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Much of Colombia’s contribution to the world’s second largest single-product marketplace is cultivated in a sizeable chunk of land in the centre of the country. Hilly paisaje located at a suitable altitude (between 1,000m and 1,800m above sea level) and blessed with a temperate climate (sunny, regular rainfall, highs around 18-23°C), the region has long been one of the engines of the Colombian economy. Many of those who live and graft here remain breadline-poor, yet the product they produce is poured into a global market that’s worth, in export value alone, US$20 billion per year.

Only Brazil, Vietnam and (in some years) Indonesia produce more coffee than Colombia. Unexpectedly, though, dozens of countries drink the stuff in far greater volumes. Reliable statistics are hard to find, but this list (and others like it) puts Colombia some way down the world’s coffee-drinking league table. (In recent years, the country has even been overtaken in per-capita consumption by the UK.) Coffee is valued in Colombia for its value alone.

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Perhaps because it doesn’t cherish its beans like the countries that import them, Colombia has been slow to realise the tourist potential of its coffee industry. Things, though, are changing. The main coffee-growing region is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (UNESCO calls it the ‘Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia‘, a clumsy name that sounds rather like the work of Google Translate), and Colombia is working hard to bring visitors to what it’s started billing as La Zona Cafetera: to villages such as the hilltop honeypot of Salento; to beautiful rural roads like the one linking the coffee towns of Filandia and Quimbaya; and even to the gaudy, boisterous Parque Nacional del Café.

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Like much of South America, Colombia is a tremendously fertile country, an archetypal land of plenty. Also like much of South America, those on the lowest rungs of the agricultural ladder haven’t always seen much reward for their toil. Still, workers in the Colombian coffee industry have had more assistance than most. As far back as 1927, the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (FNC; National Federation of Coffee Growers) was established to protect rural coffee farmers and their workers, and still tries to do so today. The FNC’s figurehead is a fictional cafetero named Juan Valdez (the equivalent British name would be something like John Smith), whose name and face now appear on an international chain of more than 200 coffeehouses. The cafés’ appealing fair-trade rhetoric is only slightly disguised by two characteristics familiar to connoisseurs of global coffee-chain culture: could-be-anywhere decor and rather-be-anywhere-else service.

Despite the ever-present smile on Valdez’s face, all has not been well with the cafeteros in central Colombia. An imperfect storm caused by a poor harvest, falling prices (between 2011 and 2013, the cost of arabica beans fell by more than 50 per cent), an unfavourable exchange rate and new free-trade regulations with the US and Europe led last year to thousands of coffee workers walking out on strike, upset at what they saw as a lack of assistance from the government and the FNC. An uneasy truce seems to have since been reached, but it’s far from certain to last.

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Around 15km south-east of Manizales in La Zona Cafetera, Hacienda Venecia is one of the few businesses that seems to be succeeding across both sides of its enterprise. On the one hand, it’s a working coffee farm, among the largest in the valley in which it sits. On the other, it runs one of the smartest and most well-marketed tourism operations in the region: luxury-priced rooms in the main hacienda; more basic lodgings in a nearby hostel; excellent, popular and moderately expensive tours of its operation twice a day. It’s always busy.

The ambitious owner of Hacienda Venecia is trying to set up a separate business exporting his coffee direct to London, cutting out middlemen who take a substantial slice of the export price (and the FNC, who set it). If he succeeds, he won’t be the last. But at the same time that Colombians are developing a new-found awareness of the potential of their caffeinated riches, so outsiders are starting to believe that there might be room for them to muscle in on the market. Our arrival in Bogotá for a week’s break coincided with the coals-to-Newcastle opening of Colombia’s first ever Starbucks.

 


 

We’d seen evidence of Colombia’s other famous export throughout our travels, but all of it had been second- or third-hand. Police and army roadblocks, partly there to keep the peace but also to guard against the transportation of illicit goods. A handful of large, secluded properties that we’d been led to understand had been built or bought with dirty cash. Areas on our map to and through which we’d been warned against travelling, and marked accordingly. These days, Colombia’s cocaine industry is mostly only visible to visitors who know where and how to look. At least until Medellín.

