incredible people that I met in Cartagena I FINALLY began to believe in myself. After ten months on the road I knew that I had been right to give up my apartment and my posessions, my job and my car. I was comfortable living in hostels and sharing dorms and food with strangers. I was no longer afraid of the dark or crowds or twisty mountain roads. I would get up and dance in a restaurant when invited and I could find my way back to my hostel all by myself at four in the morning through streets lined with prostitutes and sleeping drug addicts. I could handle a conversation with a stranger or a bus driver in Spanish, I was more than happy visiting a museum or a restaurant alone and I was finally managing to live with events from my past life that I was unable to change.
Drowsy Cartagena at siesta time
Cartagena the second time around was like living in a surreal bubble. Friendships and conversations had an intensity and an urgency yet life was slow in the heat and humidity. None of us felt any desire to move onwards and out of Cartagena but we knew that our visas wouldn’t last for ever. We vowed to keep in touch and to be there for each other.
Feel life. Understand life through feelings, through touching, biting, smelling, seeing. Freedom and energy, limitless joy. Through dance and the heartbeat. The rhythm of life
Our teacher – he understands life through feelings , through touching, biting, smelling, seeing. He explains the world, the life through the original basic instinct to live…. to survive, to go forward and yet dance.
He cannot be the teacher of words. But he was definitely our teacher of life, of dance, of liberty and acceptance:- Luna
Kite fishing in Colombia
After the inactivity of Taganga, Palomino and Santa Marta the three of us –me, Emy and Lio headed off inland. We got a cab up into the mountains to the little town of Minka. We arrived in the drizzle without accommodation to discover that our options for accommodation were limited as everywhere was full.
As usual, we decided to get our priorities right and we immediately sat down for lunch rather than dashing around to find somewhere to sleep, and then, after chatting to the cafe owner about places to stay, we began to climb the steep steps behind the church to a hostel.
Accommodation was indeed limited but we settled for a hammock and a tent between us. The hostel was a strange place with hammocks slung among the trees in the forest and the main communal area being built of wood and all open to the air. But the views were amazing. From up here we could see the coastal city of Santa Marta (we just could not escape it) and despite Santa Marta and the coast not having had any rain for ten months, we were in lush, damp tropical forest with enough rain to sink a battleship.
We decided that we should go for a hefty hike the next day and beat our lethargic demons into touch. We set off up the mountain. Just one hour in it began to rain. Six hours later it was still raining. To say that we were wet was an understatement. When the rain was at its heaviest and with thunder and lightning echoing off the mountains, we were clambering up a narrow, steep path, miles, or so we thought from anywhere, when we came across a tiny little cottage. We decided that we would see who was home and we went in through the gate or at least Lio went in and Emy and I waited to see if he would come out alive.
Sat at a wooden table and staring out of the glass-less window was an elderly couple. They were sitting in the gloom watching the storm and eating tangerines. They spotted us looking like drowned rats and they didn’t hesitate to open the door and then invited us to sit with them until the worst of the storm passed. It was a mini-adventure like something out of a Brothers’ Grimm fairytale but there were three of us and the elderly couple were so very trusting to take us in, I think that our fears of a Hansel and Gretel moment were a little exaggerated.
With an earth floor and simple rustic furniture which we dripped all over they peeled and handed us segments of tangerine and attempted to communicate. After a while, they un-padlocked a door which bizarrely only led to the kitchen and proceeded to stir a pan which was on an open range. We didn’t want then to feel obligated to share their lunch with us, or to make us a part of it, so we thanked them profusely and set back off into the deluge, although this took a long while as the lady of the home kept on hanging on to me and Emy and was almost crying because we wanted to leave.
Continuing our uphill slog we finally reached the high point and posed for photos in the rain with a couple of guys who had reached the same point from the other direction and then we carried on along our circular route, but thankfully we were mostly going down hill by now. We were singing every song known to man which incorporated any wet and rainy lyrics and we stopped every so often to feast on the sweetest, ripest and discovered too late, worm infested wild mangoes which we collected from the ground under the trees.
The next day after watching a toucan hopping about in the tree canopy above our tent, we set off for the bus back to Santa Marta. We were fed up of the rain and whilst pretty, there wasn’t enough in Minka to keep even us three sloths occupied and certainly not enough rum.
Amazingly we were early enough to keep on moving and we caught an onward bus to Cartagena. Me and Lio hugged a hasty goodbye with Emy as we were deposited next to a supermarket on the road into Barranquilla and Emy disappeared into the afternoon sun all by herself towards Cartagena.
