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Contrasts in Colombia

The Tranquility of Zona Cafeteria and the Dark History of Medellin

sunny 30 °C

Salento is a sleepy little town in the Zona Cafetera region (coffee region) of Colombia. The region is very important economically to Colombia with coffee being the world's second highest traded commodity after oil and Colombia is the third biggest exporter.

We could easily see why this little town is becoming a popular place for backpackers and Colombian tourists to visit rather than the 3 big industrial cities in the region. Solento's streets are lined with buildings each with brightly painted doors and window frames. The surrounding hills visible from town are beautiful, green, rolling covered with farmland to forest. Many of the painted houses are shops filled with gift, arts, gourmet goodies, crafts, coffee or restaurants, all very popular with tourists. The main attractions however are the coffee farms along with Valle de Cocora just out of town.

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We arrived from Cali late afternoon after 2 buses to the Eco-Farm Hostel "La Serrana", 1.5 kms out of town. It was the perfect peaceful farm retreat for us. After a nice 20 minute walk back into Salento from the hostel we spent the rest of the day at an amazing cafe called "Brunch". Famous for its peanut-butter brownie which we had to have for desert topped with fudge ice cream and topping. As we were in a food coma after our large 2 course meal the staff invited us into the movie room. A projector with a selection of over 200 movies to chose from while resting on the comfy couches. After the movie we found our Irish friends, Michael & Luisna, ordering dinner here so went for a few drinks with them that night and made plans to visit a coffee farm the following day.

Sashamama is a coffee farm 2 hours hike from Salento. Set in the lush green valley this is a coffee farm that, unlike most in the area, runs the full coffee production cycle here, from harvesting to packaging ready for consumption. Most coffee farms in Colombia sell the beans still green but visiting this farm enabled us to experience the full cycle, finishing by drinking the freshest expresso we have ever had (for Scott the first and last). Such a smooth taste and bold aroma. We were lucky to have an American who works in the coffee industry in our small group visiting that day and he was fluent in Spanish so he could translate even the technical jagen for us. The tour started by looking through the owners rainforest farm at coffee plants and many other harvested plants he has grown under the forest canopy. We had a go at picking the red beans, de-shelling them in a hand driven machine, along with putting dried beans through other machines, then watching them roast from green to brown over a fire before they were ground and consumed by us. We enjoyed an organic homegrown lunch at the farm as well with brilliant views over the hills and valleys. That evening we met Luisna & Michael at Brunch again for another large yummy meal and a movie.

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The following morning we met with our horse trail guide, Diego, who had 2 horses ready for us. The ride went for 3 hours down into the valley to a waterfall before returning us back at the town. The ride was the most picturesque we had embarked on thus far passing through green farms with many dairy cows and rolling hills. We had the option to swim in the waterfall at our further point of the trip, Scott braved the icey waters while Georgie opted to be photographer as she thought the air was fresh enough for her. The river was pretty with clear water flowering across creek stones.

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After the ride and lunch we walked up the mirador on the edge of town. Here we were met with a 360 degree view on the top of this ridge. Little Salento on one side and a patchwork valley of farms on the other side.

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Valle de Cocora is the home of Colombia's national symbol, wax palms standing 60metres tall. We took a 35 minute ride on the back of a Willy Jeep to reach the start of the hike into the valley. The first part of the walk was through farm land until we reached the spectacular cloud forests where we were completely surrounded and towered over by giant trees with everything covered in moss. The track through the rainforest had us crossing over rickety suspension bridges, walking along the edge of the river and along muddy tracks. After nearly 2 hours of walking we arrived at Reserva Natural Acaime, a little house setup deep in the forest. For a small fee we received a hot drink and cheese while we enjoyed watching many hummingbirds who lived in this reserve. We walked back along the same path for a km before hiking uphill towards La MontaƱa to view this mind-blowing landscape inbetween waves of mist. The walk back to Cocora to catch the Willy back was equally spectacular with open views of the stunningly green valley covered in only tall wax trees on the slopes - very pretty.

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Despite staying on in Solento an extra day, we could easily have spent a couple more just chilling out at the hostel. There was a very friendly, relexed and social vibe which seemed to attract a lot of hippy and ecclectic characters. The volunteers at the hostel organised great weeknight family style dinners and there was even a stereotypical hippy backpacker playing his banjo every evening. Scott's beard fit in very well here and got even more compliments than usual including 'that's a bitchin beard' and 'that beard is wicked sexy'.

