Wednesday, 10 August 2011

On board Colombia’s flying hospital

Patrulla Aérea Civil’s volunteer pilots and medics provide life-changing healthcare to remote, neglected communities—it’s difficult not to be carried away

The pilots of the Patrulla Aérea Civil Colombiana are an impressive bunch: they can fly, obviously, and beyond that they even have their own planes. When I first met them on the manicured lawns of Guaymaral airport, they were chuffing on mighty Cohibas and tucking into thick, steak sandwiches. It was 7am.

More impressive yet, these volunteers were waiting to climb into their tiny planes and take off into the tempestuous sky. Their destination was the temporary hospital the group had set up in Uribe, Meta.

Delayed by the filthy weather, we plucky members of the press attempted to think about something—anything—other than disappearing into the lashing rain. The pilots, meanwhile, retained their reassuring Zen-like calm.

Once the deluge had cleared to reveal a depressing grey expanse, we climbed aboard our eight-seater, taxied past the police helicopters and on to the runway. A moment’s reflection, a sharp pull and we were in the air.

As we were buffeted about between the mountains flanking Bogotá, it became obvious that a little turbulence goes a long way in a small propeller plane.

To the south of the city, as we swung between isolated rain clouds in the now-blue sky, the pilot, Camilo Sáenz, tapped my arm and pointed down to the verdant canyons of La Macarena’s Caño Cristales.

It’s not like this on a 747; by comparison, there’s as much excitement to be had on a conventional flight as sitting in the waiting room.

Soon enough, we had landed with a gentle bump in the sumptuous warmth of Uribe, as three men cantered past the airstrip.

Dwarfing the operations of Australia’s flying doctors, when the Patrulla lands, it brings experts on a comprehensive list of ailments. In Uribe, they were particularly concentrating on hernias, pterygium and cancer of the cervix.

A school building had been transformed into an optometrists’ consultation room. Since the Patrulla had arrived, the entire area’s schoolchildren had had their eyes tested here.

Additionally, the area’s adults had access to check-ups using donated Japanese equipment. Those requiring the help were given medication and reading glasses.

Both patients and doctors knew time and space was of the essence, every inch of the medical center on the plaza was in use. Pre- and post-operation patients draped in towels lined the corridors. Waiting rooms had become recovery rooms and were full of patients.

One of the doctors, Fabio Grondas explained the previous day’s timetable: he’d started operating at 5pm and finished at 4am. Despite the lack of sleep, he explained with remarkable bonhomie how he had restarted at 9am. It was now lunchtime on Saturday and he had performed 40 operations.

Uribe is not usually blessed with such a generous dose of doctors and they were obviously needed. About 20 women, children and men waited outside the medical center. To ease the boredom, one of the nurses handed out coloring pencils and paper to the delight of the children and relief of their parents.

Patrulla regular, Dr Sindy Bucheli said most those waiting outside would suffer from minor ailments, such as breathing infections, which are easily cured but would otherwise go untreated.

She expected that their patients “don’t normally have access to medical attention, especially young women and children”.

The vivacious general practitioner and pediatrician explained the challenge facing those who live outside the major cities to access health care. For poor people in rural areas, it can be impossible to even find the money to cover the cost of travel and accommodation.

This deficit in medical assistance was emphasized by Dr Angelica Velez Fernandez. She had arrived in Uribe 10 days before the Patrulla proper to arrange the logistics of all the doctors, patients and equipment. Since she had landed, some 38 medical experts—including doctors, nurses and anesthetists—with 2,000 kilos of medicine had descended on the town.

With boundless energy, Angelica had found time to study dozens of scans looking for women with the first signs of untreated cervical cancer. She then used radio announcements and local medical representatives to contact the at-danger women and urge them to contact the Patrulla.

That morning, one of her new patients had told her: “Thank you for calling me and for the surgery you are going to do because I have been a year without treatment and I don’t have the money to go elsewhere.”

As a result of her research, 12 women were operated on over the weekend. Given that Angelica has been doing this at one or two destinations every month for four years, her actions alone have saved hundreds of women.

