San Augustin: We board a night-bus in downtown Bogota and wake 9 hours later in a place where men wear cowboy hats and ride horses. The roads here are stony tracks cut out of the rolling cordillera, limiting the traffic to ancient-looking jeeps, massive trucks or wooden carts pulled by horses in varying states of health. This is ranch country, similar I would think to the southern states of the US. Men wear leather boots and carry whips. A few have ponchos on – we’re above 100 metres here and it gets chilly – but they are a shorter, briefer cotton type, compared to the big woollen blankets of Bolivia or Peru.
In the hills above the small town of San Augustin, we find a delightful coffee plantation and stay in its rambling house, built by an eccentric Frenchman out of bamboo and mudbrick. François has created the loveliest garden, full of fruit trees and flowers, vegetables and herbs. Even more cleverly, he has married Adriana, who is not just a gorgeous Colombian woman with a beautiful smile, but also the best chef in the country.
We eat large delicious meals at frequent intervals, trying everything on Adriana’s menu, drinking infusions of lemongrass from the garden, sipping rum on the veranda, swinging in hammocks and watching the hummingbirds visit the flouncy fragrant flowers. Fat hens and cockerels shuffle around us, gurgling and making small moans – sounds that I had no idea chickens made. Francois’s three friendly dogs bound around us displaying the energy that we so obviously lack.
The rain rains, the sun shines, we snooze and eat, chat and read. Francois harvests his coffee beans and piles them onto a big plastic sheet to dry them. We help him pick out the beans that have been mauled by an insect pest. Then he gathers them into a bundle to take to market.
Against our better judgement, we join a horse-riding tour of the archaeological sites that are scattered in the surrounding hills. People living 3000 years before Christ, buried their dead in stone tombs guarded by fearsome looking statues with pointed jaguar teeth. Some are coloured with red, yellow, black and white pigments that ooze from the nearby trees.
Creatures from eagles to crocodiles are carved over the figures. Some depict the apparently frequent practice of baby sacrifice – one guy is pictured grinning while dangling a terrified baby by its feet and clearly about to start feasting on it.
Our fellow tourists are a youthful mixture: an interesting, if intense, 25-year-old French-Canadian guy with maturity and knowledge far beyond his years, but unfortunately also saddled occasionally with the world-weary ennui of the 40-something; a pretty Hawaiian guy who quickly picked up an entourage of all the single females in our group, including a happy hippy from Vancouver and a prissy English girl from the home counties.
A Dutch woman in our group quickly proves her horsey skills, galloping off while Nick and I are uncomfortably bounced on the hard saddles. I like horses, but have never felt the need to sit on one. Luckily, my horse is extremely lazy and prone to snacking on grass and hedgerows, until the tiny Indian in the cow-skin hat whacks him across the legs with a switch, startling him into an organ-jarring jog. I lose the reins, clinging for dear life to the knob at the front of my “Western-style” saddle.
Back in François’s house, shifting painfully between arse cheeks, I consider a life on a Colombian coffee plantation. Shafts of coloured light pierce the glass bottles buried in the mudbrick walls, and outside, a hummingbird chip-chips in and out of big blowsy flowers. A massive soppy alsatian with a thick coat of hair rests his head on my lap, reminding me of my parents’ dog. A ripe glossy guava falls from the tree at my feet and I pick it up and suck out its sweet-sour flesh. In the background, Adriana is cooking me a spicy chicken crepe.
Francois’s brought the coffee beans back with him: the woman at the market told him they weren’t dry enough yet. We peer at them together. They look and feel dry, but when rubbed in expert hands, they are a little moist, he tells me. We lay them out on the plastic sheet again, while the sky thunders and rain pelts down around. It might work out for the best, Francois says, because the coffee prices could be higher next week.
Eventually, we have to leave our idyll, take the bus for 6 hours along the bone-breaking unsealed road to Popayán – some people arrive concussed from being bounced against the bus roof! – and from there to the Ecuadorian border. Just 2 weeks ago, a similar bus got held up by FARC rebels, we’re told. But apart from reading the passengers a lengthy speech and securing some ‘donations’, the bus left with everyone unharmed. We’ll take the daytime bus to be on the safe side.