Monday, September 17, 2012


Palace of Culture at Plaza Botero
All good things must come to an end and La Gran Aventura Colombiana 2012 ends in Medellín. The City of Eternal Spring. The City of Flowers. The City of Botero. And, formerly, but no more, the City of Pablo Escobar.

Me and Medellín did not get off to a happy start. The guide that the travel agency had arranged to meet me at the airport wasn’t there. I waited around the bus station for about 15 minutes and no luck. This surprised me because, up to this, I found the Colombians to be universally friendly, courteous, efficient and dependable. I caught a cab at the bus station. The first cab driver I asked didn’t want to take me because he didn’t know where the hotel was. The second cab driver had a few problems finding the joint. I don’t blame him as the roads in the neighborhood of my hotel were confusing and randomly barricaded. I did get to my hotel, but as soon as I got to my room and unpacked, cumbia music for somewhere nearby started playing. Loud. Until after 12:30. And that wouldn’t have been so bad except that it started back up at 6:30 a.m. the next morning.

Church in upscale Poblado neighborhood
And, to make things worse, when I went to the hotel breakfast buffet, the server would not bring me coffee. Given the loud music situation, my need for some café was bordering on a medical emergency. The server woman kept walking from one end of the restaurant space to the other, serving the two tables at the opposite end of the place and ignoring those of us in the middle.
So Day Once, my eleventh and final day in Colombia, was not off to a great start. It did get better.

I took the Medellín metro (an elevated train, actually) to El Centro, to see the Botero statues in the imaginatively named Plaza Botero and to see some more Botero art in the Museo de Antioquia. I got off the metro at my stop and saw this interesting-looking building:

Uribe Palace of Culture
That is the Uribe Palace of Culture. Right next to it was this:

Medillin Station?
Those Station Casinos are everywhere! I did not go inside to see if it had a cheap but perfectly decent buffet. Actually, I suspect that the intellectual property rights to that logo were not properly secured.  Then I started seeing the Botero statues, even before I got to Plaza Botero:

A Botero ... but not quite in Plaza Botero
Of course there were more once I got to the Plaza:

Botero's masterpiece "Pedro"

Names supplied when I can remember.  Which ain't often.  But the ones with women tend to have "mujer" in the name, usually but not always, and the ones with men tend to have "hombre" in the name, again, usually but not always:

I could not get isolated shots of the statuary, because people were treating this as if it were a public park! Hanging around and hanging off the statues:

I call this one "Tres Mujeres," or "Three Women":

This was a particularly disturbing and amusing scene. Amus-turbing if you will:

The Adam half of an "Adam and Eve" pairing
Do you see what's happening in that picture?  Dad is taking a picture of his young daughter and young son in front of one of the greatest works of sculpture by a Colombian artist. So far so good. The only problem is that the boy is grabbing on to a something sticking out from the male statue. Look closely (or maybe you shouldn’t).

Anyway, it must be pretty common to give that fat bronze guy a rub because that part of the statue’s anatomy is far brighter and more polished than the rest.

On that note, it was time to say good-bye to Medellín:

View of Medellin from the top floor of Hotel Poblado Alejandria
And, a good-bye to Medellín means that La Gran Aventura Colombia has come to a close. Vacation 2012 is at its end. Time to go home and get back to work, assuming that, on Dia Doce, the return travel day, there are no major problems with the flight back.  Problems on the return flight seem to be an emerging vacation tradition.

The Vacation Blog is closed for 2012.  See you next year in Macedonia, or Finland and Estonia, or Sarajevo, or Chilean Patagonia, or Poland, or Brazil's Northeast Coast, or Montevideo and Buenos Aires, or maybe that long-planned family trip back to Croatia, wherever it is I end up deciding to go.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Day 10: My Visit to a Coffee Farm (Where I Wear a Funny Costume)

A burro! Just like in the old Juan Valdez commercials
Day Diez of La Gran Aventura Colombiana.  This day will feature the final bit of organized touring:  my visit to a coffe farm operated by RECUCA, Recorrido de la Cultura Cafetera.  The purpose of the tour is to learn about the region's most important crop and to see how things were done in the old days of coffee processing.  For those of you reading this from the comfort of the Beaver Valley region of Pennsylvania, think of this as my field trip to the Old Economy Village of Coffee Culture.

But first it was time to pack up and say good-bye to the Hotel del Campo outside Quimbaya.  It was a beautiful, albeit isolated hotel out in the middle of farm country.

Hotel Del Campo
It even had a parrot loose on the premises, which is (almost) always a good thing.  The big blue parrot hung out in this tree.  See if you can spot him:

A parrot! In a tree!
From there it was an hour-long drive closer to Armenia to the RECUCA demonstration coffee farm.

Entrance to RECUCA
It's the off season, so it was only me and my translator-guide when we got there.  Oh.  And a cat.  Asleep on a saddle.

