Don Elias Coffee Tour and Salento

Our first full day in Salento started off rainy and misty. Of course, this describes most days in this region due to the altitude and it being the rainy season. We had already decided it would be a good day to visit a family-owned, entirely organic coffee farm nearby. Honestly, it was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip and I was not disappointed!

We got up around 7:30 and had breakfast in the hostel dining room. La Serrana includes breakfast and you can choose between fresh fruit salad with some bread or 2 eggs how you want, fresh bread, and fruit from their trees (oranges that look like limes on the outside). I’m such a breakfast lover that I got the second, along with two cups of good coffee. (There are also some extras that you can put on your tab. The last day I got some amazing French toast with bananas and honey…and coffee.)

We headed down the path walking toward the coffee farm we were told about, called Don Elias. We kept stopping to take pictures, so it turned into maybe a 45 minute walk, but really enjoyable. Luckily there were lots of hand painted signs along the way, traditional houses where people still live in such a simple and rustic manner that I can’t even imagine it, beautiful scenery, plants, and animals. When you arrive, you enter down a path lined with banana and plantain trees before coming upon a house with several people milling about. Again, it was so casual that you felt like you were intruding in someone’s home, with girls hanging out, someone cooking in the kitchen, and so on. It turns out that Don Elias, who has run the farm for 20 years, was in town. So his grandson and another guy met with us. As soon as we met them, we knew this would be no traditional tour. They were immediately joking with us and making us laugh.

The grandson, Carlos, took the two of us down the paths where all the plants were as he started to explain. The best part of this tour was how intimate it was…just the two of us with him, so we got to ask any questions we wanted. Me being me, I had already read a ton of information about this particular tour from other blogs on the internet, and I actually told several things before he even explained them. He was, of course, surprised and wanted to know how I know it all. I couldn’t just say I’m a research nerd, now could I? Haha.

I can’t remember how many hectares they own, but everything is run by the family and just a few workers. It is entirely organic, so they use plenty of natural methods to protect the coffee plants from bugs. One way is by having lots of fruit trees on the property, like oranges and pineapples, so the bugs are attracted to those instead of the coffee. We even got one picked straight from the tree. Also, they plant yuca which has super strong roots in order to prevent landslides, since most of the land is on a hill. Also, they rotate plants like the banana and plantain trees in order to keep the nutrients in the soil rich.

Coffee is harvested two times a year, in November and May(?). The plants have a life span of 25 years, but Don Elias replaces them after every 17 years because the productivity decreases so much. They grow best in shade, except for the new plants which need more sun in the beginning. Coffee actually looks like a bright red berry when ripe. We were able to pop the seed out from a ripe one and taste it…has a sort of coating on it, but it’s hard to describe the flavor.

The coffee is still green until it is harvested in another two months, at which point it should be 70% red or more.

The coffee is still green until it is harvested in another two months, at which point it should be 70% red or more.

The next step faster harvesting is to separate the bean from the outer layer of skin. You use a special machine with a hand crank to do so. The skin is then put back into the ground to help restore nutrients. The seeds are soaked and any that float to the top are bad, so they are also put back into the ground. Then they leave them in the water to ferment for like a day or so (can’t remember exactly). Carlos said if you don’t do this step, they will have a bad flavor.

Next step is to dry them, which Don Elias still does in a very traditional manner by spreading them out on the ground underneath a greenhouse type structure. It can take up to a month for them to dry during the rainy season, otherwise, maybe two weeks when it’s sunny.

Beans drying in the greenhouse type structure.

Beans drying in the greenhouse type structure.

Then we have to remove the dry shelling on the outside of the bean, which is done by hand and then blowing off the dry flaky part. Next is roasting! They go in a cast iron pot on the fire and roasted continuously for about an hour, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. You can see the beans before roasting and after in the picture below.

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Finally we grind them using an actual hand crank! This is quite a workout and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t need to do any weights at the gym, if only I ground coffee all day long. The smell was so fragrant and unbelievable. I just wanted to bottle up the smell. Too bad Yankee Candle doesn’t have a “Freshly Roasted and Ground Colombian Coffee” candle yet.

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Last, the lady at the farm brewed the coffee for us and we sat down to enjoy it, black and perfect without any need for milk or sugar. (Although I do love a café con leche as well.) I would highly recommend this tour to anyone wanting to see a family-run, traditional, organic coffee operation in the coffee region of Colombia. And for only 6 mil, it’s a steal! (About $3.50) Even getting bags of coffee were only 11,000 a piece, so naturally we each got a few.

