But First, Coffee
Mention that you’re traveling to Colombia and there’s a good chance that some people will respond in a questioningly, if not disapprovingly, manner and immediately rattle off words like: kidnapping, drugs, Narcos, Miss Universe, just to name a few. But to those who have traveled there and have been lucky enough to experience its many gifts, the thought of Colombia conjures up very different thoughts: vibrant, beautiful, bold, magical. And COFFEE.
Over the past several years, the lush, verdant, and mountainous Coffee Triangle, known as Eje Cafetero to Colombians and coffee aficionados around the world, has gradually become a must-visit tourist destination. The world’s third largest coffee producer is easy to get to (a quick thirty minute flight from Bogota/sixty minute flight from Cartagena) and safer than ever. Colombia is desperately trying to eliminate its bad-boy image around the world and is hoping to attract more and more visitors. Well Colombia, the Hill’s are here to sing your praises and join Juan Valdez in becoming your international ambassadors. We cannot recommend this beautiful country, in particular its incredible coffee region, enough. I’m happy to promote its slogan: Colombia, The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay. I’ve also come up with my own Colombian slogan: Colombia’s Coffee Region, Not Your Average Joe. I’m hoping to get this trademarked any day now…stay tuned.
The stunning views that sweep across Eje Cafetero:
I don’t want to brag or anything, but T and I have kind of become coffee growing experts. I mean, one would hope that would be the case, given the fact that we went on three coffee farm tours (never mind that I still had to double and triple check online to make sure that I remembered the process correctly–whatever–still sticking to my expert status).
So here’s the gist of the very involved process of growing and producing coffee:
1.) Seeds are planted in large shaded beds. After they’ve sprouted, they’re transferred to individual pots. They are watered frequently and kept in a shaded area. Once strong enough, they are replanted permanently.
2.) Three to four years later (yes, that long!), the plants will produce fruit called coffee cherries–they must be deep red in order to be harvested.
3.) The picked cherries are processed and the skin and pulp are separated. The beans undergo a fermentation process which lasts between twelve and forty-eight hours. They are then dried to eliminate excess moisture.
4.) The beans are milled, which typically involves hulling and polishing, and then graded and sorted by size and weight. The milled beans are now ready to be exported.
5.) Coffee is typically roasted in the imported countries. Levels of roasting vary based on each country’s consumer market.
So there you have it: an over-simplified explanation of a very intricate and long process.
Now on to the coffee farms themselves…
*Don Manolo Cafe: Our first of our three coffee farm tours and by far the smallest plantation. Mr. Manolo has over thirty years of experience in the coffee business and his knowledge and passion for coffee were clearly evident. He and his family welcomed us into their home and were thorough, informative, and enthusiastic while taking us through the entire process of coffee farming and production. We were lucky enough to do a private tour of this farm, which made this experience all the more better. Highly recommend.
Don’s nephew, our wonderful guide
Finally! Reaping the benefits of the fruits of their labor!
*Finca del Cafe: Far and away our favorite coffee farm and tour of the region. Set in the luxuriant Santa Rosa de Cabal’s highlands, the farm’s grounds and views are extraordinary. Similar to many of the coffee plantations in the region, the farm is family-owned and we were fortunate to have Luz, the charming and hospitable “queen” of the estate, guide us through the sprawling farm. We were joined by another couple from New York and really enjoyed how personable this tour was. Like many of the region’s plantations, the farm doesn’t solely grow and produce coffee. They also grow lemons, bananas, plantains, lulo, guanaba (both delicious fruit native to Colombia) and bamboo, just to name a few. We learned that coffee farms in Colombia only sell and export coffee beans, not their other crops. Instead, these additional crops are grown to help provide balance and natural shade for the farms’ star crop, as well as feed the farms’ workers. We loved everything about this plantation and tour–cannot recommend enough!
Our first glimpse of this spectacular plantation:
In the tree house of all tree houses
*Finca El Ocaso: Maybe it’s because this was our third farm and the novelty had worn off a bit, but I didn’t love this tour. Make no mistake: the grounds and views, just like the rest of the region, are remarkable and our guide was knowledgeable, affable, and downright hysterical (not to mention that her English was impeccable). But this farm’s tour was a bit too commercialized and mass-produced for my taste. When we learned that Ocaso does roughly five tours a day, we weren’t surprised. Although our tour was certainly informative and enjoyable enough, it felt rushed and impersonal. I also didn’t love that we were part of a group of about fifteen (yes, admittedly I’ve become a bit spoiled and favor private and small-group tours, but who doesn’t prefer customized tours and individualized attention? No-one, that’s who). So while this plantation was certainly gorgeous and perfectly fine to tour, it just wasn’t my cup of coffee. See what I did there?
Because All Good Days Start with Coffee: Planning Your Trip to Eje Cafetero:
Where We Stayed:
Hacienda San Jose: A charming choice in Pereira, one of the coffee region’s main cities. Rooms are simple, grounds are beautiful, and the restaurant is great. The staff was very helpful in arranging all of our tours and transports. It’s a bit tucked away and not centrally located, which depending on your travel preferences, is either a huge advantage or an annoying inconvenience. After a few days in bustling Bogota, we welcomed its tranquility and seclusion.
Tour Company: This tour company was wonderful and our guide, Juan, was kind, helpful, and extremely knowledgable. We used this company for all three of our days in the coffee region. Highly recommend.
Finca del Cafe (sorry–can’t seem to get the link to work)
*We traveled to Colombia in Summer 2016.
Originally published at dcglobejotters.org on July 27, 2016.