January 10th, 2018
It’s 77 degrees currently in Mexico City. The blue sky is shrouded slightly by a fairly thick haze, a side effect placing a city on a large dry lake bed and thats surrounded by mountains and volcanos. At this time of year, there’s a constant ceiling of air pollution and smog that hangs over the city like an unfriendly ghost, letting you know its presence by irritating the hell out of your eyes, nose, and throat. I arrived in Mexico City about five hours ago, a day before my friend Cody Duncan, who you’ll soon hear far more about, pulls into town. The city so far seems incredibly lively, which I guess is what happens when your urban sprawl features more than twenty million people in sixteen districts broken into hundreds of neighborhoods.
I’m staying at Hostel 333, in the trendy La Condensa area. The hostel is sending off one of their own tonight, an Australian woman who’d been here for weeks and is getting a proper goodbye party. Throw in meeting my old Semester at Sea friend Hugo at a bar across the street called Gin Gin, and it’s shaping up to be a hell of a first day in Mexico. Hugo mentioned that the bar and attached gastropub, wasn’t really cheap, and I’d probably by paying anywhere from 5-7 USD per drink. It’s my first night, I told him. I can worry about the budget tomorrow.
It’s that kind of cavalier attitude towards financial maturity that most likely means I won’t be in South America all the way to April, because after Colombia, my savings from the previous summer in Alaska took quite the hit. This next series of posts is here to catch us up to the present, as I begin to start my new adventure, exploring Central America with another old Semester at Sea buddy, Cody. We plan to make our way through the heart of Mexico towards Cancun and Tulum, and from there our trip is wide open, potentially running towards Cuba, Belize, Nicaragua, or even South America.
But first, lets play catch up. Another note. My brother Sam mentioned to me over the holidays that in my writing I have a tendency to be a bit long winded and go into detail about things that nobody cares about but me. I told him to shove it and bicycled away down the road in front of him. However, taking constructive criticism in stride, I’ll try to keep the next two and a half months somewhat crisp and lean, but noticing now that just the intro is already at four paragraphs, the outlook is a bit bleak.
To quickly rehash, Nicole and I had just left Guatapé, where after almost killing our Australian friend in a motorcycle snafu, we parted ways with our new gang of friends and got on a bus headed towards Salento, roughly eight hours south of Medellin. We arrived around seven in the morning, exiting the bus and wiping the lack of sleep out of our eyes. It hadn’t been a particularly comfortable ride; Colombian roadways are not known for their smoothness and straightness.
At the bus station in Armenia (because there’s no direct bus to Salento, of course), we found a colectivo, or very small van packed with many, many people, that took us to our town. Salento, population just over seven thousand, is nestled up against the mountains in the jungle, a tiny enclave in the middle of the woods. Our colectivo dropped us off a few kilometers before the town, so we could walk off the main road a bit to get to our Airbnb, which turned out wasn’t actually a house but a small little cabin inside a grander campsite. They looked like gingerbread houses, built for people of diminutive heights to make them feel as if they were living in a home with high ceilings. For Nicole and I, it had a place to sleep, which was all we needed.
Our first hours in Salento were spent in slumber, catching up on sleep we had missed the night before. We woke up, zoomed into town by hitchhiking our way in on a passing Jeep, and enter the town. It’s incredibly tiny, a small square with rows of streets branching out like stilts, all leading back to the center. The Church of Our Lady Carmen, a huge white structure with a large tower set right into the center, provides the focal point of the square, with a large statue of the Liberator Simon Bolivar situated right in the middle.
Nicole and I walked a few blocks and ate some delicious fresh trout at Restaurante Andrea, a massive piece of fish covered in cheese and mushrooms, along with a large friend platacon, or big fried banana chip. From there we go to Jesus Martin, a coffee shop off the square that features amazing coffee grown right in the local area. I was never a coffee person before this trip, but I had noticed as I went along I began drinking it more and more. By the time Jesus Martin rolled around, I was downing five cups a time, on my way to becoming a regular coffee addict, finally drifting away from the “tea” guy I had become. It felt like a good transformation.
After our trout, Nicole and I went to Don Elías, a coffee farm, zipping down narrow jungle roads while hanging off the back of a Jeep driven by a man who clearly had a timetable to keep. More than once I almost flew off the back into the jungle, assuringly never to be seen or heard from again and only found later by a coffee farmer out picking beans and stumbling on a large American instead. I held on, however, and made it the farm, where we met the enigmatic Don Elías and his employee Paulina. Elías had been farming coffee in Salento for over thirty years, acquiring a lovely old man giggle at some point that would come out anytime we would mispronounce our Spanish.
