Uncovering the colours of Colombia

Aimee Spicer / 10 February 2016

Our Quality Executive Julie Dent tells us about the time she went route-proofing for new tour, Colours of Colombia…



I’m back on the hoof again, visiting the places of interest on our brand new tour of Colombia, as well as road-testing the very popular extension to it, a magical mountain discovery in Ecuador by train.

It’s our first foray into Colombia, a country blighted by bad press in the past, but now emerging as THE powerhouse of South America and taking off as a tourism destination. Just this month it’s been voted second in Lonely Planet’s ‘must visit’ destinations for 2016. I’ve heard so many glowing reviews from previous travellers I can’t wait to get stuck in. (Not to ruin the surprise for you but it turns out they were right. So very right!)

It’s high season in Colombia so I’m having to do things in a slightly different order than the tour itself but I’ll get everywhere eventually! For this reason I land in Bogota at ‘El Dorado’ International airport and fly straight to Armenia in the heart of ‘the coffee zone’.

The Coffee Zone

I’m met by Stephan, my companion for the next few days and whisked off to the hotel, a delightful hacienda on a 4th generation coffee farm. The family decided to diversify into tourism 10 years ago, expanding and converting the characterful farmhouse into rustic bedrooms as well as organising coffee-experience tours for their visitors.

On arrival at Hacienda Combia, a welcome drink is offered – coffee of course – and we discuss what time we’ll take the coffee tour which involves a walk around the coffee plantation and a coffee-tasting session. How am I going to break the news that I can’t stand the taste of coffee and have never drunk it in my life?! Stephan maintains that I have probably never tried the good stuff before and vows to convert me from being Mrs English Breakfast Tea to a lover of Colombia’s finest product.

After a hands-on class in basket-making – used in former times to collect the coffee beans – we approach the tasting area where our guide has laid out tiny glass bottles and various cups, spoons and other tasting paraphernalia. We are challenged to identify the ‘essences’ in the glass bottles – I do badly in this first test by mistaking melon for cough mixture and leather for diesel – then we’re asked to try to pick out the best quality coffee from the selection provided, by aroma, appearance and taste. It’s no surprise that the top quality Arabica bean coffee from the farm wins everyone over!

Sadly a deluge of biblical proportions curtails our tour of the plantation but not before we’ve learned about the whole process from bean to cup, at the same time admiring abundant heliconias (otherwise known as Birds of Paradise plants) and the plantation’s array of exotic birds. The birdlife in this region is out of this world! I did a bit of reading and discovered that Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, lagging only after Brazil which is approximately seven times bigger, but it ranks first in bird species. It has the highest rate of animal species by area unit worldwide and the largest number of endemic species (those not found anywhere else) of any country. 10% of all the species on the planet live in Colombia, including over 1,900 species of bird – more than in Europe and North America combined. It is truly a nature lover’s delight! Everyone must bring binoculars!

Anyway, not even my first experience of excellent coffee can keep me awake and after a superb steak and salad in the hacienda’s open-air restaurant, it’s goodnight from me!

Cocora Valley & Salento 

We rise to a glorious blue sky after yesterday’s downpour and the view across the coffee plantation from the restaurant terrace is stunning.

They keep things simple at breakfast in Colombia; coffee of course, lovely fresh fruit, bread and jam, juice, eggs as you like it or something local like tamales or soup. I’m no egg fan so I try today’s local speciality which is rice and beans with a flat corn bread fritter. The rice and beans don’t taste of much but at Stephan’s suggestion I add a mildly spicy salsa and the whole dish comes alive! Wow! That’s set me up for the day! And I’ll need my energy as we’re going walking this morning.

We set off by bus and first arrive in a colourful town called Salento, picking up our jeeps on the busy main square. We make our way on winding roads through mountain scenery to the starting point of the walk. Some choose to hike for four hours, others go on horseback, but we are taking the gentle walking option, which is nonetheless pretty steep so we take our time.

The Cocora Valley is famous for its astonishing beauty, but specifically its quindio wax palms. This type of palm tree is found in just seven locations in Colombia, and this species in particular can be seen only here.

