December 29th, 2015
In the central highlands of Colombia, a crop grows like wildfire. It flourishes on every hill and valley as far as the eye can see: enamelled green leaves with crinkle-cut edges, and glossy, dark red berries hanging like earrings below, spaced out on the vine. Coffee is intimately familiar to me. I associate it with the world of northern Europe and its everyday luxuries: a cardboard Costa on the way to the office, or enamel cups of white nestling a perfect, photo-negative black pool; British tea-time and English elevenses and even the Swedish tradition of fika. Coffee is couched in rules and routine. And yet the provenance of this crop is unrestrained and vibrant and about as different from these straight-laced rituals as you could imagine.
We are in the Eje Cafetero of central Colombia, where there are giant profusions of orange flowers and fanfares of bamboo, great garlands and tall palms. Coffee grows between them, behind them, under; everywhere. Ordinary people populate this fairytale land in a delightful way; it seems so unlikely that in this magical forest there should be a checkpoint with orange-jacketed ladies, vendors of crisps and fruit, guards balancing guns – but there they are. We zip past them at two hundred miles an hour. Clearly, the driver of our bus has places to be. The speed prevents me from taking more than snapshots of memories, but I do recall seeing a sign for a theme park: Parque del Cafe, it’s called. I’m all right for thrills: the drive is ride enough.
We stop for breakfast in Manizales, the capital of Caldas province. Strangely, coffee is not on the menu. In spite of Manizales’s loveliness – teetering on a stack of tumble-down hills among the green palms – we are left with a bitter taste in our mouths as Nathen’s prized water bottle is stolen. So we decide to flee south to Salento, where the town is smaller and the palms are bigger. We will return at the weekend to bite the Big Apple of Manizales: we have been told that a festival of fruits and flowers is taking place.
Despite our misfortune, I’m already in love with Colombia. Just what is it about this place? I really liked Ecuador, its people, landscapes, history; and yet there’s something about its big sister to the north that is just irresistible. Like the people here, the country seems to have the ‘it’ factor: the wink, the attitude, the flicker of a smile on the lips that draws you in further. My suspicions of Colombia’s magic are confirmed that evening, when we pitch camp. We arrived in Salento in the afternoon, and have grown tired of the haggling and hawking at the stalls in the village square. So we leave to begin a lonely pilgrimage north on a small road out of town. We have seen signs for the Cocora Valley and we hope to find solace, if not shelter, under the fronds of a slender wax palm. After a kilometre walking down the silvering road that twists like a live trout, we pass a sign painted in white acrylic that points the way ‘Al Rio‘. Not ones to pass up an impulse, we follow it towards the river. We pass into a narrow, tranquil valley, empty of wax palms but full of sweet green grass and tall eucalyptus that in the twilight breeze paint the setting sky in shades of pink and lilac. Finally we have found tranquillity. The night is mostly cloudless, and from the comparative dark of our camping spot, hidden under a motherly pine, we watch as capricious fireflies compete with the stately stars to capture our attention.