While Angelica has an infectious enthusiasm for the Patrulla’s work, I wondered if it was dangerous or they had ever had any run-ins work with any of the civil war’s actors. “We just treat everyone,” she said. “We can hardly ask people if they’re members of the Farc.”

“Besides, I love the small planes and divine views of the mountains,” she laughed.

For a certain type of pilot, the attraction of helping other people while doing something you love is obvious. Hernán Acevedo has been involved for as long as he can remember. His father was one of the Patrulla’s founding members and he remembers accompanying him as a small boy and being charged with dividing pills into individual doses.

Now one of the pilots and a Patrulla board member, Hernán enthuses about the developments: “When they started it could only provide medical consultations, now we do surgeries; we have saved a lot of people, it’s really amazing.”

While Hernán is unusual in being born into the Patrulla; my pilot, Camilo, initially had to be roped in. Hernán had rung him in an emergency: a girl in La Macarena, Meta, was bleeding heavily and the Patrulla desperately needed a fast plane to fly her to Bogotá or she would die.

Camilo jumped in his plane, collected the girl and her life was saved. Inspired, he joined the Patrulla and is now the president.

Under him, the organization can call on 43 pilots among its 500 volunteers. During the weekend they were in Uribe, 1,120 people saw a doctor and 120 people received surgery; every year, the Patrulla treats 20,000 patients. And it’s growing.

To survive, the Patrulla is entirely reliant on donations. If you think you could offer financial assistance, time and skills or essential items such as drugs, equipment or aviation help, please contact them. They are also interested in offering education, agriculture and rights services in the future.

Their website is, and they can be contacted on and (571) 609 8241.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Bogotá’s forgotten waterfall

Over the verdant mountains that contain the east of Bogotá is the second-longest waterfall in South America. However, ask the local people about Chorrera and you’ll be lucky stir a vague sign of recognition.

Somehow, the 590 metres of roaring water cascading through the jungle cliffs has been erased from the collective memory of the millions of people living a mere hour’s drive away.

Bleary eyed and shambling at 6.30am to begin the trip, I found the streets packed with fresh-faced kids bounding to school. At 6.30am! Juan, my guide, told me later that some schools start at 4.30am. This did nothing to put a spring in my step.

A few minutes’ drive from Bogotá’s International Business Centre and we’d climbed out of the sprawling metropolis. There are no suburbs to allow a gentle adjustment to the countryside, it’s city to forest with the difference as marked as jumping from a boat into the sea.

At 3,200 metres atop a green mountain, we looked through the mist to Monserrate church and the vast city laid out in front of us. The Andean range acts like a curtain blinding the urbanities to the rural communities only moments away.

We dropped down into the countryside. Minutes from the bankers’ uniforms of heels and suits; here, the horse-riding farmers wear wellies and ponchos, with their machetes in elaborately beaded holsters.

There had been a mighty storm the night before and cloud still hung in the hollows and valleys as we threaded east through the wooded hills. Descending, we passed the El Verjón paramount and expanses of the curiously hairy frailejon plants.

My eye was caught by scores of glistening lorry lights fastidiously lined up around a shrine to the truckers Virgin, Carmen. Looking down the precipitous drop to the Rio Blanco, which ultimately feeds Venezuela’s Orinoco, I could understand the desire to bank a little goodwill for the afterlife.

Our car swerved between the rocks and boulders that had been brought down the cliffs by last night’s rains, despite their lush vegetation.

Later, the obstacles became dogs, donkeys, cattle and horses. Around the small brightly painted houses—with their pot plants hanging from the tiled roofs—dogs, cats and chickens eased their way into the day.

Away from the impersonality of the city, moustachioed campesinos and elderly women wished us good morning with an inquisitive look and old-fashioned good manners.

Beginning to feel hungry, my breakfast options looked limited to a promised local shop. Past the friendly animals on the tejo pitch in front of the building, the shop was a room in an old lady’s breezeblock home, stocked with bricks of panela (molasses), eggs, bread, biscuits, Poker beer and not much else.

Fortified, we strode into the jungle with our local guide. As she had been putting on her wellies to leave home that morning, her pig went into labour requiring the guide to bring 11 piglets into the world.

