A jolt of coffee culture and caution in remote Colombia
The valley narrows as we move east toward the Andes on horseback, rolling pasture rising into virgin jungle. Along the ridgelines high above us march lines of swaying wax palms...
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It's cool and quiet, although my dusty brown horse wheezes from time to time as it dips and climbs through creeks, bogs and tight stone passes. I'm feeling very much a pioneer, imagining myself a century ago with bags of coffee stacked on the back of my nag, as I move through a stretch of breathtaking wilderness without the fear that usually haunts rural excursions elsewhere in Colombia.
The Valle de Cocora belongs to Colombia's coffee region, a tourist destination of increasing popularity for its historical and ecological richness. Having shed years of isolation imposed by surrounding civil war and the central Andean range that marks its eastern limit, coffee country has become the heart of Colombia's nascent "rural tourism" industry that fuses history, ecology and know-your-roots national pride.
Each year more than 300,000 tourists visit Quindio province, the soul of the world's most famous coffee-producing region, making it Colombia's second most popular attraction after the walled Caribbean city of Cartagena. Only a tiny fraction of the visitors are foreign, however, leaving the hillside colonial towns, remote horse trails and frothy waterfalls, and the bed-and-breakfasts that were once working coffee farms largely untouched by the global tourist trade.
The tourism itself is a sign of coffee's decline. Coffee built modern Colombia until a wave of political violence in the 1950s and then the equally dislocating economic forces of globalization washed through these valleys and wiped out thousands of small farmers. Global coffee supply has far outpaced demand, even in the age of Starbucks, and Juan Valdez, the prototypical coffee farmer plucked from these fields by Madison Avenue, has turned to tourism to make ends meet.
Colombia's 39-year civil war, it's safe to say, hasn't done wonders for its tourism industry. The U.S. State Department warns Americans against traveling to Colombia. The warning, as well as very real security risks posed by Marxist rebel groups in the countryside, have made Colombia among the least desirable tourist destinations on the continent (and the kidnappings last fall by a rebel group of eight foreign backpackers didn't help the country's reputation, although all have been released ).
Yet Colombia is perhaps the most diverse destination in South America, reaching from the Caribbean to the Amazon, the plains on Venezuela's border to a wild Pacific landscape. Much of the risk can be minimized by traveling with travel agency-arranged drivers, who know the roads and regions intimately, and by educating yourself about political/security issues in Colombia and areas to avoid.
In Quindio, rows of squat coffee bushes, branches of ripening red beans appearing among dark green leaves, are still the prevailing feature of the landscape. But thousands of acres of coffee have been uprooted in recent years to make way for plantains and cattle pastures, while the antique Willys Jeeps, turn-of-the-century train stations and tools of the coffee harvest have become mostly props in the tourist trade.
Hundreds of coffee farmers have turned their traditional farmhouses, distinguished by mossy red-tile roofs and wide verandas dripping with pots of geraniums, ferns and orchids, into comfortable bed-and-breakfasts where rooms usually cost less than $20 a night. Many are still working farms, like La Floresta near the provincial capital of Armenia, where Alvaro Ramirez, 42, tends horses.
Bypassing the guerrillas
In a straw hat and worn boots, Ramirez picked me up at the airport at the start of a recent holiday weekend along with my wife, and three children, all under 6 years old. Given the fragile security situation in the mountains surrounding Quindio province Colombia's two guerrilla groups, who have been known to kidnap foreigners, maintain a presence along the mountain roads and in some remote villages the recommended transportation is by plane from the capital, Bogota, just an hour's hop over the mountains. Two airlines make daily flights, and tourism officials are arranging a route between Cartagena and Armenia so foreign tourists can more easily experience the full range of Colombia's distinctive cultures in one visit.
Ramirez, born and raised in Quindio, is a fairly representative son of the region. His family sold two coffee farms a decade ago when prices began to dip. He could ride a horse before he could walk, and he has mixed that life with work as a tourist guide. He's gracious to a fault, and though we didn't stay at the hotel where he works, he served as our driver and guide throughout the weekend.
Our hotel, near the town of Calarca, was built a few years ago on a soccer field, although its architecture is historically faithful to the region a half-century ago. Called the Hotel Karlaka, it is a series of single-story farmhouses, painted blues and greens with orange and yellow trim, set amid courtyards that are a riot of geraniums, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Rows of eucalyptus, planted as windbreaks, scent the air.
We set off with Ramirez behind the wheel of his small Renault on an hour's drive to the National Park of Agriculture and Livestock, a seven-year-old theme park that's become a destination for urban Colombians seeking a better understanding of the rural life that's been the center of Colombia's struggle for decades.
Orange groves, coffee and dense stands of native bamboo cover the park's mostly wild landscape. In a variety of small arenas, the park's staff puts on educational programs. The first we attended featured large livestock, sponsored by a breeding company called Inseminar. Given the name, I worried that the show might provide more rural reality than we city slickers were prepared for. But the parade of enormous oxen, dwarf milk cows, llamas and goats was a kick.
Everything's close by
The next morning, my wife and I left our children with a nanny at the hotel and headed with Ramirez to Salento, a colonial town about an hour from Calarca. Almost everything you want to see is within an hour of everything else in Quindio, a small province of about a half-million people.
The drive on smooth roads paved by coffee money is spectacular. In the distance looms the dark wall of the Andes, some peaks snow-capped year-round, while the Rio Quindio hugs the roadside and waters stands of pines, palms, plantains and coffee.
Salento sits on a plateau rising from the Valle de Cocora, which runs in a long green chute to the east. It's cattle country, higher than the witheringly hot Panaca, but lower than the potato-growing towns above it. It's also a place where the traditional has yet to give way entirely to the hippie tourist trail, although batik, patchouli, Buddha statues (this in the most Catholic place in the country) and other non-native kitsch is showing up in some of the many arts and crafts stores.
The corner canteens still fill with farmers and the wailing lament of regional campesino music before noon. Business remains brisk in the feed stores and agricultural supply shops, whose balconies are trimmed gold and sky blue, on Plaza Bolivar. The jeeps that once carried coffee now carry tourists through quiet streets lined with buildings dating back to the 1840s.
We drive into the valley below, past stands of eucalyptus, to the Bosques de Cocora, a restaurant famed for its grilled river trout. It's packed on a sunny Sunday afternoon, people filling tables to hear a local band mix flute, guitar and drums into a half-traditional, half-modern melody.
We mount horses and ride along the banks of a tributary to the Rio Quindio, fed by a waterfall that is our destination. Jagged rocky peaks appear as we bounce through the valley on horseback, then disappear behind streaming clouds. Yellow farmhouses perch on small hilltops. Wax palms, some more than 200 feet high and 200 years old, sway and glitter in the sun.
We dismount along a muddy path in the tropical forest, damp and dark and full of animal sounds, wild bromeliads and birds of paradise. The hike to the waterfall is only a few minutes, and takes us by caves abandoned by bears when tourists arrived.
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