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We were quite hungry by this point, so one of the guys from the finca took us down the path to a “restaurant”. It was more of a shack, but the lady there made us some delicious trucha (the local river trout that is the specialty in the area), with rice (as always), plantain, mini salad, cream of fish soup, and natural juice from the tomate de arbol.

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While waiting for our food, we had a beer and played a bit of Tejo….a traditional Colombian game I had been wanting to play. Basically, you have metal disks that are quite heavy and you throw them at a board covered with mud and clay. In the middle of the clay is a metal ring, on which you place little triangles of paper filled with gun powder. There’s a system of points, but your main goal is to hit the ring and gunpowder papers with your metal disk, in order to make an explosion! It’s really fun, unless you never make the explosions….which I only was able to do once. I think our Midwest corn hole experience helped prepare us for the game, though, because we weren’t too awful!

 

Juan, the guy from the finca, told us about a different walking path we could take back to Salento, and he even was kind enough to draw us a map. It took us down some slippery muddy paths, but eventually down to the river and a bridge. Unfortunately, it started to pour by that point, so we walked for the next 45 minutes in a complete downpour. My rain jacket apparently isn’t too waterproof because I got soaked underneath and our hiking boots still haven’t dried from that day (4 days later as I write this). It was a beautiful walk, though, and it takes you to a stop in Boquia, where you wait for a bus to take you back to Salento for 1,000 pesos. The first bus that passed was too full, though, so we had to wait another 20 minutes for the next, which was also full. We joined the people standing in the front and later, one lady got on that Nichole had to basically put her arm around so she didn’t fall out, since naturally, they just drive on these winding mountain roads with the door open. 🙂

Salento was nice and calm with the rain having scared people away, so we explored the town and shops. At the end of the main street, there is a giant set of painted stairs taking you up to the Mirador, or look out point over the town and area. It’s beautiful. By this point, I really had to use the bathroom, so I found a house along the street that let you use their bathroom for 500 pesos (about 25 cents). Going into this home made me appreciate the comforts that I’ve grown up with. It had a floor that was falling through, some dirt walls, dark, and dingy, although it was completely open to their garden and where they hung their clothes. Some boys were running around playing in the house, while the older sister passed out some toilet paper to people using the bathroom and scolded the boys for having bad manners when they almost ran into me. The next time, the boy asked for permission to pass. I laughed and told him much better!

Salento is like a town suspended in time, but it’s clear that there is a lot of tourism there, evidenced by an entire street of artesian shop after shop. There were some amazing handmade art pieces and jewelry that I saw…if only I had the money and space to get it all! After wandering through some of the cute town, we headed back to our hostel to shower and clean up.

View from the Mirador

View from the Mirador

The guys from the coffee farm had invited us to join them in town that evening to watch the Colombia vs. El Salvador soccer match. They stopped by the hostel to grab us and we started the dark walk back into town….at one point, Nichole stopped because she saw what ℗ appeared to be a long stick in front of her. Then it moved. Yep, it was a big snake that she had almost stepped on. Juan, the guy we were with, knows all the snakes and creatures because he used to be a guide to the Ciudad Perdida. He grabbed a stick and the snake wrapped itself around it…he got a better look and told us it was a cabeza de candado (lockhead snake). Turns out it’s one of the most poisonous they have in the area. If she had stepped on it, it could have been much much worse! Needless to say, we watched out for snakes on the path the whole rest of our time there. We did see another, but it was already dead and much smaller.

In town, we got some food from one of the street stands and watched the game, which Colombia won 3-0, so it was super exciting. Then we headed over to a bar with more Tejo and played a game of 4 on 4. By this point, we had met some other people including Colombians, 2 girls from Switzerland, and a guy from Holland. We had a lot of fun and my team won, so the other team bought a bottle of aguardiente, but it was a yellow one from manzanilla or something. It was better than the traditional guaro, but still bad! I did learn something new though…apparently because Mother Earth is so important to the Colombians, that when they open a new bottle of something, they always pour some back onto the earth to give back. It’s not something I’ve seen done in Bucaramanga, but maybe I just haven’t noticed.

People crowded around the outside of a bar with a TV playing the Colombian soccer game.

People crowded around the outside of a bar with a TV playing the Colombian soccer game.

People are always on the streets and often dancing...some of which were doing that when I snapped this photo.

People are always on the streets and often dancing…some of which were doing that when I snapped this photo.

To end the night, we went dancing and had a lot of fun with salsa, merengue, NAND bachata. I’m still so amazed at how good all the guys are at dancing here! The Swiss girls were also staying at La Serrana, so we walked back together and spent some more time bonding. They were awesome. Definitely my favorite part of traveling is meeting people from all over and with incredible stories. Inspires me to do more cool things and travel more!

