It's time to wake up and smell the coffee

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Colombia's crackdown on drug gangs and rebel forces has opened up areas previously out of bounds to tourists. Adrian Mourby reports

The view from our veranda is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. It's a vision of earthly paradise as painted by the Flemish masters. There are 20ft trees that would be no taller than a much-loved potted plant in the UK. Flame-red heliconias fringe the lawn, as red as the plumage of the tiny bird known as sangre de toro (blood of the bull) that darts in and out of the palm trees, dodging the hummingbirds and parrots.

It's a landscape of the greenest greens, impossible reds and the bluest of skies. Everyone should see a view like this once in a lifetime, take a deep breath and relax. Yet, the Foreign Office has only just advised that travel to this part of Colombia is safe. It's difficult to believe it was ever anything but.

Alex lumbers on to the veranda in his vest and shorts. Our big, gentle, Colombian guide used to be a policeman, working in narcotics. He now shows visitors around the country's Coffee Triangle. Already, I have Alex pegged as a symbol of modern-day Colombia. He has turned his back on drugs and strife, and now welcomes visitors to his country (when he isn't talking to my wife, Kate, about the latest American soaps and sitcoms, which he absolutely loves).

"You were asking about Arauca," says Alex, referring to the crowded riverside town we passed through to get to our finca. "It was a very dangerous place 10 years ago. Nobody went out because there were guerrillas camped nearby. Our president went on television and said to them, 'You do not think I am going to do this, but if you do not surrender I shall destroy you.' And that is what he did."

After a traditional Colombian breakfast of huevos pericos (scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes) and arepas (flat, yellow, cornmeal bread), we load up the car. There are four of us, me, Kate, Alex and our driver Chucho. We thread south-west along the Cauca river. These big Andean rivers cut very steep, deep valleys. At the top of one, Alex points out a palatial villa.

"That place belonged to a drug baron, but now it's a school. I went to a party there once as a kid. He had a disco with a glass floor which was the top of an aquarium. As you danced, all these fishes were swimming below your feet."

Colombia's peace dividend has had some unexpected results. Later, we see another drug baron's villa that was burned out in a siege. Roads have been constructed around it, leaving the blackened roofless mansion as the centrepiece, an unusual traffic island.

At the modern city of Pereira we stop for coffee at a Juan Valdez outlet. "Juan Valdez was recently voted the most recognised brand in the world," says Alex. "Even better known than Ronald McDonald." Later, he tells me that Colombia's lager has beaten European beers in blind tastings.

I'm not sure how much of this to believe, but it's a better headline than the one I remember from 2004 when guerrillas threw grenades into two Bogota brew pubs, injuring 72 people. We forget how much progress has been made in this country in the past five years.

Our route takes us through brightly painted 19th-century towns with European names like Sevilla, Genova and Filandia (a spelling mistake when the founders went to register it). Each has its main square with its statue of Simó*Bolivar, a big church and the alcalde's office. When we get to Salento, the Plaza Principal is a riot of bright stucco and contrasting woodwork. The town council gives shopkeepers paint – every colour under the sun – to keep their premises bright and cheerful. Salento was founded in 1850 in a lull between the civil wars that plagued the newly independent Colombia. Until recently, this was unsafe territory, too, but Alex explains that the tourist potential of Valle de Cocora in the nearby national park made Salento a clean-up priority.

We are booked to see the park, so Alex hires us a Willys. These four-wheel drive US army vehicles are made under licence by the "Willys Colombia" company. Painted white, they've been the mainstay of the police force, but painted red they are the symbol of Popayá*and the park's taxi service. A dozen are lined up in Plaza Principal, their chrome gleaming, their drivers lounging in white fedoras.

Kate and I clamber in, while Alex and Chucho perch on the rear bumper; gripping the roof rack tightly. They grin like schoolboys as we bounce along. The ride takes half an hour and is hairy. I've come to realise that because so many minor roads in Colombia slow you right down with their potholes, local drivers jump on the accelerator whenever there's a smooth stretch of tarmac ahead. And they don't decelerate for corners.

