Add this to the many surprises we’ve discovered since arriving on the shores of Colombia. Before, we’d known how to find the country on a map (far northwestern corner of South America), but the rest of our index was fairly limited: Shakira, Sofia Vergara, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Pablo Escobar, too. We’d watched Netflix’s Narcos, a refraction of the 1980s American pop-cultural and political view of Colombia as both a fascinating and terrifying place: guerrilla warfare, drug smuggling, Miami Vice’s raison d’etre. “Why Colombia?” became a familiar refrain when we told friends wherewe were going on vacation.
But this journey, designed by sustainable tourism agency Colombia Eco Travel, is showing us a Colombia beyond our preconceived notions. Its traditions are fueling future growth, and its cultural, historical and natural beauty rivals any destination in the Americas, or even the world.
Our first stop is the walled city of Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site settled by the Spanish in the 1500s. Unsparingly charming and perfectly preserved, it now finds itself besieged by tourists from North America and Europe. The neighborhoods outside the walled city boast everything from backpacker hostels to modern, Miami-like hotels on the Caribbean shoreline, but inside the original stone ramparts, everything is true to Spanish Colonial type. Restaurants, cafes, and boutique hotels take residence in converted 16th-century palaces painted in shades of gold and terra-cotta and periwinkle to maintain historical accuracy. Bougainvillea explodes from wrought-iron balconies. The streets are alive with enterprise: every passer-by might be ready to strike a deal for a fresh coconut lemonade or a bottle of water, or to enjoy a musician’s impromptu serenade from a makeshift alfresco stage.
On our tour, Santiago sees a woman he knows, and they greet each other enthusiastically. She’s wearing a colorful ruffled dress and is surrounded by other ladies in similar garb. Some of the women bear baskets of fruit on their heads; at a customer’s request, they will procure a ripe Granadilla or maracuya fruit from its lofty perch, slice it up at a simple wooden table, and hand it over for a few pesos and instant refreshment. These women are called Palenqueras, Santiago tells us. They are named for San Basilio de Palenque, a village outside Cartagena that was established in 1691 by freed African slaves. It was the first free town in the Americas. To sustain themselves economically in those early days, the free people traveled into Cartagena’s busy port to sell the fruit that grew in abundance in their village.
The Palenqueras aren’t the only ones leveraging abundant natural resources for economic growth. The next stop on our tour is the ChocoMuseo, a store and museum devoted to cacao. Santiago leads us to a map of the world that stretches across an entire wall of the shop, and points out the regions where cacao grows — they form a belt around the earth that roughly overlays the equator. He explains how European chocolate comes mostly from African cacao, while North American chocolate producers get theirs from Brazil. Colombia’s share is at about 4% of total exports, but it’s climbing. “When the government de-vegetated the coca leaf farms, the farmers needed something else to grow,” Santiago explains. “Cacao is the replacement crop for coca.”
This is the first and only conversation we will have with a Colombian about cocaine. We’d heard it was bad form to discuss it; in touring the country, we begin to understand why. This proud nation’s centuries-old culture was almost decimated, in a few decades, by a trade that regular people didn’t ask for, and by violence they are still recovering from. But the cacao narrative is a hopeful one. An NPR story from last year described how a former employee at Colombia’s Ministry of the Interior, Jose Palacios, returned to his home region of Chocó to help farmers there learn how to grow cacao instead of coca. He set up a chocolate training center and started an association for cacao producers. In 2017, Palacios launched Late Chocó, his own artisanal chocolate company, which buys almost 1,000 pounds of cacao per harvest month from the association. As for us, we’ll look for Colombian-grown cacao on every label from now on.
Surprised and delighted by what we’ve seen and heard in Cartagena, we are eager to explore more, and it’s time to head to the airport for the next leg of our journey.
Santiago’s words about all weathers and all altitudes are proven true: we’ve left the scorchingly colorful, hustle-bustle Caribbean coast and flown south to Pereira, a city 4,600 feet above sea level in a lush, mist-veiled landscape of rolling green mountains and snow-capped volcanoes. We’ve also traded one UNESCO World Heritage Site for another: Pereira is in the heart of the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia.
We tour Armenia, Circasia and Salento, bustling villages where workers in sombreros and carriel bags and Wellies converge in the central plazas for business and socializing. Willy jeeps — holdovers from WWII that carry everything from farm equipment to kilos of coffee to groups of tourists, traverse the dusty roads.
