Hacienda Venecia.

For one of the most well developed touristic coffee farms in the region, Hacienda Venecia should definitely be on your itinerary.

Visitors can learn about “chocolate, from bean to bar”, participate in the “Barista and Cupping Workshop” and do some self-guided bird-watching. The most popular tour is the coffee farm tour where visitors learn everything from seed to harvest about the growing, preparation, processing and commercialization of Colombian coffee. Their bilingual experts will guide visitors through the world of coffee in a personalized and unique experience.

They are dedicated to sustainable practices, which include a UTZ certification. They were the first in Colombia and one of only four farms in the world which applies the cultivation and commercialization processes required to achieve this certificate. They are currently exporting to Japan but have previously exported to Switzerland, Holland and Belgium.

Hacienda Venecia is a working coffee farm with 100 years of tradition and extensive experience in the cultivation, production, marketing, roasting and exporting of Colombian coffee. It is located in the countryside, 20 minutes away (10.5 Km) from down town Manizales, on the Autopista del Café, towards Pereira. Its vast coffee fields have a large canopy of native trees and water springs. The region is rich in flora and fauna. The ambient temperature (between 17 deg C and 24 deg C all year round) makes a stay here very pleasant for the visitor.

In 2009, Hacienda Venecia decided to open its doors to foreign visitors, mainly to share a learning experience about the coffee culture. We offer lodging, restaurant, touristic activities, and transportation.

This year was my fourth visit as a volunteer, and sadly probably my last; I have thoroughly enjoyed my stints at this wonderful coffee finca. The family and staff at this traditional working coffee farm have always been welcoming and the projects they have presented me with always incredibly interesting. This year was no different – I have painstakingly put together a ‘carpeta de información (information folder) about the various accommodation options available, general guest information, and places to visit nearby.

It is also a super good place to practice my developing Spanish language skills.

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Day trip from Manizales.

Travelling from A to B is something that doesn’t happen quickly in certain parts of Colombia, what looks like a short distance on a map can take an eternity in reality. It is an extremely mountainous country, especially in the coffee region.

Day trip from Manizales to Salamina, and La Merced – northwest of Caldas.

Decided to take the weekend off from working at the coffee farm.

Sunday, 07:00: arrived at el terminal de Manizales ( bus station). Too early for buses so was directed to a taxi – $22,000 COP (£5.50 – same price as the bus). The taxi took two hours to get to Salamina, a gorgeous town with beautifully painted houses, a delightful Central Plaza and a gleaming white fronted church. The architectural heritage of Salamina is extremely impressive; it was declared a National Heritage site in 1982.

The construction techniques used are all traditional. The terraced balconies in the houses, painted in bright colours, and with flower pots and the carved doors of the houses, make for stunning photos. The calm and peace in which its inhabitants live is reflected in the hanging ferns, the flower pots and the pitchers of water that they keep inside their courtyards.

From Salamina I took a jeep (1.5 hours) to Peña Rica $5,000 COP. From here I changed jeeps in order to get to La Merced (45 mins) costing $2,500 COP.

La Merced is nothing much to write home about; a small plaza and a ‘concrete’ structure, that is the church, about sums up the place. However, from a place nearby, known as El Tambor, you can enjoy spectacular views of the Cauca river canyon and the eastern mountain range, while enjoying a “Fiambre” (typical Colombian dish wrapped in “congo” leaves) prepared by local people. From El Tambor there are various tour agents who can offer paragliding and horseback riding packages.

From La Merced I took another Jeep (30 minutes) to La Felicia $2,500 COP, where I caught the bus back to Manizales – $10,000 COP.

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Feria de Manizales 2018/Manizales Fair 2018.

Every January, since 1956, Manizales has held a fair that brings together the best of artistic, cultural, sporting and nightlife events; the fair has Spanish roots with bull fights and other traditional content and catches the attention of both locals and foreigners alike.

Manizales was founded on October 12, 1849, by a group of twenty Antioquians (The Expedition of the 20), who came from Niera and Salamina. There is a strong Spanish influence in the culture and the population was very homogeneous, mostly white, until other ethnic groups migrated to the city in search of the universities.

