Colombia is the dream destination for coffee lovers. Photo / 123rf
As a nation of coffee drinkers, Kiwis will be in their element travelling through Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, writes Julia Hammond
I’m sitting in a quaint little cafe nursing my first latte of the day. Velvety smooth, intense yet creamy, it slides down a treat. To get to the bottom of why Colombian coffee tastes this good I’ve travelled to the Zona Cafetera, where coffee’s such an integral part of the landscape Unesco put it on its World Heritage list.
It hasn’t always been this easy to find great coffee here. Even as recently as a decade ago, most of Colombia’s premium coffee harvest was still reserved for the export market. Even in big cities like Medellin and Bogota, there was no such thing as cafe culture. If you wanted coffee, you’d have followed the local lead and ordered a tinto, served long and black. It was – and is – cheap, and perfectly palatable when sweetened with panela, which is unrefined cane sugar.
But for connoisseurs, it came up short, and thus the seeds were sown for an artisan coffee industry. Kiwi ex-pat Shaun Murdoch was one of those driving the change. When he first came to Medellin, he was tired of inexperienced baristas ruining his flat white. So, he opened his own cafe, naming it Hija Mia after his daughter. From him, I learn to look out for shiny beans: proof that the oils have risen to the surface, something that can easily ruin the taste of the coffee.
Coffee didn’t originate in Colombia – in fact, it didn’t reach this part of Latin America until the 18th century. When it finally made it, Colombia turned out to be a pretty good fit for the crop. To find out why, I catch a bus south, towards 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 more than a century. Over the last decade or so, many of them have opened their doors to visitors. Some are slick operations, with fancy accommodation 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 at the roadside, followed by a short but bumpy ride in a local Willy jeep to the bottom of the valley, where I’ve booked a room at the Hacienda Venecia. Overlooking a lush valley, it’s a gorgeous spot, but admiring it will have to wait as guide Manuela is eager to give me a tour of the farm.
Starting with the basics, she explains that there are two types of coffee: Robusta and Arabica. Smoother, sweeter Arabica is ideally suited to Colombia’s steep hills, thriving in the fertile volcanic soils found on slopes above 1200 metres. Because of the gradient and wet climate which makes them dangerously slippery, the coffee has to be picked by hand, much of it by casual labourers known as andariegos. That, it turns out, is the important part: unlike on Robusta plantations, where machines strip vast areas bare, these skilled workers select only the reddest, ripest coffee cherries resulting in a higher quality harvest.
By mid-November, the bulk of Hacienda Venecia’s harvest is already in, so there’s not much else going on. It’s blissful to swing in a hammock watching hummingbirds flit around the balcony and cheeky peacocks colonise the sun loungers beside the pool.
But I’m keen to learn more, so I move on to Hacienda Posada La Gaviota, a small-scale operation where the harvest is still in full swing. Its affable owner, Carolina, welcomes me inside the simple whitewashed farmhouse that her grandmother bought in 1964. The view’s as dreamy as the one I just left behind.
I’m invited inside the fermentation house. There’s a pungent smell – the place reeks of red wine vinegar as the hard shells break down. Next, Miguel oversees the traditional washing process. As the coffee beans tumble along a chute, water separates them from their pulpy covering and grades them by size. Afterwards, a rake is used to spread the beans across the floor of the drying house.
Once dry, the coffee is bagged into large hessian sacks, which weigh 40kg each. 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 stacked on the back of a truck ready for market.
At this stage, these top-quality Colombian beans are still yellowy-green; they won’t turn their characteristic dark brown until they’re roasted. But when they are, I’ll be first in line. If you’re a coffee drinker too, you should think about doing the same.
From Auckland, indirect flights to Bogota and Medellin travel most conveniently via Los Angeles, New York City or Santiago de Chile.
To reach the Zona Cafetera, catch an internal flight or long-distance bus to either Armenia or Manizales; both sit within easy reach of 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