As per our usual pattern, we were not going to decide on anything until we had eaten, but we finally found our way to our hostel – The Meeting Point, Barranquilla. It was probably the only one in Barranquilla but it was run by a lovely family and had long term guests there who were working in the area. Lio and I decided to head off the next day for a very unusual tourist attraction in the port area. A wide river runs out into the sea from the city and in this down-trodden barrio it is flanked by some very rustic looking fish and seafood restaurants. We had lunch first at one of these overhanging the water and then went to find the little train that we had been told about.
Train is probably too grand a word for a platform driven by a lawnmower engine. Running along metal tracks embedded into the side of the road we slowly chugged along, following the riverbank. Soon we came to the sea, but strangely the track continued, along a barrier of piled up rocks between the river and the open ocean.
It felt very weird to have open sea on our left and the wide river mouth on our right as we trundled along the narrow strip of land on the train. We had stopped to pick up passengers at various points along the tracks and we soon had a full load. A couple of times the train broke down but the very fed up driver soon got it going again with a couple of whacks of a huge hammer. At the end of the line the driver indicated that we had an hour or so to walk to the very end of the point to the lighthouse if we so wished. The narrow pile of rocks which was lined with bleached wooden ramshackle huts turned out to the be the final resting place of thousands upon thousands of shoes and flipflops and plastic which had been washed up by the sea.
The shacks were basic resting and sleeping places of the fisherman who worked off the rocks. We spotted a few of them sat on the rocks and flying kites in the wind. Originally I believed them to be lazily idling their time away with the kites, but then we stopped and spoke to one of them. It turned out that they were kite fishing. They would sit on their rocks day and night flying their kites high as dots in the sky, whilst trailing off the kites’ string were long lines with hooks and baits which dangled far below in the water. Skilfully manipulating the kites the men dipped and played the lines and caught their fish which they would take to market the next day. Lio had a go, sitting on the rocks and flying the kite whilst the fisherman proudly showed off his catch so far to us.
Kite fishing in Colombia
When it was time to head back to the land the train broke down more and more frequently, taking more than twice the time that it should have and then it finally deposited us back at the port in the dark. Not too worried, despite our hostel owners warning to be out of this poor barrio before dark, we walked out of the area to the main road with the other passengers from the train. At the main road we all separated but despite waiting for about half an hour we were unable to flag down any cabs.
Lio and I decided to split our efforts and we stood either side of the busy road. And then it happened. A skinny, dirty little man approached me. Taking hold of the strap of my shoulder bag he quietly and politely asked me in Spanish to give him my bag. I obviously refused and told him where to go. He rolled up his filthy t- shirt to show me what looked like a knife stuck in the waistband of his trousers and then grabbed me and shook me while shouting now to give him my bag. And as I angrily screamed back at him and I told him to fuck off my mind was computing the fact that he had a knife. I thought that if he ordered me a third time to give him my bag the sensible thing would be to hand it over but he didn’t get a chance. Lio had been alerted by my yells and came powering over the road, yelling like a mad thing and with arms waving like windmills and basically calling the man every name under the sun in Spanish, French and English. Lio does security work and is an expert at martial arts. You only had to read his body language as he launched himself over the road to know that this was a man who would not be afraid to attack – and the would be robber turned and ran down an alleyway. At that point an empty cab approached and scared that it too would drive past I jumped into the road forcing it to stop. I actually shut me eyes as it skidded and wondered fleetingly if I had escaped a knifing to be squashed flat by a cab.
However it did stop and we jumped in and collapsed onto the backseat laughing with relief at our lucky escape. Well, after all, I had wanted adventure and this one had ended well. But we decided to head south for Cartagena the next day.
Lio and I took the bus to Santa Marta. It turned out that the Fiesta de Mar was in full swing with stages set up around the seafront and bands playing. A food market in one of the plazas was selling ceviche and other tasty things and it seemed that the entire town was out and taking part.
Fiesta de Mar in Santa Marta
We joined in with a Zumba session on the beach – much to the amusement of the locals, we watched a proesson go past but we gave up after two hours when it showed no sign of ending – and then as the most magical orange sunset lit up the beachfront we walked back to our hostel. We had some cheeky little cocktails on the way back as we chatted about our respective travels, life and the universe.
