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.

Las Termales de Santa Rosa

Since our flight from Bucaramanga was cheapest to Pereira, a city without a whole lot to see or do, I did a bit of research and discovered there were some natural thermal baths just a bit out of town. After exploring the town on Wednesday night, we got up bright and early on Thursday determined to make it to these Termales de Santa Rosa before heading on to Salento for the rest of our trip. We stayed at Kolibri Hostel, which I highly recommend, and asked them how to get to Santa Rosa. The man working literally told us to walk past the gothic church, turn right, make an immediate left, and then look for a man shouting Santa Rosa on the street. Sure enough, walking down that street, we saw a skinny, dirty, old Colombian man standing on the street corner with a bus behind him…literally shouting “Santa Rosa!” repeatedly.

Really neat chalkboard at our hostel. Can't believe this was done all in chalk!

Really neat chalkboard at our hostel. Can’t believe this was done all in chalk!

The bus costs 1,800 mil and goes about 20 minutes out of Pereira through some sketchy parts of town. Then it dropped us off on a random street corner in Santa Rosa. We had no idea where we were or where to go, so I asked a random lady who straight up ignored me. Then we asked a group of police officers, they told us to go down a few blocks because it was by the police station and near where the “stop” was. We followed the directions, which were wrong, but eventually found the street corner by the station. On the way, we clearly stuck out with our bright raincoats and tennis shoes, and so we got plenty of looks and comments. One man even came up and inquired where we were headed, and then, with keys in hand, offered to take us himself. We insisted we wanted the chiva bus, but he told us it didn’t run on Thursdays. Naturally, we’re paranoid and assumed he just wanted us to get in his vehicle, so I firmly kept telling him no. Finally he walked away.

The bus drivers here love decking out the bus....with fringe.

The bus drivers here love decking out the bus….with fringe.

While waiting at the street corner, gazing at the goat tied up across from us and the stray dogs milling around, two more men came up offering to take us to the Termales. Although we were starting to wonder if they were right and the bus wasn’t coming today, we still kept saying no.

The wait seemed like an eternity, but luckily we had plenty of entertainment. The police station appeared to be a teen hangout, and even a group of police officers were just standing there chatting. Then things got real exciting. A police van came pulling up, there was some commotion with the teens crowded all around, and then I saw a boy and girl kiss frantically before he and another girl were shoved into the van. As it drove away, the group of teens followed the van, with one of these girls sobbing. So strange.

We also got to see everything typical of Colombia…horses pulling carts of piles of bananas, construction materials, furniture, and everything under the sun. Oftentimes with someone else sitting on top of the materials. Men pulling their own carts with similar items. A guy climbing on top of a moto with his goat (that he finally untied from the street corner). Same with random chickens. Jeeps filled to the brim with people on the top, back , and inside. A police officer left his truck running on the corner and we nearly got carbon monoxide from all the fumes. A million stray dogs. (This is only slightly an exaggeration. We probably saw over 200 strays in the course of our 6 day trip.) A young girl eating an ice cream cone at 9:30am.

Police motos, stray dogs, and a tied up goat were only part of our entertainment as we waited on the street corner for an hour and a half for the bus/chiva that never came.

Police motos, stray dogs, and a tied up goat were only part of our entertainment as we waited on the street corner for an hour and a half for the bus/chiva that never came.

Just one of the many horse and man pulling carts that passed by.

Just one of the many horse and man pulling carts that passed by.

All this happened over the course of the hour and half that we sat on the street corner waiting, still not even knowing if our bus was ever going to come, as we watched maybe 50 other buses pass by every couple of minutes. Finally, an older, nicely dressed older man and younger guy with eggs and potatoes arrived on the street corner, and we eventually discovered they were going up that way too. The same old guy that first tried to offer us a ride came again and offered to take all of us. The nicely dressed older man bargained and decided he would go for 3 mil a piece. When we realized both the older man and young guy were gonna go, we figured the bus might never come and this was our only chance to make it to the Termales. Everyone kept reassuring us it was safe, including a man from the store outside of which we had been waiting. We walked up and realized it was one of those jeeps we had seen filled to the brim with people. The men all realized how hesitant we were and they were nearly laughing at us. I tried to explain we were not accustomed to things like this, but we climbed on into the back of this jeep and decided to trust it. Colombia is the Wild West, after all, and you just have to go for it. The jeep took off bouncing along, but it wasn’t long before we picked up another random guy on the street as he came running trying to catch up. Before hopping onto the back of our moving jeep, though, he threw money back at whoever he had just been talking to….into the street, so the other person ran out in front of the cars to grab it.

Man hanging along the back as we drove along picking up more people.

Man hanging along the back as we drove along picking up more people.

