Hello Colombia, where the triangle formed by the major cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali grows some of the best coffee beans in the world, thanks to lush volcanic soils and heavy rainfall. A place of great natural beauty, this coffee region is dotted with pretty colonial villages and traditional farms that are increasingly turning to tourism to make a living.
As we grind in his genuine Willys jeep, a popular means of transport along the steep roads here in the Coffee Triangle of the Colombian highlands, Maldonado tells me the story of Juan Valdez. The Triangle spans the departments of Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda in the central mountain range and is one of the most-visited parts of the country. Maldonado picked me up in Risaralda’s busy capital of Pereira and his vehicle is a shared taxi, carrying tourists and other passengers between the local towns, but the figure of Juan Valdez is better known for hauling sacks of coffee through these same mountains on his faithful mule.
“Juan Valdez was born in 1958 on Madison Avenue, in the heart of New York,” he says. “The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (Fedecafé) hired an advertising agency to boost U.S. sales. At that time, only a minority of Americans thought of Colombia as a coffee-producing country. So they designed a character to represent the typical Colombian peasant coffee farmer.”
Maldonado takes a drag on his cigarette as he speaks, looking me in the eye, though I would much prefer he kept his attention on the road. It is a story he has obviously told many times before. “Senior Valdez is an arriero, or mule driver,” he says. “He has a moustache, a traditional aguadeño straw hat and work clothes of mulera (poncho), leather bag and canvas espadrilles. His mule is called Conchita. You will see many men like him still making a living in these hills.”
We are passing steep hillsides where the original forest has been cleared in large swathes to make coffee plantations. The rich volcanic soils and heavy rainfall make the perfect environment for some of the world’s best coffee. Tiny campesino homes line the roadside, supported by plots growing bananas and plantains, while larger fincas are weekend homes for the rich from Bogota or Medellin. Moustachioed men can indeed be seen on the roadside, but the beast of burden now is definitely the locally made jeep, laboring along under large loads of coffee sacks.
Salento is one of the oldest settlements in the area
High above the coffee fields, I can see the 16,500-feet-high peaks of Los Nevados National Natural Park and, as we climb, the altitude starts to affect me. Melting snow from Los Nevados feeds the streams that cascade through the valley. The dramatic views – and Maldonado’s story – help pass the time quickly before I am dropped at my destination, the small town of Salento in the Cocora Valley. Salento is one of the oldest settlements in the area and is filled with two- and three-story whitewashed, red-roofed houses, their doors and window frames painted in bright colors. They join a church, dating to 1870, in huddling around the large palm-shaded square where most of the town’s bars and shops are found. Wide roofs hang out over sidewalks that stand high to keep pedestrians clear of the rain. The bottom of each whitewashed wall is painted in the same colors as the door and windows to hide any splashes, a sign of the region’s heavy rainfall.
Restaurants open out from second-story balconies, giving diners a bird’s-eye view of life on the plaza below. I look into a café, its bare wooden floor worn down by the heavy cowboy boots sported by local farmers. There is a Wild West feel and this is certainly a place people come to for adventure. Quiet now during the week, at weekends Salento comes alive as the gateway to the Cocora Valley when Colombians flee their hot, crowded cities for a taste of mountain air. Hiking, bicycling and horse-riding are popular ways to explore the scenery, with lines of jeeps ready to be hired out or drive to trail ends to pick up tired walkers.
Cocora is an extension of Los Nevados National Natural Park and lies the Acaime Nature Reserve. The higher slopes are blanketed by an almost perpetual fog that gives birth to the Quindío River running through Cocora. Appearing through the mist is the majestic Quindío wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense). Found only in the Colombian Andes, it was declared a national tree in the 1980s to protect it from extinction through over- use in this Catholic country during Palm Sunday celebrations. The palms form a unique landscape of silent giants that have witnessed the passage of time. They have great beauty, extraordinary strength and legendary longevity, taking a minimum of 100 years to reach an average height of around 200 feet. “Why are Quindío wax palms so tall?” runs a local joke. “Because they are looking for the sea.” Acaime Natural Reserve is almost as famous for its 14 different species of hummingbirds.
