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Colombia: The Prohibition Era

Dry weekends but certainly not caffeine free...moving from the country's industrial heart to its silver lining.

sunny 32 °C

Our final country...or is it? Do we return home at the end? I can say with all certainty that our dream answer would be that we have many more countries still to go and that we are not returning home...yet. But sadly, it seems the end is nigh. We better make the most of what time we have left then shouldn't we?

Bienvenidos a Colombia! Home to coffee, cocaine(!), the largest exporter of emeralds and the Caribbean.

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With little over 3 weeks left and a lot of distance to cover in Colombia, we decided to make the most of our time and cut out the long bus journeys and fly from place to place. Internal flights in Colombia are pretty cheap so we made the most of them.

Having had enough of cities, on landing in Bogota, we immediately caught an internal flight to Manizales, a small city in the heart of Zona Cafetera or the 'Coffee Region' in Central Colombia. Our flight was only an hour but was in a small twin prop where you could feel every bump, every gust of wind, every single movement.

Manizales is described as having 'abrupt topography', built into the mountains with ridge lines and steep slopes. It is situated high in the hills of Colombia covered in lush green forest and coffee plants, as a result of the combination of hot sunny days and cooler, wetter afternoons and evenings. You can immediately see why Colombia is one of the biggest coffee growers and exporters in the world, with Manizales being the coffee capital.

We had booked a tour around Hacienda Venecia, a working coffee plantation and farm about 30 minutes outside of Manizales nestled in the bottom of the nearby valley. We also discovered that as well as being able to stay at the plantation house (which looked fantastic but out of our price range) they also had on site, a hostel which had all the same amenities and facilities as the house but slightly more basic accommodation. As such, for £20 a night, we got a private double room with ensuite bathroom, a swimming pool to use, more hammocks than you have time to sleep in and all the free coffee you can drink! And even better, hardly anyone was staying there so peace and quiet too (apart from the owners' pug which took an immediately liking to Han's socks and shoes and our Nikon DSLR)!

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On the morning of our arrival, our tour started with a brief history of where coffee originated and how it came to the Americas. We learnt all about the different types of coffee, as well as the different conditions required for growing them and the methods employed for farming, drying and roasting each.

Coffee can generally be split into 3 main bands - robusta coffee which accounts for the largest proportion of the worlds coffee (2% caffeine content); arabica coffee which accounts for the second largest proportion (1% caffeine content); and then speciality coffees such as Blue Mountain from Jamaica and the world's most expensive coffee Kopi Luwak from Indonesia, which involves an Asian Palm Civet eating the coffee fruits, digesting them and then pooing out the beans! Funny, what seems the easiest and cheapest method (less need for machinery etc), produces the most expensive coffee! Go figure... It also turns out London is the place where the price of robusta coffee is set. Who'd have thought!

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Colombia and Hacienda Venecia grow and produce only arabica coffee using the 'wash method' due to the high altitude and wetter conditions. The other method is called the 'dry method' used in areas of lower altitude and greater heat such as Brazil. If you are asking what is the difference between the two, all I'm going to say is book a trip to Colombia and stay at Hacienda Venecia...or google it. The former is much more fun though!

Colombia account for 7-10% of the coffee market and are the third biggest producer. Brazil is the biggest producer followed oddly by Vietnam, who account for 58% of the market combined. Coffee is also Colombia's third biggest export behind oil, minerals and precious stones, specifically emeralds.

When learning about the coffee making process, I was surprised to learn it is not that dissimilar to the wine-making process save for the roasting of course. As part of our 'classroom learning' we got to test out our noses once again trying to identify different 'notes' that might be present in coffee (just like in Mendoza). It turns out that my good nose for wine turns its hand at coffee too! I now have two possible career paths - a sommelier for a wine producer or alchemist for a major coffee producer. Both require a move abroad to somewhere sunny so it can't be that bad. (I recently saw that 'Winemaker' was on New Zealand's Required Skills List - still hope of owning that vineyard on Waiheke!)

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After learning all about the process, seeing some roasting and of course the mandatory tasting (wow!) we got a tour of the working farm buildings and the store rooms full of coffee sacks.

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Our second day at the Hacienda was spent lounging around the pool and walking around the plantation. Hacienda Venecia is large in size, covering 200,000 hectares of the valley floor and hillside. Although it is a working farm, they let guests wander the coffee fields to their hearts content. We decided to hike to the top of the plantation and see the view of the fields from the mountainside, which were outstanding. We also got to see many workers wandering the fields hand picking the fruits from the trees.

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Having had a short but amazing time here (anyone thinking of visiting Colombia, this place is a must), it was time to leave and catch our next flight to Cartagena on the northern coast - via Bogota - for more sun!