In order to reach the heart of the palm valley we have a fairly tough uphill climb but it’s well worth the effort to see the mountain scenery and these extraordinary trees. They can live up to 200 years old and the highest in the valley is 63m high! All around, the nature is pristine, horses and cows graze in the fields, the air is pure… it is blissfully tranquil.

We make our way back down the hill – ah-ha! This is a little easier! – and Stephan suggests a refreshing beverage after our hard work. He introduces me to ‘canelazo’, a hot toddy-like drink consisting of warm passionfruit juice with a squeeze of lemon and a glug of aguardente, all stirred together with a cinnamon stick. Ooh yes! Just what was needed after a bit of exercise! Talking of which I’ve worked up a bit of an appetite. What’s next?

Trout, apparently… 

We drive for a few minutes through the countryside across a babbling brook, higher and higher until we reach a restaurant with a superb view back across the valley. The speciality here is trout from the very river we just crossed and it could not be more delicious! I try a new fruit, ‘lulo’ which, in juice form, is thoroughly thirst-quenching and has a completely unique taste.

We carry on to another terrific viewpoint, looking back on the valley on one side and down to the town of Salento on the other. We opt to walk down the 237 steps to the town, passing people huffing and puffing on the way up. The town is packed with visitors happily spending their money in the many handicraft shops selling hammocks, hats, art and ceramics, at the fruit stalls in the square or in the busy cafes where the ladies fan themselves against the afternoon sun.

We drive on through acres and acres of banana plantations to see another hacienda, which we will also use. It’s every bit as nice as the last and has the addition of a dairy farm. Our visit coincides with milking time and the dairy hand Alberto kindly invites me to have a go. Always game for a challenge I agree, although I fear I’ll disappoint both him and the poor beast. After a brief tutorial, Alberto gestures in the vague direction of the cow’s udder and I grab a teat and hope for the best. Several excruciating minutes later – during which time I’m pretty sure the cow turned round and tutted – I’ve produced a thimbleful of milk, most of which is on the floor and not in the bucket. Red-faced, I beat a swift retreat and leave it to the expert. Ah well, no use crying over spilt milk…

We’re flying to the Caribbean coast tonight.

Cartagena

The day starts with a super buffet breakfast in our lovely boutique hotel within the walls of the old town. We are joined by Cesar, a veteran guide almost twice my age whose energy, enthusiasm and humour contributes to what turns out to be a masterclass in tour guiding!

We first visit La Popa, a chapel high above the city reached by a path that follows the 14 stations of the cross. La Popa translates as ‘the poop deck’, appropriately as it affords superb views over old and new Cartagena. The city is a mixture of high-rise buildings, the walled old town, informal shanty housing, the busy port and high-class residential area as well as being a popular holiday destination with an array of hotels.

Cartagena has a fascinating history and is well known to British historians as the site of one of the most important encounters of the Battle of Jenkin’s Ear, the attempt by Admiral Lord Vernon to take this strategically important fortress town – then the Spanish gateway to the Caribbean – and claim it for the British Crown. Spain’s most formidable commander Admiral ‘Don Blass’ was summoned from campaigns in Europe to defend the fortress town but the might of the British navy closed in, and with 26,000 troops and 126 warships stationed offshore and surrounding the bay, the five smaller forts soon succumbed to the invasion, with only the main hilltop fortress remaining to be overcome. So confident was Vernon that Cartagena would be taken, he sent word of his victory to the royal court before the final assault. Due to the brilliant design of the fortress and tactics of the mere 2,000 Spanish troops, the British could not break through, even after laying siege to the town, and they eventually gave up the fight, not least because they were slain in their thousands, not only by their doughty Spanish foe but also by a far more fearsome opponent – an army of mosquitoes!

Upon exploring the fortress and listening to Cesar’s absorbing commentary, it becomes clear why the home army succeeded. The walls were virtually impregnable, the ramparts were brilliantly defended by cannons, the underground tunnels served as death traps for any approaching invaders – it was simply impenetrable.

