I was working a night shift at a newspaper in London when midnight struck and I turned 24. I finished editing an article before handing out slices of cake to my colleagues. There were one or two ‘happy birthday’ asides before we got back to work and the quiet of the office. It was a depressing way to celebrate my birthday. That was the very moment I decided to move to South America.
I wanted to experience a different culture and learn Spanish. Having spent a couple of fantastic years in Montpellier, France, I knew that living abroad could be rewarding. My initial target was Buenos Aires, because it is the most well known South American city among Brits. But then I had a phone chat with my cousin Solomon and his girlfriend Rebecca. They had been cycling around the continent and working on farms for a couple of years. And they convinced me that Medellin was a much better fit because it was a far more interesting place; less European than the Argentinian capital.
And so it was decided – Medellin. They insisted that before reaching the city, I drop in on a farm in the Zona Cafetera to work on a coffee farm. So a few weeks before leaving, they sent me an email with the following information.
‘Meet at the police station in Chinchiná at midday on the 25th June.’
So I managed to schmooze a free flight from London to Bogotá on the condition I write a travel article for the newspaper at which I used to work. (Upon settling in Medellin, I did write the piece, although I’m not sure the paper ever published it.) I stayed a night in capital city before taking a bus the following night to Manizales. The eight-hour journey was the worst in living memory as two extremely large and loud people – and their screaming kids – squashed me to the point I could hardly breathe. A storm like I’d never before seen or heard welcomed me to the tropical countryside. And the heat and humidity made the ride unbearable.
I jumped off the bus at 7am to find relief in the cool, foggy air of Manizales. I then climbed aboard a smaller taxi bus, which took me to my destination in Chinchiná. The village is absolutely tiny so the police station is more like a small shop. A dog lay by the side of two sleepy officers lounging on chairs. They have a very relaxed existence because there is no crime. I explained the situation using my extremely limited Spanish. Since I hadn’t slept a wink on the bus, I asked half-jokingly if I could sleep on the floor. They took me to their living quarters and insisted I take a nap on their bed.
As I drifted off, I suddenly realised I hadn’t spoken to my cousin in weeks and there was a very real chance I was in the wrong place or that they could have forgotten about our meeting. We had no way to contact one another in such a scenario. But I was so exhausted that I fell into a deep sleep.
I awoke several hours later with my cousin Solomon, who is a couple of years my senior, lying on top of me. There was a lot of screaming and excitement, as I hadn’t seen the two of them for almost two years. We thanked the officers and headed off to explore the mountainous landscape of Chinchiná.
The tiny village does not often come to mind with regards to Colombia’s coffee region, La Zona Cafetera. On a typical list of hotspots feature tourism capitals such as Salento, Armenia and Manizales. In fact, most Colombians have never heard of Chinchiná. Gringos (foreigners) are a rare sight, which makes the whole experience remote and magical.
I had never seen such a picturesque backdrop, with rolling green hills sprawling in every direction. And the people were so willing to help – I don’t think I paid for a single item over the week because no one would take our money. It is a very humble region, in stark contrast to some of the touristy parts of the country.
During my time there, Solomon and Rebecca taught me about the farmers’ struggle with multi-national corporations who force them to use all their land for coffee. It’s all quite absurd because it seems the local people could subsist without the interference of these firms by living off their own luscious land.
We stayed on a beautiful farm owned by a self-sufficient woman called Alejandra. Since she lives off the produce, she is one of the few who do not rely on the coffee companies. Her farm keeps goats, chickens, no end of exotic fruits unknown to the West and, of course, coffee plants – her own personal batch.
In the mornings we would feed the animals before heading to the coffee fields to hack down belligerent weeds. Then we trotted around the surrounding countryside where local campesinos greeted us with smiles and asked where we were from. The concept of Britain meant nothing at all to them, so all they wanted to know was how many minutes the flight took from home and how much it cost.
Ten hours and about four million Colombian Pesos.
With eyebrows raised, they begun calculating how much coffee their families would need to sell to pay for the tickets.
About the author:
Andrew is a freelance journalist who lives in Medellin. He holds an NCTJ qualification and worked as an online reporter for The Sun and several other publications before moving abroad. His passions are travel, football and languages – he speaks French and Spanish. He is constantly astounded at how much Colombia – and Medellin in particular – have to offer.
- What is behind your cup of coffee? (www.uncovercolombia.com)
- Coffee region tour (www.uncovercolombia.com)
- Visiting Quindio: venturing deep into the Colombian coffee country (www.uncovercolombia.com)