Our taxi to the airport was something straight out of the movie Romancing the Stone. Hopping in our SWB Land Rover Defender complete with soft top and snorkel, Han in the front and myself riding in the back with all our bags, our driver decided to take us on the back roads through the fields and tropical jungle. To say I got bumped around a bit was an understatement...but it was so much fun!!

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On our arrival at Manizales 'Airshed' (it's not so much an airport, just a single room with chairs and a little cafe), we discovered our flight was delayed by an hour due to poor weather. Ordinarily, this would not have bothered us but our perhaps somewhat over confidence in Colombia's airline efficiency meant that we had only left ourselves 1.5hrs between landing in Bogota (on time) and catching our connecting flight. So an hour delay was cutting it a little fine. Turns out, it was much worse as we only landed and arrive at the gate 10 minutes before our next flight was due to take off. Whilst we thought we could just about make it through security, the same could not be said for our luggage which was still on the plane and the airport staff had not even started unloading it off of our plane! With two minutes to spare, we made it to the gate. Only time would tell if our luggage also made it to the plane...

Fortunately, it is in exactly these scenarios that 'Spanish time' comes into its own...it turned out that our onward flight to Cartagena would also leave an hour late, giving our luggage time to join us on the plane, phew! Landing in Cartagena late at night, feeling tired, dirty and hangry (yes, that anger and frustration you feel about everything when you're hungry) the last thing we wanted was to find our luggage was stuck in transit somewhere. But appearing through the plastic gates of heaven, on luggage belt número 4, our faces lit up on seeing the safe arrival of our Golden Horde. Woohoo! Spanish time rules!!

Cartagena. The city of many names. The Jewel of the Nile, no sorry, Caribbean (since arriving in Cartagena, I have had a craving for watching 80's Michael Douglas movies - I'd just like to think Han and I are Jack T. Colton and Joan Wilder) or more popularly known as The Walled City.

Cartagena is a beautiful colonial city coupled with the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle. It is also another UNESCO World Heritage Site (it seems everywhere we go at the moment is a WHS).

Visiting a place famed for its historic 'Walled City', we did what anyone would do...stayed outside the city walls. As backpackers on a budget, staying 'inside' was simply not an option. As a fairly big tourist destination (sooooo many Americans) everything was tourist prices where you had to work hard to find somewhere cheaper to sleep and eat.

However, just outside the historic city is the area of Getsemani, a backpackers haven, as well as a haven for many other things too...but less said about those things. Our 'Casa' was just off a little side street, just 5 minutes' walk from the Clock Tower Gate. As soon as you opened the door from the street, it was like walking into a tiny riad, complete with a small but perfect swimming pool in the courtyard with the 'comes as standard' hammock next to it. Heaven!

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Arriving a little late on a Friday, we grabbed a bite to eat at a little restaurant called Cevecheria Wippy in the old town. Cartagena is a vibrant city with a great night life but knackered from all our travels during the day, we decided to call it a night and paint the town red tomorrow - it was the weekend after all.

The next day was spent wandering the historic city, doing some souvenir shopping (purchasing the absolute must - a hammock) as well as photographing some doors! As you do. I even found a peluqueria (barbers) and got a much needed haircut. When he pulled out the straight razor...gulp!

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We then spent some time chillaxing before going out for a few cheeky bevvies in town. Dolled up to the nines, we headed to a nearby lively looking salsa bar we had seen earlier for a couple of cocktails...only to be told they were not serving beers or cocktails. Upon asking in our now fluent Spanish (?!?) ("Tiene solo bebidas sin alcohol?"..."Si") it turned out they were not serving any booze. Thinking they were just being weird, we decided to head into town. We walked from one side of the old town all the way to the other passing numerous bars and restaurants and found it strange that we did not see one person with an alcoholic drink. I guess this is how alcoholics feel when they're trying to sober up - desperately searching for a drink where one is not in sight!?! Do they not drink in Colombia at weekends? Is there a local law against it? What the hell?!

We decided to continue our search for libations at a nice balcony bar overlooking a cute little square and when we asked for a beer, they duly said "yes, no problem". So what the hell was going on? Well, when our beer arrived, it looked like a slushie! Not the tastiest I have to admit so for the next round we opted for something a little more tasty looking, cocktails. It was then that one of the bar staff finally resolved the mystery...as it was the time of the Colombian elections, all over Colombia, the police were enforcing a 'dry weekend' from Sat morn to Monday afternoon! So nowhere was allowed to sell alcohol AT ALL! Not even to tourists! We couldn't believe it. Cartagena is such a lively place with what looked like a great nightlife - trust us to be there on the one weekend when there is no alcohol to be had. With baking hot sun in the day, where only an ice cold beer would quench that longing thirst and there was not a beer to be bought or bribed anywhere...I nearly cried.

