With verdant plantations, laid-back haciendas and vivacious nightlife, there's far more to Colombia than the trigger-happy stereotype
I thought my days in Colombia’s coffee region would begin with a cup of freshly ground arabica, perhaps an arepa (maize cake) with scrambled eggs and some wistful gazing out at the mist rising in the valleys.
But it was not to be. At our hotel-cum-estate, the Bosque del Saman in Quimbaya, we rose with the cockerel and were mounted on horses by 6am. Workers were just arriving to start harvesting as we rode up and down the steep inclines.
From a distance the hills looked sensually rounded and cloaked in soft, bottle-green bonsai, but up close the slopes were abrupt and every plant was bursting with bright red, yellow and orange beans. I slalomed between towering guadua (bamboo) and floppy banana trees. My horse, Gitano, munched on the glossy coffee plants as he struggled onward.
No sooner was I out of the saddle than I was clipped onto a zip-line by two muscle-bound ex-coffee gatherers. As they trussed me in a tight harness and fixed me onto two steel ropes the hotel’s owner, Don Rafael, gave me his assurances. “Ours is the safest zip-line in Colombia. It can take two tonnes of pressure. You could send a car over the canopy without it breaking!”
A second later I pushed off into the void, only momentarily perturbed by the sudden sag as my bodyweight – surely no more than a tenth of a Smart Car? – yanked the line down.
The buzz of zip-trekking is in the speed of your flight – you can hit more than 40km/h – and the parrot’s-eye view. Hurtling over the plantation and into the morning breeze I couldn’t exactly observe nature, but I caught snatches of birdsong above my heartbeat and, to the west, glimpsed the sun rise over the blueish slopes of the central spine of the Andes.
Back on earth, I was given a shot of black coffee and, on a rush of caffeine, adrenalin and sunshine, I was set up for a country that has become famous for its highs.
I’d come to Colombia after 15 years of travelling around Latin America, during which time I’d been to all the other major countries – and a few of the tiny ones, too. Colombia had slipped off the list because of security issues – the constant news of fighting between government forces, left-wing guerrillas in cahoots with narcotraffickers and right-wing paramilitaries in collusion with the US, as well as occasional bombs in the city centres.
Arriving in Bogotá had already been an eye-opener. Much of the city is modern and looked very middle-class indeed, with slick bars and smart suits galore. Some of this seeming wealth was generated by drug money that filtered down via laundering into anything from hospitals to nightclubs.
But Colombia looks set to move on under President Uribe. In May 2006 he became the first premier in the country’s history to be elected for a second term – and a visible military presence on all major roads suggested that the country was keen to make itself safer. After coffee, flowers and fruit, tourism is being viewed by the government as a significant potential source of foreign currency.
I flew from the capital into the tiny airport at Armenia. The landscape was spectacular: high peaks in the distance, emerald-green fields rising to bottle-green coffee plantations, and lofty palms swaying beside the airstrip.
Close up, it was more vivacious still. Lining the roads were endless coffee plantations and stands of exotic trees brightened by orchids and heliconias. It was late afternoon and leagues of straw-hatted coffee gatherers were loping home after a hard day’s graft. Foremen drove jeeps overloaded with bulging bags of coffee beans, bales of straw, people or pigs en route to market or someone’s fiesta.
Just about everything in the region is coffee-related. Driving down the ‘coffee highway’ you pass coffee factories that produce the instant stuff; everyone works in the industry or knows someone who does. So, after a night’s rest, I went to an ‘educational’ coffee finca to learn the basics.
My guide, Luis, gave me the low-down on growing, selecting, washing and fermentation. “We are very proud of the beneficio,” he explained grandly. “This is the process we use in Colombia to remove the outer shell so you only make coffee with the fruit inside. In Brazil,” he added disparagingly, “they leave the shell on.”
Returning from Luis’s finca, we stopped by a tasting centre, where agronomists sample beans all day to grade them for export. I had a bash, copying local expert Sandra. As with wine there is a poetry of coffee tasting but instead of ‘fruity’ or ‘oaky’, the keywords are ‘burnt’, ‘dirty’ and plain ‘stinker’.
“I may try 600 brews in a single session,” boasted Sandra. “I check for acidity, body, defects and the range of scents. Wine has about 250 aromas but coffee has almost 1,000.”
The technique is tricky, involving snorting, swilling and spitting to pick up the subtle differences. They all tasted like stinkers to my untrained mouth.
For all the science, Colombians drink watery coffee and there’s no café society as such. But we managed to find a place to indulge – I ate chicken cooked in coffee, my companion tucked into steak in coffee sauce and then we ordered a cappuccino cake and a cup of coffee.
Overkill? Well, we weren’t complaining, and before leaving bought some organic beans to take as a souvenir. Nubia, the café owner, emphasised that: “until we value coffee here in Colombia, the men and women who work the land will not be paid what they deserve. Organic, gourmet coffee is the future.”
