Yet more winding roads. Here’s a tip – if you decide to go on holiday in the Colombian Andes and you’re not particularly fond of winding roads, prepare for a certain amount of weariness. Or get a knowledgable, talkative taxi driver – pretty much anywhere in Colombia, even its highways, are surrounded by examples of the extremes of living here, if someone tells you what to look for.
The journey would take us from the department of Quindio, through Risaralda, and finally to Manizales in Caldas. It started off by passing Santa Rosa, famous for its chorizos, of which the “choripaco” is the most famous and best. I’m writing that just to remember for next time – we didn’t stop to taste any.
Between Quindio and Risaralda we drove through a sliver of Valle de Cauca, every so often passing soldiers giving thumbs up to show that all is well. But just like London’s blanket CCTV coverage, smiling security guards and jolly cops with guns, soldiers wielding assault rifles invariably fail to put me at ease. Although, being asked to display symbolic thumbs of safety must be a welcome change for Colombia’s long embattled soldiers.
My stomach tells me this is the best fiambre on the planet.
Our driver took a short detour to Pereira so that I could eat my first fiambre. Pereira is an ugly city of new, tin roofed, identikit developments and bland but colourfully painted apartment blocks, mixed in with older, cuter crumbling one-story homes. The government has supported the construction of new houses in Pereira, horrible pre-fabricated things, meaning that one side of the city is pretty much a building site.
Anyway, Fiambre is Colombia’s answer to the pie – chicken, beef, plantain, potato, rice, crispy pig belly and chorizo cooked separately, then lumped together with a tomato and spring onion sauce, wrapped in plantain leaves and steamed. All the flavours mix, producing a well seasoned, succulent, aromatic meal.
Fiambre, like a tamale but with twice the stuff in it.
Two minutes after our rest stop we were back in the hills. We were a little lower than we had been on the rest of the trip, so the hills’ shallower gradients allowed for small settlements of twenty or thirty houses on flat patches here and there. Multi-story mansions with pools and palms precariously pitted the mountainsides in direct contrast with their neighbours of even more unlikely looking bamboo shacks, seemingly ready to topple, but which had been there for 70 years.
While I was contemplating Colombia’s mountainfolk, our driver interrupted my thoughts to point out that in the deep gully between the road and the mountainside, 130 children, both girls and boys, had been found raped and murdered. Then he pulled over and bought us a dessert.
A side note on this. I looked up the driver’s story on Wikipedia (“List of serial killers by number of victims”), and unfortunately he’s not lying. Luis Garavito, “The Beast” has killed at least 300 peasant children (138 proven) between the age of 8 and 16. His punishment raises difficult questions. Colombian law limits imprisonment to 40 years. As The Beast has confessed to many more murders while in prison, his sentence has been reduced to 22 years. With good behaviour, he could be out by 2020. He’s expressed some desire to start a political career in order to help abused children.
Colombia also boasts the 2nd and 3rd worst serial killers in the world, Pedro “The Monster of the Andes” Lopez (110 proven victims) and Daniel “The Sadist of Chanquito” Barbosa (72 proven victims). Between the three of them their real kill count – mainly of young girls – could be as high as 900.
We continued along the coffee highway.
Passing the town of Chinchina, we entered Colombia’s most productive coffee region. The scope and slant of the hillside plantations here are jaw dropping, reminiscent of the extremes of Japan’s steep mountainside rice paddies. But at least those make sense in a way; Japanese people eat rice. Colombians don’t drink coffee.
Arabica is a plant from Africa, imported to Colombia, grown here by proud farmers toiling to make the best beans on difficult terrain, beans which are then boiled all over the rest of the world but not, for the most part, in Colombia. 90% of their crop is exported, including almost 100% of the good beans. The cheap, damaged beans, the rejected ones that not even Starbucks will take, remain in Colombia to be consumed with aguapanela (sugar water). With an irony that everyone is aware of in this region full of coffee artisans, Colombia even imports cheap coffee from Brazil and Vietnam. “We are great coffee producers,” Sebastian had told us back on his farm, “but terrible coffee drinkers.”
We passed another river. Bamboo trees hanging over it looked like giant feather dusters. The river was dry, a mere trickle, but was fed by the snow capped volcano, the Nevado del Ruiz, which we were visiting tomorrow. Back in 1985 the Nevada del Ruiz erupted. At the time, people saw ash and a bit of heat, but thought nothing of it. However, it melted a huge amount of ice, which mixed with the ash and mud creating a giant landslide traveling 50 kmh. It engulfed the town of Armero, killing 23,000 of their 29,000 inhabitants. They’d been told to stay inside to avoid the ash. The mudflows buried them in their homes.
As we finished our long drive to Manizales, there it was, towering over the city.