En route, Juan pointed out the drooping “burracho” (drunk) plants, which makes a powder narcotic used to knock people out on public transport so they can be robbed.

After 20 minutes or so, we came to El Chiflon fall, where I felt hypnotized by the endless water billowing off the plunge pool and onto the verdant rocks.

Crossing over another river, we could see the trees pulled down in the storm. It was disorientating walking through the jungle, with only glimpses of valleys through the cloud and thick overhanging vegetation to provide perspective.

As it began to rain, we arrived at a spot where—looking up—immeasurable quantities of water were pouring out of the mist. At points there was no more than a ghostly silhouette of more than half a kilometre of the angry water flooding down off the rock walls.

As the cloud moved, we were given snap shots of the enormity of what was above us.

Further back, the full majesty of the falls began to show itself. It was an awe-inspiring sight as three levels of roaring water crashed out of the caped skies. That’s just three fifths of it, said Juan, as I craned my neck, slack-jawed.

Walking back, we came across exactly no one. Despite there being millions of people on the doorstep and thousands of tourists annually coming through the city, no one comes here.

This area is merely a short hop from Colombia's capital as the crow flies and, yet, it had been as inaccessible as Hades when the Farc rebels were at their peak. More than a decade later, the guerrillas have been beaten back but, somehow, the people of Bogotá have yet to reclaim the waterfall.

If you fancy a visit, I'd recommend VoyageColombia:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Student Demonstration Time

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog entry and I see the last time I wrote it was also about a demonstration. My love for a march has been exposed: today, the students were out, thousands of them.

I watched them stream down from a local university at 10am. I think the NUJ would to be amazed at such a good turn out at such an ungodly hour. Yet there they were, pouring down the hill and making a splendid racket.

A white-coated fellow with Joker-inspired makeup gave me a handy bullet-pointed piece of paper called “¿Terroristas?” detailing what they were protesting about and why, in fact, they weren’t terrorists.

Rather than terrorists, they looked like medical students trying to improve their education system. They were largely made up of thousands of self-marshalling young people with a bit of makeup, chanting, holding banners and making their point. I’d not seen anything so orderly since the Countryside Alliance march I’d chanced upon years before. Admittedly, the students had considerably less tweed.

With all the subtlety of a radical nudist among the Countryside Alliance, there were those (nearly all male) attempting to retain their anonymity because they were self-consciously Up To No Good.

They were easy to spot: self-importantly parading on the periphery, usually clad in black, scarves over faces and often carrying a stick. Presumably the scarves were to keep their identity safe, while their manner screamed “Here! Hit me with a baton”.

The sense of rebellion was spreading to those with their uni years far in the future. I felt rather sorry for the trainee policeman sweeping up outside the police-training school, while three fourteen-year-old schoolgirls chanted, “Pig!” at him. Already at a safe distance, they then ran away giving him the finger. He just looked slightly lost.

Meanwhile, the demonstration was building. Three blocks down the hill, thousands of students were parading into the centre of town. There is an incomparable excitement about such crowds when the cheers, whistles and drums echo and accumulate into an inescapable, all-encompassing roar. It’s a magnificent sense of shared humanity even if you’re in no way connected.

While predominantly young, there were also a lot of people considerably older than me. Sadly, it was also a graffiti free-for-all. Three times I saw scarf face-wearers (twice girls) spray-paint on walls, while a stick-carrying friend stood guard and checked the spelling.

Getting hungry, I wandered down to Subway to find it had had to close and the windows were covered in graffiti. “Neo-liberal bread” someone had written, failing to elaborate further than by signing off with a feminist symbol. Someone else had rather melodramatically added “Study or death”.

