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Brake Checks & Giant Matchsticks: Salento & Valle de Cocora.

Our drive to the heart of the coffee zone, also called the Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis), from Bogota to the town of Salento was ‘mostly’ uneventful - at least for the first 4 hours. It’s a long drive without a doubt, but the first 4 hours to Iguape were a breeze on four lane roads with not much traffic. Then came the mountains. We’ve driven plenty of difficult mountain passes and this wasn’t much different except for the fact that we were driving on the only route East to West from Bogata for big rig trucks…many, many trucks. So, you pass (sometimes with 2 or 3 other big rigs at the same time) when you can and you chill when you can’t. I was mostly cool with this rhythm. So, that’s what we did and it was long and slow but manageable.

Then we started to descend. We’ve done that before too. It’s pretty simple. You just use the brakes more and the gas less. I wasn’t thinking about it much. About half way down the mountain we were stopped behind a line of trucks waiting for the uphill traffic to clear a hairpin turn. Paula said she thought she smelled the brakes. I said, ‘I’m pretty sure those are the trucks around us’. Then we descended a bit more and again we were stopped behind a line of trucks. Now we both smelled brakes. So I got out and looked. Yep, they were HOT and they really smelled. Then the traffic started to roll and I got into the truck, pushed the brake pedal and put the truck into gear. Except the brake pedal went all the way to the floorboard. I had no brakes. Hmmm. This is a 2014 Toyota Tundra. It’s not supposed to do this, but it did. I’m not one to pull over without a plan, so I continue to drive. I needed to slow the truck, so I put it in four wheel drive and dropped into first gear. That worked. As we slowly wound our way down and up the mountains, the brakes came back slowly as well.

It turns out that I may have been less than diligent about pumping the brakes vs. riding them. My research (a quick Google search) suggests that I probably boiled the brake fluid. That’s not good for the brakes…and I’m not going to do that again.

In a country full of beautiful landscapes, the area around the coffee region and the Valle de Cocora is one of the most striking. It stretches east to the town of Salento, into the lower reaches of Los Nevados National Park, with a broad green valley framed by sharp peaks. Everywhere we see palmas de cera (wax palms), the largest palm in the world (up to 200 feet tall). This is Colombia’s national tree. Set amid the misty green hills, they are both beautiful and strange. Long pale matchsticks coming out of the earth. Like something out of a Dr. Seuss storybook.

The dramatic mountainous terrain surrounding the coffee farms with the green lushness is striking. As I do with most new and beautiful places, I asked myself (and Paula), could we live ‘here’? The answer, as usual, was yes. But the yes is mostly due to the notion of waking up and going to sleep every day looking at the incredible views. The landscape and scenery really make an impression on me – every day – here and most everywhere in Colombia. But then the reality of daily life and the idea of living far from home sort of catch up and I’m not ready to go there. We will settle for a slow nomadic lifestyle for now and reevaluate it all again – mas tarde.

We camped at a fantastic hostel called La Serrana. We had incredible views out our camper window, really good bathrooms, and a delicious breakfast included in our camping fee. It was a great place to hang out. As an added bonus, we met up with some “old” friends and made a couple of new ones. Eva and Juan Carlos of Xino-Xano met us on the street in Salento and camped with us for a couple of nights. Lukas and Melanie from Switzerland also arrived at La Serrana. We met them on the coast and now we would hang out for a couple of days together. We also met Jessica and Jesse, a Canadian couple traveling around Colombia, who, after one miserable long haul bus ride bought a motorcycle. We were all camped close together and hung out and got to know each other for a bit, which was nice.

Happy Hour with Jesse and Jessica from Toronto

I learned how to make bread from the Swiss. So many firsts on this trip!

Morning coffee with Juan Carlos and Eva

The day after everyone arrived, I noticed a poster advertising a football game in the town of Salento. It wasn’t just any football game and it wasn’t the South American version – no, it was THE SUPERBOWL! I was pretty happy about this and although our Mexican, Spanish and Canadian friends didn’t much care for this event, I dragged them all to the bar and hosted my own Superbowl party in Colombia. I was quite excited to be watching the game and although I was with a less than interested group, a few beers and some good grub kept everyone there for the duration.

Superbowl Sunday...Salento Style. You guys were good sports!!

The town of Salento

Salento is famous for its delicious river trout, prepared in a variety of ways. We enjoyed some in one of the quaint restaurants right on the town square. The beers were a $1 and the huge trout dish we shared was $5.

Our next morning, we headed out with Jesse and Jessica to hike among the Wax Palms. We all walked to the main square in town and piled into a 1950's Willy's jeep out to the trailhead. We had a great day meandering throughout the Cocora, viewing the palms and then hiking up a river.

All the rides to the trailhead are in classic WWII Willys jeeps. The first jeeps to arrive were army surplus models sent from the US in 1950. They are still the main form of transportation in rural parts of the Zona Cafetera. Willys are used to transport everything from passengers to pigs, platano (plantain), furniture and, of course, coffee. Our driver packed in 11 of us.

The view of the palms is quite beautiful when they are dotted all over the hillside with only grasslands below them, however this isn’t how they grow naturally. The cattle ranchers strip all of the land for cattle, but leave the wax palms. The problem is that the seedlings of the palms need to be protected by the shade of the forest for them to grow. So, these majestic 180 feet high palms that we see alone on the hillside will leave no offspring and eventually become a barren hillside. But they are quite lovely to view for now. (Often on this trip there is the paradox of beauty in nature wrapped around the reality of natural habitats disappearing at alarming rates – this is just an observable reality).

Cleared for pasture land...

And how they are suppose to grow.

At the end of our time in Salento and the coffee region, Eva and Juan Carlos took off in one direction and we, the Swiss, and the Canadians (the Jessies) set out for new destinations – traveling all together in what was to become, "The Convoy".

More on that in the next blog post!

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