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Exploring the Coffee Region, COL


September 22, 2017

Upon arriving back at Al Bosque Hostel, we unpacked and put away (not a quick task!) and the next morning we left. Tigger had been here for eight weeks total – five without us. Tigger started on the first try and off we went. As many of you know who have been following us, we have been plagued over the years with leaks; well it had rained a great deal while we were away and Tigger did have one leak but better than the possible five we were expecting; it’s the little things in life, right?

Medellin traffic:

Our first stop was groceries on our way to Jardín – a little village south west of Medellin that had been recommended to us and that had a nearby hike to a waterfall in a cave that looked spectacular.

When we left Medellin, our GPS said 137 kms to Jardín. Not bad although we knew it was not that simple as Joe & Josée had advised the road is curvy and slow with trucks. Our first hurdle just before halfway:  the bridge was closed at Bolombolo!

Enroute we saw Cerro Tusa, the most perfect pyramid shaped mountain in the world…..

No alternate crossing for miles so we had to back track a bit and then it was about 80 kms of dirt road through Venicia and Fredonia to get to Jeríco which had a lovely mirador where we decided to stop for the night as it was already 4pm. We left Al Bosque around 9am. We still had over 40 kms to go. The mirador has a gondola to another peak but it was not functioning. However, there was a small tienda selling snacks and beer and a large Jesus statue overlooking the city. Million dollar views again for free!We chatted with a couple of ground keepers, bought them a beer and then spent the night there. Others had stayed there before on the recommendation of the local police and the parking was far enough off the road, that we felt safe.

Next morning we took off and met a few obstacles along the route, one of which we had to back up for and ended up breaking off the tail pipe of the muffler; bummer.

We also noticed the emergency brake was not working well so just before reaching Jardín where we hit pavement again, there was a gas station in Andes with a garage. We filled up and asking about them checking the brake for us. We had been told previously by the handyman at Al Bosque, that the cable needed replacing. Well it turns out the pads were completely worn down! Luckily for us, they were able to build new pads but it took the rest of the day. We also had some work done on our rack at the back of Tigger (table mounts cut off) and air up the tires and air bags.

The owner of the station, Oscar invited us to spend the night at his farm (finca) and we met his brother Juan, but by the time the work was done it was well after dark and too late to make our way up the small roads so instead, Juan, whose wife, Natalia had arrived, invited us for dinner and to sleep in their home if we wanted. It’s always easier to sleep in Tigger but we appreciated the dinner offer. Strangely, it turned out we were the only ones eating! They had eaten back at the gas station where there is a restaurant. We met their children, Frederico and MariaPaz, and they drove us back to the station where we slept in Tigger parked between the trucks on the side of the station. It was quiet there after 10 but the road became busy by six and we decided to get going.

We arrived in Jardín mid-morning, and after hitting a bank, Doug chatted with locals to find out where the hike to the Cave of Splendor started. We learned nothing but were referred to a tourist info office where we told the hike is closed due to misuse of the trail and damage to the environment. We wandered the pretty town with coloured homes for a bit. As there was another hike mentioned on iOverlander, we did that hike that began on an indigenous cobblestone trail and then went to two waterfalls.

orchids on the trail

Next was another bad dirt road for about 50kms to the city of Rio Suscio where we hit main roads once again on our way to Manizales.

Along the roads:

A firefighter pick up with a man in a stretcher in the back!
okay now we gotta get by this guy….
a section of the road with bamboo on the side
now there’s this guy on the road
now it’s a cow AND a motorcycle

Here we wanted to visit the Rio Blanco Reserve and had already reached out for permission and a guide (through several emails and one phone call).

However on the drive here (ten miles took 1.25 hours!), we were getting even worse fuel economy than usual and our brand new OBDII code reader advised there was an emission’s problem. We had two spare O2 sensors but when we went to see a mechanic in the town of Villa Maria (next to Manizales), Doug was told it was a bad spark plug or two and that if we came back on Tuesday, he could work on that and our broken tailpipe.

There were few places where a rig of Tigger’s size could stay so we ended up in a parking lot with no services but it was cheap: less than $3 a day. We ended up staying three nights but sleep was not very good each night. It got quiet in the evening but trucks began moving out before 5am! It was convenient to shops and walking though so we were able to catch up some on what we’d missed the past week or so with all the flying and driving. Monday morning we went to turn the gennie on to use the toaster only to find it wouldn’t even try and turn over.  When it rains, it pours!

Doug’s foot is slowly getting better; he’s been using a sort of splint that pulls his toes ups, stretching, icing, got new shoes in Florida and some arch supports. He also got a TENS machine and has begun treatments with it. It’s been over six months now that he’s had plantar fasciitis.

