Colombian coffee, cowboys and the cock of the rock!

Arriving in Salento, which sits in the heart of Colombia’s ‘eje cafetero’ (or coffeelands) in the late afternoon sunshine is a truly colourful joy. The hotels, cafes and bars surrounding the town’s main square are painted bright and happy shades of red, yellow, blue and green. Instead of the yellow city taxis, a line of Jeeps and Willys are ready to ferry us up the hill to La Serrana, a dairy farm and hostel with wonderful views of the green, coffee tree laden hills all around.

The next day we pile into another Willy, the guys are all loitering and vying to be the last in line so they get to stand on the back footplate in manly fashion, as we bump along gravelly roads into the lush verdant Valle del Cocora. After heavy rains, the path up the valley is a fun obstacle course of mud, logs and creaking wooden swing bridges, and the climb all the way up to the Finca Acaime is well worth it for the pleasure of watching hummingbirds flitting in and out of the trees and the bird feeders as we sip our drinks!

Back down the hill and then up another steep hillside takes us to our first views of the famous tall wax palms of the Valle del Cocora. Clouds are now swirling up the valley giving these lofty slender trees an almost ethereal appearance.

Back in Salento, the bustling little town has plenty to offer for hungry walkers – and the peanut butter chocolate brownie at the Brunch café is heaven for any chocoholic – rich, gooey, nutty, and so enormous it takes some willpower to eat it all. But I just about force it down! 

It was in Salento too that I got on a horse for about the third time in my life, under the charming guidance of Señor Delio, who was the embodiment of chivalry. My horse, a grey called Muñeco (puppet), insisted on being in the lead the whole way through the town, along a narrow ridge, down a zigzagging tiny track so steep we had to almost stand in the stirrups so as not to go over the horse’s head! Crossing the first river was also a nail biter for this amateur rider as Muñeco carefully picked his way into the belly-deep current and scrambled to the other bank – the next two shallower rivers were tame by comparison! We trotted and splashed through streams, muddy fields to a pretty waterfall. The heavens opened on the way back, but Señor Delio had us covered with huge thick plastic ponchos.

If you ever come to Colombia, an absolute must is to have a go at playing Tejo! Think ten pin bowling, except instead of pins you have a small circle of tiny gunpowder sachets resting on an old horse shoe set in a big clay frame, and instead of bowling a ball, you throw a big heavy stone and see if you can explode something! Three points for a direct hit, six if your stone ends in the middle of the circle, and nine if you achieve both! Throw in a few rounds of beer, a bottle or five of aguardiente (Colombian firewater, tastes a bit like anis), and you’ve got yourself a pretty hilarious and explosive night!

As Salento is in the heart of the coffee region, there are plenty of farms you can visit. As there weren’t any Fairtrade groups nearby, I eschewed the offer of a visit to El Ocaso, a large and very professional looking coffee plantation with multiple other certifications and tours from guides in neat branded red tour guide jackets, and instead headed to Don Elías’ small organic family farm down the road, where his son Jonh (no, that’s not a spelling mistake!) took us round in his farm clothes and mud spattered boots. Here the several varieties of coffee are interspersed with banana and plantain palms, avocado trees, pineapples, guava, yucca, naranjilla, and lots of flowers, all contributing to the organic and diverse farming methods they practise here. Taking us around his 4 hectare farm, Jonh told that in a good year they can produce up to 8 or 9 tonnes of coffee beans, but last year only yielded between 4 and 5. The family only has two routes to market: direct sales to visitors to the farm and the “Comite de los cafecultores” or farmers’ association where the prices for their parchment coffee (fermented, dried beans before the papery outer shell is removed) have recently been falling. It was a reminder of how valuable the role of a decent, democratic farmer cooperative can be, and access to a fair market with transparent pricing. Back at the house, we grind some recently roasted beans and Don Elias’ wife, Jonh’s mother brews up the strongest, best espresso I’ve had in Colombia. I don’t hesitate to purchase a bag of their delicious beans, now nestling along with the Ecuadorean chocolate in my increasingly straining-at-the-seams backpack.

