Santa Marta, Colombia
05/10/12 – 10/10/12 – Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Minca
Reliable Lucy of Divanga B&B had to her truest nature ‘completely organised’ for us to embark on a trip up the mountains to about 600m, in yet another of Colombias coffee regions; this time bordering the Sierra Nevada mountain range, peaking at some 5700m. Fernando pulled up in his big ol Ford 4×4 and greeted us from behind Ray Ban aviators and a stunning Panama hat. A pencil mustache and contagious smile he spoke ‘solo Espanol’; this would be a terrific test of our comprehension of the language. We had two nights at his family home turned B&B up high in the tiny town of Minca.
We left through the smoke of Santa Marta and began our ascent up the terrible roads to Minca. Climate changed quickly and dramatically, suddenly there was cloud forest and a much, much cooler breeze. The density of the jungle increased exponentially; vines covered everything. Trees and plants unified and became a blanket for the earth, peppered by the most striking colours of jungle flowers. The beauty of the scenery was encroached somewhat by an American guest of Fernandos that we’d picked up along the way. His irritating enthusiasm for conversation and over-confidence/arrogance preventing any of us from simply enjoying the ride. Regardless, it was only some 50 or so minutes before we rolled into Minca and nearly rolled right out. Such a tiny, quiet place. Fernando had explained that it was once a pretty dangerous place. Only some 15 years ago the area was full of para-military groups who in order to gain control over parts of the local area, razed farms, rendering local businesses useless. More recently these groups have been driven out by an increased local police force; punctuated by the most prominent building, nay tower in town. Then, only some 5 years ago, the town opened it’s doors to a massive influx of tourism. Restaurante ‘Rafa’, the only restaurant in town was suddenly met with some boutique competition. Hospedaje’s and guesthouses bloomed out of family homes and a boutique EcoHab style resort appeared on the mirador. Minca was on the map. Though technically still part of the Sierra Nevada and thus a no-go zone for UK travelers, it’s still incredibly popular. But why?
Well I guess considering most activity in this area happens at sea level with consistent 30 degree plus days and high humidity, it’s a nice break to head to the hills and enjoy the cooler weather. There’s plenty of walks in the area, a few waterfalls and the La Victoria coffee farm to see, which I’ll get to later.
We pulled into Fernandos home, and were met enthusiastically by Lucy the beagle at the front, who had only just been chewing on a pile of Legos. Further into the yard the view opened up and out to Santa Marta and the ocean through the enclosing green mountains and cloud forest. It was absolutely stunning. We dumped our bags into our nice little ensuite room and took for a walk. We made it as far as the end of the road, and having issues a dozen or so ‘Buenas’ and ‘Holas’ to neighbors we sought rest in an little organic coffee slash artesan shop. It was nicely located on a corner of a convergence of 3 roads, surrounded by local tropical trees and plants, the smell of earth and coffee in the area with some chilled music playing and hummingbirds feeding above our heads.
Further into town we wandered past a handful of open-air restaurants and crossed a bridge over the local river, gushing over rocks and trees. Clouds descended and formed an eerie mist as the road wound its way our of the ‘commercial’ center of town and into the residential. A small chapel, a football field and before we knew it we’d walked the entirety of the place. Turning to walk back the heavens opened and we ran for shelter on the porch of a nearby house. No-one appeared to be home but we were greeted by the cutest of puppies. A little brown thing with green eyes who, shivering in the wet and cold, coiled himself around my legs and shoes to get warm. Kids walked past, having finished school for lunch, with banana leaves on their heads. ‘Hola!’ again and again. A good hour passed, watching torrential rain before it was clear enough to walk back. We simply spent the rest of the day and evening enjoying the view from Fernandos place, chatting to Eric, the American and Nicole his girlfriend. They had planned to travel for a year, found Minca some 2 months in, returned some months later and were now arranging to live another 3 months in an apartment in town. Add to that, they were negotiating, with Fernandos help, to buy land near the football field. Their main negotiation was to begin tomorrow.
Well it would have to be in the afternoon because we’d socconderred his services to take us on a tour.
We left after breakfast in his hearty 4×4 and twisted our way further up the mountain on terrible, washed away roads. Fernando explained that local government had arranged to get the road fixed, which had met a bit of opposition from locals who were concerned that a new road would bring in tourists by the busload, to a town whose infrastructure was not ready. How so? Well here, you obtain permission to the towns well for fresh water. Not everyone gets this. Those who don’t need to buy drinkable water from those with permission. Water for washing and everything else needs to be organised individually. Fernando has a rain water tank and UV filter for example. 9 months of the year, there’s decent rain but there’s 3 months where there’s next to none.
