Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tropical-Farm Trash And Commodities

While seeing some trash in the streets of the big cities of Colombia isn't really surprising, I was surprised to see so much of it while driving through the coffee and banana farming areas. There was trash everywhere I turned...or so I thought. Look at this photo to see what I mean:

Yep, there's blue trash bags floating around those banana plants. I wondered why the farmers wouldn't clean up the trash when the rest of the area seemed super clean. It wasn't until I was closer that I noticed that each banana plant had exactly one bag. It turns out that farmers WANT the bags there.

The bags are placed on the young flowers of the banana plants by farmers to protect the fruit from things like diseases, insects, and, if you can believe it, sunburn! I've literally seen thousands of banana plants on large hillsides each with their own blue bag like this one:

What I originally thought was sloppy housekeeping is actually a crafty solution by the farmers to protect their crops!

Another interesting thing that I observed/learned was that many former coffee growers have switched to growing bananas over the years. This is due to to many factors that I can appreciate being an engineer type. You need to constantly maintain the coffee trees and keep the growing areas super clean. One large storm can destroy a great deal of your crops. When the coffee's ready to be picked, it can't and won't wait. You need to find, train, and deploy a large number of workers in a short amount of time to pick the coffee by hand. Finally, add in the fact that coffee's a commodity product and the prices can rise and fall fast. The whole process is a lot of work and fraught with risks.

Contrast this with growing bananas. Bananas, with the right temperature and amount of rainfall will flourish. The farmer only needs a few people to maintain the plants, bag the fruit, and pick the fruit when it's ready. It's steady, year-round work for a core-staff of folks--far fewer people to hire, train, and then lay off each season. As a bonus, banana prices, I was told, are more consistent. Overall, there's less money in growing bananas but I'd imagine that the farmers are trading giant headaches for improved lives. Don't worry about the future of coffee though, prices have rebounded in the last couple of years and farmers are now growing both in the same fields as the plants provide mutual benefits.

So, what have we learned today? What looks like trash in the fields makes for happy bananas and bananas are less of a headache to grow than coffee but not as lucrative. Chalk one up to learning something new every day!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Panaca (Ranching Theme Park)

Yes, another theme/amusement park but, wait, this time it's a RANCHING amusement park. Warning: this story is full of way-too-disgustingly-cute photos of me with farm animals like this one:

PANACA is an acronym for Parque Natural De La Cultura Agropecuaria, which means something like The Natural Park of Agriculture and Livestock. The idea is to have a place where city dwellers can learn about and interact with the various types of animals commonly found on a farm. They're definitely "farm biased" since their slogan is "Sin Campo No Hay Ciudad" (Without Farms There's No City). I'm not sure how well it works since some of my interactions with the animals such as these just made me think about my next meal:

The park is surprisingly good. Most of your visit is spent in shows such as the one below where a guy from the future comes back to the present and he doesn't know where milk comes from. Since the show is entirely in Spanish and I'm still learning, I had a difficult time understanding what they were doing with all these cows when everyone already knows that milk comes from the supermarket (just kidding):

After this particular show they had a bunch of way-too-big animals around for people to check out. I got to do my best Mongo (from Blazing Saddles) impersonation with this guy:

In addition to all the animal shows, there's a bunch of cultural demos too. One that I particularly enjoyed was the panela-making demonstration. Panela, also known as piloncillo in Mexico, is sugar-cane juice that's boiled down until it's very dense. It's sold as a solid and is used to make a sweet beverage (agua de panela or panela water) that's verrrrry popular in Colombia.

To keep the urban youngins like me interested, they've got a series of zip lines running through the park. I've seen tons of photos of different friends doing this in various locations like Costa Rica and so on. I never really had any interest in trying it before but when it's included in the price of admission...

The zip lines are kinda' cool. You slide along the line from the top of a hill to a base somewhere else. It's quick but you get a good view and it's fun. I wouldn't go out of my way to do it again but I did enjoy it.

