Working away in the coffee hills


  • Bogota – Armenia
  • Armenia – Filandia
  • Filandia – Casa Country Finca Hostel
  • Salento
  • Cocora Valley

It was about time that I saved a little money and so, I had applied for a Workaway week in the coffee district of Colombia. Getting there was no easy task. First, we jumped on a bus from Bogota – Armenia. Despite choosing a company that was known to be pretty decent in Colombia, it was easily the most uncomfortable, hottest and most ridiculous driving I had experienced as yet on my travels. Due to the drivers idiocy on the road, we arrived two hours before expected, at 5am, and had to sit in Armenia bus station waiting for the busses towards Salento and Filandia to actually start running. Thank God I was still with Fran and Rhona because there is f*ck all to do in Armenia bus station and I was tired and grumpy.

At 7.30am I said goodbye to my gal pals as they drove off to Salento, the most touristy area of the coffee district. My bus driver was surprised to see a backpacker heading to Filandia, but I assured him that was my destination and drove for an hour towards the town. Filandia is a gorgeous colonial town in the heart of the coffee hills. It sits on top of a small mountain with views across the surrounding fincas and farms. I sat in Cafe Jahn, looking out over the main square, and contacted my Workaway host, Greg, to find out how to get to the hostel.

Greg had some visa troubles so gave me directions to Casa Country Hostel. It turns out that the local transport system here was jeeps. Literally like cattle, you herd in to the back of a jeep, often standing on the outside holding on as it drives along the dirt tracks of the countryside. They come just once an hour and to get to Casa Country, only 10km’s away, two jeeps were necessary. Needless to say that the locals weren’t exactly enthused when I turned up with my big rucksack to pile on as well as myself but my broken Spanish was completely needed to apologise, find my direction and actually work out exactly where I was going. Fortunately some lovely locals were willing to help me out a bit. Thankfully they didn’t just leer at my blonde hair and fair skin this time but actually provided some useful tips for my journey!

I arrived at the hostel after being dropped off at the wrong place (honestly, these drivers!) and having to walk 1km more down the road. Despite this, the hostel was stunning. Orelio, the maintenance guy, showed me in and to my room. I finally had a double bed, private room and bathroom all to myself without having to pay a single penny! It was a beautiful day but I was shattered, so after a short sleep I then head outside to wonder around the hostel grounds and sit down in the sun with my book. There were no guests currently at the hostel following the Santa Semana holiday in Colombia, so I could chill out and wait for the arrival of Greg and his wife, Bibiana.

Three guests arrived at the same time as Greg and Bibiana so I was shown the ropes of the hostel straight away. Nothing was too strenuous – my job was literally to help with breakfast and dinner service, with a little bit of cleaning or maintenance here and there, but by and large my days were free to do as I pleased. The three guests spent their afternoon in and out of the pool, whilst Bibiana and I made dinner. I was receiving free food for my work at the hostel too so once we’d served the guests, they then invited us both to join them with dinner too. Since Greg and Bibiana didn’t live on site, I was in charge of the kitchen and drinks after 8pm when they left. That evening, the guests weren’t very demanding which made my life super easy and allowed me to get to bed at a pretty reasonable hour. I certainly thought I was going to love my week there if it continued in such a manner!

Breakfast service was 8-9.30am, so at 7.30am I was up to make coffee, chop fruit and await Bibiana to begin service. The guests didn’t surface until 9am which gave us a chance to get to know each other better over coffee. She also introduced me to the Colombian classic food of Arepa. Don’t get too excited, Arepa is essentially a corn cake tasting exceptionally bland unless covered with butter and served with eggs for breakfast! Still, it proved a popular breakfast choice and we served up three meals worth before the guests head out for the day. Bibiana informed me that was the end of my shift until dinner so I got ready to catch the 10.15 am jeep to Filandia to go exploring.

The jeep took 45 minutes with one change and many a local was both surprised and happy to see a young, British girl on board. I struggled through a few spanglish conversations that morning! In town, I tried out a second cafe in the local square and took a fancy to the Colombian version of a cinnamon swirl. I followed my brunch with a spot of shopping, purchasing a new bikini for under £10 and my lunch and dinner supplies for about £6. It was shaping up to be a cheap week too. Greg had told me that Filandia was similar to touristy Salento but far cheaper, which I was happy about.

I head back to the hostel in time to make a healthy lunch and relax by the pool all afternoon. Certainly this weather was making life very easy for me. Before Greg came back that evening to cook the BBQ for dinner, I donned my running shoes and head out to the roads. Roads is a loose term; the tracks! It was time to get my fitness back and boy did this run prove that I need to. Just 5k down at 9min/mile pace, I was slow and tired! Granted the road out from the hostel goes either directly up or directly down so that one way is solidly uphill no matter which direction you choose to start. Anyway, I felt good for getting out and getting my sweat on.

Greg cooked up a real storm of a BBQ for the guests, who had spent the day at the local animal park. I got a few leftovers and made a couple of drinks but the family didn’t need too much tending to. Greg left about 9pm leaving me as music maestro. I had a little spanish conversation about Harry Potter and the UK banks with the father too. This was all fine and dandy until the little boy wanted to take over the music. I thought this fine and when they wanted to stay up drinking with music on until 2am, it seemed okay to head to bed about midnight.

Bibiana came for breakfast and we got all the necessary ready. Clearly it had been a heavy night for the family and they didn’t surface until 10.30am, an hour after breakfast finished. Whilst they slept, we realised the iPad had been broken. Not me since I was sleeping and the only other people on site were the three of them. Bibiana had some stern words and asked them to pay. I thought all was being handled well, until the cheeky sods blamed it on me! Given it clearly wasn’t, the police then arrived on site to settle the matter! So much drama over an iPad. Although the local police can’t have too much else to do since a blind eye is turned to drug trade in the area.

