Christopher Adams

The Business Herald’s markets and banking reporter.

Colombia: Adrenaline rush in the land of coffee

An adventure holiday in the Colombian forest is an exhilarating experience, writes Christopher Adams, as he reflects on a few bumps and bruises.

Zip-lining was among the many adventure attractions in Colombia. Photo / Christopher Adams
Zip-lining was among the many adventure attractions in Colombia. Photo / Christopher Adams

From a rickety launch platform a cable stretches across the void - a lush, deep gully planted with coffee and banana trees.

I'm the first of our group to be summoned up its steps by the instructor and clipped on to a line strung beneath a pulley.

This isn't your average flying fox and it quickly dawns on me that zip-lining, like bungy jumping, is an activity requiring a fair amount of submission. You can't dwell too heavily on the consequences of a catastrophic equipment failure. All you can do is hope for the best and let go.

The instructor commands me to sit down in my harness and seconds after leaving the platform I'm nearing full speed; the pulley's screaming and the plantation's passing as a green blur far beneath my feet.

At the landing site on the other side of the gully, another instructor starts furiously waving a yellow piece of cloth - my signal to hit the brakes.

But I don't have any brakes, as such.

My right hand, protected by a thin leather glove, provides the only means to slow my quickening descent and as I try to grasp the cable the friction burns my skin.

I let go and come in for a hard landing.

We're at El Bosque Del Saman, an eco-lodge in Colombia's Zona Cafetera - one of the world's most important coffee growing regions that's also an increasingly popular tourism destination with a range of adventure activities on offer, including mountain biking, hiking and paragliding.

In addition to the series of zip-lines that criss-cross the gullies, the lodge offers educational tours of the surrounding plantations.

You wouldn't really visit the Zona Cafetera, a mountainous area west of the Colombian capital, Bogota, for its three main towns - Pereira, Armenia and Manizales - which are quite industrial.

As we pass through Armenia our guide, Juan Diego, says the town tends to comes to life on the weekends, when the farmers arrive to hit the bars.

In 1999, much of the town was destroyed by an earthquake that killed more than 1000 people.

Juan Diego says Armenia, which has a perplexing abundance of tyre retailers, is still recovering from the disaster.

Although the towns may be a bit underwhelming, the rural areas of the coffee region are stunning.

On the morning after our zip-lining adventure we're driven just over an hour east to Selento, a small town nestled in verdant mountains with an economy focused largely on trout and coffee farming.

The low wooden buildings along its main street, housing restaurants and cafes, are a good example of the traditional Paisa architecture of the area.

But we don't get much time to soak up the sights, as we're swiftly loaded into the flat bed of a four-wheel drive and driven up a bumpy road to a mountaintop high above the town.

At the summit, a mist has rolled in and the temperature seems to have dropped by about 5C.

Hopping on mountain bikes, we begin our descent, the first part of which is pretty straightforward on a four-wheel drive track.

Then our guide instructs us to veer off on to a single track that winds down through pine forest.

As the drops get steeper and the ruts deeper, we realise this terrain is not really meant for complete amateurs.

The forest soon opens into steep, grass-covered farmland and the track gets even more difficult, switching back and forth down the mountainside.

Negotiating one of the tight bends, my bike's spongy front suspension catches me off guard and I go flying over the handlebars, landing on a spiky tree stump.

Mountain biking into the Cocora Valley. Photo / Christopher Adams
Mountain biking into the Cocora Valley. Photo / Christopher Adams

I pace around in circles, groaning and swearing, trying to walk off the pain.

Moments later, one of my companions goes for a similar Superman dive over the front of his bike.

We decide to take a breather, which is a good move as it gives us some time to take in the scenery, which has become breathtaking.

Trails of mist hang off the steep ridgelines, from which sprout the tallest palm trees I've ever seen.

At well above 2000m in the Andes, they're not the kind of vegetation you expect to see.

Wax palm trees - the world's tallest variety of palm, growing to up to 50m - are native to the Cocora Valley, into which we're descending.

Colombia's mountainous scenery is breathtaking. Photo / Christopher Adams
Colombia's mountainous scenery is breathtaking. Photo / Christopher Adams

Following a couple more exciting trips over the handlebars, we're picked up at the bottom of the trail and driven deeper into the valley to a restaurant famous for the locally farmed trout it serves.

It's a public holiday and the place is heaving; a singer is belting out salsa classics while gyrating rhythmically behind the microphone.

Following lunch, the next activity on the agenda is horseback riding - something I admittedly haven't been looking forward to.

They're not my favourite animals, as I've never really got over the experience of being bitten by a psychotic mare when I was five.

By the time I'd finally got over that incident, at age 11, I found myself on a horse that wouldn't stop bolting.

The time comes to face my demons once again.

Each step the horse takes makes me wince at first, but I eventually managed to surrender to the experience and relax a bit as we ascend a bolder-strewn path through the forest.

I preferred the bike.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN flies six times a week from Auckland to Santiago and on to destinations throughout South America.

Further information: See colombia.travel/en.

Christopher Adams travelled courtesy of LAN and Proexport Colombia.

- NZ Herald

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