Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Rich and aromatic, dark and velvety. Even as someone who drinks very little coffee, I can appreciate a good cup o’ joe. And, seeing as coffee is second only to oil in global exports, I am clearly not the only one. When it comes to getting a cup of high quality coffee or espresso, there are few places in the world better than the rolling green hills, crisscrossed and sectioned, of Colombia’s Zona Cafetera.

Colombia, home of the world-recognized (fictional) Juan Valdez, is number two in global coffee exports and the number one producer of Arabica, the world’s highest quality coffee. The label ‘Colombian Coffee’ has become synonymous with excellence. So, we made it a list item to tour a coffee farm (or ‘finca’) and see what the fuss was about.

The tour of a local, family-run coffee finca outside of Manizales was conducted entirely in Spanish, and, despite our speaking skills not being up to par, we had a surprisingly easy time understanding the majority of what our guide was explaining. She led us through the entire planting process, from tiny roots to fruit to roasted coffee beans, while showing us each part of the process on the sprawling coffee plantation.

Win tried his hand at being a coffee laborer, searching each branch for only the ripe, red fruit, plucking them individually, and watching his bucket as it filled at an unbelievably slow pace. The life of these workers, going from farm to farm, making a living one kilogram at a time, cannot be easy. Yet, it is an integral step in the process, a process that supports vast swathes of Colombia’s people.

Incredible time and consideration goes into each step of the process, ensuring that the years of work that lead up to an individual harvest aren’t wasted. Colombia’s coffee farms are outstanding in their emphasis on organic, hand-picked crops, ensuring the absolute highest quality in the finished product. 

They are proud of the fact that they do not use machines for harvests, that they rely on original sorting methods (does it float?) for separating good beans from bad. They are proud that they are careful about what fuel is used for roasting and what bags for storing to prevent flavor contamination. They know that size matters, and sort the coffee beans as such. The coffee growers know what works, and it is this human touch that distinguishes Colombian coffee as some of the world’s finest.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Where Time Slows Down

Ah, old colonial towns. Whitewashed buildings, nearly blinding in the sun, topped with red-orange tiles, doors and windows painted in vibrant colors. A town square, complete with bubbling fountain, a magnificent church, and plenty of stands peddling foods, hats, ponchos, and produce of every shape and variety. Cobblestone streets make their way from house to house, leading onward dogs and cars alike. Residents recline about in shady patches.

This quaint scene has repeated itself time and again in our Colombian travels. The midday sun, soon to be quenched by afternoon rains, drives people into the shade and under the brims of hats. It makes you feel the need to slow down, to adjust to the siesta-loving pace of the locals. Here, time works at the speed of molasses, slow and sticky, irresistible. It is the time of slow-cooked meals and freshly made juice.

Nestled in among mountains and greenery, these are towns and cities built in clusters, settled into their individual nooks and crannies. They stack together, tumbling and climbing around hills and valleys. And, though each of the towns are so similar, each time we crest a hill the blues and greens that wrap themselves around these colonial towns, entangled with gauzy white clouds, catch me off guard. I am reminded that, although it may be difficult coming from a Western perspective, it is important to stop, appreciate places where time runs a bit slower, and just sip it all in. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Free Toes, Fluttering Wings

As the jeep bounced along, overflowing with tourists and Colombians, I felt a tad underdressed. The other white folk had donned hiking boots, rubber galoshes, and carried plastic ponchos in preparation for the day’s trek. I was sporting my usual flipflops and yoga-inspired clothes (read: comfortable), my only actual shoes, in fact a pair of much-underused running shoes, waiting patiently, still packed away in my backpack in OcaƱa. So, as the jeep jerked to a halt, there I sat, flipflop-clad but ready to hike.

A rutted dirt road led us down into Cocora Valley, past a trout hatchery and weaving between cow-specked farmlands. Towering wax palms dotted the hillside, stretching up surreally from otherwise treeless fields and hills, reaching as though they could brush the azure of the bright morning sky. The road, a mere track only passable for humans and their equine friends, carried us onward, graciously dipping into patches of shade as it headed toward a lush cloud forest.

The landscape changed abruptly and dramatically as the trail dumped us, reeling, from the illuminated fields into the dense, shadowy tree cover. Ancient trees, some laden with leaves the size of your face, tangled overhead, offering respite from the nearly-midday sun. With the shade came the trail’s inability to recover from the previous day’s rain. The mud, mixed with ever-present horse droppings, forced me to spring from rock to rock, searching out dry spots for my exposed feet, where others could simply tromp along the trail how they pleased.

Back and forth, up and over, the trail wound through the dense vegetation. Here and there we crisscrossed a river as it tumbled toward the valley behind us, swaying precariously on one person suspension bridges. Waiting as, one-by-one we bottlenecked behind another gringo cluster, a butterfly alighted on my bare toes. He even stuck with me for several steps.

Disclaimer: Though I felt blessed at the time, as I always feel when a butterfly chooses me as a temporary resting place, these butterflies would turn out to be a bizarrely friendly variety.

Following our hummingbird hangout at Acaime Natural Reserve, we stopped for a cheese-and-crackers lunch on the return hike. Perched along the river bank, we happened upon a massive kaleidoscope of butterflies. (I thank science for this bit of beauty, as ‘kaleidoscope’ is actually a proper name for a group of butterflies.)

Clustered about muddy pools collecting in the rocks alongside the river, their sheer numbers made the ground look as though it were ready to take off all at once with the whisper of so many delicate wings. Not only did the butterflies flutter about my toes, but they seemed genuinely to lack typical butterfly skittishness. Perhaps drawn by the salt of crackers and sweat, they climbed onto our outstretched hands, flitted about our hair, and even ventured an exploratory journey onto our noses.

Though, as infatuated as they were with us, and we with them, the spell was broken with the muddy, stomping intrusion of a stray dog looking to share our lunch. The dog quickly took up the role of new friend, joining us for the remainder of the hike back through the cloud forest. He trotted along ahead, fur shining in as he tromped through patches of sunlight, stopping every so often to glance back and make sure we silly humans were still following the path he bravely laid out for us.

Though he too parted ways with us, leaving us as the cloud forest trickled out and gave way to the rolling hills and wax palms of the valley, we were left with the sweet afterglow of a day spent in the embrace of nature. Even if that embrace left my feet a bit filthy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Humming of Tiny Wings

Acaime Reserve, a place bordering on magical in its beauty, is intended primarily to protect one thing, its numerous hummingbirds. At any given time of year, the reserve provides haven for six to eight hummingbird species. For a small donation (roughly $1.50), we received hot chocolate and a chunk of cheese to enjoy as the tiny birds darted around us. Eaten in local fashion, dropping the cheese into the chocolate, this was a surprisingly delicious treat. (We have found that cheese pops up in the most bizarrely delicious ways in Colombian foods.)

I find hummingbirds, much like geckos, to be endlessly fascinating in their specialized engineering. The speed at which their wings move is an unparalleled aerodynamic feat. This movement allows them to move in all directions, including backwards, a talent unique among birds. Incredibly long, narrow beaks, in conjunction with ultrathin tongues, allow them to feed from flowers (and plastic feeders of sugar water) inaccessible to other creatures. Hummingbirds are, hands down, an evolutionary marvel.

We have hummingbirds in New Mexico, as with much of the U.S., but there is something surreal about being in the presence of dozens of them all at once. They dipped and dove around us, whirring past on their way from flower to feeder, feeder to branch. Green and orange, black and white, iridescent blues, pausing briefly to drink one second, they darted away the next. Beautiful and majestic; they were worth the five-hour roundtrip hike.