Colombia – July ’06 Part 2/2

Day Six (7/26/06): Popayán to Sevilla to Armenia

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Another early morning packed with fast riding. We covered the 300 kilometers from Popayán to Armenia in a little less than three hours. Our agenda for the day had us visiting several farms that were in various stages of being certified by Rainforest Alliance; a non-profit organization that sanctions farms, which have committed to strict standards in areas of cultivation and harvest quality, processing quality and working conditions for the employees. High speeds and twisty curves lead us to a narrow ridgeline dividing the Valley of Cauca and Armenia. None of us were prepared for the worst disaster imaginable on a motorcycle trip. After all the dangerous high speeds and radical traffic, our good friend and guide Juan Manuel was riding at less than 20 miles per hour when he braked hard to avoid hitting a motorcycle in front of him and dropped his bike on his left side; sliding almost 20 feet before coming to a stop.

Most of the group was riding ahead, but stopped for a confusing fork in the road. A truck full of villagers roared up behind us, chattering that our compañero had fallen and was badly hurt. Immediately we turned around and tore down the narrow road to the scene of the accident, where we saw Juan Manuel’s bike already back on it’s center stand, and Juan Manuel himself lying on the grass a few yards off the road with blood soaking through his torn jeans. Our support truck arrived and the group of caretakers filled the bed with mattresses and blankets and gingerly loaded Juan Manuel onto the cushions. The nearest hospital with adequate emergency care was in Armenia, one and a half hours away from the site of the accident. The truck carefully moved away and began the slow and bumpy descent down the mountain’s switchbacks. We would later learn that Juan Manuel broke his femur in two places, and virtually shattered his knee. Contacts in Colombia keep us updated about his condition and as of last word he had undergone a crucial surgery, which was very successful.

Needless to say, after Juan Manuel’s accident we were all ready to take things a bit more slowly and cautiously. The long days of exhausting (but fun!) riding had taken their toll on all of us and our confidence, strength and judgment were not at safe levels. In fact, one of my two minor spills on the bike happened within two hours of Juan Manuel’s accident. I was moving too slowly down a road deep with gravel and large rocks, and when I stopped suddenly with my front brake, my front wheel locked up, my rear wheel slid to the right and I went over the right front handlebars. Luckily there was no harm done, but I had to think of the oft-repeated axiom about falling on motorcycles: “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’” After a very pleasant tour of one of Rainforest Alliance’s most successful farms in Colombia, “Mayagüez,” we prepared for our return ride down into the valley of Armenia. From the farm’s house high on the side of the hill we could see down into the center of Armenia and, to our dismay, dark clouds and lightning awaited us. A quick consensus was reached after a few minutes of riding in the rain, and we returned to Mayagüez to impose on our host’s hospitality and wait out the storm. The Rainforest Alliance staff were a joy to visit with, and we were grateful for the first opportunity for leisure conversation that we had seen on the trip thus far. After an hour the storm blew through and we mounted the bikes to attempt the trip into Armenia again. The hour ride into the valley was one of the most magical of the trip, for me. The sun emerged powerfully and dried the roads of rain in almost an instant. Lush crop fields and wondrous forests of tall bamboo were shrouded in mist as we wound our way from the spindly pines of the mountain ridge into the large leafed vegetation of the altiplano farmlands. Our last farm visit of the day was to “La Francia,” conveniently positioned directly across the road from our home base “Finca San Francisco.” Don Cesar, owner of La Francia kept the most immaculate wet mill any of us had ever seen. The tiles of the fermentation tanks were gleaming white, and the colors of the pulping equipment were so vivid that they appeared to have been installed only that morning. Our host Don Cesar had a rich meal prepared for us, which we enjoyed by his pool while the sun was setting. A brief ride in the dark (which was something of an adventure for Ed as the headlights on his bike had failed early in the trip) and we were back home safe at San Francisco. Our early supper left us time for a trip into town to do some drinking with the locals. The Colombian national liquor, Aguardiente, became a favorite of ours on the trip. Unlike the flavorless but potent Guatemalan Aguardiente, that of Colombia is very dry and crisp with a pronounced anisette flavor. It’s only around 35% alcohol and is dangerously smooth, unlike more viscous anisette liquors like Sambuca and Ouzo.

Day Seven (7/27/06):

As I said before, the pace of our trip changed dramatically after Juan Manuel’s accident. Rather than rallying at 4 or 5 am to cram down breakfast (or forgo it altogether) and get on the road ASAP, we had a very leisurely morning and enjoyed a nice breakfast at the finca. Our only agenda item of the morning was visiting a farm near Armenia that was originally on our previous day’s itinerary but was forgone in light of the accident. This farm was meant to be an example of a Rainforest Alliance “work in progress.” The farm and mill were both very nice, but the difference in cleanliness and organization between mills certified by R.A. and not certified, was staggering. One of the most interesting features of this mill was the drying patio set up. Many layers of mobile rolling patios were stacked up on top of one another, each one rolling out in a different direction, so that during sunny weather all of the patios could have full exposure to the sunshine, and during brief rains, the patios could all be rolled underneath one another to protect the drying parchment coffee from the moisture.

Thursday afternoon was reserved for a bit of R&R for the team. Near Armenia was a company that guided zip-line tours through a tall forest canopy. After the bikes, the zip lines seemed like an easy challenge, and after the park guides outfitted us with harnesses, helmets and gloves, we ascended the first of fourteen rickety bamboo towers, leading to platforms rigged to thick tree trunks by a mish-mash of steel cable, climbing rope and webbing. A simple pulley secured to a harness by a locking carabiner was the only link between the high-tension steel zip line, and the thrill seeker ready to throw themselves off the platform and soar at speeds up to 30 miles per hour through the forest canopy. It was already nearing dusk as we hurtled one by one down the first zip line. By the time we were half way through the course, the bats had already started to circle our canopy platforms; hopefully dining on the mosquitos that had chosen us as their main course. Darkness had fallen in the forest, and we still had four more zip lines to go. What I took to be kids running through the forest trails far below us with flashlights were actually fireflies; our only light source besides the lamps of the nearby farm. Having gained plenty of confidence on the lines by this point, the braver members of our party started zipping along upside down, or hanging with their arms outstretched; mimicking the bats that were fluttering all around us. Our zip line adventure ended safely, with the only remaining obstacle of the day being the half-hour ride down the hill into Armenia, in the dark, with no lights on Ed’s bike. Once again we arrived safely, just in time to beat the rainstorm that threatened to soak us back on the zip lines. We passed the evening on the patio, enjoying humidity that makes it difficult to appreciate a summer rain in Seattle without.

Day Eight: (7/28/06): Rafting on La Vieja and Goodbye to the Bikes

We all agreed that we had earned a little vacation as we traded the bikes in for an old military-style Willys Jeep and headed for the nearby La Vieja river. Notice I said that we all traded in our bikes for ONE jeep. We five brave riders, plus our friend and guide Don Fernando and three other Colombian companions all piled into the same rig; attempting to look as local as the other Colombian families economically moving their whole tribe from place to place on one vehicle. Seeing families on scooters or motorcycles was the most impressive; as many as five or six on a single bike, and without a sidecar! El Rio la Vieja was home to a famous rafting company, that got it’s start at the early in the 20th century barging sand from the river bottom into Armenia for construction projects. Once eco-tourism became more profitable than backbreaking construction labor, the rafters got wise and began guiding scenic trips of the Vieja River. Our raft’s guide had a penchant for animal noises, and would crack us up with his howler-monkey laughs and low brahma cattle moo’s. The river was comfortably cool to swim in, but our ever thoughtful guides brought along a bottle of Aguardiente to warm us up after a dip. A couple of stops along the way gave us time to climb and jump off of trees overhanging the river, and hike up a stream entering the main river to view an impressive waterfall. Our 10 mile float ended with all of us in a very mellow state, chilled by the light rain, wind and river water, and slightly hypnotized by the slow passing of the lush rainforest. Of course, the Aguardiente did it’s part as well, and very few of us felt that the cold dampened the experience in the slightest.

The Willys dropped us off at Finca San Francisco long enough for a quick shower and change of clothes, then it was off to the RACAFE mill in Armenia for a cupping of coffees from all the farms we had visited during the trip. It was really a fantastic way to summarize the trip, tasting each coffee and visualizing the people, places and experiences associated. The most special part of the cupping, for me, was seeing that the Huila coffees from Monserrate (the first farm we visited) shone high above the rest. All of the coffees we tasted were respectable, but only the Monserrate coffees had the consistent orange acidity and clean but substantial body that most of us were looking for in an outstanding Colombian coffee. Satisfied by the cupping, and a little drowsy from or experience in the river earlier in the day, our group headed into downtown Armenia for an amazing Argentinian steak dinner; one of the best meals of our trip.

Day Nine (7/29/06): Return to Bogotá and Andres’ Carne de Res

Back to early mornings; up at six for a quick breakfast and a 9am flight back to Bogotá. We all hoped to see Juan Manuel on Saturday, as he had been flown from Armenia to Bogotá the day before in order to be with his personal physician. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make it work, and went directly from the airport to Club El Nogal to check back into our rooms for one last night. After a brief rest at the club, we met with two of the managers of RACAFE for lunch at a nearby country club. Lunch was fantastic, but dessert blew me a away (pears stewed in plum sauce and orange liquor with amaretto ice cream.) We had only a few hours after lunch to shop for family and friends before we were met by one of our lunch hosts to drive out to Bogota’s most famous steak house cum night club; Andres’ Carne de Res.

None of us knew what to expect from Andres’ Carne de Res, only that everyone we asked about it, and every tourist’s guide to Colombia said that it was “not to be missed.” A good hour outside of the city, Andres’ Carne de Res began as a modest steak house and bar. Over the years, the owner (Andre) continuously added on to the restaurant and bar, expanding it to the size of a full football field (or at least it seemed.) It took us at least a minute to drive to the front door once we saw the first corner of the building. All around the restaurant, hung in the trees, are hearts made of red stained glass and steel illuminated from within. The line to get in was fifty people deep, so I felt like a superstar when out host led us to the front and was handed tickets almost immediately. We were too late to get reservations for a table, so we claimed a narrow strip of bar top and waited for a table to come available. We were never seated, but never really had time to sit town. The inside of Carne de Res was like Carnivál in a pressure cooker, dancers had to fight for room to groove and the music ranged from Rap to Rumba to Reggaetón. I still have a bit of whiplash from trying to see everything at once, and when we finally did receive carne de res after three bottles of Aguardiente, it was terrific. The place was jumping when we decided to responsibly make our way back to Club El Nogal around one in the morning. Our host explained as we walked out the front, leaving six spaces in the club for six lucky Colombianas, that the party was likely to continue until the break of dawn; and that nearby hotels catered especially to new couples too far gone to drive home in the morning. The air was wistful in the car riding back to the hotel. I think most of us knew that we had just shared our last adventure of the trip, and that all that lay in store for us was three hours of sleep, a 5 am ride to the airport and our last Café Juan Valdez cortado in Colombia.

Day 10 (7/30/06): Return to Seattle

Not much to say at this point, really. The usual song and dance at the aiport, Ed, Eric, Craig and Andrew all boarded the same plane for Houston and I got on mine; bound for Panama City since the extra stop saved me big money on my ticket. Eric had several weeks of vacation in Michigan ahead of him, so he said goodbye to Ed, Craig and Andrew in Texas a few hours before I arrived in Houston. On paper, Ed, Craig and Andrew were supposed to arrive in Seattle a good four hours before me, but due to missed connections, we all arrived at Sea-Tac around the same time. It was a great feeling to bump into them coincidentally at baggage claim. The sixteen hours of flying had been the longest time we’d been apart in ten days, and even if only for a few seconds, the chance to connect and say goodbye one last time felt really good.