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Medellín has history here, most prominently through two famous residents who died within a year of one other. In 1994, footballer Andrés Escobar was assassinated by a drug cartel bodyguard, a murder widely seen as a revenge killing for an own goal that had contributed to the national team’s exit from the World Cup. Less than a year earlier, the reign of billionaire drug baron Pablo Escobar (no relation) had come to an end when he was shot on a rooftop while being hunted by local, national and international police. (The story was given the thriller treatment by journalist Mark Bowden in ‘Killing Pablo‘.)

These were the bad old days in Medellín, an era when the city was the most dangerous in the world. Since then, it’s worked hard to reinvent itself. El Poblado, where Andrés Escobar was murdered, is now one of the town’s most affluent barrios, its squares well kept and its side streets dotted with expensive-looking restaurants. A branch of Carulla, the Colombian equivalent of Waitrose, stands a stone’s throw from the street on which Pablo Escobar died; nearby is Los Laureles, a comfortable neighbourhood centred on a parade of upmarket hotels and well-appointed nightclubs. Away from the middle, especially in the poorer barrios to the north, crime has fallen, and the drug cartels are now smaller and far less influential than was Escobar’s at its height.

The city’s resurgence began in the 1990s with a programme of innovative, liberal-minded social reforms that were designed to get to the root of the local problems, improving education and welfare, rather than just hacking at its branches by simply going after the culprits. (Ed Vulliamy, one of Britain’s most reliable foreign reporters, wrote a typically measured, insightful article about the changes in Medellín for The Observer in 2013.) The programme has certainly helped, yet the work is far from over. Thanks in part to its porous borders, both on land and at sea, Colombia remains the global hub for the cocaine industry. Medellín’s location keeps the city at the heart of the trade, and the drug cartels here work hard to retain their market shares.

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Much of this activity goes on outside the gaze of tourists. But in the centre, where we stayed, it’s all too obvious. The white-collar industrialists and bankers usually found in urban downtowns have long since vanished from Medellín’s Centro, leaving the streets to eye-opening numbers of deeply troubled individuals. Widely available and terrifyingly cheap, crack cocaine appears to be the culprit; certainly, it’s smoked and traded openly on the streets around Plaza Botero, and presumably drives the dozens of prostitutes who try to catch the eyes of passers-by from the streetcorners, bars and flophouse hotel doorways. The owner of our hostal counselled us against walking the streets at night. We often take such advice with a pinch of salt, but not here. (Photographer Juan Arredondo has spent three years documenting the troubles here and in nearby Barrio Triste – literally, ‘Sad Neighbourhood’. You can see some of his powerful images by clicking here.)

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Medellín and its people deserve better than to be pigeonholed for their past and present problems with the drug trade. Indeed, we feel bad for having written so much about it. There is plenty to love in this city and this country, which remains our favourite in South America and will be the first one to which we return. But equally, the state of Medellín’s downtown and some of the lost souls who call it home is a prominent reminder of the world’s problem with the global narcotics trade, the failure of the so-called ‘war on drugs’, and the fact that neither Colombia nor the countries who consume its exports have adequately answered the questions that the drug industry continues to pose.

 


 

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The other two Colombian exports mentioned in the title of this piece are us. We’re writing this in Cartagena, a port town whose typically noisy modern suburbs stand in fairly dramatic contrast to a historic centre that’s beguiling despite being overrun with tourists. Cartagena is our last stop in Colombia, and indeed in South America. A few hours after this post is scheduled to be published, we’ll be loading our possessions and then ourselves on to a boat for a five-day sailing trip to Panama, our first stop in North America. We’ll see you, we hope, on the other side of the border.

 


 

Route notes: On the main road, it was a two-day ride from Santiago de Cali to Armenia, with an overnight stop in the lovely town of Guadalajara de Buga. From Armenia, we rode uphill to Salento. Then, having briefly returned to the main highway, we took the pretty back road via Filandia to Quimbaya (Google Maps doesn’t show this road, but it exists and makes for a lovely ride), then went north and entered Pereira from the south-west. Our onward journey to Manizales took us via Hacienda Venecia on various unsigned dirt roads.

After a detour from Manizales to ride the Alto de Letras, we took the main road to Medellín, stopping for a night in the truckstop valley town of La Pintada before a monster climb the next morning. The parallel back roads to the east are meant to be lovely, but we enjoyed the direct route and didn’t find the traffic too bad until about 25km from the city. From Medellín, we rode via Montería to Santiago de Tolú (a quieter route than going via Sincelejo), from where it was a long day’s ride to Cartagena de Indias.

 


 

from Cartagena de Indias, Bolívar, Colombia