Why is the Eje Cafetero so Different?

Initially startled our driver tuned away smiling, now relaxed he clasped my hand with both of his as he thanked me and bade us farewell.  His gratitude seemed genuine.

We were in the Eje Cafetero, Colombia’s famed coffee growing region, taking a couple of days of downtime after a long period in Bogota. And what a change the region near to Armenia, Quindío offered.

I guess that we have built up a tolerance and acceptance of all things Colombian, the regionalism, the noise – oh god the noise, music blaring out of speakers at any hour and distortion to make a purist weep – the aggressive and overbearing pace of Bogota, the pollution and so on.

It’s the regionalism and the striking difference between places that I wish to address and explore a little here.

What struck me was how different the country can be within just a few hours from one region to another. My friend Carl over at Mr. Gringo has penned an insightful blog on the nature of Colombia and What’s Wrong with Colombia and I recall we had a long conversation about the topic. I came to the conclusion that a great deal had to do with the nature of Spanish Society dating back to imperial times, no social mobility, lordly surnames, in short feudalism.

There is no doubting that this has played a massive part in the development of Colombian society, I argued that Colombia’s immigration policy has stunted growth as well as unlike in other South American countries say Argentina and Brazil, Colombia did not accept a European immigrant underclass to emigrate and fill low paying unwanted jobs. In Argentina you now have a fully developed and integrated Slavic community in the South of the country that fled Europe and worked the country’s mines. In Colombia, you could not gain entry unless you were literate.

But more about this later.

What amazed me was how very different the Eje Cafetero is from the Costa Caribeña. Yes, I know this is obvious and there is the stark reality of geography and backgrounds, but, I am really referring to a genuine difference in personality and character.

On our first trip to the Eje Cafetero some two years ago, my wife Alba and I visited the town of Salento, Quindío. We arrived armed with our unspoken self-preservation mechanisms in place after many months of running our business on the coast in the town of Mompós, Bolivar. Ready to laugh and banter with people as is the costeño fashion, we were also prepared to have to barter and then be shafted in said negotiations.

So, waiting for the bus near to Salento to head to the town of Filandia, you can imagine how unnerved and then of course delighted we were when a bus swung slowly – minding traffic, respecting the laws and the pedestrians – into the waiting bay, the door opened and the driver alighted.

“Can I help you? Which way are you headed this afternoon?”

“No, this is not your bus,” looking at his watch. “In roughly 6 minutes the next bus will be along and you should take that one. The price is 2500 pesos each.”

“Que pasen una buena tarde.”

And he seemed, and what was so telling was that, he was genuine in his conversation.

We remained agog and speak of this occurrence a great deal. It’s not that it is something out of this world, but that after the Costa, anything as human and civilized as this is a real shock to the system. Why should this be so extreme?

What would be the Costeño equivalent?

“Hijueputas, suben suben!” yelled over blaring distorted Vallenato and a bus attendant pulling you by the arm into a moving vehicle.

“Aguanta, aguanta!  No joda!” As the bus careens through traffic you notice a lack of wing mirrors, the ubiquitous sticker “Dios es mi Guia” that relinquishes the driver of any and all responsibility…yes, his poor driving is down to destino or fate.

And sure, you’d get transport, but, possibly even if you are Colombian like my wife you would neither be sure of where you are going nor the cost.

So, last week heading out to the highly recommended Hacienda Bambusa, we hired a taxi from the airport. The driver was immaculately turned out, courteous and was even prepared to give me change from the fare. I left him the remainder of the pesos as a tip and he could not understand. When it clicked, it was as if I had invited him to our family’s Christmas dinner. The simple matter of US$2.

Which led me to write this blog, and I had time to think, relaxed, stretched out in my hammock on the bamboo laden deck in our hacienda. On the coast, and I travel a great deal there due to my business, and I have to deal with people of all walks of life and the variety is always colourful, I feel that a taxi would thumb the peso bills, pocket them, and then in order to receive any change (whether you are interested or not in giving a tip) you would have to negotiate the return of your change, which of course is rightfully yours.

And possibly, you are left feeling put out by the experience and do not want to leave a gratuity in the end. So, this is where the Costeño loses out.

This may seem like I am hammering la Costa and the Costeños, but, it’s just a different mindset. The Costa is undoubtedly a region apart, the infrastructure away from the major hubs of Cartagena and Santa Marta permit that the area is still underdeveloped, feudal and well, for want of a better word, backwards. But, it is this that makes the Costa so exotic, so different and so attractive. You just have to adapt quickly to be able to cope. Allow the infectious alegria of the Costa envelop you.

We can debate for hours why Bogota is the way it is, but it’s the capital city, this is always the way, but for a traveller, national or expat resident here, what seems to be the most important piece of advice is to acclimatize to each particular incident and region as quickly as possible.

Can these stark differences just be attributed to the heritage left by the country’s imperial forbears or have these attitudes and characteristics been permitted to flourish due to the cultural heritage, geography and of course political situation in which Colombia exists?

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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6 Responses to Why is the Eje Cafetero so Different?

  1. bogotaeats says:

    Great post, Richard! It really makes me want to run straight to eje cafetero to live at an hacienda that looks like Bambusa…thanks!

  2. Jack says:

    Hello there Richard

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience, and yes indeed Armernia's surrounding is really breath taking and so different than the Pacifit Coast that I know better (Cali/Buenaventura).

    This is where I plan to move some day, having many friends in the area.

    Though reading all pages you been posting on this website, I disagree about the international tourism growing in Colombia, to me it's still a little early. Tourism in Colombia (except for San Andres/Providencia) is reserved to specialists, or people accompanied by locals. I dont really imagine Tour Operators pushing for this destination while there's still so many basic security problems. A real shame because this country remains one of the most beautiful I've ever seen, just like it's wonderful population and music (I agree they listen to Salsa way way to loud, distorsion and larsen tend to irrate me…)

    Best regards and hope to chit chat some day in Bogota


  3. Richard says:

    Jack, you are correct when you say that tourism here here reserved for specialists and so on, but, even this group is growing. Here in Mompos, despite the economic woes in Europe and the US, we are seeing more Germans, French and interestingly enough Canadians coming to visit us. And from all sorts of backgrounds and traveling styles from the most adventurous to those looking for luxury and even families with small children. And our biggest growth has been generated by travel agencies from Germany (where insurers have reduced the risk factor for travelers to Colombia) and France with one agency in particular sending us 14 groups of over 20 individuals each per year.

  4. Kate and Diego says:

    Hi Richard, great to read your post on the coffee growing region – it is definitely a tranquil place to live! Your other work is really interesting too – really good to read a more informed perspective!

    If you’re ever back in the eje cafetera it would be great to meet you – we have a new hostel and private dining restaurant called The Secret Garden in a stunning rural area just outside of Manizales.

    We were in Mompox 10 years ago and loved it, although I remember the heat being pretty oppressive – the ceiling fan wasn’t very effective at slicing through the air! Would love to get back there some time though – I loved the rocking chairs and howler monkeys and the crazy raft we took to cross the river.

    Kate and Diego

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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