I’ve been travelling from Popayan to Cali and Salento with Ben and Olivia from Washington DC, who have also quit their jobs working for a US Senator and as ICU nurse respectively to travel (check out their fab slackerbackpackers Instagram feed here). Now the three of us embark together on the road from Salento to Jardín, involving first a local bus along beautiful valleys to Pereira, then a big bus heading for Medellín which sets us down at the town of La Pintada. Here, we are informed that there are no more buses today going where we want and we need to take a ‘colectivo’ or shared taxi – in this case a mototaxi! After a bit of haggling, we squash all our big rucksacks in, and squeeze the three of us in on top, and set off along shady green roads for the hour’s ride to the town of Bolombolo – with this motorised tricycle all piled up with luggage and Ben in his Panama hat we feel like a proper world traveller cliché as we roar along with the wind whipping in our faces. At Bolombolo, we tumble out of the mototaxi to sit under a shelter and a large tree at a crossroads, waiting for our final bus to pass for another hour. Just as the sun is going down and the mosquitoes are starting to bite, one finally comes and we grab the last three seats. All in all, the journey takes us 9 hours! 

I’m almost reluctant to include Jardín in this blog, because it’s one of those true charmingly hidden gems and a slice of Colombian life you don’t want everyone to know about in case it gets become spoiled by tourism! It’s dark when we arrive, but the town square is alive with food stalls, bars, music playing and people sitting around the brightly painted wood-clad houses with beers, coffees, rum and aguardiente. There is a relaxed sense of pride in this place, reflected in the spotlessly clean streets and multicoloured paint, decorations and flowers of the houses that just makes you want to smile. People here both work hard and play hard. At 5.30 am the streets are already busy with people heading off to farms and construction site in their wellies, opening up the cafés for the morning ‘tinto’ (sweet black coffee shot) or climbing into buses to nearby towns, or washing their doorsteps. You can take tiny cage like cable cars to lift you over the river and up the hills surrounding this town nestling in the valley, and there are plenty of offers of horse rides to local waterfalls, although the most famous cascade in a cave is closed off due to recent landslides. Towards late afternoon, as the sun is going down, groups of men in crisp shirts and wide brimmed hats, and women in equally pristine outfits, gather in the painted seats around the colourful edges of the main square, watching the world go by, sharing the day’s news over afternoon tea or fresh juices, as the ‘carritos’ set up stall selling chicken, pork and a wide selection of deep fried empanadas and sweet pastries. It’s at this time that horses start appearing in the streets of the squares, prancing past in a bouncing trot, their riders practising for monthly local competitions.

Here’s a little clip of what happens if you just sit around people watching…

For birdwatchers, Jardín contains one final big treat. Down by the river, and in the gardens of a local house, around 15-20 “gallitos del roca” come to lek every morning and afternoon These bright red and extraordinarily crested male birds announce their appearance with a grating screech, and proceed to bow, bob and flap at each other in a show of macho pride they hope will win them the attention of the rather more discreetly plumaged female (I briefly spot one lurking across the river discreetly checking out the action). They’re like a little wonder of the world in their own right. I’ve posted a little video clip for you to enjoy here! 

I’ve already stayed a day longer in Jardín than planned, and I’m truly sad to leave it. With Salento, it’s definitely one of my favourite highlights of Colombia to date. But the bright lights of Medellín are beckoning … and I’m eager to see the famous transformation of this city, once dubbed the most dangerous in the world. I’ll tell you all about it in my next blog! 

Enchanted in the Galápagos

I’ve just returned to mainland Ecuador after almost two weeks of pure enchantment in the Galápagos Islands, I almost can’t even begin to write about it, my head is spinning with all I’ve seen and experienced. And I certainly don’t know where to end, so apologies if this is a bit of a long read!

My Galápagos adventure began aboard the appropriately named Beagle. Owned by a family in Puerto Ayora, it’s a genteel twin-masted schooner with polished wooden fittings, that certainly knows how to rock and roll when the swell gets up. Eating together al fresco around her family table, and watching the awe-inspiring southern star-studded nights from her deck were daily reminders of both the importance of our common humanity, also our minuscule significance in the universal order of things.

The Beagle
In the panga with Carla (NL), Michael & Darrell (Aus)
We set sail from Baltra in the north of Santa Cruz Island, Continue reading

My A-Z Peru Highlights (part 2, Nasca to Zarcillo!)