Elsewhere, “No to the US military bases” and “Down with the paramilitary government”. These are perfectly reasonable points of view in context but irrelevant to the march. Sadly, tomorrow the graffiti will be all that remains and the march will appear to entirely have been made up of arseholes.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Campesino farmers' market (armadillos and machetes)

Arriving at Bogotá’s landmark Plaza Bolivar for its first-ever campesino market was a pleasant surprise. Given that “campesino” translates as peasant farmer, it was a surprise that it looked like an urban glamping festival. Scores of pristine white tents filled the square, while a man played an armadillo on the stage.
The band, with their traditional black dress and musical mammal, gave the air an authentic Colombian flavour. The plaza was packed with farmers from the surrounding districts who had come to flog their wares to Bogotá residents eager for a bucolic taste of home.
I began my tour in the centre next to tent where, away from prying eyes and the inclement weather, the mayor was giving a speech to dignitaries.
A whole roasted pig resolutely stared at the polished military men guarding the entrance to the tent. The stoic bronze-coloured fellow looked on while a lady delved into his excavated back with a spoon. Sporting a splendid wide-brimmed hat, she dug out a generous portion of lechona for a local office worker. It’s a succulent blend of pork, fragrant rice, potato and onion but served directly out of the pig, it does not suit those who like to pretend that their meat comes from plastic containers in Sainsbury’s.
Overhead were the first signs that the rainy period was finally coming to an end. It had begun to feel as more of a permanent state than something as fleeting as a season. There was evidence of a conjunction in the weather: it was both lashing it down and blowing a gale. Great news. This heralded the start of the promised kite-flying season.
The wind whipped up ash from the dozens of open fires burning under hunks of meat and different types of sausage. Thick soups and meaty stews, such as a local version of el cocido, were cooked over gas. Increasingly hungry and bewildered by the choice, I found myself at a stall selling duck “embriones”. I was offered a little tub containing a glutinous embryo with an accompanying leaflet boasting its magical, medicinal properties. This was not my idea of lunch: I would rather be ill and nearly was.
Moving swiftly away, I was attracted by the Cundinamarca region’s “rellana” sausage—a fat, juicy black pudding bursting out of its skin. At the next stall, steam billowed up as a lady poured lager over a side of “mamona” beef.
By now I could hear my stomach over the sounds of the man playing the armadillo and I’d lost the ability to make a decision. I found myself among stalls selling honey and pollen from the fincas of Cundinamarca. Around me were bananas, vast pumpkins, eggs, great blocks of panella (sugar cane), strawberries and pastry empañadas stuffed with meat—all great in their place but that place was not my stomach, I needed heavier fare.
I even spotted some vegetarian food: chicharrón. A soya version of the pork scratching delight almost seemed like a good idea in my weakened state.
By now it was so late that some Rolos would be thinking about “onces” (elevenses, which are eaten in the afternoon, natch) and I was still browsing desperately. A decision seemed as improbable as the increasingly deflated lechona pigs growing wings.
Finally, the rain cut through the procrastination and the need to find cover demanded a decision.
Sidestepping a senior army officer in full medalled pomp tucking into a plate of brawn, I ducked into the mamona tent and ordered. “Claro, mi amora” (Of course, my love) replied a buxom lady wielding a machete.
The slices of meat were tender with a succulent strip of fat across their top. The elegant woman next to me ordered some aji (chilli sauce). Anticipating a subtle blend of chilli, coriander and tomato; she applied it generously to her forkful of pink meat. Her breath was rasping and face radiated heat, as she grabbed for a water bottle.
It’s a little picante; she understated, passing the puréed 100% pure chilli paste to me.
In front of us, the waitress held my embarrassingly wonky umbrella over the lady with the huge chopper. She systematically hacked through the great chunks of meat. Steam rose from it, silhouetting our hostess who had her own protection: she sported a tea towel on her head protecting her hair, heavily made-up face and prodigious cleavage from the rain.
Behind the brolly, the Catedral Primada looked down through greyness upon the indulgence, while behind it loomed the towering green mountains that flank the east of the city.
Considerably happier now I was eating, my mind moved onto life’s other needs. While I could find no criticism of the range of local foods, there was a noticeable omission: where was the booze? Wine would not be the conventional drink of the campesino but it would be reasonable to expect to find the product of a local microbrewery. However, Colombia’s beers are nearly all produced by one vast conglomerate (now South African owned) and there was none forthcoming.
On my travels around the plaza, I saw not one drop of a proper drink anywhere. I had come across chicha (fermented maize) and masato a fermented rice drink, which fizzed on the tongue. I would politely describe masato as an acquired taste.
Meanwhile as I finished my steak and criolla potatoes, the mayor appeared to be still talking next door. I wondered if they had a drink in there. They needed it.
With the gentle saunter of the pleasantly stuffed, I pottered into the centre of the square, where Bolivar was standing guard. The great Latin American “Liberator” was getting no freedom from the pigeons. They were democratically showing him the same respect they show statues of all the world’s most revered heroes.
The following week at the presidential inauguration of Santos in the same square, I noticed that Bolivar had been given a clean and a polish. Sadly however there would be no happy ending—Bolivar may have seen off the Spanish empire but the pigeons would be back.
To kill off the lingering taste of chilli, I went in search of something sweet in an unexplored part of the plaza. Here I found avena cubana, a sweet milk drink. Elsewhere people ate a shapely cream, strawberries and meringue pudding, which looked like Eton Mess made by someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Stalls sold arequipe (dulce de leche), chocolate and strawberries. I bought some sticky coconut sweets and looked north at the Palacio de Justicia.
In Colombia’s darkest days, more than 100 urban guerrillas had stormed this building. The army took it back and wiped out them all out. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, this market would have been impossible as the roads in and out of Bogotá were too dangerous to use.
As I luxuriated in the caries-inducing deliciousness of my sweet, I felt relief that it was possible to be here now.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Boobs, loos and tear gas

