Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Heart of Colombia

Today was a far cry from the snow and wind of Nevado del Ruiz. I visited Hacienda Guayabal, a giant coffee farm in the heart of Eje Cafetero. The half-hour ride from Manizales to Chinchiná was probably the most beautiful one I’ve witnessed in Colombia, especially with the morning sun glowing between steep, green mountainsides with endless rows of coffee plants.


The bus driver dropped me off on a main road near a small neighborhood. On a post across the street I saw a sign for Hacienda Guayabal. It was obviously a popular tourist destination which was why I had some reservations. I tend to prefer the places where I’m the only tourist. Walking down the neighborhood’s dirt road I felt like a tourist. There were a couple more signs with arrows for the coffee plantation. Farther down the road was a huge row of palm trees and just beyond it the plantation house sat atop a hill with panoramic views of its coffee plants.


The plantation owner, María Teresa Londoño R. lives on the house with her son, Jorge. Cedar, his wife, and his two sons (no relation to María Teresa) live and work on the plantation as well. Hacienda Guayabal seemed to cater just as much to tourism as to its 64 hectares of coffee growing. I met an Irish couple who had just finished the coffee tour when I arrived. (They have spent two years traveling around the world on a motorcycle.) They were staying in one of the plantation’s guest rooms and relaxing in its standard-sized swimming pool. As I signed the guest book, I noticed a girl from Alaska, who had been also staying in the same hostel (Mountain House) as me, had been here this morning.


Before I talk about the tour, I want to give a warning to all visitors, wear suntan lotion, a hat, and bug spray! Actually, bring bug spray with you and keep using it. María Teresa has her own bottle she’ll let you use, but if there’s a lot of visitors it’s better to have your own. I hadn’t thought to bring bug spray and I had forgotten my hat.


Before Cedar gave me a tour of the property, he said it would last two hours. It ended up being more like six hours. The owner's dogs accompanied us on the entire tour. Cedar spoke slowly in Spanish so I could understand, and I must say it was a very thorough tour. Maybe that is why María Teresa and Jorge gave me a personalized certificate upon completion of the tour. I learned that coffee needs a unique climate for growing, which is why Eje Cafetero grows the world’s best coffee. It is grown best at altitudes between 800 to 1,800 meters with a certain balance of sun and rain. The coffee plants will ripen too quickly with too much direct sunlight. This is why they are grown on the steep mountainsides of Hacienda Guayabal and other farms. Many large trees are strategically planted to protect the coffee plants from direct sunlight and insects. In addition to steep mountainsides, coffee plants need warm weather year-round, which is why they aren’t grown in the United States. There are male coffee plants (machos), and female coffee plants (hembras). Only the hembras are used for cultivation because they produce a lot more coffee beans than machos. Thus, all male plants are destroyed. Cedar grabbed a male and female plant. It was easy for me to see the difference. These female plants produce about 2,000 coffee beans. Each ripe bean is either red or yellow. It takes seven years for the beans to ripen. After two years a white flower blooms. Then it falls off, then a green shell grows, and then it turns a ripe red or yellow. (The red beans were more common on Hacienda Guayabal.) After the ripe beans are picked, the coffee bush’s stem or trunk is cut. Then another stem grows and the seven-year flower-to-bean process begins. There are four of these cycles, so a coffee plant or bush has a total life of 28 years. Hacienda Guayabal is one of the few places where there are all phases of the coffee plant cycle happening all year long. There are, however, two major harvests, in October/November, and in April/May. The most harvest was affected by climate change and global warming which I’ll mention later.


I’ll proceed to explain a little more about the coffee production process. On Hacienda Guayabal they produce an average of 12,000 kilos of coffee each day, though only 10.5% of the coffee beans are used. The beans are poured into a pool of water. The good beans sink while the bad beans rise. The coffee shells, which protect the beans, are used in a machine that produces hot energy to dry the beans. The beans are also dried with a machine that uses coal, though the one that uses bean shells is better for the environment. In most coffee farms, the beans are classified based on color, humidity, and size. In Hacienda Guayabal, they separate them based on color and humidity, while mixing small and large beans. The smaller beans have more aroma, while the larger beans have more flavor. The coffee that is exported to the United States usually is produced from the larger beans. Some companies in Colombia like to use the small beans because they have a strong aroma so they will entice customers in the supermarkets. Nevertheless, all coffee that is exported is mixed with coffee from other countries. So in the United States, only 25-45% of the coffee you buy was grown in Colombia. It is only here, in Colombia, that it is 100% Colombian. At least, this is what Jorge told me.


The quality is still the same, though production has changed over the years. No longer are 90 women needed to sift out a certain color coffee bean in an assembly line. Now the different colors can be determined using a laser optic machine. No longer is coffee as profitable as it once was. While the price for coffee beans has dropped over the decades, the last five years have been more difficult for farm owners such María Teresa. Historically, coffee-bean pickers travel around the country, knowing where it is harvest time based on the environment and past knowledge. One month it could be prime harvest time in Valle del Cauca and the next month in Eje Cafetero. This past October, all of Colombia had a coffee bean harvest, which meant many workers were needed on every farm throughout the country at the same time. This wasn’t possible. Jorge said he believes it was due to global warming. Technology has also made it more difficult for coffee farmers. Now the coffee pickers are calling each other on their cell phones to find out where the best harvest is since they get paid by the amount of beans picked. María Teresa and Jorge have to sometimes give the pickers free food and beverages to entice them to work when it is harvest time. And finally, fathers used to bring their sons to the farms to help them pick the beans. Now their sons are spending more time in school and seeking advanced education while their fathers work. These factors have caused concern for many farmers, but coffee farming is still their pride and joy. Around Chinchiná it is the only thing many of them know how to do, and since they’ve been doing it for so long and have the good land, it is hard to blame them.


Hacienda Guayabal (located between the cities of Manizales and Pereira) is a very special place for María Teresa, Jorge, and Cedar. Just go 10 minutes down the road, they say, and the climate is different. Jorge grinds me up a cup of coffee and tells me to take a sip. I ask him for sugar. This is one of the few places where sugar is not needed. The coffee has “good body,” he says, meaning it has good flavor. I thought about how I’d need sugar for my coffee just a little way down the road. Then I remembered what Cedar had said to me earlier with a grin, “This is the heart of Colombia.”

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Anonymous said...

Hello Brett
I think the story about your day in Guayabal is very complete. I am a new guide in the Hacienda and now you also can get the tour in English. I have to say that your account helped me a lot (THANK YOU VERY MUCH!) because I had to do a lot of research to get all the information in English but now it's being a complete success. Keep travelling and sharing your experiences... very interesting.
Diana C.

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I am really Glad i discovered this site.Added www.lifeofbrett.com to my bookmark!

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