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Green rolling hills and long quiet country roads led us to Panagea Ranch where Juan and Susann welcomed us in to spend four days ‘playing Gaucho’ in rural Uruguay.

The term gaucho can loosely be defined as “cowboy” though it refers more to a nomadic group that lived off the land from the very south in Patagonia, to the west in the Andes and all the way to the southern state of Parana in Brazil. A distinctive part of Uruguayan culture, the gauchos are known as proud, fierce horsemen and remain a symbol against corruption even today.

We spent the next four days riding horses, herding cattle and sheep, assisting (though you might have to check with Juan if we actually did help) the gauchos, feeding the orphaned animals, playing badminton and stuffing ourselves with the most amazing meals – all made on a wood-burning stove by Susann. Gourmet gaucho meals mean real potato salad, the most delicious beef, green salads with organic lettuce from the garden, vegetarian options and other tasty delights.  We had seconds at every meal…good thing gaucho pants are pretty roomy.

The estancia (ranch) is a true getaway.  Secluded in the countryside and limited to 2 hours of electricity per day (7:30 to 9:30pm – by generator) one can find the time to relax, think, read, walk  – encompassed in a comfortable silence where you can hear the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.

Playing Gaucho from Kels M on Vimeo.

The largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni in the southwest of Bolivia, stretches 10,000 square kilometers across the Altiplano to form one of the flattest areas on our planet. 12,000 feet above sea level the massive salt desert was created by the uplift and evaporation of the giant prehistoric Lake Minchin.  In Bolivian mythology the Salar is actually a collection of evaporated tears from nearby Mount Tunupa forever mourning the loss of her kidnapped son.

A vastness of salt, blindingly white and bloody cold at night the Salar de Uyuni is a formidable place and after hearing horror stories about drivers getting lost and people dying we decided to hire a local guide to show us around… apparently some of the minerals make compass readings unreliable.

Roberto was a sprightly, gap toothed ex-minor from Potosi and claimed to speak 7 languages, our tour was in Spanish. He told us that the Salar is believed to hold half of the world’s reserves of lithium but the only thing it yields right now is salt, about 25 thousand tonnes annually. He gave us a pretty good tour condensing a three day trip into a comfortable days drive. We ended the day giving Roberto an impromptu driving lesson …his first time driving and up to 80, not bad.

We had both been looking forward to driving into the Salar and after battling some of the worst roads so far, Bolivia finally offered up a salty smooth tarmac twenty five times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats. See below for Kels’ celebratory kung fu rock kick.

Salty Kung Fu

al-and-tom

Clos … I like to give it a slightly Germanic drawl so it sounds like house. We first heard about Concha Y Toro wines from Luisa, a retired dancer from New York, who put us up in Mexico City – ‘you can get a decent bottle of red for six bucks’.

Living by the beach and watching our budget at Bob’s place in Costa Rica we found the Concha Y Toro line again, this time as Clos de Pirque and in a one-litre tetra pack … travel friendly! Clos also made a solid showing in Mancora, Peru when we hung out with Al for a few days waiting for the swell.

Al did get in touch with us after we left Mancora…  “By the way I met a German guy who told me Clos in German is slang for toilet (bog, shitter, dunnie) you get the picture. Still enjoying the odd glass though.” And while it’s not winning any wine awards it has to be said that Clos is a real backpacker favorite, this resealable, nonbreakable and fairly drinkable gem will only set you back about 3 dollars.

After chilling out in Bogota we headed for Colombia’s Zona Cafetera.  Arriving late in the afternoon, after driving the terrifying La Linea, we rolled into Salento where we toured a small coffee plantation to see where the world’s favourite hot beverage comes from.

It all starts with this plant and the legend of a goat herder in Ethiopia who noticed that his herd became a bit livelier after eating the berries from a shrubby tree.  Curiousity got the best of him and he boiled up a batch of berries, had a sip and created the world’s first cup of coffee.

Coffee Plant

Coffee Plant

Tim, the owner of the plantation and the hostel we stayed at in Salento, explained that there are two types of beans: Robusta and Arabica. Arabica is considered to be more suitable for drinking and, due to this, 75% of the world’s coffee produced is Arabica. However Robusta contains more caffeine and is most often used in blends.  South American nations tend to produce Arabica while Robusta is grown mostly in Southeast Asia and Central Africa.

Seed from the Bean

Seeds from the Berry

The berries are harvested and sorted at certain times of the year depending on ripeness and colour. Inside each berry are two seeds, which we call beans.  The beans are then soaked in water to remove their natural sugars. Then they are dried in sunlight and during this time every available concrete surface is covered in beans throughout Central and South America.
The beans are then sorted and roasted for specific amounts of time depending on the desired taste.  Lighter roasts have more caffeine and less flavour while darker roasted coffee is more flavourful but contains less caffeine.  So, those hardcore coffee drinkers who order the blackest roast possible aren’t really as hardcore as they believe.

Skin that is removed from the bean

The outer skin is removed from the bean

Beans are then ground and brewed to make the tasty drink we know and love. In fact, we love it some much that from 1998 to 2000 6.7 million metric tonnes of coffee were produced. And Colombia is the second largest producer of coffee worldwide coming in at 10.5 million bags!

Coffee Love

Coffee Love

After a few long days of shuttling back and forth between the customs office in Cartagena, the port and our hotel, aptly named Casa Marlin, we managed to free our car along with his buddy Cabello from their container in Cartagena’s port.

Happy to have our little red rocket back we headed out to check out some of Colombia’s countryside.

Dreamy village of Barichara

Dreamy village of Barichara

After a long 13 hour drive (check out a map to see just how large Colombia is in comparison with all of Central America) we landed in the most charming village called Barichara. Founded in 1705, this small town is lined with cobbled streets and white-washed stone buildings.  It feels whimsical and fairytale-like, complete with running school children, the friendliest townspeople and a sense of joyful separation from the rest of the world.  Try the empanadas from the small panaderia (bread and pastry shop) on the corner of the main plaza.

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva

Next up was playground of Bogota’s elite, Villa de Leyva, where the weather drops in temperature but the trendy restaurants and art shops increase considerably.  We happened to arrive during the week which led to room in a hospedaje (a small hotel) for much less than normal complete with hot showers! The Plaza Mayor is just that…major.  This huge square is covered in cobblestones and surrounded with white colonial buildings – it is also the perfect place to drink too many lattes, people watch and enjoy the sun.  There are a few museums to check out but we ended up wandering the streets and enjoying some downtime.

A whole town of crafts

A whole town of crafts

The following day we took Marlin to visit Raquira, a town known for its good-quality pottery, and as it turns out the entire town is dedicated to artesanias and you can buy much more than just pottery from this host of colourful buildings.  Somehow, though we don’t have a lot of  space in the car, we came away with a set of 6 typical stone-polished bowls but, for some reason, none of these:

Pre-painted cermaic pigs

Pre-painted ceramic pigs

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