I took a bus yesterday morning. A taxi furiously hooted as we got on at the bus stop, he was beside himself that we should fly in the face of the one rule of the road: anarchy. Buses conventionally swing across to pick up passengers whenever they happen to nonchalantly stick out an arm, finger or flick their eyes.

The driver did adhere to the conventional go-kart style of weaving through the traffic. Like his colleagues, he was a discontented fellow who treated life like a fake £5 note that he was doing his best to gamble away.

My destination was the airport. There are always those who feel the need to dress up if they are going to fly. As I swept blushing out of the Ladies toilettes (the symbol really is very androgyneous), I bounced off a woman who looked like an unsubtle edition of Maxim. I’ve never been so close to such a heady combination of silicon, perfume and cleavage—and certainly not in a lavatory.

Later in the day, I went down to the bank. It was a beautiful office that had closed at 4pm (banks are a by-word for wealthy, self-serving bureaucracy everywhere. What other industry has a holiday named after it?).

Outside on the Septima, a thousands’ strong march streamed past. At its vanguard, angry men carried sticks. Behind them, a few young women appeared, some in flip-flops. They were mostly black or indigenous and there was a militant-looking group in light green t-shirts and bandanas.

I asked one man who they were; he ignored me. So I asked one of the militant-looking women, and she refused to speak to even look at me. As I turned away, I knocked into a young man. We apologized and he called me: “Patron”, which means land or slave owner.

They were some of Colombia’s 3.3 million displaced. Hungry and understandably angry, they were wanted their rights. What I suspect they were going to get was tear gassed.

The day before had been Colombia’s bicentenary of independence. The same road had been packed with people but these were much more good-humoured.

I was impressed by them, a similar event in London would have been heaving with people out on the lash. The few drunks stumbling about were embarrassingly conspicuous as opposed to depressingly unremarkable.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Sporting glory escapes again

After years of opportunity to shine, my skills as a cricketer are not so much unrecognized as unrecognizable. Regardless, I found myself in a taxi about to represent Colombia against the visiting national Chile team.

My selection was despite having described myself as the anti-all rounder, without any discernable ability in batting or bowling, and a throwing arm like a confused 10-year-old girl asked to put the shot. It promised to be an interesting international sporting debut.

There were positive signs that I might not be entirely lost, when I heard one of the Chilenos say in a suspiciously good Yorkshire accent: “I’d like an Aguila, that’s a good morning beer.”

Having lost the toss, we honorary Colombians were sent out to field. I strode out attempting to look confident while clad in my new, blindingly white clothes rather than “whites”. My substitute kit seemed more appropriate to an ageing Ibizan Lothario than the summer game.

My attempts to buy a box had been met with bemused looks rather than success. At least I wasn’t wearing jeans, unlike the Canadian in our team (geographically, he was the closest we had to a Colombian; the Chilenos boasted a Yank—their captain.)

