Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

In the Zona Cafetera

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The stunning view out across the coffee zone from the small town of Filandia

After relaxing all the way to my core in Santa Rosa de Cabal, I was ready for the next bit of climbing to take me up (yep, more hills!) to my first night proper in the coffee zone, staying on a family ‘finca’ (a farm, or smallholding). Stopping just at the top of the turn off to the small town of Filandia, I arrived at Finca Campestre La Adelita, run by an amazing woman called Sonia, with the help of her son Pablo.

The peaceful Finca Campestre La Adelita

I was the only guest that night and Sonia and her son were superb hosts. They ran a fish farm (where they had tens of thousands of fish – mostly in a huge tank in the back yard!) and Sonia had renovated her family finca beautifully. The rooms were decorated in a traditional style and the whole place just felt very peaceful, away from the main road and built largely of wood and old plaster.

Pablo spoke some english (rare in Colombia) and gave me a lift over to Filandia later in the day. I was back for dinner, which I ate together with them ‘en famille’. Sonia served us succulent meat which had been smoked for 8 hours in their own back garden. I felt incredibly welcome in their home.

The beautifully renovated rooms at Finca Campestre la Andelita

The family owned a slightly mad and very naughty parrot – I think called Rebecca – who would only talk to the men!

Side trip out to Filandia

I’d planned to go straight from the finca to the famous coffee town of Salento, but on the way there I’d seen a turn off to Filandia. Having arrived at the finca before lunch (my legs must still be getting stronger!), and with the offer of a lift from Pablo, I was really pleased to have the time for an added bonus to visit Filandia too.

Filandia is a traditional coffee town, slightly less busy than its more famous neighbour, Salento. It has some of the most colourful and best preserved architecture in the coffee zone, and as a result has been used as the setting for many films. It’s easy to see why.

The pretty and colourful streets of Filandia

I loved the bright colours that just made the whole place feel very cheery in the afternoon sun. Even buildings off the main tourist streets are brightly painted and well-maintained.

The local corner shop.

Filandia is also famous for its woven baskets and wickerwork – a tradition that originated from making baskets for the coffee bean pickers to use during harvest. The skill has been maintained and continues to evolve.

Filandia has a crazy mirador (viewing point) – a four storey wooden structure – that gives amazing views sweeping right across the hills of the coffee zone (see also the pic at the top of this post). I kept the lid on my vertigo to enjoy the views from the top. Hopefully this smile looks convincing!

There’s superb restaurant in Filandia called Helena Adentro that serves super tasty and innovative Colombian food. Much as I’d enjoyed all the fish/chicken/rice/plantain I’d been eating day-in-day-out, it was a real joy to eat something fresh, tasty and new. These were corn balls stuffed with pulled pork and fresh cheese, and garnished (!!!!) with herbs. Bliss!

A case of the Willys!

Willys are classic WWII Jeeps, that were first sold to Colombia by the US in the 1950s as army surplus. I thought perhaps they were a tourist gimmick, but seeing them all lined up next to the main square and packed full of people whizzing round the country roads, it became clear that they are still one of the main sources of transport in the coffee zone. I guess they are pretty adept at navigating all the bumpy dirt tracks winding up and down the steep hillsides to the small coffee fincas.

According to the Lonely Planet, Colombians got sold on Willys when people from the US, who were trying to sell them to the farmers in the Zona Cafetera, organised a travelling jeep show. The show included driving the jeeps around obstacle courses in the central town plaza, and up and down the church steps. The sales pitch obviously worked, as there are still lots of lovingly maintained Willys around today. Apparently they are so commonly used that a jeep full – a ‘yipao’ – is recognised as a legitimate trading measure for agricultural products (coffee beans, avocados, plantain and so on) in Colombia.

