Friday, July 6, 2012

Colombia Journeys 3
The Fincas, part 1

The Colombian word finca, like the Russian word dacha, covers a lot of semantic ground, from small working farms to country houses and vacation homes.  Since everyone knew we wanted to get out of Medellin as much as we could, people generously whisked us off to the whole gamut of fincas.

Nico and a hatful of guavas
pineapple fields above Barbosa
The valley of Gabriel's finca was once planted entirely in sugar cane, and owned by a single plantation family.  Although most of the sugar cane industry long ago moved elsewhere, there are still fields of it, and men bring it down from the slopes on muleback on stone-paved tracks that were used before Colombus.

Gabriel took us on a meandering walk through the mixed landscape of cane, coffee, fruit trees and pasture to the little factory where they make panela, the cakes of evaporated cane juice that Colombians value so much for cooking and drinking.  On this day, the shed was deserted except for a large bullfrog.  A mill race from a small creek turns a waterwheel for shredding the cane, and we followed the process in our imaginations as the juice moved to a tank and then a series of cauldrons and finally to the moulds where it was shaped and hardened.  The place had a gentle smell of fermentation from the mounds of shredded cane being dried for use as fuel to heat the process.
at the panela shed
Swimming amid the sugar cane

The original plantation has been parceled out and most of the various houses were owned by various brothers and sisters of the plantation family, now in their 60's.  An elder brother occupies the great house, a white-washed edifice with red-wooden trim, which sits upon a grassy hillside guarded by a noble white horse.  The owner took us inside to show us around the century old house.  Built of tapia pisada (rammed earth), the walls are 18 inches thick with high-beamed ceilings.  I felt the immense dining room table, built for the ages.  Amidst the plain, sturdy pieces were a few more delicate, brought by some French abeula ages past.  A gray cat slept upon a chair.  The kitchen had a great stone oven, though the old man cooks upon a camp stove.  And built into the counter was a concave slab with a stone roller for grinding the corn for arepas.

Dora, a local woman who helps out, cooked us lunch and afterwards we went with her and her daughters to swim in the creek.


Far to the south, Gabriel's sisters keep a finca near the village of Uvital, in that part of country they grew up in as girls.  We spent three days with Esperanza and La Mona at her refugio.  The village itself sits mostly upon the top of a ridge, but the house sits just below on the eastern side.  It's a traditional style with bedrooms strung along around an inner courtyard with veranda all around.

Finca of the Tias Angel

The gardens of bougainvillea, citrus, orchids and palms draw in the birds, and I counted over 30 species in Uvital during my stay -- hummingbirds, tanangers, flycatchers, anis, antbirds, carpinteros, euphonia, and others.

The kitchen is strictly the domain of La Mona, though she let Porter in to make buñuelos, since Alberto had trained him already in the task, and since Porter is a great devourer of these spheres of hot cheese-dough.  And we ate well and drank coffee and hot chocolate and aguapanela.  

Walking Uvital

In the morning clear you could see the snow-covered Nevado del Ruiz 80 miles to the south, belching smoke and ash into the sky.  And closer by, each evening we watched the clouds and the lightning decorate the sky in the restless air of these valleys.

The mountain Cerro Bravo above Uvital


The finca of Monica's uncle Guillermo sits atop a ridge above the Rio Poblanco.  When Monica last saw him over twenty years ago, he'd only recently decided to do what he'd always wanted to do: become a farmer.  So he'd married a campesina and lives upon his ridgetop with chickens, pigs, dogs and a parrot named Patu.  Monica says he is unaged since she saw him last -- only happier and more content.

Mona makes natilla on the woodstove
We had a delicious, traditional lunch there: centered on fresh beans, chicharron, plantains, rice.  And afterwards, while I hiked down to the river, La Mona decided to make natilla -- a kind of pudding from milk and sugar and cornstarch.  Her brothers ate it up.

Lunch at Guillermo's

Guillermo took us on a walk through his fields of coffee, which unlike the great monoculture coffee-deserts of some neighboring slopes, rely on a mix of trees to shade and fertilize much of the coffee.  Every five years they cut the coffee plants back to a stump to revive them, so each section is upon some moment of that five-year cycle.  Off the edge of the property he showed us the large plantain grove they have to feed the coffee workers who swarm to the larger growers for the autumn harvest.  There were small fields of yucca and beans, as well as a large kitchen garden and fruit trees -- citrus and avocado and zapote.  He showed us the greenhouse for drying the coffee -- though at the moment it was drying beans -- and the equipment for fermenting, hulling, and roasting coffee.

Guillermo's coffee