The final show that I watched wouldn't be politically correct in the U.S. but I guess is okay here in Colombia. It was a "Cowboys-and-Indians" show that reenacts an Indian (or Native American if you prefer) attack on settlers in the western U.S. Needless to say, it wasn't flattering for the Indians but "when in Rome" I always say:

The rest of the show was good. They had a bunch of different horse-related demos and other things like lasso demos as well. I have to say that I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Panaca. I don't think that I'd need to do it again but I'd recommend it if you find yourself near one of their three locations (Quindio in the Colombian coffee area, near Pueblo Mexico, or in San Mateo Costa Rica).

Finally, I'll end this story with this shot of me making friends with the Panaca locals (awwww!):

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Colombia's Got The Willys

I recently wrote about how there are lots of "boxy" cars used in the ranching areas north of Bogotá. Well, out in the coffee areas they've got the Willys--lots of 'em. That's right, good 'ole vintage Willys like this one:

Willys are the precursors to what we know today as the Jeep Wrangler. They were originally developed in the U.S. during World War II as a way to quickly mechanize and mobilize troops. The contractors who bid on the project back then had 49 days to design, develop, and build working prototypes. The Willys-Overland company, which via a series of ownership changes would end up a part of current-day Chrysler, eventually ended up winning and a legacy was born. Pretty much every 4x4 vehicle on the road since was based in some way on the Willys. This photo, taken in the lovely pueblo of Salento (story coming), shows a bunch of Willys along side of some later-model Jeeps and a couple of Land Rovers:

Willys, first brought to Colombia in 1950, and their more-modern Jeep counterparts are frequently used in the coffee areas as taxis and farming vehicles. They've been nicknamed "Yipaos" (yee-powz), which comes from the Spanish pronunciation of the word Jeep. It's so common now that the term has been adopted for use as a unit-of-measure. For example, a "yipao of bananas" is something like 40 clusters of bananas or what would fit inside/on one of the Jeeps. I've seen crazy photos from different yipao parades that are held throughout the area where they've loaded them up with coffee, bananas, and even "Beverly Hillbillies" style with household belongings.

The first Willys I saw while on the way to the coffee area was being used as a taxi and was packed full of people and stuff. Here's a shot of a few more Willys in the pueblo of Barcelona (the one here in Colombia):

Willys here seem to be the prized possession of middle-aged (and older) guys. Lots of them have been completely restored and tricked out. I really liked this model CJ-3A that looks right out of World War II:

I'm thinking that with my love of both bananas and coffee that Colombia might be the place for me. :-) In the future, you might ask "where is Darren now?" and the answer could be "riding with his yipao of coffee and bananas on the back of a yipao"!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Colombian National Coffee Park

A whole park dedicated to coffee? There must be a god and this is probably my heaven.

The Colombian National Coffee Park (Parque Nacional del Cafe) is located in the Zona Cafetera town of Montenegro. It was created by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, which happen to be the same folks who brought you Juan Valdez. I didn't know what to expect of the park before going but I figured that it'd be a great place to learn all about coffee and the coffee-culture of Colombia. Here's what I found:

It turns out that it's a coffee-themed amusement park. It wasn't exactly the cultural and/or educational experience that I expected but it was still fun. When you enter the park one of the first things you encounter is a coffee museum that spreads through two floors of two buildings. They have exhibits on current and past farming and farm life, the growing and processing of coffee, and coffee sales and marketing throughout the world.

They do a pretty good job with the museum but I left wanting even more so I headed to the cable car in search of what I came for. The cable car takes you from the entrance area of the park over some small coffee growing and processing areas:

...on the way to the park's own version of a Plaza Bolivar (note: almost every city, town, and pueblo in Colombia has a central square named for Simon Bolivar, who was a key, if not the key figure in Colombia's independence from Spain.):

The day I was at the park it was really empty of people. It seems that, like in the U.S., once the kids are back in school, attendance at theme parks drops off dramatically. It allowed for moving through the park really quickly but it gave me the feeling that the park isn't very popular. I talked to one of the workers and he told me that this was definitely not the case and that he personally was happy for the break in the crowds. Not having crowds of people was a positive in some ways for sure but it caused the park to have only a couple of employees available for demonstrations at the exhibit areas such as this one demonstrating coffee-processing equipment:

