Friday, January 29, 2010

Zona Cafetera

Known for it’s coffee farms, rolling lush hills, and sheer natural beauty, the zona cafetera welcomed us with open arms. We’re here at Bernardo and Luz Marina’s finca, just outside of Pereira, 5 hours south of Medellin. It’s a beautiful 30 acres of land where they grow several varieties of oranges, fields of pineapples, and colorful flowers. We have the guesthouse to ourselves, which boasts a lovely outdoor kitchen, swimming pool, and hammocks with a 360 degree view of the green hills and mountains in the distance. It’s so nice just to relax! We’re enjoying our long morning yoga practices, going on long walks, drinking fresh squeezed mandarin and orange juice in the morning, and eating the most deliciously sweet pineapples right out of the earth. It’s also a wonderful respite from the loud, traffic-filled cities; the rumble of diesel engines, honking horns, and street vendors have been replaced by the songs of the colorful birds that fill the yard (and even our room sometimes!) -- you name the color and the bird is here. Our time here has been a wonderful gift of rejuvenation, luxury, and sweetness.

Medellin - familia paisa

Once known as the murder capital of Latin America and the home of Pablo Escobar (head of the most infamous and ruthless drug cartel of the 80s, politician, and public works philanthropist), Medellin has come a long way. Set at 5000 feet above sea level, Medellin is now known as the City of Eternal Spring. With temperatures that just sneak into the 80s and downright cool nights, it is a welcome change from the hot coast. The city’s Metro light rail is clean, practical, and provides a beautiful tour of the city, especially the raised sections through the center of town. (Jealous, Seattle?) Traveling along the north-south line, we gaze down at massive churches, ornate palaces, sleek modern buildings, and the jagged peaks that frame either side of the valley.

Medellin is Maryluz’s home town (Tamara’s step mother), and still the home of much of her family. Shortly after arriving into town, we were warmly greeted by aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. We were invited to the family’s restaurant for a dinner of fresh pasta and wonderful company. There were ten of us sitting around the table, speaking fast Spanish and laughing loudly. We sat between Tia Lucia and Tio Roberto, both of them full of life as they edge towards their 90th year, it was a very sweet evening. A few nights later, we met up with Tia Piedad, who took Tamara out to the nicest mall around - El Tesoro. They exchanged stories and laughed over café con leche and snacks. Having family around makes all the difference while traveling. The family here, who we met for the first time upon arriving into the city, treated us with the love, warmth, and generosity as if they’d known us our whole lives.

The beach life and the rich planet

Heading the call of the Caribbean, we took a nauseatingly slow boat to nearby Playa Blanca. Knowing it is the end of the Colombian holiday season, we knew we would be there for only a few days - just long enough for our skin to turn brown. We walked a half mile down the long white beach to the quiet end where the day trippers did not go. (Strangely, the Colombian tourists that flocked to the beach on day tours would not venture far. Disembarking the boat, they would sit and eat and drink frantically, talking joyfully with wide gestures of the arms. Wading into the water in large groups, they would snap pictures and drink aguardiente - an anise-flavored liquor that seems to be the national past time and is quite tasty - from plastic shot glasses. They stayed packed together tightly, even strangers, out of what? - an evolutionary sense of survival like a school of fish?)

We set up our tent about 20 feet from the tide at a sweet little place run by a sweet round woman known as Mama. It was perfect - rolling out of bed with the sun rising over the hills, swimming in the morning’s calm sea, taking long walks on the beach, and escaping the scorching sun for most of the day under our palm-thatched roof, swinging in the hammock and just slowing down… We brought fruits and veggies and ate giant plates of fish with fried plaintains and coconut rice. Mmmmm, pez sierra… But after a few days we were ready to take a shower and head to cooler climes.

The bus ride from Cartagena to Medellin is 13 hours. Agreeing for Tamara’s sake to forgo overnight buses, we weren’t sure where to break up the trip. There are no tourist destinations on the way. (Internet research turned up an alligator farm 30 minutes from the highway, but not much else.) And so it was with an only somewhat pleasing uncertainty that we woke up one morning and decided to head to the bus station not knowing exactly where we were going. As the clock ticked to the next bus departure towards Medellin, we decided to stop in a town called Planeta Rica. The most likely reason - it’s name: rich planet.

And it was a nice place to spend the night. On Playa Blanca, the surge of tourism seemed to sour the attitude of all but the most patient and open-hearted locals. But here in this small town that surely saw tourists only rarely, the famous friendliness of Colombians was clear. Que amable! We spent the evening in the town park, snacking on street food while Paul drank a cold beer (aaah the glory of a cold beer in the warm evening!), Tamara slurped passion fruit and getting chatted up by everyone from the baker (pushing warm, doughy buñuelos into our palms) to the jolly chubby guy manning the fried food cart ’El Colesterol’.

Settling In

We are starting to settle in to this life of traveling. It is at once new and strange and sometimes shocking, and also very familiar. The shock and joy of cold showers on hot days. The unparalleled pleasure of a cold yellow beer on a warm outdoor evening. The discovery, like some colonial desire, of exotic new fruits. Remembering once again the thrill and anxiety of not knowing - not knowing where we are going, or how we will get there; not knowing how long we will stay; not knowing who will we meet or where they are from. This, we remember, is the adventure and the challenge of travel.


Our luna de miel begins...

We arrived from Miami to Cartagena de Indias, The White City. It was the perfect place to start our trip - rich in history, beauty… and romance. The indigenous Carib settlement was conquered and the city established in 1533, making it the second oldest city in the country. Set on a deep bay, it quickly became the Spanish foothold and primary port in Colombia. As the most important outpost, almost all trade passed through its port, making the city rich - and a tempting target for pirates, including the infamous Sir Francis Drake. In response, a series of massive walls and forts were built around the city. Las Murallas, as it is called, took nearly two centuries to complete - battered by pirate attack and vicious storms it was finally finished in 1796, just 25 years before the Spanish were expelled.

Within these walls, the old city is a colonial treat. Packed full of hulking churches shading cool plazas, palaces and mansions with breezy balconies spilling bright bougainvillea out over the cobbled streets, we spent our days getting lost in El Centro, and our nights sipping drinks in open air restaurants and leafy plazas. We stayed in a lovely little room with a balcony, where we reclined watching horse drawn carts - the sound of their hooves on stone and the occasional serenade from the cart echoing through the quiet evening. (Thanks Dad and MaryLuz!)

Tamara’s 31st birthday was our third night in town and we celebrated in style! Under candlelight and red roses, we sipped chilled white wine and feasted on sea bass in a light tamarind sauce.