(Click here to read part 1, A-M)

N is for Nasca Lines

One of the great mysteries of Peru, the Nasca lines, these enormous patterns and designs in the desert were created by removing all the dark stones and exposing the lighter sand below. They’re fascinating to see, and sure to have you asking, but why? Continue reading

My Peru Highlights A-Z

A is for Arequipa and artisanal alpaca hats

Arequipa was the first town I properly arrived in, having crossed the overland border between Arica in Chile and Tacna in Peru. The old city is full of character, beautiful cobbled streets, it nestles below three volcanoes, and the food has a style all of its own. I especially liked Rocoto Relleno, a large stuffed red chili, with a solid spicy kick. The monastery of Santa Catalina is an eye-opening revelation into how nuns from wealthy Spanish families lived – no vow of poverty here and only the first Vatican council changed their lifestyle into one more of community living.

An alpaca hat with ear flaps and tassels is the must-have item for overnight stays in Colca Canyon or the Inca Trail. There’s a moment on every trek when the baseball caps and wide brimmed straw trilby hats vanish and out come all the alpaca hats we’ve been cajoled into purchasing from the wizened knitting ladies in every market, tourist stop, or café. You can try to resist, but the cold nights in Puno or Cusco mean the alpaca hat will get you in the end! Mine’s reversible, just sayin’! 😉

B is for the Ballestas Islands
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In the footsteps of the Incas – part 1

In the footsteps of the Incas – part 1

It has been a lifetime dream to walk in the footsteps of the Incas along steep valley sides and over the rocky mountain passes and reach Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. It’s impossible to capture the ongoing breathless wonder of the four day adventure with the awesome guides, porters & fellow hikers in my Peru Treks Inka Trail family,  or that feeling of your first glimpse of this incredible citadel in the clouds, but here goes…

Day 1: Piscacucho to Wayllabamba, 12km

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Crazy Competition

I crunch across the black lava gravelly rock up to the tiny reed-roofed hut at Te Pito Kura, the “navel of the universe”, where the largest moai statue ever to have left the quarry at Rano Raraku is to be found. This moai, known as Paro, measures 10 metres and weighs in at over 70 tonnes, even without its “pukao” or topknot which adds another 2 metres and 10 tonnes. It was also the last one seen standing back in 1838, but was sadly later toppled too, and lies broken to this day exactly where it fell. 

At the hut, a young woman is dozing with her head on her arms. She looks at me sleepily and asks where I’m from.

“London”, I say. She immediately perks up and looks at me with a spark of belligerence.

“London! Have you ever been to the British Museum?”

I have. And I admit to knowing that one of the moai from Easter Island is on display there, having been taken back to the UK by the crew of HMS Topaze in 1868.

“Why don’t you just give it back? It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to us. You people, you robbed us of our very important moai.” Sheepishly, I tell her agree – for sure, when I’m back in London I will go and look at it with different eyes now I really understand the significance of this particular statue.

You see, the one in the British Museum isn’t just any old moai. It was taken from the village of Orongo, home of the extraordinary Tangata Manu or birdman competition which, after the sculpting period had come to an end, sought to establish each year the chief of chiefs and ruler of the island for that year until the next competition.

To get to Orongo, you have to first climb up the volcano, Ranu Kao. You can drive, but I choose to go by foot, as did the bird man competitors, past the cave at Ana Kai Tangata, where they would gather and eat beforehand. At first the footpath wends a pleasant uphill route through eucalyptus, cyprus, acacia & Tahitian miro trees, but then I emerge into open grass and scrubland under searingly hot sun for the final part of the climb.

But wow! The view is worth it! The crater at Ranu Kao sits right on the sea cliff edge, with razor sharp edges. Inside the crater glorious clumps of reeds float on the crater lake, with flowering shrubs in an unexpectedly luscious tangle of biodiversity around the edges. This is the place that, in the year I was born, Rapamycin was discovered in the fertile soil samples, now reproduced and used as an immuno-suppressant drug to prevent rejection after organ transplants, and increasingly being tested as part of cancer treatment regimes. For a while, it was also thought to have anti-ageing effects. Having told everyone I’m traveling now because, well, life is too short not to, I just about restrain the inclination to throw myself in headlong just in case it’s true.

The village of Orongo is perched precariously right on the rim next to the sea. A whole village of long low Rapanui houses built of volcanic stone huddle together, their tiny entrances at crawl-in height.