There are steep slopes, it’s hot and we’ve worked hard so it’s time for another refreshing juice, this time from the fruit of the ‘tomato tree’. Resembling a tomato but in the shape of a plum, I wonder what the taste of this unfamiliar fruit will be like! The answer? A cross between a tomato and a plum. I really should have guessed!

We make our way down to the old town and Cesar takes us for a walking tour pointing out the famous buildings, statues and squares, explaining the history and way of modern life within the walls. It serves as a wonderful insight but also as a useful orientation so our guests can enjoy their free time exploring independently once they know where to go.

I could listen to Cesar all day but with regret we have to let him go and return to our hotel to check out and have a look around. Before doing so I meet the hotel’s most famous residents. Two beautiful little toucans came to visit one day and never left – indeed why would they when they can sit around all day being admired by visitors and given pieces of melon or guava on demand? Whilst the female lurks under a plant snoozing, the inquisitive male hops on to my arm and decides he likes it there so we conduct the hotel inspection with an extra passenger!

Our final task of the day is a most pleasurable one. We have dinner included on the final night of the tour and we need a suitable venue. Stephan has chosen brilliantly and we dine on delicious ‘posta Cartagena’ and fresh seafood in a traditional restaurant which describes itself as “100% Cartagena”. Cocktails, music, great Colombian food – it ticks all the boxes!

As we wander back to our hotel, the city’s squares are alive as this is the height of the tourist season and families from all over Colombia are enjoying the street performances, music and bustle.

Cartagena! You have lived up to every expectation and will provide a wonderful climax to a magnificent tour for our customers! But for me, it’s bedtime, as tomorrow I fly back to the heart of the Andes…

Bucaramanga and the Chicamora National Park

I am flying from Cartagena to Bucaramanga and am met by Georg and Maria who will accompany me back to Bogota, driving this sector of the tour in reverse.

Our first stop is at the coffee hacienda where our guests will have lunch. They will already be experts in coffee production from earlier in the tour but in this region the methods are quite different. In the coffee zone, the bushes grow in coffee-only plantations or alongside bananas crops. Coffee bushes in this region grow in the forest amongst trees. The bushes are shaded by galapos trees, large enough to provide shade but letting in enough light for the coffee beans to respond to the warm sun. This gives the coffee a different flavour as it takes in nutrients from the surrounding trees.

We chat away as we drive through villages and countryside and I’m half-aware of the vehicle climbing. We are heading for the point where a cable car crosses the Chicamocha Canyon. Suddenly we arrive at a turn on the road and the most extraordinary vista opens up before us. We have reached an elevation of 1700m and are overlooking a deep rugged canyon bordered by a series of mighty peaks reaching far into the distance. I can see specks of silver moving ever-so-slowly down into the valley. These are the cable cars in which we will travel! So breathtaking are the views that it is hard for the eye to focus and send messages to the brain. I’ve never seen scenery like this! Little orange dots in the distance turn out to be isolated farms. I wonder aloud who would live in such a place but Georg points out that as well as peace, solitude, tranquility and awesome views, they all have electricity, phone lines, water, TV….. Hmmmm, now I see the appeal!

The cable cars are very busy taking Colombian families to a theme park on the other side of the canyon so we decide to take the road which zigzags down the mountain from 1700m down to 500m in the base of the canyon. Thank goodness Maria is an excellent driver! She expertly steers the vehicle down and then up the canyon walls eventually bringing us to our final destination, the small town of Barichara. It’s dark when we arrive and I can’t wait for daylight to reveal this hidden gem sheltering in the Andes…

Barichara and the road to Villa de Leyva

Tamales are the breakfast option this morning. Unlike Mexican tamales, which are made from dried maize, here the corn is crushed to a soft pulp, wrapped in banana leaves with a little shredded meat and steamed. Delicious and hearty!

There’s a tempting pool and our guests will have the choice of a rest and a swim or an invigorating hike. The Guane people used the nearby valley as a thoroughfare creating trails here and elsewhere that are known as the ‘caminos real’. Our guests are invited to follow in their footsteps on this 5-mile hike in the Suarez Valley.

