Well, after the scary way things got started in Bogota, the rest of our time there went smoothly. Unfortunately the attempted mugging left us a little nervous: needlessly judgmental about many of the people we saw and met, hesitant to leave our hostel at night, and overall unable to enjoy the city as fully as we're sure it deserves. Nevertheless we tried to make the most of our time there. On our first day, we walked around our neighborhood, popping into cafés and bakeries and admiring the wonderful street art to be found on every block. We briefly toured the Botero museum, enjoying Botero's whimsical and fantastical style, as well as pieces by Picasso, Dalí, and Monet, before seating ourselves in the busy Bolivar square to watch the city go by for a few minutes. Then it was another stroll to the world-renowned gold museum where we saw entirely too many examples of wonderful pre-colonial artistic, religious, and everyday gold items. To top the day off, we hailed a taxi to the city's most popular overlook, Monserrate, where we gained an appreciation for what an enormous metropolis Bogota really is.
On our second day we opted for a trip out of the city to one of Colombia's most popular tourist destinations, La Catedral de Sal, or the Salt Cathedral, a little over an hour away in Zipaquirá. The site features an enormous cathedral built into an abandoned salt mine, and while conceptually interesting--standing in a church that's literally under a mountain of earth is a fantastic thought--we found the actuality of the church a little underwhelming, and a bit too touristy. Really, now that you know that there is a cathedral deep underground somewhere in Colombia, and looked at a couple of the pictures, you've gotten about 90% of the benefit of the $10 tickets.
After these two days, and the omnipresent feeling of unease, we decided a trip to the country was in order, so we hopped a bus to the coffee zone, a trip of about 150 miles west which nevertheless took eight and a half hours, as we were forced to take a two-lane highway down one enormous mountain range and up another. You haven't lived until you've been in the front seats in a bus as it crosses a double-yellow line on a hairpin turn on the side of a mountain to pass three 18-wheelers.
Our first night in the little town of Salento, a bit road-weary and bus-dirty, we opted to shower and call it an early night. The next day we awoke rested and ready to go, and started our exploration with a traditional Colombian breakfast of hot chocolate, arepas, cheese, eggs, and rice and beans. Then we spent a few hours wandering around the beautiful town, its colorful shops and houses, all on the backdrop of incredibly scenic mountains. Then we returned to our hostel to take a tour of the coffee farm down the road, owned by the family who owns the hostel.
We spent about two hours with the owner, an amiable British man with a cunning plan to take the coffee industry by storm. He taught us about the coffeemaking process: from beans, to plants, back to beans, and into your cup. Coffee (the second-most traded substance in the world, as we learned) is one of those commodities whose evolution has been so influenced by our own that it's fascinating to think about our joint history, and all the time and experimentation it took ancient humans to develop the plant and the related processes that we know today. We learned that there are many distinct strains of coffee bean, some natural and some man-made hybrids, some considered highly prized and some only mediocre. And we learned that the different strains are indistinguishable at the "dried and washed" stage at which most of the coffee trade takes place. Therefore, coffee prices are set on size of the bean alone, and consequently, all the strains are mixed long before roasting, meaning that 99.9% of the coffee anyone in the world drinks is a blend of wildly different varieties. After the history, agriculture, and economics lesson, we were invited to wander around the farm and observe the patches of coffee, bananas, bamboo, pineapple, and blackberry being grown there, again surrounded in every direction by breathtaking scenery.
After a little down-time, we, along with two other Americans staying at our hostel, decided to try to get as close as we could to the local way of life by playing a traditional Colombian game called Tejo, and then taking in the Colombia-Argentina Copa America match.
Tejo is a game a bit like the American game of Cornhole (also known as "bags"), except that you throw two-pound hunks of metal instead of beanbags, you aim for an enormous slab of wet clay instead of a plywood board, and, oh yeah, explosives are involved. Here's how it goes: two slabs of clay are set on an incline and put 60 feet apart. In the middle of each, there's a metal cup buried so that just the rim is exposed, and the two teams take turns throwing the metal pucks (tejos) at the clay targets. If the tejo sticks anywhere in the clay surface, it's worth one point; if it sticks in the middle of the cup, it's worth six points; finally, four paper packets of gunpowder are set on the edges of the metal cup, so that if the tejo strikes one of them, a small explosion is made, the smell of smoke fills the room, and the thrower gets three extra points.
The inexperienced gringos that we are, we opted for the "kiddie court", which is essentially the same, but the clay slabs are only 15 feet apart, and the tejos are only one pound. It took us a bit to get the hang of it, but we eventually stumbled our way through a game to fifteen points, punctuated by a winning shot which exploded two of the gunpowder packets!
Content with our performance, and having worked up a sufficient appetite, we made our way to a bar-restaurant where we dined on the local specialty of river trout, and watched Colombia and the hated Argentina squad play to a "thrilling" 0-0 tie.
The next day, we got an early start by hopping on a refurbished WWII jeep for a drive to the head of a trail in a scenic valley (insert name) about 30 minutes away. We took a four-hour hike past lush green cow pastures, through dense rainforest, and over wooden bridges reminiscent of Indiana Jones, to a nature refuge, where we were rewarded with views of tons of hummingbirds (reportedly 23 species use the feeders at this cabin), along with the local specialty of chocolate con queso, a bowl of rich hot chocolate served with a slice of cheese. After hiking back out to the road, we were encouraged to pack as many people into the jeep as possible for the trip back to town. We ended up with 13 people in a jeep that comfortably seats no more than seven, but since that meant that both of us had to stand, Claudia in the middle of the open back, and me on a custom-built shelf above the tailgate, we were treated to an incredible ride, the wind pelting our faces while strikingly beautiful scenery rushed past on all sides.
After coming back to town, we pushed our legs just a bit further by climbing the 240-step approach to a viewpoint overlooking the town (obviously, as this is South America, the climb is punctuated by the 14 stations of the cross). At the top of the hill, we found a swingset which must have one of the most amazing views of all swingsets in the world, then we descended, treated ourselves to dessert, and raided two of the town's produce markets for a wonderfully fresh lunch of mango, avocado, tomato, cucumber, red pepper, watermelon, cheese and bread. Then we made ourselves a few veggie sandwiches and packed our bags for the next adventure: our first overnight bus, followed by our first overland border crossing!