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Women on the Road

A Delectable Visit to the Colombia Coffee Region

16 December 2017 - A year ago, Colombia signed a peace pact with its largest guerrilla group and for the first time in decades, the country is no longer listed as one of the scariest places on earth. Yes, beaches and rainforests and street art and Botero but... the real reason that drives thousands to brave tiny planes and huge mountains is a little red or brown bean: Colombian coffee.

Is this the best coffee in the world?

Coffee is an enormous industry: we drink 2.25 billion cups of it each day worldwide.

I've been a lifelong coffee drinker. My father was Turkish and I was barely a few years old when he started dripping some super-sweet Turkish coffee onto a saucer for me to taste (they did things differently then!)

I graduated (not surprisingly) to outright coffee addiction. I drink up to ten cups a day, and I drink it in a variety of ways, from espresso to French press to filter and even capsules - pretty much anything but instant. It's what ensures a gourmet meal goes down perfectly or turns a sleepy afternoon moment into energy.

So yes, I love a cup of great coffee.

And I'm not the only one.

This is what the world's coffee consumption looks like. By Bamse [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Funny thing is, in many coffee-exporting countries, what is sold abroad often tastes better than what you drink within the country itself.

In Nairobi recently, my hotels contained sophisticated coffee-makers and great Kenyan coffee. In Colombian hotels, with a few notable exceptions - instant coffee and boiling water.

Until recently, you could taste better Colombian coffee in New York than in Bogotá or Medellín.

But all this is beginning to change.

There's a move afoot to involve Colombians more in their nation's coffee. They certainly drink plenty of it, including the rough "tinto", a sour, boiled concoction I try to avoid. Colombians need to love their coffee so much they keep more of it at home.

Innovative cafés are popping up throughout Bogotá, Medellín and other cities, teaching consumers about the best Colombian coffee, how to savor it, how it is farmed and where it actually comes from.

In the countryside, coffee fincas are sprucing up their bright wooden frames.

And in the country's remotest corners, farmers are beginning to explore coffee exports as a means of pulling themselves out of poverty and forgetting five decades of conflict.

But back to the brew.

What makes Colombian coffee so exquisite?

Many experts say Colombia comes close to having the world's best coffee, surpassed only by Ethiopia and Kenya. To Colombians, their country ranks at #1.

But what specifically makes coffee from Colombia so special?

According to Karen Attman, a local coffee expert and author of Permission to Slurp: The Insider's Guide to Tasting Specialty Coffee in Colombia, factors include altitude, which at 3,000 - 7,000 feet (between 920 and 2133 meters) is ideal for Arabica beans, the most widespread in Colombia; the well-drained organic soil; and just the right amount of rain and sun.

Colombia also has a second growing season (in some microclimates even a third), so it has an edge on other coffee-producing countries, especially among South American coffee growers.

Where coffee is grown - often on steep hillsides - is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

On the plus side, it means much of the coffee industry is artisanal, with beans picked by hand because machines can't tackle the mountains. This also provides a purer crop. Because machines pull in everything along with the beans - like leaves and branches - sorting takes place afterwards (and sometimes the sorters don't get it all!) The downside, if you can call it that, is quantity. Colombia often can't compete with the mega-farms of, say, Brazil, where huge machines can scrape every last bean off the flat land.

For SeriousEats.com, "Colombian coffees are most often what folks think of from South America, and rightfully so: The country is routinely listed among the top three coffee-producing countries in the world. The classic Colombian profile... brings together a mellow acidity and a strong caramel sweetness, perhaps with a nutty undertone."

If it sounds as complicated as wine-tasting, that's because it is.

Who knew there was so much to experience when drinking? As Karen Attman explains in her book, the fragrance and aroma will hit your first, before the slurp, which extracts the flavor. You'll then move on to the body - or how it feels in your mouth, the acidity, the sweetness, the aftertaste, the balance... And each of these can be broken down into various elements. In fact, I've been told that coffee has 800 characteristics, whereas wine has only 400. Did I say complicated?

Colombia's niche: specialty coffee

Like wine, the coffee growing regions of Colombia matter. You can trust a wine from Burgundy or Bordeaux, just like you can trust coffee from Tolima or Quindío or Antioquia. Again like wine, the specific farm coffee might come from makes a difference.

I visited El Placer, a small coffee finca which only picks the perfect shade of its mature red berries for its specialty coffee (the greener beans go into the more commercial blends). Here's a quick Facebook Live I made while I was there.

