I stayed overnight at the Hacienda San Jose, a well-run and luxurious hacienda set in beautiful surroundings. The centre piece was a massive tree with branches that sprawled in all directions and played host to much birdlife. After polishing off a delicious assortment of fruit (Colombia must surely boast the best variety of fruit anywhere in the world), it was time to check out more this exciting region had to offer.
Our guides Alejandro and Shirley were in typically animated mood, explaining in great detail the history and diversity of this region, including a quick geography lesson on the Andes mountain range and how this is divided into cordillera. The coffee triangle falls in the central Cordillera range. We stopped off at various vantage points to take in breathtaking views of the verdant landscapes. After a short while we arrived in Filandia, a really vibrant coloured little town. A small cafe caught our eye, and since it had been all of two hours since the last cup of coffee, it made only sense to refuel here whilst watching the world go by. Men sporting the finest Colombian sombreros would stop in the middle of the road for a chat, only to be disrupted by the occasional horse-drawn cart carrying local produce. Women would stand in their shopfront selling everything from handwoven clothes to mouthwatering snacks. Whoever painted this town used every colour in the rainbow, but successfully managed to do so without making it look tacky or gaudy.
Anyway, it was time to jump into jeeps, or rather stand at the back of them, for our ride into the Valle de Cocora. I had been told that this was one of the real highlights of the coffee region, as it was home to Colombia's national tree, the wax palm, most of which tower over 60 metres into the air. The drive into the park was exhilarating and the tranquility of the place really struck me. After parking up, we were given the honour of taking part in a 'wax palm ceremony'. We were told about Colombia's rich natural heritage and diversity and the impact human activity was having on the wax palm. Apparently, the wax palm is now endangered as there not enough new palms taking the place of the older ones which are dying. One reason is that many people use real palm leaves as part of festivities for Palm Sunday, so baby wax palms end up dying early. We were each grouped into our countries of origin and given new trees to plant. Our guide stressed how important it was to give back to mother nature and prayed that each tree would grow to its full height and last for decades to come. Some were so touched by this, that it brought many close to tears.
Having planted our trees, it was time to get on horses and venture into the valley. There were about 8 of us, and as our horses jostled for position, we gently strode into the valley, not quite Clint Eastwood style, but you get the picture! Horses are peculiar animals, and no matter how you try to control them they will do as they please. Alejandro's horse had clearly not eaten enough for breakfast, and stopped every few minutes to top up on a diet of leaves plucked from the bushes. Luciana's horse clearly didn't know the difference between a branch and my leg, as it took a bite at me! Fortunately, no harm was done! We crossed a fast flowing stream with each horse in tow, and admired the dizzying height of the wax palms. I can't even find an adjective to describe how majestic these trees looked.
After about 45 minutes we returned to where we started and tucked into a hot lunch. Trout is very much the speciality here. You can have it grilled, smoked, fried, any way you want, but what s most interesting was that this was no ordinary trout, but a cross-breed of salmon and trout. Having recently started eating fish, I have to be honest and say it was delicious! With full stomachs, it was back to the jeep and onward to our next stop, Quindio.
Quindio is another small town like Filandia, and we entered the highly recommended Cafe Jesus Martin. We were treated to a presentation on coffee with a explanation on the different kinds of beans and varieties of coffee. One of the cafe's baristas then gave us a demo on the fine art of pouring milk and decorating the froth. Needless to say the coffee was superb as well. On a caffeine high, we headed to our new residence for the night, Casa de Campo El Delirio.
This was one of the most impressively styled properties I had ever come across. All painstakingly furnished by its energetic and eccentric owner, 'Cookie'. She was a bubbly character who bounced around as she narrated story after story, and she had everyone in fits of laughter. In a way, she encapsulated everything Colombian - extremely warm and endearing, and in no time she made everyone feel at home. Her cooks served up a lavish 5 star meal any Master Chef would have been proud of. It was then to bed after a long and thoroughly enjoyable day.