By JUAN FORERO
OUR guide, Daniel Giraldo, is only 12, but he knows the terrain, all
the hazards and turns of this steep, four-foot-wide trail. The horse
I am riding has done this before and uncannily finds the best passage
along rocky corridors where the footing seems uncertain, or the
safest path through the narrow but fast-moving waters of the rivers
Until recently, the only people who would have negotiated this path
were stoic farmers in rubber boots, bedraggled army patrols or the
occasional band of Marxist guerrillas. This is Colombia, after all, a
little-understood country whose very name is synonymous with cocaine
traffickers and civil conflict.
But this coffee-growing region tucked into the mountains of central
Colombia has rarely known violence. Now, local businessmen and
hacienda owners ‹ who for the last decade have made the region a
vibrant tourism destination for Colombia's middle class ‹ are trying
to lure visitors from abroad by touting the beauty of its rolling
hills, venerable coffee farms and row after row of shimmering coffee
So I have little concern ‹ other than for my horse's footing ‹ as we
climb on this crisp November day. We have already traversed a tapered
green valley, the fields on either side rising abruptly into sharp-
peaked mountains. Parrots and what locals called yellow-eared
sparrows fly past the odd, 200-foot wax palms that are native to
these Andean mountains. In the distance we can see the fincas, or
farms, whose owners grow coffee and potatoes and raise prize bulls
that pass through the nearest town, Salento, on market day.
At 8,700 feet, we reach Acaime (pronounced ah-cah-EE-meh), an outpost
for biologists and, increasingly, tourists, where we sip agua de
panela, a hot sugar-cane based drink, and watch hummingbirds hover at
feeders. Omar Guzmán, the caretaker, explains how this lovely corner ‹
largely unknown to the outside world ‹ is slowly being discovered.
"People want to learn, to see what we have," says Mr. Guzmán, who
like others here is lean and nimble, better to negotiate steep trails.
Three days more on horseback and we would be climbing Los Nevados, at
17,440 feet one of the great peaks in the Andes, a trip increasingly
on the menu for eco-tourists. That is if adventure is what you're
Of course, the problem with Colombia as a tourist destination is that
for as long as anyone can remember it has offered too much adventure.
A civil conflict made kidnappings a real hazard. The conflict is far
from over, and the risks remain in several otherwise beguiling
regions, like the vast cattle plains and the rebel-infested Macarena
hills, where cold mountain streams roll over a beet-red bed of
But Colombia is huge, twice the size of France, and offers perhaps
more cultural and geographical diversity than any other country in
Its capital, Bogotá, has been transformed in recent years into a
cosmopolitan city, full of museums and restaurants. The walled
Caribbean city of Cartagena rivals the old quarter of Havana with its
centuries-old buildings. Colombia's little-known Pacific coast is
rugged and heartbreakingly beautiful, with islands that, like the
better-known Galápagos to the south, are full of ecological wonders.
In many areas of the country, a three-year government offensive has
pushed rebel groups back. There are now a few safe pockets beginning
to attract foreigners.
Among them is the Eje Cafetero (the "coffee crossroads"), made up of
three diminutive states ‹ Quindío, Risaralda and Caldas ‹ about 100
miles west of Bogotá, recognized as the source for some of the
world's best coffee. In the smallest and most charming, Quindío, beat-
up World War II-era Willy Jeeps carry loads of bananas and heavy
sacks of coffee to market on meandering country roads. The state's 11
towns are simultaneously charming and a little worn on the edges.
Montenegro, one of the liveliest, has a bustling plaza, where
musicians play lovelorn ballads as teenagers gather under shady trees
and weary farmers sip coffee at the many cafes. Salento, almost
everyone's favorite, is built on the razor's edge of a mountain, its
houses and church glistening white in the distance and framed by
On a slow drive across Quindío, the spectacular panorama bursts into
view at unexpected turns. Plump hillsides teem with banana trees or
coffee plants, many of them decades old. Slender gullies feature the
cartoonish guaduales, giant bursts of bamboo topped by delicate
"There are 12 tones of green, wherever you look," Maria del Rocío
Baena, the owner of one farm, tells me.
For visitors from frenzied cities like Medellín or Cali, coffee
country is an oasis of sorts, a journey back to a more tranquil and
traditional Colombia, where most people lived on farms and coffee was
The central experience in coffee country is savoring that
tranquillity while staying at the haciendas. They are old and creaky
farmhouses, virtually all of them painted in bright, whimsical
colors, their porches overflowing with orchids and ferns. Many of
them are working farms that offer tours of the coffee fields and the
surprisingly old-fashioned steps taken to turn a bright red bean into
a valuable commodity. The 20 best make up the so-called Haciendas del
The owners are usually the descendants of settlers who arrived in the
1800's to found small, tight-knit communities and embark on the
production of what would become Colombia's economic engine for
Coffee farmers formed cooperatives and commercialized their coffee.
The National Federation of Coffee Growers, the organization that
markets Colombian coffee, paved roads, built schools, founded a bank
and owned an airline. All of this was easy half a century ago, when
coffee went for $5 a pound at today's prices and accounted for 80
percent of the country's exports.