Tuesday we expected to spend the day at the garage and it turned out only one spark needed replacing and he took Doug to buy the part, have the truck cleaned, get the tailpipe welded back on and then was able to reach the fuse in the generator and figured out it was dead so that explained why we couldn’t get it running (Doug had tried everything else in the troubleshooting manual but could not squeeze in to get the fuse.)

they worked on the truck on the street
because Tigger didnt fit in here

We got out of there in the early afternoon and went back to parking lot for one last night in the lot. Fran meanwhile had a few pieces of silver jewelry repaired (two clasps and a broken chain, all for $4).

Wednesday morning we were up early to head to Rio Blanco Reserve where we were going to do some bird watching. We had poor directions as to where to meet the guide so we were a bit late but, hey, it’s Latin time, right? Arturo took us out walking for about three hours in the reserve. Right where we met him, at the lodge, there were many, many different kinds of hummingbirds – Colombia has the largest number of varieties in the world. They also over 1900 bird species!

We saw some rare antipitas after patiently waiting for our guide to draw them out with worms and bird calls. It was a very pleasant walk and watching the hummingbirds was wonderful for Fran. There was a spot where we could see the snow/glaciers atop the Los Nevados mountains and a nice viewing spot to see the reserve itself.

We left the Reserve around noon and headed to our next stop: Steel Horse Finca Hostel in Filandia about 90km away. This is a new hostel being set up by some British motorcyclists who after touring South America, decided to buy a finca and set up a hostel and place for overlanders. We tried to stop enroute for some groceries but parking was too big of a issue at the supermarkets we did see so that didn’t happen today.

We arrived at Steel Horse in the middle of the afternoon and Yvette welcomed us. Mike and Xenia (Germans we’d met in August at Al Bosque) were here as well as a couple motorcyclists, Nora & Pablo from Germany, Cate and Will, Americans who purchased the rig from a couple we’d met back in the Baja of Mexico as well as Donny, a Canadian doing a work away here (he’s a cabinet maker).

The next day Fran attempted to do laundry at the self-serve washer but the weather did not cooperate and NOTHING dried! Doug attempted several to do tasks but things were not going his way.

In the late morning, a British couple, Julie & Marcus showed up in their rig and after some shuffling, we all fit in. They are travelling north and had many stories and much advice to pass along and we shared recommends for Central America.  They’ve been on the road for over four years – even longer than we have! Marcus is a pretty handy guy and had helped others that we’d heard about so when we asked about a portable fan that was giving us issues, he said he’d look at it, took it apart and re-soldered the circuit board and voila, our fan works. Thanks “McGyver Marcus”.

That evening Yvette put on a “family dinner” where she cooked fajjitas, and we all sat around the large table in the hostel enjoying her cooking. (this of course is not free but reasonable at $4 ea). We were fourteen for dinner including newcomers: Remmie, a Brit, Pascal, a Quebecer, Antony, an Aussie (all rode in together on their motorbikes} and a Swiss fellow travelling solo (can’t remember his name!).

Friday was a day attempting to solve some problems. One of our security cameras had gone capote from water getting inside (water: again!)  and we had brought back one with us but Doug could not get the system to recognize the new camera! We emailed about returning the camera and they suggested speaking to their tech guys who of course only work M-F and we only got voice mail so this did not get sorted despite several hours on the internet and trial and error. The leak in the cupboard above Fran’s closet is not plugged either. Add that one to the continuing water mystery.

Saturday we packed up and left right after Cate and Will did (they are going north to Medellin though) and we stopped in the village of Filandia to do some grocery shopping; between two veggie markets and two small grocery stores we managed to get most everything. Then it was a big 24km (15mi) drive to the village of Salento, the first town that was settled in the coffee region of Colombia. We camped at another hostel/glamping place with really nice bathrooms and the price included breakfast! They had internet but not fast and it rarely reached the camping area. They wanted to charge us $3 extra each for power so we passed but we did cheat at night and plugged in after dinner to the sockets outside the bathroom door (we were about 8m away – our friends had stayed here and paid nothing extra for power).

Sunday after brekkie of two eggs, a banana, tea and a whole wheat roll, we walked the 20 minutes to the village square where we caught a “Willy” (jeep) to the trail head at this end of Los Nevodos National Park. There you find the largest wax palm forest in the world – Valle Cocora – these palms can grow to a height of 60m (100’) and are located at an altitude between 1800 and 2400m (3800 to 7500’). The trunk is cylindrical, smooth, light colored, covered with wax; the leaf scars form dark rings around the trunk. The leaves are dark green and grayish, ranging from 185 to 540 cm (75 to 200”) long and the tiny fruits are globose and orange-red when ripe.

Upon arriving in the tiny hamlet of Cocora, you are greeted by the palms randomly scattered over the nearby hills.

We were not sure of where the trail was and after asking found out it was a loop that you can do in five hours. We were game but no one told us you turn off at the little fence where it says Forest of Palms and pay an entrance fee! When we got to this point, there was no one here anyway so we walked much further up the muddy track and at one point Doug saw a track on that would be a short cut and get us to the other side where the lookouts are located. Unfortunately, there was a locked gate about five metres up and no way around it. So we decided to head back as we could hear thunder nearby. As we approached that “forest’ spot we saw many people in that area and someone was manning the booth so we paid the $1 to get in and began walking through fields of the wax palms.

We walked as far as the first lookout and tried to take a short cut back that we saw many locals taking. Turned out it had a locked gate as well but we managed to climb over it.

short cut path that resulted in climbing over a gate

We caught a return Willy and then wandered the town square a bit before walking back to La Serrana Hostel – about 20 minutes’ walk.

Simon, a young Swiss man we’d met back at Al Bosque before our trip home, showed and so tonight we were not the only overlanders. It rained lightly most of that night and to Doug’s major chagrin, we had two leaks again; the one above the closet and the one where the dead camera had been at the front of Tigger.

We decided to chill here another day as Fran’s knee was quite sore from yesterday’s hike (but in a new spot, like she’d pulled something). We mainly hung around, enjoyed hot showers in some of the nicest bathrooms we’ve seen in a long time and Doug once again attempted to fix the two latest leaks.

View of Salento from its lookout:

We have a Colombian friend in Vancouver, Diana, who we’ve spoken with on FB and she recommended we reach out to her friend, Nicolas, who lives here in the coffee region. We drove to his place the next day – he’s about 10 km south of Armenia in a smaller city of La Tebaida. He and his girlfriend, Jacqueline, welcomed us into his lovely home. Nicolas worked with Diana many years ago in Bogota and is semi-retired. He lives in a subdivision on a golf course and the house is so modern. He has a housekeeper/cook that is there six days a week and she made us a nice lunch. Nicolas invited us to stay in his guest room and we took him up on the offer. Luckily, his driveway is large and has no archway over top so we had no trouble getting in after passing through a security gate where we had to check in and Nicolas was called to say we were coming. Fancy!

Parked in front of Nicolas’ house

After lunch they took us for a drive in the nearby hills that are full of coffee and plantain plantations. We stopped at one that he said was the best but they are only open weekends. He managed to convince the gardener working there to let us in to take a few photos of the scenery and the nearby town of Buena Vista.

Next day we headed back to the larger city of Armenia in the hopes of getting our O2 sensor installed; despite the replaced spark plugs from Villa Maria, we continue to get a code saying the O2 sensor needs replacing. Doug has attempted to remove and replace them, but cannot get the darn thing out.

After going to SIX places, we found some guys that could help us at an exhaust shop; they removed the skid plate and managed to pull out the sensor in front of the exhaust; we had the replacement – or so we thought! Turns out we had the wrong part; we had part number 15703 instead of part 15730. But the mechanic said he could use the new sensor and wire it to the existing connector and it would work just fine…… made sense but we weren’t completely sure but it was worth a shot. So this little project took most of the day after farting around trying to find a place and then the actual work took almost four hours (the work entailed removing the skid plate, cutting the exhaust, wrenching out the old sensor, rewiring the new sensor and putting it all back together again).

skid plate in upper left corner with part of the exhaust

Armenia, despite being the “heart of the coffee region” really doesn’t have much to offer other than big city stuff; while Doug stayed at the garage with Tigger, Fran wandered into el Centro and went to a large grocery store where she found some items we’d been looking for, for a while. Doug had also been wanted a mint liquor that we’d been searching for since coming back from Canada and we found it here in a small liquor store so he bought two.

That night we met up with Matt Barron, one of the young Canadian men we’d met on the sailboat to Cartagena back in June. He is teaching English here in a high school and we’ve kept in touch. We met him near where we decided to spend the night in Tigger and went to little Italian joint for some beer, dinner and conversation. It was nice to catch up and learn he is enjoying what he’s doing. His visa will expire at the same time more or less as ours, and he too is headed to Ecuador so our paths may cross again.

We spent the night in a vacant lot on a corner between two condo buildings on a street where other overlanders had stayed before. The neighbourhood is in the north part of the city and is pretty upscale and safe feeling. It rained as usual (we’ve not had a completely dry day since we’ve been back) and Doug is again battling leaks in various places. We CANNOT figure out where the water is coming in; he feels he’s plugged every possible entry point at least twice. Very aggravating.

