Colombia: Vibrant, verdant and viridescent

Enshrouded in the cloak of Mother Nature, Colombia's bountiful central coffee region is South America at its greenest. But 1,900 bird species mean there are plenty of other colours on view, too

By James Draven
Published 16 Mar 2017, 15:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 12:39 BST
Hummingbirds in the Cocora Valley, Colombia

Hummingbirds in the Cocora Valley, Colombia.

Photograph by Getty Images

Drip, drip, drip. The process is agonisingly slow. Drip, drip, drip. There are more entertaining ways of brewing coffee — the bubbling, vacuum syphon that we used for my first cup, complete with laboratory beakers and Bunsen burner, was like a chemistry lesson in the world's most verdurous classroom. But, the Chemex method is, without a doubt, a labour of love.

Sure, there's a theatricality to it. Using tiny scales you might associate with Colombia's other famous exports, Guillermo measures out a precise amount of coffee, selects the correct weight of filter paper, heats the water to exactly 96C, and splashes a little on Café San Alberto's uniformly-brown ground coffee as a pre-infusion.

"The hot water liberates the sugars and oils, which give more body to our beverage," Guillermo says. "Chemex is a German method developed in 1941. It's more than just making coffee — it's an experience, a ritual. It's unusual to find someone who truly appreciates a good cup of coffee."

He puts on quite a performance, but the backdrop is stealing the show. Our chief protagonist tries to draw me back into the action, delivering a soliloquy on solubility, with his eyebrows subtitling the action in a smouldering interpretive dance, but I keep going off-script. My gaze — and conversation — keeps rambling back to the scenery.

Café San Alberto is set below its own coffee plantation on a hillside above the tiny town of (the aptly named) Buenavista, with its balcony jutting out over a stunning agricultural landscape that's a food bowl for the country and a feast for the eyes.
Verdant, verdurous, viridescent. Guillermo will have to excuse my verbosity as I rave about the views. Enshrouded in the resplendent, luscious cloak of Mother Nature at her most fertile, I become entangled in adjectives. I end up sounding like a carpet salesman rifling through colour swatches — from 'British racing' to 'bottle', 'chartreuse' to 'lime' — wrestling with the inadequacies of language to sum up the majesty of the jungle; becoming bamboozled by bamboo forests and dumbstruck by the silent splendour of wax palms that bristle heavenward in the cornucopian Coffee Region in Paisa.

By which I mean, it's green. Like, really green. And, yes, clearly they grow coffee here — great phalanxes of foliage full of caffeinated beans march down hillsides and stand alert at roadsides — but there's more to it than that. It's not coffee consumption that draws tourists here. Although a fair few artisan growers are flourishing in the region and a smattering of cafes are now serving cups of joe in multiple bean varietals using every conceivable brewing method, including cold-drip and, yes, Chemex, the farmers who shaped this landscape and sell us world-class arabica are much more likely to buy a jar of Nescafé than dust off the old stovetop moka pot. Like many of the country's exports, the demand for coffee lies in the US and Europe — the locals here have hot chocolate with their breakfast.

Back at Hacienda Bambusa, my hotel in the rural outskirts of Armenia, breakfast is a traditional mug of desayuno cocoa, alongside a gravity-defying turret of scrambled egg with haute cuisine pretensions. The ubiquitous arepa — a maize flour patty, like a small, chubby tortilla — flops without ostentation by its side.

My lodgings were once part of a huge plantation that has since been divided into three, the horticultural landscape and traditional bamboo architecture harking back to its origins, though its people have moved on.

The owner's nephew is an internationally successful racing car driver; the hacienda's walls are adorned with abstract paintings produced in his brother's modernist art studio, amid the 1,000-acre grounds; dinner — literally a moveable feast here — is tonight served by silver-service waiting staff around a swimming pool shimmering gold with floating candles; and the hotel is managed by a rather charming group of metrosexual, jet-setting polyglots. Campesino (peasant farmers), they ain't.

Colombia's humble coffee bean is a big enough deal to sell at a premium on the New York Stock Exchange (while the fortunes of all the other countries' arabicas are mainly lumped together), but its value still fluctuates with the rise and fall of the dollar. With Brazil, the world's biggest producer, flooding the market with beans, and global economic instability, coffee is no longer the go-to cash crop in the region. Despite the weather, altitude and volcanic, fertile soil providing the perfect conditions for high-quality arabica, many farms have found other uses for their land.

Taking a horseback ride through the hotel grounds and nearby farm La Maria, I learn about cacao production from diminutive locals wearing machetes on their hips and capes of plastic sacking tied around their necks to shield them from the elements. Their weathered features, whipped by rain and roasted by the very sunshine that dries these beans, belong to the same people whose centennial labours in the coffee fields led to this area being inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.

Today, though, we trot past plantations of star fruit, avocado, mango, plantain and banana, among innumerable fruits you've certainly heard of, and many more you've likely not.