Since I’m trying to keep this short (and failing I think), I won’t go too much into the coffee production process. However, the basic details are this, as described to us by Paulina in English as she leads us around the farm.
- The beans are taken out of the red shells they are found in while on the plant.
- They are then dried in a greenhouse for up to ten weeks.
- A machine removes the skin from the bean, like a pasta maker looking device that flips the skin away and leaves the bean intact.
- They are cooked on a skillet for up to an hour to brown them.
And then they are ground down to coffee or sold as beans, and its as simple as that. Paulina was an amazing guide, a twenty-two year old who had a kid at home and hoped to get to a university eventually, however with a young daughter at home and working at the farm and at a hostel, it would be a while before she had the resources to do so. We shared a Jeep back into town with her, and watched the sunset while driving across the Colombian hillsides, the sun dipping behind the green jungle and casting the farms in a warm red glow.
That night, two things of note happened. One was a high school band, or something similar, began marching down the street while we were eating fresh stuffed arepas, complete with tubas and trombones blaring their way down the cobbled streets. I had never seen a nighttime high school marching band parade, so I guess there’s a first for everything.
Second, we played tejo, a bizarre game that could only exist in a country without stringent safety standards. It consists of throwing large metal blocks at a box filled with clay. Inside the clay are pieces of paper filled with gunpowder, and the goal of the whole game is to make the playing board blow up. A tejo bar, therefore, is filled with the sounds and smells of explosions, people peering over the barriers to watch their partners throw and also avoid flying chunks of whatever might be coming towards you. No one really knows how or why it was invented, other than it was probably played by the native peoples there centuries ago. Nicole and I found the place due to a conversation with a Dane earlier in the day, who we met and played with, along with a gaggle of Canadians.
By ten o’clock we were back in bed, asleep, and ready for the second day, which started far earlier than our bodies desired. This was also the day that Nicole and I parted ways, myself on my own trek home, her back to Medellin for one more day with our Guatapé gang. We got into a Jeep, brought our bags to Jesus Martin for a coffee (and managed to have them to store our luggage in their backroom for us, another notch for Colombian hospitality), and prepped for the Valley of Palms. The Valley, known for its towering wax palms, the symbol of Colombia, was a tourist hot spot, and waking up we were incredibly excited for the majestic valley views amongst the trees. However, peeking outside of our little cabin, we were unable to see more than five feet in front of our face due to a thick, thick fog that enveloped the whole world in a white mist that not even Stephen King could have mined from his brain.
At the coffee shop we considered nixing the whole valley trip altogether, but were encouraged by the Dane (who showed up in the coffee shop by happenstance) to make the trip anyway. Even in the fog, he said, it was stunning. So we drove in Jeeps again to the Valley, Jeeps being the main mode of transport anywhere in this town it seemed. And while it was completely fogged in, it was still an eerie experience, walking through a white mush, unable to see anything until a towering wax palm, hundreds of feet tall, that would slowly appear out of the mist like the leg of a humongous spider. Nicole and I walked quietly among the trees, hiking up and around the valley. After our ninetieth wax palm emerged from the mist and passed behind us, we decided that we had seen it all and retreated back to our Jeeps. On the way back to Salento, we managed to pick up a man with three humongous bags of chilis, another man walking past us, three school children, and a third man, all crammed into an already tourist-packed Jeep. By the end, I was one of five people hanging off the back, flailing into the others as we took the sharp mountain turns like we were outrunning the police. Pulling into Salento, I collapsed off the back onto the ground, my forearms burning an embarrassing degree.
After a quick lunch, Nicole and I said our final goodbyes, and I wished her well as I made off on my own towards home, after three weeks of travel in Colombia. Here now, bullet pointed, is the incredibly amount of work it took to return home, some forty five hours after I woke up.
- Bus away from Salento back to Armenia.
- Bus from Armenia to Bogotá overnight, stuck in traffic for a majority of it, arriving in town around 1am.
- Taxi from bus station to airport.
- Waiting in the airport until my flight at 9am.
- Flight to Atlanta, five hours.
- Flying standby, I miss three flights to Ft. Myers, so end up flying to Miami instead
- Attempt to rent a car, but since no rental agencies accept debit cards, I am unable to get across the state to my house.
- Call my mother, who drives two hours over to Miami while I wait in the terminal, becoming slightly delirious from lack of sleep.
- Drive two hours back to Ft. Myers with my mother.
- Collapse into my bed after having been awake for over forty hours.
And that, my friends, was Colombia, a country full of surprises, adventures, pitfalls, beauty, kindness, and enough fried meats and corn to keep your heart working hard for years to come. Adios, Colombia, hasta luego.
Next Time, on The Wandering Minnesotan:
An Introduction to Prague And The Wonders Therein