What I love about Colombia – or, the Colombia that I saw last month – is its authenticity. During my three-week trip I found relatively few places that had been gussied up for tourists, or that were overrun by them. At least, not yet. Instead, I saw and experienced life as it is for everyday Colombians going about their normal lives, rather than concerning themselves with serving and pleasing visitors from other countries and cultures. I’d like to describe one example: Jardin, an attractive Andean town in southern Antioquia (in the same department as Medellin) on the northern edge of the coffee growing region.
With a population of fewer than 20,000, it doesn’t stand out on countrywide maps. Nor, is it in the Lonely Planet guide (I’m repeating an oft-remarked accolade here). All the more reason for me to bring my small group of ecotourists there on our tour to natural areas in the central Andes and Caribbean coast.
So, what is Jardin is all about? In one word: coffee. Producing, selling AND drinking coffee. In fact, within our first hour there, we received a presentation on coffee-growing and preparation, viewed a video, and, of course, smelled raw and roasted beans and tasted some brew. Our consensus: well, the jury is still out… If caffeination upon arrival wasn’t enough to convince you of coffee’s import, one only needs to take a look at Jardin’s main plaza. It is packed with groupings of small wooden tables and simple wood chairs with leather seats and backs, each of which is a separate café with its own color scheme. When you scan the square from above, as we did from the second story balcony of our hotel, you see blocks of orange and green, red and yellow, or blue and white.
These cafes are certainly not just for show. All day long and far into the night, locals sit and sip, chatting with family, friends and neighbors as they drink their tintos (small cups of black coffee). Some, including the wizened, cane-carrying old man in a grey poncho, take special pains to maximize their comfort by tipping the small upright seats so that that they balance on two feet against a wall (my mother would be aghast!). And, a woman I spoke to when buying bus tickets told me that in Jardin, “Madrugamos para tintear.” (We wake up early in order to drink coffee.) I love it that they’ve turned the word coffee into an active verb!
Why, other than the caffeine, would one want to hang out in Jardin? Well, the town is charming, and very colonial. Its plaza is dominated by a neogothic church made of brown bricks with white mortar and tall spires covered in aluminum. And, the rest of the buildings, whether business or residential, are white with brightly colored doors, window frames and second story patios. Balconies overflow with hanging flowers, and the streets are clean and well-cared for, a sign of local pride. Surrounding the town, which sits on a mesa, are green hills covered by trees, coffee plantations, pasturelands and farm crops. Trout ponds fed by cool, free-flowing rivers abound – thus the preponderance of the fish on local restaurant menus.
And, for those of us who like to pray, enjoy nature and/or walk through the countryside, a 5-minute cable car can transport you to an adjacent hilltop where a Jesus, carved in white stone, blesses the masses. While I only qualify for only two of the three aforementioned reasons, I took the gondola to enjoy views of the village and its surrounding hillsides, and then stroll back leisurely looking a scarlet-rumped tanagers and other avian delights.
One of the other highlights is the Cueva del Esplendor, a semi-enclosed cave with an opening in its roof. What makes it so splendid? The gushing, sunlit waterfall that pours through the hole into a shaded pool, perfect for swimming in if you can stand the cold. This natural attraction is about 12 km from town, and is accessed from a finca (small farm) owned by the family of one of Jardin’s most gregarious residents – Jaime, a buoyant middle-aged man in a well-worn striped straw sombrero. He’s the type of person who talks to everyone as if he’s known them for ages and often seems a bit tipsy (though I believe that’s just his manner…). We found him at the base of the cable car after asking the giggly staff at our hotel about a guide for our hike to the cave the next day.
Jaime was more than happy to help us, trying at first to convince us to ride his horses even though we said we preferred to walk. A bit of salesman so, I admit, not a perfect example of the authenticity I noted elsewhere in town, but he was a man of his word. He offered us the services of his 20 year-old son Sebastian for the six-hour hike the next day, secured a Willy Jeep to transport us, and engaged his wife to prepare fiambre for us to take along for lunch. Never mind that we weren’t actually sure what fiambre was…
The hike started at the finca, where Jaime’s family had dairy cows, a small plantation of gulupa (one of the many edible and delicious passion fruits), and horses to rent. The 6 km (each way) trek took us up a short steep hill, across pastures with views of hazy green mountains, across a river or two, and eventually into a dark forest. Along the way, we watched yellow-tailed oropendolas fly in and out of long hanging basket-like nests and identified several migratory warblers, some of which will soon be arriving in my backyard in Maryland.
And we argued over a bright orange flowering shrub related to capers – which (in case you didn’t know) are actually pickled flower buds – until we had to assign all of our attention to the steep descent into the forested river valley. After rock hopping across the river a couple of times, we arrived at the dark atrium of the cave – a temple of sorts, its walls carpeted in lush green vegetation and its altarpiece the sunbathed waterfall.
What more could we ask for? Only the fiambre, the Antioquian meal for those who need
sustenance when miles (or kilometers) away from a kitchen: a chicken leg, hard-boiled egg, mashed potatoes, boiled potato, yucca, and plantain on a bed of rice, all wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with a string. It forms a self-contained packet, and is a perfect, albeit carbo-loaded, meal take along on an excursion. In fact, even after the hike back to the finca, the ride to Jardin, and a subsequent walk to experience noisy and brilliantly red, grey and black Cocks-of-the-rock on the edge of town, we still felt well nourished. The local trout on our dinner plates was just icing on our cake of authenticity. As was the free, all-you-can-drink coffee in the silver urn in our hotel lobby, the tastiest in town, in my humble opinion…