the land and the people of the coffee zone

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The mirador above Salento is a great place to watch the sunset.

I was drawn to the coffee zone in Colombia originally because I wanted to taste real Colombian coffee and see where it was grown.  As it is with most places, once I was there, other characteristics of the place are what impacted me most.  In Eje Cafetero, it is the land that comes to mind immediately when I think of my time there, as well as the people who live in this region.

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The people near Salento (left) and Manizales (right) were friendly and proud to share their homes and livelihoods with visitors.

It was easy to fall in love with Salento, even before I arrived; the view from the bus window as we approached the village was enchanting. This small town near Armenia is a bustling place, night and day. The central plaza is lined with numerous cafes serving patacones, trucha, and a wide variety of delicious fruit.  It’s a popular tourist area, and while I was there, most of these tourists were Colombian.  Colorful refurbished World War II Willys Jeeps take tourists and workers to the parks and reserves outside of town.  Each morning they line the plaza, ready to go at sunrise.  Every square inch is used in these vehicles; during one early morning outing, there were 15 of us sharing the ride.  Later in the day smaller versions of these jeeps are pushed around and around the plaza by men and with kids at the wheel.  Every evening at sunset, people climb the multicolored stairs that lead up to the mirador.  It’s a beautiful 360o view and also a social scene.  Musicians perform at the base of the large cross at the summit, children romp around the adjacent playground, and vendors sell drinks as locals and visitors enjoy the last moments of the day.

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Salento’s cafe-lined plaza has numerous great food options and ambiance.

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Every morning Jeeps line the plaza, waiting to take visitors to nearby natural attractions.

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Mini-Jeeps are pushed around the plaza, providing entertainment for younger visitors.

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On the hilltop overlooking Salento, musicians and other locals congregate to watch the sunset.

A few miles outside of Salento is one of the most unique landscapes that I’ve visited.  La Reserva Natural del Valle del Cocora is named for the 1000s of wax palm trees that grow there.  These trees, the national tree of Colombia and tallest palm species in the world, can reach up to 60m (~200ft) in height.  While many come just to see the palm trees, I did a longer hike through the cloud forest. Many hikers take this trail daily, but few do so at daybreak.  My only companions for the first few hours were the beautiful scenery, vibrant bird life, and one farmer bringing milk into town, on a trail that eventually weaved through the palm-filled valley.  As with most long hikes, the biggest reward was that there weren’t many people around.  Moments spent alone in places this spectacular are indescribable.  As the trail led back to the parking area, the chatter of people increased in volume and as is usually the case, I was happy with my decision to take the less traveled path.

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There were several bridge crossings like this one on the hike through the cloud forest in the Valle del Cocora.

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During the hike, my resting spots were always chosen based on the view. I could have stayed in this particular place for hours.

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Wax palms in the Valle del Cocora tower above the landscape. Every direction provided jaw-dropping views of the tree-studded valley.

On New Years Day, another trail beckoned, this one in the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, outside Manizales.  Our final destination was one the glaciers in the area, on Nevado de Santa Isabel, which stands at 4800m (15750ft).  (Nevado means snow-covered in Spanish; the park received it’s name from the several mountains within the park that are topped with glaciers.)  At the beginning of the hike, we walked through a páramo ecosystem, which is mostly found in the high altitudes of the northern Andes. The spongy ground was covered with a variety of medicinal plants and tall frailejones.

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Frailejones are members of the aster family. Some of these plants stood ~20 feet tall in the páramo in the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados.

Our ambitious group of six hikers and two guides eventually dwindled to two hikers with one guide as the altitude worked its magic on those from lower elevations.  I was thankful for my time in the mountains of New Mexico and the conditioning that living at high altitudes does to a body as I took my first step out onto the ice.  As we had approached the glacier, our guide decided to backtrack to check on some of the folks that had been left behind, so my companion Carlos and I were the only two people on the glacier during our 20 minutes there.

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As we walked closer to the glacier, our group became smaller and smaller, due to altitude sickness. The views were worth every hard earned breath as we ascended to heights above 15,000 feet.

