Saturday, January 1, 2011

Of Birds, Beetles and Tortoises

November 3rd to 12th

Heading out of Armenia, we take a short detour up to Salento village. Deep in Colombia's coffee region Salento is famed for it's laid back lifestyle, it's artisans and the beauty of the Corcora Valley that it sits atop.

The scenery on route is pretty good too....

And it's not just coffee as we head past endless abundant fruit orchards and plantations....

Salento is a tourist town and all those cameras and wallets need protecting. It's not just fruit lurking in amongst the trees. We spy the glint of watchful eyes; the bright white contrasting starkly against the black background of camouflage cream hidden amongst dense shrubbery. Occasionally they blink - and completely disappear!

Others are more overt, keeping a 'high-vis' presence by marching machine guns along the narrow lane that drops down to the Quindio River....

A steep climb out of that river valley takes us into Salento and I begin to check out the hostels and residentias for a bed. Just as I am striking a deal, I notice Sue in conversation outside with two men and it seems we now have alternative arrangements.

Edgar is a local who has divided his time between native Colombia and the States where he has worked for 40 years. As he is building a home in town, he states, we would be fools to pay money when we could stay at his place for free. After upsetting the hostel owner with news of this turn of events we gratefully follow Edgar to our new digs.

Shortly after we're taking the tour of the town and being introduced to most of it's residents.

Edgar with Sue at the incredible viewpoint overlooking the impressive Corcora Valley....

It's a lovely little town constructed from brightly painted wood panelled dwellings....

Set around a large plaza bustling with the usual food vendors and jeep style taxis that ferry a never ending stream of visitors in and out of the valley....

Edgar is a problem solver. Once he has taken care of the accommodation issue, we explain our hunger and he whips out his cellphone and gets on the case. Within minutes, someone somewhere is heading to market to acquire trout, fresh from the local rivers. Elsewhere, a cook is heading to a friends house to prepare sauces and bread.

Bemused, confused, we arrive a hour later and the table is laid with one of the finest feeds we've had in quite a while. The trout is amazing - done in a traditional mushroom sauce and the house is full of people and life. We never get to fully understand the connections between the many visitors and Edgar, but he's obviously a popular guy. It's a relaxed atmosphere as people come and go and it's an entertaining and unexpected day as we finally make our excuses and retire to our new, borrowed home.

The builders wake us as they arrive early the next morning and make busy with the loud music and the bashing and hammering. They are extending Edgar's house as he makes it ready to bring his family from the US to enjoy his retirement here in Colombia.

In town there is a fiesta to celebrate 40 years since the inauguration of the school. Children parade in traditional costumes or fancy dress representing the various regions of the country....

Next day, we ride down steep side to the valley floor and head upriver. The road turns to dirt as we climb, then to a rutted track and finally a bridleway where we abandon the wheels and head on on foot. Various guides explain the way is too difficult, but they just want to hire out horses to carry us like lazy tourists up into the hills.

We hike a trail past forests of Palms that thrive here in a unique habitat. The 'Wax Palm' - tallest of all palms is Colombia's national tree. Unique to the Corcora Valley, these trees take a hundred years to grow to their full 50 metre height and cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. From a distance these tall towers make for an odd looking skyline. Their slender trunks, denuded of foliage save for that modest, almost apologetic explosion of green at the ends, gives them an odd look of being only partially created. Up close they are strangely magnificent, towering rigid and strong!

But I still can't help thinking that from a distance, the land looks like a toy medieval battleground, peppered with the opening salvo from an army of archers....

It's a unique habitat for insects and birds as well as the trees. This enormous stag beetle is the size of my hand and it scared the bejeseus out of me as it wobbled it's uncertain path through the air towards me, wings droning like the stricken engine of a propeller plane.

Yes! These things can fly....

The trail is obviously a well used one, being a three foot deep trench of mud in places. There used to be a series of bridges criss-crossing the river along the route, but the humidity and copious rainfall soon dealt with them....

Now a series of slippery bamboo poles provide a makeshift solution....

Deeper into the undergrowth....

The reason for the trek is a Hummingbird sanctuary set up by a couple living fairly remotely at 1000m above the valley floor at the end of of this two hour trek. They are undoubtedly pleased to see us, especially when they discover Sue brings cigarettes - they had both been dealing with the craving and weren't looking forward to the five hour round trip to the corner shop.

All that time I spent trying to get a decent humming bird shot! The problem was that they were here all along - there are literally hundreds of them. As we arrive a fffrrraaabbbb sound signals one of them taking an interest in my bald head as it hovers just six inches away. One actually brushes past my arm as I get my camera.

Some are more cautious and won't come too close, but this little guy is fearless even allows Sue to briefly tickle him under the chin....

This one is less happy - blowing a raspberry at the exorbitant fees for the bathroom....

There are several different species and it's bewitching watching them hanging in space before twisting and teleporting to a new location and hovering eerily once more....

We kill a couple of hours watching the show. Hummingbirds are quite territorial and several aerial dogfights break out as they try to protect their air space and food supply ducking and diving at impossible speed.

Finally, with the skies looking ominously heavy and with only a few hours of daylight left we leave all Sue's remaining cigarettes to our incredibly grateful hosts and head back down to the valley floor where the bikes are chained to a tree. A mad four hour dash, chasing the rapidly fading light sees us back in town.

Exhausted we arrive back just as Edgar turns up to invite us out for a horse ride.
A horse ride??
I do check to make sure, but it's definitely dark now!
A horse ride??
Are you crazy??

Apparently so! It's a normal Friday night out here in Salento apparently. Just you, a few buddies a huge hip flask of whiskey and a pitch black trek on horseback along the valley's trails. Sadly we have to decline. Whiskey, total darkness, rocky trails and my first time on a horse in 30 years just doesn't sound like the kind of tale that can have a happy ending.

We head into the square to watch maybe 30 guys charging and chasing and performing tricks before they head out though. Crazy, crazy people!

Next day dawns wet windy and ugly as we pack up and say thanks to Edgar for the loan of his house and an introduction to family and friends. I keep saying it - Colombia is home to just the most amazing people!

The weather though is less friendly; it really is freezing cold and miserable, and we don't get too far. Just a couple of kilometers out of town is a gringo hostel with wi-fi, hot showers and comfy leather sofas and a large library of English books. The shiny lights from the windows is just too tempting and like moths drawn to the flame we go in - posting a new record low for a day's ride.
I'm (almost) ashamed....

A couple of days escape us as the rain first settles in and then just hammers the ground. Happy of the excuse, Sue and I revel in the book collection and It surprises us both just how much we've missed a good read. We don't carry books, relying solely on audio books which just aren't the same.

The rain moves into it's third day, then a fourth and we're actually feeling guilty enough to head out, when suddenly all that guilt just gets washed away.

A familiar thud-thud sound approaches - definitely a single cylinder motorcycle engine, and a big one at that. Wait a minute, that looks familiar - nobody carries that much kit - but it can't be.

In walks Victor a Canadian guy we met on the 'Stahlratte' crossing from Panama and suddenly we don't feel all that slow and guilty after all. We've been here for days, and yet we still arrived under pedal power faster than this guy with an engine. It's great to see him again and yet another excuse to stay another day.

Victor a diamond fellow and the world's slowest traveller with the most equipment on his 650cc tortoise....

Seen in Salento considering an upgrade to something faster....

Fantastic seeing you again buddy and good to catch up. Maybe see you again in Ecuador.... if you can keep up....


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