Locals wait for a Willys Jeep to fill up ready for their ride to depart – they are often crammed so full that people hang off the back and sidesThis Willys is decorated with slightly oddly proportioned donkey mascot, that made me think of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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After a lively afternoon in Filandia and being thoroughly well fed with a delicious dinner and breakfast by Sonia up at the Finca, I hopped back on my bike the following morning for a short ride (but big climb – oh, you can’t go anywhere here without a climb!) to the neighbouring town of Salento. Mountain bikers were whizzing past me down the hill in the opposite direction, looking at me like I was a crazy lady trundling up the hill on a fully loaded bicycle. Lucky them – they’d get picked up at the bottom and given a ride all the way back up to the top (slackers!;).

Crossing the river at the bottom of the hill, I saw this road sign for sloths! Sadly I didn’t see any but it was cool to know they were living there.

This abandoned house was located in prime position with a view out over the hillside – apparently it was another home that had belonged to one of the members of Escobar’s Medellín Drugs Cartel and had since been sized by the government. The interior had been completely stripped bare but the house was still conspicuous in its size, location and some very showy sculptures that remained in the garden. These guys had clearly had huge amounts of money to throw around.

Arriving in Salento – the smell of freshly ground coffee wafts around me as I crest the hill and enter the town. But my work isn’t over yet….

Why do I always manage to find a place to stay at the top of the steepest road?! The picture doesn’t convey just quite how steep it was but even this guy on his mountain bike couldn’t manage to ride it.

It was worth it though, for this great view out over the town

Salento – Coffee Growing in the heart of the Zona Cafetera

My first stop in Salento had to be to pay a visit a coffee finca. I may not drink coffee, but given the number of days I’d spend riding through the Zona Cafetera I should at least check out how the whole process works!

A ride in a Willys down to the finca – still quietly chuckling at the name (so childish!;)

The beautiful highly regarded local coffee finca, Ocaso

A whistle-stop guide to the art of coffee growing

Step 1: Grow the beans – it’s just a month or so before harvest time now, so the plants are laden with fruit now but most are still green.

Step 2: Harvest the fruit of the coffee plant. When properly ripe, the ‘cherries’ are either fully red or yellow. The vast majority of harvesting in Colombia is still done by hand. Not all that surprising when you see some of the precipitous slopes that the plans grow on!

Step 3: Pop the beans out of their shells. At this stage they are covered in a slippery mucus kind of substance.

Here you can see the shells peeled from the beans using and old hand-operated machine. These days this part of the process is automated.

Step 4: Rinse the beans

Step 5: Dry the beans

Step 6: Sort and roast the beans. The best quality beans are kept for export. The ‘seconds’ – damaged beans, not fully ripe beans etc, are sold in Colombia. This is why the vast majority of coffee drunk in Colombia is pretty rough stuff, with heavy roasting to hide its imperfections.

‘Pasilla’ beans – those with visible defects – are hand selected and tossed into a separate pile. These are the beans to be sold for (poor) commercial grade coffee within Colombia. ‘Peaberry’ beans on the other hand are unique as only one bean, instead of the usual two, has grown inside the fruit. Peaberry beans are thought to roast more evenly than regular beans due to their shape and so their coffee will taste different (better) to that of the rest of the crop.

Step 7: Grind the beans – wow, what an amazing aroma!

Step 8: Brew the coffee with tender love and care. Pour the hot water carefully to ensure all the coffee grounds are equally saturated.

Step 9: Drink and savour the taste (unless you’re a non-coffee drinker like me, then just nod and smile appreciatively;).

The high quality single-source coffee grown here is branded with the logo of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia.

I hopped back in a Willys to return to town to spend the afternoon meandering round the pretty streets and admiring the traditional paisa architecture. Salento was founded in 1850 and is the oldest, and cornerstone town of the Zona Cafetera. It’s also now the tourist centre and the main streets are lined with small artisanal shops selling their wares. There are a number of superb coffee shops to sit in and watch the world go by. I still think Filandia was my favourite of the two though, being just that bit calmer and having more of its own raison d’etre.

The quaint streets of Salento

Pretty balconies decorated with flowers

I might not drink coffee, but I was treated to this fun hot chocolate by the barista.

The sounds of the streets of Salento – these two senior gents sat and busked together each afternoon.

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