This glacier was very different from the tidal glaciers I had experienced in Alaska three months prior.  It was much thinner and smaller, but still a sight to behold.  And, like many of the glaciers worldwide, this one is receding. It’s estimated that Colombia has already lost 50% of its glaciers, and those that remain are expected to fade into history within the next 30 years.  There were spray-painted numbers on rocks indicating where the glacier had been 2, 5, and 10 years ago. To stand beside the painted numbers and see where the ice had been and where it currently was is a very different experience than hearing or reading about how quickly these systems are changing in books or presentations.

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The glacier on Nevado de Santa Isabel stands just below the mountain’s summit.

We rapidly descended the mountain in order to avoid the approaching afternoon snow and began the bumpy three-hour ride back to town. It was an invigorating start to the New Year and a gratifying end to my first visit to Colombia. It will not be my last.

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Sunlight falls on Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano in the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados as clouds begin to develop. As we descended the trail, none of the nearby mountains were visible, reminding me how quickly things can change in the natural world.

drinking my way through coffee country

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Arabica coffee beans, which are red when ripe (Colombian beans are yellow), make up ~80% of the coffee grown at Finca Don Elias near Salento.

When people think of Colombia, one of the first things that comes to mind is probably coffee.  Okay, for some, it may be conflict and drugs, but let’s stay positive here. While my time in Colombia did not, thankfully, bring experience with the latter, I was able to sample coffee from various parts of the country and to visit Eje Cafetero, the coffee zone.  I assure you that I enjoyed every minute…and sip of it.

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In Cartagena, small cups of tinto and tea are sold on the streets by vendors carrying (left) or pushing carts (right) with color coded thermoses.

Regardless of what town I visited in Colombia, but particularly on the coast, it was not uncommon to hear “Tinto” being yelled from men on the streets.  When I first arrived, I wondered what everyone was drinking out of shot-sized Solo cups.  It was black coffee, or tinto.  Soon I became accustomed to the vendors in different cities, selling tasty coffee and tea from thermoses that they either carried in small boxes or pushed along in carts.

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Café Jesús Martin in Salento serves a rich and pretty cappuccino.

I like my coffee with milk and a touch of sweet (usually honey) when I have a choice.  But in Colombia I learned to appreciate it black as well. Yes, I still had my cappuccinos and cafes con leche, but there were days when I chose to take in the full flavors of the dark drink before me.  Now I’m more apt to have my coffee with milk but leave the sugar out. It is still far from being a purist, but one step closer anyway.

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Jairo Loaiza prepares cafe con leche for a table of customers using a 110-year-old coffee machine at Bar Danubio in Salento

Salento is a sweet little town in Eje Cafetero.  It’s situated in the midst of some incredibly beautiful landscapes (more on that to come in another post) and is a bustling town that thrives on tourism and coffee.  There are numerous cafes in town that have large coffee machines with multiple valves and pipes used to prepare the perfect cup of coffee.  Some are newer and fancier models, but the machine in the Bar Danubio, however, is the real deal.  Jairo Loaiza, the bar’s proprietor proudly pointed to a portrait of his father on the wall when I asked him about the machine and the bar that serves up coffee, beer, and billiards.  His father opened the bar and brought in this machine to Salento 110 years ago.  Half of the room is filled with tables of people drinking coffee.  The other half has half a dozen billiard tables with where local men play throughout the day.  These men are dressed as you see them in Juan Valdez commercials, with the straw hats and striped ponchos draped over their shoulders.  It’s how they’ve dressed in this area for generations, and while much of the younger generation dons sneakers and t-shirts, there are still a lot of men who carry on this fashionable tradition.

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Coffee beans at Finca Don Elias are dried for 8-25 days in a greenhouse (left). The pale colored beans are transformed to deep brown color after they have been roasted over a fire for an hour (right).

