Colombia. The world’s best place for coffee and caffeine tourism
Colombia is a coffee lover’s dream destination. Photo / 123rf
As a coffee-drinking nation, Kiwis will be in their element traveling through Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, writes Julia Hammond.
I’m sitting in a tiny little cafe nursing my first latte of the day. Velvety smooth, intense yet creamy, it glides down. To find out why Colombian coffee is so delicious, I headed to the Zona Cafetera, where coffee is such an integral part of the landscape that UNESCO has included it on its World Heritage List.
It hasn’t always been so easy to find great coffee here. As recently as a decade ago, most of Colombia’s premium coffee crop was still reserved for the export market. Even in major cities like Medellin and Bogotá, there was no cafe culture. If you wanted coffee, you would follow the local example and order a tinto, served long and black. It was – and is – cheap and absolutely delicious when sweetened with pannel, which is unrefined cane sugar.
But it fell short for connoisseurs, and thus the seeds were sown for the artisanal coffee industry. Former Kiwi Sean Murdoch was one of those pushing for change. When he first came to Medellin, he was tired of inexperienced baristas ruining his flat white. So he opened his own cafe, calling it Hija Mia after his daughter. From him, I learn to look out for shiny beans, evidence that oils have risen to the surface, something that can easily spoil the coffee’s flavor.
Advertise with NZME.
Coffee did not originate in Colombia, in fact it did not reach this part of Latin America until the 18th century. When it finally got around to it, Colombia turned out to be quite suitable for harvest. To find out why, I catch a bus south to a beautiful, verdant landscape where every inch of every hillside is planted with coffee bushes.
Many of the farms that litter this area have been growing coffee for over a century. Over the past decade, many of them have opened their doors to visitors. Some are refined operations with luxurious accommodations and prices to match. Others are decidedly rustic. What they have in common is a commitment to hospitality and a passion for coffee.
The bus drops me off at the side of the road, followed by a short but bumpy ride in a local Willy jeep to the valley floor, where I’ve booked a room at the Hacienda Venecia. Overlooking a lush valley, it’s a lovely place, but admiring it will have to wait as guide Manuela wants to give me a tour of the farm.
Starting with the basics, he explains that there are two types of coffee: robusta and arabica. The smoother, sweeter Arabica is ideally suited to the steep hills of Colombia, thriving in fertile volcanic soils on slopes above 1,200 meters. Because of the gradient and humid climate, which makes them dangerously slippery, the coffee must be harvested by hand, much of it by casual laborers known as andariego. It turns out to be an important part. unlike Robusta plantations where machines strip vast areas, these skilled workers pick only the reddest, ripest coffee cherries, resulting in a higher quality harvest.
Advertise with NZME.
By mid-November, most of Hacienda Venecia’s harvest is already over, so not much is happening. It’s bliss to swing in a hammock while watching the hummingbirds fly by on the balcony and the cheeky peacocks migrate to the poolside sun loungers.
But I want to know more, so I pass Hacienda Posada La Gaviota, a small-scale operation where the harvest is still in full swing. Its gracious owner, Carolina, welcomes me to the simple whitewashed farmhouse her grandmother bought in 1964. The scene is as dreamlike as the one I left behind.
I’m invited to the fermentation house. It smells spicy. the area smells of red wine vinegar as the hard shells decompose. Next, Miguel oversees the traditional washing process. As the coffee beans fall along the chute, the water separates them from their velvety coating and sorts them by size. Then, with a rake, the beans are spread on the floor of the dryer.
After drying, the coffee is packed in large hessian bags, each weighing 40 kg. It takes two men to lift each one off the ground, and I melt into the shadows so they don’t ask me to help. Finally, the bags are placed in the back of the truck ready for market.
At this stage, these high-quality Colombian beans are still yellow-green; they won’t turn their characteristic dark brown until they’re roasted. But when they are, I’ll be in the front row. If you are also a coffee drinker, you should consider doing the same.
Non-stop flights from Auckland to Bogota and Medellin most conveniently travel via Los Angeles, New York or Santiago de Chile.
To get to Zona Cafetera, take a domestic flight or intercity bus to Armenia or Manizales; both are located near coffee farms that welcome visitors. Alternatively, day trips can be arranged from Salento.
For more things to see, do and taste in Colombia, visit colombia.travel/en: