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Colombia

10 Things I Dug About La Juanita Finca Verde

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Last month, Emma and I took a tiny bus out of Bogota, changed to another tiny bus at a place called La Playa (it was not a beach but rather a convenience store just before a highway turnoff), and got off at a lakeside restaurant, Los Pinos (“the pines”). From there, our directions were to “go back twenty meters and take the dirt road on the right.” It was the first farm we’d come to: La Juanita Finca Verde, a few kilometers outside the town of Guatavita, which most Colombians I’d talked to hadn’t heard of.

With a tiny hand-painted sign hanging on the fence, it did not look like a center for international exchange but rather the abode of a reclusive green-thumb, off-the-grid and content to stay there. But, Felipe is nothing of the sort, and La Juanita was a surprisingly bustling center of cultural exchange. There were so many things I fell for almost instantly:

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1. Gardens

La Juanita is what I imagine farms of the future to be like (and maybe what the farms of the past were). It’s a small holding, about four acres, with a humble but comfortable country house in the center. The gardens sort of grow out of the lawn, a thick carpet of grass suddenly giving way to a mishmash of produce that, at once, seems as abundant as anything I’ve ever seen and also somewhat untended. The plants spiral around on mounds of dirt, half of the vegetation left to flower. The beds are covered in dense blankets of straw that, when pushed back, usually reveals tufts of salad leaves. There are greenhouses stuffed with plant-life. Permaculture.

Not to mention there is a super cool biodome, as well as another greenhouse made from an building, complete with a garden bathroom.

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2. The Kitchen

The kitchen looks like something from J.K. Rowling’s imagination. Plants festoon the rafters: Tobacco drying here, ears of corn hanging, an entire aloe vera plant suspended, tiny bunches of flowers turned upside down and bound with string, edible potions cluttering every shelf, a spread of vegetables and bowls of beans on the table. A keg of home-brewed beer sits next to the fridge. Giant jars of kombucha ferment in the darkened corners next to an eclectic collection of rudimentary tools: a grinder, dinged-up canteens, a big brass dinner bell, and an array of baskets.

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3. The Food

Something rings so true about walking out in the backyard and grabbing the fixings for your salad. Fresh, nutritious, and flavorful—we ate from the garden everyday, often every meal. Besides that, there was always a massive bounty of local produce: pumpkins, peas, squashes, and beans. Quinoa is native to this area of Colombia and no stranger to La Juanita pots. A numerous collection of herbs are steeped for interesting teas.

Then, there was the “evil bean”. On Emma’s and my first cooking showcase, we took a bit of what appeared to be your garden-variety white bean. It was not. Bitter as an old man in a dirty diaper, it ruined a pot of otherwise delicious legumes. We tried to salvage it. We change the water—bitter. We hand-plucked all of the offending beans—bitter. We attempted rinsing and rinsing—bitter. Covering with spices—nope. We even tried smushing it into burgers. Eventually, the whole bean stew was composted, and I whipped up some curried lentils.

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4. The Pizza Oven

Another great food-themed delight was the pizza/bread oven. Built from cob (I’ll be doing one of these soon myself), Felipe, Emma, and I teamed up to provide the final touches: a door, a clay doorjamb, and stopper for the chimney. Then, we got to cook in it. The first pizzas came on our anniversary, a tradition, and though cheeseless, they were pretty rocking. We made lots of herb breads in it and had a beer-riddled pizza party one Sunday evening. I’m fairly certain every outdoors-y place should have one of these.

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5. Low-Waste Effort

In addition to composting everything, a lot via a super cool worm farm, trash at La Juanita has various avenues. There is a plan for glass bottles to be incorporated into outdoor shower walls. Plastic bottles, which rarely make it on site, are filled with plastic wrappers to create bottle bricks for later construction projects. Of course, all plant trimmings and grass clippings are fed back to the earth. Even the low amount of energy used is conserved by only turning on the water heater when a shower is up-coming. All in all, in a month there, with at least three people (up to about seven) staying there, we probably produce one normal trash bag of waste. And, La Juanita is a B&B with paying guests. I like that the lack of waste is so significant as to garner praise.

