This week our cousins took us for a drive, and we visited three towns in Colombia’s coffee country, Santa Rosa, Cartago, and Pereira. Here’s a compendium of random thoughts and images from the trip.

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Beautiful buildings in this area

Bananas and coffee grow very well together. The farms that are growing oranges, bananas, and coffee together, like our cousin’s, are traditional and many have been deemed protected. The bananas and oranges provide shade and the coffee plants hold the topsoil onto the hill. Almost all the land here is vertical and protecting topsoil is crucial. Some gentleman farmers have been clearing the hills for cattle, which are less labour intensive, but the reduced ground cover leads to landslides, and it’s almost impossible for the land to recover its fertility once the topsoil has washed away.

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The healthier hillsides are those with crops or jungle rather than cleared ones like some of these

Bamboo is an important plant for protecting the land and topsoil – its roots stabilize the soil near rivers and on hillsides too steep to farm, and some varieties provide building materials. It’s such a vital plant that it’s a protected species, and you need a license to cut it down. Some locals say it’s bad luck to have it growing on your land, however, since it grows like a weed and you aren’t allowed to clear it. But on our cousin’s farm, a badly designed culvert sends rain and floodwaters down a slope near the house, washing away crops and topsoil and threatening the driveway, so the family is trying to encourage the bamboo to root on the slope and hold the land together.

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A stand of bamboo holding soil on a hilltop

The best bamboo for building in this area is called Guadua. It’s green and feathery and grows in huge clumps of jungle that are practically impenetrable. When you cut a stalk down, tiny spiny fibres work their way into your skin, making you itch like crazy. (Ellen learned this the hard way on the farm in Costa Rica and suffered a painful rash for a few days as the spines worked their way back out of her skin.) Here, they say you should only harvest bamboo at certain times of the day or month, because the stalks fill with water and then empty again in cycles according to the moon. In Costa Rica, a natural building expert told us it’s best to drill into each segment of bamboo to drain the water and fill the core with concrete to strengthen it, but here they dry it and coat it against insects and damp instead.

Traditional local houses are made of large pieces of bamboo, with straw and mud walls, and are protected as heritage homes. Lots of locals want to tear them down and build houses that need less maintenance, though. The bamboo houses are truly beautiful, and are cool in the summer as they let air flow between the walls and the open ceilings.

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Inside wall (split bamboo) and outside wall (mud and straw plaster painted white) in our cabin

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Our cousin's farmhouse

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The bamboo structure my cousin built as a community theatre

The towns around here are mid-sized, bigger than villages, and large enough to have old stone churches dominating the main squares. Apparently the mob cartels that used to rule the area were Catholic, and the churches here (some big enough to be cathedrals) are grand stone structures with extensive wooden supports on the ceilings inside. They are prominently placed facing the town plazas, which are bustling even with half the town’s shops shut down for the new year celebrations. The main town squares in Pereira, Cartago, and Santa Rosa all look fairly similar. Huge mango trees provide shade around the outside of the plazas, while raised beds of plants and smaller trees are laid out in circles and spokes around the fountain or statue in the middle of the square. The plazas are also home to iguanas lazing on tree branches as well as pigeons scrounging for scraps and fruit bats fluttering among the mangos in the trees. Hundreds of locals sit along the garden walls, chatting and sipping coffee sold by numerous vendors nearby. Coffee is roasted right in the square, at little jeeps and carts where you can buy tiny cups of highly sweetened espresso-style cafe, chocolate, and other drinks for mere pennies. Other vendors sell balloons, toys, souvenirs, snacks, and phone calls by the minute.

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Kumis, a milk-based fermented beverage available on the street

The area here is beautiful, and Ellen and I are enjoying our stay very much. We have contacted several volunteer hosts in coffee country and are narrowing down our choices to decide how to spend our time here. Who knows where we might be or what we might be doing next.

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Another beverage available for sale in the village square for mere pennies

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