But, the wonderful, amazing, best establishment in the world ever, that it was (name shall remain anonymous for fear of reprisals :-)) they agreed to ply us with booze, but any drink would have to be disguised as a soft drink. So rather cunningly, I duly ordered a cocktail usually served in a martini glass - a margarita (a-hmmmm, lemonade) knowing that to disguise it as a soft drink meant that it would have to be served in a bigger glass as a tall, long drink! Han had a strawberry dacquiri (erm, strawberry juice) and we now looked like everybody else.

The following day, after waking from our Sunday slumber, the morning was spent chilling around the pool. The afternoon brought a visit to the fort, which was pretty cool and very Pirates of the Caribbean. Built by the Spanish after they lost Cartagena to the British in 1586, who held the city for ransom (for only 107,000 Pesos or £30 - I could own a city!) and then again to the French before retaking it (the French got bored of the place and just left), the fort is built directly into the mound it is situated on, has extremely thick stone walls and a maze of tunnels beneath it which once led to different areas of the city. Whilst it seems their military weren't very competent, their builders clearly were as the fort and also the city has never been taken since it was built (it took around 208 years to complete the fortresses and walls). It became impenetrable despite the constant tide of pirates which tried and tried to sack the city which had grown quickly in size and wealth.

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Dinner and our evening entertainment in this time of prohibition was once again had at El Balcon (oops sorry, not so anonymous after all!). It seems lawyers stick together and are never too far apart, as not long after we arrived we met a lad from Linklaters who had just arrived in Cartagena and was also looking for a drink. We soon enlightened him about the prohibition times and how to ask for a drink 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' style. After an evening of "do you know so-and-so?" and how much we didn't want to go back to work and where else we were going on our travels and where we wanted to still travel to, we headed back to our Casa. Not before being stopped by police who insisted on searching us both, rifling through our pockets and Hannah's bag looking for cocaine. Disappointed by their negative search, they were not happy to let us go before they had seen our passports (which we had left at the hostel). Foiled again by the production of copies however, they finally let us go on our way. It certainly reminded us that cocaine is still a massive problem in Colombia.

Our last full day in Cartagena was spent at Playa Blanca where we opted to stay for the night. Dubbed the best beach in the region, we decided to check it out. No accommodation booked, we were just hoping for a hammock!

Our journey involved travelling in an extremely cramped minivan. The kiwi owner bought it as a 12-seater but didn't realise it was for 12 small Japanese folk, not 12 of Europe's finest! Needless to say, it was a sweat box! After a brief respite at the river crossing where we got to stretch our legs for a whole 3 minutes, we were packed back in the minivan for a further 30 minutes before arriving at our destination. I have to say, it was well worth it! White sands, calm turquoise waters and little beach cabañas towards the quieter end. We couldn't have asked for more. We found 'The Wizard' - a recommendation of where to stay - which consisted of several small shelters raised on stilts and directly faced the ocean. Nothing but a roof, a mattress and a small piece of cloth to provide the smallest amount of privacy but also not to spoil the perfect view straight from your bed. Waking up to the sound of lapping waves and a completely empty beach was one of the best alarms I think I've ever had.

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Much of the day was spent catching some much needed rays and swimming in the clear waters. Lunch consisted of grabbing the local fisherman as he walked past selling freshly caught fish and lobster and buying a load of langoustines which he duly cooked in a tasty garlic and white wine butter served with a small salad and plantain chips and brought to our sun loungers! We didn't have to lift a finger.

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Unfortunately, as the phrase goes, all good things must come to an end. Deciding to deliberately miss the clown car back to Cartagena, we caught a lancha (speedboat) back to the city which was a hell of a lot more fun and faster.

Playa Blanca is a must for anyone visiting Cartagena but don't leave it too long as it might not be the same for much longer. Sadly we were told that the Government recently tried to take the land from the locals by blocking the waters with 12 large boats preventing locals from fishing and also bringing in bulldozers, just so that they could build an awful monstrosity of a hotel complex come village on the back of the beach, targeting the many American tourists, more specifically the middle-aged 'all-inclusive-ers'. Having taken the boat back to Cartagena, a little further along the coast is one of these massive town-like hotel complexes which really is an eye-sore on the pristine coastline. Having spoken to one of the staff members at The Wizard, we understand it would've happened had it not been for one of them obtaining a court order preventing the Government from seizing the land, destroying all of the locals' homes and businesses and their community, which has been there for many years. However, many think it is inevitable and only a matter of time before they return and try again. It seems a real shame that this could happen as it is perfect as it is. Relatively untouched save for the businesses on the beach. Let's pray this never happens...

Anyway, from one great place to another, our next stop brings us to The Lost City Trek (yup, more hiking) an Tayrona National Park 4 hours further east along the coast...

...over to you Han.

Posted by shaunandhan 09:36 Archived in Colombia Tagged beaches boats water sunset beach sand historic walls coffee colombia cartagena hacienda colourful turquoise lancha manizales playa_blanca venecia

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