On Thursday we began our journey to Monserrate. We took an early flight from Bogota southwest to the city of Neiva, and then drove further southwest to the small city of La Plata (our base from which we traveled to/from Monserrate each day). After checking in we gathered at the front of the hotel, which faces the town square.
Without delay we jumped into the back of two rugged Jeeps for the drive up to Monserrate. The jeeps were impressive, with a bench on each side of the bed, and a bumper to stand on if you chose to hang off the back. The rear tires had a deep aggressive tread, but the fronts were nearly bald. The drive consisted of a short section on paved road, then a long, progressively steeper dirt road. None of the stream crossings or deep ruts stopped the jeeps as their engines growled up the mountain. Sitting in the back, the dust and exhaust smell were strong.
About two-thirds of the way up, we discovered something special had been arranged for us: horses! Quite a few members of the community had brought their horses to this rendezvous point so that we could ride into Monserrate in style. Having only been on horses a few other times in my life, it was an interesting experience that my body would not let me forget. I was put on a small white horse that seemed relatively responsive to my direction. Our group became spread out as some of the horses decided on a faster pace than others. Being on the back of a horse afforded us much better views and a better pace than riding in the back of a jeep. At certain points the church at Monserrate was visible from across the valley.
As we rode into town we were a funny sight for the locals, awkwardly climbing off of our steeds. Hanging across the road in Monserrate was a wonderful sign welcoming us all to the community for the coffee competition. Everyone in the community was eager to see us, and there was a huge lunch ready for us when we arrived. As the guests of honor we were seated in the courtyard of the church. The food was hearty and delicious, especially since breakfast had been long ago. During lunch we were serenaded by a family trio of guitars and singing. The music was a perfect addition to the general ambiance.