After another series of complex bus exchanges, we arrived in the little colonial town of Salento after dark. The concept of arriving after dark had stopped sounding like a warning about vampires to us by then, since the town was still bustling with activity and we’d yet to meet a Colombian who was less than friendly. In the old town square we transferred to one of the colorful refurbished Jeeps known in South America as “Willys”. By the time we bounced our way into the driveway it was pitch black and we were exhausted.
In the morning we awoke to sunlight igniting the seams around wooden shutters. Throwing them open we were greeted by a deep blue sky as rich and crisp as an icy lagoon. A stand of eucalyptus trees towered over the dirt road, their leaves shimmering in a light breeze. The air was crisp and cool and we stood on our own private veranda, looking out across a deep green valley walled in by rows of coffee, banana trees and open fields of emerald green hammered flat by grazing horses. It was one of maybe the two most beautiful locations for a hostel we’d ever stayed in. There would be another trip to Colombia, to see Colombia, but for now, road-weary and content to admire the strengthening day, we suddenly felt the need to feel Colombia rather than to see every corner of it; to breathe it in. We booked our room for several more days, sacrificing our ambitious plans to explore the rest of the country.
We stayed in the La Serrana hostel outside of Salento for four nights. Our room had a little wood-burning stove and was near a lovely little kitchen with a view of the valley below. There were only a few people staying at this part of the hostel, a slightly more expensive version of another one, 200 yards away, where hoards of backbackers crawled over themselves to stay in comfortable, but crowded, dorm rooms. From Las Camilias we couldn’t see them though and only met the occasional traveler willing to spend a little more for some added serenity.
From Las Camilias we took day trips to surrounding villages and farms. We visited the finca (coffee plantation) of Don Elias, a colorful coffee farmer with the suave demeanor of a 1940’s Hollywood star, with just as many years under his belt. His immaculate white Panama hat tilted to one side, he put his wiry hand on our arms as he talked about his farm, and invited us for a tour. Unlike Don Elias, the farm was a bit rough looking. Found at the end of a dirt path that snaked through a forest of banana palms, it was a jumble of wood-sided houses built in the colonial style: fronted by a long veranda supported by rough hewn wooden posts, a single story topped by a gently sloping roof of red Spanish tile, spectled with grey and green lichen. The houses framed three sides of a red square of earth where dogs, chickens, lizards and children ran back and forth, kicking up dust. Our tour, led by a younger relative of Don Elias, took us through groves of avocado, banana, and guava trees, shading a field of Arabian coffee growing on a diagonal hillside. If there was a more rustic, lush or picturesque place for your coffee to come from, I can’t imagine it.
We also visited the town of Filandia, a 45 minute bus ride from Salento. Of course in Colombia a 45 minute bus ride is nowhere near that, and after getting lost, changing buses, and ending up on the opposite side of a valley, we arrived on hour later than we;d wanted. Filandia was another charming town built on the colonial grid, centered by a big church dominated plaza. The square was lined with coffee shops which were filled with locals enjoying powerful little cups of espresso and grinning at passing gringos. While we were exploring the streets I saw a middle-aged woman and a little boy working to bring a giant pink armchair out of the doorway of an adobe house. They dropped it several times, scuffing its taught, pink pleather skin. There was no one else on the streets, so we wandered over to where they were struggling and I offered to help. They gladly, if curiously, accepted, and along with the little boy, we lifted it. He immediately dropped his end. I heaved it up, and found that I could carry it somewhat comfortably on my head. So, with the boy leading the way, and Magda following behind to document to bizarre scene, we walked through the streets of Filandia as if holding an impromptu carnival parade.
In the evening, back in Salento, we ate at a little cart selling Colombian ‘patacon’, a thin crisp crust of smashed plantain with cheese and seasoned meat as a topping. While we ate, a hard rain swept through and pounded the plaza, rivulets of rainwater streaming beneath our feet even as we were sheltered by a makeshift roof. After the rain passed we walked around beneath dripping tarps, looking for a place to have a drink. As we dodged into a curbside tent filled with empty tables and a smattering of patrons, we noticed a large German wearing a Cuban guerilla’s hat. It was Frank the Berliner, sitting by himself, drinking a beer and smoking a cigar. We were surprised to see him, but it seemed like he’d been waiting for us. As usual, he had contented himself to wander Colombia alone, stopping in cafes to drink beer and watch the landscape. We spent the rest of the evening together, visiting little bars and catching up on what had happened after we’d parted in Tierradentro. We had a few more ‘ultima cervezas’ and agreed to meet again in Bogota when we all got there in a few days.
Magda and I walked back down the dark country road to the hostel. Aside from an occasional passing jeep, we were alone with the sweet smell of damp earth, the rustling of Eucalyptus and the crunching of our boots on gravel. Fireflies blinked in the darkness and crickets filled the air with their one note song.