The first few overs passed without any conspicuous displays of incompetence: success!

The least I could do was look keen, so when a ball play was played past me, I was off like Usain Bolt’s pasty English uncle. Arms and legs pumping, my cricket hat some way behind, I pounded over the Bogotá sports club outfield. I knew one goal: save the four.

Strong, fast, fit, slip, slide, sodden, bottom, pond. Pond! Clearly there were drainage issues in the outfield and my whites were no longer so white. And it was a four.

Later, I took a catch and opened the batting with the Canadian. He was rather good, better than me anyway. At least I scored one run, after one of my airy wafts finally clipped an edge.

We were making a reasonable game of it, until drinks, when it all fell apart and the Chilenos tidied up our remaining batsmen. All that was left was an afternoon of drinking beer and acquiring sunburn. Stibbs succeeds again.

After some hours, a very elegant Colombian appeared with a tray of whiskys and put them on our table. While he went back into the clubhouse (lined with pictures of the Royal Family), we tidied up the new arrivals. When he sashayed back, he announced he would be leading a tutored whisky tasting.


I could get used to international sport, I thought a little later as I sat on the Transmilenio bus back into town, feeling quite content with my day.

However, I did seem to be drawing an unusual amount of quizzical looks from the dressed-up Colombians on their way out on the town. As I looked around, I was rather conspicuous: the only gringo, radiantly sunburnt, dressed all in white, covered in grass stains and wearing a huge, filthy once-white hat.

What possible context could explain such weird garb? What sort of weird religious sect would take such a man?

I took the stares manfully and thought, these are things I’d do for my country, or at least someone else’s.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Coffee: Colombia's other stimulating export

Our two hostesses took food seriously and would not countenance a missed meal within their dominion. Dazed after an all-night bus journey from Bogotá to Manizales in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, they swept us (my wife, a friend and member of the family, and I) up in their hospitable arms and sat us down for breakfast.

We were told it was necessarily a light, rushed affair to allow time before lunch. After chaqueta—black coffee made with panela (sugar cane) water—we were given hot chocolate made from a huge bitter slab again blended with panela water. It was accompanied with doblo crema cheese, which we were supposed to melt into the hot chocolate (this really is as bad as it sounds, but fine when eaten separately).

On the side was a generous slice of the ubiquitous arepa—unleavened maize bread eulogized by all Colombians. In my experience, arepas had been as dry and appetizing as sun-bleached bones. Perhaps, they could have a worthy use as building insulation.

These arepas were different: freshly homemade that morning, they were hot, flavoursome and almost succulent—in short, a revelation. Our matriarchal hostesses had blended ash and cocoa into the dough and I ate them all happily, as if I really had a polite alternative while at their table.

I had made the trip from Colombia’s capital to try the country’s finest coffee with my Colombian friend’s cousin Juan Carlos: a taster. His friend-and-fellow-taster Jorge drove us from Manizales to Chinchiná—the centre of Colombian coffee production—where Juan plies his trade.

Jorge—doubtless a thoughtful, deliberate coffee taster—drove in the way he might absent-mindedly slosh back an espresso. We hurtled out of town and into the green valleys with their goats, bamboo, banana trees and tomato plants. Soon we could see coffee plants with their yellow or red beans by the side of the road.

Needing petrol, we swept into a garage. The bags of Chicharrón Light on offer at the till intrigued me. Chicharrón—deep-fried pork rind—is an unlikely diet product and I wondered what “Light” could mean, apart from half-full bags.

Doubtless charged up on diet pork fat, the steep valley roads were busy with cyclists. The gradients and drivers’ disinterest in their safety made for challenging riding. Like everywhere, Colombian cyclists can’t resist ludicrous, dignity-averse lycra. I wondered if they wear Formula 1 jumpsuits to drive to the shops.

We crossed over the River Chinchiná, where local coffee producers are using the microclimate to experiment with new growing techniques. In 1985, lava flowed down the river valley obliterating Armero town and claiming 23,000 lives after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted.

The area is now thriving thanks to the coffee, which has an important role in the Colombian economy, if not necessarily in its culture. The handpicked, venerated arabica beans are nearly all (95%) destined for export.