The demonstrations that I did catch were interesting and entertaining. What was a bummer were the demonstration areas like this depulping one where no one was available to explain what was going on:

The park has lots of growing areas to explore. They have a huge bamboo forest that's worth checking out but my favorite growing area hands down was the World Coffee Garden. This small area had coffee trees from all over the world. I know I'm a bit of a coffee geek but I thought it was cool to be able to see the differences in one place. For example, I learned/saw that the coffee trees from Africa tended to have much larger leaves and higher overall foliage density where as the coffee trees that I've seen tend to be somewhat sparse with smaller leaves. This is the World Coffee Garden area:

To further demonstrate my geekiness, one of the other cool things that I saw is how the coffee inventory is tracked from the fields all the way to the final-processing facilities. The growers have adopted a system of RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification), which allows for inventory levels to be monitored and tracked without physical counting or contact. It's a new-ish method for tracking inventory and allows someone with the correct sensing equipment to use radio frequencies to "see" how many of something is in a given area without actually having to count the items one by one. You've probably encountered RFID tags without realizing it. For example, I've seen clothing from Banana Republic with the tags sewn in. The tags tend to be very stiff "stick-like" and it tells you right on the tag that you should cut it out before wearing the item. There are also RFID tags on "expensive" or widely-stolen things like razor blades at drug stores. These tags tend to be stickers that have a circuit pattern on the back of them, which you can see when you peel the sticker off the item.

Okay. Enough geek. You can see the small, green RFID tags on these bags of coffee:

Overall, the park wasn't what I expected but it wasn't all bad. I definitely got something out of the coffee museum, the growing and processing exhibits, and the different gardens. There's also a dinner-theater-style song-and-dance show that was way better than expected and I really enjoyed my Paisa-style lunch. It didn't turn out to be the heaven on earth I hoped it'd be but, still, it was a fun way to spend the day.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Zona Cafetera (Coffee Country)

I've been to coffee-growing areas in Mexico, Guatemala, and Hawaii but I was really looking forward to my trip to the "Zona Cafetera". After all, the words Colombia and coffee are almost synonymous.

There are several coffee-growing areas in Colombia but one of the main ones is about a five-or-six-hour drive west of Bogotá. The distance isn't that far but the actual drive is slow and intense as it's mostly winding mountain roads that are one lane in each direction. Even though it's a tough journey, the scenery and the destination make it well worth while.

Much of the Zona Cafetera is in what's called the Paisa region. This region covers parts of four different Colombian departments (like "states" in the U.S.) and the easiest-to-visit coffee-growing areas surround the cities of Armenia in the Quindio department:

...the mountain-top Manizales in the Caldas department:

...and Pereira in the Risaralda department:

Well, it was a photo I took in Pereira. File under "unusual", I guess.

The fourth department in the Paisa region, which I didn't visit on this trip, is called Antioquia. The most well-known "person" from the Paisa region is the character of Juan Valdez, which is a stereotypical image of a person from Paisa. Overall, the quality of the cities and towns/pueblos is mixed throughout the region. Some of them you can't pass through fast enough and others you don't want to leave. There's definitely a wide variety of places to visit.

What I love about areas around the world where coffee is grown is the almost perfect (for me) climate. Generally, it's sunny and warm in the morning, overcast and sometimes a little rainy during the day (which helps keep the temps down), the sun comes out in time for sunset, and the nights cool down nicely. As it's tropical, it can be a bit humid and warm at times but I've found that the climate that makes for happy coffee trees makes for a happy Darren. The scenery's not bad too, mountains and mountains of coffee trees (this was taken near a town called Barcelona in Quindio): this one with nice, red coffee cherries:

The climate is perfect for growing some other things that I love including orchids, tropical flowers, and cacao (chocolate) trees. This is a cacao tree I came across that had almost-ripe-and-ready-to-pick pods:

I'm going to write a handful of stories about some of the things that I did in the zona cafetera but I'd like to share some random photos I took while on the road. This is a photo of monkey (!!!) in the main plaza of the town of Cartago (Valle). At first I thought that they were gray squirrels but they were making strange squeaking noises so I looked again. I saw a bunch of them in the trees and people were feeding them cookies.

