Sunday, November 23, 2003
The valley narrows as we move east toward the Andes on horseback, rolling pasture rising into virgin jungle. Along the ridgelines high above us march lines of swaying wax palms. Their towering trunks, topped by small tufts of fronds, appear like visions from a Dr. Seuss tale.
It is cool, quiet, although my dusty brown horse wheezes from time to time as it dips and climbs through creeks, bogs and tight stone passes. I'm feeling very much a pioneer, imagining myself a century ago with bags of coffee stacked on the back of my nag, as I move through a stretch of breathtaking wilderness without the fear that usually haunts rural excursions elsewhere in Colombia.
The truth is I'm no pioneer at all.
The Valle de Cocora belongs to Colombia's coffee region, a tourist destination of increasing popularity for its historical and ecological richness. Having shed years of isolation imposed by surrounding civil war and the central Andean range that marks its eastern limit, coffee country has become the heart of Colombia's nascent "rural tourism" industry that fuses history, ecology and know-your-roots national pride.
Each year more than 300,000 tourists visit Quindio province, the soul of the world's most famous coffee-producing region, making it Colombia's second most popular attraction after the walled Caribbean city of Cartagena. Only a tiny fraction of the visitors are foreign, however, leaving the hillside colonial towns, remote horse trails and frothy waterfalls, and the bed-and-breakfasts that were once working coffee farms largely untouched by the global tourist trade.
The tourism itself is a sign of coffee's decline. Coffee built modern Colombia until a wave of political violence in the 1950s and then the equally dislocating economic forces of globalization washed through these valleys and wiped out thousands of small farmers. Global coffee supply has far outpaced demand, even in the age of Starbucks, and Juan Valdez, the prototypical coffee farmer plucked from these fields by Madison Avenue, has turned to tourism to make ends meet.
Colombia's 39-year civil war, it is safe to say, has not done wonders for its tourism industry. The U.S. State Department warns Americans against traveling to Colombia, although it recently reduced its assessment of the risk for people traveling to the resort town of Cartagena or the island province of San Andres. The warning, as well as very real security risks posed by Marxist rebel groups in the countryside, have made Colombia among the least desirable tourist destinations on the continent.
This is unfortunate, because Colombia is perhaps the most diverse destination in South America, reaching from the Caribbean to the Amazon, the plains against Venezuela's border to a wild Pacific landscape. Much of the risk can be minimized by traveling with agency-arranged drivers, who know intimately the roads and regions where they live.
In Quindio, rows of squat coffee bushes, branches of ripening red beans appearing among dark green leaves, are still the prevailing feature of the landscape. But thousands of acres of coffee have been uprooted in recent years to make way for plantains and cattle pastures, while the antique Willys Jeeps, turn-of-the-century train stations and tools of the coffee harvest have become mostly props in the tourist trade.
Hundreds of coffee farmers have turned their traditional farmhouses, distinguished by mossy red-tile roofs and wide verandas dripping with pots of geraniums, ferns and orchids, into comfortable bed-and-breakfasts where rooms usually cost less than $20 a night. Many of them are still working farms, like La Floresta near the provincial capital of Armenia, where 42-year-old Alvaro Ramirez tends horses.
"If we had a five-star hotel here, it would change everyone's view of the landscape as well," Ramirez said over coffee on the farm's terrace, a scarlet sunset glowing behind him. "The idea here is to have comfort, of course, but in a way that emphasizes the traditional elements of the region without lessening the impact of rural tourism."
In a straw hat and worn boots, Ramirez picked me up at the airport at the start of a recent holiday weekend along with my wife and three children, all under 6 years old. Given the fragile security situation in the mountains surrounding Quindio province -- Colombia's two guerrilla groups, who have been known to kidnap foreigners, maintain a presence along the mountain roads and in some remote villages -- the recommended transportation is by plane from the capital, Bogota, just an hour's hop over the central cordillera. Two airlines make daily flights, and tourism officials are arranging a route between Cartagena and Armenia so foreign tourists can more easily experience the full range of Colombia's distinctive paisa and costena cultures in one visit.