The good times, however, did not last and by this decade, coffee
prices had tumbled to less than 50 cents a pound, half of coffee's
value from the late 1990's (the price of coffee is now back up to
$1.30 a pound). Farmers here turned to bananas, macadamia nuts and
berries. And they also turned to tourism, realizing that their
haciendas could easily double as bed-and-breakfast inns.
One of the haciendas, El Balso, belongs to Julián Morales de la Pava
and his wife, Sara Espinosa. A century-old two-story farmhouse with
five guest rooms on 27 acres outside of Armenia, Quindío's capital,
it is painted red and white, with blue trim.
The big veranda is filled with old leather chairs, a hammock and
tables. The rooms are outfitted with antique brass beds and mahogany
dressers. There is no glass in the windows, just wooden shutters
that, when open, overlook a luxuriant garden of mango and guayaba
trees. In the distance is a small, well-kept pool.
"You just don't even want to turn the radio on," says Octavio Largo,
a retired university professor, who goes there for the tranquillity,
the light breeze coming off the mountains, the multicolored gardens.
El Balso's other key attraction is that it continues to churn out
coffee for export.
"This is my life," Mr. Morales de la Pava, 69, explains as he leads
me out into the field shortly after I arrive. "It's what my father
did, what my grandfather did."
Walking to one of his coffee trees, Mr. Morales holds a branch in his
beefy hand. The green beans, he says, are still not ready to pick. He
and his workers instead look for the red, ripe ones. They need to be
constantly on the lookout for the broca, a tiny bug that burrows into
the seed and eats out the center, and the arroya, a fungus that can
infect the bean.
When the harvest takes place ‹ there are two a year, each taking
between four and eight weeks ‹ he brings in another 20 workers, who
go about the painstaking process of picking each bean by hand. That,
Mr. Morales says, is one of the secrets to the quality of Colombia's
arabica beans, that they are carefully chosen, with those that are
not ready left to ripen, and those that are infected, left to rot.
Once picked, the beans are unloaded in a storage room and into a
chute, where they drop into the vast, concrete cellar below the
hacienda, where the shell and pulp are removed in old heavy grinders.
Then it is time to dry them, and Mr. Morales de la Pava uses two
methods, the old-fashioned and modern. Some beans are simply laid
outside in the hot sun, workers stirring them to make sure they are
completely dry. Others are placed in a giant oven for 35 hours, where
they are left toasted and light as pebbles.
Such tours are full of the unexpected, since each farm has its own
ways of collecting and preparing coffee for market. Each farm, too,
But visitors should not expect coffee tastings or even very good
coffee, for that matter. The paradox about Colombia is that while it
is known worldwide for the quality of its coffee beans, outside of a
few choice restaurants in big cities, Colombians have yet to master
the art of making a good cup of coffee. What you usually get is a
very light cup, too soft on the coffee to offer much taste. In coffee
country, there are no espresso machines or baristas.
There are no backrubs, either. No spas, no mud baths. Meals, too,
have an impromptu quality.
At Mr. Morales de la Pava's farm, Marinela Rojas Martínez, the young,
energetic housekeeper, cooks up a plentiful breakfast of scrambled
eggs with onions and tomatoes, what Colombians called pericos, along
with cornmeal arepas, fresh-squeezed juice and bread. But there is no
lunch or dinner.
Instead, I wander over to the Fonda Mirador, a short drive away, for
lunch. An expansive, rustic restaurant built of bamboo, the Fonda
Mirador, which means the Lookout Inn, offers a stunning view of five
tall Andean peaks. In Colombia, as in Argentina, steak is king, and
at the Fonda Mirador, the cook specializes in succulent cuts, served
with rice and beans, avocado and plantains.
That is standard fare for the region ‹ meat-and-potato style dishes,
heavy but fresh off the farm. At one of the several restaurants in
the valley, you can order up the brook trout famous in Salento's
foothills, served with hard fried plantains as big as palm leaves and
cold Poker beer.
Getting around coffee country is easy. Inn owners themselves often
offer to drive visitors to nearby towns, or to see the sights.
Innkeepers can also call local cabbies, who charge about $6 an hour
to take visitors on tours or drive them to local attractions, which
range from horseback rides into the countryside to whitewater rafting
on the region's many rivers.
My driver, Francisco Ruiz, 34, tools on Quindío's narrow roads while
offering hotel and dining suggestions and remarking on the region's
rich history. One key stop on his tour is the Coffee Park, outside
Montenegro. The Coffee Park's carefully tended 128 acres are
dedicated to coffee and other native plants, and feature a train, a
museum and a cable car.
Still, for most people the central attraction is the accommodations
themselves. They range from backpacking havens to sprawling all-
inclusive resort hotels to the historic haciendas. Nothing is
expensive, with even the best haciendas costing less than $50 a night.
One of the most lively and cheapest I came across was the Plantation
House, a five-room hotel run by a former British businessman in
Salento. Built on a bluff and painted green and yellow, the inn is
postcard pretty. Coffee plants grow in a garden, along with oranges
and lemons, giving off a pleasant fragrance.
