Colombian Coffee Region
Photo: Jeeps traveling through Cocora Valley © TIM LEFFEL
“HOW MANY OF YOU PUT sugar in your coffee?” asked the barista at Café Jesús Martín in Salento. Five of the seven in our group raised their hands sheepishly. “I don’t blame you,” he answered, surprising us. “Most of the coffee you get is probably so bad that you need sugar to make it drinkable.” With a smile he added, “We’re not going to drink coffee like that today.”
When our perfectly made cappuccinos arrived, carefully brewed with freshly roasted beans from one of the best local farms, we had to admit he was right. This did not taste like the usual burnt black liquid from a corporate coffee chain or — even worse — your average diner. This brew was complex, rich, bursting with flavor and balanced. This is what it tastes like to drink good coffee at its source.
Coffee didn’t start out in Colombia, of course. The beans we now consume by the ton each day originated in some of the oldest human lands in Ethiopia, then made their way to Yemen. Eventually the bushes themselves migrated around the world to appropriate climates. In the 20th century, Colombia became the country most associated with coffee. While it has never been the biggest producer by volume, it has been the biggest quality producer.
Colombian growers aim higher, too, as consumer tastes moved from Maxwell House to craft coffee. More coffee drinkers want niche beans tagged organic, fair trade or single origin — or all of the above. For specialty shops serving complex brews, buying beans by the container ship load is not desirable, so more farmers each year embrace sustainable growing and harvesting practices.
Associations such as the Colombian Small Coffee Growers Association and the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation have worked to raise quality and dampen the big commodity price swings for coffee beans. They’re also educating the next generation, as 55 schools in growing areas implemented an Escuela y Café curriculum where kids ages 12 to 18 learn coffee production techniques. With a combination of classroom training and hands-on work, it gives youngsters who may have turned to crime or revolution in the past a way to make a solid living and find a more stable future.
For someone who loves this beverage, a trip to the Coffee Triangle region of Colombia is like a pilgrimage to Bordeaux for wine lovers. The triangle part of the name refers to the three main cities anchoring the farming areas: Manzanares, Pereira and Armenia. Each offers its own reasons to visit, but travelers often choose to stay in boutique or hacienda hotels in the countryside. Many of the hotels are converted or expanded farm homes such as colorful Hotel Hacienda Combia. This is a great all-in-one experience since Combia sits on the site of a working hacienda and features a walking path with stations explaining the growing and production steps.
Russell Coleman, a British transplant who cofounded the Colombia57 tour company based in Manzanares, is happy to see new hotels popping up to meet demand from more upscale travelers. “Just outside Pereira is the recently opened Casa San Carlos Lodge. The high-end boutique hotel Hacienda Buenavista in Armenia has terrific views.”
Coffee farms appear everywhere you look in the countryside here. There’s even a coffee-based amusement park — Parque Nacional del Café — with rides, a museum and dancers performing a show celebrating coffee harvesting. Most farms open to the public function like wineries. First there’s a tour of the growing areas with their ripening red berries, then the drying areas where the fruit separates from the beans and moisture evaporates. The indoor facilities may involve processing machines, separators and roasting equipment. The climax is a staged tasting process at the end, with insight into the roasting and brewing process. The serving may involve a French press, a pour-over or some other method of extracting the full flavor of the beans.
For scenery, a stop in the stunning Cocora Valley is a must, as much for the experience of getting there as the destination. You hop in a Jeep in the town of Salento and take off toward the clouds. Dramatic green mountains rise up beside pastoral fields accented by towering wax palm trees. In a four-wheel-drive with the top down, it’s easy to feel the wide valley narrowing as you climb past 6,500 feet and into the mist. At the end of the road sits a restaurant with big wooden beams, horse rental stands and hiking trails leading farther into the mountains.
While regular doses of caffeine may not be the best idea for a relaxing vacation, a trip to the coffee region of Colombia provides a chance to drink the good stuff while learning more about the world’s most popular beverage.
Info to Go
The main airport serving the Coffee Triangle of Colombia is El Eden International Airport in Armenia. Spirit Air flies direct from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) three days per week, while Avianca flies here daily from multiple cities via Bogotá (BOG). Taxis, Uber and rental cars are available, but most hotels and tour companies can set up a private car and driver.