Café, Cocora y Cumpleanos

Medellín was hard to leave. I’d unexpectedly been there for two months. If I hadn’t been forced onwards by my pre-booked Inca trail hike, I probably would have hung around until they threw me out of the country. But there’s no denying it was an appropriate time to leave. While my group of friends all had day jobs or at least ongoing projects to keep them occupied, I was living in a bit of a limbo. I was taking ad-hoc Spanish lessons every morning but I had the nagging feeling that I needed to be doing more. Medellin was a very easy city to let the weeks pass in but I had come to South America to travel and I needed to get a move on.

And it wasn’t just the end of my time in Medellín, but in Colombia too. To round off my time there and to celebrate my birthday on Sunday, I went on a weekend trip to Salento. I visited the town famous for its coffee production with a Medellín friend from France and a French friend of said friend from France. 

The trip started well when I couldn’t find my trainers on Saturday morning. The taxi was waiting outside with two impatient boys in it who had practically stayed up all night to catch the early flight. I looked all over my flat. I woke up my flatmate and her ‘houseguest’ to practically crawl on her floor and under her bed to look for them. Eventually I gave up, blamed the cleaner for stealing them, slipped on my flip flops and ran to the taxi where it was confirmed I was dressed totally inappropriately for the jungle-mountain-hike-adventure-weekend.

Our first real stop in Salento was therefore a shoe shop where I was lucky enough to find a pair of robust-enough boots in close-enough to my size for around £15.

After typical Colombian fare for lunch, we piled into a jeep to visited a coffee farm. We learned about how coffee was grown, we trudged through the greenery to fill our baskets with beans and then we went saw how the beans were processed, dried, dried a bit more, sorted, shipped, roasted, ground and eventually turned into first class Colombian coffee. I learnt that there are a lot of rules for making good coffee. One day I hope to be enough of a grown up to adhere to these rules. Or even enough of a grown up to like coffee.

Talking of growing up, I then decided I was going to start celebrating my birthday on London time. So at 7pm that evening, the celebrations began with beers and rum in a small bar in Salento. Then as far as I remember we were led to a slightly out of town restaurant by following a local stray dog (or an expertly trained pet one). I honestly wish I could say more about the food, the evening, the ambience, the conversation, the events, the dog… but all I can recount is calling my friends’ names in an increasingly panicked tone into the utility room of the restaurant thinking it was the men’s toilets and my friends were locked inside. They were not.

I woke up on the morning of my birthday feeling rather hazy but not anywhere near as bad as I should have done. Thank you birthday gods. Perfect timing for an eight hour hike. We hopped into a bright blue jeep and headed away from Salento and into the countryside.

The hike began on a rocky path into the mountains – vertiginous green shards with their peaks shrouded by clouds. There had been quite a lot of rain that morning and the ground was tricky to navigate. We made our way slowly around and over thick muddy puddles to make our way up and into the jungle. A few misjudged steps and we’d sink calf deep into the sludge.

Into the jungle, we made our way one at a time across precarious rope bridges straddling tumbling rapids. We scrambled over stepping stones and up rocky ledges. We skidded down muddy slopes to peer at cascading waterfalls. It was all going well. I made it, no stumbles, no scrapes, until I slipped over on an unripe passion fruit and nearly flung myself off a steep mountain ledge.

Halfway through the hike, at one of the highest points, there is a wooden hut where you can sit and have a cup of coffee, hot chocolate or canela tea. Hummingbirds flutter around dishes of sugar water laid out for them and a pack of coatis scurry around and scoff cooked rice laid out for them on the floor. We ordered the only food on the menu – arrepa and chorizo – and wolfed it down. And then because the hangover was starting to hit, I ordered and ate a second.

With a full belly and a dawning realisation that we were only halfway through, the walk got quite tough. I thought we’d climbed as high as we could, but all of a sudden the path took a turn and got very steep as we scrambled our way through up a seemingly relentless steep slope. At the start of the trek, I’d been told not to be British and to be blunt if I wanted to stop for a rest. Halfway up this slope I got told to not be French and stop complaining about every step.

With a combination of moral support, physical assistance and scolding, I made it to the top. As I sprawled breathless on a wooden bench at the peak, I rolled over and looked through the fronds of bright red flowers to the brooding green forest beyond, and the mist of the clouds grazing the summits. And I was glad I’d done it. Fine, okay, whatever.

The hike back down took us through the otherworldy Cocora valley. Skinny palm trees dot the valley and shoot up precariously into the sky. We cut through the middle of them to end up back where we started, and climbed exhausted (me, at least) into the jeep back into town.

The torrential rain started just as we set off. I was sat in the front seat with the driver watching the windscreen wipers struggle and fail to clear the glass. My friends had chosen to stand on the back of the jeep, outside, clinging precariously to its roof, whooping into a Go-Pro. Not for long. The driver had to stop halfway into the journey to let them crawl sheepishly into the back of the jeep, under the covers of the tarp, absolutely soaked.

That evening: more food, more drinks, more BIRTHDAY.

I woke up on Monday morning to set off back to Medellin alone as my friends had headed off elsewhere. When it came to pack up, I realised something was missing. I checked and checked and checked my bag again but my purse along with my credit cards and all my money was gone. I ran around the hostel three times, checking everywhere I had been and had not been. I gave up. I resigned myself to a life in the jungle, surviving on unripe passion fruits and whatever cold rice the coatis didn’t want.

At the height of my despair, I decided to go and have my last ever bread roll. I walked into the kitchen, staring hopelessly at the floor. I contemplated that I would never see my friends and family again. And as I peered morosely at the floor tiles, I saw a small black rectangle with a gold clasp. I practically threw myself onto the floor on top of it. My purse. Totally intact and untampered with, despite being on the kitchen floor of Salento’s biggest hostel all night. BIRTHDAY GODS.

I spent the majority of the day on the bus sulking that I was leaving Colombia. Medellin mocked me as I arrived back with the warmest, sunniest, most perfect evening of them all. My flatmate and I went out for one last dinner in the city. And in a blinding bolt of inspiration, I remembered that I’d left my trainers in the gym locker the previous Thursday. Reuniting myself with them was small consolation.

The next morning I numbly packed my bags and made my way to the airport to catch a flight over the equator, into Peru and to Lima.

I winced at the immigration desk as my passport was stamped aggressively out of Colombia. And that was it. That was that.

But I have a feeling, or a hope, or a plan, that I haven’t seen the last of the country.

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