Colombia is known for full-bodied, flavorful coffee accounting for about twelve percent of the world's consumption. The qualities of the coffee beans vary by where they are grown in the country.
* Central cordilleras around Medellin, Armenia, and Manizales, noted as MAM to the coffee world, with Medellin producing coffee with heavy body, rich flavor, and fine, balanced acidity.
* Bogota and Bucaramanga, in the eastern cordilleras, produce some of Colombia's best coffees with heavy body, low acidity, and rich flavor.
The highest quality is labeled supremo. When blended with the next highest quality, extra, the coffee is called excelso. With marketing expertise Colombian coffee is known throughout the world.
Until recently, the only people who would have negotiated this path were stoic farmers in rubber boots, bedraggled army patrols or the occasional band of Marxist guerrillas. This is Colombia, after all, a little-understood country whose very name is synonymous with cocaine traffickers and civil conflict.
But this coffee-growing region tucked into the mountains of central Colombia has rarely known violence. Now, local businessmen and hacienda owners - who for the last decade have made the region a vibrant tourism destination for Colombia's middle class - are trying to lure visitors from abroad by touting the beauty of its rolling hills, venerable coffee farms and row after row of shimmering coffee bushes.
But Colombia is huge, twice the size of France, and offers perhaps more cultural and geographical diversity than any other country in South America.
Its capital, Bogotá, has been transformed in recent years into a cosmopolitan city, full of museums and restaurants.
In many areas of the country, a three-year government offensive has pushed rebel groups back. There are now a few safe pockets beginning to attract foreigners.
Among them is the Eje Cafetero (the "coffee crossroads"), made up of three diminutive states - Quindío, Risaralda and Caldas - about 100 miles west of Bogotá, recognized as the source for some of the world's best coffee. On a slow drive across Quindío, the spectacular panorama bursts into view at unexpected turns. Plump hillsides teem with banana trees or coffee plants, many of them decades old.
This coffee country is an oasis of sorts, a journey back to a more tranquil and traditional Colombia, where most people lived on farms and coffee was king.
The central experience in coffee country is savoring that tranquillity while staying at the haciendas. They are old and creaky farmhouses, virtually all of them painted in bright, whimsical colors, their porches overflowing with orchids and ferns. Many of them are working farms that offer tours of the coffee fields and the surprisingly old-fashioned steps taken to turn a bright red bean into a valuable commodity.
The owners are usually the descendants of settlers who arrived in the 1800's to found small, tight-knit communities and embark on the production of what would become Colombia's economic engine for decades.
Coffee farmers formed cooperatives and commercialized their coffee. The National Federation of Coffee Growers, the organization that markets Colombian coffee, paved roads, built schools, founded a bank and owned an airline. All of this was easy half a century ago, when coffee went for $5 a pound at today's prices and accounted for 80 percent of the country's exports.
The good times, however, did not last and by this decade, coffee prices had tumbled to less than 50 cents a pound. Farmers here turned to bananas, macadamia nuts and berries. And they also turned to tourism, realizing that their haciendas could easily double as bed-and-breakfast inns.
When the harvest takes place - there are two a year, each taking between four and eight weeks - workers go about the painstaking process of picking each bean by hand.
Once picked, the beans are unloaded in a storage room and into a chute, where they drop into the vast, concrete cellar below the hacienda, where the shell and pulp are removed in old heavy grinders. Then it is time to dry them and there are two methods, the old-fashioned and modern. Some beans are simply laid outside in the hot sun, workers stirring them to make sure they are completely dry. Others are placed in a giant oven for 35 hours, where they are left toasted and light as pebbles.
The paradox about Colombia is that while it is known worldwide for the quality of its coffee beans, outside of a few choice restaurants in big cities, Colombians have yet to master the art of making a good cup of coffee. What you usually get is a very light cup, too soft on the coffee to offer much taste. In coffee country, there are no espresso machines or baristas.
Getting around coffee country is easy. Inn owners themselves often offer to drive visitors to nearby towns, or to see the sights. Still, for most people the central attraction is the accommodations themselves. They range from backpacking havens to sprawling all-inclusive resort hotels to the historic haciendas. Coffee plants grow there in gardens, along with oranges and lemons, giving off a pleasant fragrance.
Staying in Columbia you should visit Parque Nacional del Café in Montenegro, a theme park with an educational bent dedicated to the region's coffee culture. There are lovely walking paths through coffee fields, a traditional farmer's house, an Indian cemetery, shopping and dining.