Turning 40 with a Colombian vacation

Last month, I left you guessing what mountainous, warm, Spanish-speaking place we’d be visiting with dairy farms. The wait to find out where is over. I’m sure the suspense was keeping you up at night.
We visited Colombia for my 40th birthday. I’ve wanted to go there since I saw pictures of Colombia in papers and magazines. Many people reminded us to stay safe when we mentioned our vacation plans, and many people assume the country is mostly jungle. But, it has a bit of everything from snowy mountains to warm beaches to temperate forests and, yes, deep jungle; although, we stuck to the mountainous area in the middle of the country.
We flew into the city of Rio Negro outside of Medellin, Colombia, and stayed in a hostel near the airport our first night there because the best flight leaves Minneapolis at 6 a.m. and doesn’t get to Colombia until 10:30 p.m. Most of the day is spent sitting in Miami. The next morning, we woke up and got a big breakfast at the hostel/car rental/parking lot/gas station/taxi restaurant. It seemed pretty typical for businesses to be two to 10 different things all at the same time. Our cab driver showed up just as we finished our cups of coffee and hot chocolate to take us to pick up the motorcycle we rented to get around the country.
The cab ride through the city of Medellin was fun as we got to see most of the large city tucked in a mountain valley. The traffic was crazy with every inch of road occupied by vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles and people. I was glad someone else was driving. After an hour ride from the southeast corner of the city to the northwest side, we arrived at the home of Jeff Cramer, an expat Colorado guy. After being a successful professional photographer for years all over South America, he started a motorcycle rental and tour business in Colombia. We packed a few clothes and our rock-climbing gear on the bike with Jeff wondering if we were crazy. When we told him we intended to climb to the top of a well-known granite monolith that is a tourist attraction in a nearby town, he decided we were crazy and wished us luck but said he wasn’t worried about us as anyone goofy enough to want to do that would have no problem with anything else they’d encounter.
On our first day of riding the motorcycle, we discovered a couple things about Colombia. There are no straight or flat roads as you are always going up or down a mountain and following the winding path of a river. Also, mountains are rather geologically unstable so at any time a perfect four-lane highway may have a 3-foot deep dip in it or, inversely, a big berm that you would go airborne off of if not avoided or gone over slowly. The mountain also tends to slide down onto the roads or the roads slide down the mountain. The highest speed road we encountered was 80 km/h, which is slower than some people drive gravel roads in Minnesota. The challenge of moving goods around the country became clear to us pretty quickly and explains a lot of how people live and work there.
We rode the backroads around Medellin in a big circle, stopping to admire the cows and pastures often. We never did stop and chat with any dairy farmers unfortunately. Our Spanish-speaking skills are good enough to get around and have simple conversations, but we quickly found out that we don’t speak nearly enough Spanish to drop in unexpectedly and discuss dairy farming with anyone.
The areas that were drier and also hotter had beef cows and large flower farms. The areas with more rain, and thus better pastures, had the dairy herds and avocado plantations. The biggest herd we saw maybe had 50 milking cows. So, at least in that region, there are not large farms. The dairies were all part of a cooperative called Unilac, and milk was stored in cans in sheds along the road for pickup by a milk truck. Where the cows were actually milked we did not see other than a guy hand-milking a cow next to his house. We saw one Brown Swiss and the rest of the dairy cows were Holsteins or Jerseys. Often, the cows watching us ride by were Holstein-Jersey crossbreds.
Until next time, keep living the dream, and maybe go check out dairy farms somewhere new. There’s always something to learn.
Tim Zweber farms with his wife, Emily, their three children and his parents, Jon and Lisa, near Elko, Minnesota.


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