Along the way, the driver kept slowing down anytime he saw people waiting on a street corner and shouted out “Termales?” to see if they needed to hop on. If not, he sped right back up. One lady did join us and this was when I realized this is another version of a bus here. No signs, no real stops, just people offering rides on the street and shouting out things as they drove by. On the 20 minute trip up to the Termales, we dropped off people one by one until it was just us left bouncing around the back of the jeep and nearly falling out at every turn.

Our driver and kind old man, whom we later saw again at the Termales.

Our driver and kind old man, whom we later saw again at the Termales.

We finally arrived safe and sound and couldn’t believe this was actually real life. We paid to get into the Termales, which is normally 31,000 pesos for adults, but our hostel Kolibri had given us a 10 percent off so we only paid 28,800. As soon as we entered, it was like an oasis and well worth all the struggle to arrive. You have to go into a downstairs area to change, which took us awhile to figure out, but they do a clothes check for free at lest…meaning they put them in a giant trash bag, write your name with a sharpie, and use packing tape to close it.

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They have channeled the water from the mountain into 4 stone hot water “baths”, but they almost just look like giant stone swimming pools. We relaxed in the steaming water, while I tried not to think about the bacteria level. Later, we looked at some artesian shops they had up the hill by the baths and almost missed the only bus we could take, so we ended up practically running down the wet cobblestone rocks toward the entrance. Luckily we were fine because the bus had gone further up the mountain before returning. We hopped on and it took us back the 20 ish minutes to Santa Rosa (only 1,300 pesos for this bus). Again we were dropped off on a random street corner, but luckily the bus we needed to get back to Pereira was right behind our bus pulling up. (2,000 pesos this time…very inconsistent costs, but the tarifa is always posted on the inside, so just look for it).

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After such a long morning, we were starving when we got back to Pereira. Unfortunately it was around 3pm and pouring rain, so even worse, we were cold, wet, and hungry. We wanted lots of food. We saw a restaurant with the name burger in the title. We go in and sat down, but they informed us they didn’t actually have any meat left to make burgers. What?! I told them on the way out in my bad Spanish that a place with burger in its name should have burgers. (Also, that was the only thing on their menu…). Went to another place and it didn’t work out either. Continued up the street and found a hole in the wall restaurant with a man outside next to their sign that listed the lunch special with a good price. After standing in the rain and deciding on what we wanted with the special, we go down into the hole and sat down. Then we found out, they didn’t have anything left for the special because it was past typical lunch hours. All they had to serve us was rice, beans, and a little bit of meat. I asked for an egg and they agreed to do it all for 5 mil. Then they brought it out and we even got some tomato slices, grated carrot, and juice. It may have been because we were so hungry and tired, but it turned out to be one of the best meals. And for only 5 mil (about $3).

After all of this, we still had to get to Salento, so we grabbed the rest of our belongings, got a cab to the bus station because it was still raining (only 4 mil from Hostel Kolibri and about 8-10 minutes). Thank you Pereira for actually having a legit bus station with terminals, ticket counters, waiting area, and restaurants with food. (As legit as bus stations can be in South America, that is). The bus to Salento costs 6 mil a person and took about an hour. I fell asleep hard on the bus and when I woke up, I was in a fairy tale!

But really, the bus dropped us off in the center of town and it was a surreal scene. Kids playing in the square, a beautiful church right next to the plaza, brightly colored houses, mountains in the distance, people getting off the willys (jeeps) in their muddy boots….”I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.” Such a refreshing change. Salento doesn’t actually have taxis at all because the roads are so rough that they are unable to navigate. (And it’s a law for some reasons.) So we got another jeep taxi (called Willys) to take us out to our hostel, La Serrana. It was a bumpy, 10 minute ride out to the hostel along this muddy road with the most beautiful scenery. (6,000 total for the jeep one way)

Hostel La Serrana was adorable. We walked in and it was like entering someone’s home. People were in the kitchen, on the computer, lounging on the couches, watching tv….as we wandered in, you could feel the hominess. Turns out the guy working was out and about elsewhere on the hostel property, so someone else showed us which dormitory was probably ours. After a bit, we did get settled, grabbed our top bunks, and got our names on for dinner. From Monday to Friday, they have a dining room that serves dinner family style for 13 mil at 7pm. It was awesome and all we wanted after such a long day. Their dining room is amazing, too, with the ceiling and wooden beams covered with a wide assortment of wine bottles. Unfortunately I never got a picture.

We ate with two French guys and then afterward, played this Rana game where you throw metal rings into holes and try to get it in the frog’s mouth for points. Then they have a campfire every night so we joined people there and some of the British travelers had marshmallows, so I scavenged through the yard and found a good roasting stick. Really great conversation and fun hanging out with people from all over the world around a campfire. Finally, we crashed in order to prepare for a visit to an organic coffee farm the next day!

The rest of the trip was like a dream. I can’t wait to tell you more about it!