The day I arrived at this 120-year-old restored plantation, the
porticos and rooms were teeming with mountain bikers. In the kitchen,
I found two young foreigners, David Botzer, 29, an Israeli computer
programmer, and Peter Meek, 24, a mechanical engineer from New
Zealand. Colombia had been an afterthought for them, mysterious and
risky. But both said they found the spectacularly rugged coffee
country to be safe and the people courteous.
The most fanciful place I found was the 119-year-old Finca la Cabaña,
outside the town of Calarcá. Hugging the farmhouse are rows and rows
of coffee plants that, along with banana and other fruit trees, form
a 321-acre farm. With seven rooms, the hacienda may sound small, but
Its owners, the Sierra family, have used every nook and cranny to
house an array of artifacts that evoke the elegant life the coffee
gentry enjoyed until a couple of decades ago. Rooms are decorated
with old religious engravings, black-and-white photographs of past
occupants, ceramic statuettes and musty books. A sitting room
features Art Deco furniture and old hats and furs, as if the owners
had left them hanging on coat racks just hours before.
The wall of La Cabaña's bar is cluttered with engravings of matadors,
posters of 19th-century damsels and mariachi hats. Its caretaker,
Doña Ernestina, fawns over guests, offering hearty meals cooked in a
100-year-old wood stove and steady refills of fresh-squeezed juice.
"It's got a little pool, but that's not what you go for," says Chris
Marshall, an Englishman who has lived in Colombia for two years. "You
go for the atmosphere, you go for the history."
Back in Salento, I choose to stay in another old hacienda, the Alto
del Colonel, loosely translated to mean the Colonel's Perch. From its
wraparound porch, cluttered with antique furniture, I can see an
exuberant valley and the verdant mountains that enclose Salento.
Classical music wafts from a stereo, and I can hear children playing
in the streets below.
Eventually, I close the heavy shutters and 10-foot doors to my room
and settle into a large, squeaky bed.
The next morning, I will climb into a beaten-up, 52-year-old red Jeep
and drive into the starkly beautiful Cocora Valley, where I will
begin my morning journey by horseback into the mountains, above the
haciendas and coffee fields.
The telephone code for Colombia is 57.
Continental Airlines, www.continental.com, has daily nonstop flights
from Newark to Bogotá for about $555 in late February. American
Airlines, www.aa.com, has two nonstops a day from Miami, from about
The United States State Department recommends avoiding travel by road
outside Bogatá; it is safer and faster to fly. From Bogotá, Avianca,
800-284-2622, www.avianca.com, offers five daily flights to Armenia,
the capital of Quindío, and five return flights. A round trip costs
$242 from the United States, but in Colombia, only 315,600 pesos ‹
about $137, at 2,300 pesos to the dollar.
Zeppelin Travel in Bogotá can book flights and organize trips to
coffee country. Call Jackie Haikal at 1-345-4811 or send e-mail to
jhaikal or gerencia
WHERE TO STAY
Casa de Campo el Delirio near Montenegro invites guests to walk among
the coffee plants. The hotel features a pool and outdoor dining
overlooking the mountains. A room and breakfast cost 55,000 to 65,000
pesos a person. Phone 6-753-5288 or 310-438-9005;
Hacienda Finca el Balso near Armenia is a century-old hacienda whose
owner, Julián Morales de la Pava, can lead guests into the coffee
fields to explain how coffee is cultivated and processed. The house
features antique furniture, and there is a swimming pool. A room is
57,500 to 67,500 pesos a person, with breakfast; 6-747-9331;
Situated outside of Calarcá, Finca la Cabaña is filled with antique
furniture, engravings, old photographs and other objects. Rates are
45,000 to 55,000 pesos a person, and include breakfast; 6-742-6700, 6-
Casa Alto del Coronel in Salento has been carefully restored and
furnished. A room for two, including breakfast, is 102,000 to 113,000
Finca Turística Los Girasoles outside Montenegro is more of a hotel,
with a pool and other facilities. A room with breakfast runs 54,000
to 63,000 pesos; 6-753-6024 or 6-749-5727.
WHAT TO DO
A popular activity in the region is balsaje, traveling on the
meandering La Vieja River on a bamboo raft with a guide. A trip
includes a traditional lunch of chicken in a stew of tomato and onion
wrapped in banana leaves. The cost per person ranges from 40,000 to
80,000 pesos. Local hotels can arrange outings.
Parque Nacional del Café in Montenegro,
www.parquenacionaldelcafe.com, 6-741-7417, is a theme park with an
educational bent dedicated to the region's coffee culture. There are
lovely walking paths through coffee fields, a traditional farmer's
house, an Indian cemetery, shopping and dining. Admission, including
all rides, is 41,000 pesos.
Parque Nacional de los Nevados offers hikers spectacular views, great
hiking and camping. From Salento, guides can be contracted to take
visitors on a three-day trip by horseback. For information, call the
National Parks office in Bogotá, 1-243-1634 or 1-243-3095, or see
JUAN FORERO, the Bogotá bureau chief, reports on the Andean region
for the Times.