- Ryan Cowden
Introducing Colombia's Coffee Axis
Coffee farms outside of Salento
Originally posted in 2019 on my first blog website, I'm uploading posts to the new blog and highlighting some of the itinerary stops on this December's trip to discover Colombia!
Picture it, 1982, a kid growing up in the US. There is a famous character and commercial that any child of the 70's or early 80's will surely recall. You might have buried it deep in the recesses of the mind, but it is there. Where the hell am I going with this? Nowhere special really, but, it is an appropriate trip down memory lane for this post, click for a reminder. Imagine my surprise in 2010 when visiting to find there is actually a chain of coffeehouses with the name and logo. It was resurrected by the Colombia Coffee Growers Association in the early 2000's. It is also where I am currently sitting as I begin this post, and to some extent, the visuals in that clip, aren't entirely inaccurate!
Quindio, Caldas and Risaralda Departments comprise a region in the Central Cordillera of the Colombian Andes that is more commonly known as the Eje Cafetero or Zona Cafetera. Literally, the Coffee Axis and Coffee Zone, respectively.
Straight from Bogotá it is only 103 miles to Pereira, the principle city of the region, or a 40 minute flight. To drive it, the listed mileage is nearly double that, and looking at the photo above, you can see why! Being the beginning of Semana Santa and the initial emptying out of the cities for the coast or countryside was beginning, I couldn't find a reasonable flight and decided to get the full Colombian experience. Boy, did I get it!
Descending 4,000 feet out of Bogotá is no big deal. Heavy traffic and winding highway? Yep, for sure. Spectacular views? Yep! Then you hit the Magdalena River Valley, with a straight highway for a short span before you begin the ascent back up toward Armenia and Pereira. The Central Cordillera is higher than the other two, and add to that, the route is undergoing a massive upgrade, it is the main route to Cali and the Pacific Coast. The widening and straightening includes what will be one of the longest tunnels in South America. The problem, there was an accident and the road was completely closed, and would be for hours! The driver turned around and followed a two lane, winding highway through a corner of the Magdelena Valley before starting up thru a cloud forest and a high Andean pass (where the rain was now sleet) before heading down to Manizales at 7,000ft and Pereira at 4900ft. The 9.5 hour trip, though absolutely spectacular had become more than 11 and I still had an hour to get to my destination, Salento. In case you are wondering, yep, I sprung for that airfare to go home to Bogotá!
Salento is a small town in the coffee country along the southwest side of Los Nevados National Park, with snow covered peaks well over 5,000m/16,000ft. With the misty, rainy and cloudy season arriving, I never actually saw the snow capped peaks, but there was no shortage of dramatic scenery anyway!
I stayed at a small finca on the road leading out of Salento toward the Cocora Valley. With the steep vertiginous mountain rising behind it toward town and the winding road along the side into the valley, it was perfectly perched with a view both up to the Cocora Valley and down the Quindio River Valley. With these views every morning, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be for a few days!
Transportation around the Eje Cafetero is done in the back of a Willy's Jeep, including up to the Cocora Reserve area. The story goes, that after WWII the US military sold them as there was a massive surplus at the end of the war. They also performed well in this rugged terrain and 70 years later, they are now an iconic feature of the region. So I bought my ticket and headed toward the Cocora Reserve.
Willy's Jeep in Cocora Valley
Heading further up the valley, the green mountainsides are ahead. Reaching the end of the road, you will then follow the trail across several pastures and head to the reserve. The sound of the falling water is ever present as the trail skirts a fast moving stream from the forest. Once in the forest, the lush greenery below the dense canopy makes for a perfect day of hiking! There are quite a few rocky fords, swinging bridges and one "bridge" that was nothing more than a cable strung across the river along the side of three tree trunks bundled together, by barbed wire while some of the embankments required some light climbing, and just a little bit of sliding in the mud! Small paths led off of the trail to the waters edge where I had the falling river, singing birds, a constant din of insects, colorful butterflies and splashes of color provided by tropical flowers. Perfect for quiet reflection!
Near the top, the trail turned hard to the left which would have eventually formed a loop down the other side of the mountains toward the Wax Palm Woods. However the military was doing something in that area and it was blocked off by some of the friendliest military boys ever, saying a big, friendly "hola" o "buenas tardes" to absolutely every single passerby, while armed to the teeth! Instead of looping around, you could climb up to a small retreat perched high above the river, near a small settlement, called Acaima. The highlight here? Warm chocolate and a homemade country style cheese, absolutely delicious! While the other highlight being, lots of flowers and feeders, with TONS of hummingbirds! So close you could touch them, and see their little tongues lapping up the nectar from the feeders!
The descent down the river canyon was just as spectacular as the climb, now getting later into the afternoon, there were far fewer people. After crossing the pastures, near the end of the path there was a trout farm! Absolutely starving by this time, I had a bit of lunch with a nice view and freshly fried trout and patacones! It was entertaining to watch several eagles trying to work out how to get past the screened pools and to the fish, they were pretty fearless in their attempts!
The Bosque de Palmas is a large mountainside pasture with the enormous Palma de Cera (Wax Palms) soaring into the sky. The trees themselves are the main attraction, and getting up close, is a majestic experience itself. On the initial walk into the reserve, you could see them along mountains and interspersed throughout the forest, poking well above the canopy. They are the tallest species of palm tree and are the national tree of Colombia. I'd guess, most of them were in excess of 10 stories in height. Wikipedia lists
the height to commonly reach 14 stories with some recorded at over 20. Yes, that would be a very tall, very thin tree, growing to that height! They are quite a sight to see, and then while atop the ridge of the mountain, you look up and the tops are still well above you, while the trunk plunges to the ground well below you, it sure makes one feel rather puny, just look at the livestock in the photo above! I have no clue how long they take to reach that height, but, I didn't see many small ones, though I did see a sign elsewhere advertising the ability to "plant your own Palma de Cera". The views up here were equally spectacular, especially as the weather was clearly changing further down the valley. Thunder off in the distance, increasing clouds and a cooler breeze, all the while, rain showers were visibly moving along portions of the mountains and valley. Quite the sight to behold and take it all in, but with the wind obviously getting cooler and stronger, it was time to catch a Willy's back to Salento, just in time too!
Palmas de Cera (Wax Palms) dotting the landscape of the Cocora Valley
The next morning, I left early after breakfast for a hike down a country road leading out of town. This one, immediately turned to a rocky, dirt lane once out of Salento. This direction leads steadily downward along the spine of a mountain ridge, past campgrounds, farms, fincas and rural scenery with the occasional views out over valleys on either side of the ridge. Eventually, it takes a precipitous downward trajectory, curving around the mountain sides as it heads into the coffee growing plantations. Every once in awhile, a Willy's would go barreling down the road, maybe a few bicycles or motos, an occasional rider on horseback and for awhile, I had company as someone's adorable and friendly dog rather insistently kept me company along with a spectacular Barranquero bird (photo). The fresh mountain air, birdsong and the sound of cattle or farmers off in the distance plus the sound of the Quindio River were again an absolutely peaceful and perfect way to start the day!
Several farms had overnight accommodation and most advertised tours or tastings, all of which is doable on foot or without a car as Willy's were regularly plying the route for the return back up the mountain. I opted to visit Ocaso, which is the most well known and well trodden of the various farms. The tour started with a primer on the three different species and how the beans grow (two beans per cherry), conditions needed (volcanic, altitude range around 2000-3000m, some shade), and the life cycle and duration, 20 years: 2 to grow and begin to produce; 5 years of production which declines after year 3; cut back to the ground, repeat cycle of 2 and 5 years; cut again, repeat cycle of 2-5 years. End of life, removed.
Mechanization is not really a feature of coffee growing and harvesting. The mountain slopes make this impractical, but, the cherries need to be fully red and ready to harvest, meaning, workers go through at harvest time repeatedly and only pick those that are completely ready. It is here, and also in town, especially later in Filandia, that you see the workers dressed like the Juan Valdez commercial, hats, high boots, woolen ponchos and a basket to put the cherries into!
Most cherries have two beans inside, though rarely some have only one, which is of a different, higher grade. Eventually, after fermenting around 24 hours, washing, drying and sorting, different qualities are identified. Those that have had a particular insect burrow or were damaged, are the lowest grade and are roasted to the point of burning in order to cover for the low quality, you could SMELL the difference in the product. This ends up as the famous Tinto you see all over Colombia served from flasks and thermos'. They said Colombia doesn't export this low grade coffee (or so she said), but the cheap stuff you get (Folger's, Maxwell house and the horrible stuff in most hotel rooms, I'm guessing) is exported by other countries and is marketed cheaply (most notably our guide said, from Vietnam). The highest product at this particular farm for example is fermented far longer than normal, and is dried for 300 hours rather than 48 hours. So of course I bought a small bag of it to try out sometime!
Every morning should be started from a hammock with a view like this! Birds, a rushing river, misty mountains. I of course extended my stay!
Back in Salento, the rest of the day was again spent swinging in a hammock and having a beer after meandering a bit around town, resting for a coffee and reading. So, in general, enjoying the small town vibe! Unlike the colonial cities, both Salento and nearby Filandia have a different decor aesthetic. They have the quintessentially Paisa and Colombian features of wide wooden, overhanging eaves, wooden doors and windows, window boxes with spindle railings, wooden juliet balconies or wide overhanging porches etc. usually set against a baroque flat white wall or maybe a slightly off-white wall.
Vivid scenes around Salento during Semana Santa
But where they both differ greatly, are the exterior wood paneling along the base of the building, much like wainscoting and the VIVID patterns and color palettes on all the wooden elements! In Salento, most buildings have two or three, I can't recall seeing 4 different colors. Filandia, a neighboring town in Quindio, is a little less touristic and more authentic, but is just as colorful as Salento. In both towns, add in hanging baskets, antique coffee bean peelers, wagons, occasional casks and Holy Week décor, it was a vivid overload! Some of the color combinations, well, I thought I was in Willy Wonka's Factory on some trip. But they weren't gaudy, tacky or anything of the sort, they were still in an odd way, subdued if you can believe it. Using just the right color combinations, both towns have an arresting brilliance to them!
Filandia's main square and street life
Ready to plan your own trip to this stunning corner of Colombia or are you interested in going on a guided group tour with Avid Nomad Travel in November, 2022? Click here for more info on the tour or click here to schedule a call to get started on your own customized plan!