Compared to its rougher cousin, robusta; arabica is flavoursome and delicate, lacking the bitterness of its less-rarefied relation. Sliding a sweet coffee bean between his fingers, Jorge informed us that their bitterness is in direct relation to their caffeine content; at 1%, arabica’s is half that of robusta.

We arrived at the fairtrade-only Cooperativa de Caficaltores de Manizales as a beaten-up old jeep pulled with a load of bulging sacks. At the gate, a sample of beans are sucked up a tube and then shot through a window and into Juan Carlos’ laboratory.

He and his team then had 20 minutes to make a chemical analysis, roast and taste-test the hopeful arrivistes. Success means blending for export, failure means returning to the local market to be made into tinto.

I like coffee but I was quickly exposed as a complete tasting illiterate. Juan Carlos and Jorge spooned up the surface of their drinks, cupped their noses over the top and inhaled lustily. “Fruity.” “Tropical.” “The scent of love,” they proclaimed. “Er, really?” I kept to myself. I felt like a blind man at the IMAX for the premier of Avatar.

I looked at the wall charts of fragrances and flavours for inspiration. Some I could understand: caramels, charred, chocolate, even red wine (also called tinto in Spanish) at a push. Others—jasmine, raspberry, custard and thyme—seemed unlikely. Horsey, skunky (the animal rather than the wacky backy) and cabbage seemed worthy of retaining my ignorance.

As woodpeckers flew past the window behind the copper, Heath Robinson bean sorter, this seemed like a lovely place to work. Part factory/laboratory and part finca, the tasters’ job is a blend of the systematic and scientific with the romantic and subjective.

After several tastings, I detected a meaty, porky flavour to one blend. Maybe I was getting somewhere, I hoped so. There was a real joy in the process of discovery. Juan Carlos, Jorge and Don Jaime (a plantation owner with a luxuriant Terry Thomas ’tache) shared an infectious enthusiasm that I longed to share as they giggled and gesticulated over a new experience.

Perhaps this is what comes of Juan Carlos’ daily consumption of between 15 and 20 cups of coffee, on top of around 100 slurp-and-spit tastings. However, there was more than caffeine behind today’s hint of nervous excitement: Juan Carlos was revealing a secret, new blend for the first time.

Juan Carlos had high aspirations that this new creation would break 90 points on the international marking system and become one of Colombia’s finest coffees. The other two seemed impressed and tried to tease information about its make-up but he would not be drawn.

I tried to make the right noises.

We had lunch at Don Jaime’s finca. It was a demanding drive in his muscular jeep, which powered through the dirt tracks into the hills. Impressively, Jorge followed in his little Korean car—a trip I would have only thought possible in a 4x4 or hire car.

For lunch, we ate the classic Colombian soup of Sancocho on the veranda facing five lines of hills and mountains that ended at the Andean Cordillera. Peacocks strutted about as we supped the traditional mixture of chicken, spuds, plantains, yucca, herbs, celery, carrot and peppercorns.

In the gardens, flocks of tiny birds with orange bodies and black wings flitted about the tropical flowers. In the valley below, bamboo appeared to have exploded into life like the finale of an all-green firework display.

It seemed idyllic, except for the need for three ferocious guard dogs and a security team. This beautiful country still has its problems, albeit it’s a different country to the days when cocaine ruled over coffee and everything else.

Back at our hostesses’ for lunch the next day, a considerable effort had been made. We were presented with frijol (bean stew with plantain); chicken chicharrón; fried plantain; lemon coleslaw; chicken with a smooth, elaborate Creole stuffing; rice with chicken, pork and sausage, and it was washed down with guayaba juice (no wine).

It was a staggering spread; the two ladies had been cooking since 7am—a startling 10-combined hours. I was amazed and slightly embarrassed about the amount of work involved. When I expressed my gratitude and thanks, they said: “Oh no, all our meals are like this.”

While the family clearly knew how to enjoy food, we had inadvertently stumbled into a hotbed of coffee-driven sobriety. When I asked Juan Carlos if he would like to go out for a drink on Saturday night, he said: “Great, let’s go to the local Juan Valdez [upmarket coffee shop chain]. It’s excellent.”