When you mention Colombia to people, they immediately think about its dark history during the drug wars and Pablo Escobar. For those who have visited this incredible country though, a picture of rolling green mountains covered in coffee and banana plants, delicious arepas, and some of the nicest people on earth come to mind. Colombia, sadly, developed a bad reputation in the 90s, but it is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. My visit to Colombia’s coffee region began my deep love affair with this outstanding country.
Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t visit the coffee regions of Colombia, nestled between Bogota and Medellin. People were forced to flee their farms in this area due to the war between the government and drug cartels hiding in these highlands. It was a very unsafe time. Luckily, Colombia and its farming communities have rebounded.
You can now visit towns like Salento, Filandia, and Periera. Tourism has increased to Colombia in the past five years and especially to this beautiful coffee region. We arrived in Salento after a very grueling 30 hours of bus travel across the border from Quito, Ecuador to discover their annual festival going on in town. Local people from the region flooded into Salento for the live music, crafts, and food that happens every first full weekend every January.
We enjoyed delicious local dishes like paisa- a platter of beans, rice, chorizo, pulled pork, fried egg, and avocado, trucha a la marinera- baked trout in a creamy sauce of marinara and cream with shrimp and cheese, and patacones con todo- a crispy fried plate of banana covered in chicken, pork, and beef with mozzarella cheese on top. Meringue, salsa, bachata, and cumbia blared from the stage and the bar tents. People sold crafts and gifts in a line of canopies. We enjoyed people watching and wandering down the brightly colored streets with decorative facades.
Salento is a colorful little town sitting in the hills of the coffee region. We climbed to the mirador to view the rich green hills intersecting and cradling a river. You can hike the Cocora Valley to see more of this rich area. We only had time for the mirador.
We did make sure to visit Cancha de Tejo Los Amigos, the famous bar with a unique Colombian bar game named Tejo. It involves tossing a metal puck at a clay board to hit the metal circle at the center. There’s a white triangle positioned at the top of the circle filled with gunpowder that explodes if you hit it. It’s thrilling and loud. We saw Anthony Bourdain play it on Parts Unkown at this bar, so we had to try it. We were hoping to watch some locals playing, but unfortunately the bar filled up with gringos. It’s still an exciting local game to learn though.
Salento is cheap, full of delicious food, and surrounded by beautiful scenery. We would have stayed longer if we didn’t have commitments to volunteer. A volunteer project arranged through Workaway.info carried us away from Salento and to a non-tourist town, called Mistrato. Here we had the unique experience of helping on a farm high in the mountains above town.
Memo and his wife Martha hosted us for one week on their farm above Mistrato. Memo took over his father’s farm 20 years ago and he primarily grows organic coffee, lulo (a tropical fruit in the kiwi family), organic hass avocados, and bananas. He has 15 cows, two of which he milks every day, and the others are males raised for meat. He employs his brother-in-law, cousin, two indigenous boys that walk six hours each week from their village to work, and two local men to work on the farm.
His farm sits at the very top of the hills overlooking Mistrato and other nearby towns. We awoke everyday to an outstanding panoramic view of the mountains, green with coffee crops. Sometimes the clouds obscured the view and made us feel like we floated in the sky. It rained for at least an hour everyday and usually in the night. When the sky was clear at night, we could see the milky way and all the vibrant constellations.
For us, the week felt like a retreat with no WiFi and just the nature surrounding us. Memo taught us how to milk the cows every morning. Then Martha, an amazing cook, showed us the art of turning that milk into fresh cheese. She prepared the most delicious meals three times a day for everyone on the farm. Her arepas were to die for.
Although I’m not a coffee drinker, I found it so fascinating to be involved in and observe the elaborate process of coffee from bean to cup. People in the US go to Starbucks and buy a fancy cup of Colombian coffee without ever understanding how those coffee beans come to be.
We picked those beans while standing on the side of a steep hillside in the misty rain with a basket fastened to our waists. It was not easy work. Picking the red berries off of every tree would feel easier if you weren’t precariously standing on a slippery steep hill, hard to navigate across. These men pick the beans everyday in the hot sun and pouring rain on a steep hill. We only had to get our hands dirty for one day with mud under our nails and the sticky juice of coffee berries on our hands.
Then they carry the heavy bags of collected berries up the hillside and run them through a machine that presses out the bean and separates the berries to the other side. Afterwards, they collect the beans and carry them up to the roof of the house and spread them out to dry. They must use a hoe to move them around several times a day and flip them so they dry faster.
Once they completely dry, they put them in a large burlap sack and bring them to the coffee collectiva to sell. The Collectiva sends them to the Unite States for further processing and sales. It’s a week long process for every bag of coffee. Think about that next time you enjoy a delicious cup of Colombian coffee.
Also, they drink instant Nescafé coffee everyday on the farm, not the fresh organic beans they grow. There’s a few reasons for this: first, the people can’t afford coffee makers in order to make the coffee they grow. Second, their product is too precious to consume, so they must sell all of it. Third, they aren’t as picky about their coffee as we are in the States.
We also helped plant the avocado trees on the side of the hills. He told us that the trees are very expensive and we have to take great care to make sure they all grow. He also belongs to a Collectiva for the avocados made up of local farmers that make money by the kilo for their avocados and they are then sent to the United States.
It is very eye opening to see how our food is produced. Sadly, farming isn’t a desired lifestyle by many anymore. Venezuela is seeing the repercussions of not supporting farmers now, since they have no food. We talked often with Memo and Martha about how farmers have the most important profession, because without them there would be no food and you can’t eat money. We must support our farmers. It’s a tough lifestyle, but with many beautiful benefits.
When we asked Memo if he could do any other job in life what would it be, he said he wouldn’t do any other job that he is a farmer and has always wanted to be a farmer. It may seem like a tough life, but we need people like Memo who love it to support those of us who love coffee and eating fresh avocados. People like him work hard to support our comfortable lifestyles. He also has the benefits of living in a beautiful place with outstanding views and a peaceful retreat from the ugly world. You can’t beat that!