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Colombia’s success story over the last decade is enough to make the most politically and socially fraught destination know that there is hope things can turn around.
By the time the first fireflies were stirring, we were coming up the dusty, jungle-lined road that led to the hacienda.
Over to the east, the Colombian cordillera had been brushed by the last rays of the setting sun. The jungle was beginning the deep, resonant hum of irrepressible nocturnal life and we were rattling up the cobbled road into a plaza bordered on two sides by luxuriant foliage and on the others by the deep verandas of the two-storey pantiled house. I had, I realised, inadvertently stumbled into a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
No one came out to greet us, so we waited. Finally a light and a friendly face appeared, and we were shown to our rooms in Hacienda La Cabaña. Everywhere were pots of flowering ginger and heliconia (false bird of paradise) plants, apparently a passion of the owner, Don Hernán Sierra Nieto, who was away in Bogotá. I glanced into a ground-floor room and saw an ornate sofa above which hung portraits of his ancestors: steady, solemn faces, worn down by the responsibilities of managing the coffee plantation.
Next door was a bar stocked with a crazy assortment of bottles. On the wall, above portraits of smouldering Colombian divas, was the skin of a giant anaconda killed by Don Hernán’s grandfather. The old man’s voluminous riding breeches were also up there. I went to the kitchen and asked for a beer, then sat out in a red leather chair listening to the ghostly screeches and whispers of the jungle night.
Coffee may have been supplanted by cocaine as Colombia’s most famous agricultural export, but the plantations still exist. And though struggling against increased worldwide competition, they continue to pick the little red berries and produce fine arabica beans. One benefit of their fight for survival is that many are now opening their doors to guests, and the fine old houses, with their deep, cool verandas surrounded by verdant gardens, jungle and plantation, make great places to stay.
Colombia was off-limits to all but the intrepid traveller for years (you only have to read Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden’s chilling account of the demise of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1992, to get a feel for how dysfunctional and crazy the country had become). But today the country is much safer, and visitors are coming back. The Farc rebellion has been contained, and while peace negotiations drag on, most of the country is starting to enjoy some relative tranquillity.
The land around the town of Armenia in the west of the country is perfect for the coffee bushes: rolling jungly hills between two great mountain ranges with rich volcanic soils and great rivers like the Quindío. My plan was to do a coffee trail through the estates and jungles up to the town of Salento in the north, then walk into Los Nevados national park in the western foothills of the central cordillera, an area that until recently was lost to militias, guerrillas and violence, but is now open again.
My first big problem was dragging myself away from the Hacienda La Cabaña breakfast, a cornucopia of tropical fruits, eggs, cheese and arepas – the cornmeal pancakes that seem to come with everything in Colombia. Out in the garden the same fruits were being plundered by a dazzling array of colourful birds. Then Don Hernán drove in and my plan to leave early just disappeared. Instead, I toured his astonishing museum of a house, a tribute to the six generations that had carved the place from the jungle and then slowly filled it with darkly ornate furniture, sepia photographs, exuberant paintings and strange souvenirs – every one of them haunted by a story. Eventually, however, Anna my local guide, insisted: the first leg of the coffee trail was to be done on horseback, and we needed to move.
At a neighbouring estate, we mounted up, admiring the views across acres of rolling coffee trees and banana fields. The horses were tough little creatures, nimble down steep banks and ready to plunge across the Quindío, something I personally was hoping they would refuse to do. There was no need to worry though: encouraged by David, our guide, they held their own against the current. On the far bank, we wandered through groves of orange trees laden with scarlet orchids before picking our way through endless lines of coffee trees and bananas.