Manizales is the capital city of one of the smallest Colombian departments. The city is described as having an “abrupt topography” and lies on the Colombian Central Mountain Range (part of the longest continental mountain range, The Andes) with a great deal of ridgelines and steep slopes, which, combined with the seismic instability of the area, has required architectural adaptations and public works to make the city safer. Even though Manizales has a very difficult topography, there are many coffee plantations in this extremely fertile region.

Held at the same time as the fair is Coffee International Beauty Pageant (Reinado Internacional del Café). The current winner being Maydeliana Liyimar Diaz, from Venezuela.

The beauty contest originally began in 1957 and was held every two years (1957, 1959, 1961, 1963) under the name of Continental Queen of Coffee. However, to give a wider scope, in 1972 its name was changed to Miss International Queen of Coffee Pageant, thereby increasing the participation of coffee producing countries from other continents. Manizales is the permanent home since its inception.

With so many events taking place over the 9 days of the fair it’s impossible to see everything. Perhaps one of the most impressive displays I saw was the Cabalgata Feria de Manizales (horse riding). Over 500 people participated in this extremely raucous parade, along Calle Santander, with their spectacular displays of *Paso Fino.

*The Paso Fino name means ‘fine step’. The Paso Fino is a naturally gaited light horse breed dating back to horses imported to the Caribbean from Spain. Pasos are prized for their smooth, natural, four-beat, lateral ambling gait; they are used in many disciplines, but are especially popular for trail riding.

Incidentally, Manizales is twinned with Oxford in the United Kingdom.

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Angel on fire.

Panajachel, Guatemala December 2017.

It started out like any other Nativity play but ended spectacularly bad.

Christmas in Guatemala is an interesting time; more or less the same as back home but also very different. The shops still push Christmas as a time for consumerism and people here still buy into it. Thankfully it’s only a short term affair, unlike back in the UK.

This was my fifth Christmas in Latin America and my fourth spent in Guatemala. It was really nice to be back with my host family in Panajachel. Magda and her family have always welcomed me with open arms, as have the staff at my Spanish language school – Jabel Tinamit.

This year I decided to spend Christmas Day in the beautiful former capital of Guatemala – Antigua – at a B&B I have stayed at before – Chez Daniel. A lovely clean, quiet place owned by an American guy and his Guatemalan wife. Antigua, remains far more than just a tourist attraction. It’s a place of rare beauty, major historical significance and vibrant culture, it’s definitely the country’s one must-visit destination.

Back to the Nativity play. The Plaza Central was full of people out to celebrate the start of the festive period with their annual play. Everybody was dressed in the usual stuff, Mary, Joseph, shepherds and kings. Also in a full costume of feathers was a beautifully adorned angel.

The final scene of the play included all of the characters and of course photos were obligatory. The mass of burning candles placed on the ground made the whole scene very atmospheric. A conscientious director warned the angel not to stand near them. Unfortunately, due to the shear number of people and the pushing and shoving, it wasn’t long before the inevitable happened and her costume brushed against one of the candles. I have never seen flames envelop so quickly. Thankfully someone had the piece of mind to rip the burning costume off the young child and a serious accident was thankfully averted. Suffice to say the play came to an abrupt end.

I hope the organisers have a rethink about things for 2018.

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The ‘easy’ way to learn a foreign language.

What makes (some of) us Brits (myself included) so inept at learning another language? In my opinion, two reasons: laziness and the fact that we don’t really need to bother; English is the universal language across the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled all over the world and English has always served me well.

My introduction to languages was not an enjoyable one. When I was at high school we studied Latin and French. Latin, oh my goodness, Latin. All I can remember is reciting Latin verbs, for example: ībam, ībās, ībat, ībāmus, ībātis, ībant (indicative imperfect tense of the verb ‘to go’). My best exam result in this subject was an embarrassing 5%!

French was marginally better, only because I had an interesting French teacher, Ms Bromley. I used to have lots of dinasour stickers on my excercise books, so she used to call me ‘le petit dinosaur’. French exam results were slightly better than Latin – my personal best being a meagre 20%!

