My first weekend in Colombia + Santagueda Valley

1st July

Only once I arrived Bogota airport at 6 in the morning for my flight to Manizales did I learn that the Manizales airport closes every time it rains (which is all the time). So after a re-routed flight, a 4-hour delay and an hour and a half car journey (granted, through beautiful mountains and tropical valleys) I made it to Manizales in the late afternoon.

As soon as we arrived at my house I knew I was going to love living here. It is a modern-style white house on a steep hill with the most incredible view overlooking the valley for miles. From the balcony you can see the mountains towering in the distance, peeking out from between the rolling clouds. The house itself has big open spaces, two dogs and a cat, and so much character, (from the hammock hanging in my room, to the massive skylight with leaky sections, to the metal roof that makes the most amazing sound when it rains).

I later found out from Ana, the mother of the family I’m staying with, that they designed and constructed the house themselves. The house is in what’s considered the nice part of Manizales. Unlike the downtown area, the streets are spotless, all the buildings newer and well-kept, the area made up of large houses and apartment buildings (many of which are gated, like the cluster of houses I’m in). It is nice to be in an area where I feel safe, but I found out quickly that it doesn’t have the same character or vivacity of downtown Manizales.

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The best part of the house, other than the view, is that I’m a 5-minute walk to a big supermarket which is surrounded by a few small blocks of restaurants and cafes.  There’s a smoothie shop, a waffle shop, a popsicle shop, a bakery, a nail and spa, just to name a few. So far I’ve tried to stop in the area every day after work so I can explore and try out the different restaurants and eateries. I want to try and go to as many of the local places as I can and really get to know the area while I’m here.

Similarly, I have made it my goal to try all of the Colombian fruits possible during my month here. Luckily I don’t think it’ll be much of a challenge. There are fruit stands and shops everywhere. When I went into the supermarket I’d say about half of the fruit and vegetables I’d never seen before. Even the fruit and veg I did know, like mangoes, papaya,  avocado, were so much bigger and juicier than I’d ever seen.

Once I’d got settled at the house, I went to eat near the market, and when I returned I met Julian. He is a lifelong friend of Laura (whose house it is and works at Cafexport with me) and also lives in the house. After we’d introduced ourselves he asked me if I wanted to go meet a friend of his and get dinner. I’d only known Julian 6 minutes at this point, but I agreed and off we went.

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First, we stopped at a bakery where he bought brownies, which he said are the best in Manizales (he was right) and then we went to his friend’s house, who owns a space in a building that has multiple offices for artists and startups. We sat outside talking with two of his friends for a while (who I found out are his cousin and her boyfriend), rotating between English and Spanish. Then, Camila (the cousin) turned to me and invited me to have dinner with them at her fathers’ house. I was surprised at how welcoming they were being, they barely knew me but treated me like an old friend.

Dinner at their house was wonderful. The food was delicious and the father of Camila was so kind and engaging, encouraging me to ask questions and giving me all different types of Colombian food to try. They were so excited that I was in Colombia and lit up as I asked questions about the culture, the food, the history. One of the many things I learnt was that the type of an avocado we have in England is only one of many, and the smallest. The avocados in Colombia are smooth, shaped like a pear and so much larger, the size of a small melon. They told me that you can find avocado as big as my head at many markets (I’m eagerly searching). I kept up with the Spanish as best I could until the jetlag turned my brain to jelly, at which point Julian and I headed home happy and full.

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On Saturday I decided to be a tourist in Manizales. I took a tour of the Cathedral in the centre of town. It sits at one of the highest points in the city and at the top, I was greeted with incredible 360-degree views looking out over the whole city. I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of the town centre. Everywhere you looked was bustling with activity: small corner shops cooking fresh plantains on a grill, stalls lining the street with big cups of fruit, on top of which they would put lemon, salt and spices. At first, I was a bit nervous walking around on my own in this more run-down part of town, but I quickly began to relax more as I saw how easy-going and friendly the whole community was. The one pervading thought I had all day was that I’d said yes to so many people when I, in fact, had no idea what they were asking. I had probably bought a house and sold my kidneys and who knows what else (I’m lucky Colombians are so kind!). The Spanish here isn’t too different to Spain or that of Central American countries I’ve visited, but they talk much more quickly.

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It is on Sunday, however, when my weekend adventure really began. In the morning I went to the Recinto del Pensamiento botanical gardens. The tour was in Spanish but I became friends with a Brazilian woman who I got paired with in the cable car going up the mountain because we were both alone. I found out she had spent most of her adult life working at universities America and enjoyed travelling, so we quickly bonded. I have to say taking a break from all the Spanish for a little while was also a relief. The tour was great, we took a cable car through the rainforest, watched hummingbirds buzz around, explored a butterfly sanctuary, and walked through an orchid-laden rainforest to get back to the centre. As I was ending the tour I got a text from Paula, a woman who worked with Cafexport to organise my visa and other parts of my internship. We had been talking regularly over text, but I’d never met her in real life. In her text, she asked me if I wanted to come stay at her family farm in Santagueda Valley for the weekend with her family. I was happily surprised by her kindness towards me, an almost-complete stranger, and I eagerly said yes. I rushed home so her husband Mateo could pick me up, and off we went.