About three hours outside of Bogota, I saw these mules carrying yucca. This'll also give you some idea of what the drive is like. You've got big trucks, very old/slow cars, animals, people, and who-knows-what else entering and leaving the road at any time (perhaps you might remember the video game Frogger?).

About an hour away from Manizales is the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados. The national park has eight volcanoes with this one, the Nevado del Ruiz, reaching almost 17,500 feet (5,321meters). The park and volcano remind me in some ways of Haleakala in Maui (Hawaii) and Mauna Kea / Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii. This photo was taken near the park entrance, which is located at about 13,600 feet (4,150 meters):

Also in the "unusual category", I got this photo of a large truck climbing one of the mountain roads. Take a close look at what's just below the sign on the back of the truck. In case you can't read it, the sign says "Peligro. Carga extra larga y extra ancha." (Danger: Extra wide and extra large load.)

Yep, there's a guy with no shirt sleeping on the back of the truck while it's moving. I've officially seen just about everything now.

I don't normally mention the hotels that I stay in (I save those reviews for TripAdvisor) but my experience this time was exceptional. I stayed at the La Moni Finca Hotel, which is just outside of the pueblo of Circasia. The folks who manage and run the place were exceptionally nice and helpful. The hotel is centrally located, the price was good, and breakfast and dinner are included each day. If you decide to do your own Colombian-coffee journey, you should look them up.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Drinking Chicha (And Paying The Price)

Chicha. I first heard of it when I visited Peru last February and had Chicha Morada. It was a really sweet, strange/new/exciting, fruit-juice-style drink and was very good. Cue one year later and I'm in the ranching areas north of Bogotá, Colombia when I'm offered some chicha. Woohoo! Sure, I'll have some!!! What I ended up drinking this time was very different...

Traditional chicha is an Inca/Andean drink that was made by women who would chew on corn and then spit the resulting liquid into a container. The mix would sit for a few days to ferment and a slightly-alcoholic drink would be the result. The process is similar to how sake was originally made and how beer is processed today (sans spitting I believe). This time, I had a local chicha that was made by neighbors on a nearby farm and, from what I can tell, no spitting was involved. Rather, corn with some honey and water added was slow cooked for about a day. It was then transferred to these Ollas de Barro and allowed to sit for about a week or so:

The chicha was a yellowish-tan color and was actively fermenting as I could see bubbles still emerging from the liquid in the ollas. Okay, I figured, I'll still have some. I was handed half of a hollowed-out gourd, which is called a pilche, and some chicha was added. This was the first "cup" I had:

Not too bad. It was both sweet and acidic at the same time. I ended up drinking about an entire half-gourd's worth that day. I wanted to drink more but I my tongue ended up getting sore from the acid in the drink so I stopped. (In retrospect, this probably should have been a warning.) Here I am with some locals enjoying a round:

Not too bad. The chicha was really tasty and very cool. I'll always remember the chicha...and what happened next...

During lunch the next day, I was offered some more chicha and I said yes. This time the drink was less acidic so I put away almost twice as much, like two half-gourd's worth. The alcohol content was probably pretty low as I never felt the affects...of the alcohol. What I did end up feeling the affects of about an hour-or-two later was the active fermentation process. The closest I can compare it to is when you're filling up a balloon and it slips out of your hand and shoots around the room. (Note: I actually wrote a little more detail here but I ended up deciding that you probably get the point and deleted it.) Drinking the chicha was a very fun cultural experience...that I will definitely do in moderation next time.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Back-To-School Season

This time of year marks the start of the school year in Colombia. Whereas in the U.S., kids head back in late August or early September, kids here get to complain about going to bed early again towards the middle-to-end of January. What tipped me off to the back-to-school season was the typical ads you see everywhere around that time of year. Here's an example in a shoe-store window (note that it actually says "back to school" in English):

I haven't been able to learn exactly why schools in Colombia start in January. I've heard a couple of different theories (guesses?) but they don't really explain why the schedule is so different than the other countries in the world with which I'm familiar. Overall, the school year is a little longer than in the U.S. and runs from January to November with a three-week June break.

