Thursday, 23 December 2010

Lunar Eclipse

Saw quite a cool sight from the roof of the hostel here in Santa Marta the other night. The total lunar eclipse was visible in it's entirety in North and South America and apparently was the first time since 1378 a total lunar eclipse has fallen on the winter solstice.

It was hard to get a decent photo of it and the stars didn't show up which is a shame, but it was great to see the moon turn red as the earths atmosphere refracted the light from the sun, and also - because of the lack of light in the sky, we were able to see a meteor shower too.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Caribbean Coast

To compensate for the lack of posts this last month I've knocked up another little video to try and show you where I am at the moment. I'm working at a hostel in Santa Marta, Colombia, trying to cut down on expenses before NZ.

I don't have that much footage because I don't tend to take the camera to the beach, but one day when we were at Taganga (the next bay to Santa Marta), we saw these fisherman hauling in a catch using these huge nets. Enjoy...

Although it hardly feels like it's Christmas-time here, apart from at the beach front in Santa Marta which rivals Blackpool illuminations in its colourful array of bulbs, Merry Christmas everyone.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Coffee Beans and Chick vs. Chicken

Manizales, Colombia

We visited a beautiful coffee Finca in Manizales called Hacienda Venecia to see and taste how good coffee is made. Please excuse the length of this post, a lot of coffee had been consumed.

The Finca is at 1300m altitude and has 160 hectares of Arabica coffee plants – this makes them quite a large producer in comparison to the average Colombian coffee farm, which are around 5-10 hectares. There are two main types of coffee, Arabica and Robusta. Robusta is generally grown between sea level and 800m, but because Colombian farms are at a higher altitude only Arabica is grown.

Arabica coffee is generally considered to make a higher quality roast, with greater flavour and aroma. Our guide, Alex, explained the production process of washed Arabica bean from cultivation and picking through to processing and roasting.

Roasting some fresh beans!

For more information on the tour visit


Plants are grown from seed in bags of composted coffee berry flesh. They use the berry flesh because it is a nutrient rich waste product of the production process, and the seedlings remain in these bags for four to six months.

Preparation of the seedlings

Compost pile
An older plant after pruning


Since Colombia is near the equator the climate is such that the plants produce berries all year round. This contrasts with other countries such as Brazil where there is one distinct harvest season. In Colombia, you can therefore see red and yellow berries (those ready for picking) and green berries, flowers and buds (developing berries) all on one plant.

Despite the consistent temperature, there are two main harvest periods in Colombia. High season is between September and November, when 75% of the picking is carried out, and March to May, when the remaining 25% are picked.

According to the guide, teams of 40 to 60 people do the picking with one supervisor per team whose job is to oversee the process and control quality. In the high season, Hacienda Venecia have between 400 to 500 workers on the farm. One team can pick between 5000 to 10000kg per day depending on the season, and the pay varies between 300 to 1000 pesos per kilo – again, this rate depends on the season due to the abundance of beans and therefore the ease of amassing a greater quantity.

Working with the average figures though, this would mean that 1 person picks 150kg per day, earning 97500 pesos - about £30.


Get ready for more facts and statistics. The berries are received and the quality of the batch is assessed. You don’t want too many green berries in the batch because these produce ‘quakers’ when roasted. Other problems that affect the quality of the harvest include insect damage from broca – a type of insect that eats the berries, and fungal infections on the berries before or after processing.

Collection area
Red and Yellow Berries
The beans are collected and washed down into a deep vat some 5m deep. When in water, berries with insect damage tend to float because of the hollow centre the broca cause and therefore these can be easily separated.

Separation Vat

The remaining beans are passed through machinery that removes the first fleshy outer layer of the berry – this wastage goes to the compost pile. When berries are picked the sugars of this fleshy layer cause fermentation to begin and therefore whilst the picking of berries is done during the day, the processing takes place the same night to reduce the damage caused.

Flesh removal machinery
Once the outer layer is removed, the beans need to be dried to prevent infection and fungal growth. At Hacienda Venecia, they opt for an oven process as opposed to sun drying, here the beans are gradually dried over a period of 18 to 24 hours at a temperature of 40 to 50 degrees. The beans need to have just 12% humidity before they are ready to be put into bags. They leave the second shell on the bean for protection during storage and exportation.

Coffee mountains

Wet beans pre-oven
Checking the humidity levels
A bag of 70kg costs about £125 and these are exported where the rest of the process (shell removal and roasting) is carried out to produce the brown coloured coffee bean we recognise. Their top three markets are Japan, Belgium and Canada.

The finished product
Coffee bean with inner shell
And with shell removed - this is what roasted coffee beans are made of

Sacks ready for export

According to Alex, the biggest importers in the world are obviously the U.S. but much of this is simply roasted and exported on again. Per capita, the biggest coffee drinkers are apparently the Philippines and Demark, the latter are also the biggest importers per capita.

The aroma and taste of coffee varies in a similar way to wine, the myriad factors affecting which include bean variety, climate, soil characteristics, roasting etc. and we had a lot of opportunity back at the ranch to explore this.

Good coffee beans
... and the quakers
Coffee taste & aroma wheel

Monday, 8 November 2010

Streets of Cali

Today Rich and I wondered around Cali, Colombia, in particular the older area of the town, San Antonio. There is a park at the top of the hill with a view over what is quite an ugly city. However, I found that in wondering around this part of town you uncover a more arty, bohemian side to the concrete jungle that is Cali.

