Tuesday, 29 August 2017

What a load of (Colombian) buffalo

Colombia's coffee region, the Eje Cafetero. Home to coffee (we kid you not), beautiful landscapes, quaint colonial-style towns with friendly, easy-going folk (*LINK). It's why it tends to be on most tourists' must-visit lists.

One thing, however, we don't tend to associate with this part of Colombia, nay any part in fairness, is buffalo. Yet midway between the towns of Marsella and Chinchiná, tucked away among the spectacular mountains that define this region, you'll find a herd of 70-odd of the animals.

Buffalo from the Bufalera Gibraltar farm, located between the towns of Marsella & Chinchiná on Colombia's Caldas-Risaralda border.
Buffalo enjoying the environs of Colombia's famed coffee region.
To the uninitiated or if you're just not paying much attention, you mightn't notice them at all; these Indian-style buffalo could pass as cattle. (For the record most of the 'buffalo' beasts roaming the North American plains are bison.)

Nonetheless, buffalo they are and they've found a nice home for themselves on the Caldas-Risaralda border. They belong to Luis Fernando Sanint and his father, the latter being the man who first brought this particular breed of buffalo to Colombia in the 1960s.

While Luis Fernando and his wife's main focus has been on producing artisanal, organic cheese (the farm is considered fully organic), with the help of another few locals they're now expanding into offering farm tours. Considering the facilities they already have to hand -- an impressive, let's call it rural-style convention centre, a swimming pool and guest accommodation -- together with the growing, passing tourism trade, they might just be on to a winner.

Visitors are given the opportunity to get up close and personal with the buffalo during milking as well as having a wander among them in their pastures. There's a PowerPoint presentation on the animals, which gives an insight into the history of the breed farmed and also explains the health benefits of buffalo meat and milk (for the record, buffalo milk is suitable for those who are lactose intolerant and apparently it contains more Omega 3 than cow's milk while its meat tends to have more protein).

A highlight for many is getting to taste the cheese. The mozzarella -- do remember that the original, traditional Italian type is made from buffalo milk -- is a Colombian favourite, but European cheese lovers will probably find the quality mature cheeses they have on offer a treat (the typical Colombian doesn't tend to go for them, so finding a quality cheddar in these parts is usually a challenge).

While Luis Fernando doesn't specifically raise his own animals for slaughter, buffalo steak is, appropriately enough we could say considering the setting, served on the tour. If meat's not your thing, they also farm and sell fish, so you can catch your own lunch right on the spot.

Whatever the case, a visit to Bufelera Gibraltar should leave you satisfied food wise, if nothing else. The setting is pretty agreeable as well.
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Monday, 21 August 2017

Sustainable living, Colombian coffee-country style

It's generally accepted that no visit to Colombia is complete without a trip to its famed coffee region, the Eje Cafetero as it's known here. Even if the beverage is not your thing, the scenery that this part of the country boasts is as stunning as you'll find. There's also the agreeable climate, even if you have to dodge a few torrential downpours every now and again.

What's more, in terms of tourism infrastructure, it tends to be a bit ahead of many other regions as, for the most part, leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers haven't had such a devastating effect.
Brisas del Cauca, Marsella, Risaralda, Colombia.
Brisas del Cauca: Not just a pretty landscape ...
In this regard, when it comes to selecting coffee tours, visitors are pretty much spoilt for choice. Fincas, that is to say farms, are ten-a-coffee-bean so to put it. For the most part, to get an idea of the coffee-making process while at the same time enjoying the natural surrounds, you can't go too wrong with whichever place you choose.

Some, however, have a more commercial feel to them, lacking that genuine friendly touch that most Colombians, especially the rural folk, are famed for.

This certainly can't be said for Luis Fernando Vélez's Brisas del Cauca finca, located a short distance from the small, picturesque town of Marsella in the Risaralda department. In fact, it offers much more than a hands-on insight into Colombia's coffee culture and a breathtaking backdrop.

In many ways, in this more or less self-sustained, organic fruit and veg farm, what's on view is another way of life.

Alongside the coffee plants and cacao trees (the 'journey' from cacao pod to edible chocolate is largely similar to that of coffee; a step-by-step guide to both processes is available), Brisas del Cauca is home to avocado, bananas, honey, mandarines, oranges, passion fruit, plantain and yuca to name just a few of the natural goodies on offer.