Walking around town, I took a couple of pictures inside papelerias (stationary stores) where people were shopping for school supplies. In this one you can see backpacks, pens, notebooks, and so on:

And this one shows better just how crowded the stores were over the weekend:

I saw lots of kids and parents in the streets walking to school on Monday morning but there were no good photos to share. I'm just glad that I didn't have to go back school this week. To celebrate my good fortune, I'm going to stay up late each night this week!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Boxy-Car Heaven

I've been both fortunate and cursed at the same time to own a British car. I love my MINI Cooper as it's SUPER fun to drive but a bear (read: expensive) to repair. My mixed experiences with the MINI don't stop me from loving one other British car, the Land Rover Defender 90 in white, of course:

I had a boss at one of the snowboard companies that I worked for who owned a D90. He let me drive it once and I fell in love. It's sort of my "if-I-won-the-lottery" car that I'll probably never own. It goes on the list with the house in Kona, Hawaii. Hmmmmm...some day...

Okay. I'm back. What I think I really love about the Defender 90 (and it's limo-sized brother, the Defender 110) is the boxy shape. I once owned an Isuzu Trooper for somewhat of the same reason. Well, guess what. Colombia is chock-full of older-model, somewhat-affordable, boxy 4x4 cars. Take for example this shot of at least six of them that I saw on one street in Chiquinquira recently:

They're being used mostly as farm vehicles much like pickup trucks are (supposed to be) used in the U.S. What's cool is that you can have the looks, ruggedness, and utility of an old Land Rover such as this one:

...but with the reliability of Japanese engineering in something like this Nissan Patrol:

I know, I know. It's like comparing a Civic to a MINI but in this case, if I were going to be here for a long time, I'd probably have to go with an older-model Toyota Land Cruiser or perhaps one of the Nissans. They're pretty sweet. Until...I see one of the old Land Rovers like this in Villa De Leyva:

My dad would say something like "you'll only have problems with a European car"or "you always told me to go Japanese". Yes, dad, I get it:

Japanese = more reliabile / lower cost of ownership.
European = more maintenance / higher cost of ownership.

I guess I'll just have to wait for that first lottery check when it won't make any difference.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Villa De Leyva - Roommate Reunion

Located about a one-hour's drive away from Chiquinquira (and about three hours from Bogota) is the lovely colonial town of Villa De Leyva. Leyva, which is at the foot of a mountain at the edge of a valley, has been around for over 500 years and is exceptionally well preserved. This is the (large and required) main square near the center of town with the mountains visible beyond:

Most of the town is a grid of very clean cobble-stone streets with white buildings and terracotta roofs. Just like in Lanzarote, the trim on every building in town is painted in one of two colors, green or brown. Walking around, looking at the shops and restaurants, is surprisingly serene:

The whole town feels like something by Disney or from a movie set. If you're like 99% of the folks reading this, your image and expectations of Colombia probably have nothing to do with scenes like these. Although there were a bunch of non-Colombian tourists (the most I've seen so far), it's nothing like the numbers you'd have if Leyva was located somewhere in Mexico. With images like this:

...maybe that can change. There are other better-known colonial towns in Colombia but I'm surprised that Levya isn't one of them. It should be. Anyway...enough of that.

While walking around the town, I saw lots of nice architecture and scenery. I liked this house with its Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear windows:

The area where Villa De Leyva is located used to be part of the ocean a long time ago. It's known for being a place where lots of fossils are found. Just outside of the center of town is a small museum that surrounds a fairly-well-preserved fossil of a Kronosaurus, which was a large sea animal. The museum costs a couple of dollars to enter and it's probably worth a quick stop if you're already in Leyva.

Oh, right. I did mention in the title that the trip was a roommate reunion. Well, we got the (Barcelona) band back together since we were all in Colombia at the same time. Thanks to Diana, David, and David's folks for the fun day in Villa De Leyva. Let's do it again's say...California and/or Barcelona?