As we stop for a surprise picnic in the cool, palatial oasis of a guadua bamboo forest and sip freshly-squeezed 'tree tomato' — deliciously sour citrusy lulo juice — and add leche to musky nispero or guanabana (which is neither guava nor banana) to make tasty and decidedly singular milkshakes, it becomes obvious why exotic fruits are supplanting coffee as this fertile region's main exports.

While horseback rides are a great way to experience the area, horses are strictly for tourists these days. The humble donkey has been comprehensively replaced by mulitas mecánicas — or mechanical mules — the local nickname for the Coffee Triangle's most celebrated workhorse: Willys Jeeps.

In the wake of the Second World War, the US began selling off its surplus Jeeps, then produced by a company called Willys-Overland Motors, to developing countries in South America. These sturdy 4x4s quickly became a big hit with Colombia's coffee farmers who, living in this remote, mountainous terrain, found they could transport produce to areas previously only accessible by mule. Their running engines could also be used to generate electricity and power water pumps. The humble Jeep had such a profound impact on the lives of locals that Willys Jeeps have become an important and ubiquitous symbol in the region. Towns across the Quindio Department even hold annual festivals in their honour: Yipao features a parade of absurdly over-loaded vehicles and jaw-dropping stunt driving.

Around Salento's colonial town square, overlooked by varicoloured cafes and polychromatic guest houses, kaleidoscopic rows of garishly decorated, painstakingly maintained Jeeps from the 1940s and 1950s compete to leave indelible imprints on my retinas. It's the local version of a taxi rank or bus depot, with a vibrant fleet of Jeeps waiting to transport produce to markets, ferry kids to school, move an entire home's furniture in one teetering, vertiginous load, and take tourists on day trips to the bucolic Cocora Valley.

Between bars populated with old cafeteros (coffee farmers) playing pool and drinking aguadiente, the country's omnipresent firewater, an anise-flavoured sugar cane brandy, I've just enjoyed one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had, in Café Jesús Martín. Here, coffee is grown, picked and roasted with the same reverence and care as a fine wine. The preferred brewing method takes so long, one could have a quick amble along Salento's main street and do some window-shopping for jewellery and tourist trinkets, yet still be back before it's served.

"I'll do a four-minute pre-infusion with 11ml of water before I start the main pour," says barista Juan Camilo Garcia, who has worked here for five years. "We heat the water to just 93C, because it has a lower boiling point at this altitude."
More akin to a speciality tea than the rocket fuel shots served in Italy, the resulting cup is light, fruity, and steeped in the region's finest ground coffee, its culture and tradition, too.

Not one to waste a caffeine rush, I'm soon standing in the back of an open-topped, 1954 Jeep hurtling out of town and into the pastoral Cocora Valley. An area of natural cloud forest, it's an unusually clear day, allowing me to see the area's main draw in all its splendour. Colombia's national tree, the wax palm, is the planet's tallest palm and, growing up to 200ft, its fronds are often only visible through a veil of mist. Against dazzling blue skies, though, their improbable proportions seem thoroughly surreal and, since much of the land around the hamlet of Cocora has been cleared for cattle grazing, the lack of arboreal competition only exaggerates the effect.

These typically tropical, slender giants are all the more outlandish given the fact they're growing high up in the Central Cordillera of the Andean mountains. The Cocora Valley is one of the few places on Earth you can see these trees, and the area was incorporated into the Los Nevados National Natural Park in 1985 to protect the species from extinction, primarily from being felled for its fronds each Palm Sunday. Conservation work and replanting programmes are in place, which, it's hoped, will also increase numbers of the yellow-eared parrot, an endangered Andean bird that nests exclusively in the fronded wax palms.

Parrots aside, there's no shortage of birds in Colombia. One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, it's a twitchers' paradise, with the largest number of avian species in the world. Of the 1,900 birds — from kites to screamers, and boobies to trumpeters — it's the dazzling array of colourful hummingbirds that will most delight the average non-ornithologist. In the small town of Filandia, red-and-yellow bird feeders filled with sugar syrup lure iridescent hummers to brightly painted balconies.

Filandia's neighbour Salento has become an essential stop on the tourist trail, with its photogenic streets, souvenir shops and hipster hangouts. By contrast, Filanida is much more a town of locals, where shop fronts are more often dedicated to grocery stores, white goods and traditional crafts, such as the basket-weaving they're famous for around here. And while not as popular, Filandia is easily as pretty as Salento, offering stunning views of the Cauca River valley and Los Nevados.

There are also plenty of hidden gems here, such as Helena Adentro, a restaurant offering Colombian dishes made from locally grown, organic produce with an antipodean bar-snacks twist. Set away from the main square in an ever-expanding (and allegedly haunted) townhouse, this humble living space has been transformed by former couple Jade and Alejandro into an eclectic phantasmagoria of vaudevillian junk-shop finds, surrealist paintings and leafy pot-plants that bring magical realism to life.

"Our staff have seen the ghost," says Jade, with a wry smile. "They tell us she was a girl who died of a broken heart, and that's why Alejandro and I split up — she couldn't stand to see us together."

