There's so much more to coffee than just a beverage created to caffeinate you. It's a culture, a lifestyle and for so many Colombians, a way to provide meals and support for their family. Touted as the world's most premier coffee region, the Colombian coffee story is as complicated as it is beautiful, and as educational as it is confusing. From plucking the beans to sampling different varietals to understanding the complicated backstory of coffee production, a visit to an estancia simply must be on your radar the next time you're planning a trip to Colombia.
Get out of the City
Away from the crowds of Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena, Colombia's famed coffee triangle is nestled in the rolling mountains of the Cocora Valley, which is only accessible by car or plane. The triangle encompasses the departments (or states) of Caldas, Quindío and Risaralda, with the most visited cities being Manizales, Armenia, Pereira and Salento. Although the towns do see an influx of tourists, most don't leave the corridors of the colonial villages and simply sample the java in tiny neighborhood cafes. For real adventurers and culinary enthusiasts, you can meet the cultivators and producers, which are tucked away from the main roads overlooking hundreds of acres of fruit producing trees. You'll see an entirely different side of Colombia, one flanked by the world's tallest palm trees, lush hills, berry speckled trees, and a slew of farmers working tireless hours under the sweltering sun.
Interact with the Locals
The coffee producers, farmers, pluckers, and roasters are the backbone of society, most of whom are completely out of reach to tourists. A coffee tour gives you a truly unique chance to interact, ask questions and learn about one of the most misunderstood countries and the innately complicated world of coffee production. In addition to speaking with the farmers, you'll get to talk with the owners of the farms, who will provide unique insight into why coffee is so important to the Colombian economy.
Get Hands On
Any coffee addict knows that brightly colored berries grow in abundance in the warm climates of South America. However, how many get to actually pluck the berries and remove the beans with their own two hands? With a local guide, you'll have the chance to immerse yourself in a side of coffee you've never seen all with a breathtaking backdrop of the Santa Ana Valley.
Learn the Process
The coffee process is far more complicated than you may think, especially in Colombia. It takes hours, days and even weeks to train farmhands, roasters and baristas in everything from which shade of red the raw berries need to be, to the smell and taste the beans need for roasting, and the proper way to prepare an espresso. You'll observe the labor-intensive process of washing, drying and sorting the beans in preparation for roasting, exportation, and local consumption that includes peeling, picking, sorting, and bagging.
Taste the Difference
Most Westerners go to Colombia assuming that every cup of joe from any hotel or coffee shop will be the best they've ever had, but locals will be quick to educate them that simply isn't true. In fact, the coffee sold for consumption inside Colombian's border (and the coffee most locals drink) is deemed "second-hand coffee," which means the beans were either subpar or even infected. Instead of tossing then, the farmers use them for local sipping with the most coveted beans saved exporting. Sampling the difference on a farm can help increase your coffee education and understanding.
Support the Farmers
As with any type of food production, there are many moving pieces and parties involved, such as trade intermediaries, exporters, roasters, and and multinational corporations. These are the people really making money off the beans, while the laborers and farmers are barely making ends meet. To help support the workers, local boutiques, shops and cafes are being setup in the towns of Armenia, Salento and Pereria to sell their product direct to consumers. However, this process comes with its own set of complications, as only five roasters exist in the whole country. Taking a tour will give you access to the beans directly from the source.
How to Do It
Intrepid Travel offers an immersive coffee tour, where you'll be taken to Cafe Jesus Martin's farm and the neighboring village. Transportation, accommodation and a bi-lingual tour guide are all included.