The Coffee Zone
The coffee triangle is in the heart of Colombia and there are several small towns in the region where you can take in the small town vibe, the stunning scenery and obviously, the coffee. I immediately associate any coffee grower to have the whole Juan Valdez thing going on, complete with a little mild mannered donkey by his side, obediently toting his beans and although there aren’t white-brimmed hat coffee farmers lurking around every corner, the area exudes that farm town feeling, the air smells crisp and fresh, livestock are grazing on the surrounding rolling hills, and the further you walk down the dirt paths the more farms and plantations you’ll stumble upon. You’re more connected with nature in a place like this and there is an amazing sense of peace that comes with it. In a place like this I’m always getting up earlier, breathing deeper and feeling calmer; it’s a wonderful contrast from city exploring.
As usual I found myself on a bus, in the early morning hours, this time traveling south on the windy roads from Medellin to Salento. The trip was going to take most of the day, we had an early start so I curled up and tried to sleep for as much of the six hour ride as I could. Towards the end of the journey our driver thought he would “do us a favor” by dropping us off on the main road near the exit for Salento then telling us quickly in Spanish (which I don’t speak: Note, learn the language before going to the country) to hail another bus from the other side of the road and he sped off as soon as we grabbed our bags. Without the schedule of the next bus we made our way across the highway hoping that another bus to Salento would come our way. After what felt like an eternity, a small bus with a paper sign flapping in the windshield “Salento” drove by, my hands flailing about above my head hoping it wasn’t too full so the three of us could hop on. We crammed into the van-sized shuttle, standing room only for what I was praying would be a quick ride. The road was sinuous and as we serpentined downhill I gripped the handrail, white knuckled as to not knock the little old man behind me over with my backpack. I envisioned the rickety door to the bus flying open, the old man tumbling out, rolling down one of the many verdant roadside hills and disappearing into the lush landscape below.
Thankfully we made it safely to town, the old man survived the ride and so did I. The town was basically a few streets of restaurants and shops and the square was full of colorful Antioquia colonial style architecture.
Because of the conditions of the local dirt roads all of the “taxis” are Jeeps so we hailed one up to our hostel & an eco-farm, La Serrana and the view at our accommodations made the crazy full day drive worth all the effort.
Enveloped by the Andes Mountains, Salento is visually stunning. The rolling hills and farms provide for an inspiring view and it’s no wonder that this is a frequent stop on the backpacker trail through Colombia. The area is full of outdoor activities so you can take in the sights, go horseback riding or hiking to the Cocora Valley where you can see the world’s largest palm trees, and most importantly, touring coffee farms.
Colombians know their coffee. This particular region only covers 1% of the country but is responsible for over half of the production of Colombian coffee. Taking a tour of one of the many farms is a must while in Salento. We headed to visit Don Elias, a family run finca that offers tours of their coffee farm, from baby plant to brewed cup. We followed the small wooden signs down the dirt road, deeper into the undulating farmland. You walk down a long pathway to Don Elias’ farm, lined with banana trees then arriving at the family home. An older man sits in a chair, his tan, weather-worn complexion partially hidden under the brim of his white, dirt tinged hat, waves to us from the porch and a dog rolls out of the dusty path to our feet to greet us.
The grandson Carlos took us on a tour of the property and my lack of Spanish I initially thought would make this an interesting experience. My friend would be loosely translating and we would try and piece everything together. I’d ask him a question, he’d ask Carlos then explain to me what he said and so on. This is how the first part of the tour went until Carlos, in basically perfect english, turned and answered a question I had asked. He was shy about speaking english but ended up giving us an amazing tour, answering all of our questions and explaining the process eloquently.
The cherries contain the two “coffee beans” that you can pick, squeeze the two seeds out, and suck on the sweet, raw bean. Here all of these are picked by hand and then taken back to a machine that separates the outer skin from the coffee bean inside.
Once the beans are separated they soak and are then dried for several days to weeks depending on the climate in a bamboo drying house. You can tell the quality of a bean by if it sinks or floats in the soaking process and also by how long it takes to dry them properly.
After the drying period is complete they are then roasted the traditional way, in an old metal pot over an open flame for about an hour and the finished product is a dark chestnut color with the bitter, warming smell that we are familiar with. Once roasted we got to grind up the fresh beans ourselves and Don Elias himself brewed us up two cups to sit and enjoy.
Confession: I don’t drink coffee. I love the smell of it, I love the vibe of a coffee shop, but I don’t drink it. So after our tour I sat down and had my second cup of coffee ever and it was delicious. It was fragrant and tasteful without being too strong or too caffeinated. I see what all the Starbucks addicts makes such a fuss about, except I had the fortune of experiencing a truly fresh, organic, quality coffee. It was a warm and wonderful end to our day.