Thursday, September 30, 2010

Calling all Travel Professionals!

Hello everybody,

Every now and then I need to share something that is not directly related to me rummaging around the continent. At this moment we are looking to find a couple of enthusiastic travel professionals to join our ranks in our Buenos Aires headquarters. If you have extensive experience in the travel industry, know the continent of South America and are either already living in Buenos Aires or considering moving here, please have a look at:

Thanks in advance for forwarding this message to anyone you think might be interested!

Best regards,

Monday, September 13, 2010

Colombia: Part 4 Into the Coffee Triangle

After lunch we took off in search of the “PaNaCa”, the Parque Nacional de Café, apparently one of the best places to go and learn about the ‘black gold’. When we finally found the park it was pouring with rain and the guide at the gate advised us to come back another day. Praise be to him, because as the kids fell asleep on the back seat, Karin and I embarked on one of our little side trips and ended up in the most pristine and fairy-tale cloud-forest I have ever seen in my life.

Back on the main road from Armenia to Pereira we took the exit to Salento and from there drove on to the Cocora Valley. Following a small, winding road, creeping over two mountain ranges and through a beautiful valley, and ending up in the town of Salento, a hidden away backpacker’s paradise, and the gateway to the Cocora Valley. Recently inaccessible due to guerrilla activities, this wondrous place is now open to visitors and is receiving its first curious outsiders with open arms. We drove 11km from Salento to “Don de Juan B” a small local tourist complex, consisting of a great restaurant, a playing field for children, some shops, all the horses you could wish for, and the best cappuccino I have had in a long time - all in an idyllic setting in the middle of this beautiful valley, green and lush, even at 2500masl.

The views in this region are spectacular and during our visit the temperature varied from fresh in the sun, to crisp in the shade. The purest of air filled our lungs and we were immediately smitten by the sheer beauty of the land. We had wandered pretty far off our planned route and only had an hour before we had to get back to the hotel to put the kids to bed, but we unanimously decided that we would return tomorrow.

28 June: Armenia, Salento

Colombia claims to be the country with the greatest variety of palm trees in the world (some 250+ varieties if I am not mistaken) and the lower Cocora Valley has literally thousands of them. These beautiful tall trees are home to an endemic species of yellow and green parrot, one of many different birds and animals to be spotted here - deer, puma and even spectacled bears are known to roam the higher lands of this magical stretch of Colombia. Higher again the valley leads to the “Parque Nacional de los Nevados”, about one day’s ride on horse-back, and we made a solemn pledge to return and make that journey as soon as Noa is old enough to sit on a horse by herself.

After enjoying two sublime cappuccinos and buying a couple of kilos of organically produced coffee beans, we began a 1.5hr ride following a small and treacherous path of mud and rocks, apparently a piece of cake for the well-trained horses. Strong and well-fed, these docile animals seemed very much at ease with carrying us (myself and Noa together) up and down the hills and through the valleys. Once again the variety of greens was overwhelming as we slowly moved from wide grasslands into cloud forest. Sunlight was breaking through the clouds here and there, and we could see the haze of far off rainfall in the distance. A delicate grey curtain lined with golden specs hung across the sky, and all was fresh air and a peaceful silence broken only by bird calls and the soft gurgle of water making its way down to the Quindio River - the ride was one of spectacular views and great peace. Knowing that we were riding at an altitude of almost 2800masl, and that this area, until five years ago, was almost completely unknown to the outside world, added to the feeling that again we had stumbled upon a very special part of South America, a continent that has already given us so much.

What can I say? I feel privileged to be allowed to roam these lands, to get to know the geography, history, flora, fauna, and the people. This great mix of cultures, ever changing, developing, growing, more and more conscious of its own existence and the attributes it has, is simply too much to take in sometimes. I do not think I will ever manage to fathom the depth and the wealth of what the Latin American continent has to offer, or even understand most of it, but I sure am thankful to be a spectator of some of its heritage and its culture, forever blossoming and becoming a more and more integral and valued part of the world.

29 June, Armenia

We had managed to draw up an extensive list of things to do and places to see, but this was our last day in the Coffee Triangle, so most will have to wait until next time. We settled on a coffee tour at the Eco Hotel Combia, where we were staying, followed by a visit to the renowned butterfly park and botanical gardens of Armenia. We were not disappointed. Although not as spectacular as the day before, both visits were very interesting. I never knew it takes about two years (!) to create a cup of coffee. Three months for a seedling to be planted, another four for it to blossom, eight more before the first harvest can take place and then two months to dry. Then the selection process can begin (about two thirds of the beans are pre-considered not good enough for export). The one third that is good enough is sold to the Coffee Federation of Colombia who handles export to foreign buyers who will roast the beans and sell them off. All in all a minimum of twenty-four months before I wake up and smell the coffee. The other two thirds are divided in two classes; half is sold for national consumption and the rest stays at the farm to be either sold locally, or used right then and there. Colombians therefore, like so many producers of our fancy stuff, are allowed only the worst of their own produce, or perhaps they only allow themselves that. What is true is that most Colombians seem to have no need for the exquisite espresso that is one of the final products of the crop they have grown for generations. That will probably change soon enough, especially with more and more tourists coming in and asking, like I did at the end of the tour, “So, where is the machine? I could use a double!”

The Butterfly Park and Botanical Garden were also quite impressive. The knowledgeable guides and a variety of things to do and see, especially for the kids, made this a far nicer little outing than I had expected. Whilst our guide explained the different species of palm trees (which happened to be his specialty), Edie and Noa went haywire running through the park, getting lost in the maze, freaking out over the robotic insects show and chasing all kinds of insects, some wild butterflies included. It helps in these cases that we have two blond, blue-eyed little beauties, which has the effect of immediately making people smile and say things like : "oh what beautiful eyes!” and, "your daughters are so pretty, such lovely little girls!” If only they knew...

Edie and Noa both possess a raw, unpolished inner energy that bursts out unexpectedly, loud, with fierce joy and usually a lot of noise, accompanied with wild body movements they call dancing. This is especially charming when staying in a fancy hotel or eating out in, for example Holland, where dining with kids is a little frowned upon. Dinner usually ends with Edie frantically bouncing around the restaurant, making all kinds of pirouettes, pliés and what have you, with a wild-eyed gaze that lately makes me think of Billy Elliot. Maybe one day she actually will pick up ballet and everything will turn out just fine… Noa has had a princess fetish for some time now, which I silently pray will be over very soon, but on the other hand I must admit she makes me laugh every time she walks into a room with her air of disdain for all the lower people (she is 2.5), climbs onto a chair and attaches all kinds of girly stuff to my hair, claiming I am a princess too… only 5 minutes thereafter going down on all fours, dress torn to shreds, fingernails, hands, knees and face all filthy, pretending to be a dog.

All in all it was another great day in a great country. I really do not understand how this place has been the stage for so much violence for so long and until so recently. Intelligence and humor, commonplace everywhere we go, should not be the root for it, or the stunning beauty of the landscapes, or the friendliness and hospitality of the people. This is a country of great artists, writers, even politicians, and so far, I seriously think it has the potential to be one of the great destinations of this continent. Looking forward to tomorrow…