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Big Trip: Colombia

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.

Did you know

Colombia is a country at the northern tip of South America. It’s landscape is marked by rainforests, Andes mountains and numerous coffee plantations. In the high-altitude capital, Bogotá, the Zona Rosa district is known for its restaurants and shops. Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, has a walled colonial Old Town, a 16th-century castle and nearby coral reefs.

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”.

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.

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 novelOne 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).