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Colombian Treasures

Colombia is an awe-inspiring, lush, and beautiful country; however, tourism is nearly nonexistent in the interior. For decades, the country has been plagued by civil war, a corrupt government, and ever-present guerillas that place everyone in jeopardy.

My husband and I are Americans living in Colombia. Our life is usually confined to the company compound where my husband works as an engineer. As Americans who came from a land of freedom and—until the September 11 attacks—security, we did not know the threat of living close to danger. Colombia is considered the third most dangerous country in the world.

It is also one of the most gorgeous countries in the world, with many natural wonders and an intense beauty that can take the breath away. The mountains are spectacular; the seacoast is splendid, and the cities are ancient and exotic.

Fortunately, we live in a secure part of the country, but even so we can only travel by car within an approximately a 3-hour radius. Within these restraints, however, we have traveled to many memorable off-the-beaten-track places that have afforded us relaxation, good food, good fun, Colombian culture, and local color.

Colombia is of course the home of Juan Valdez and Colombians are well aware of the importance of this and have created a coffee park as a tribute to their national drink. Parque del Café (www.parquenacionaldelcafe.com), a former plantation, offers an historical walk through Colombian coffee history. Fast-food restaurants on the grounds compete for customers by offering North American food along with typical Colombian food. As we walked through the park we stopped to watch a local troop of young dancers performing traditional dances of Colombia.

At the far end of the park, which can be reached by skytram or on foot, is a small amusement park with several rides for children and a roller coaster, which is always packed with thrill-seeking riders. The tram ride across the plantation offers a view of both the park and the surrounding areas.

The cost is nominal—about $15. For more information, contact Parque Nacional del Café; 011-576-752-4175, fax 011-576-753-6095, info@parquenacionaldelcafe.com.

Another pleasant historical place to tour is an old winery/vineyard/hotel called Grajales, about a 2-hour drive from where we live in Pereira—an easy, picturesque journey through small towns and past peaceful haciendas.

After lunch in the restaurant we toured the vineyards, where we were all treated to bunches of sweet grapes, and then into the winery itself. Grajales is still family owned and it produces excellent wine. The bodega (wine cellar) has kegs of wines of all types and ages sleeping in the dark caves.

The hotel is old and elegant. Several packages are available for visitors. Many include three meals, and all are very inexpensive. The hotel also features a swimming pool, sauna, gym, game room, and recreation area.

In contrast to the coffee park and the winery, Termales (www.turiscolombia.andes.com/termales.html)—a natural spa of hot springs high in the mountains complete with another old hotel, a swimming pool, and a hot springs waterfall—offers an afternoon or a weekend of hot, steamy pleasure to soothe the aching muscles of body and mind.

To reach Termales we drove up a twisting mountain road bordered by thick vegetation, colorful haciendas, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts. Termales is located at the edge of the rain forest and has the look of Jurassic Park. The price for a one-day entrance to the pool is only about $4.

A walking tour to the top of the mountain is part of the appeal of Termales. The hotel’s staff masseuse gives intensely relaxing full-body massages and tension-easing facials for $5.

The old Colombian charm combined with the cold of the mountains and the delight of a hot mineral swim will warm your body as well as your spirit.

All of these places are short driving distances from Pereira, reachable by a short flight from Bogota, Medellin, or many coastal cities. All Colombian websites are in Spanish.