Friday, October 19, 2007

Starbucks...Schmarbucks!




One of the great things about teaching in Colombia is the semi-frequent three-day weekends. Since it is a predominantly Catholic country, most of them are due to "St. Somebody" Days...however, I stopped trying to keep track when it became apparent that even the kids don't know.

Last weekend was another such vacation, so I, along with a few other teachers, decided to spend it in a little town in the middle of the coffee region, Zona Cafeteria, called Salento. To get there we boarded a bus at Cali's massive three story bus terminal bound for the city of Armenia. After a three and a half hour ride passing semis and other buses on the two-lane Pan-American Highway at frightening speeds we arrived in Armenia and proceeded to board yet another smaller, albeit equally speedy bus for a 50 minute ride to Salento. (The bus terminals are great; they are like airports except with buses. You go to a ticket counter - or several until you find the best rate a la "The Amazing Race" - and then go to your "gate" and wait in the chairs until the driver comes and opens the doors and allows you to board. Unlike a plane though, the bus will occasionally make random stops along the highway/street corners to pick-up or drop off more people.)

Once in Salento we walked to our lodging, a nice little house on the edge of town that rented rooms, owned by the nice old man and woman. Appropriately we were immediately offered tinto (a small cup of black coffee). After chatting up the owners for a while and taking in the mountainous view we headed off to get some dinner. Now, Salento is smack dab in the middle of the main coffee producing region so one would expect to find coffee everywhere...and one would be correct. However, Salento is also famous for its trout (trucha) streams and therefore love trout. At dinner we asked to see a menu and the waiter told us they did not have menus, just trout. You order trout and tell them what you want on it. Simple as that. It comes filleted open, skin and all, sometimes with the head. So, coffee and trout. Separately delicious, together...not so much.

The next day we woke up bright and early, were offered a cup of tinto, and headed for breakfast. The only disappointment I had was the giant bowl of coffee I got for breakfast was definitely made from Nescafe. I go all the way to Colombia's coffee growing region and they serve me Nescafe. Seriously now, c'mon!

Salento is a really small town. It reminded me of those tiny Midwestern towns with a "downtown" that features a square with a road that encircles it going one-way, a few shops, the town hall, and a church bordering it, and about two to four blocks of houses beyond that in any direction. Quaint and small. So, after breakfast we walked all of ten feet across the road to the square and rented a ride in a jeep bound for a national reserve up a little higher in the mountains called Valle de Cocora. My guide book says that the jeeps wait for all six seats to be filled before they leave, or you can pay for the empty seats. This turned out not to be the case. Instead, the driver piles 13-14 people in the back of the jeep (it's tricky but it can be done if you have people standing...on the back bumper) and some grain, milk, rice, and toilet paper on the roof. Then you are ready to leave.

After 45 minutes of harrowing mountain curves in the crisp morning mountain air, we arrived at the base of the Parque Valle de Cocora. Here we acted like true grino tourists and purchased ponchos, as this is what the locals all wore because it is chilly up there, and cowboy hats. Why cowboy hats? Because that's what you wear when you ride horses! That's right - we rented horses and a guide to take us way into the park for a four hour tour.

The uniqueness of the Valle de Cocora is it is home to the wax palm (palma de cera) which is both the national tree of Colombia and the highest growing species of palm tree in the world. These trees were incredible and would seemingly grow up out of the most random places. Combined with the rest of the valley, I felt like I was looking for Dr. Suess's Lorax. It was fantastic!

We climbed up and up and up, crossing rushing streams where the water level breached the horses' underbellies and we had to lift or legs way up. (Actually, I think it was the same stream; we just crossed it a lot.) We made our way up these steep, narrow, rocky paths as if we were looking for the Temple of Doom that Indiana Jones couldn't find. I was ridiculous. Especially when the horse in front of you starts slipping on the wet rocks...

We eventually made it to this hostel located way up at the top of the mountain at about 9,500 ft. They served us...wait for it...coffee and we sat and watched the infinite number of hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower. It was like there was a factory just churning them out; I've never seen so many in my life! As we left and started to head back, the clouds began descending on top of us. It wasn't really raining...but we were cold and wet in a matter of minutes. We took out the rain ponchos from under the saddles (apparently this happens frequently enough that they are just attached to each horse) and continued riding our horses in the cloud. Eventually we dropped just below the cloud and were able to see more than twenty feet in front of us at which point we came upon a grove of palma de cera that was just breath-taking. Some of them were so tall you could barely see the fronds on top.

After dismounting and staggering awkwardly to a jeep waiting with nine people already inside, we headed back down to Salento to shower and eat dinner. That night, after dining on trout (with fried plantains, of course), I wandered down some of the side streets, stopping in shops and talking to the vendors. This town is a huge tourist draw, not for foreigners, but for Colombians. Most of the people walking around are not from Salento and it therefore creates an even friendlier atmosphere as almost everyone you pass on the street is a tourist as well.

I eventually made it back to our house, where I was offered more tinto and went to bed praying I wouldn't be sore in the morning...

The next day was a lot of lounging around in hammocks and enjoying the view. Also tinto. Then came the saddest moment I've had in all my time here in Colombia: we had to board the bus and go back to Cali. I WILL be going back to Salento again...and not just for the tinto.

PS: Two days later I couldn't walk. It was bad.

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