Colombia, coffee and chocolate…

Back on the road alone again, my lovely polish tour mate had left me in a hurry as she was notified that her flight 90 minutes later to Bogota had been cancelled.  She needed that flight to ensure that she got her connecting flight to Europe.  Welcome to Colombia where they cancel flights when they want without any thought of the consequences to passengers.  I moved back into the Bourbon St Hostal, met up with me old mate Sebastien and went looking for an appropriate dorm bed for the night – I wanted to be at the back of the hostel so i wouldn’t have to be listening to the loud music from the bar upstairs.  No such luck, it was back to my original bed from two weeks previous.

It was a good choice in the end as the next morning when I woke bright and early the place was flooded at the back.  It had been raining  heavily all night  and the old building could not cope with it.  Young men were carrying their mattresses and bags out of the back rooms as the rain water seaped through.  The staff were out with buckets, brushes and mops to try and get the water out.  

I was slip-slopping my way through reception, through the rain to get to the front door and hail a taxi whilst trying to keep my bag dry. 

The taxi driver headed deeper into the old city and there we came across pretty bad flooding; knee deep it was.  The drainage system of the old town was not created for such waters from so many different outlets.

Flight was slightly delayed but not much to arrive in Medellin; get into a collective taxi (mini-bus) into the centre of Medellin and then grab a taxi out to the Black Sheep Hostel in Pablado.  What I didn’t realise at the time was the driver had not turned the meter on so who knows how much he over-charged me by.  For the evening, Priya, who I had met in Catagena had promised me a curry dinner; she was staying at another hostel in Medellin in another barrio and I booked an Uber to get over there; about 20 mins away; cost me £3.86 in a black uber.  He dropped me off but it really did not look like a hostel was there, there were no signs whatsoever. I walked up to the main road and went into a phone shop to ask if i was in the right place.

They pulled up Google maps, told me we were not near it, that I would need to get another taxi etc.  A young girl and her mother who were customers in the shop said that they would take me.  I suggested that from the map that perhaps it was around the corner, but they weren’t having it.  We started walking, them asking people as we went, getting all sorts of different directions.  Eventually we walked around the neighbourhood and came back to where we started; just around the corner from the phone shop where we found Priya waiting, curry cooked. But mother and daughter had been very lovely to look after me.

Next morning it was time to make my way towards coffee countr aka Zona Cafetera or even the Coffee Axis.  From Medellin it was a 5 hour drive down to Manizales.  The drive down was stunning through a cloud forest but the driver was loco.  He had a schedule to keep to, and there was no way that road works were going to make him late.  If the traffic was stopped he was overtaking on the wrong side of the road, going round those sharp bends at speed without knowing what was coming up the other way.  Just close your eyes and hang on!  

He also forgot to drop me off early at my stop to pick up my connection to the hostel.  We drove all the way into Manizales before he remembered.  He put me straight onto another bus to take me out of town; hang out in the Las Palmas restaurant and wait for my next collection that would take me 2.5km off the main road into the coffee plantations on the side of the mountains to the Hacienda Venecia.  

The hostel was in a stunning location overlooking the valley.  What I had not realised was that you need to bring your own food if you want any kind of variety.  For sale in “The Market” aka the shelf in the office, they had pasta, sauce, beer, wine,  so that was going to be the diet for the next three nights unless I wanted to get back on a bus and head for Manizales and buy more food.  No point.  For breakfast you were rationed to 2 eggs, 2 slices of toast only with butter and jam (no more than that) for breakfast and they cooked up a lunch for the tour which you could pay £4 so a big dinner was not too necessary. Of course there was all the coffee you could drink too.

I was on the coffee tour the next morning at 0930 where others from the Hacienda’s main house were staying as well as visitors from the town.  I contemplated staying at the main house, but as I was paying £10 a night for my bed and the Main House was £200 I couldn’t bring myself to do it, no matter how stunning it looked.  See below.  But back to the coffee tour…. who knew that coffee beans actually come from red like cherry like berries and the coffee bean is in the middle of the cherry?   In Colombia the cherries are picked by hand – it is not worth their while to invest in machinery when labour is so cheap.  Or they blame it on the steepness of the mountain side, that machines cannot work there as well as not being able to determine the best beans to pick at that time.  

The cherry pickers get 500 – 700 pesos per kilo picked; aka 12 – 17p per kilo or 16 – 22 US cents!  The average kilos picked in a day is 150  (£26 / US$33) but the good pickers can get up to 300 kilos (£51 / US$66) for a very hard day’s graft.   Due to the temperate climate of Colombia, 18 – 25oC it is possible for the mid region to  harvest coffee beans every 20 days due to the weather conditions of drought and rains.  Thus Colombia can produce fresh coffee all year round which is rare anywhere else in the world.  Unfortunately the coffee here is not organic.  There is a pest called Broca.  The pickers watch out for this pest.  They use a natural fungus to try and kill it however pesticides are the only thing that can get rid of it.

Once the cherries are picked, the skin is peeled off. The beans are washed in water and dried.  Sorting takes place to find the best beans.  The best are used for export (locals are not big coffee drinkers) whereas the others are used  for coffee blends.  The lowest grade is used to create fuel for machinery.  The pulp is used to create natural sweetness.  

Like with wine there are specially trained coffee tasters who know what good coffee is and the aromatics behind the beans – sweet, acidic, earthy, fruity etc.  However, no two bags of coffee will ever taste exactly the same as every part of the process can affect the taste as well as the soil, the amount of rain etc.The roasting process also plays a major part in flavour depending on how long the beans are roasted for and the humidity of the air, the weather on the day of roasting.

Followed by lunch it was then time to make some chocolate.  Due to climate change the Hacienda is looking to diversify and they are looking at possible chocolate making as an addition to their offering. The lovely Valentina from Italy with a passion for chocolate has volunteered to look at possible chocolate options.  However, she has never made chocolate before so it is a learning curve for her.  I arrive at the right time to get in on this experiemental chocolate making.  Each day that I am there we experiment with a new recipe for chocolate.  It is bascially cacoa beans, roasted, add sugar, add powered milk. Change the amounts of sugar and milk to get the different flavours, that is all there is to it!

Add the cocoa beans to the roaster.

Grind the roasted cocoa beans.

Add the ground beans to the chocolate maker

Add your powdered milk and powdered sugar – liquids are not good for the cacoa

And now time for the best part – tasting.  Add more milk or sugar dependent on how bitter / sweet you like your chocolate.

In between the coffee and the chocolate, we did manage to get in a hike or two within the coffee finca.  They have a variety of routes to take, usually they just keep going higher and higher.

After 4 days of drinking coffee, making chocolate and lolling in hammocks it was time to head for Salento and take on some activities that were a little more strenuous…

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