Quick! What pops into your head when I say “Colombia”?
Okay, now try to think of something else about Colombia besides coffee and, you know, drug cartels…. Stumped? So was I until I visited Colombia, and holy moly, if that isn’t the most misrepresented country in South America!
For starters, Colombia has some scenery that will knock your poncho off: pale green pineapple fields, rows of banana trees propped up with bamboo poles, towering cacti, and rivers meandering through lush valleys. Add to that some killer empanadas and local people who never hesitate with a smile, and you have yourself a surprisingly great place for a holiday.
We traveled with friends, one of whom is Colombian, and that no doubt helped us get the very best first impression of the country. During our two week stay, we spent one week in the coffee zone – a 9.5 hour (ahem!) drive west from Bogota. (Around 5.5 hours, the alternative of air travel starts to look real good.)
But, get this, it is worth the journey! The route took us up and over mountains, through eucalyptus forests, past tiny homes clinging to the steep hillsides, and under palm leaves the size of surfboards. We stopped often to stretch little legs (and big legs!) and, more importantly, to drink coffee, fresh juices, and nibble on hot empanadas sprinkled with a squeeze of lime. Roadside vendors often looked like little more than a shack with a couple of plastic chairs in the dust out front, but they cranked out some awesome food. You just can’t over think it.
We ate lunch at one of these dubious looking establishments where the “chef” was tending to various cuts of meat over a roaring fire, stopping occasionally to wield an axe and chop more firewood. Fresh lemonade blissfully quenched our thirst as we sat sweating next to the fire, waiting for our meal. When it came, we tucked into tender pieces of salty meat with floury yucca (a starchy tuber also known as cassava) and creamy crescents of avocado on the side. Much better than any boxed sandwich I would normally grab from a petrol station on the highway.
We stayed at a farm up on a hill in one of the valleys. At the bottom of the hill was a wide, shallow river and groves of tall bamboo. Peacocks wandered around the farm’s property, rattling their tail feathers at each other (and being startlingly loud at inconvenient hours, truth be told).
Our days started with coffee and arepas which are addictively delicious corn pancakes. They are fried until golden and eaten with butter, salt, and chili sauce. You can add an egg, avocado, cheese, or even crispy fried plantain on top, but I liked mine simple and spicy.
We explored the local area during the days with trips to coffee plantations, petting zoos, and even a coffee theme park. It was fascinating, but the times that secured Colombia a place in our hearts were the evenings at the farm with a barbecue, bottles of wine, sleepy children, three languages around the table, and frogs starting their nighttime chorus.
“It’s ludicrous this place exists
and everybody doesn’t want to live here.”
–Anthony Bourdain on Colombia