“We’ve been in Colombia one month now, and we still haven’t tried the country’s most famous export.”
“What, you mean Co…?” – I cut her off there.
“Yep. Surely we can’t come all this way and not even try any, can we? Colombia is kind of world famous for it after all...”
So off we went to find some. Fast forward a day and we were sat in a the shade of a ramshackle shed, where in front of us a young man was busy measuring out some powder in preparation.
“You’ll love it” he murmured proudly, glancing up at us, “this is real Colombian stuff“. We glanced enthusiastically at each other, shrugged, and leant in for a go. It was good. No, it was better than good. This was easily the strongest and most invigorating cup of coffee I’d ever had, and it was about time too.
The problem is you see, is that for all the world famous coffee that Colombia produces, it’s actually bloody hard to get a decent cup of the stuff within the country itself, they just seem to export everything. So after weeks of underwhelming slurps of watery and insipid powdered coffee we finally reached the Zona Cafetera, where we were to spend a few caffeinated days in the quiet town of Salento. From the grimy hustle and bustle of a Medellin, we were now back in rural Colombia and in a familiarly comforting scene. This is a town that moves slowly; where the men sit silently in their ponchos and cowboy hats and the women, apron clad and motherly, cluster around their stalls and tiendas cooking fresh arepas and empanadas. Dotted across the towns surrounding slopes are several coffee farms, or fincas, and it was on one of these, ran by local guru Don Elias, that we took a tour of the coffee making process. If I’m honest, I remember very little of what we were told – bar the picking, the drying, the roasting, the grinding and the startling revelations about Starbucks – but it mattered not, for at the end of our tour we finally got our lips around some actual, organically grown, authentic Colombian coffee.
Having had our fill of the black stuff and hiked into the nearby Valle de Cocora to marvel at the mighty 60 metre wax palm trees, it was also in Salento that we tried our hand at one of Colombia’s, erm, less successful exports. This was Tejo, and the reason it’s popularity outside of Colombia is virtually non-existent is probably because it’s the barmiest sport I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. First, take one twenty metre court with two sloped boards of clay at each end, facing inwards. Next, add a small ring of explosive targets filled with gunpowder to each board, and then take it turns to lob metal discs at the targets from the opposing ends of the court. Add vast quantities of beer, a perplexing points system and a few mentally questionable Colombian cowboys and there you have it. Loads of explosions, clay everywhere, and quite quickly, a complete free for all. That’s Tejo, and they’re obsessed with it here. It’s said to have been invented by the indigenous tribes, who started off with a far more lavishly simple game of throwing gold discs into a hole. The pesky Spanish then arrived, took their gold and gave them gunpowder and well, chaos ensued.
It was back into the chaos of city life that we went next, once again in search of something that is unarguably Colombian. We were bound for Cali, also known as Capital de la Salsa. I should make it clear now that I can’t dance, I don’t dance, and unless I’m suitably inebriated, I won’t dance. So quite how I found myself attempting salsa in an actual salsa club in the city that’s globally known for salsa, I don’t know. Actually, I do. I was suitably inebriated. This was Jamie’s birthday weekend and in the midst of a few days of eating, drinking and much merriment, we took advantage of the free salsa classes our hostel were offering, and headed off to teach the locals a thing or two at Tin Tin Deo, one of Cali’s oldest and most authentic salsa nightclubs.
Coming from England, my experience of nightclubs is generally one of horror, sticky dance floors and an aroma of stale sweat has seen to that. When two members of the opposite sex get together to dance back home, it’s generally initiated by the words “Allo darlin“, a sly grab of the backside and a flaming sambuca, before a few minutes of grinding to Dexy’s Midnight Runners ends up with a fumble in a dingy stairwell. Here, I am pleased to report, it is somewhat different. We found a small, gently lit dance floor surrounded by tables and chairs, at which sat a mixed crowd of locals – male and female, young and old – who spoke quietly between themselves, all the while sat faced toward the dance floor. There were no groups of lads doing the conga here, and nor were there circles of screeching women gyrating around their handbags – this dance floor was strictly for salsa, and to my complete and utter surprise, it was captivating.
Couples tapped, twisted and twirled their way around the room; effortlessly gliding in harmony with each other, all with a style that oozed with elegance and class. When the song ended, the dancers would part and return to their tables from which new dancers would rise. They in turn would then offer their hands to a complete stranger from across the room, and then proceed to shimmy their way around as if they’d been dancing together for decades. We made a couple of hapless forays onto the tiles, attempting our most basic of basic steps that we’d been taught a few hours earlier, but for as much fun as it was and as hard as we tried, I can’t imagine any local bystander would’ve had too much trouble spotting the newcomers to the scene.
Standing out as a gringo in these parts is something that’s quite easily done, and no more so than in our next stop in Colombia. We’d timed our arrival in the colonial town of Popyan to coincide with market day at the nearby town of Silvia, where every Tuesday the indigenous Guambino flood down from their surrounding villages to sell their wares. Clad in their felt hats, woollen skirts and ponchos, both the men and women make for an arresting sight whether busy bartering behind their stalls or simply watching the world go by from the curb. The market in Silvia seemed to be as much of a weekly social event as anything, groups of Guambino sat idly chatting while tugging on the spools of sheep wool they carry, the occasional smile cracking up their age-old faces. It was an enchanting a morning as we’d spent in South America so far.
We found Popyan busying itself in preparation for the approaching Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations; the white washed buildings for which the town is famous were busy being repainted, while scaffolding leant against many of the old, colonial buildings for some last minute reparations. And it was on one of these buildings that we found a rather surprising import. There’s a definite irony in travel sometimes; when having crossed oceans and continents to witness sights and sounds completely foreign to your own, to see the likes of this grand looking old clock tower in rural Colombia, it’s bells reverberating into the misty surrounding hills, you then find out that actually, this clock tower halfway across the globe comes from Croydon, South East London. You couldn’t make it up.
Nonetheless, we’d found Colombia to be a fascinating country that was very much its own. From the steamy jungles and sun drenched beaches; to its bustling, historical metropolises and the cool, mountainous villages we had found hugely diverse ways of life wherever we went. Influences from Africa, the Caribbean, Spain of course, and the native tribes could be found throughout, combining to make a country like no other to which we’d been. And as we made our way out through the border town of Ipiales to Ecuador, the country had one more sight to show us. Impossibly tucked into a canyon, as deep and steep as they come, stood Las Lajas Cathedral. It was a ridiculous piece of architecture, an astonishing engineering feat, and it seemed as though it was one last boastful reminder before we left of the extraordinary array of sights they have here. They needn’t have worried however, the next time I’m sipping on a coffee in a Salsa club in Croydon, I’ll remember Colombia with a smile.