We took a taxi to the southern bus station bought tickets and breakfast and were on the road at 11. It was a leisurely start to the day. The journey took around 5 hours to Pereira, then we took a taxi to a village a few kilometres outside and then got into an unmarked car parked by the side of the road, because the driver said he could take us to the Finca.
We didnīt even need hindsight to tell us this was probably not a great idea, but thankfully the monosyllabic driver didnīt take us down a dead end and rob us of all our valuables at gun point. In fact he drove us straight there and we found out the following day he was the manager of the plantation.
The finca is set on a lush green hillside about 12 kilometres outside Pereira in the heart of the Zona Cafeteria. The farmers in this area grow the bulk of Colombiaīs most important legal export and help it remain the worldīs number two coffee producer after Brazil. Since the price of crop fell dramatically a decade ago many farms went out of business. The more enterprising of the growers are still harvesting coffee, but now supplement their income by renting rooms out to tourists.
This is the case with the Finca Villa Maria, itīs an 80 hectare estate, one of the biggest in the region. They can accommodate 15 guests, when we were there there were seven of us. Us two, Mark and Simon, two 23 year-old Kiwis whoīd also travelled from Medellin, and Emily, Emma and Claire. The first two are Irish college friends travelling together for a year and Claire is an 18 year-old gap year student from Bristol. They all been more organised than us and so had had some time to enjoy the pool and chilled out atmosphere of the place before we arrived, but it didnīt take us long to get chatting.
We ate all our meals at the finca and after a few beers on the first night got to bed relatively early as the whole family had already turned in and all the others were whacked after a solid few days of partying.
The next day we had breakfast at about nine and then Jim asked about the possibility of going riding. The woman of the house sent someone to saddle up the horses for us, but when I realised there were only two of them and no guide, I had a bit of a wobble. I was already sat on mine, when Jim correctly surmised that I didnīt want to be the first to see just how responsive these horses were. No one spoke any English and our Colombian equine related vocabulary is quite limited, so I chickened out of going first and Jim got Mark and Simon to take our places.
We didnīt realise at the time, but Mark had never ridden a horse before and Simon had only done it once. They set off at a trot up the hill the groom indicated and all we could hear were some slightly nervous laughter mingled with the sound of the horses hooves. We walked along the track behind them and found Markīs straw hat abandoned in the hedge at the first bend. We later saw them racing past us as apparently one of the coffee pickers they passed on the road had taken great delight in whistling in such a way as to make the horses bolt.
They managed to slow them down a bit at the summit I think, but the guy did it again on the way down so they had quite an exciting ride. Despite all this, Jim was keen that we still had a turn so we mounted the two, very sweaty horses, after the boys had retired to the hammocks. The groom was great and offered to lead my horse up the hill. It really helped me gain some confidence and I was soon asking him to let us go it alone. To be honest we both felt slightly bad as he was willing to walk the whole way up this very steep hill and the weather was very muggy, so he waited for us by the side off the road as went up to the top.
It was really lovely riding to the crest of the hill - the views were fabulous. We passed a handful of coffee pickers having their lunch (thankfully the whistling guy didnīt try that trick on us!) and surveyed the crops, flowers and butterflies. As the saying goes, I was really glad I got back on the horse.
After lunch we relaxed on the wooden balcony overlooking the countryside, while reading and swinging hammocks. It was just perfect. We saw loads of brightly coloured birds - blues, greens and reds and watched as humming birds sucked nectar from exotic flowers.
Thunder was rolling around and it was threatening a storm so we decided to take a dip before the weather got worse. Jim chickened out though and didnīt get more than his little toe wet. I braved the rain - by this time it was chucking it down - and swam 50 lengths. The first real exercise other than walking, Iīve had in a long time.
Dinner was served at about 6:30 and afterwards we got our tour of the coffee operations. The former owner of the plantation (he only sold it 18 days previously) came by to show us around. Itīs the low season at the moment and they only have about 10 men harvesting the berries he explained that in September - November theyīd have more like 150.
Itīs an organic farm, but apart from the picking, shelling and drying of the beans they donīt do any of the other processing. They sell their stock to a factory in the town that roasts the beans, grinds them, packages and sells them. We watched as the sacks with that daysī harvest in, were emptied into a machine that sorted the ripe ones from the unripe ones and popped them out of their skins. When they came out they were cream coloured and slimy, so next they were washed and then they would be air dried for 24 - 28 hours, before being bagged up and shipped out.
Our guide told us about the intricacies of the market. Ten years ago there was a slump in the price of coffee due to overproduction, about 95 million tons were bought, but 115 million tons were produced. The price fell to 45 US Cents a pound, fortunately for people in this area, the market has improved (probably thanks to Starbucks and Costa Coffee and the like) and prices are now generally between $1.15 and $1.20 a pound. His family had run the finca for over thirty years, but decided to get out of the business this year, why he didnīt say.
The brief tour was really interesting and we retired to our comfy seats on the porch to mull over what weīd just heard. It didnīt take long for someone to suggest we play a drinking game though and sure enough our highbrow conversation about the international commodities market degenerated into drunken arguments over who wasnīt abiding by the international drinking rules.
The seven of us got through three litres of rum, a stem of exotic flowers that made perfect beaks (see photos for further enlightenment!) and several tried and tested drinking games before calling it a night at around half past twelve.
The next morning wasnīt pretty, especially as Jim and I had to leave at nine to get a taxi to the bus station to continue our journey south. We had breakfast alone as the others were still KOīd but we did wave goodbye before we set off.
Iīm not sure what our hosts thought of us - as we were settling our bill, Jim tried to make clear that we needed to pay for two more beers than sheīd charged us for. She clearly misunderstood though as she sent her mother to the fridge to go and get us two more cans of Poker. I think she thought we wanted to get on it again at 8.30 in the morning - believe me when I say, nothing could have been further from our minds!
The morning we were due to leave The Black Sheep in Medellin I tried to make a reservation at a coffee finca near Pereira, but despite speaking to four different people in my best broken Spanish my attempts were frustrated. Luckily Kelvin, the Kiwi owner of the hostel, made the call for me and confirmed that the Finca Villa Maria did have a room available for us and theyīd hold it until we got there.