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”.
Coffee Plantation credit: Russell Higham
Driving back down into town, we pass an open-pit mineral mine and I notice how the exposed rich, copper-red earth contrasts with the electric green of the surrounding grass. Joseph points out that the attractive hue is, in fact, a side-effect of potentially lethal volcanic activity from nearby Nevada del Ruiz; thankfully, it hasn’t had a major eruption in over thirty years. “It’s like living on Mars!” he observes and I comprehend his meaning as I gaze upon the other-worldly landscape. Geography, as well as geology, has had an impact upon Colombia and its people. The three ridges of the Andes mountains, which run down the length of this country like a mutated backbone, have divided the nation into distinct regions which share little sense of union with each other. They have been separated by the mountains that, whilst endowing them with the conditions that let valuable cash crops flourish, have also provided sanctuary to the Marxist rebel guerrillas who, for five decades, fought against the government in a civil war whose worst victims were the citizens of Colombia and the reputation of their country.
It is a completely different place today, though, to the lawless South American narco-state so often portrayed in movies and TV shows. It feels safe and welcoming: strangers smile at you and offer lost-looking tourists assistance without asking for anything in return; an evening walk downtown feels no more risky than any major European city. The upscale districts of Los Alamos and La Circunvalar offer an array of smart shopping and dining options. Perched high above them, the elegant El Mirador restaurant rewards the steep, winding drive up a hard-to-find hillside road with panoramic views of Pereira’s night-time cityscape and the mountains beyond.
Pereira, Colombia credit: Russell Higham
It is out of town that Colombia’s ‘magical realism’, which its arguably most famous son Gabriel García Márquez wrote about in his Nobel prize-winning novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, reveals itself as we head to La Floresta in the hills outside Pereira.
Ardent ecologist Juan, looking like a fresh-faced Che Guevara, is our guide as we venture deep into the rainforest on a trek which, whilst lasting less than three hours, will live on in the memory for a lifetime. Stalking through the undergrowth, eager to catch a glimpse of some rare bird or reptile, Juan’s enthusiasm is infectious. Suddenly he stops dead in his tracks and we crouch motionless behind him, holding our breaths so as not to scare away whatever exotic treasure he has found us. Excited but not daring to speak, we listen to the rhythm of the forest pulsate around us like a strange tune being played out by a thousand-piece orchestra hidden in the trees: unseen birds call out to each other above, their song inscrutable yet beguiling; slithering reptiles croak and rasp from tantalisingly close by, taunting us to find them through their camouflage. He points to the tall trees whose upper branches form a canopy on the living concert hall below, allowing only a few thin shafts of strong equatorial sun to penetrate through the flora like tiny spotlights. We squint and our eyes follow the line of his pointed finger, first to a red-ruffed fruitcrow sitting in a high branch, then seconds later to an endangered Cauca guan and a strong-billed woodcreeper. We peer down at the vegetation by our side and Juan identifies a Monkey Grasshopper sitting on a giant leaf; next to it a black glass-winged butterfly with lacy, almost see-through wings like delicate filigree. I stop to examine closely an unnaturally bright red flower hanging from a low branch which reaches across our path and, either unaware or uncaring of my presence, a kaleidoscope of different coloured butterflies swarm around it, brushing softly against my cheek; one even stops and rests for a few seconds upon my nose like the most authentic Snapchat filter you could ever wish for.
As we make our way out of the forest, a thunderstorm descends and the rains pound the treetops, creating a yet new cacophony. The water cascades noisily across the leaves, down the trunks and on to the ground, turning the floor below into a seething green carpet. Arriving back at our Jeep, I find that a geometridae larva about an inch long has discreetly hitched a ride out of the rainforest attached to my arm. I gently remove the small black caterpillar and he thanks me for the lift by treating me to a miniature acrobatic display, contorting his stick-like body into bizarre loops and standing stretches on the tabletop in front of me.
The capital, Bogota, shares the same friendly and welcoming disposition of its people but is a different experience, visually. The first thing to hit you as you drive into the city from the airport is the mountain of Monserrate which, at over 3,000m tall, dominates the skyline, towering over the skyscrapers and 10 million residents beneath it. You can take a funicular which ascends to the top of it at 4.7 metres per second (or a cable-car at the weekends) where, clouds permitting, you can admire the metropolis spread out before you like a map or, if you’re feeling energetic or pious, climb the 1½ miles on foot as pilgrims have done to reach the church and statue of the Fallen Christ at the summit for nearly 400 years.
Back on ground level, the other striking feature is the quantity and quality of Bogota’s street art that is on display everywhere. Graffiti is not illegal here and so a dynamic scene has been allowed to evolve: not the mindless ‘bombing’ and teenage ‘tagging’ of bleak British suburbia, but truly impressive displays by first-rate artists who have turned blank walls and boring edifices into giant murals of dazzling intricacy and riotous colour. Even here in the epicentre of inner-city cool, Colombia’s birdlife is honoured in monster-sized aerosol sprayed renditions of its endemic species. If this is your thing, then it’s possible to build visits to key sites into a bespoke tour as I did with Bogota Pass who, in addition to providing the services of an experienced guide, also offer free entry or discounts at around 40 different museums, galleries, shops and attractions (from $50 including private 4-hour tour, lunch at a restaurant and Bogota Pass discount card).
