Mist rolls over the hillside in Salento, Colombia.
There was more than just a luscious countryside of diversified vegetation and smooth, rolling hills, where a clean river ran steady and uninhibited over gardens of round stones. More than just untouched wax palm trees, too perfect to be real. More than just aromas of pine, palm, coffee, ripe golden flowers and sweet wet air. More than just boundless open land devoid of city grime and tall-building chaos – no, this here was God’s country.
Oh yes, there were also the estranged military men giving each other streetside haircuts when they were busy and sleeping in beds of bushes when they had time to kill. All that’s really left is the cowboy horse ride, dreamy waterfall, and Chilean-Spanish-American team of coffee seekers.
What’s a man need to do to get some shut-eye around here, is all I was asking myself as I trudged up a potholed street of scattered dried palm fronds and white chalk. After a sleepless overnight bus ride, I'd arrived in Salento, Colombia, looking for some hostel that went by the name of “Plantation.”
Barking dogs circled me on one street – nope, this couldn’t be it. Then a dead end cursed me on another street. A backtrack, a walk in circles, a couple of gringo-sounding donde esta's thrown at the locals, and I was eventually pointed towards the peak of a hill.
In my clodhopper hiking boots, I marched earnestly toward the hostel, arriving at the abandoned porch of what appeared to be a vacant building. I threw down my pack and tried to find the entrance so I could pay.
I crossed the porch; it creaked like a wooden door in a horror movie. Rings of smoke floated out of a nearby hammock.
“You know where I can pay?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Owner left and he’ll be back whenever. I need good sleep. It took long to find this place. Yes?” it said in broken English.
The red fire of tobacco ran down the cigarette paper so quickly that whoever it was must have taken one puff and finished the whole damn thing in one drag – a bout of smoking unparalleled by anything I'd ever seen. This person could have out-smoked a coffee-gulping Midwestern truck driver heading to Reno to blow his monthly salary at the 4 a.m. craps table.
A couple more calculated smoke rings floated out of the hammock. Then a short-haired, dark-skinned man with eyes red as the devil sat up. He flicked his cigarette butt, let out a sigh. He looked up at me and asked me my name. I told him mine, he told me his, we shook hands, and instantly we hit it off.
His name was Ricardo. He was from Chile, loved to climb mountains, and constantly scratched at his scruffy beard when he was talking, peering off into the distance all the while as if he were grabbing his thoughts from somewhere out there beyond himself.
He got out of the hammock, let out a stretch and sat stool-side next to me on one of the three porch stools while lighting another Lucky Strike cigarette.
“Man,” he said, pausing to take a drag.
“Man, screw this place. I need a bed to crash. I been on road for so many days I lost count. You want look around town for another place to rent a couple of rooms. I don’t care where, as long as it’s less than five dollars.”
He offered me a cigarette and even though I never smoke, I took one, lighting it up in sync with the new one Ricardo had just lit. “I’m in. Let’s do it.”
While finishing our smokes we exchanged stories. I’d be halfway through a story and he’d somehow finish mine. He’d be halfway through a story and I’d finish his. It was as though we had lived a part of each other’s lives and could fill in the other’s past life script.
Ignoring our sleepless states, we slung up our packs, dug our boots in the dirt, and set off for new opportunities. Goodbye to Planation Hostel owned by a British couple. In this state we didn’t really care where they came from.
A sweet woman named Rosa gave us all we needed: a quiet atmosphere, fresh linens, and beds on frames of oily wood with an open-air balcony to let in the therapeutic breeze. We crashed like dead men.
Making friends on the road.
The chatter of Spanish spoken with a lisp woke us from our comas. A duo of lively Spanish men had arrived at Rosa’s place, one bald, with a Musketeer mustache, and the other bespectacled with a jaw-line beard.
“Why in God’s name have you come to the middle of nowhere? Are you crazy? There is nothing going on here!” the mustached man exclaimed in utter seriousness.
I had no response. My tongue felt like velvet and I couldn’t speak. I felt defeated, insecure, and weakened by his question.
Truly, what were we doing here? I tried to think up an impressive response. Before I could, he cut me off and shouted, “For the Coffee, of course!”
The Spanish men threw their heads back and laughed like hyenas.