My ‘self-study’ journey of languages started with German, which got off to a reasonably good start. I used a friend’s ‘cassette’ based language program, which was really enjoyable. Sadly I can only remember two phrases “Ich bin hungrig” and “ich bin durstig”. I didn’t try and visit Germany – as a result I soon lost interest in learning the language.

I am not one to give up on things easily so I thought I would give French another try. Now to be fair, second time round, French became a joy to learn. Again, I used a ‘cassette’ based learning program. Fortunately I had friends in France and I visited them regularly – this really made a difference. Thrown in at the deep end, for example in Paris, really pushed me to learn and remember words and phrases.

Fast forward to 2013 and the start of my travels in Latin America. Prior to departure I’d met a lot of people who told me that I should have some Spanish under my belt “it’s going to be tough otherwise”, they said. I thought they were joking at first. In South East Asia, everybody in the tourist related industry speaks English, why should it be any different in Latin America!

Anyway, as a result of the advice, I decided to take some Spanish lessons. It proved to be a disappointing experience. The people who said there were beginners were actually intermediate. Those who said they knew nothing really did know…… nothing. This made it incredibly difficult for the teacher to find a level to appease everybody. I gave up after 5-weeks, it was tortuous!

I soon got to find out that my ‘advisors’ were right, English is indeed rarely spoken in Latin America. Thankfully during my first trip I managed to absorb a lot of words and phrases and soon realised how rewarding and useful it was be to be able to speak Spanish. Year two I decided to take ‘one to one’ Spanish lessons at a School in Panajachel (Guatemala) – Jabel Tinamit. Year three I returned to Jabel Tinamit to continue with my studies. Year four I returned to be faced with ‘los verbos de Pretérito’ (perfect past tense verbs) – these proved very challenging.

Each time I visited I always had the same teacher (Patricia) and I always stayed with the same host family who pushed me to talk in Spanish. This year I returned yet again. I was chuffed to bits when Patricia commented on how my Spanish had improved. Success at last – que bueno!

So, if you really want to learn a language, chose one that you will use on a regular basis, chose one that you will enjoy learning and, most of all, immerse yourself.

¡Hasta luego amigos!

Graduation day at Jabel Tinamit, with my Spanish teacher Patricia.

Above: Graduation day with my Spanish teacher Patricia .

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A (possible) farewell return.

Five years ago my wonderful mother departed this mortal coil; we shared 48-years on this earth, a lot longer than I imagined we would. 92-years of age is a pretty good innings.

If there is indeed an ‘after life’ I’m pretty sure St. Peter opened those pearly gates, on an unusually warm and sunny afternoon, in May 2013, and gave ‘Dobbie’ a particularly special welcome. You see my mum was a particularly special person.

Five years ago I quit my full time job, a job that I had enjoyed for some 20 years, to go ‘travelling’ in Latin America. So called because Spanish, French and Portuguese are the predominant languages. A continent consisting of South America and Central America. A continent stretching from Chille in the South to Mexico in the North. A continent that I have strangely fallen in love with. I always thought that Asia was my true love!

Latin America, including the Caribbean, consists of nineteen sovereign states and several territories and dependencies which cover an area of approximately 19,197,000 km2 (7,412,000 sq mi), almost 13% of the Earth’s land surface area. As of 2016, its population was estimated at more than 639 million

Initially I had planned to do it all in one or two years straight. As it turned out it actually took five years, consisting of four month bite-size chunks.

This year, 2017, I have decided to return to two of my favourite countries, within this amazing, beautiful, diverse, and edgy continent – Guatemala and Colombia. My love of these two countries, not to say that I don’t have other favourites, is all down to the people that I have had the pleasure to meet and have true and meaningful interaction with.

Over the next few months I hope to write more about my journey ahead.

For now, Feliz Navidad (Happy Christmas).

