An armed woman in camouflage outfit and shades looks me in the eye and asks in a no bullshit way if I am carrying more than $10,000 in cash, I say “no”, she says in a steel voice “Welcome to Colombia”. This country has a history of narcotics, kidnapping and violence, but it is said to have changed dramatically in the past 12 years. I am told that cacao is an excellent legal alternative crop to coca and marijuana for Colombian farmers, helping to steer the country towards a brighter future.
I am greeted out of customs by a tall thin Italian man with a glint in his eye. His name is Federico, he bought some land here about 3 years ago and has been settling in. Fred later tells me that it is not a woman he has fallen in love with, but a land. We take a series of local public transport, something I was advised not to do here, out to a town about 2 hours from central Bogota. In the town we pick up his 1970 ex-military jeep and head out along dirt tracks into the Colombian countryside.
It is a thick jungle, bursting with life. We pass children and Colombian farmers, they wave and shout greetings to Fred, it is clear that he has integrated himself with the community. The farm is named Manas Viejas, which means the ‘place of the old spring water’. We begin by taking a walk to the spring to collect some water, passing various fruit trees and feeding Fred’s Donkey along the way. Near the spring there are several old cacao trees, growing wild. The cacao fruit is dense and hardy, native. As he drinks from the spring I begin to realise that Fred is not just living like a Colombian farmer, he is living like the indigenous. He tells me that the local farmers here are the descendants of the indigenous tribes, their way of life preserved and merged with agriculture.
It is mango harvest time at Manas Viejas, and Fred has a long bamboo pole with a metal basket on the end which he uses to collect the fresh fruit. He can collect around 10 boxes every day, with help from some of the locals. A truck passes the farm 3 times a day which will collect the fruits from the farm, giving Fred a steady income. Its hard work, but a labour of love. The mangos are some of the most aromatic I have ever eaten.
When we get back to the farm house he shows me around, there are statues, furniture, masks and various curiosities from all over the world. Fred was raised on a farm where he learned bio-dynamic, organic techniques. He went on to become a pillar of his community and a trader in precious gem stones. He was making good money and travelling the world. Being raised in the south of Italy with a Mafia culture he was no stranger to corruption, but he decided some years ago that sleeping with a gun by his side was not going to provide a future he looked forward to, so he sold the business and shipped a container of all his belongings to Manas Viejas. He is settling here into a peaceful, indigineous agricultural lifestyle, and also has been developing the farmhouse as an eco-tourism resort.
The farmhouse is a fantastic place. It was the first building to be built in the area and has a rich history. Some of the local people were born in Fred’s house, ancient treaties have been signed there and there are mystical stories of the gold which is underneath his land. It is certainly special, and beautiful. He has built several themed rooms, connected hot water to the showers, created spaces for hammocks and a giant treehouse looking over the thick jungle. I stay in the Africa room, with ancient tribal artifacts and a beautiful old treasure chest for company. I slept very peacefully, despite listening to Fred’s stories of narrow escapes from danger during his travels. He is a real character, a hidden gem himself, deep and safe within the Colombian jungle.
In the morning we have delicious aromatic fruit and coffee for breakfast before heading out to a magnificent peak on the land which provides the most incredible view. The fruit at Manas Viejas is superb. When we return to the farm we refresh with squeezed fruit juice at the house before continuing to explore the farm. As we walk through the winding paths I begin to understand and admire Fred’s vision of agriculture. On steep fertile banks he is planting fruits, flowers, coffee and native cacao in a way symbiotic to each other and the land. He actually managed to convince a head member of the federation of coffee that organic mixed planting is better than the federations techniques. Now the federation is teaching Freds organic techniques to other farmers. The cacao won’t be ready for a couple of years but its going to be worth the wait.
Back at the farmhouse Fred continues work, he is building a bar for the eco-tourism, and there are still a lot of mangos to collect. I take time to write, take photographs and reflect. Fred is living alone here while he prepares the land and building, but it is without doubt that word will spread to visitors about this place and visitors will come. I could have spent weeks at Manas Viejas, connecting with the land and healing my tired body. Fred is an experienced medicine man, growing various plants for healing. I feel great after some of his botanical teas, and I use fresh aloe vera for sunburn. He even claims he can cure cancers with the medicinal plants he has here.
Although Fred’s cacao is of excellent native origin, the indiginous way of processing is very basic, and isn’t advanced enough for The Chocolate Tree to capture the potential flavours of the cacao in chocolate. The humidity is too high, the fermentation inconsistent. I share with Fred what I know about processing, drawing diagrams of fermentation, drying and sorting techniques and explaining the reasoning behind them. He is keen to make a very high standard of cacao, and I am sure if he learns to process the cacao well then he will have an excellent result.
It’s 2 hours until I head to Bogota airport and begin the long journey home. Glad to have experienced a little of urban and rural Colombia without being used as a drug mule, kidnapped or shot. Fred’s farm is not a case example of a change in illegal to legal agriculture, but it is great to see an honest and safe living being made from some of the most fertile soil in the world. The country is recovering from a bad reputation and although its not entirely healed, it is definitely worth coming to Colombia as the risk is minimal as long as you use some intelligence. There are parts of many British towns you wouldn’t want to wander about at night, it just takes common sense. Make sure and arrange a guide if you are going anywhere off the beaten track.The culture is fascinating, the people kind and the nature is wonderful.
You can contact Federico via AirBnB.
If you are in Colombia I highly recommend at least a few days stay with him at Manas Viejas.