That night we went out for a night of billiards and cold beer in a broken-down saloon across from Rosa’s. Later, in our beds, we dreamed of coffee.
The next morning we followed the hostel owner’s advice and headed down the muddy path through the jungle, through the thicket of mosquitos cloaking our skin, past an ominous graveyard, past the sounds of running water, down a hill, through sweat and toil – all in the name of coffee.
We arrived at what looked like a barn. What a rip-off. Where were the factory workers, fresh brewed coffee and tour guides? It was all missing.
We shouted an “hola” or two, waiting amidst the humming chorus of buzzing bugs. Finally an older man appeared. He wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, white shirt soaked through with sweat, and jeans dirtied at the knees. He must have known why we were here, because he waved us toward a trail that led down a hill past his barn and we followed. He showed us freshly bloomed pineapple plants sprouting up from the earth.
Then he silently picked up loose soil and gave it a big whiff. Methodically, he pulled at the limbs of a tree above one of the pineapple plants, revealing cherry-red berries.
We came here for coffee, not berries, pal, I thought to myself.
Then he said “café.”
Wait, I thought coffee came from a can you bought for five bucks at a store from your buddy Ralph? Apparently this stuff comes from trees. What a revelation!
We followed him to a tarp spread out over the ground under direct sunlight near his barn. There were hundreds of ripe, red berries. Amongst the hundreds of ripe red berries were dried berries turned white and brown from the sun. He told us this is where the coffee beans dry.
Then he told us that the sun dried his berries with extra care.
Then, he picked up a handful of dried beans off the tarp and waved us over to a metal grinder that was bolted to a splintered workbench.
He put the beans in the metal grinder, cranked the grinder, and out shot coffee grounds. He then put the powdered grounds into some boiling hot water, gave it a stir, and voilà! We had coffee. We cheered our cups.
Ricardo lit a cigarette and we sat on log stumps sipping our coffee. Who would have thought such a meticulous process went into every American’s morning fix? For each of us, the black bean would forever have an added touch of magic.
At the time, I felt like a coffee snob, letting my facial pores open to the pungent steam, rolling the liquid over my tongue and gulping the brew in a slow, deliberate process. But I was on a coffee plantation in Colombia sipping the stuff with a true coffee padre, so I suppose the ritzy behavior was justified.
The caffeine hit us like a whip on a bull. We said our goodbyes to the coffee maestro and shot off through the surrounding jungle in a spurt of caffeinated lightning. The Spanish, the Chilean and I all reached the same conclusion on our walk back to town: This guy didn’t do it for the love of opening another store to outsize the coffee world, nor for the fame and money. He did it for the coffee.
After this adventure we were back in Salento by afternoon, still wanting to squeeze more out of the day.
So we piled into a Jeep along with some Aussies for a tour of the Cocora Valley, famous for its pristine terrain, waterfalls and horseback rides. The Indiana Jones–style jeep could only fit five including the driver, so Ricardo and I sat on the metal roof (left), while the Jeep bucked and bounced us around turns as if we were on horseback.
The paved road ended and a dirt road started. In the middle of the dirt road sat a local Colombian policeman on a makeshift stool, decked out in camouflage and shiny high black boots. His buddy, also sporting camouflage, was giving him a haircut with a battery-powered hair clipper. These men were daring – and indifferent to the location of their operation. It just had to get done.
We all saddled up and got in line behind our guide, each one of us on a horse. We trotted up through a grassy valley surrounded by hills on each side. There were the tall, sexy wax palm trees, sparse yet magnificent in grandeur. The humidity would cause me to sweat as if I was wearing clothing made of plastic, and then when the heat seemed too much to bear, a cool breeze would roll down the mountain and dry me off.
We soon came to a waterfall, where one of the oversized gung-ho Spaniards stripped down to his skivvies, dipping into the pool for an icy bath. For ma and pa, for the friends, or just for the record, we all lined up next to the waterfall and took a photo for keepsake.
From here, the journey led south: Ricardo and I had decided to head for the Ecuadorian border by bus, with a couple of stops on the way. The hard-faced Spaniard and his soft-spoken travelling partner were headed to the jungles of Bolivia.
We knew there was more adventure waiting under the horizon ahead. And with our luck, it would find us.