 Here the clans would wait for the first sign of the manutara, or sooty tern, which used to migrate to the rocky islets or motus off shore to breed every September. At the first sign the competition would begin…. Selected competitors from each tribe would scale down the stupidly sheer cliff edges, then swim across to the largest and furthest of the three tiny motus lying about 2km offshore, on long thin rafts made of bound reeds. A few days later I take a trip out to the motus in a boat, bumping across waves easily big enough to give surfers a thrill, to where gannets and frigate birds still wheel around in the sky, but the manutara no longer breed, having now largely decamped to another remote rocky islet, Sala y Gomez, 400km away. Looking back ashore, I can’t quite believe that anyone would be so crazy as to climb down such dangerous cliffs, never mind try to live for even a day on those jagged rocks.

Once the birdman competitors made it to the largest and farthest island, Motu Nui, they would live in the caves for days, possibly even weeks, until someone found the first egg laid by the manutara. They would grab it and shout their name, and that of their tribe, across the water back to Orongo. According to the boatmen, there would be a whole chain of men in the water who, in Chinese whisper style, would relay the message from Motu Nui back across the 2km to the shore, so that the victorious chief could prepare for its arrival. The winning competitor would then place the egg in a pouch around his forehead and swim back to Rapa Nui, to present the egg intact to his chief, who would then become the king and spiritual leader of the island for the year. The competitor meanwhile would go into one of the houses with a “virgin” to ensure the continuation of prestigious lineage of the strongest competitors! I’m now slightly squirming in the boat at all this, as I’m now also acting as translator for my American and German co-travellers and having to relay this onwards. Raiding a bird’s nest, especially one that tends to only lay a solitary egg each year, fills me with horror, and as for the virgin part… I can’t even. It’s a struggle to temper the admiration I feel looking at those dangerous cliffs, those rampant horse-galloping turquoise breakers, and that rugged inhospitable lava rock motu terrain, with a deep revulsion at the facts of this crazy competition. 

Anyway, back to the HMS Topaze. The moai they took was found half buried in one of the houses at Orongo, it is the moai from their most important ceremonial village, taken onboard as a trophy to be given to Queen Victoria. On its back there are carvings of birdmen and fertility symbols. It’s known colloquially as the “stolen friend” although its name, Hoa Hakananai’a actually means “wave-breaker”. As I walked past the crumbled platform on which this moai possibly once proudly stood, I couldn’t help but think the statue ought to be restored majestically to its rightful and original home, even if it is then subjected to the erosive effects of the sea-cliffs, instead of standing alone in sanitised display in a building in London.

PS. A few years ago, apparently Red Bull asked if they could re-stage a birdman competition, but due to dangerous erosion of the crater edge and cliffs, which has now erased the first part of the birdmen track, they were denied permission. Not to be deterred from holding wild and spectacular sport on Easter Island, they then staged a World Cliff Diving event there instead. Meanwhile, my former colleague from the Fairtrade Foundation, Toby used to entertain us with his exploits in the very different but still zany Worthing Birdman competition– it seems that while the Rapanui birdmen are long gone now, the spirit of crazy competition is still well and truly alive.

Hiking the Heaphy Track (or how I popped my tramping cherry!)

It’s 9.30 on a Sunday morning, and after an hour’s drive north west of Takaka (up through Collingwood, then along the Aorere valley), we’ve passed the last sign of civilisation, the quaint Langford store at Bainham, crunched another 16km up the gravel road crossing creeks with creaking little wooden bridges and the sandflies are already biting at Brown Hut. This marks the start of a 4-day hike across the Kahurangi National Park to Kohaihai & Karamea on the West coast. This is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks – the Heaphy Track.
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Wonderful birds of NZ

I have seen so many wonderful birds in New Zealand in my first few days here: Australasian harriers, kingfishers, three different species of shearwater, storm petrels walking on the water, a couple of blue penguins out at sea,  and yesterday my first fantail. I haven’t managed to capture all of them on camera (harriers and kingfisher seen whilst driving!) but here are a few of those that I have. 

Fluttering shearwater
Storm petrel, or JC bird’ walking on water!
Pukeko (purple swamp hen) & chick
Hmm. Is this a young dunnock? If not, then what?
Spur-winged plover
Australasian black backed gull
Pied shag roosting
Australasian gannet
Blue penguin
Pied shag
Pied oystercatcher
Pied oystercatchers
Variable oystercatcher
Red billed gull
Myna bird