It's time to wake up and smell the coffee
Colombia's crackdown on drug gangs and rebel forces has opened up areas previously out of bounds to tourists. Adrian Mourby reports
Sunday 22 November 2009
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".
How to get there
Travel the Unknown (0845 053 0352; traveltheunknown.com) 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.
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