Banging on the window to get the attention of the driver, we drag our backpacks off the bus onto a bridge four miles downhill from Salento, a small cowboy town in the Colombian department of Quindio. We’re at ‘Camping Monteroca’, a campground offering ‘exotic lodgings’ in a nature reserve on the Río Quindío in La Zona Cafeteria; the coffee region.
“Do you have any tents available?” we ask in basic Spanish of a curt Colombian gent who greets us at the entrance. “Hrrmph” he grunts with effort. Then finally, “Si”. While he goes off to find the owner, my boyfriend and I exchange a look. We thought this place seemed a bit more groovy from the website. After half a year backpacking in Central and South America, staying in hostels where guests are herded in and out like cattle, we were looking for a truly unique experience.
“Hey guys, welcome to my place! You’re gonna love it.” Ah. This is more like it. Al Pacino in camos bounds up to shake our hands and slap us on the back. This is the owner Jorge. And Camping Monteroca is his baby.
One of Jorge’s staff shows us to our lodgings and leaves us to settle in. We’re in ‘American Camping’, a roomy Cherokee Indian-themed tent with built-in toilet, double waterbed, kitchen and a fridge painted with a mural of the plains of North America. Dreamcatchers hang from the ceiling and the walls are adorned with animal skins, warrior masks and Native American paintings. Not a detail has been spared.
“Hey guys, you like my place?” Jorge is suddenly at the door of our tent. “What you wanna do? You wanna smoke a little?” This is more hospitality than we’ve come to expect from a proprietor. Jorge lights a pre-rolled joint from his top pocket, stands tall on his heels and claps his hands, animated suddenly. “I’m gonna show you around.”
For the next half hour we stomp across Jorge’s acre or so, passing lodgings under wax palms and lime trees, up steep ravines and over a waterfall. Jorge stops now and again to admire a flower, tease his giant Mastiff puppy Fiona, or rub a fistful of fire ants on my boyfriend’s hand (“good for the vitiligo”). There is room for 200 campers here; perhaps optimistic, but with real promise to be the next new discovery in a newly-safe country now realising its potential as a backpacker haven.
There are 12 themed lodges, from ‘Safari’, to the 70’s psychedelic vibes of the ‘Hippie Hilton’. A couple of the tents give the feeling they’ve been built with your better drug-taking experience in mind. “You take some LSD in here and things go CRAZY”, he tells us as he turns on the blacklight in the brain-themed Synapsis tent.
Pulling back vines on the side of a hill, he leads us through to a jewel in his crown; ‘Polar Expedition’. Hidden from view by wild plants is a treehouse adorned with stag heads and thick anchor chains, dressed up like an Arctic explorer’s lodge. On one wall is an enormous polar bear skin, killed in Alaska in 1950. The hunter’s son donated it to Jorge, not knowing what else to do with it.
Creating an authentic experience for his guests is everything to Jorge. He’s spent the last 15 years building and growing, adding piece by piece the small details that create the magic. “Oops, missed one”, he says, yanking off the only claw left on the bear. “Don’t want people hurting themselves.” He’s not hung up on the relics in his lodgings getting nicked. He just wants people to love them as much as he does.
The next morning Jorge is back at our tent. “Come on guys, I gotta show you something GREAT!” Today he’s less Al Pacino, more Willy Wonka, the military cap and hippie shades replaced with a wide-brimmed straw sun hat and loose shirt, yesterday’s peppy zing replaced by a cool repose. We follow him into his den, find a perch on a couple of antique chairs and he opens a giant jar of jelly sweets, dropping handfuls into our laps. A DVD of ‘Vangelis’ ‘Music for the NASA Mission: 2001 Mars Odyssey’ is on at full volume and he’s enraptured. The music fades out and he inhales deeply and shakes himself out of his trance. “WOOO! Can you believe that? WOW.”
And then quite suddenly, there’s one more thing we have to see. His magnum opus, just finished. Overlooking the rest of his lodges up the steepest hill is ‘The Rasta House’. A cabin decorated from floor to ceiling with Bob Marley memorabilia, Marley family tree, hanging double bed and an enormous mahogany marijuana leaf mounted above it. And the fridge mural? Bob Marley smoking in the moonlight of course.