A few miles outside of Salento is Finca Don Elias, a family run organic coffee farm (or finca).  Don Elias bought the farm twenty years ago and has hopes that his grandchildren will carry on with the business once he is gone.  All that is here, he planted.  Since it is an organic operation, the coffee plants are among other plants that provide shade, water reserves, and pest control, such as banana, plantain, avocado, yucca, pineapple, and various herbaceous species. It’s a small operation and while some is roasted off-site for export, the coffee that is served and sold at the finca never leaves the property before it is served to visitors.  Seeds are removed from their pods, fermented, rinsed, and dried for eight days to a month in a greenhouse before they are dehusked and roasted over a wood fire for an hour.  It was a treat to see people connected to their land and to the process of delivering a high quality product to their family and visitors of the farm.

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Don Elias (left) drinks six cups of coffee a day. He says he can sleep well as long as his last cup is before 6pm. His grandson Karloss (right) works on the finca and may some day take over production of the farm.

At one point I thought it would be nice to have an extra bag just to carry home coffee from different fincas in the region.  For better or worse, that was not realistic for this trip.  So while I will be savoring only a small batch of the flavors of Colombian brew once I return home, the rich aromas of this place will continue dance in my memories with those of green hillsides and the people that I encountered along the way.

Coffee fincas line the hillsides outside the village of Salento.

Coffee fincas line the hillsides outside the village of Salento.

taking in the sights…and the flavors of colombia

Fruit and fish, plantains and potatoes, corn and coconut…these are some of the treasures of Colombian cuisine.  I thoroughly enjoyed eating my way through the country and seeing different takes on staple foods in each region I visited.

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A food vendor serves grilled meats at the beach in Santa Marta.

It is clear that people here are connected to and through their food.  Street vendors selling fruit, ice cream, meats and arepas were ubiquitous in every town I visited.  In the evenings, as the people congregated in plazas and parques, the air was filled with the melding of aromas from the various vendors.  During the day, fruit vendors sold multiple types of mangoes as well as other fruits, an array of juices, and coconuts.  There’s no excuse to go hungry here….fresh food is at every turn.

Away from the cities, it was not uncommon to see people working the land and livestock to provide food for those in town.  During a hike, I crossed paths with a man bringing milk into town in large stainless steel containers mounted on donkeys.  This was the first of many similar scenes I saw, particularly in the Cafetera area, where many of the coffee farms and dairies are located.  While visiting a small cafe near Villa de Leyva, some friends and I encountered a woman skinning a pig.  It was such a beautiful scene, as light filtered into the room and she methodically processed this animal that would provide nourishment for many.

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A man makes the journey from his finca with milk to sale in town, near Salento.

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A woman processes a pig near Villa de Leyva (left). Mangoes for sale are a common sight on the streets of Cartagena (right).

Fresh fish was plentiful in the coastal towns of Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Cabo de la Vela.  In Cartagena, La Cevicheria served some incredible ceviche with shrimp, fish, conch, and octopus. Even though it was one of the higher priced meals during my time in Colombia, I could not help but return to eat there again my last night in town.  Fried fish served with arroz con coco (coconut rice) and patacones (fried plantains) is a typical meal in coastal areas.  In the Guajira area, we had several of these meals, where the only thing that varied was the type of fish. It was all incredibly tasty.

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Fried fish with arroz con coco near Cabo del la Vela is a meal typical of the area (left). Mixed ceviche in Cartagena was a special treat at La Cevicheria (right).

Arepas and patacones are two foods present throughout the country.  Patacones are fried thinly flattened plantain patties.  While in the coast they are small and served as an accompaniment to a meal, in La Cafetera, they are the size of a large plate and served as vehicles for any number of combinations of meats, cheeses and salsas.  Corn based arepas vary greatly between regions.  In La Cafetera, they resemble thick grilled corn tortillas, covered with meats, cheese, vegetables, or just butter.  On the coast and in the regions around Bogotá, instead of piling food on top of the arepas, they are stuffed with meats, cheeses, eggs, or sweet creamy cheese.  Many of these are grilled as well, but others are deep-fried.  I made it my personal mission to try as many combinations as I could…within reason, of course!

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Arepas near Manizales in La Cafetera are served with butter alongside eggs for breakfast (left). In Santa Marta, a street food vender sells grilled arepas filled with chicken or eggs to hungry beach goers (right).

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Patacones with chicken, cheese, and salsa serves as a filling dinner at the cafe-lined plaza in Salento.