A cat. On a saddle.
This was noteworthy to me because I have seen VERY few cats in Colombia.  Hundreds of dogs.  Colombia is most definitely dog's country.  But this was, I think, only the second living domestic feline I have seen all trip (not including the jaguar imagery in the San Agustín statuary).  At least I think this cat was living.  It was still there two hours later at the end of the trip.

We saw coffee plants:

We saw baby coffee plants being germinated in river sand:

Baby fetal coffee plants
We saw coffee-covered hills:

A view of the coffee plant covered hillside
I learned how and why Colombian coffee is the richest coffee in the world.  (Juan Valdez was an advertising masterpiece.  The guy has been off TV for 35+ years and those of my generation still remember what he looked like and his advertising slogan.)

And why is Colombian coffee the richest in the world?  Arabica beans.  Arabica coffee will grow only between 1000m and 2000m above sea level.  So they don't grow cheap, nasty, bitter low-elevation Robusta like they do in Brazil (World's #1 coffee producer) or Vietnam (#2).  They don't sun dry the Arabica like the Brazilians or Africans who grow Arabica do.

From there, it was time to learn about coffee processing.  And while those cheap nasty Brazilian and Vietnamese knock-off coffees can be harvested by machine, Colombian coffee must be hand-picked.  And that the first step in coffee processing:  the picking.  I was directed to go out into the fields and hand-pick only the best, the richest Colombian coffee, which I did:

Dressed in my coffee-picking clothes
I dressed for coffee picking in my coffee picking clothes!  Which consisted of protective sleeves, a big ol' bandana/poncho for my head, and a bucket strapped to my waist.  I've come around on wearing funny costumes (and headgear) when I travel.  I used to think that I was "too cool" to do such things.  But then I realized that you can't be "too cool" if you're not even "cool" in the first place.  I've got no "cool" to lose!  So why the hell not!  Dress me up in a funny costume to experience the full tourist experience.  And if the funny costume has funny headgear, even better!  Wearing this coffee-picking outfit makes me no less cool than I already am. 

Assisted by a young man in the traditional Juan Valdez costume
Still, I was so slow searching around the bushes for the bright red coffee cherries that the young man leading the tour -- he's the one in the traditional Juan Valdez garb -- starting helping me with the picking, figuring I'd be there until 8:00PM the next day picking enough to proceed to the next step.

And the next step was separating the bean from the pulp of the coffee cherry.  Originally this was done mortar and pestle style.  Then this ingenious machine was invented to separate them with the turn of a crank.  I'm not sure how it worked, but it did.

Cranking the separatin' machine
As you can see, I am very happy about that.  Once separated, the beans are set out to dry while the pulp is taken away to compost, to become part of the organic fertilizer for the next year's crop.

Coffee being dried
The dried beans are what is shipped.  The roasting is not done on the farm because that typically is done by the buyer, in accordance with local tastes.  Still, to sample the coffee from the RECUCA farm, they did roast and grind some beans to what I would guess would qualify as a "light city roast," still a crayon brown and not the deep blackish brown of a good French Roast.  The young man in the traditional Juan Valdez garb went through an elaborate process to brew up three cups of fresh coffee for me, my guide, and our driver.

It was good coffee.  Less strong than I like, but absolutely no bitterness.  You wanna know why?  They only used 100% Colombian coffee.  The richest in the world.

And that concluded the organized touring part of La Gran Aventura.  I was then driven to the Armenia bus station and put on a bus bound for the big city of Medellín, my final stop on this nearly-completed trip through Colombia.

A Disneyesque Afternoon in Salento

The colors of Salento
Afternoon break time in the colorful town of Salento, Quindio, Colombia. at the gates of the Valle de Cocora.

The town is known for a few things other than its colorful downtown.  First, there is Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Carmen, in the town's Bolivar Square:

Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Carmen
Ironically, even though all of the houses are bright bright vibrant primary colors, the church in Bolivar Square is a tasteful medium tan.  In a way, it stands out precisely because it is an earth tone.  Now, about that whole "Bolivar Square" thing.  Every town in Colombia has got one, named after El Liberatador Simon Bolivar.  And every Bolivar Square has a Bolivar statue:

Bolivar in his self-named square
And every Bolivar Square is the social and commercial epicenter of every small Colombian city:

Relaxing in Bolivar Square
The town is also known for its unique Stations of the Cross, which is a steep 250-stair climb to the top of Mirador de Salento:

Climbing the 250 stairs to Mirador de Salento
At the pinnacle:

The final Station at the peak of Mirador de Salento
Now, I could say that I did the climb and that my legs and lungs were aching after walking each of the 250 stairs.  But this is not just a tall stairway, it's a Stations of the Cross.  So I have to admit:  we cheated.  Our driver left my guide and me off in the parking area just below Mirador de Salento.  OK, there was a bit of a climb to get to the Cross here, but it was no 250-stair climb.  So, moral of the story is:  if you find yourself in Salento during a Lenten season, it would be much easier to do the stations from XIV to I, from tomb to death sentence, rather than the temporally correct order.