Latin America consists of nineteen sovereign states and several territories and dependencies which cover an area that stretches from the northern border of Mexico to the southern tip of South America, including the Caribbean. It has an area of approximately 19,197,000 km2 (7,412,000 sq mi),[1] almost 13% of the Earth's land surface area. As of 2016, its population was estimated at more than 639 million

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“Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

Remember that ‘amusing’ childhood saying that parents used to real off just before you went to bed?  Well a few nights ago I got to experience the real deal.

The story starts at breakfast time, following my first night back in Mexico. A young couple on a nearby table were complaining to the hotel manager about the bites that they had received during the night. Their opinion on the cause of these bites – bed bugs. I cringed at the thought. Full marks to the hotel, it wasn’t long before the “pest control’ company arrived and gave the bed, and room, in question, a ‘deep clean’.

As my room was next to theirs, a thought briefly went through my mind; might some of those unwelcome guests, as a result of the cleaning process, somehow make their way into mine?

Fast forward a few days and I’m now in Guatemala. I woke up after my first night to find my body covered in red swollen blotches! The blotches itched like crazy. You guessed it – bed bugs. The next problem I had was, do I say anything to my host family? Were the bed bugs there before I arrived or did I bring them with me from Mexico? Moral dilema or a no brainier?

According to reports, bed bug infestations seem to be increasing around the world, at an alarming rate.  The reasons for the increase are thought to be due to increasing world travel, a reluctance to use some insecticides – because of concerns regarding toxicity, and resistance to other insecticides – such as pyrethroids.

Somewhat embarrassed, I mentioned the problem to my host who was extremely understanding and gave me another room. Suffice to say, it wasn’t long before the ‘pest control’ company turned up to sort the problem out.

I just hope and pray that my current bed remains a ‘safe haven’ from those wretched little critters.

Night night, sleep tight, and remember…….. don’t let the bed bugs bite!

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More of Matanzas.

Cuevas de Bellamar.

Cuba’s oldest tourist attraction, according to local propaganda, lies 5km southeast of Matanzas and is 300,000 years old. There are 2500m of caves here, discovered in 1861 by a Chinese workman in the employ of Don Manuel Santos Parga. A 45-minute Cuevas de Bellamar visit leaves almost hourly starting at 9:30am. The caves on show include a vast 12m stalagmite and an underground stream; cave walls glitter eerily with crystals.

Here is a you tube video about The Caves of Bellamar.

Museo Farmaceútico.

Museo Farmaceútico, on the park’s south side, is one of the city’s showcase sights. Founded in 1882 by the Triolett family, the antique pharmacy was the first of its type in Latin America. The fine displays include all the odd bottles, instruments and suchlike used in the trade.

Next stage: Havana.

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Matanzas for backpackers & Varadero for your all-inclusive’s.

With a name translating as ‘massacres,’ Matanzas province conceals an appropriately tumultuous past beneath its modern-day reputation for glam all-inclusive holidays. In the 17th century pillaging pirates ravaged the region’s prized north coast, while three centuries later, more invaders grappled ashore in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) under the dreamy notion that they were about to liberate the nation.

The Bahía de Cochinos attracts more divers than mercenaries these days, while sunbathers rather than pirates invade the northern beaches of Varadero, the vast Caribbean resort and lucrative economic ‘cash cow’ that stretches 20km along the sandy Península de Hicacos.


Providing a weird juxtaposition is the scruffy city of Matanzas, the music-rich provincial capital that has gifted the world with rumba, danzón, countless grand neoclassical buildings and Santería (the province is the veritable cradle of Afro-Cuban religion). Tourists may be scant here outside of Varadero, but soulful, only-in-Cuba experiences are surprisingly abundant.

Much like a beloved but long-forgotten antique being polished back to its former glory, Matanzas is showing breathtaking signs of reclaiming its erstwhile place at the helm of Cuban culture. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it developed a gigantic literary and musical heritage, and was regularly touted as the ‘Athens of Cuba.’ Undeniably, its battle-scarred buildings and cars belching out asphyxiating diesel fumes now leave it a shadow of its former self and a long way from the vacation glitter of Varadero.