In the afternoon the customers will set out on foot to discover the village, now a national monument, which – aside from the odd telegraph pole and of course the cars – remains very much as it was 200 years ago, so much so that many TV shows and films have been made here on location.

After a walk up the sloping cobbled streets to the top of the village, looking at the churches, galleries, shops and (surreptitiously) the inside of people’s houses, we make our way to the local paper-makers. Here agave plants are put through a number of different processes – pulping, removing the impurities, drying, etc – before being fashioned into notepaper, lampshades, picture frames, jewellery… Our guests will be able to try their hand at this skill!

We get on the road and nobody fancies lunch so instead we stop halfway and try a local delicacy. Leche asada is a sort of tasteless set cheese with caramelised sugar and syrup on top. It’s both bland and incredibly sweet at the same time and provides a mighty sugar rush! We’re in sugar cane country and beside the road we see the mills that process the cane. Our guests will visit one of these mills to see the how it all works – and perhaps chew on the end of a stick of sugar cane as I’ve seen little kids doing in the street!

Continuing the theme we call in on a small ‘bocadillo’ factory. Bocadillo means ‘little mouthful’ and that’s exactly what they are creating from compressed guava pulp and sugar. The mixture is made into a set gel, cut into little squares and wrapped in portions. The whole frenetic process goes on before our eyes – fetching and carrying, cutting and wrapping – all to the backdrop of salsa rhythms. The workers move rapidly in time with the music and it certainly helps productivity and everyone’s mood! I’ve never seen such a happy workplace!

The finished result is the sort of food you can climb a mountain on. No wonder it’s so popular with Colombia’s champion cyclists who swear by bocadillos to keep them going during tough races. Cycling is a national obsession and we pass many dogged cyclists urging their bikes up steep gradients that even the car struggles to manage.

Perhaps the most popular of all sweet things in Colombia though is hot chocolate. It’s a must in the morning – thick and sweet – and also at teatime. Georg tells me that it’s nice to have it with cheese. Cheese? He explains that, as an afternoon treat, it’s nice to have a cup of hot chocolate and pop in bits of cheese so they half-melt, then you drink the chocolate along with these little molten cheesebombs. Really? As my milking escapade will attest, I’ll try almost anything once, but chocolate and cheese? Nah.

We climb from 1200-2500m through a spectacular gorge and approach Villa de Leyva. As well as being a national monument the town is famous for fossils and we visit the paleontological museum for a short guided tour. All manner of remains were found in this area, including a huge ichthyosaur, and the tour is very interesting indeed.

On arrival at the hotel, we first check in then set out to explore the old colonial town. Founded in the 16th century, the Bishops from Tunja wanted a warmer place than Bogota in which to reside so they built the town. The Spanish colonial army were based here too and the town was used as a base for military supplies. At its centre is an enormous Andalusian style square, one of the largest in South America, and it is a hive of activity. The streets around the square are filled with shops selling wonderful souvenirs. Popular with visitors from Bogota who love to buy Indian style ponchos, paintings, pottery, leather goods and of course hats, the shopkeepers are doing a roaring trade

There are bars and restaurants of all types and our guests are going to love spending their free time here!

The road to Bogota

It’s market day in Villa de Leyva and a lady is selling pomegranates and mint outside the posada. A little negotiation goes on and then we get on the road with a bag of fruit and a pomegranate tree in the boot! The produce here is so good that it’s hard to resist making more purchases on the road as we travel along. Tomatoes grow in abundance in greenhouses, strawberries in the fields. The elevation is such that carrots, onions and potatoes can grow, planted and picked by hand. We abandon our picnic mandarins and swap them for succulent blushing peaches bought from the side of the road, having first been given a taste from the smiling vendor.

Alongside the crops, brown and white cows – breeds of European origin – graze in the rolling pasture, munching on the lush grass and swishing their tails. All that’s needed is the sound of cow bells and we could be in Switzerland!

We approach a significant monument. It was at Puente de Boyaca that Simon de Bolivar defeated the Spanish colonial army on August 7, 1819, thus securing Colombia’s independence. His dream of forming a ‘United States of South America’ never materialised, but for a while at least the country of Gran Colombia existed, before Venezuela and Ecuador broke away and eventually Panama too.

As we near Bogota, the land levels out and we descend towards the vast plain wherein lies the capital. Greenhouses are growing flowers for export, a huge industry here. To the east is a ridge of mountains containing Lake Guatavita, one of the sacred lakes of the indigenous people, the setting for the ever-enduring legend of El Dorado.

We visit the famous Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira. Salt was originally mined in this region by the indigenous people when its value was almost equal to that of gold. The Spanish then continued the tradition. Although a section of the mine still functions, the main part was transformed into a religious monument, with the 14 stations of the cross carved into the empty chambers and the main hall transformed into a cathedral. An enormous rock chamber houses a 25m cross with pillars, an altar and even pews for use at the weekly Sunday service. Dramatic lighting that changes colour enhances the spectacle. A rose colour fades in and out at the centre of the cross as if to represent a beating heart. It’s an extraordinary feat of engineering and of dedication to the Catholic faith

We make our way through the suburbs and then around the outskirts of Bogota. As we drive along the ring road, the expanse of the city unfolds down to our right as far as the eye can see whilst on the left the road is flanked by a sheer slope covered in dense forest rising up the mountain to over 10000 feet. What an extraordinary capital city! Dusk is falling as I arrive at my hotel in the heart of the old town so I decide to see it all in daylight after a good night’s sleep…

Bogota

It’s Sunday and I awake to the sound of church bells. The hotel is located just one street away from the city’s cathedral on the Plaza de Bolivar. Georg has offered to show me the city in which he grew up and we head first to the main square. He points out that the four main tenets of society feature on each side of the square: Parliament representing the country, the town hall which controls the city, the halls of justice which serve to keep order and uphold the law, and the cathedral, the pillar of the people’s faith.

Far from being a sleepy Sunday morning, there are people everywhere! Bogotans get up early and get on their bikes! Quite literally; the central part of the city is closed off to traffic on Sundays and becomes a ‘ciclovia’ or cycleway. All along this route through the square, people are cycling, rollerblading, jogging, dog-walking… It’s part of the mayor’s plan to make citizens more protective of their city in the hope that by giving them greater access they will take pride in their surroundings and gain a sense of ownership. Certainly it is a very clean city with recycling facilities at every turn.

Our customers’ introduction to Bogota will include a cable car trip to the high point of the city at the church of Montserrate where they can look down on the capital. From there they will discover the old town on foot including the backpacker/student district with its colourful bars and exotic street art.

No visit to Bogota would be complete without a visit to the Gold Museum where greedy eyes may feast upon the riches within. We have found El Dorado!

We then move on to another museum, this time an art gallery. The Botero museum is the brainchild of Fernando Botero, a most famous Colombian artist who donated to the city not only his own artworks but also those from his private collection. There are two rooms of Botero’s paintings, large canvases featuring the artist’s signature ‘fat people’. The remaining rooms contain incredible riches from the art world; works by Picasso, Chagalle, Le Trec, Moore, Monet, and a dramatically lit bust by Salvador Dali. Botero lives in Paris these days but returns every year to stay in his hometown of Medellin. Now 83 years old, his output is as prolific as ever and he is revered here as a master of painting and sculpture.

More informal art is also welcomed by the city’s administration and there is a rich culture of street art here. In a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ the mayor sought to get a grip of the city’s graffiti problem by allocating particular areas for such art and encouraging it. There are even graffiti tours! Many areas of the city are now adorned with vibrant murals, especially either side of the main highway to the airport, which is where I’m heading now for my flight to Quito, and the extension to this Colombian tour.

Colombia has been a glorious, awe-inspiring, delightful surprise, with staggeringly beautiful scenery, intriguing places to visit, friendly obliging people and countless opportunities to learn new things. Each day has brought wondrous treats for the senses with new and unexpected tastes, aromas and sights every single day.

I’m delighted that Saga is leading the way in showcasing this inspiring new destination and cannot wait to return! But in the meantime… Ecuador!

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.