And since Jade is a Kiwi, and both she and Alejandro cut their teeth in the hospitality scene of Australia's Melbourne, this place offers the one of the best flat whites in the entire Coffee Region.

Bird is the word

Filandia isn't the only place to spot hummingbirds; these buzzing beauties are found throughout the region. But, I've set my sights on two types in particular. I'd been told by enthusiasts to look out for the buffy helmetcrest if ever I visited Nevado del Ruiz National Park, site of the titular snow-capped, active volcano that erupted in 1985. This hummingbird is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but reliably spotted hanging out around the entrance to the park. I'm also on the hunt for another high-altitude hummer: the rainbow-beared thornbill.

By 5am, I'm in the car, ready for the lengthy journey from Armenia into the central range of the Andes. The stomach-churning local driving, along with the sinuous roads, mean I spend half the trip squashed up against the rear passenger door by centrifugal force.

"Wind down your window," says my guide, Alejo, as we pass through the urban area of Manizales, 7,000ft above sea level. I goggle at him through bleary eyes as he rolls down his and blasts me with frigid dawn air. "It will help us acclimatise to the heights we're going to hike," he grins, as I somnolently obey. My ears pop as our driver speeds ever upwards.

It takes just 10 minutes to spot the buffy helmetcrest, which we find flitting around the tangled garden of otherworldly flora peculiar to these altitudes, right next to the visitors' centre. With his spiky mohawk, he's much easier to see, in fact, than the volcano itself. The park is officially closed to visitors due to recent volcanic activity, but I'm reliably informed that, from here, I'd be able to view it continuously belching its nebulous cloak of gas into the sky — if it weren't completely obscured by fog.

We instead explore the surrounding areas and hike to Eagle's Peak, although, at approximately 13,500ft above sea level, the murky air here is thin, and it's a difficult, breathless trek. Soon we decide to head a little way back down the mountain to hotel Termales el Otoño, at a mere 11,500ft, to reward ourselves with a warming dip in its thermal springs.

It's bitterly cold at this elevation, and I'd describe the hues of green in the gardens that hang above the naturally heated, outdoor pool as bottle and British-racing, compared to the lush chartreuse and limes of the valleys below. It's not yet time to relax though; amid this verdurous palette darts the vibrant rainbow-bearded thornbill. So, instead of soaking in the inviting hot waters, I take a stroll along the hotel's nature trail in search of my quarry.

I'm not alone. Ten anoraked photographers are already waiting in the garden, their incongruous British and American accents out of place in the misty mountains of the Andes. Among a menagerie of feathers, we see black-thighed and golden-breasted pufflegs, black-backed bush tanagers, and, my favourite, a pair of sword-billed hummingbirds, duelling with their ridiculous pin-thin beaks, equal in length to their whole bodies, in an aerial dogfight-cum-fencing tournament.

Over an hour passes, and it's obvious from the disgruntled mutterings of my fellow shivering birders that we're all waiting for the same headline act. As hopes begin to fade, the most colourful bird ever to evade detection shoots between outstretched branches and paints vivid, abstract slashes in the air — and lands on my wrist.

While it probes the notches in my watchstrap for nectar, I realise my camera is in the hand connected to it. If I move an inch to take a picture, this splendid creature will disappear as quickly as he came into my life. The male of the species literally has a spectrum of colours adorning his face: yellow, orange, red, blue, violet. He hops about on my arm, considering me with his black, bauble eyes. Mine are nearly as round as his as I try to silently attract Alejo's attention, willing him to capture the moment on film.

But my powers of telepathy are lacking. So I decide to give up on my photograph, commit to the moment, and marvel at the stunning hummingbird merrily perched on my sleeve.

I stand petrified, mist condensing on my frigid features and drizzle collecting in my hair to form droplets that roll down my brow and swell on my nose. Drip. Drip. Drip. Like a good coffee, this moment alone was well worth the wait.


Getting there & getting around

Avianca flies direct seven times a week between Heathrow and Bogota (prices start at £600 per person), with up to seven daily onward flights to Armenia. For all but the most seasoned overseas motorists, you'll be wise to hire a driver to explore the Coffee Region. Colombia is a large country, sliced into a series of valleys by three ranges of the Andes mountains, so terrestrial travel can take a long time, with local driving making overland trips feel like endurance races. For longer journeys, between Bogota, Medellin or the coast, the best way to get around is flying.

When to go
Temperatures remain around 15C year-round in Colombia, with altitude playing a big part in defining the weather. The Coffee Region is subject to rainy and dry seasons, with June, July and August being driest, followed by December through February.

More info
The Rough Guide to Colombia
. RRP: £17.99
Lonely Planet Colombia. RRP: £17.99

How to do it
Amakuna offers a seven-night trip to Medellin and the Coffee Region from £2,360 per person. This includes three nights B&B at Patio Del Mundo in Medellin and four nights' half-board at Hacienda Bambusa near Armenia, plus a full programme of activities. Price includes all domestic flights, guides and transfers, and is based on two sharing.

Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)



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