Las vacaciones

The narrative is long, and it involves a number of stops. To give the rest of this story geographical context, here’s a map. Blue is Bogotá, where we started and ended. Yellow marks the places we slept: Medellín, Pereira, and a spot I estimate to be near the finca. Red marks other places we visited: Filandia, Salento, and Santa Rosa. These places, in the context of the whole trip, are explained below.

Before the vacation, I convinced my mom that we shouldn’t fly from Medellín to Pereira, since I had heard that the on-the-ground views of the trip through that region were gorgeous, and I know how much my mom loves the scenic route. So we figured we’d take the bus. I assumed we could easily get mid-week bus tickets from Medellín to Pereira, even during semana santa. But a week before the trip, when I finally checked, I didn’t see anything. So my mom and Isa got nervous. And I couldn’t say I knew we would definitely find a bus to get us there.

To get from the airport into the city of Medellín, our hostel sent a very friendly driver. We talked a bunch, and at some point we started discussing the feasibility of going all the way to Pereira–about six hours–in a cab. He told us it was very expensive, and it was: A cab would cost three to four times what the bus would for the three of us. But my mom really liked the guarantee of having a ride, and one that would take us exactly when we wanted to leave. On top of that, of course, a cab would provide us with the luxuries of a cab: door-to-door service, being able to stop for lunch and for any photos we wanted, and the privacy and comfort of our own vehicle. We went for it.

Two days later, the morning after I wrote my last post raving about Medellín, our driver (a friend of the one we met before) picked the three of us up at our hostel, and we took off for Pereira. The views were as advertised, totally worth the many-hour ride. The lunch we were able to stop for was delicious. And the door-to-door service was awesome. For a bit more money than we initially agreed upon to go to Pereira (and another bit more once we drove a ways on a gravel road), Nestor, the driver, took us past Pereira, straight to the finca where we were headed.

Last summer, when word spread through the building where I grew up (where my parents still love, and where I spent the summer) that I was moving to Colombia, it reached Lucy, a woman who has worked in the building for decades, a neighbor who watched me grow up. Though I didn’t know it before (I didn’t even know her name before the summer), she’s from Colombia, near Pereira. She immediately invited me to go to her finca in the coffee region, showed me photos, and gave me names of people I should be in touch with if I needed anything in Colombia. I didn’t have a chance to travel far from Bogotá during my first seven months in the country, but I knew, especially with my mom coming to visit, that semana santa provided a great opportunity to finally accept Lucy’s offer.

When we told Lucy about the trip we were planning, she put us in touch with two people who ended up helping us enormously and making the trip much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. We called both of her friends before leaving for the trip, and then met them in their respective cities. Judith joined us in Medellín to explore the city and have dinner. Luz Estela, the local manager of Lucy’s finca, who lives in Pereira, accompanied us for two days later, at the finca and for our excursions. Both were instantly warm to us, incredibly welcoming, and far more kind and helpful than they had to be.

Lucy’s finca is a beautiful faux-farm near the town of Filandia. It has a few animals and some arable land, both of which produce a bit, but not enough to be self-sustaining. Some tourists add to its revenue, but I think Lucy mostly maintains it to be a retirement home. My mom perfectly described the cabin where we slept, as well as the feel of the finca, in a letter she wrote to my dad and sister the first night we got there: “Pete, Isa and I are settling in for a quiet evening on a rainy night in Lucy’s finca, which is a charming, cozy, modern, two-bedroom cottage heated by a wood-burning stove.” Miles from anything, the finca was a refuge of calm and beauty, a total delight.

We slept there two nights. The cabin was chilly, but its stove worked, we were given a space heater, and blankets were plentiful. Each morning, we woke up, enjoyed breakfast while looking out over miles of rolling hills, then took off for a day’s adventure. The first day we went to Salento. I didn’t find the town to live up to the mythic descriptions we had read, but it is pretty, calm, and nice in the way lots of small towns are nice. The national park nearby–known as Cocora, after the valley it’s in–on the other hand, was more visually incredible than I had heard. The only fair thing to do here is link to pictures, but I haven’t had the time to organize my photos yet. When I do so, I’ll post pictures of each of these places. For now, I can say that my photos from Cocora look like this.

To get around between these towns and to the park, we rode in the open-air backs of 60-year-old Jeeps, enjoying every bump. At Cocora we went horseback riding and ate lunch of fresh trout from the park’s river, served with huge and delicious patacones. Several hours later we returned to the finca to enjoy a home-cooked meal–one of countless bandejas paisas we ate on the trip–prepared by Marta, the woman who, with her husband Carlos, lives there and tends the place.

On our first day of sightseeing around the finca, Luz Estela arranged for a man named Rubiel to transport us to Filandia in his 1954 Willy’s Jeep. That night, after a long discussion about how to best spend the next day, my mom’s last in Colombia, we contracted Rubiel to take us to a coffee farm–nothing fancy, just a normal, working coffee farm in the area–and then to drop us off in Filandia, where we’d continue on with the trip.

So the next day we headed off with Rubiel, rode over dirt roads once more in the back of his 57-year-old ride, bumping along for half an hour through beautiful farm country, until he pulled up to a farm. We hopped out and greeted the farmer, whom we quickly learned was Rubiel’s brother. Amused and charmed, we asked whether there were other brothers. There are 11 siblings in total, including a couple other coffee farmers and three more brothers who drive Willy’s Jeeps around the region.

