Wake up and smell the coffee – Colombia’s Zona Cafetera

3 Mar

Growing truly exceptional coffee is one of the things Colombians do best. In fact their coffee is considered to be amongst the greatest in the world so we fully expected to be left wide-eyed and shaky with the amount we intended to drink in the country’s renowned bean growing region, aptly named Zona Cafetera.

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At the heart of the area, we chose the small and beautifully located Salento as our base to explore from. Founded in 1850, Salento is one of the oldest towns in the region and is a very quaint place.

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Built around a central plaza, the cobbled streets filled with craft shops and the brightly painted buildings with shutters were some of the nicest we’d seen on our travels to date.

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We instantly felt our already good moods go up a notch looking at the intense reds, yellows and blues splashed around town. Even the mini-market and bank were decorated with a mixture of vibrant colours.

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But it wasn’t coffee beans which caught our attention on our first day in town…it was beer! It happened to be a long weekend in Colombia and important football (soccer) World Cup qualifiers were being played. Many locals had the day off work, and, around the plaza, beer tents and food stalls had been set up. Big TV screens in the beer tents were showing a live game when we arrived and by coincidence it featured Colombia versus Chile.

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The Colombians are mad about football and would watch it every hour of the day if they had the chance, but the atmosphere when we arrived was very downbeat as Colombia were losing 3 – 0 at half time and even though they only needed a draw to go through, their chances weren’t looking good against a strong Chilean side. The second half commenced and of course, to show our support, we bought some beers. Then the unthinkable happened…Colombia scored a goal, followed by a second – and then they only needed one more to qualify for the biggest tournament on the planet.

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The atmosphere had gone from head in hands depression to all out carnival in the space of 30 minutes. When the final goal eventually came, it was followed by a nail-biting wait until the final whistle blew and the match was over. The crowd went crazy. Hugging, kissing, singing, dancing, setting off fireworks, honking car horns (after getting back into them after drinking plenty of beer!) and generally rejoicing. We were in deep by this point – we were on beer number three already so there was only one thing for it…PARTY!

The following morning our heads were a little bit thick and fuzzy after the night before so we devised a cunning plan that was almost certainly fool-proof – a decent breakfast, a long walk and a visit to a coffee finca to indulge in several large cups of the brown stuff.

THE place for breakfast in Salento is aptly named ‘Brunch’ and it was so good we actually went back three times during our stay in Salento. It’s an American-style diner so it’s not the place for traditional Colombian food but if you’re looking for big portions of quality home-made food and endless refillable coffee, this is it!

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They have an extensive breakfast and lunch menu but our eyes were instantly drawn to scrambled eggs, crispy bacon and hash browns served on thick cut, toasted granary bread. Ding dong! In a cafe where they actively encourage you to graffiti the walls, we got arty and left our mark.

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Feeling slightly more chipper but rather full, we decided to walk the 5 kilometres to Finca Don Elias where we’d take a coffee tour. It wasn’t necessary to pre-book so we set off at a leisurely pace. Getting there was all down hill and we hoped that our injection of caffeine would help to propel us back up later. The walk took around forty minutes along a quiet country road where the only traffic passing was old World War 2 jeeps used as shared transport (more about them in the next post!)

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The views were a picture of rural bliss – the undulating mountains dotted with coffee farms. With 45 million inhabitants, Colombia has the third largest population in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico, but with an estimated 75% of those people living in the cities, the countryside is left to flourish. Colombia has more than 130,000 types of plants, a third of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Scientists estimate that there could be 2000 plants still undiscovered in Colombia, some with potential for medical cures. There are over 500,000 coffee plantations in Colombia, most of them small farms of 5 hectares or less like the one we were en route to see.

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When we arrived at the Finca, we were really impressed by the intimacy of the set up. We were greeted in person by the characterful owner Don Elias who was dressed all in white and wearing a Panama hat and who also led the tour. He was a third generation coffee maker and it had been the only life he’d ever known. He was keen to impress how much he enjoyed his work and even though his farm would never make him rich he seemed to have everything he needed. Even though he was getting on a bit, his recipe for good health was five cups of fresh coffee per day.

For 5,000 pesos (2.5 USD) we had a private tour of the grounds to learn about the whole process – planting a coffee bush, harvesting, shelling, drying, roasting and grinding. We were fascinated to learn that Colombia is the World’s third largest exporter of coffee after Brazil and Vietnam and it earns the economy in the region of $2.5 billion USD per year. Unfortunately, we had learned the hard way that it’s difficult to get a good cup of coffee in Colombia as the best beans are all sent overseas to America and Europe and your average Colombian has no idea how to make a good cappuccino. Our saviour was Juan Valdez, a Colombian coffee chain with over sixty cafes in Colombia, the US and Spain. It was undeniably Westernised and the prices were inflated but we at least knew we’d get decent coffee and tasty cakes.

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Our tour started in the fields looking at where the beans came from. New bushes are planted roughly every eight years and left to mature in the rich volcanic soil. Frequent rain in the region encourages the white flowers to flourish, and the green beans which are formed ripen slowly in the sun.

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As the climate is stable and warm the beans can be grown at a higher elevation where maturity takes longer but guarantees a fine flavour.

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There are two seasons for picking throughout the year and workers are brought in during these times to hand-pick each bean. The beans are then soaked for 24 hours and put through a machine to remove the hard exterior.

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Inside, the bean is slimy so it is soaked again before being placed in a glass house to dry out. The flavour comes from roasting the bean until it turns that dark, creamy colour we all know so well.

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The Arabica beans which Colombia is famous for, were brought from Venezuela by Jesuit priests in the eighteenth century, and Don Elias explained that he exclusively grew Arabica beans for export and other beans for local consumption.

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We knew that we would never look at a simple cup of coffee again – there was so much that went into every cup.

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With a cheeky glint in his eye, we knew tasting must be Don Elias’s favourite part of the tour and he asked if we’d like to try a cup. Being British, we tend to like milk in our coffee but we didn’t want to offend by diluting this thing of beauty. The taste was strong but smooth and not bitter at all. It really couldn’t have been any fresher.

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We sat chatting and sipping coffee until another couple of people came in for a tour. Don Elias bid us farewell but not before a firm hand shake, well wishes and a request that we think of him the next time we have Colombian coffee in our own country. We knew we’d never underestimate the amount of work that goes into each cup again and our memories of the tour would make even the most bitter coffee sweeter.

4 Responses to “Wake up and smell the coffee – Colombia’s Zona Cafetera”

  1. joanna March 6, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    I think we simply HAVE to visit here when we’ll be in Colombia! If not for the java then definitely to see “your mark”! Love it guys! Great post!

    • latinchattin March 11, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

      It’s your challenge to find ‘our mark’ in Brunch whilst drinking endless refills of fresh coffee!

  2. Brent Richards February 9, 2017 at 12:41 am #

    Nice website – nice photos

    • latinchattin February 11, 2017 at 7:43 pm #

      Thanks for your positive comments Brent – really appreciate you taking the time to visit our website. Enjoy your travels!

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