What's more, fuelling Luis Fernando's penchant for throwing up a finca-sourced meal with a concoction of flavours, there's a host of diverse herbs growing on site.

Indeed a walk around the grounds with the affable host is akin to a green and healthy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory experience. Something edible comes along with practically every step. As for the herbs, Luis Fernando has the low-down on the alleged health benefits of each one. His enthusiasm for them and everything else on the farm would almost have you believe that eternal living is within grasp.

While most visitors come on day trips, there is the option for individuals or small groups to spend the night there; there's no point in rushing these things if you don't have to.

Whatever way you do it, for an understanding of the coffee-and-chocolate-making processes (check out our videos of those here) plus all the priceless little extras, Brisas del Cauca is as good as they come. Luis Fernando awaits you.

*Brisias del Cauca owner Luis Fernando Vélez can be contacted on +573116085894 or e-mail brisasdelcauca@hotmail.com. You can also find him on Facebook.
** For those not staying on the farm there are numerous accommodation options in the picturesque town of Marsella. The well-kitted out Hotel Carmen has good-quality rooms from $35.000 COP.
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Thursday, 10 August 2017

Colombia's comedown?

For the last 12 months or so Colombia seemed to be on the crest of a wave somewhat. This was mostly down to the implementation of the peace deal signed between the government and the country's largest rebel group, Farc.

Heady times, albeit superficially and in just some areas. The bounce Colombia got internationally was apparent in numerous foreign media reports naming it as one of the must-see places in 2017. Add to this President Juan Manuel Santos' scooping of the Nobel Peace Prize and the grounds for optimism were clearly there.

However, considering Colombians can be as cynical as the best of them (amongst themselves that is, not normally to outsiders) coupled with a belief in many quarters that the Farc peace accords change very little in practice, the optimism certainly appears to have waned. (It should get a small shot in the arm with Pope Francis's upcoming visit here in September.)

Bogotá from a high: Is it, and Colombia in general, a work progressing or regressing?
Bogotá and Colombia in general: A work progressing or regressing?
Indeed, for some, the place is getting worse. A well-to-do Scotsman who has called Colombia home for the last 27 years believes this to be the case. He says that for the first time in his almost three decades here, he feels things are regressing. That seems quite a statement bearing in mind that when he first came here Pablo Escobar was still wreaking havoc.

So why, at a time when Colombia seems as open and welcoming as it ever has been, the negativity? The following sheds some light on things:

Cocaine high
Cocaine. Its mere utterance gives most Colombians a sinking feeling; the scourge of the country for decades.

Of course, the substance is ingested just as much, if not more so, in North America, Europe and Australia as it is in these parts, but here is the source.

As long as the external demand and enormous profits to be made from it continue to exist, cocaine production won't slow down any time soon. In fact, the opposite has been the case of late, it has increased.

The money in the white powder offers a route to riches that 'legitimate' Colombia can't come anywhere close to. Thus, it's mob rule where cocaine is king with officialdom either turning a blind eye or implicated in it.

A not so well-oiled machine
In contrast to Venezuela, Colombia's oil revenue looks set to fall substantially in the coming decade.

Unsurprisingly, sources in the industry here say the government lacks any sort of plan for a not-too-distant future when the country will have to import the resource.

We'd expect Venezuela to have its house in more normal order in 10 years' time than it is now, so maintaining good relations with the oil-rich neighbour is key. Welcoming fleeing Venezuelans with open arms during this current crisis might just be the right strategy.

Short-term gain, long-term loss
As for the lack of forward-thinking in terms of resources, so it is for practically every other area, especially in the likes of education and infrastructure.

Unfathomable and often contradictory legislation enforced arbitrarily combined with rampant corruption mean progress is slow or there's none at all.

In such an environment there are few signs that the vast inequality is being reduced. This ensures continued envy and justification for crime from the have nots.

Reasons to be cheerful?
Notwithstanding the above, we're not running away from the place just yet. The fact that the country is in a state of flux, a tad chaotic if you will, both excites and frustrates many foreigners based here.

Plus, with La Selección (men's national football team) on the verge of World Cup qualification, the powers-that-be can rest assured that the football-mad masses will forget all their daily strife, at least for a time.

And that's how things tend to roll here. Live for the moment, to heck thinking about the future.
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