The inhabitants of Salento seem to live sedately, devoting their time to coffee cultivation, fish farming and looking after tourists with natural warmth. At the Where JuanB restaurant, I enjoy some of the delicious local freshwater trout. Owner Juan B. Jaramillo explains that he wants to bring beauty into the world. “The most important thing is not to offer food but sensations,” he says. He tells me proudly that one of his most successful activities is helping visitors do their bit in conserving the ecology by planting a small palm. Each is numbered so that, after a few years, they can return and see how their tree is growing.
The second most bio-diverse country in the world
“Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world after Brazil,” says Jeff Kurt Hausser Lopez, owner of the Rancho Hotel San Antonio about five kilometres from Salento. “That’s because it’s close to both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and has four mountain ranges and vast plains, as well as thousands of miles of rainforest. Here, we are blessed with the best climate in Colombia, kind people, exquisite food, amazing views, mountains and extreme sports, among many other things.”
It is early and the dew still covers the vegetation outside, making the colors stand out vividly in the morning light. The scene could not be more peaceful. “The biggest misconception most visitors have is the stereotypes of violence and drug culture,” he says. “The coca leaf is still chewed in some rural communities, and coca leaf tea is stocked for tourists, but suggesting that Colombia hasn’t moved on from its inglorious past is ignorant and rude.”
As we enjoy a cup of coffee – you drink it here either “tinto” (black) or “pintadito” (with a dash of milk) – he tells me more about the local passion for it. “We are around 5,500 feet above sea level and near to the Equator, so the region benefits from a tropical climate and year-round warm temperatures perfect for growing coffee beans,” he says. “The same families have lived here for generations, growing and producing coffee, and passing down knowledge. Growing premium- quality coffee beans is an important part of our heritage. For Colombians, coffee is not merely a bean, but a part of our national identity.”
Colombia is the world’s third-largest coffee producer, most famous for its production of the intense Arabica bean. This Coffee Triangle has been recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site and the tourism board are trying to relabel it as the “Coffee Cultural Landscape”. Landscape or Triangle, coffee is a vitally important crop in the area and the vast majority of farmers are small producers. At the San Alberto Estate, where the coffee has been recognized with many international awards, I join a masterclass to learn more, sitting on a terrace looking out on an amazing view of coffee trees. Nearby, birds of paradise flit through trees bearing guava, banana and avocado.
Juan Pablo Villota Leyva is the estate’s director and his family has been making coffee here for more than 45 years. “Colombian coffee is well known for its softness, acidity, balance and exotic attributes,” he says. “The best are the single estate coffees. Each reflects its terroir, with its own history, prestige, awards and, of course, particular quality and profile. The richness of the culture and the region’s diversity surprises most visitors. You can enjoy coffee in more than 21 regions, with more than 86 microclimates from north to south, east to west.”
If you have premium coffee, you need never add sugar to it
He talks me through how to make a good cup of coffee, using Colombian premium single estate coffee that is he insists must be ground just minutes before brewing. “You must use also pure water, as 98 per cent of a coffee is water,” he says. “The temperature of the water should be just below boiling point and you need the correct ratio of 7-9gm of coffee against 100ml of water. Always drink fresh coffee and, if you have premium coffee, you need never add sugar to it.”
He recommends I use water that is as neutral as possible and so will not provide too many minerals. I learn that coffee is judged on fragrance, from roasted and ground beans; aroma, smelling the infusion; taste; the first aftertaste, from the stimulation of the vapors produced in the mouth when sipping; a second aftertaste, after swallowing the first sip; and finally the body that assesses the density and texture of the drink.
Señor Leyva tells me he enjoys living here because of the short distances that put everything he needs close at hand. “You can travel from one town to another in no more than 45 minutes by car as the roads are excellent,” he says. “We are a well developed region with a lovely landscape and friendly, hard-working people who love coffee. The other thing that surprises visitors is the food: you have to try dishes such as bandeja paisa, chicharrón and patacón. They will surprise you for sure!”