My English-speaking guide, Ricardo, picks me up from my authentically charming Colombian hotel, Casa Galeria, situated in La Candelaria at the heart of Bohemian downtown Bogota. Whilst ideally suited to those on a budget (bed and breakfast, with ensuite bathroom and free Wi-Fi, start at just $32), the location of this small and welcoming guesthouse is perfect for exploring the city, and the breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with tomato and onion — called pericos (parakeet) because its colours are like those of the bird — cooked by Claudia and served in the homely setting, sets you up for a morning’s intensive sightseeing.
A few steps from Casa Galeria’s door is the central plaza of Chorro de Quevedo, an open space filled with artists and street performers that is said to have been the birthplace of Bogota on August 6th 1538. Brightly coloured colonial architecture lines the streets which radiate out from here towards the cultural centre’s 50 museums, including the popular Gold Museum and, my favourite, the Police Museum with its permanent exhibition dedicated to the capture of notorious drug-lord Pablo Escobar. Ricardo leads me to the Botero Museum that houses many pieces by one of Latin America’s most famous artists, Fernando Botero, whose painting style rendered his slim models and subjects as obese in order to draw attention to their inner attractiveness, away from society’s typical ideas of beauty.
El estudio (The study), Fernando Botero
Bogota has, over the last few years, steadily built up a reputation for being a gastronomic centre and the home of chic, urbane eateries. In fact, there are so many hip new places opening each month that it’s difficult to know which ones to head for. What is required is an on-trend local who knows the nightlife by heart and can show you the best bars and restaurants. This was the aim of Lina Burgos Cortés who expanded her line of already-successful Bogota Pub Crawl events (which do exactly what they say on the tin) to include a gastronomic option.
For an all-inclusive $60, I am collected from (and returned to) my hotel by car and taken to three of the most popular and fashionable restaurants in the entertainment quarter of Macarena, named after the patron saint of bullfighters whose redundant stadium lies nearby. Lina leads the group of four travellers, all from different countries and aged between 25-45, first to Kötbullar which specialises in meatballs served with local handcrafted beer (Bogota’s craft beer industry is burgeoning and there are some great artisanal brews to be had). Colombian cuisine is typically quite meaty but vegetarian or allergy-mindful options can be built into the menus if booked in advance. The second stop is only walking distance away at an impossibly cool, informal space called Sandwich Taller. We are served fried plantains with home-fermented sour creme by way of an appetiser as we sit around the large kitchen counter-like bar with the other diners, a mix of arty and stylish locals, and listen to musician Carlos Flores who sits in the corner, crooning wistfully whilst playing flamenco guitar. The selection of sandwiches are handed over the counter by the smiling chefs who entertain us by dancing to the music as they work. We chug back icy mojitos and enjoy the delectable ambience. There’s live music also at our third and final destination of the night, La Taperia, where Lina, being a well-known and respected face around these parts, gets us the best table in the house right next to where the band is playing. We soak up the atmosphere as we round off the evening with a variety of tapas and some excellent Malbec.
Casa Galeria, Bogota
Wyndham Bogota Art Hotel, Bogota
For my last night in Bogota, I decide to try a hotel in a different part of the city closer to the airport for my flight home next day, the Wyndham Bogota Art Hotel in the upmarket business district of Ciudad Salitre, next to the American embassy. I have stayed in Wyndham and TRYP hotels in other parts of the world and find that they always seem to hit the right note between luxury and good value (rooms here start from around $70). This modern 261 bedroomed property has the unusual advantage of offering all the services you’d expect to find in a large international business hotel, such as 24 hour room service and concierge, but in a stylish boutique setting where works by prominent and aspiring local artists adorn the walls (some of which are for sale).
Luis Guillermo, the affable and charismatic General Manager tells me over a lunch of Peruvian ceviche in his restaurant how Colombia’s enduring peace is paying dividends: “Our occupancy rates are way, way up on what they were just a couple of years ago and that’s because our guests now feel confident they can enjoy a world-class city in safety and security”. The Wyndham provide a free shuttle service to the airport which I take advantage of the next day after another filling breakfast overlooking the cosmopolitan shopping and residential complexes that fill this neighbourhood.
As we drive towards the multi-lane expressway that runs right through Bogota, I notice that an international art fair, ArtBo, is being held at an exhibition hall near the hotel. Observing the swanky American and European fashionistas outside the entrance waiting for their Uber rides, dressed head to toe in expensive designer clothes and dripping in jewellery, I think how unlikely this scene would have been only a few years ago when this country’s name was synonymous with drug-crime and civil war. Things have moved on vastly, almost unrecognisably, since then. It is such a diverse, engaging and enchanting country that, with its ability to now ensure visitors’ security, allowing them to enjoy all the many attractions without worrying about personal safety, it won’t be too long before it is inundated with tourists from every direction. Like Cuba before it, there may only be a short window of opportunity to enjoy this wonderful country in its natural, unspoilt state before progress takes its inevitable toll and some of this rare charm is lost forever.