The farm was simple, and the tour was similarly unpolished, but both were exactly what we had come for. The farmer, Hernando, and his wife, Nely, showed us each stage of the coffee-bean-growing process: the beans on the plant, the collected but unsorted beans, the mechanism used to remove shells and sort the beans, the roof where beans dry in the sun, and the storeroom where they pack many-pound bags up for sale. They gave us coffee. They told us about their four sons in New Jersey, and their every-two-year trips to see them. As we headed out, we talked for a few minutes about the possibility of bringing more tourism to the area, and to their farm. Isa assured them they didn’t need to renovate their simple farm home to make their place a suitable tourist spot. It was a wonderful couple of hours.

Then Rubiel took us again to Filandia, where we visited the town’s mirador, its five- or six-story lookout tower with pretty views of the town and the surrounding land. We ate a great lunch for 5,000 pesos each, met Luz Estela again, and caught little local buses to Pereira. Isa and I took my mom to the airport, since she had to catch a flight back to Bogotá that night before returning to New York the next morning. After saying goodbye to my mom, Isa and I took a cab to our final destination: the home of the CouchSurfer who had agreed to host us while we were in Pereira.

We had had just a little contact with our host, Charlotte, before we arrived. I knew from her profile that she was from Guadaloupe, and she had told us that the night we were to arrive she had plans to go see a friend, so she would let us into the apartment, leave the keys with us, and head out. We didn’t know she meant she’d be gone the whole night.

When we arrived, she welcomed us warmly; chatted with us for a couple minutes in Spanish, French, and English; gave us the keys; and told us she had to go. She’d be back tomorrow. Just like that. Minutes after meeting us, she had entrusted us with her apartment. And we had ourselves a gorgeous and charming apartment of our own that night.

Everything about Charlotte’s place is wonderful. It’s beautifully painted and decorated. Its large windows let ample sun in and allow warm wind to blow through all day. And its resident is the brightest and warmest part. Charlotte was infinitely kind and generous to us–not to mention trusting in us, for which we instantly trusted her back. In our three days there we spent a lot of time chatting with her, relaxing by ourselves in her apartment, and talking with the other CouchSurfer she hosted for a night, a weird and not so great house guest from France.

On Thursday, our first full day in Pereira, we explored the city a little and found that even the tourist information center doesn’t know anything for tourists to do in the city. After that, we went to see Isa’s ex-boyfriend’s family. Isa is still friendly with him, and his parents clearly still love her a lot. Their finca, about 20 minutes from Pereira, was perhaps the most beautiful thing I saw on the trip. Here I can’t even say I’ll show photos later. I didn’t think to take my camera out that day, so all I have are memories of their home and the land behind it, including the river, the natural bridge, all the plants, and the forest beyond–all of it looking magical.

The next day, along with Charlotte and a French friend of hers, we went to the termales–hot springs–near Santa Rosa, a town not far from Pereira. We took a quick bus ride to Santa Rosa, then a chiva directly to the termales.

I first heard about chivas in the U.S., from a New York Times article that came out several years ago. I understood them as the article describes–basically as party buses. In Bogotá, where they’re unnecessary and uncompetitive as serious transportation options, chivas are just that. But in Santa Rosa, I got my first first-hand taste of what a chiva still is to some Colombians outside the capital. After arriving in Santa Rosa, we asked a man nearby where we could get the chiva to the termales. He literally dropped the plank of wood he was holding, began to jog away from us, and shouted at us to follow. So we did. We ran several blocks, picking up speed as he did, before learning why we were running. Turning our third or fourth corner, we saw the chiva taking off, still a full block away. We ran even faster, shouted our thanks to the man, and began to try to get the chiva’s attention. We succeeded, and the bus stopped. But it was already full. Its passenger cabin had no more seats, the roof carried both produce and passengers, and the back runner had a few people standing on it. We were directed up to the roof. There was still space for a few more–and then a few more who got on board later, after we left the town. So we rode to the termales on the roof of a chiva, enjoying the scenery and amused by the constantly joking paisas squeezed up against us on the roof.

I had never been in a hot spring before, and I was not prepared for what was to come. Practically, I had forgotten my bathing suit at home. That was remedied for 20,000 pesos when we arrived. Beyond that, I thought that hot springs were mildly heated streams, little pools warmer than icy rivers but still not truly hot. Once more, I have photos, but they’re not yet ready to be shared. Here again, however, Google can show you the very termales we visited. The steam visible in some of those photos shows how hot the pools were. The waterfall above was as big and beautiful as it appears. And the hotel offered a great place to relax, eat, and cool down between sessions in the boiling water.

The next day, our last of vacation, we visited Isa’s aunts in the early afternoon. Isa’s parents are both from Pereira, and their families still live there. It was the first time Isa had seen her aunts in years, so she had a great time catching up.

That evening, to thank Charlotte for everything, Isa and I cooked dinner. We began experimenting with vegetable wraps a few weeks ago, and we’ve found they’re a hit. Apparently Charlotte liked them too, because in the CouchSurfing reference she left me the next day she wrote, “Peter cooks inspired and delicious vegetarian meals.”

Thus it is spoken. With tortillas, cheese, tomato, zucchini, mushroom, and spices, I am an inspired chef. I can die happy. Before then, however, I returned to Bogotá happy, so happy for everything I did and saw and everyone I met on the somehow-only-seven-day break from normal life.

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One thought on “Las vacaciones

  1. Hi Peter, Just discovered your blog and enjoying browsing through. It’s interesting to see how other people experience this country a bit differently than I am 🙂 I have a section on my blog where I interview expats who are in Colombia. If you like, it would be great to get in a few words from you. It’s all through email, 10 questions in your own time and a photo of you… If you’re interested, just let me know!

    Saludos,
    Steph

    http://littlecolombiaobservationist.wordpress.com

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