Not everyone agrees with this kind of monoculture, and our second night was spent in La Granja de Mamá Lulu, a kind of new-age experimental agricultural colony, where they are proving to the world that one square kilometre of hillside, lost in a sea of monoculture and cattle ranches, can be a paradise. This house had all the charm and idiosyncrasy of our previous night’s lodgings, but with a modern twist. The huge rambling eccentric building is entirely constructed from bamboo. The gardens are miraculous, with huge flowers and fruits, monkeys, the cries of birds. I wandered the trails for hours, finding giant butterflies, a hummingbird on its nest and several fruits I didn’t recognise but later tasted. The farm’s 60 coffee trees manage to produce enough beans for eight kilos of roasted coffee every year, but my visit did not coincide with the picking season. Instead, we harvested some cacao pods, pale green, warty giants with delicious white pulp around the dark beans. That evening we spent a pleasant hour roasting our own cocoa, then grinding it and making hot chocolate.
Next day, we were back in García Márquez territory, staying in the delightfully creaky Rancho de Salento, a working dairy farm with guest rooms smartly painted in blue and gold. The comfortably old-fashioned rooms opened on to a veranda with hammocks, where I lay watching the hummingbirds sip from a huge yellow flowering tree on the lawn.
I loved the place but was up early to meet a new guide, Edison, who was to take me walking up the Quindío valley. We were in the foothills of the central cordillera now and the Quindío, which we followed, was mostly whitewater, home to the aptly named torrent duck, which Edison pointed out, gamely swimming up waterfalls.
Birdlife is a big draw in Colombia which has more species (almost 1,900) than any other country. They are often wildly colourful and large: in quick succession, Edison showed us a motmot, with its tail like a pair of badminton racquets and brilliant turquoise eyebrows, a bright green jay and a toucan, which unflappably allowed me to take its picture.
We swam in the river and lay drying off on the rocks while Edison tried to explain how difficult life had been only a few years before: “This area was full of rebels and paramilitaries. It was often brutal. You had to take sides.”
I eyed his rather paramilitary clothing. Had he been involved? He would not be drawn. He’d seen things he’d rather not talk about. Now he only wanted to care for the environment and protect the wildlife. He was just happy that those days were over and tourists were returning.
The Patio House
Once the sun had warmed us, we faced a stiff climb up the mountainside to the town of Salento, a gorgeous jewel of a place with each whitewashed house wrapped around a shady patio where hummingbirds flitted between potted flowers. I dropped my bags in La Posada del Café, a lovely example of a traditional dwelling with simple rooms and a patio decked with flowers. The woodwork was neatly painted in butterscotch with minty blue details.
Down a side street off the main square, Café Jesús Martín is trying to introduce Colombians to the idea of coffee as a drink. It’s a weird concept: coffee, as every Colombian knows, is for exporting to gringo countries then using the cash to buy darkly ornate wooden furniture. However, the Martín family are trying to change this. They took me away to see their plantation where the beans were quietly ripening, still a month away from picking, then to a workshop where I learned how to select the best beans – nice fat specimens without insect holes – and roast them. Back at the lovely old cafe, I sat in a corner and overdosed on caffeine and sugar while the evening swelled out into the streets.
Salento is a great place to laze away a couple of days. The saloons are full of men in straw trilbies drinking aguardiente (sugar cane brandy) poured from large chrome urns on the bar, then wiping their noses on their ponchos. Horses and dogs stand waiting outside. Mexican trumpets blast down the lamp-lit streets. There are tourists here, but it doesn’t feel like they boss the place, not yet.
The town is gateway to Los Nevados national park and the standard way of getting there is to take a veteran Willys jeep taxi from the square. Los Nevados is renowned for its wax palms, the tallest palm tree on earth, and setting off from park HQ we were immediately among them, their slender trunks reaching up to 60m high. Standing on the ridges and buttresses they make an astonishing spectacle, especially when mobbed by the extremely rare parrots that rely on them for food.
Once in the jungle, we began to climb, stopping regularly because of the altitude – and the birds: huge woodpeckers, toucans, and a glimpse of an eagle cruising down the tumbling river. After a couple of hours, we entered the clouds and reached a 3,000-metre summit. The clouds parted and we had magnificent views. The path does continue and I was told a handful of inhabitants provide a guesthouse on the high-altitude plateau, but we weren’t equipped for that. This was our goal, the place where the water comes from that feeds the millions of coffee trees below. It was not coffee, however, that I was yearning for. The aguardiente back in town was beckoning.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk