Even if you don’t drink coffee, Colombia’s Coffee Triangle is a magical place to visit. I hesitate to write this. If I do, you might race and get your plane tickets. You might decide that even without a traditional tourist infrastructure, Colombia’s interior is too good to miss out on. You’d be right to do so, of course, but if you did, then when I return to Colombia’s interior, gringos might become a common sight, and then of course that changes everything.
As it is, I’m barely sitting in my seat, having just returned from the swooping valleys and mountains of the Colombian stretch of Andes, wondering why I was so silly to come back to the sweltering coast and crowded gray ruckus of Barranquilla. I suppose my job and Peace Corps commitment was a decent reason…we’ll go with that.
But meanwhile. When my friend who hates the heat decided to visit me, we eschewed the coast and headed to the glorious interior, where elevation makes up for equatorial location and cool weather rules.
We spent a day or two perusing Bogotá’s collection of esoteric museums, pigeon-filled plazas, and lovely lookouts then headed to the Ejé Cafetero, Colombia’s coffee-growing region in the Andes Mountains. A great deal of Colombia’s coffee grows here, mostly on small high altitude farms. It’s also the location of the Cocorá Valley, where Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, sprouts hundreds of feet high above a cool valley.
Sticking to the smaller cities after Bogotá, my friend and I traveled first to Pereira, the closest city on major bus routes to Santa Rosa de Cabal, which is home to incredible thermal hot springs. We headed to the smallest thermal which included an incredible waterfall that fell above the concrete pools of naturally hot water. Alternating between the cold waterfall and hot pools, we watched a thunderstorm move in. Steam rose from the thermal pools where cold rain drops fell, almost sizzling as they hit the pool. Rising reluctantly, we moved on and out before the lightning crested the mountains.
Other Pereira notables included one of the best zoos in South America, and an infamous statue of Simón Bolivar. Bolívar is the liberator of countries and cities of many South American countries, and thus there are statues of him in pretty much every town and city. Pereira’s, however, is naked. It’s an impressive work of art, which I enjoyed viewing while munching on eternal cups of chontaduro, a local orange fruit. Sold for about 1 mil by local vendors, the fruit’s flesh is fibrous, something like a potato-carrot, and doused in honey and salt. It’s a tasty, tasty thing, and one of the few fruits we don’t see on the coast.
A day and a half exhausted Pereira so we continued to Armenia, which is the closest “real” city to Valle de Cocora. It’s also about twenty minutes away from a luscious botanical garden and mariposario, or butterfly house. The gardens require that you attend the tour, which is two hours long. Reluctant at first to be trapped for so long, especially since the tour was in Spanish and my friend speaks almost none, we were pleasantly surprised by the garden’s incredible variety and depth. From matapalmas—trees that grow off, then over and around palm trees, splitting into many trunks and eventually overtaking the palm tree, to incredible bamboo forests with shoots over thirty feet tall and half a foot wide, to a bird sanctuary where we saw the famously shy banquero, a bright teal and green bird that lives in earth banks (not to be confused with a Barranquillero) and a long, wire-tethered bridge over a small chasm, it was all breathtaking. And of course, the butterfly house, where clouds of butterflies rose from the flowers, flickering near to feast on cups of orange slices, each moment one for a painted masterpiece.
We finished our trip in Salento. Salento is a small, quaint town about twenty minutes from the entrance to Valle Cocora, known also for its coffee plantations and artisan crafts. There were more non-Peace Corps folks from the United States in Salento than I’ve met in the last year, which is to say we met approximately eight. That plus the other internationals meant some public spaces were unexpectedly geared towards English speakers, a plus for my non-Spanish-speaking friend. One of the notable hostels, The Plantation House, is owned by a Scottish man and offers a wonderful tour of his adjoined coffee farm. Thus, I’ve forgotten more about coffee already than I ever knew in a lifetime.
Valle Cocorá was my personal trip highlight, starved for rolling landscapes and mountain paths as I am. Rising at 5:00, I took the 6:15 jeep out to the valley, which meant I had the whole path to myself for hours. First an hour trek through the tufted green valley, passing traditional farms and an odd mounted campesino, goggling at the stands of palms stretching into the clouds. Then the cloud forest, with kilometers of incline, breathtaking views at every turn. With its pines and leafy trees, the forest held a comforting familiarity to those in the US, shot through unexpectedly with wild tropical vines and flowers, palm-sized beetles, and of course those rising palm trees. Six hours later I emerged to the crowds of palm-seeking tourists, who tripped along the lower stone-laid paths in fashionable shoes and jeans. Definitely worth the early wake-up.
It was a sad thing to leave the beauty of the interior. Beaches such as we have on the coast may be where some find peace, but they are not, shall I say, my neck of the woods. It’s incredible to know how much variety this country holds. Sweating again on the coast, marveling at the idea that snow exists elsewhere in the world, I’m already plotting my next trip, to see yet another slice of this country!