Varadero, located on the sinuous 20km-long Hicacos peninsula, stands at the vanguard of Cuba’s most important industry – tourism. As the largest resort in the Caribbean, it guards a huge, unsubtle and constantly evolving stash of hotels (over 50), shops, water activities and poolside entertainment; though its trump card is its beach, an uninterrupted 20km stretch of blond sand that is undoubtedly one of the Caribbean’s best. But, while this large, tourist-friendly mega-resort may be essential to the Cuban economy, it offers little in the way of unique Cuban experiences. For these you’ll need to escape the wristband wearing crowds from Canada and Europe and dip into the readily accessible hinterland for nearby ‘reality checks’ in Matanzas, Cárdenas or Bahía de Cochinos.

Most Varadero tourists buy their vacation packages overseas (you need to book in advance to get the best rates) and are content to idle for a week or two enjoying the all-inclusiveness of their resort (and why not?). However, if you’re touring Cuba independently, and want to alternate your esoteric rambles with some less stressful beach life, Varadero can provide a few nights of well-earned sloth after a dusty spell on the road. For spur-of-the-moment stop-offs there are plenty of economical hotels and casas particulares in Varadero town at the western end of the peninsula that are baggable on the spot.

 The Varadero Beach Tour is a handy open-top double-decker tourist bus with 45 hop-on/hop-off stops linking all the resorts and shopping malls along the entire length of the peninsula. An interesting opportunity to see the length and breadth of this amazing tourism project/cash cow.

Matanzas City

Varadero Beach Tour bus.

Hotel Blau Varadero.

Hotel Blau Varadero.

The beautiful beaches of Varadero.

Next stage: In and around Matanzas city.

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Santa Clara & Ernesto Che Guevara.

While Varadero courts beach-lovers and Trinidad pulls in history geeks, gritty Santa Clara doesn’t stand on ceremony for anyone. Smack bang in the geographic center of Cuba, this is a city of new trends and insatiable creativity.

Ernesto Che Guevara.

On the southwestern outskirts of the city, about 1km from Parque Vidal, the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara marks the final resting place of Che Guevara’s body and pays tribute to Santa Clara’s adopted son and hero, who led the Cuban rebels to victory against General Batista’s dictatorship here in 1958, in one of the decisive battles of the Revolution.

The large thundering monument is in classic Cuban revolutionary style: big, bold and made of concrete. Atop the grey-tiled steps of a hulking grandstand are four bulky monoliths; towering down from the tallest one is a burly-looking statue of Guevara, on the move and dressed in his usual military garb, rifle in hand. Next to the statue in a huge, somewhat jumbled mural, with Guevara’s march from the Sierra Maestra to Santa Clara and the decisive victory over Batista’s troops depicted in cement.

Underneath the monument, the surprisingly small Museo and Memorial al Che occupies a single U-shaped room, and provides a succinct overview of Che’s life. Photographs line the walls, and it’s these that tend to hold the most interest, with depictions of Che from his early childhood all the way through to his life as a rebel soldier in the Sierra Maestra and a Cuban statesman in the early years of the Revolution.

Opposite the museum entrance is the mausoleum, a softly lit chamber where the mood of reverence and respect is quite affecting. Resembling a kind of tomb with an eternally flickering flame, this is the resting place of Che’s remains, as well as those of a number of the Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans who died with him in Bolivia, each of whom is commemorated by a simple stone portrait set into the wall.

Boxcar Museuem.

History was made at the site of this small boxcar museum on December 29, 1958, when Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a band of 18 rifle-wielding revolutionaries barely out of their teens derailed an armored train using a borrowed bulldozer and homemade Molotov cocktails.

The battle lasted 90 minutes and improbably pulled the rug out from under the Batista dictatorship, ushering in 50 years of Fidel Castro. The museum – east on Independencia, just over the river – marks the spot where the train derailed and ejected its 350 heavily armed government troops. The celebrated bulldozer is mounted on its own plinth at the entrance.

Boxcar Museuem.

Boxcar Museuem.

Horse drawn taxi – en route to the Che mausoleum.

Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara.

Mural – Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara.

Shared taxi – Santa Clara to Matanzas.

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