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6. The Dogs

There are two permanent canine residents at La Juanita, the reserved and nap-happy Camaneche (No one knows what the name means. He arrived with it.) and a snappy puppy, Rebeka, who has super soft fur, a voracious appetite, and a quick trigger on the old bark. Additionally, we had two guests/former residents, Baruk and Chepe. They are gigantic Rhodesian Ridgebacks, bred to be built like female lions, yet these two were gentle as ever and more or less occupied two armchairs for a week and a half. Then, there was black dog and little black dog, two impossibly excited specimens that would appear every few days from out of nowhere. It was a great place to get a little puppy love.

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7. The Open-Door

For a house, you might be convinced it’s a coffee shop. La Juanita has ever-revolving slew of guests in an out, old friends stopping through, and neighbors popping up for dinner (something that’s not always wonderful when you’ve just about finished cooking). Nevertheless, it has that feeling of youth and energy associated with university life but also manages to be occupied by adults with a little more sense, which makes for a high stimulate, intellectual environment where you learn cool stuff inadvertently. Plus, you make a lot of friends, and when you are for sure heading back Colombia…

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8. The Tipi

Yes, a tipi (or teepee) is an odd fixture to find in Colombia, but Felipe had it shipped down from Oregon and set it up on a great plateau in the property. We got to take the whole thing down and put it back up, which was an interesting and knuckle-busting (for some of us—me) process. Chaja (our new Dutch counterpart and fellow volunteer), Emma, and I stayed in the tipi for nearly the entire last week we were there. Every night, we’d stock up a fire in the center of it and share hot tea from a thermos or a bottle wine. What can one say about sleeping in a tipi—It’s awesome.

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9. The Books

The coffee table in the living room La Juanita is scattered with fantastically interesting reading material, covering such topics as do-it-yourself plumbing to permaculture to medicinal herbs. Emma and I simply sawed through books in a first couple of weeks, soaking up all we could before moving on to another handy topic to bring back to Panama with us: How to ferment our own pickles and pineapple wine, how to build keyhole permaculture beds, which herbs to grow for a beautiful and beneficial garden, and on it went. Probably the thing we most took from the library was the need to have a worthwhile library wherever we end up.

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10. TEDx

TEDx are unofficial Ted Talks that are broadcasted all over the world in live events. Felipe uses La Juanita as one of the satellites that host the events. We had a fantastic time the TEDx Manhattan event, which was all about “Changing the Way We Eat”. The event included a pot-luck lunch, fantastic lectures, and a very multi-cultural congregation of people getting together to both have a great time and simultaneously engage in something important. I’ve resisted TED stuff for a long time now, but La Juanita managed to convert me with one easy Sunday afternoon.

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Bonus: Felipe

Let me not skip over Felipe, a most gracious host and enthusiastic entertainer. The first time we saw him we’d been at the farm for two days already, and he appeared through the morning mist at about six a.m. He’d let us into his house without having met us. In the weeks to come, he let us more or less take over the kitchen. And, throughout our time, he shared loads of experience-rich information. He introduced us to a fantastic fleet of friends, encouraged us to meddle in his garden, and included us in all aspects of the goings-on of La Juanita Finca Verde. He became a friend, a person to come back to visit (even invited us to do so anytime), and an inspiration for how to soon begin our own permaculture projects with community outreach programs. I feel privileged, truly.

Posted by jonathonengels 11:29 Archived in Colombia Tagged food travel farm living backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

Colombia: Our First 2 Weeks in a Coconut Shell

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Well, it has been around six years in the making, but Emma and I finally descended to South America, our budget flight touching down a little after eight at night, 12 February in Cartagena, Colombia. Now, coming from personal experience, I can say Cartagena, Colombia, is a good place to start one’s exploration of the big mass of land down below.

But, this blog isn’t about all that. I can wrap the highlights quickly: Cartagena is stunning, an old colonial port town that was so often ransacked by pirates (England’s Sir Frances Drake included) that it now has a 300-plus year old stone wall surrounding the oldest part of the city. Oh, yes, it overlooks the Caribbean, the airport transfer took less than ten minutes, and the streets downtown were safe to wander.

You may remember the city’s cameo at the end of the 80s classic, Romancing the Stone. It's worth a view, if only as a reminder of how hot Kathleen Turner once was.

What I really want to note, though, are the specific happenings of our trip thus far, how we ate patacones, coconut cookies, and passion fruit snow cones from street vendors. And, how we posed with the army for a promotional photo of them informing us about the threat of kidnappings—Emma says, “Does that really happen here?” and without missing a beat, the boyish soldier bellows, “Noooo.”