It was another glorious day so after the family finally left I spent the day sunbathing, reading, chatting and generally giving myself yet more chill out time. We had no guests so I had very little work to do. No one was booked in for the following day either so I took the opportunity to visit Salento and the Cocora Valley that is the main attraction of the area to tourists.

The next morning I was outside and waiting for the jeep at 8.15am. Two jeeps in to town and a bus to ‘Las Flores’ and I was only halfway to my destination. I crossed the main avenue and waited for a bus to Salento, taking another 20 minutes. After a quick coffee stop in Salento’s main square, I then took a 5th vehicle out to the valley. Only a cool 2.5 hour journey for a 15km distance! At least it wasn’t expensive (about £4 total).

You can walk around the valley but I really wanted to go horse riding! It was a lazy but more fun option. No one else on my jeep out fancied taking a horse so I hired a guide and started my private horse trek up to the Cocora viewpoint. Cocora valley, whilst beautiful and surrounded by coffee fincas and farms, is also widely known for its palm trees. The palms in Cocora are the tallest in the world, at up to 85m high and 200 years old. They massively stand out in the valley because they’re on the hillsides surrounded by other relatively short vegetation.

My horse was called Mario and my guide was Alberto. I thought I was scared of horses but Mario was well-behaved and did pretty much as I wanted. This included staying put when Alberto just head off in to the fields to change horses and ride bare-back! The walk up to the viewpoint was steep and I was grateful, although felt sorry, for the horse. At the top it was a little cloudy but I was in a forest of giant palm trees and fog, it was quite surreal. Whilst waiting, the clouds burnt off and the view was breathtaking out across the valley. Really and truly a spectacle not to miss when in Colombia.

When I climbed back on the horse, Alberto gave me tips for the downhill ride. Lead back, legs out. I didn’t quite anticipate how hard it is to ride a horse downhill! Still, I stayed on, the horse was fabulous, and I even got a canter on back to the stables at the bottom. I thanked my boys, took up the opportunity to grab an ice cream and waited for the jeep back to Salento.

By this time it was early afternoon and I was hungry! Luckily Salento had plenty to offer in the way of food and I chose a pub type restaurant who sold whole trout dishes for under £5, with accompanying soup and plantain pancake. My god was the food good! And so filling. I didn’t think I’d need to eat again for a few days after that meal. I tried to walk off the fullness for an hour or so around the streets of Salento. It’s only a small place and identical to Filandia. Honestly, when I first got off the bus I thought I hadn’t actually gone anywhere. The main squares are clones of each other, but Filandia just doesn’t have the tourists.

Greg had suggested I spend the night in Salento but since I felt like I’d seen it all and I had enough time to get back before the last jeep home, I decided to save my money and sleep in my free room back at Casa Country. It wasn’t the nicest day and I was shattered by the time I got home. Olerio and Marta were spending time in their cabin and there were no guests so I spent the evening watching some TV and got an early night.

The next two days the sun came out to play again. We still had no guests but I had some jobs varnishing up the tables and woodwork in the main socialising areas of the hostel. This took up my working hours for the two days and I then worked on my tan in the afternoons. One day I head out for another run. Another 3 miles at the slow 9min/mile pace!! Please let me get my fitness back pronto. 

My second last day at Casa Country and a couple arrived from nearby Manzinales for a little break. They spoke some English which gave me a bit of conversation I’d been missing the last few days. They also offered me cake and automatically went in my good books! Neither took dinner so my job was fairly limited to breakfast service. This worked well for me because I’d had contact again with Tom, my Masters supervisor, about writing my journal article and thought it a perfect opportunity to make a decent start.

The last evening was lovely because both Greg and Bibiana were around the hostel, the sunset was beautiful and there was a feel good atmosphere about the place. Everyone retired early, including me. I was up the next morning for breakfast. This was more challenging that it needed to be because everything seemed to be going wrong! I felt like I got in the way a bit, despite the situation actually having nothing to do with me. I helped as best I could and cleaned up where needed but soon took the opportunity to disappear to my room to pack.

Before leaving, I thought I’d head out for a third run of the week. This time I managed to increase my pace ever so slightly but the 30 degree heat was absolutely relentless, zapping my energy levels completely. I need to get used to it though since my runs between now and home time will all be in the heat. On my return Greg and Bibiana had left. I cleaned up my room and got my things together but unfortunately didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to them. Olerio helped me out and waited for the jeep with me and at 1pm, I was off!

Well, I thought I was off. Just one jeep in to the journey and I’d missed the connection meaning I had to sit on a bench in literally the middle of nowhere and read for an hour whilst waiting for another jeep! Eventually it came by and I made it back to Filandia. Greg had told me about a Helena’s Cafe which had jus been awarded the best restaurant in the coffee district. I had to try it out before leaving the area.

Clambering through the tables to access the beautiful, bohemian terrace at the back of the restaurant, I was completely ecstatic to see the menu was tapas. I adore tapas! I ordered a chorizo dish and yucca croquettes complemented by a freshly made lemonade. They all arrived perfectly presented and tasted unreal. I can understand the reasoning of the award. What a way to finish my time in Filandia!

I hopped on the bus to Armenia, only taking an hour, but where I needed to spend the night because buses to Cali ran only early morning. My evening at Hostel Onepoint was spent up on the terrace – a charming city rooftop spot filled with brickabrack – and caught up on life ready for the morning to Cali and back to see some people to socialise with!

So, 181 days in to ‘life from a bag’ and I’m thoroughly chilled out, in love with Colombia’s coffee district and thankfully, a little better off money-wise. What a beautiful place. Always, always choose to stay in Filandia over Salento if you’re in the region and always, always try as much different coffee as you can whilst here!

Gabby x


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