Its manager, Juan Carlos Ortega, is a fourth-generation coffee farmer who applies the strictest environmental and human rights standards to his coffee farm, especially since picking coffee is a backbreaking job that requires fighting through thick plants and reaching high up for the coveted beans.

"Some 80% of the world is in a hurry! The difficulty I have is explaining to someone who drinks convenient coffee from a pod or instant powder how much work actually goes into picking and preparing the beans, how it is a family affair," Juan Carlos said.

Colombia coffee farmsMy Juan Valdez moment...

What's fascinating about visiting a coffee farm - in addition to finding out how coffee is grown, of course - is discovering how the actual farmers think we should be drinking it.

I learned plenty.

I learned that cooling down the beans after roasting reduces their bitterness; that water should be kept in a ceramic jug before use - it helps rid it of chemicals used to purify water; that when using a filter you should make sure to drip the water directly onto the coffee, not on the filter. And of course - to my dismay - that sugar is a no-no.

TIP: Make iced coffee by freezing coffee in an ice tray so when it melts, no extra water seeps into the coffee or, use less water to make the coffee stronger so that when you add ice cubes, the taste isn't diluted.

The Colombian coffee belt, or Eje Cafetero

Colombia makes it convenient: most of the coffee farms that allow visitors are located relatively near one another, in the coffee-growing region known as the Eje Cafetero, or coffee axis.

A great place to base yourself while you tour the region is Salento, probably the most popular town around, with its bright houses and typical colonial feel. Most of the buildings have been turned into cafés, restaurants, souvenir shops and artisan's workshops. It's pretty, but almost too pretty, even under the heavy rain that poured when I visited.

| RECOMMENDED HOTELS IN SALENTO: Real Salento (in the center of town) and La Serrana (if you're looking for a peaceful haven in the countryside)

Typical of the houses in the center of Salento, in Colombia's coffee region
Trout and giant patacon - twice-friend plantain, the specialty of Salento

About half an hour away from Salento (with erratic public transportation) Filandia is another lovely colonial town which doesn't see as many tourists and which is, as a result, more authentic. It has the same bright houses, many of them still being painted up. But certain slices of life have been maintained - an electrician's shop, a hardware store, the kinds of services that tend to disappear once a town is taken over by tourists. And of course, plenty of cafés.

If you only have time for one of the two towns, I'd be a rebel and pick Filandia, although they're both lovely. I just wish a ray of sunshine would have poked through during my visit to both.

RECOMMENDED HOTELS IN FILANDIA: Hosteria de Mi Pueblo, right in the center of town

Houses in Filandia, Salento's almost twin

Down a picturesque winding road through plantations and fields sits the mystical Cocora Valley. Cocora is home to the wax palm, which can rise to 70m (200ft) and exists nowhere else. If you're feeling adventurous you can ride horseback or walk leisurely down the hill to a nearby river (make sure you're ready for lots of mud). If you're more athletic, a four-hour hike around the mountain will take you up 3000m and back down again. 

A quick word of warning here: if you're not used to these altitudes, take it easy. By now I'd been in Colombia nearly a week and I was still breathing hard. Time for another coffee.

Colombia coffee region - Cocora ValleyA misty morning in the Cocora Valley

Once you've toured the Colombia coffee region, the coffee trail will inevitably take you back to Bogotá, ready to learn all about the fine art of coffee tasting (or cupping, as it's called).

Karen Attman's Bogotá Specialty Coffee Tour will take you to some of the capital's great cafés and their workshops, where "cuppers" are trained (they become the coffee equivalent of the sommelier). You'll also learn about the history of coffee in Colombia and why coffee is so important to Colombian families.

And you'll be able to buy coffee beans to take home.

Coffee tasting in BogotaLearning about coffee characteristics on my specialty coffee shop tour in Bogotá

A livelihood from coffee

Somewhere up in the mountains of the province of Tolima - where many swear the best-tasting coffee comes from - lies the small town of El Chaparral, quaint and compact at the end of a muddy dirt road. An even muddier trail leads out of town, narrowing until only a single vehicle can pass. The valley far below adds unnecessary excitement to what by now no longer deserves to be called a road. Donkeys, horses, and the occasional car or bus creep along, the only links between distant towns and the coffee farms clinging to the mountainsides.

