The Coffee Triangle

Few things are as fun and satisfying to me as a successful bit of winging it. The next destination in my radar was Santa Rosa de Cabal, a lickle town of hot springs in the Coffee Region. On the map, Honda looked like a better way to connect but what you see on the map does not always line up with transport links and landslides. This required local knowledge.

After much discussion over the relative merits of going left back to Medellin and connecting there, or right toward Honda which looked sorta like a transport hub on the map and had no reported landslide issues, I decided that the road less travelled was much more fun.

Packed up my troubles and headed for the road for the first bus towards La Doradal for a series of connections. Waited for a while, filing my nails (who have I become?) at the bus stop against a backdrop of heavy duty trucks turning over to my back. No bus appeared on the horizon, but an oil-working gent in a sparkly brand-new, air-conditioned 4×4 did. Yippee! Dropped me down at the next bus station some 50km down the road where I waited on the roadside for the next available collectivo minibus onwards. They’re building a new coastal highway from Bogota to Cartagena at the moment to serve the large volume of heavy trucking traffic that uses the existing highway. There are only two (I think) stretches of rail in the country so most freight goes on the road.

I happened to be wearing the leggings and a skimpy dress on account of wanting to cover as much flesh to protect against jungle mozzies. Ladies, if you ever want to hitch in Colombia, wear lycra. After a short while I was speeding through the dairy-farm heartlands crammed in the back seat of a minibus with no suspension, and probably no brakepads now.

Behold the mighty dairy farmland. Just like home.

Found my way to a little town with a military base seemingly forming a large draw for the local population. Deposited on the side of the road with my new buddy from the bus, I investigated ways to get to Manizales, one of the largest cities in the Coffee Region from where bus services run to Santa Rosa. For the first hour, the only way seemed to be by shared taxi. And the driver was already on the beers. Unwilling to commit to DUI chauffeur, I padded around looking for bus offices and was lucky enough to find that there was a bus leaving in a couple of hours bound directly for the springs. ¡Que suerte! I was introduced to the driver who was instructed by my merry band of helpers to make sure I was safely delivered to my destination. With time to spare, I nipped out to the square in search of more fruit salad and cheese.

Santa Rosa de Cabal is a modest-sized town with plenty of beautiful hiking and adventure pursuits on the doorstep and bonus hot-springs thrown in. There are several to choose from, some developed like swimming pools and others left natural. I checked into Coffee Town hostel since in a previous hostel I’d picked up one of the business cards that hostelers are wont to distribute among themselves, and it included a map. And has a Jacuzzi. It’s run by a group of young, enterprising Colombians and has only been open for a couple of months. I was the only guest.

This was great in that I got star treatment and individually guided around the town. On day one they took me for a slap-up lunch (of the standard offal soup, rice, salad, avocado and chicken). On day two they took me out and showed me around the best bar, some so funky that they could stand alongside some Shoreditch venues, others with horses tethered outside. On day three their mates came over to do some promotional filming and roped me into flexing my novice Spanish on camera for a video. On day four, it was time to leave.

But not before heading up to the springs for a hot dip. Soaked for a couple of hours in the beautiful surroundings, accompanied by 30 soldiers and their wives who had been sent on a jolly for exemplary service and then meandered off back towards Pereira to decide where to go next.

Hot springs. Proper toasty!

I had Salento in the back of my head, a popular backpacker destination in the coffee region, offering a taste of the country life just outside the major towns but accessible enough. When I arrived at the bus station, I, for reasons I can no longer remember – probably time constraints, decided to bin it off and head for a little treat. Finca Villa Maria is recommened in a number of places on the web, including this one, and looked like a great way to see a working coffee farm as well as a semi-indulgent treat. I’d been speaking to a contact there for a couple of days, a lovely lady who obligingly sent me directions and arranged a booking.

Magic coffee beans

Coffee worker drying the beans

Bag it up. Flog it to the dumb foreigners.

It’s not an easy journey. You can get within 10km and then have to hire a jeep to get up to the finca itself. Or, in my case, make friends with the local butcher, Hector, and cadge a lift up on the back of the delivery boy’s motorbike.

On arrival, no one knew had any inkling of a reservation and the place was spookily deserted. Turned out it was under new management, to its demise. Perhaps its only saving grace was the two lovely parrots living in the tree just beyond the veranda. The tour was lacklustre and the food despicable so I took a mini-tour of the farm, did some laps of the pool and then did a disappointed runner. I can see that it has potential… but don’t go.

Looks like Christmas. Feels like the Marie Celeste.

Parrot friends. Better conversation than the people.

Back to Pereira bus station for me. In the terminal, on a whim, I decided during the course of a pastry (in part responsible for the return of the pot belly) to abandon the coffee triangle and go instead to Popayan towards the South and in the right direction for the flight. This necessitated going via Cali, a town famous for drinking and dancing, together known as rumbear, as well as that other drug cartel. Well you can’t judge a book by its cover but I’m sure as hell glad I didn’t stop. Looked like a proper gangland.

I found myself at Popayan bus station one night clutching in my hand a scrap of paper with the addresses of the only two hostels in town on it. Plumped for the newer one, Park Life, and was not disappointed. It’s run by a gorgeous Spanish-Romanian couple and stands right in the heart of town abutting the whitewashed cathedral with views out front over the delicious park of the main plaza. Cobbled streets lined with smart colonial buildings run in each direction from this centre and form a hub of daytime activity with shops, offices, restaurants and cafes thriving in many of them. A helpful tourist office on the square is for some reason staffed by young policemen who, given their way, won’t have you go anywhere alone for fear of being robbed. They’ll put the fear of God into you if you’re not careful.

The park plaza. Pssst. And some natives.

Popayan Cathedral

Pretty, ain't it?

Gripping my bag closely to me and armed with a battery of ninja stealth moves, I set off for a clamber around the monuments and markets. One viewpoint is deemed to be especially risky, even if it seems populated only be schoolkids looking for a place to pash, so I nipped in to the nearby natural history museum to check and saw in there some of the famed stone carvings from San Agustin nearby, awesome things. They didn’t think it was a good idea so I abandoned the viewpoint idea in favour of exploring the back-streets and embarking on a fruit odyssey (just down to the nearest greengrocer to fill a couple of bags with home-grown goodness).

And it was at the end of this day that I got word that Grandad Collacott had been taken poorly in the UK and decided to sprint back to see him. After all, there are some things that neither mastercard nor money can buy.

Ta ta Popayan. Til next time...

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