Still, even a 250-step descent can work up a man's appetite, so it was time for lunch.  I wanted the typical local cuisine and this is what I ordered:

Trucha al ajilloa la plancha
Trucha al ajillo a la plancha!  Trucha = trout.  The local method of preparation is a filet of trout grilled, served on a wafer-thin giant plantain.  I ordered it in a garlic cream sauce.  Squeeze some lemon on it and it was incredibly delicious.  Maybe the best freshwater fish dish I've ever eaten.  And after I finished with the fish, I could break off pieces of plantain, which, because it had been pounded so thin, had the texture and crunch of home-cooked potato chips (but a whole lot more flavor).  Even the accompanying side salad was good (and Colombians can do some weird things to a salad).  It was a simple vinegary cole slaw.

Why did I say that this was a Disneyesque afternoon?

A parade down Calle Real
Because we were wandering the downtown, walking along Calle Real, the Main Street Salento, and -- all the sudden -- a parade broke out!  A colorful, noisy, fun parade, just like in Disney.  Only without Mickey, Minnie or Goofy:

Here she comes ....
But it did have ... a young Miss Wax Palm!

The young Miss Wax Palm
A colorfully-dressed but normal-looking young local lass, not tarted up Honey Boo Boo or, worse yet, Jon-Benet style.

The parade them seemed to be, "We in Salento love our wax palms."  The floats all were decorated in wax palm recreations.

Wax Palm Parade float
All of them:
Wax Palm Parade float
Five floats in all turning out for the Wax Palm Parade.

Wax Palm Parade float
It all ended with music, dancing, and wax palm recreations in, of course, Bolivar Square.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Even Though I Walk Through the Valley

Valle de Cocora
This is Day ... ¿Qué? ... ¿Nueve?  Nueve, I believe.  La Gran Aventura Colombiana Conmigo.  Homestetch of the vacation has now been entered.  I am now at the third of my four Colombian destinations, the Zona Cafetera, the Coffee Triangle, where the bulk of Colombian coffee cultivation takes place.

But the focus of the day is not coffee, but a certain palm tree, the Palma de Cera, the endangered Wax Palm, the national tree of Colombia.  And when you want to get your Wax Palm on, where do you head?  Valle de Cocora near Armenia in the Zona Cafetera.

Entering the Valle de Cocora
Did I mention before how incredibly beautiful the land is in Colombia?  It's even better when the sun is out!  And this, Day Nueve (nine for those of you not habla-ing your espanol), is the first day in country that I have had to break out the sunglasses!  A milestone day.

It was sunny, but very windy day.  So it was nice to be greeted at the destination point with a hot beverage, a canelazo, which is sugar cane juice, orange juice, passionfruit juice, cinnamon and either ron (rum) or aguardiente (fire water, the national anise-flavored tipple).  I opted for "ron."  It was smooth and sour and sweet and a couple of dozen kinds of tasty.

The elevation is quite high here, so I will once again choose as my excuse for not hiking an extensive amount.  My guide Alejandro and I started on the upward path to get up close and personal with the Palma de Cera.

A mule
My lungs and legs soon vetoed that selection.  A gentle hike to the river it would be!

Horses crossing the river
We hiked along the river back to the Pena de la Virgen, a shrine to the Virgin Mary built into the rocks right at the point where there is a steep climb up the rocky slopes to get to the lands of Parque de los Nevados.  You would give a prayer for protection as you began the steep ascent, or a prayer of thanksgiving for surviving the steep descent.

Virgen de la Pena
The Wax Palm is an interesting tree.  It is the only type of palm that can survive at this elevation, protected by its wax.

The path out ... which was the path in ... only facing the other direction
It can live for about 200 years -- which ain't much in tree years -- and grow to heights other palms can only dream of (presuming, of course, palm trees dream).  They are endangered.  So, us tourists are enlisted in the cause of planting of new baby Wax Palms.  (I was going to type "saplings," but I'm not sure if a young palm is called that.  It doesn't seem like it would be right.)

First, it was forced labor as I was ordered to dig a hole:

I dig Wax Palms
Flashbacks from my days on the chain gang.  I am then introduced to the baby Wax Palm whom I shall plant in said hole:
Meet the Wax Palm

The tree is then planted, more by the park ecologist than by me, but I can live with that:

Planting season
And it all ends with an awkward hug from the park ecologist:

So very awkward
Hey, he suggested it.  Not me.  He said it was traditional.  Given the obvious awkwardness here, I suspect the tradition is about to die.

Leaving the Valle de Cocora
The tradition may die, but my Wax Palm shall live.