Fernando also tells us of the huge variety of birds in the area, nearly 3/4 of the species found in Colombia can be found in these regions, and some only in these regions. There’s plenty of horses, brought in by the Spanish; prior to that there was only buffalo, and there’s also a very small population of what Fernando called American Leopards, which I’m assuming are jaguars. Theres still a really reclusive local indigenous population that don’t want contact with the rest of the country, don’t speak Spanish and worship pacha-mama, or mother-earth. They dress in eerie white costume and in a worldly system of reciprocation, where all of the worlds aspects form a unique worldly body. Water is blood, earth is skin etc..
La Victoria farm opened it’s doors in 1892. It’s the perfect altitude to grow the best Aribica coffee and La Victoria is unique in that it’s farming system has little changed since it opened. All the original machinery is still there, with the plaques of where and when the machines came from attached to their exterior. The farm is at the bottom of a small valley and is surrounded by the homes of the those who work the farm. 8 families, 40 workers. Pickers get up early in the morning, and fill their bags with beans; the beans are then emptied into appropriated sized containers, of which their daily haul and thus their pay-cheque is measured. Beans are then emptied into a vat for peeling, and then following a system of pipes are washed, dried and roasted. The stripped peel is pushed out to a worm farm where it is broken down over a few weeks and eventually used as fertilizer. Most of the electricity for the farm is hydro-generated.
We met Mike the German owner at the end of the tour. A real entrepreneur. His father had owner the farm prior and had never tasted a single drop of coffee; and yet had built a profitable business, and arguably directly contributed to the establishment of Minca as a town. Mike explained to us the value of coffee as a commodity and how it’s price is directly influenced by speculation. The illusion of ‘fair-trade’ and the difficulties of using Colombia, a widely untrusted nation as an exporter which has lead him to establish most of his distribution activities out of Hamburg. But we had a great chat about the coffee market in Melbourne Australia, and explain
ed the appeal of coffee back home much to his interest. Many visitors are requesting the skills of a barista during the tasting portion of the tour; as most Colombia coffee is served ‘tinto’ or black. It was a really interesting chat and we’ve endeavored to keep in touch; given our own love of the bean, it would be great to a part of it’s production in one way or another.
We had a quick visit to Fernandos wife’s parents farm that again doubles as a B&B. There’s a short walk we took down the hill where a beautiful waterfall cascades over rocks and into the river. There’s a few poisonous frogs and snakes around evidently. Fernando explains that the toxin from one frog is so deadly, it was used by indigenous against the Spanish and can render someone dead in under a minute. I explained to him that we had deadly creatures as well, some with red stripes on their backs. He explained they have tarantulas. I didn’t get the feeling he was impressed with our selection of deadlies. Either way we switch-backed back up the path, passing mango trees, avocado trees and plenty of banana trees.
Eric and Nicole took off when we got back and didn’t return for some 3 or so hours. The final result was that they were successful in their bid and managed to agree on a price for the property. They now had the tough task of getting infrastructure to the property and then determine what business mechanism they would establish in order to satisfy their visa. Foreigners must be making an income in order to live in Colombia. It’s a massive task setting up home in another country, let alone Colombia; and our unanswered questions to them left me wondering whether they’d thought long-term about the venture. Regardless we wished them both the best of luck and said goodbye. Fernando drove us back and gave us some last little facts to take home. Education, free. Healthcare, has 6 tiers, the first two are absolutely free. And though he explained there’s no discrimination between the variety of people in Colombia, I was amused to hear he doesn’t much like the coastal people. They live for the day only, not the future. Too much loud music and sitting around. They don’t like to work.
We did notice that coming down off the hills. People slouched around in deck chairs with ridiculously large brightly coloured speakers on their front porch blasting the most carnival sounding Latin music.
Back in Santa Marta we checked in at the incredibly busy Dreamer Hostel. Not quite the oasis of Divanga in Tagana but nice enough for us to dream away a few days by the pool until our departure on the 10th. Belinda! We had to meet Belinda in Panama for the start of our Central American expedition. It’s with some sadness we leave the ‘South American’ landmass, it’s been good, bad and eye-opening for us. But the Caribbean awaits.