Colombia: Canyoning, Coffee and Cocora

Eastern Colombia and San Gil

One of the highlights of Colombia was our trip south from Cartagena towards Bogota. It was a 2 day drive to San Gil and we had to find decent accommodation which was hard as there are just tiny little villages scattered throughout the countryside until Bucaramanga (a large industrial town near Venezuela). As the sun was setting we were sure we’d end up in a dirty Colombian trucker motel until we got lucky and found a brand new sparkling clean hotel tucked in a corner of a tiny town, and just for $20! The second night we arrived into Bucaramanga and an enthusiastic taxi driver that had been giving us thumbs up multiple times throughout the last hour stopped us to tell us that the road we were about to take led to the bad area of town and that we should follow his taxi into the center of the city. We ended up finding a great hostal for the night.

After winding our way through roads at high altitude and stopping for some fried ants, the delicacy of Santander and my worst nightmare (they do NOT taste like chips), we arrived in San Gil, Colombia’s adventure town. Here you can find some of the best white water rafting, canyoning, paragliding and mountain biking. We opted for canyoning as Ean had never done it before. The two of us and the guide spent the afternoon jumping waterfalls and caving. The guide even turned off the light when we were exiting the cave to simulate how the natives got around as they were hiding from the Spanish conquerors, who were not used to the darkness of the cave.

We really enjoyed San Gil as it had a homey feel and even though the main business is tourism, it definitely doesn’t feel like it. No one hassles you into buying anything and in fact we didn’t see any tourist shop. Our day was complete when we realized that our hostal had a suburban American kitchen, complete with an oven! I decided to make tomates farcies a la provencale with some rice, which are tomatoes stuffed with sausage meat sprinkled with thyme and with a side of rice. Close by, we had a huge vegetable market that sold everything from your everyday vegetables to chamomile. The butcher was right next door. I substituted the sausage meat for chorizo since it is much more prominent in these countries and Ean loves a little spice. I felt like I was going to the market in France, and I couldn’t wait to make a meal that wasn’t comprised of the local produce we had been using so much: avocado, tomato, watermelon, pineapple and lime.

The town suddenly lost power that night and while everyone was complaining about the lack of wifi connection, I was crying for my tomates farcies, which were about halfway done and still had 20 min left to cook. I seeked comfort from the other French guests at the hostal, who perfectly understood my pain. With some thinking outside the box, we were able to finish cooking them…right as the power came back on.

Villa de Leyva

One of our favorite parts of Colombia was Villa de Leyva, a small town in the country with perfect weather and a beautiful landscape. Ean’s family friends were kind enough to host us in their quaint European-style home up on the hills. They brought us down to show us the town that very evening. There was a gastronomic program that was setting up for the food festival the next day in the large plaza and the head gave us a delicious concoction made of flambéed Aguardiente (a local alcohol) poured onto anis, cinnamon and a local passion fruit. We started chatting and soon enough we had been joined by two or three other people. It was wonderful to see how friendly people were and the interesting conversations we could have even though we had just met. That night really stood out to me. I also was overjoyed when the head of the program gave us five recipe books from their programs. I cannot wait to go home and try a recipe.

Villa de Leyva is also an architectural site. Cobblestone streets, tiled roofs and white walls. There are rules in place to maintain the city as it is. All construction must be done in the same traditional fashion. The next day, after spending a few hours at tastings and after buying local honey and fruits, we headed out to explore the surrounding country and to see the impressive 7m fossil of a kronosaurus. Many fossils have been found in the area as it used to be at sea level.

We were sad to leave but eager to explore more of the country. Just outside Villa De Leyva is Raquira, the clay pot city. This is where you can find the famous La Chamba cookware. We went a little crazy and bought quite a bit, but they cost 1/8th of what you pay in the US so we took advantage of it. Another two hours away, we stopped to see the Salt Cathedral. The cathedral is located 500m below the top of the mountain. It wasn’t exactly what we expected but Ean still enjoyed it. Personally it didn’t really do it for me, though the history of the mountain and mine was interesting and I wish I had seen it first thing.

Coffee Country and the Cocora Valley

One thing we were really excited for was our coffee tour in Salento. We managed to find a great place to camp, on a hill overlooking the valley, and the coffee tours were just five minutes away. The first one we went to was more commercial as their process uses heavy machinery. We learned about the tree growth process, went out to pick coffee beans, then saw the machinery that turned them into the coffee we drink.

The second tour was a little further down and used an artisanal traditional process. It was much more personal as Don, the man behind the whole coffee farm, was our guide and you could tell just how passionate he was about his coffee beans. He had us try the traditional way of grinding and roasting the beans. I would recommend going to both tours to see two different processes.

Valle de Cocora

Valle de Cocora is a 20 minute drive away and is a valley with wax palm trees sprouting out here and there. They are about 30m in height, making them quite impressive to walk by. The hikes are a little confusing and everyone we ran into told us that they had taken the wrong path and no one knew where to go. We didn’t have too much time left, so we just enjoyed lying down and looking up to the trees.

We had to go through the beautiful countryside of the south west of Colombia on our way to Ecuador but sadly we did not stop as that is where most of the guerilla activity takes place. We drove during daylight and stayed on the PanAmerican highway, which we were told was the safe way to go. On our last night, we finally tried the traditional Paisa dish. Heart-clogging, but delicious!! A mix of steak, avocado, rice, beans, eggs, pork rinds, friend plantains topped with your choice of sauce (I personally liked the parsley butter one.)

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