After what feels like days but is only a terrifying hour or two, the hamlet of Las Hermosas comes into view. Brightly painted houses mirror the joy Colombians seem to be able to exhibit whatever the circumstances. Behind the colorful walls lie modest homes, often occupied by extended families sharing a single bathroom and an open kitchen. They aren't destitute by any means, but they are poor. Their children often don't make it past primary school and any illness had better not be serious.

Until the 2016 peace deal, this area was dominated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, a presence the coffee farmers had become accustomed to. Regular confrontations pitted the FARC and the military against one another. Weapons decided what entered and left the valley, and all products - like coffee - were taxed. Now that many of the FARC have been demobilized under the peace agreement and have returned to civilian life, the coffee farmers, many of them women, see a window of opportunity.

Right now, most of their coffee earnings go to middlemen and they're left with barely 10% of their coffee income. By eliminating intermediaries and selling directly to the consumer, farmers hope to increase their income by up to 700%. It's not a done deal but they're getting help from several charities and international agencies that are helping them connect directly with those of us who want to buy Colombian coffee right from the producer. 

Juan Carlos of El Placer faces the same dilemma - finding a way to get around the middlemen and go straight to the consumer, a new approach in Colombia and still a work in progress.

El Chaparral is a sleepy rural town, best known for agriculture and cattle. Photo Adelmo Trujillo - Wikimedia Commons via CC3.0
houses of coffee farmers in TolimaOne of the colorful painted houses of the coffee farmers in Las Hermosas.
coffee plantations on mountains of TolimaSmall coffee plots cling nearly vertically to the mountainsides of Tolima

As I head back down the mountain several people are blocking the way.

A bus is stuck.

It broke an axle and can no longer move forward or backward. With no other way off the mountain, I - and everyone trying to get off the mountain - will have to turn back to one of the coffee planters' houses and ask for overnight hospitality (which is given instantly, by the way).

A group of us is taken in by a coffee farming family. The rains have washed out the electricity, and our cellphones are soon dead (not that it matters since signals can't get through the mountains). We have no choice but to talk to one another. As evening passes, we enjoy word and guessing games together - writers, drivers and farmers. I can take part, since I was brought up in Spain and speak Spanish. As the stars play hide-and-seek with the clouds, we share snippets of our lives. I'm reminded that our host family is poor, and that hours of backbreaking work will only yield a few dollars.

Their generosity is all the more precious.

Mountain roads in coffee region of Tolima ColombiaThe bus has been on this road overnight... it may well be here several more days

Colombia's coffee has always been well known but the country is trying to elevate its little beans into an art form.

Now that peace is taking hold and a visit to Colombia is no longer a daredevil act, a lot of good can come from this renewed attention to coffee.

Travel resources for the Colombia coffee belt

Getting to the Colombian coffee triangle

Realistically, there's only one way to come here and that is to fly from Bogota or Medellin. Several airlines connect big cities with Pereira, Armenia and Manizales, your jumping off points.

How to visit Colombia's coffee region

You can piece it together independently by making hotel reservations in the region and signing up locally for guides. For example, in Salento, where tourists are plentiful, everyone will offer you coffee tours or hikes.

  • If you're not comfortable visiting the region on your own, book a pre-organized tour with a group.
  • If you'd like something more independent and have issues with the language, you can book a private tour with Adriana, who is from the coffee region but spent enough time in the USA and Canada to speak excellent English. You can contact Adriana through her Facebook page or her website. She can organize both the Cocora Valley tour and the coffee farm excursion for you (and the coffee finca, El Placer, is worth it!)
  • Do something out of the ordinary - view the coffee region from above in a hot air balloon.
  • For a quick but thorough overview of Colombia coffee, Permission to Slurp by Karen Attman of Flavors of Bogotá is required reading. 

Where to eat and stay in Colombia's coffee belt

  • Before visiting El Placer, Adriana took me to Santa Rosa de Cabal (where you can try the thermal baths before eating). I tried a traditional sancocho soup at La Pasteleria, an intriguing restaurant located in what used to be the town's original church
  • In Salento, you must try the trout with giant patacón (plantain) at Donde Laurita.
  • In Filandia, try Donde Helena if you'd like a change from Colombian fare - it's fusion and it's delightful.
  • Traveling on the cheap? Here's Erin's hostel guide to the coffee region - she lives there!

And please - don't forget your travel insurance before you go! I use World Nomads whenever I travel. Click here to get a quick personal quote.

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