New friends...and the guy who owns the tejo area and bar.

New friends…and the guy who owns the tejo area and bar.

Is this real life?

“Is this real life?” (no, I was not just at the dentist. If you have no clue what I’m referring to, please watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txqiwrbYGrs)

This is a question I sometimes ask myself. It might sound strange, but there are moments when I’m having a conversation in Spanish and I get the sensation that the person actually knows English and is just pulling my leg. Clearly this is a ridiculous thought, but I feel it’s a testament to the idea that life is the same everywhere. Sometimes it feels just like the United States…friends hang out together, families argue, children laugh and play, teenagers hate school, and more.

Then there are the moments when I ask myself ‘is this real life?’ simply because it’s hard for me to believe that I’m currently living on a different continent, communicating daily in two languages (and partially three if you count my Gallego comprehension). For example, a few weeks back, I went to Santiago on a Friday night with some teachers to see one of the music teachers perform at her album release concert. She plays the Celtic harp and her band’s music was spell binding, especially as all of the Spanish/Gallego blended together, helping me to focus not on the words themselves, but simply the sounds. I sat in my seat, sipping on red wine, and asked myself…”is this real life?”

In other news, I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted. I keep meaning to as things occur, but then I don’t write the actual post and the time continues to pass and now here we are! We’ve been having a lot of internet problems, but thank god I finally got my laptop figured out at the school and can connect to wifi from one of the teacher lounges. (I also learned more than I ever cared to know about static ip’s, dns servers, and routers in the process.)  For my classes at school, I have taken on more responsibility and am even putting together a blog project for my 4 ESO Bio/Geo students. In addition, I’ve picked up more private lessons, including a middle-aged woman starting at the very beginning of English. I can already tell she is going to challenge me as teaching adults is quite different from children!

I’ve had several fun evenings/nights with some other auxiliars/English speakers in the area, including a hiking exploration into the mountains one day where we also made some doggie friends. 🙂 We are figuring out plans for this weekend/early next week as it’s Carnaval! This celebration is essentially like Halloween for us, so I’m now stressing out about a costume. I hate the gaudiness of a store-bought costume, so naturally I’m going to make it more difficult on myself and try to make an Indian costume, I think. I’ve already found the fabric store, which was essentially a hole in the wall and rolls of fabric are LITERALLY piled to the ceiling in all areas of this tiny hole. It should be interesting trying to hand sew suede, but I think I’m going to attempt it because then I can just paint my face, wear leggings, braids, and a feather headband and I’m set! If only I had my giant costume box from home that I collected throughout my IUDM/college theme party years…pretty sure I could outfit this entire village with my collection. No joke.  Anyways, Carnaval should be fun….we’re planning on heading to this small town in Ourense that supposedly has the best celebration in Galicia. One thing I keep getting told, though, is that there are flour fights (awesome), but it’s become common to put “hormigas que se pican” in the flour….meaning biting ants (not awesome). So I was recommended to cover all the skin I possibly can while we’re in the streets. :/ Still should be fun.

There also was an…..interesting….day that occurred about a week ago. Not only was I running on 2 hours of sleep and had several things go wrong at school, but soon after arriving to my private lessons in Ribeira with three brothers, I receive a text message from my roommate letting me know there was a small fire in the living room of our flat. To be honest, I panicked a bit, not knowing exactly what “small” meant. However, as there was nothing that I could do about it, I went about my day and when walking home from the gym that night, a car literally backed into me and hit me. No, I wasn’t hurt seriously, but it was just one more thing on an insane day. I literally smacked the car’s trunk as hard as I could and said, “Are you kidding me?!” haha. When I arrived home, I finally got to see the damage….a chair was destroyed, a pillow, part of the sofa/covering, the rug, and some of the wood floor. Not so good. But things are getting taken care of now, so it should all work out. What a day though…what a day.

This past weekend, we had some people over to our flat and then on Sunday, I headed to Noia with the family of the two little girls with whom I have private lessons. We went to a wonderful market, where we of course ate churros (not the Mexican cinnamon-sugar kind you’re thinking of…these are a similar shape, but just fried dough and absolutely delicious when they’re hot and fresh!) and the little girls, Sara and Ana, teased me about all the pigs’ heads lying around. During Carnaval, the Spaniards eat pretty much every part of the pig you can imagine. I’m invited to a “cocido” with the teachers sometime next week and I’m pretty sure I just won’t ask what part of the pig it is from until AFTER it’s digested. (A “cocido” is essentially a big meal.)