If you're in Cali and you're trying to find this area, the easiest way is to find the massive intercontinental hotel and walk around the area behind it, you can find some great cafes there too. 

Friday, 29 October 2010

Inca Adventures - From lake Titcaca to Machu Pichu

After a few days in La Paz after the jungle trek, we decided to give our livers a rest and head over to lake Titicaca for a few days before moving West out of Bolivia and into Peru. At around 3800m altitude, lake Titicaca is the worlds highest navigable lake and is shrouded in mythology for being the birthplace of the Inca gods.

View of lake Titicaca

Legend has it that both the sun and the moon rose from the depths of the lake, and as we took a boat over to the town of Copacabana on the Bolivian side, the water was crystalline blue and weirdly shiny. Perhaps thats just another effect that altitude is responsible for, but I'm not convinced. If there's one cliched expression on the South American travel circuit it's 'It must be the altitude' a phrase which takes all the credit for a variety of naturally occuring phenomenoms, including people's general lack of fitness and the severity of their hangovers.

It was a real shame to see the sungate; a stone doorway thought to have been constructed by the Inca people, who lived from around 1100 AD, was now covered in bad graffiti. It was amazing to see it just after sunset in the glowing red sky. The town and surrounding coast has a distinctly mediterranean feel and Fred and I climbed the mountain to the South of Copacabana in the afternoon with the guitar and watched the sun disappear into the lake. It was a great moment which I was glad to be sharing with someone as opposed to watching it on my own.

After Lake Titicaca we rejoined forces with Rich and some of his friends from back home and booked our trek to Machu Pichu. For other travellers it really is a good idea to try and get a group of you together when booking these things, because with a group of 8 people we managed to negotiate the price of the 5 day, 4 night Salkantay trail from $180USD down to $155.

The first day of the trip was quite hard work, mainly uphill, and I would recommend getting more sleep than I chose to bank the night before you leave! Try to sort out breakfast in advance as well because we ended up paying 10 Peruvian soles for stale bread and eggs with a cup of hot water. Fortunately, halfway through the day our guide, Jose-Luis was as equally tired as us. 

Jose-Luis getting some shut-eye

The crew; Rich, Fred, Michelle, Me, Caz and Connie

We were all relieved to get to the base camp to eat, but hit the hay as soon as the meal finished. I awoke to one of the guides knocking on our tent and offering us a hot cup of cocoa tea. I asked if Fred or Rich wanted one too, and half the campsite started calling out from inside their tents which the guide found quite amusing. It was pretty cold in the night and some of the girls were crying when they got out the tent, but at least that was the worst night out the way. 

Chatting to the cooks

The full expedition team at dinner

After breakfast the next day it was ipods in and some motivational tunes for the steepest climb of the trip up to 4600m.

We celebrated at the top of the mountain Abra Salkantay (4600m). From that point it was all downhill, which is a good thing... Once we went back down through the clouds and inevitable rain, the weather warmed up and the scenery became less desolate and more tropical.

The sun re-appearing on our descent

Celebrating the power of gravity

You begin to understand how the Incas used these trails when you consider how quickly you find yourself in completely different climates, which to this day enables the trade of different types of fruit and vegetables grown at different altitudes.

Unfortunately, since I was running around like Ray Mears sipping from any spring I could find - perhaps relying a bit too much on the purification tablets I had bought, I began to get a pretty bad stomach after day 3. This perhaps led to my eagerness to skip some of the walking and opt for a series of 6 x 700m ziplines high above the rocky valley floor. 

After this we continued our trek in the boiling sun past the aptly and originally named village of Hydroelectrica, with its huge hydroelectric turbine, and then along a railroad track for what seemed like eternity with my constantly churning stomach to the town of Aguas Calientes, which would be the base for the early morning journey to Machupicchu.

The hydroelectric turbine at hydroelectrica

At about 3am the next day we got up and walked down to the bridge that leads to the steps at the base of Machupicchu. You want to be one of the first 400 to arrive at the top, because this is the number of people permitted to also visit the higher Huaynapicchu for the best views of the ancient settlement. Up and down altogether we probably climbed about 7000 steps that day, but the view from the top of Huaynapicchu was worth it all. You could see clearly the quarry at the top from which all of the stonework was hand chiselled. The way they built the structures, with wide bases that have withstood earthquakes, impressed even modern day Japanese scientists who thought that the amount of tourism the site now received was damaging the foundations. Their experiments using various tiltometers installed around the site have proved this theory wrong – obviously this ancient race was more intelligent than they expected.

Sunrise at Machupicchu - Huaynapicchu in the background

Incan stonework - with perfect joints that have lasted centuries

Supposedly a stone which a puma was tied to

Our guide gave us a lot of speculative information about the purpose of each of the buildings and structures; the Kings quarters with what was apparently a stone to tie a watchful puma to for protection, the observatory which is supposed to align with certain stars at times of the year, random stones that jut out from the stonework where sacrifices were placed. It is the type of place where it is best to just let your imagination run away with what might have happened there all those years ago, and an experience I will remember for many years to come.

Good times at the top of Huaynapicchu