Colombian Coffee

After our time in Cartagena, we traveled for a full day by plane and bus to Armenia. The reason for this is because Armenia is one of the gateways to Salento, a small rural town that is known for its fincas de cafe (or coffee farms in English).

DSCI0129I must admit that I am was not a coffee drinker, but Anna insisted we go to the coffee triangle in Colombia because she loves everything coffee. During our first day in Salento, we found out that there are two coffee farms that offer tours that are relatively close to each other. One is a smaller farm named Finca Don Elias and the other is a much larger farm called Finca El Ocaso. Because the two farms were so close, we took the opportunity to visit both of them.

Colombia is known for two things, cocaine and coffee; although I do not know much about the former, I learned quite a bit about the latter during my time in Salento. The first thing I learned (the hard way) is that tours go from 8:30-4:30, but perhaps more importantly, I learned about all the effort that goes into producing your cup of Starbucks every morning. Here is a small portion of what I learned:

When planting coffee trees, you will have to wait two years before you begin to see the fruits of your labor. What I mean by that is it takes two years for the tree to start producing coffee berries. These berries can be red or yellow when ripe and contain the actual coffee beans. This is the first step in growing coffee. Next, farmhands must hand pick the ripe berries off of each tree. This is a very laborious tasks and often requires dozens of workers. On a average day during high season, one skilled picker can gather 70-90 kg in a 9 hour day. That is about 154-198 lbs per day. Even though that seems like a lot, 90% of that weight is removed during processing.

After the berries are picked, the cafeteros must remove the outer shell to expose something that looks more like a golden coffee bean. This is usually done by either a hand-cranked or electric machine. After that, the seed is laid out for 5-20 days depending on the intensity of the sun in order to dry. Once the golden seed is dried, the second layer must be removed (again by machine or by hand) to expose the actual coffee bean.
From there, the beans are separated by quality based on appearance. If they pass the initial inspection, they are put into bags and brought to the coffee co-op that most coffee farms are a part of in Colombia. The unroasted beans are graded and the cafeteros are paid based on quality and weight.

In Colombia, Grade A beans are exported to other countries that pay a premium, and the other grades are allowed to be sold to the people within the country. If you remember from my last post, the Colombian coffee chain, Juan Valdez Cafe, is the only company that has a license to sell Grade A Colombian coffee inside Colombian borders. The only other way to get this quality coffee is from the farms themselves, like from Finca El Ocaso where we took one of our tours. This particular finca was voted in the top 20 out of all the coffee farms in the entire
country.
Remember how I said growing coffee is hard work? After just 8 years of growth, the coffee trees need to be cut down and the process starts all over again.

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Cartagena

And so it begins.

The first stop on our adventure is Cartagena, Colombia. It is a beautiful Caribbean port city that is hot and humid. It is amazing to hear about the transformation the city has gone through over the last 15-20 years. The area we are staying in, known as Centro, is now a completely safe area where the locals are very friendly and the nightlife is abundant. The city itself is comprised of narrow well-lit streets with short colorful buildings as well as tall white skyscrapers in the distance.

There are many other travelers and many things to do including walking on the wall that surrounds the old city, visiting Playa Blanca in Los Islas Rosarios, take a mud bath at Vulcan Totumo, take a tour of the San Felipe Fortress that shadows the city, or walking around and exploring the many other historical parts of the city.

We enjoyed people watching at night from a balcony overlooking a famous statue of la gorda gertrudis in Plaza Santo Domingo as horse-drawn carriages circled below. There were a variety of entertainers as well; from mimes, to guitarists, to accordion players, to a full mariachi band.

After being here for a few days, here are some recommendations for anyone interested in visiting:

  • The bus (or buseta) from the airport to Centro costs about $0.90 USD. Ask any of the airport guards for directions (about three blocks). Take the green and white buseta with a sign for Centro and pay when you get on.
  • You can get a free map from the tourist information center near the clock tower or any other similar booth around town
  • It is okay to drink the tap water in Centro
  • Since it is so hot, it is better to take several short showers a day than one long one
  • People in Cartagena are very friendly so don’t hesitate to ask for directions
  • Juan Valdez Cafe is the only cafe that serves Grade A Colombian coffee (it is really good)
  • Make sure to actually walk on the wall
  • Even though we paid for an English speaking tour guide while at San Felipe Fortress, we don’t think it was worth the 30,000 Colombian Pesos because she just told us everything it says in the free pamphlet they give you as you walk in. We didn’t try it, but they offer an audio tour you can get from the ticket booth at time of purchase for 5,000 Colombian Pesos.
  • Makako Chillout Hostel and The Chill House are sister hostels. Makako is much more laid back and clean, whereas the Chill House is more of a non-stop fiesta
  • We were told by a friend that if you only have time for one beach, take “la lancha directo” to Playa Blanca
  • The restaurant called Crepes & Waffles hires only single moms and has a really nice ambiance with its modern decor in an old style building. Their lunch was only okay, but we didn’t try their specialty which is desserts (ice cream, sweet crepes and waffles). We recommend going to help the socially responsible enterprise.

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