We have lunch in the park, home of the palma de cera, an extraordinary tall palm that reaches 60m and is Colombia's national tree. It rears up on top of misty green hills like something out of Jurassic Park. Valle de Cocora is also preserving several species of bird that were in danger of extinction in Colombia. After a few bottles of the world's best lager, there's time for a walk up the valley. Kate charges ahead with her binoculars, while Alex, Chucho and I sit down, lunch-heavy, and discuss politics.

"President Uribe has proposed that he serve a third term," says Alex. "Not everyone is happy with this. It is against the constitution. But for Chucho and me, people who work in tourism, we know the difference he has made."

That evening we stay at a coffee farm run by Beatriz Gutiérrez de Marin and her husband. It's called Galicia, not after the Spanish territory but after a song by Julio Iglesias that Beatriz liked. We arrive in the dark and dine on chicken in coffee sauce on the terrace. In the morning, I wake up to find we are in a deep valley drowning in foliage. The finca is surrounded by gigantic bamboo, heliconia, strelitzia, fruit trees and coffee bushes.

Beatriz's husband, Jorge, a retired university lecturer, grows enough coffee to keep his wife and their guests supplied. A large red corrugated roof in the middle of the yard rolls back to show where the picked white beans lie drying in the sun. We roast some for breakfast, which are left to cool for 20 minutes. Then Beatriz grinds them to make our coffee and – thank goodness – it is wonderful. The whole process has taken half an hour for just two cups of coffee. It would have been awful if we had not been in raptures.

Today, we drive to the white city of Popayán. On route, we visit the shrine in Buga. This is a little extra jaunt thrown in by Alex who is a devout Catholic. The miraculous wooden crucifix of Buga regularly shatters the blades of those who attempt to hack at it and it's been left undamaged each time someone has set fire to it. You just wonder why, in such a devout country, so many people have it in for the miraculous cross. It is housed in a huge pink basilica that dwarfs the town. Opposite is a museum full of discarded crutches and plaques of thanksgiving. What strikes me, however, is an old poster announcing a pilgrimage, Rogativa por la Paz de Colombia. The date was 1963 – when peace here was a distant prospect.

By nightfall we arrive in Popayán and say goodbye to Alex and Chucho. This is considered to be the second most beautiful city in Colombia (after Cartagena des Indes), or, rather, it would be if the man in charge of re-laying the pavements hadn't absconded with his budget. As a result, Popayán (lovingly rebuilt after an earthquake in 1983) has been in a not-quite-finished state for some years. We tour the city – a masterpiece of whitewashed Spanish colonial architecture – in torrential rain and manage to dry off in time for pizza at a Swiss-run Italian restaurant.

The proprietor, Crystale, joins us and we hear stories of how much safer Colombia is now, though you should never cross into Ecuador from Popayá*on the night bus as gangs rob unsuspecting passengers. Tony, who runs a local hostel, knows of a photographer who had to pay a ransom to get his camera back from guerrillas further south, and someone else says he was almost mugged by the Venezuelan police.

Get enough travellers together and the horror stories will out. But all these terrors seem a long way from exquisite Popayán. It's only when we are leaving and Crystale offers Kate a plastic bag to hide her camera that I realise we must be careful. Even in Popayán, you don't walk down dark streets with an SLR slung over your shoulder. Now, that would be asking for trouble.

Tomorrow, a new driver and guide will call for us and take us to see pre-Columbian statuary six hours away across the mountains in San Agustín. We've already met our guide, a leathery little man called Luis Alfredo who likes to be known as "Jerry Lewis".

"I bet you didn't tell your family you were coming to Colombia," he laughed. "Or they would say, 'No! You will be killed!' But this is not true. We have here the Human Warm."

Yes, I reflect, as we wander back to our hotel. The south of Colombia is as safe as the Foreign Office now claims. There's masses to see, wonderful coffee, and not forgetting the "Human Warm".

Compact Facts

How to get there

Travel the Unknown (0845 053 0352; offers a 14-day tour of southern Colombia, visiting the Coffee Triangle, Popayán, San Agustín and the Tatacoa Desert, from £2,800 per person, including return international and domestic flights, airport transfers, accommodation, ground transport, breakfasts, guides, activities, entrance fees to sites and a contribution to Climate Care to offset carbon emissions.

Suggested Topics
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Arts and Entertainment

Marvel has released the first teaser trailer a week early after it leaked online

Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?