The following day we went north by jeep to another town, Manizales, to visit the Hacienda Venecia. When I tried to wind the window down, the driver and Venecia’s owner, Juan Pablo, laughed: “I think you’ll find the window is a bit thick to wind down. This is a bullet-proof car.” His dad was a regional governor and a bigwig in the coffee world – security was paramount.
The Venecia was a beautiful mansion built in 1910 in lush gardens – like something straight out of a García Márquez novel. Relaxing in its pool, I could imagine staying there for days – or years – choosing books from its multilingual library (Graham Greene, birding field guides, coffee-table books about coffee) and watching the pretty blue tanagers hop around the centenarian trees from the hammock strung across the gallery.
But half an hour away was Manizales and it was Friday night. We drove out to two tiendas, great little bar-cum-clubs on a high ridge on the edge of town. Coffee was out and sugar-cane-based aguardiente was in, and we were on for a long night of lively cumbias, smoochy vallenatos and ego-impaling salsa. The tiendas were rammed with boozing, bopping Colombians, the men in smart shirts, the women in anything so long as it was tight and impractical. Everyone had big smiles on their faces and a bottle of aguardiente on their table.
I’m not a natural salsero, but the good vibe made you feel like dancing. Not for the first time I pondered what made the Colombians seem so likeable and at ease. Whereas in Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Santiago de Chile I’d always sensed a kind of xenophilia – a veneration of all things European, or American – here people seemed proudly and fully latino.
The dancing cancelled out several days of caffeine overdose and I slept till the parrots woke me. That afternoon the skies turned yellow-grey with charged ions, and shafts of rain could be seen pounding the sierras. A gusty wind rose to flap the banana leaves. Over everything there was a kind of fiery iridescence, primary colours pushed to their limits and nature gleaming with a humid sheen that would soon distil to become pounding rain.
Fortunately the storm had abated by the time we boarded another puttering plane to head up to Santa Marta.
In Colombia you have to fly. The Andes splinter into three separate ranges so a trip of 150km as the condor flies can involve descending and climbing out of two enormous valleys. By road it would have been about 30 hours to Santa Marta; by plane, even with a stopover in Bogotá, it was less than four. Also, some roads are not recommended after dark – even cargo-carrying trucks don’t use main trunk roads at night for fear of roadside robbery.
It was time to chill, and the Caribbean was perfect.
Many travellers opt for Cartagena, Colombia’s showcase Unesco site and as romantic as any town on the planet. Santa Marta is, however, a more authentic port city. It has far fewer tourists, enjoys a soothing, heat-drenched pace and is full of great seafood restaurants and juice bars. Santa Marta also boasts the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the sugar-cane farm where Simón Bolívar, liberator of northern South America, breathed his last. For Colombians and Ecuadoreans, Bolívar is an icon; for Venezuelans he is God and when they come to the quinta, many simply break down in tears.
But Santa Marta’s main draw is its beaches. We shacked up in Taganga, a quintessential beach town with a small strip of bars and one nightclub where everyone goes every night of the week. By day the sea is teeming with marine-life, the rich reefs are ideal for snorkelling and diving.
From the ravines that dip down into the coastline we could spy the Sierra Nevada; the 5,700m-plus mountain range that bursts through the jungle just 40km from the coast. The summits have seduced many tourists up into the high jungles, but there has been a history of marijuana cultivation – and some coca-growing – so you have to choose your trail with care. I chose to avoid the drug barons and drove up the western slopes of the Nevada range to the tiny hamlet of Minca.
It was my idea of paradise: trees dripping with mango and guanábana, a little church and a minute school, and a small snack bar run by a friendly girl named Liseth. Here I finally got my dreamed-of breakfast: fresh arepas, juice and a cup of organic cappuccino.
We’d climbed perhaps 800m but it hadn’t cooled much. “Isn’t it a bit hot for coffee?” I asked Liseth.
“Hot? Not for me. I’m from Cali, where it’s often 40°C at night.”
It was just a question of adapting. Four soldiers sprawled beneath a tree opposite Liseth’s place, their semi-automatics leaning up against a wall. Locals wandered by, pausing to feel the breeze and to have a coffee.
To see the most pristine corner of the region, we made one final trip, to Tayrona National Park. Here the jungles of the Sierra tumble right down to the coast. We hired horses and galloped through the forests to explore the Arrecifes area, where there is a chain of tiny coves.
On the densely forested slope above Tayrona’s Cañaveral beach is a pretty eco-resort that apes the architecture of indigenous huts, with high, steeple-like roofs woven from palm fronds. On the long, open beach below, the waves had pounded the rocks, leaving them smooth and rounded.
I lunched on a tangy ceviche of shrimps and some tropical fruits, then lay back to do some half-hearted reading and thinking about taking a dip in the heaving surf. But after all the early rises, the stormy flights and bullet-proof jeeps, the canopy tours and the natural – and not so natural – highs, there was nothing else for it but to sleep a siesta.