Santa Marta looking mystical
Lio is French and he has had his own fantastic journey before finally ending up here on the Carribean coast. It was his final fling on the continent and I was certainly up for a change of tempo. I hoped to visit Parque Tayrona and I also wanted to do the Lost City trek but both plans went by the wayside. I had lost/had my bank card stolen whilst in Playa Blanca so money was a bit tight. The next few weeks were crazy in their own way. We were joined by Emy from England who was also en route north and who had been persuaded by Lio whilst she was in Cartagena to join us. The three of us met up at the Hostal Jackie in Santa Marta where we shared a dorm and soon we were the best of friends and setting off on our adventure – heading first to Taganga for a night or two.
landing the day’s catch
Silly me! I had imagined that three well travelled people would be resourceful and imaginative and that we would be covering the ground effortlessly. We seemed to sink into a stupor, going to bed very late (if at all), mooching around until lunchtime and then more often than not we realised that we had missed the last bus (or simply couldn’t be bothered to go and find it) and we checked back into whatever hostel we were at again!
on the coast it’s too hot to move much
We didn’t seemed to do too much over the next couple of weeks except to ‘make a ploof’ – a Lio-ism for swimming in the sea, eat copious papa rellanas (on this stretch of coast they rivalled those in Trujillo, Peru), and laugh. We wandered slowly from place to place, eating and drinking and sleeping and diligently sharing out the bills to the nearest centimo, or dust as Lio tagged the shrapnel that we all carry around in our wallets. Me and Emy were attacked and stung my an army of wasps and poor old Emy had some ferocious sandflies nibble on her ankles. She will probably carry those scars to the end of her days and will forever be reminded of those couple of weeks when the three of us explored the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
our ‘cell’in Taganga before we trashed it. We drew straws for the double bed. Emy won
Taganga is a funny little place. It seems to be populated by people learning to scuba dive and aging hippies who kept the local drug barons in business. We met a lovely guy called Andres, a gentle giant who has an incredible talent for taking portrait photographs of the people that he meets and we met a couple from Spain who were travelling around. We all spent a VERY weird night sat chatting and chilling on the beach which involved visits from the local cops and being searched for drugs. At about two in the morning the majority of the street dogs joined us and flopped down on the sand amongst us and we also had one of the beggar/homeless men circling us for over an hour, yelling obsecnities at us while fumbling around with a stonking great big knife which was tucked into his waistband. It was at this point that I realised that I had settled into life in South America completely as he was not threatening or scary, just a little annoying as we were all trying to chat. and we ignored him like the pesky mosquitoes and the sandflies which were biting us.
Irony in Taganga. We couldn’t find a burger but we could have smoked and sniffed our body weight in drugs
The three of us were sharing a little cave of a room in a hostel and as we all just spent the next day recovering we quickly turned it into a pigsty. We had an ensuite bathroom but as the place was so small and there was only a curtain for a barhroom door we soon learnt to talk loudly!
leaving Taganga – just before our driver lost control and skidded towards the cliff edge
When we finally managed to stir ourselves from Taganga we went back to Santa Marta and spent another night at the Hostel Jackie. Walking into reception we were pleased to get our old room back. Up on the roof terrace I met Martin from an Argentina who explained that yes, the pool table was supposed to have no pockets and only three balls, and no, it wasn’t a pool table at all but a game called billar which was frustratingly difficult to play and made snooker and pool look like childs play.
The next day, or maybe a couple of days later, who knows because by now the days were all merging, the three of us got on another bus and headed up the coast to Palomino. The countryside got wilder and dryer (they are having a serious drought here) and the homes got poorer. Palomino was once a little indigenous community on the coast but now includes some seriously laid back hostels and beach bums.
Lio making a ploof
Our first hostel of choice was probably as far from the beach as you could get – and after staggering back home in the pitch black during a power cut the next day we relocated ourselves a bit closer to where the action was happening. Not that an awful lot happened in Palomino. We did eat some amazing fish in a tiny little local restaurant and we did plan to go tubing on the river, and we did plan to go for a hike …..but you know the drill by now – we didn’t do an awful lot at all.
the estuary at Palomino
We bought ourselves a bottle of rum and whilst we were sat on our patio we were joined by the guy next door who I shall call Scot but who originated from Finland. He had been in the area for a while and had been helping on a project to build a treehouse. There was a little bit of alpha male banter happening and then when the guys decided to go together to the shop, me and Emy both looked at each other and announced that they would either end up fighting or come back as best friends. Luckily they turned up later arm in arm and the best of friends! And armed with more rum.
traditional meets modern – a man from an indigenous community on his mobile
We did manage to get ourselves along the beach to the point where the river joined the sea but we did decline the ayawasca ceremony which we were invited to because we needed to begin to head back down the coast and our respective onward journeys. Rolling into Santa Marta we had of course missed the last bus out again so rocking up at the Hostel de Jackie we treated ourselves to a dip in the little swimming pool and planned our next move.
just add mojitos
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