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The next stop, Santa Marta, moved us further north along the coast, to a land of beaches and ex-cartel homes, one of which we stayed in: (now under Australian direction) Drop Bear Hostel. Not only was there a pool, free coffee all day, hammock alley, and Ping-Pong, but Sunday evenings the owner offers a complete rundown of the cartel history and a free tour of the place, which was frequented by Pablo Escobar.

Our house was built with marijuana money in the 70s, before cocaine hit. It was still fancy, though, but a funny fact was that the cartel members—from the rural Colombia—still slept in hammocks as opposed to beds.

In Santa Marta, we lazed. We enjoyed the cartel life, the hammocks and pool, the nearby supermarket and kitchen, and we even managed a trip out to the beach. But, to be honest, it was one of those times when the hostel overshadows the surroundings. The nearby coast was beautiful but without shade, and the big house was just fun. So, Santa Marta—no apologies, no regrets, it was great.

When we left, we headed to Paso del Mango, a little mountain spot so remote no one in the hostel had heard of it, not even the local staff. But, it was less than an hour away, and Finca Carpe Diem was one of the main reasons we ended up on the Caribbean coast as opposed to Bogota (a wise choice). Five minutes before we arrived (free shuttle service), Nele stopped her jeep to tell us the hill was too step, so could we walk the last five minutes? Then, she left us in her dust.

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The surroundings had significantly improved. Washed in nature, mountain streams crisscrossed the land creating a multitude of waterfalls, the forest is interspersed with farms and nature reserves, and ancient stairways create trails to millennia-old ruins. We swam in every pool we came across, the Pool of Love being the most talked about on the Finca (we made a great group of friends). We hiked here and there, discovering beautiful vistas, endless cascades, and Pre-Colombian structures. We were one with nature.

Perhaps the weirdest thing we saw was a school of Amazonian fish, Arapaima (they even made it onto River Monsters), that look massively prehistoric and somehow came to live in a pond in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Colombia.

The visit also proved to be our first time using the tiny tent Emma has been lugging around since our visa run to Mexico last year. It worked well despite our lack of bedding—a borrowed comforter made the last night much more comfy, you might say. And, what’s more, it was a great test run for the next adventure: We were off to Tayrona National Park, where camping would be required and the beaches promised to be exquisite.

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We’ve been such lazy planners for the touristic side of this adventure (we are all about the farms these days) that we’d not even heard of Tayrona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, until after we’d arrived. The point here, perhaps, is that we still made it. Despite no guidebook, we managed to sniff out what’s what and even find out which spot offered the best deals for budget backpackers. Note to self: Remember that lesson.

Our campsite at Tayrona required entering the park, taking a short shuttle ride towards the coast, and then hiking another hour. We also knew this but still managed to carry about fifty pounds of groceries with us (Buying food inside the park is expensive, and vegan options do not abound). Still, it was worth it. We pitched our little tent beneath a mango tree, had a quick bite, and set off exploring.

Another thing to add to the least of oddities: For some reason, there were two turkeys, a male and a female, roaming the area around our tent. The male was hideous but not deterred in its pursuit of the uninterested female. The gobble echoed us awake in the mornings.

The beaches just got more and more stunning, tiny coves fighting off the big surf blowing in from the north, the water the more refreshing shades of blue. We saw beautiful birds. We clambered over rocks. We even saw the odd unusually large rodent. Coconut trees were everywhere, and we swiped a couple of fallen fruits each day for a late afternoon snack. And, by the end, via consensus effort, we managed to eat nearly all the food we’d brought.

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Hiking back out of the jungle proved much easier and full of wildlife. We saw quite a few agoutis scampering along the forest floor, and just as we neared the end of the trail, there were several titi monkeys. It was a fitting end, and pretty much put an exclamation point on our first two weeks in Colombia and South America. We were set to catch the overnight bus to Bogota that evening and ready start volunteering on a new farm, which I will tell you about next time.

A last, perhaps lasting, image to leave you with: One downside to Tayrona was that I suddenly became a tick magnet. The first we spotted on my ribs, there was another on my arm, and later on my thigh, but the worst was when I found one while showering. It seemed to be getting romantic with me. What a moment it was when Emma followed me into the bathroom with some tweezers from my Swiss Army knife. Sweet dreams to all.

Posted by jonathonengels 10:49 Archived in Colombia Tagged waterfalls beaches travel backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

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