We left Armenia the next day and drove east to Ibague, an even larger city to meet up with another traveler we met in Taganga (outside Santa Marta where we spent a week). Seth is an American who was bar tending at the hostel we stayed at. This drive was only 86 kms but due to windy hilly roads, took us four hours!

It was also about time to get an oil change for the generator and a few weeks back Fran had found online that there was a Cummins location in this city and they are supposed to be able to service our Onan generator. So first stop was the Cummins garage but the receptionist advised that they do not do this service. However, there happened to be a man there from the garage next door who said he could do the work so Doug asked how much and we moved Tigger into their lot.

how many men does it take to change the oil in a generator?Now to access the generator to do this meant removing the storage bin at the rear of Tigger which has the hot water heater on it – not a fun/easy job and in order to remove it, of course you must empty it. So four guys begin emptying the bin into the coach with Fran and the “work” commenced. With Doug holding the generator manual and supervising the oil change was completed and the generator got a new spark plug; it was tested and it ran smoothly. Then the chore of refilling the bin and replacing it began.

We drove into the city and parked in a lot across from a modern shopping mall where we hoped to get internet at the McDonald’s located inside. It seemed we were too tall to enter the parking lot for the mall but this lot was directly across the street. We reached out to Seth here but unfortunately he was pretty ill and not up to company so we hung out in the food court using the internet and by late afternoon we went back to Tigger and negotiated a price to spend the night there in the lot. There were no services but it was reasonably quiet. Maddeningly enough we discovered a leak in one of the hoses from the hot water heater (probably was getting old and doing that moving around of the storage bin yesterday did not help).

There was a large grocery store in the mall and we bought a few items that evening and the next morning and were out of the lot by 9am as agreed. Our plan was to stay in this area another day or two at a nearby campsite but when we arrived there, although it looked nice and had a pool, we could not get Tigger level enough in the wet grassy parking lot so we left and carried on back to the highway and head south towards the Tatacoa Desert.

Now we are not diehard coffee drinkers (Fran drinks only Kahlua and Doug will drink café tinto) but the scenery in the coffee region is so lush and green and being in the mountains means cooler/fresher air.

Sidebar:  Did you know that coffee did not originate in Colombia but in Arabia?  It grows on a shrub/bush and after a small white flower grows, it produces a fruit called a “cherry” of which the pit is the coffee bean.  Colombia is the third largest producer of coffee after Brazil and Vietnam. 

We enjoyed our time here.We hope to meet Joe and Josée there and have been staying in touch to see if we can make that happen as well as travelling with them to Caño Cristales afterwards (more about that later). So we found on iOverlander a truck stop on the highway that allows campers and was supposed to have fast internet. Well the latter was true but the wifi was down.

Once we parked, got plugged in (we are now at a much, much lower altitude and close to the desert so it’s HOT again). The terrain is getting dryer and is pretty flat (which is helping our gas mileage tremendously).

We attempting to try and fix the leaky hose without removing the box again but were unsuccessful so in full sun, we emptied the bin again, removed the box and Doug was able to finagle a fix for the hose (finagle because it turned out his plan of using clamps didn’t work as none of his clamps fit).

Once we parked, got plugged in (we are now at a much, much lower altitude and close to the desert so it’s HOT again). The terrain is getting dryer and is pretty flat (which is helping our gas mileage tremendously). We attempting to try and fix the leaky hose without removing the box again but were unsuccessful so in full sun, we emptied the bin again, removed the box and Doug was able to finagle a fix for the hose (finagle because it turned out his plan of using clamps didn’t work as none of his clamps fit). He also got working on trying to plug the leaks on the back wall of Tigger again!!!!

We spent a nice cool night in the rig able to run the AC but IT now is making some strange noises; add that to the to do list!

It rained hard overnight and of course, we had more water leaking in the back window! Doug is definitely at his wits’ end on this issue. Where could it possibly be coming in from?

We left the truck stop and drove about an hour and stopped where it was dry and Doug climbed atop Tigger to see about fixing the air con; not much luck getting screws out so he gave up for now. We drove on to the little town of Aipe where were read there was a cheap hotel with decent internet. They had no parking area but we parked Tigger around the corner in a secure lot and checked in. The sky is clearing somewhat but all that lightning and thunder last night did nothing to dissipate the heat.

The town of Aipe is small and right across the Rio Magdalena from the Tatacoa desert BUT you cannot access it via car, only bicycle or on foot.  It does have a cool little carving/wall in the town square.

We will have to drive further south to the larger city of Neiva, stock up and then head northeast.  We heard from Joe & Josee next morning and we are going to meet up at a camping spot in the Desert.