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Santagueda is a 45-minute drive from Manizales and is a beautiful valley rich with fruit, coffee and livestock. I learnt that it is very common for families in Manizales to have small family farms, vacation houses of sorts, where the whole family goes for the weekend. When we arrived at the farm I was surprised by the difference in weather. The weather in Manizales is about 20-22 degrees, balmy and warm in the day, cool at night. Santagueda isn’t far, but it was much warmer at 27-30 degrees, and humid.  In the centre of the farm was a big house, a pool and a seating area. Surrounding it was a bunch of small single bedroom houses, for all the different individual families. Scattered around all the houses was an orchard of fruit and vegetables. Paula told me the farm had been in the family for more than 50 years.

As soon as we got out of the car I was ushered to the outdoor dining area where everyone was eating lunch. I finally met Paula who greeted me with a smile and a big plate of food, following which she introduced me to all of the family. Everyone welcomed me with open arms, and when I say I met everyone, I mean everyone. I met all the uncles, cousins, babies, learnt the name of each and every dog (of which there were many, there were about 4 families there each with 2 or 3 dogs). Every time I go home to the US my father’s side of the family has big barbeques with 30-plus people, and the atmosphere here felt no different. Once again, I was so overwhelmed by the kindness of this family who I had just met, welcoming me into their lives like I was one of their own. It truly felt like home.

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After lunch, I was shown around the orchard, which had avocados, mango, guava, tangerine, lime, and many other fruits I don’t remember the name of. As they showed me around I talked to Mateo and Paul and learnt that Paula is a lawyer and Mateo runs a family business of growing fruit and coffee. Mateo and Paula looked young, in their early 30s, but they had two adorable toddlers of 3 and 5 years old. One fruit that I do remember was called corrosos. They are like mini coconuts, the size of a grape. They have a red flesh but when you peel it off it looks exactly like a coconut, which you crack with a rock. You take the inside out and it has exactly the same flavour and consistency of a coconut. Honestly, my mind was blown.

Once we finished the tour, we went to church, as is typical on Sundays in Colombia. It was a beautiful open air church with colourful murals on the walls and the songs of birds in the air. It was much more casual than the church-goings I experienced as a child, with many people in flip-flops and tank tops, dogs in tow. Those who came late and couldn’t get a seat sat on the ground along the walls. Alas, my spiritual awakening wasn’t to be, as the two toddlers were constantly squirming, crying or fighting to sit on their mother’s lap. Many, including myself, found it amusing but not all were so appreciative so we left and headed for the farm of Mateo’s family.

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Paved roads led to dirt roads as we made our way to Mateo’s family farm a short distance away. The sun was setting as we arrived and were greeted with a beautiful colonial home at the top of a hill. Mateo’s grandfather had owned the farm his whole life and built a small empire from it with his dairy business. We went through into the open air living room which had unobstructed views looking out over the whole valley. I stepped out onto the lawn to see that one side of the whole house had 180-degree views looking out for miles and miles. The house was similar to that of Paula’s family except the house was made up of many mini-apartments for each of the individual families, which faced out onto the veranda that circled the house. They had a big pool also facing the valley and luscious tropical gardens. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It was one of those moments when I couldn’t believe I was really there, I kept expecting to close my eyes and wake up at home. But it was real and there I was smiling like an idiot, trying to imagine how I got so lucky.

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Mateo showed me around the gardens, explaining that throughout his life his grandfather had (somewhat illegally) brought back plants from his travels and planted them here. He let me try a strange fruit which looked like a pear but which was bright orange inside and had the consistency of a pumpkin, except slightly sweeter. He showed me the plant that becomes cocaine  (a beautiful and unassuming bush, the leaves harmless until processed) and the station where they milk the cows. His grandfather lives on the farm half of the week and even at the age of 76 gets up every day at 3 or 4 in the morning to go check on the cows and watch the milking.

That evening the whole family (which was made up of 4 generations) spent hours sitting in the living area, talking, drinking, eating, watching the kids play or admiring how the sun and stars danced over the valley. One of the dogs made my lap his home and I listened to story after story, from how Mateo proposed to Paula with a note tied to the collar of their first puppy, to the time Mateo’s uncle sleep-walked into the pool. It was the most perfect evening and I knew that if this was a taste of my month in Colombia, it would undoubtedly be one of the best experiences of my life.

 

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