Visiting Zona Cafetera, the coffee growing region of Colombia

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When the Andean Mountain range enters Columbia from Ecuador, it branches into three ranges and crosses Columbia on a diagonal from south west to south east. These ranges, called Cordilleras, are labeled Occidental (west), Central, and Oriental (east). The coffee growing area, Zona Cafetera, which Donald and I visited is located in the central part of the Andean highlands between the western and central cordilleras. This area is spread over three administrative departments, called the coffee triangle, and each department has a modern capital, Pereira, Armenia and Manizales. The area is being promoted as a tourist destination, not so much to visit these towns, but to explore the magnificent countryside with outdoor adventure activities such as hiking, mountain climbing and horseback riding. Visits are organized to the coffee plantations and many have turned their haciendas into bed and breakfasts. In addition, there are several small towns, pueblos, that are charming and a visit to them insures that one will have the opportunity to seek out the soul of the Eje Cafetero, the coffee region.

OUR PROGRAM
On June 10, we were aboard Avianca Flight 8515 heading to Pereira. The plane, a Fokker 100, named after the founder of this Dutch aircraft company, Anthony Fokker, filled up with a wide variety of people. Businessmen wearing incredibly elegant suits, clutching finely made leather brief cases.

with well manicured fingernails, glided down the aisle on handmade leather shoes. The site of corpulent, well endowed young women in tight fitting clothing was becoming commonplace. In gringo country, you would have thought of Dolly Parton but down here in Columbia, Botero comes to mind. I am not so sure his signature women evolved out of his imagination because all he had to do was paint that which surrounded him. In the mix was the “lost in South America” traveler with his backpack and matted dreadlock hair.

We would be flying almost due west and down below we were catching out last glimpse of Bogota, the red brick city located on a high Andean plain at 8,661 feet above sea level. Donald and I settled into our seats and pulled out our books. I was rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Columbia”s famed Noble Prize winning author, whose left wing views had kept him from receiving a visa to the United States. Donald was reading The Fruit Palace by the British reporter Charles Nicholl who tells the story behind the story of his 1980″s investigation into Columbia”s narco trafficking industry. Both books seemed relevant to our travel but I wondered why the middle aged man across the aisle found it necessary to read the Bible while continually crossing himself. Feeling relatively comfortable on the flight, I wondered if he knew something we did not.

Even though the flight was only thirty minutes, we were offered a drink and a snack. Someone should tell Delta this is possible. Passing up the variety of fruit drinks, for which Columbia is famous, Donald and I opted for a cup of coffee, still trying to find a perfect cup. Soon the plane was preparing to make its final approach and for the first time in five days, the clouds had parted, revealing the blue sky we almost forgot existed. Down below in the early afternoon sunlight, a vast brilliant green landscape spread out before us. We were surrounded by low mountain ranges dotted with dark green trees containing narrow valleys traversed by small streams. Then we began flying over a highway built on the ridge line of a low mountain with steep ravines falling off on both sides. As the plane touched down in Pereira, we were looking forward to four days of new adventures and as for the perfect cup of coffee, we realized we would still have to keep on trying.

Our guide, Johnny, who Donald later referred to as Cheech and the driver Carlos Alberto, who he labeled Chong, picked us up at the airport. We would spend four nights at the Hotel Sazagua, located in the countryside near Pereira, in the Department of Risaralda. From here we would travel through the Department of Caldas to explore a coffee plantation along with a trip through the Department of Quindio where we would visit the Valley of Cocora and spend time in two small towns observing their traditional way of life.. The final day would be spent horseback riding through the Risaralda Valley, with a promised picnic at the end of the trail.

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