There can be no surer sign of Colombia having finally shed its image of crime-ridden drug haven than the fact that during my entire week-long stay there I wasn’t offered cocaine even once. The only lines I saw were at the airport’s immigration desks as more and more people are discovering this unspoilt and hitherto unloved part of South America. A vanguard of tourists are taking advantage of Colombia’s vastly improved security situation, a result of the long-established and enduring ceasefire in its 50 year battle with the Marxist guerrilla group FARC. My own visit to the country that is supposedly the site of the mythical golden city of El Dorado, was arranged by ProColombia and took in both the capital Bogota and the city of Pereira and its surrounding countryside deep in the coffee producing Paisa region on the slopes of the Andes’ central ridge.
It’s an eleven hour flight to Bogota from Heathrow and then another hour’s hop over the Andes to Pereira. After all that time spent in the drab, anodyne interior of an airliner, it’s a welcome treat for the eyes to take in the lush, almost fluorescent, green grass and joyfully bright yellow paint that adorns the houses lining the road from the airport into town. What becomes strikingly clear from the countless murals of different species of birds sprayed or painted on the walls and buildings that we drive past is how much Colombians love their nation’s feathered friends. It is officially the most biodiverse place on Earth with 1,912 species of bird registered there, making it an avian paradise for spotters, twitchers and tickers. Unfortunately, my bird recognition skills are sadly lacking: I know Great Tits when I see them but that’s about the limit of my ornithological acumen. I do, however, know a thing or two about coffee and am eagerly anticipating my first cup of Colombia’s soft, naturally sweet Arabica blend produced as a result of the local volcanic soil and the altitude at which the coffee plants grow.
We have been invited to the finca of Don Manolo Cafe, whose family are one of the 600,000 in this country that rely upon the bean for their income, making it the third largest producer in the world after Brazil and Vietnam. As we ascend the mist-shrouded mountain 1,530m above sea level, our driver crosses himself every time we pass a roadside statue of the Madonna — which, this being a good Catholic country, is every couple of hundred yards — removing his hands from the steering wheel to perform the self-blessing even as he navigates perilous hairpin bends and stomach-churningly steep drops only inches from our vehicle’s wheels. We arrive perfectly safely though and are greeted by boss Hector Manuel Arevalo who gives us a guided tour of his whole operation from the coffee bean’s growing and picking in the mountainside fields, to its drying, roasting and eventual packing for export (as 90% of the country’s crop is, only 10% remaining for domestic consumption).
The history of the drink is explained as we sip the finished product: how it was brought to Colombia from Holland by a priest whose religious community used it in their rituals; it was later banned by more conservative members of the church who thought its mind-awakening properties ungodly. Our guide, Joseph Florez of Nature Trips, also explains to us the symbiotic nature of his country’s relationship with the black brew and its contribution to the national economy: “Coffee is like our son - we nurture it, and in return it provides us with schools, roads, hospitals….we cherish it”.