Wake up... and smell the coffee
Landing in Colombia’s coffee region was like waking up in my oldest, most enduring South American fantasy. Touching down in Armenia, on a runway lined with palms waving in the afternoon breeze, coffee bushes studded the steep slopes beyond, and plantain trees and tall bamboos cast shadows. Under the tropical sunshine greens glowed brightly, as after a shower, while high above wispy white clouds grazed the hazy-blue peaks of the Andes.
Set between the Colombian cities of Bogotá, Medellín and Cali, Armenia is one point on the country’s rich Coffee Triangle. Sure enough, the jeep drive to our finca took us past coffee plantation after coffee plantation. Berry pickers and farmers cycled or rode home along a road fringed with flowering trees in which blue tanager birds hopped about. Warm air floated in through the window. We turned a corner into a large estate, on which a beautiful mansion looked down over yet more rows of shiny coffee bushes. This was to be my bed for the night. It was almost too dreamy. I wondered when reality might dawn, or my luck run out?
Though by now I really shouldn’t have been surprised by Colombia’s ability to provoke wonder. My trip had begun in Bogotá. My very first outing was on a quiet Sunday morning to the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum). Before coffee became ‘brown gold’, much of Colombia’s wealth came from the real thing. Here I saw bracelets, breastplates, masks, appliqués, pendants and anthropomorphous figurines, all crafted in solid gold. The yellow glow was overwhelming. There was also the deep green of Colombia’s best-known precious stone – the emerald – and glints of silver. The museum owns around 34,000 gold pieces, as well as 20,000 bone, stone, ceramic, and textile items, which together trace the long history of Colombia’s indigenous societies as well as colonisation after the 16th century. The exhibition was the ideal quick introduction to Colombia’s restive history and remarkable geography.
Bogotá is an easy city to like. Located at 8,360 feet above sea level in a savanna abutting the eastern Andes, it enjoys yearround spring weather. It has a lively street culture, lots of colonial and 19th-century architecture, wonderful shady plazas for people-watching, and seems to celebrate Gabriel García Márquez even more than it does the Virgin Mary. Staying in La Candelaria, which is the old town, you can walk everywhere. On a Sunday many roads are traffic-free, becoming ciclovia: a long, safe cycle path which has become a model for many cities around the world. After strolling around the cobbled streets, the main cathedral and the government palaces, I jumped on a bike and cycled north into the sprawl of modern Bogotá.
Passing through a high-rise commercial district, I pedalled west and then north into the upscale residential areas around Parque 93 and the Zona Rosa. Here new jostles with old, plazas fringed by stylish restaurants, microbreweries, bars and smart boutiques. After pushing my bike through a market crowded with locals rather than tourists, I took a breather at a branch of Juan Valdéz, Bogotá’s ubiquitous but very good coffee shop chain. They served a delicious latte, after which I was ready to go to the source.
In 2011, Unesco recognised the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia, prizing it as a unique example of urban centres co-existing with traditional farming. On drives around the so-called Coffee Triangle between Armenia, Pereira and Manizales, I swooned at the beauty of this agricultural milieu: mansions and straw cabins, roads and rural settlements throwing the brilliant greenery into relief.
The heart of Colombia’s coffee industry is Salento, a short 30-minute hop from Bogotá by plane. Still a trading town, one side of the pretty colonial plaza is full of vintage Willys jeeps – prized vehicle of the Colombian rancher. Late middle-aged men in Stetsons sit at pavement-set tables, gossiping over beers and espressos. At Jesus Martín, a trendy little cafe, Colombians are at last being served the product they deserve. For decades the finest beans were set aside for foreign markets while locals got the dregs and instant coffee. Now baristas are roasting, grinding and serving premium coffee with care.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation in all of Colombia is Medellín. Anyone who is older than about 25 and who occasionally reads the news will know that this is the city once associated with Pablo Escobar and his notorious drug cartel. But Medellín is Colombia’s second city and a textile powerhouse, which in turn has fuelled a burgeoning fashion scene. Locals are called paisas and are known for their warmth and friendliness: the so-called bandeja paisa (country platter) takes heartiness to a new level. At a roadside ranch, I did my best to wade through a grill-full of fried pork, minced beef, black pudding, fried egg, rice, plantain chips, red beans, avocado and a dollop of tomatoey hogao sauce with arepas – stodgy maize buns – on the side. I love a good fry-up but I was beaten by this protein-and-carb monster.
In Medellín’s central plaza I wondered if the diet had anything to do with the voluptuous forms sculpted by Fernando Botero, Colombia’s best-known artist, born and raised in Medellín. However, it is through subtler expressions that Medellín is forging a new image and identity. A cable car took me up into one of the humbler neighbourhoods fringing the city. Here you will find library parks. These green public spaces with a library at their centre are just one of the ways the wealthier centre is embracing its long-forgotten suburbs. Back in town, a very novel barefoot park invites visitors to naturally massage their naked feet by walking on fine gravel, bathing them in cool springs, and walking on the soft lawns. There is also a small maze of sculptures where you close your eyes and feel your way through. Nearby an eco-tree sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere. This green, slightly hippyish urban vision is engaging and shows how the paisas are embracing the new and putting their dark past behind them.
Enduring beauty is to be found in Cartagena, Colombia’s most popular holiday destination. Many visitors arrive by cruise ship, but I flew in on a balmy afternoon. As we landed, I could see the strips of mangrove that line the Caribbean coast for mile after mile. Before plunging into the heart of the city I took a stroll around the old bulwarks. A warm sea breeze floated in. Pelicans skimmed above the calm water. Couples and groups of friends had gathered to watch the sun go down and enjoy beers and cocktails. It was all so idyllic you could easily forget that the city was founded in 1533 as the regional HQ of the Spanish galleon. But then you go into the city and it’s like a film set. I walked open-mouthed around cobbled plazas and down the narrow streets, ogling countless colonial mansions (many now transformed into boutique hotels), monasteries, convents, grandiose churches, naval offices, civic palaces ... all perfectly preserved, in ochres, russets and pinks.
It’s surprising, in a way, that such a gorgeous city is not teeming with visitors, but that’s the wonder of Colombia. How Cartagena came to be so stunning is explained at the local history museum: the port, of course, was the exit point for all the riches of the interior, freighted up the Magdalena river or carried over on mule trains en route to Seville, Madrid and Rome. My journey ended as it had begun, with silver, emeralds and, of course, gold.
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