In this blog, Kat and I start in Villa de Leyva where my finger is and, for two days, work our way northwest along multiple dirt and sort-of paved back roads. Then we went west on highway 62 toward the city of Medellin. We skirted around Medellin proper through the Lake District near Gutapé and the beautiful flower growing region to the southwest. Finally we turned south all the way to Armenia in the heart of the coffee growing region were we spent several days learning more than we ever thought possible about coffee. From Armenia we went east over a crazy pass (steep switchbacks and endless slow trucks) along the Pan-Am to the capital city of Colombia, Bogota.
As usual, we found the least used route out of Villa de Leyva. This rough track led us past numerous little coffee and banana fincas (farms) with shy kids in doorways and scowling looks from landowners.
Other traffic along the road looked like these long distance haulers, stopped here at a filling station.
Our own filling station provided these huge carts to insure we bought lots of yummy packaged junk off their shelves.
Most of the towns we passed through were dirty, mean and seedy. All the food tasted the same (bad) and no one was very friendly. Then we arrived in Guatepé and our mood instantly changed. This clean, happy town on the shores of a huge, man-made lake featured buildings with the most color we’d seen since Mexico. We watched a bicycle race through the streets as we ate another so-so meal at a sidewalk café.
A few kilometers out of Guatepé we spotted this rock sticking up out of nowhere. “Wow, are those stairs up the side of it?”
Sure enough, 675 of ‘em to the top. We challenged ourselves to see how many we could run up. It is tough getting exercise living in a van, so when the opportunity presents itself… El Peñon (The Rock) offered some amazing views from its top of the surrounding countryside.
Fresh fish anyone? Not sure I’d want to risk my bowels to this gourmet roadside attraction. Wonder how long he’d been trying to sell them?
After El Peñon the scenery improved immensely with cute, clean houses, tidy farms and happy cows.
After almost a week of wandering westward and southward we arrived in the small city of Armenia in the heart of Colombia’s coffee growing region. Tyler Youngblood is an American who, five years ago traveled via Subaru around South America until he landed in the Armenia area. He never left. Being an astute coffee aficionado and sharp business man, he literally smelled opportunity brewing and started a gourmet coffee company named Azahar (coffee bean flower). We didn’t know coffee production could be so high tech (actually we didn’t know anything about coffee production!), but after a tour of Tyler’s factory and seeing his use of all the latest technology, both scientific and social media, we were blown away by what this young entrepreneur is accomplishing. There is a LOT that goes into the production of that ground up brownish-black stuff that comes in that bag/can/whatever at the store.
Raw coffee beans as they arrive from the select farms that Azahar deals with.
Raw coffee beans that have been shelled and washed and are now ready for roasting.
This gal sorts beans all day, picking out the bad ones by hand.
Tyler took us through a very thorough process of preparing the perfect cup of gourmet coffee, right down to weighing the amount of coffee grounds and making sure the water was the exact temperature. Note the pre-wetted filters in the special cone-drip thingies. No Mr. Coffee machine around here!
Even pouring the water required a special touch.
As you may have guessed, I’m not much of a coffee drinker. In fact, until this day, I’d never touched the stuff without and (un)healthy dose of cream and at least three heaps of sugar! How else is one to tolerate that vile taste? Well, after watching Tyler’s masterful crafting of this cup, I wasn’t about to ask for the insulting milkshake stuff. Not like there was any anywhere near his factory. Yes, this was my first cup of black coffee ever. And I liked it! A lot! I drank more black coffee in the few days we hung around Tyler than all the milkshake stuff I’ve consumed in my entire lifetime! However, Tyler’s gourmet blends are VERY special, as I’ve since tried regular restaurant Joe black, and yuck, still gotta doctor that stuff!
Watching the company’s brand new, state-of-the-art CNC roaster at work. Note all the scales and vials sitting around. Looks more like a drug lab. Well this IS Colombia after all.
Every package of Azahar has a QR code on it. Scan it with your smart phone and you can watch a video interview of the various Colombian farmers who grew the beans in the bag!
We toured a coffee plantation belonging to a good friend of Tyler’s and learned more about the complex process that goes into making your morning wakeup juice.
Coffee beans on the vine. The red ones are ready for picking while the green ones have a way to go. Each bean is picked by hand as it ripens.
Cheap foreign labor.
Ok. We know what you’re thinking. Snorting Colombia’s favorite export again, right? Yes we were instructed to huff this stuff by our guide to experience the different blends. But we were sniffing the country’s legit export, one Colombia is striving hard to make the new export image of this rehabilated country. It’s a tough sell to the rural farmers as coffee is worth about $10 a pound on the docks while cocaine brings about $25,000/pound when it leaves the county. Colombia has had a rough, civil war tainted past, and the FARC rebels still flex their muscles against the government in remote parts of the country, but it has come a long way from the days when Pablo Escobar called the shots. We never felt unsafe anywhere, despite following our usual off-the-beaten-track routes. Colombia is a beautiful, safe country well worth visiting.
The battles for the FIFA World Cup Fútbol championship continued to rage with another match pitting Colombia against Brazil. This was to be the final chapter for Colombia as Brazil trounced them in what, we were told, was a very unsportsmanlike game on the Brazilians and referees’ part. Despite their now being out on the race for the finals, the Colombians still partied in the streets until the wee hours of the morning, celebrating that they got as far as they did.
Watching the game in a bar in Salento, everyone’s enthusiasm was contagious.
For all my Jeep buddies: “Real” Jeeps (i.e. Willys) are alive and well in Colombia, especially in the coffee growing region where some serve as taxis like these, while others are still beasts of burden on the farms. Here is a little info we dug up:
Willys in Armenia:
The first Jeeps (M38 or CJ-2A models) arrived to Colombia in 1946 for military purposes. They were imported by the Colombian Ministry of Defense and soon became very popular among Colombian coffee farmers who saw in this vehicle the needed qualities for the difficult roads in the mountainous region of the country. Besides the transportation of coffee, Jeeps are used for transport of many other agricultural products, as well as to transport country workers to places previously accessible only to pack animals. Due to this quality, the Jeeps are also known locally in Spanish: “mulitas mecánicas” (or mechanical mules).
Kat managed to coerce me onto a horse for the first time in probably20 years. After a two hour ride I remembered why I like Jeeps. These South American mountain horses are called Caballos Criollos and are tough, surefooted little critters. They hauled us over some horrible trails with the calmness of monks. But, for me, their steering, brakes and rough ride still left something to be desired.
We had (black!) coffee at a sidewalk café in Filandia while we watched locals enjoy their weekend.
This ol’ boy charmed us with his toothless smile. He couldn’t speak a word but his eyes said all when we bought him a cup of coffee to share with us.
Colombian cake shop.
More Jeeps. This time in ½ scale and human powered. Kids seemed to have a blast “driving” these beauties around the square, pushed by their owners for a few pesos.
These Jeep builders spell as badly as I do!
We met our friend Tyler at Helens’, his favorite restaurant in Filandia. His epicurean tastes are as good as his coffee pallet.
Margaritas weren’t bad either.
Yep. Can’t kill a good old Willys. They just keep haulin’ the bananas.
Leaving the coffee country behind, we hit the highway east for the capital, Bogota. Time for some city life and visiting with some special friends there. We felt bad not giving these guys a lift. I was waiting for a lightning bolt or something to zap Charlotte and stop us in our tracks but she kept on rolling. Knock on wood. 13,000 miles and counting…