When it came time to leave after 4 enjoyable days we had a day on the road traveling to Medellin. This City, the second biggest in Colombia is interesting to say the least. In the 80's and 90's travelling here was completely out of the question and it was unsafe for locals to leave their homes. This was the period of time that the Medellin Cartel was in the height of it's power and the city was run by the famous druglord Pablo Escobar. The annual homicide rate in Medellin 20 years ago was 381 per 100,000 making it the most murderous city in the world. We knew that Medellin today would not be the city it once was but still we were surprised at what we found. Granted, we did stay in the most affluent suburb but we found Medellin not only to be safe but to be the most modern and chic of anywhere we have seen in South America with boutique shopping and trendy bars and coffee shops.

We checked into the Casa Kiwi hostel that turned out to be one of our best stays of the trip. The big selling points were and fantastic front deck looking over the street, a great group of people staying there and a gas bbq which we used to cook up a big group asado on one of the days. A group of us from the hostel decided to visit the number one attraction on TripAdvisor, the MetroCable. This is a cable cart included in the cost of the metro ticket taking passengers up and over poor areas of the city to Parque Arvi the cart made several stops along the way which tourists are better to avoid getting off at. This cable cart is the only one in South America used for public transport instead of just tourism. We expected to arrive at a picnic park with a view of the city but the cable cart headed further across the mountain to a national park. We were told to visit the park we needed to join in with a free tour which we did but we all opted to finish early as the tour was not great.

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The next day we went on a walking tour run by a young local guy, Pablo. He took us to the downtown, the start of the walking tour. This tour was excellent mainly due to the quality of information and the way it was delivered. Pablo came across so passionate about being a Paisa (a person from the Medellin district). He explained so much about the long, violent and corrupt history of Medellin and Colombia along with the craziness he has seen in his lifetime especially growing up in such a dangerous time. It is so hard the believe how far Medellin has come in the last 20 years. The sights we visited in the downtown were not that outstanding but it was the history of particular places that made this tour and this city. After the tour both of us visited Museo de Antioquia. This museum is home to many contempary artworks including a large collection of paintings and sculptures by Fernando Botero. Botero's works are easy to recognise as he depicts everything as fat. One of his sculptures of a fat bird in one of the plazas was blown up and some children was killed in the early 90's. Botero demanded that the remains not be removed and he put another fat bird next to it. There is a picture of this below as well as one of his famous painting of the death of Pablo Escobar.

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On our last full day we went on the Pablo Escobar driving tour. This tour was conducted in a van taking the small group to houses and places of importance in Escobar's life over 3 hours. Pablo Escobar is the famous Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist, who dominated the cocaine trafficking business for many years. Heading the Medellin Cartel he supplied 80% of the cocaine entering the USA. Escobar had so much influence and power he had a short lived career in politics as well. Escobar was originally very popular the the public, supporting charity organisations and helping the poorer communities. His popularity was lost towards the end of his career with the ruthless crimes and acts of terrorism he was creating. He was shot and killed by police forces in 1993 on the roof of his Aunties house. The guide provided information on his interesting life, the politics around it and the affect on Colombia. We visited the Monoco building bombed by the Cali cartel, the house he lived in during the latter years of his life, his aunts house he was hiding out in until he was shot dead on its roof (photo below), the cemetery where he and his family are buried and many other buildings of interest. Escobar owned many houses and apartments, some to live in and many others to hide money in. All of these were registered under fake names so he wasn`t traceable. Many of the places were owned by a monkey whose fingerprints had been taken.

Here are a few more interesting Escobar related facts we learnt:
-While Escobar was was in power, helmets were banned from motorbike riders. This was due to the number of assassonations from motorbike drive-bys and it was impossible to indintify the killer with a helmet on
-Even today men are forbidden to be a passenger on a motorbike.
-Escobar was named by Forbes magazine as the 7th richest people in the world.
-He owned 3 hangers in the medellin airport.
-He had over 500 properties in Medellin alone. Many were to hid the cash.
-One of his properties had a private zoo housing hippos, giraffes and elephants.
-His accountant claims the cartel was spending $2500 a month on rubber bands to hold the money together.

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Our next entry will come from the very top of South America - Colombia's Carribean coast

Posted by Scott-Georgie 14:21 Archived in Colombia

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