In one of the most dangerous countries in the world I stand on the side of the road with my thumb out. There is another woman striking a similar pose except she’s poured into the Colombian uniform of jeans tight enough to make out the lace on her g-string and, of course, the obligatory stilettos. This attire applies to women of any age, size or shape and I admire their fierce quest for sexiness as dust settles on my sneakers.
My entourage hang back in the wings behind our Mazda which now sits defeated on the side of the road with its hood up in shame. Given the curious stares from the drivers negotiating the hairpins turns, my fair skin must be a rarity in these parts of the Andes. And for this reason alone I have been assigned the task of hitching us a lift into Pasto for some very important coffee business. Finally an overloaded bus screeches to a halt and my cohorts emerge from the dust and we all pile on hoping it gets us into town, preferably on time.
It’s a mad dash made all the more intense by the humidity and the fact I’ve been in the same clothes for two days since my suitcase decided to check out the sights in Bogota. Thankfully, I had unknowingly planned ahead and was appropriately dressed for the early morning visit to the Gothic-revival style El Santuario de Las Lajas carved into the canyon of the Guaitara River in the town Ipiales. The sanctuary has been a pilgrimage site for hundreds of years and involves a 262 step trek each way, and in my case, with insane jetlag and at an altitude so high I can’t get my head around, especially given Perth’s flat landscape. Nonetheless, it was worth getting up before the birds, and even before coffee, which ironically is the main purpose of my trip.
Organised by my generous hosts from Asprounion, an association formed to support the coffee farmers of Narino Department (region) in southern Colombia, the meeting includes key delegates including an auspicious senator. It’s enlightening considering I know not a word of Spanish and my translator works double time asking questions on my behalf. Over a fitting desert of tiramisu, everyone proudly explains their role in the coffee trade of this lesser known region.
Often overshadowed by the better known Coffee Triangle in central Colombia, the farms in the south produce a far superior grade of coffee compliments of the high altitude (1400-1900 metres above sea level), volcanic soil, closer proximity to the equator and 500 less sunlight hours per year. The richness of flavour in this region is also attributed to the placement of coffee trees between fruit and vegetable plantings also serving to rejuvenate the soil.
Visitors to the region with an interest in the coffee industry, food security, and conservation farming can immerse themselves in rural life in this special pocket of Colombia with a farm stay; where I can almost guarantee any previous misconceptions about the country will dissolve. I’m welcomed into the Chicazia family at Campo Bello, meaning beautiful land. Nestled in El Sauce with the Andes framing vistas every which way, the village join in the festivities of empanadas, the largest chicken I’ve ever seen, hand-made corn bread (arepa), a passion-fruit drink and of course their prized coffee, sweetened with panela carved off the block of solidified sugar cane.
They share songs, jokes and folklores about the nearby La Jacoba Mountain hovering over the town La Union. Legend has it a witch who once lived on the mountain would round up all the misbehaving men in town and ply them with hallucinogens to make herself appear beautiful so they would fall in love with her. I eye my glass suspiciously as it’s refilled with whiskey until everyone suddenly appears wearing handmade masks no doubt resembling characters of notoriety; I could have sworn Pavarotti was doing the salsa.
Interestingly, the café culture hasn’t really taken off in this part of the world with many opting to drink agua de panela, the local sugar cane drink and highly recommended for an energy boost. Named after the infamous mountain, caffeine addicts can head to La Jacoba Café at Asprounion headquarters a few minutes’ drive from La Union. Behind-the-scenes tours and tourist information is available upon request and as Logistics Co-ordinator Margareth Liceth Solarte Ojeda says, “My experience here has changed my perception of coffee and people. If we find a way to continue promoting our culture tourists will fall in love with us.”
Back in La Union, no doubt many a mere male has become besotted as one Miss Colombia after another saunters by seemingly unscathed by her heels; as if being in the Andes isn’t high enough. By now my luggage has sheepishly returned, including my own heels and Margareth and I attempt to join the parade through the vibrant and undulating streets.
Initially, we’re distracted by the colourful building facades adorned in graffiti and the way the light plays on the clouds embracing the Andes. We sample pata, the jelly of cow shin boiled until it melts, and as unappetising as it sounds, it’s tasty and full of wrinkle defying collagen and is like a dense and heavily sweetened yoghurt. We’re invited into an artist’s studio with majestic views inspiring all kinds of clichéd attempts of description. We linger until the pain becomes exquisite; our heads may be in heaven but our feet are in hell. Determined not to become a tragic sight of heels in hand, we hobble instead into Café Oceano Azul, the best restaurant in town for a feast of grilled meats with plantains, potatoes, carrots and corn. The fog rolls in veiling La Union from the world beyond.
Coffee and beauty aside, what really sets Narino apart is its unique geographical position. It’s hugged on all sides by the Andes, the Amazon and the Pacific Ocean resulting in diverse micro-climates and sub-cultures. The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (Carnival of Blacks and Whites), held in Pasto in the first week of January, celebrates the fusion of Spanish and African influences corresponding to the Andes, Amazon and Pacific cultures. The diversity is evident from the range of cuisines, including grilled guinea pig (cuy) and handicrafts available from roadside stalls, often precariously perched on the mountain’s edge, and local homes where you’re bound to be welcomed into with an inviting smile.
The intrepid may feel the need to conquer those peaks, canyons and rivers but given the steep incline this is for the hard-core willing to rough it in harsh conditions. I’m happy to admire from a distance and continue my quest of reaching for the clouds.
Transport: Avianca Airlines flies into Narino’s capital Pasto, Aeropuerto Antonio Narino from Bogota and Cali www.avianca.com Pasto to La Union by road takes approximately 2.5 hours.
Stay: Pasto: Hotel San Fernando Plaza www.hotelfernandoplaza.com; La Union: Hotel Casa Blanca, Road 1/18-49 (room 10 has to-die-for views); Contact Asprounion for more details and farm stay packages at Campo Bello and La Esperanza.
Carmen Jenner was a guest of Asprounion. Go to www.lajacoba.com.au/stores for stocklists
As published in Primo Life September 2015 Cloud Atlas PRIMOLife_18_colombia