The Cocora Valley is dominated by the peak of Morrogacho, another attraction in the area. It is an eight-hour walk to the top and the area is rich in natural history as well as indigenous culture, including a graveyard of the Quindos tribe. While admiring the mountain, I meet Marco Fidel Torres who helps promote Colombian coffee locally. At first sight, he is Juan Valdez come alive, down to a mule carrying bags of coffee. He is a photographer’s dream, a well as a great talker, and one of the last generation who actually do remember carrying coffee on the backs of their animals. “I used to work at the Parque Nacional del Café,” he says. The park, near Quindío’s capital of Armenia, is a kind of theme park devoted to coffee and local culture but also has lots of amusement rides. “They employed me as an arriero to show visitors how we packed the coffee and worked with the mules. But most of them were more interested in taking pictures of me than learning about all that.”
His resemblance to Juan Valdez is indeed striking. He tells me that he applied to be the official face of Colombia coffee in 2004, when Fedecafé were looking for a replacement for Carlos Sánchez, the coffee farmer who played Juan Valdez in adverts for 35 years. Sánchez had replaced the very first Valdez, Cuban-American actor José F. Duval, and is still the most familiar face in the role. Sadly, Torres was deemed too old at about 70, roughly the same as Sánchez himself. Out of 380,000 applicants, 44-year-old coffee grower Carlos Castañeda was the one who made the grade. However, the white-haired Torres remains a local hero and still works as an arriero every weekend at the Los Nevados National Natural Park.
I take the curving road from Salento to Filandia that winds through forested landscape. Filandia looks like another village out of a painting, full of colorful houses with lush gardens blooming with flowers. Every balcony is bright with potted plants and, again, it is built around a plaza dominated by a pretty old colonial-style church. Inside, the tortures of the crucified Jesus are picked out in bloody detail. In a place where peasant life was so hard and often brutal, the Christ of Latin American has to be seen suffering much more than his European counterpart.
There is a strong connection to Madison, New Jersey, where many ended up
Until recently, Filandia’s inhabitants were dedicated to the cultivation and marketing of coffee but rural tourism has become a lifeline to rescue them from the stagnation of the world economy. Falling incomes worldwide heightened a coffee crisis that started in the 1990s and many growers had to look for an alternative livelihood when faced with a difficult economic situation and declining quality of life. Many left for the U.S. and there is a strong connection to Madison, New Jersey, where many ended up. Of course, it is the young people who go first and, as I walk around the town square, I see many elderly people. They talk about local politics, sit quietly on stone benches, or take coffee in the various cafés scattered around. Men with colorful ponchos draped over a shoulder play pool and drink beer.
While tourism has not changed, or may even have preserved the local costumes, one obvious difference is the growth of wickerwork factories around the town. The suburb of San Jose is full of artisans creating baskets originally designed for different uses, everything from carrying or collecting coffee beans to sowing seeds. With the coffee farmers no longer needing their products, the weavers have found a welcome new outlet selling to tourists. Visitors can also experience activities such as rock-climbing, whitewater-rafting or canyoning. Another popular adrenalin rush is zip-lining at El Bosque de Saman, where there is more than a mile of wires over coffee plantations and through the tree canopy.
One of the distinctive local trees is the guadua, a type of Amazonian bamboo that grows ten centimeters or more per day and matures in only six months. Above the town is a striking lookout tower, made of its wood, which has a wide panorama of the valley sweeping down from the Parque del Bosque Nublado (Cloud Forest Park). The mirador’s 360-degree views give an idea of the area’s flora and rich birdlife, as well as glimpses of the nearby towns of Circassia, Pereira, Salento, Quimbaya and Armenia.
Inside the tower is a spectacular floor of blue stained glass in the shape of a butterfly. It catches the light in tribute to the thousands fluttering around the forest nearby. Of all the things I expected in Colombia, a glass floor dedicated to the beauty of the butterfly was not one of them. It is a reminder of just how wrong preconceptions can be.