Nearly 600,000 families grow coffee in Colombia, but in the Coffee Zone, there is increasing interest in growing tourism, too. Many families have renovated or redesigned their farms, or fincas, to offer a unique agritourism experience. Our own accommodations are at the Finca del Cafe, where we are warmly greeted by Nelly, the owner.
“Here, you come to relax,” she says kindly, while she ushers us into a large, bright guest room adorned with artwork created by Nelly herself. While the finca does not bill itself as a “wellness” resort per se, it should, as it is here that we relax and feel most at peace more than anywhere on the trip. We are like guests in a beautiful home. The finca has 8 rooms — keys, in the tourism parlance – built around a central lounge, fitted out with a sleek sectional sofa and a hammock swinging from the ceiling. Off the lounge is an open patio, with more seating, a pool, and best of all, a dramatic view of verdant mountainsides cloaked in coffee plants and bamboo and the occasional wax palm (Colombia’s national tree, which can grow to 200 feet). In the early morning, the mist clears and the snow-capped peaks of the Northern Andes and the Nevado del Ruiz, one of Colombia’s highest volcanoes, declare themselves briefly before retreating behind the veil again.
On a tour of the finca one morning, we learn that each coffee plant has a life cycle of about 5 years and that the flavor of coffee depends on not just the type of bean, but how many layers have been removed from its skin, how long it has spent drying, and whether it’s roasted. Fresh-brewed Colombian coffee — tinto, for the uninitiated — is served in a small cup without milk or sugar. Because its flavor is taken directly from the unroasted beans, the coffee is smooth and golden-tinged, not a trace of bitterness. We enjoy it every morning with fresh banana and papaya grown on the finca. (Here, there’s no fuss about farm-to-table ingredients, because at a finca in rural Colombia, farm-to-table just is.)
The last leg of our journey takes us back to the Caribbean coast,to Santa Marta, about 100 miles east of Cartagena. From there we travel to the small village of Palomino, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains — a separate mountain range from the Andes, and host to a UNESCO-declared Biosphere Reserve. After days of history, culture, and commerce, this has been billed as the “beach” part of the trip.
Palomino is such an off-the-grid, immersive place that we hesitate to even write about it here. Any guilt we felt about flying around Colombia — flight shaming as a “thing” only started to gain momentum after we booked our itinerary — was offset by our arrival in this beach paradise that lends new meaning to the notion of undertourism. Only about 50 miles from the Santa Marta airport, it is reached via a two-lane road that winds along the Caribbean coastline, taking 90 minutes by private van. The town center comprises a couple dirtroads lined with hostels, thatched-roof restaurants and small huts where merchants sell handcrafted woven bags and jewelry.
We’re staying at Casa Coraje, which is technically a hotel but feels more like beachfront glamping. We fall asleep at night to the rhythm of the pounding surf; we spend days lying on the beach in hammocks that hang from palm trees. There are no high-rise hotels or condos, no planes trailing messages of half-priced happy hours, no jet skis or cruise ships or even far-off freighters. Just us and the glistening Caribbean.
We make reservations to go river tubing, as though it will be like river tubing along, say, the Delaware. (We still haven’t learned.) The morning of the activity, a short, wiry man arrives to pick us up at the Casa. He is almost completely bald and weaves through the dining area, nodding and smiling at the diners, with a benevolence that calls to mind Gandhi. “Come,” he beckons to us when he sees our expectant faces. We follow him outside, looking for a van or a bus filled with river tubes. Instead, we see a gaggle of teenage boys on scooters staring at us and gunning their engines, and we realize they are our drivers. It’s one of those traveling moments where you cast aside every sensible thought in your mind and go with it. We hop on the mopeds, clutch tightly to our teenage drivers, and zoom away to a small hut on the outskirts of the village. Piles of black rubber tubes are out front, and the guide gestures for us to disembark, grab a tube, and follow him along a steep trail coiling through thick jungle.
Half an hour later, we arrive at the banks of the river, where we flop into the water with our tubes and let the current carry us. For two miles, we float downstream. Past lush hills rising up on either side of the river, past children swinging joyfully on makeshift ropes, past twitchy-tailed cows bathing up to their knees, past a group of men repairing an ancient motorboat moored to a tree, past people hand-washing their laundry and laying it out to dry by the concrete buttresses of an overpass. Past, past, past. The past is still the present in this corner of Colombia, and we lose ourselves in the peace and quiet.
This is not to say Colombia is without its problems, and while we were insulated from them during our trip, there are issues. The internal strife that ravaged the country for decades has improved, but it’s a tenuous peace. Some of the more rural areas present security risks. The political situation in neighboring Venezuela has resulted in a migrant crisis along the border.