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Marion Ainge
Travel Writer
7:00 AM 9th April 2022
travel

The Colombian Andes – A Fast-Paced South American Adventure

Colourful Raquira
Colourful Raquira
I couldn't refuse an invitation to experience the culture of a country far from home, imagination and possibly, my comfort zone.

But South America's Colombia, travelling alongside younger group members than myself, a spirit of adventure supports the pace, sometimes with a little help from my friends!

In the Disney blockbuster, the Madrigal family's magical Encanto house is set in the Colombian Valle del Corcora, which itself, is as enchanting and wondrous as the translation of the word Encanto meaning enchantment or dreamlike: native wax palm trees, the tallest in the the world, are circled with white, candy floss clouds which skirt the peaks of the Andes mountains.
Covering the great spaces of the Valle Del Corcora jeep
Covering the great spaces of the Valle Del Corcora jeep

We stride, leap or take a hand to cross tiny streams which thread through the lush green carpets of the valleys. I climb a steep hill slowly, while looking out for a Colombian condor and humming birds.

Our first base is the capital, Bogota, the sprawling, high altitude city with a cobblestone centre of winding streets and more than 7m inhabitants.
Coffee bar in Bogota
Coffee bar in Bogota

People are friendly and smiling, but as in many countries, we're advised not to wear expensive jewellery when walking around. The government has taken huge steps to minimise crime. Because of the country's close proximity to the Equator, the Colombian climate is tropical and isothermal (no seasons), so expect warm, showery weather.

A funicular takes us up Monserrate mountain, more than 3,000 metres above sea level, where wispy clouds shroud the peak in mystery. Bogota's world-renowned graffiti Candelaria district is a mecca for street artists, commissioned by the government and businesses.
Bogota Graffiti
Bogota Graffiti

Villa de Leyva is renowned for its magnificent square, white-washed dwellings and tiny, artisan shops.

The Hotel Campanario de la Villa in this lovely town is charming and characterful. Outside stone steps lead up to a flower-bedecked balcony.

Before dinner, group member James from Texas and I walk across the pretty courtyard to the restaurant.

Young waiter Jose looks puzzled when I ask for a beer. I repeat 'Un cereza por favor'. He brings me a bowl of cherries. Cereza/cerveza....well I've only just started Spanish lessons!

Half an hour south is the seriously colour-splashed town of Raquira
Colourful Raquira
Colourful Raquira
...the country's Andean pottery and texture capital. Shops and other buildings compete in a boldest colour clash contest. Raquira was one of the indigenous towns converted into a Spanish settlement by the foreign invaders.

We take a domestic flight to Armenia, unpack and go straight to bed at the multi-hued Hotel Hacienda de Clara as it's midnight and the usual early start the next day.

At breakfast on the terrace, we watch flaming pink and vibrant turquoise-feathered birds on tree branches. Rooms are situated along a balcony, Colombian style. Staff are relaxed and friendly. We feel welcome and at home here.

At the bustling local market, manager/chef, Phillipe helps us to taste fruit and to choose vegetables.
Fruit tasting at a local market
Fruit tasting at a local market
We're to be the commis chefs set to prepare our own lunch. Group host, Claudia and myself are assigned the potato and plantain peeling for the soup. When we think we've finished, another potato pile arrives. The main course and the fruit drinks are good - our soup is excellent!

Colombia's exports include bananas, the world's best-quality emeralds, cut flowers (alstromeria), petrol and, of course, coffee. It takes 15-20 minutes to climb the curving steps cut into a grassy hillside up to the luscious, steep-sloped San Alberto plantation in Buenavista, which produces Colombia´s most award-winning coffee.
Coffee tasting in Bogota
Coffee tasting in Bogota
The views from the terrace are incredible. With a long-handled brush, I spread the coffee beans out where they dry in the sunshine for up to four weeks. It's coffee heaven.

Sustainability is a key element in production here. Around 120 nomadic workers live on site and harvest the berries, known as 'cherries', from the 40-hectare estate.

Only the highest-quality beans (the stone-fruit inside the cherries) are selected for the San Alberto coffee. At the Finca del Cafe coffee farm in Santa Rosa de Cabal, Jose and Maria provide us with hats for protection from the sun's rays and cool, cream, woven ponchos. I pick only the ripe, red or purple-coloured cherries. Colombia is the third highest producer of coffee next to Brazil and Vietnam.

I must come back to Salento! This lively, quaint little town bursts with energy and colour. It's dusk and the sounds of a vocalist accompanied by a guitar tempt me to peer into the dark interior of an interesting little bar. Other doorways promise the passion and vigour of salsa music and dance. But, unfortunately, there's no time for such indulgence and we have to move on.

Another internal flight takes us north to Cartagena in Bolivar. Attacked by pirates and empires, beloved by poets and writers, this important cruise port and beautiful city bursts with life and colour. My room in the Hotel Estelar faces the Caribbean sea.

After half an hour we're off on a tour of the city, where renowned writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez gained inspiration for his novels.

Our guide, Andrea, is dressed in the late 1800s-style costume of Fermina, the heroine of Garcia's, Love in the Time of Cholera. Street dancers and musicians entertain in the buzzing Bolivar Square. We pass Garcia's former house and trace the steps of the author's favourite haunts. I love Cartagena.

I'm tempted to swim in the hotel pool. But there's a first time for everything and ToursByLocals will provide mine - a novice horseback ride on the warm beach alongside the foam-tipped Caribbean waves in Manzanillo, just 20 minutes from Cartagena.
Horseriding on Manzanillo Beach Cartagena
Horseriding on Manzanillo Beach Cartagena
For me, at just 5ft in height, mounting the horse is impossible without assistance from two strong men, who apologise for the necessary 'hands on' technique.

A short drive takes us to the still, dark waters of a mangrove swamp in La Boquilla. Our canoe drifts slowly along the narrow route cut through mangrove branches in silence apart from the sound of birdsong and the regular dip of the paddle.

After about an hour, at a family, waterside restaurant, three of us ate fresh-caught fried fish, as it came, tail, middle or head part, with a shredded cabbage and onion salad and plantain.

The 10 euros we each paid for our meal will clearly support this family.

Colombia is truly 'Encanto'! Visit before it becomes a tourist hot spot!

Factfile:
www.procolombia.co/en
www.colombia.travel/en
www.hotelcampanariodelavilla.com/
www.santaclarahacienda.com
www.cafesanalberto.com
www.fincadelcafe.com
www.hotelesestelar.com
www.toursbylocals.com/Colombia-Tours