Saturday, March 6, 2010

Back to the future in Salento, Colombia

After being uninspired in Cali, I headed off in search of my authentic Colombian experience. I was still waiting for that Oh my god I am actually in Colombia moment. Cali is a great city and world renowned for Salsa. The best dancers in the world come from the sweltering city. Although I arrived in Cali on a Monday and wasn’t able to stay until the weekend to experience some of the best Rumbas (parties) Colombia has to offer. Following advice I received from travellers I met in Pasto I jumped on a bus to Armenia then transferred to Salento. I had left the heat of Cali for the fresh coffee region climate. I arrived at night and was told to go to Casona Lili. It was a bit late at night and the town was shut down. I found Casona Lili on the main street off of the square and wandered up the stairs of the old Colonial house. I was greeted by a super friendly woman who works in the hostel; she immediately offered me coffee and a fantastic private room with a double bed. Soon I was having dinner with an Argentinean guy, an Irish guy, a polish man and the lady that greeted me when I arrived. We sat at a wooden table in the dining room of the hostel which was more like a house. I immediately felt at home.

The strangest thing happened when I woke up in the morning. I went to sleep in 2010 and woke up 100 years in the past. It looked like I was in an old western movie but splashed with bright colours. It was the most bizarre scene as I walked down the street where there were men in ponchos, traditional hats, rubber boats and riding horses. There weren’t really any bars in this town but saloons, where in the evening men played cards and billiards. Where and when was I? If I was asking for an authentic Colombian experience this was it. I explored the small town then decided to check out the coffee finca of Don Elias, which was a 40 minute walk on a dirt road past town. I meandered down the road on my own taking in the views but was a bit weary as I was still new to Colombia and was unsure about the safety. A car slowed down beside me and stopped I was hesitant at first but was surprised to hear a woman ask me if I wanted a lift in a Canadian accent. They were going to the Finca as well and as I chatted with them on the way I discovered they are actually from a city 45 minutes away from my hometown. They were a couple in their 40’s, the woman a retired teacher and the man an account who works from his computer. They have been living in Colombia for 6 months mostly in Bogota. He works two hours in the morning makes a Canadian days wage then they explore this wonderful country the rest of the time. I love meeting other people who have alternative lifestyles and break free outside of society’s norm.

We toured the coffee finca of Don Elias together who could have been Juan Valdez himself, the man was ancient. I smiled to myself as he strapped on his coffee picking basket to his waist and staggered along the path showing of the different types of beans and plants. There were so many different types of fruits and plants in one small area, avocados, oranges, mandarins, limes, mangos, Arabic and Colombian coffee beans. It was a small family run finca, very old school. Don Elias washed, shelled and dried the beans himself. He even roasted them in a pot on an old wood stove as chickens ran passed.

If Salento and the coffee fincas are in some mythical place in the past then the Cocora Valley nearby is a mythical land in a fantasy. It’s reached by jeeps that leave the town square. You arrive in a sea of green, flowing green hills, mountains and forests but the strangest thing of this place is the Cera palms, the national tree of Colombia that towers to the heights of 50 meters, being the tallest palm in the world. I felt like I was on my way to Oz with these out of place palms towering over me. While eating my bread with cafequipa and following the brown dirt road I thought to myself, “Oh my god, I’m in Colombia!”

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