After the market, I went to their home where they were having a big family meal. The Spanish aren’t messing around with their lunches either. I’ve mentioned this before, I think, but I still am not accustomed to eating so much at once!  We began with “empanadas” (basically a filled flat pie) of some sort of “marisco” (shellfish…this one was something similar to clams, but they are also often filled with tuna, different types of meat, zamburinas, and more). Oh! And something I found neat is that we bought the fresh dough at the market for the empanada, then took it to the husband’s mother and she filled it and cooked it at home. How convenient. Anyways, we had empanadas and then the GIANT pot of “almejas” (clams) was brought out. They were quite delicious with the sauce they had on them, but still…every time I had to crack open the shell entirely, I jumped a little bit expecting it to jump out at ME! Haha. I filled about a third of my plate with the almejas, but I was so stuffed after churros, empanadas, bread, the homemade wine they were giving me, and because I got motion sickness in the car (typical). However, Berta (the mother of Geno, the girls’ dad) kept insisting that I eat. “Come, come! Más, más!” (Eat, eat! More, more!) So I tried to take a few more, but I thought I was going to die. Meanwhile, everyone around me had an overflowing plate of clam shells that they had already slurped the meat out of…even to the point where the plates were emptied and refilled (especially the men). Finally, I thought I was golden…only dessert and coffee to go before my stomach can rest! But nope….the children left the table and then the meat dish was brought out. Chicken and crinkle French fries (some of the kids ate this in place of the clams…those picky eaters. Not that I wasn’t picky as a child…). I couldn’t believe anyone else still had room! I ate barely two bites, then pushed it around on my plate so as to not make them feel bad. Haha.

After the main courses, Berta (did I mention that she lives on the bottom floor of this home, while Bea and Geno live on the floor above? That’s often how it works here because the families are so close.) took me out to one of the cellars to show me their homemade winery and wine cellar! It was so neat…I got lost in some of what she was saying as it was mostly Gallego, but she described the process they use, showed me the huge vats of both the red and white wines they make, then all the bottles…some are empty ready for this upcoming year’s harvest at the end of the summer, others are still full from past years as they age them to increase the quality. Both kinds were delicious, and I loved that we just took out a glass jug to fill it up ourselves! Then came dessert, where two types of “tartas” (cakes) were forced on me, along with champagne.  Finally, on to coffee (two cups) and some “chupitas” (shots) of the “aguardiente” or “caña” that they also make homemade from the leftover parts of the wine process. Berta kept telling me about it when we were in the cellar, but I wasn’t understanding, so she told me I had to try it. So three glass bottles/jugs were brought to the table…one hand labeled with “Caña” and the other two plain. The literal translation of “aguardiente” is “rough liquor”, so I’m sure you can imagine how that went. The clear one was ‘plain’, while the other two had been infused with different spices or things. Bea thought the whole thing was hysterical and took many videos and pictures. Oh, and to my family that didn’t believe me when I tried to explain that it is the norm to have the leg of a pig in the kitchen in order to cut off slices of “jamón” whenever you want….we took a picture. I’m just waiting for it to arrive in my email!

Okay, well that was a lot longer than I intended about all of the food, but it was a fun day and purely Spanish. I’ve been keeping a lot busier than before. I’ve even started training for a triathlon! I was super gungho about it at first, though, and pushed myself too hard to the point I got sick two weekends ago. So now I’m just doing it casually in hopes that I’ll be decently prepared for this summer sometime.

One last thing, I have decided not to reapply for the program. My last chance to retain preference status for placement is the end of this month, and I’m not sure it’s what I want for a second year. I’m ready for something with more commitment and responsibility, where I actually feel useful. As for exactly WHAT I’ll be doing next year, that’s still up for debate. It changes nearly weekly.

That’s all for now! We’ve had a Siberian cold front come through, so it’s been really chilly, but luckily we haven’t had much rain since I got back (knock on wood). I Hope everyone had a wonderful Valentine’s Day! I sure did, as I received my mother’s care package of peanut butter and seasonings to make meals. 🙂 Also, on that note, if anyone is planning on sending a note at all by mail in the next couple months, I’d love it if you threw in those chili seasoning packets…I made huge pots to share with people here and the ones I brought from home are already gone! And in regards to my cooking, I’ve become a crepe master in the past month, made pizza dough from scratch, garlic knots, chili multiple times, and strawberries are somehow already in season here (or must be, since they have them at the market again!), so I’ve been making smoothies. Nom nom.

“Why is this happening? Is this gonna be for forever?”

Ciao!