Saturday, March 22, 2008

Good Friday in Salento

Salento is a quiet and relaxing. Ironically, it is for this very reason that so many people visit this town of about 4,000 in the mountains northeast of Armenia. Most visitors come from Eje Cafetero or the Valle del Cauca for a weekend getaway. Others visit from Medellín, and only a few from Bogotá. In relative terms, it is still unknown. Many people in Bogotá I have talked to have never even heard of Salento. Nevertheless, on holidays, such as Good Friday, yesterday, the main plaza and streets surrounding Salento are packed with people and cars. Tents are set up in a circle in the plaza for people to eat fresh trout and drink Poker beer. This is the custom each weekend. Calle Real, or Carrera 6, was packed with people shopping for handicrafts that can be found in virtually every shop on this street. Others were climbing the steps up a steep hill at the end of Calle Real for a panoramic view of the town and the Valle del Cocora nearby. There were palm branches placed against the buildings in and around the main plaza.

Many people were eating and drinking, including me. Many were praying in church. By night time, a procession of people holding candles and crosses walked through the city streets. About this time I had begun drinking rum with a guy from the United Kingdom named Gary. We polished off a pint and then met up with some local friends. That is when we began drinking aquardiente shots. It was a long night for me to say the least. I guess I drank so much because I had not done much drinking the entire trip. I was always on the go and waking up at dawn to begin my day. I left Salento today tired. It was a good tired. I’m sure I’ll return to Eje Cafetero at some point. And if not, I’ll still have many fond memories of the beautiful scenery, friendly people, and interesting outdoor adventures.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Walking down a hill and across a few bridges built over the Boquía Stream, I passed a bamboo forest and a few small campgrounds with tourists who had come for the holiday weekend (Semana Santa). It began raining hard but I had my umbrella. By the time I reached Boquía it let up.

Boquía is Salento’s sister town. In 1830, Simón Bolívar and others traveled through present-day Salento on their way from Popayán to Bogotá. At this time most people lived in Boquía. Then around 1854 the Quindío River flooded and Boquía was destroyed. The survivors rebuilt their homes in Salento, which is higher up in the mountains.

Yesterday morning at breakfast, a waitress recommended I visit Boquía. The surrounding mountains as well as the buildings in Boquía aren’t quite as beautiful as Salento, but are still charming. Many visitors camp near the Boquía Stream, which joins the Quindío River in the downtown (the downtown is just a few buildings, restaurants, and campgrounds). It is here that I saw people setting up tents, playing in the river, and gliding from a zip-line. It was an escape from the city life, or even life in a normal town. Many hippies come to this area and stay in one of the cabins at Hospedajes Exoticos. They are more like hippie huts or as one of them is called on the brochure the owner handed me: the Hippie Hilton. The owner spoke English and reminded me of a character on the Simpsons. As I was leaving, he said, “Don’t worry, be happy.” I was happy to be catching a bus back to Salento. I wanted to enjoy my last night in Eje Cafetero with friends I had made at the hostel.

A Cup of Coffee and a Bed

Visiting the coffee farm of Don Elias was like going back in time 100 years. The coffee farm of Don Raul was like leaping into modern times. While both farms are organic, Don Raul’s is certified organic. Unlike Don Elias, Don Raul has a large farmhouse which also serves as a bed and breakfast. This has been a growing trend since the price of coffee dropped in the early 1990s. Coffee farmers no longer earn the substantial profits they once did. Because guerilla violence and kidnapping are now almost nonexistent in Eje Cafetero, tourism has blossomed. Cartagena and the Caribbean coast still has the greatest concentration of foreigners. Yet young people, like me, who want to get away from the tourist areas and beaches travel into the country’s interior. The Disney World of coffee tourism is located in Montenegro, a town 12 km northwest of Armenia, and called the Parque Nacional del Café. Every variety of coffee in the world can be found in this park, as well as a museum and roller coaster rides. It’s a good place for families, but it wasn’t my cup of coffee (this is the worst pun I’ve used on my blog) so I skipped it.

I was more content being the only foreigner taking a tour of Don Raul’s hacienda. His 20-hectare farm is divided into three parts: 10 hectares for coffee, five hectares for animals, and five hectares for forests. As I entered his plantation, I couldn’t see anything but coffee plants. This is no surprise since he has 50,000 of them. Farther along I passed fruit trees and walked through a forest of guadua, or bamboo. The bamboo tree is used to build homes and bridges, and will last for 900 years. These strong trees are earthquake-resistant (recent earthquakes in Eje Cafetero have proved this), and are more effective at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than most other tropical trees. He then took me to the place where the coffee beans are separated and dried. His tour was a much shortened version of the one I had been given at Hacienda Guayabal. His farmhouse, painted white with red trim, was typical of those used for bed and breakfasts. It didn’t have the mom-and-pop feel of my previous two coffee tours. Nevertheless, Don Raul was friendly and I bought a bag of coffee from him when I finished the tour. Of course, I had a complementary cup of coffee. My next adventure was finding my way back to Salento since I didn’t plan on backtracking.

The Real Juan Valdez

I walked down a dirt road leaving Salento this morning. I passed a small cemetery and soccer field just like I had seen on the map drawn on the back of a Plantation House handout by Tim Harbour, the owner of the hostel where I was staying. I passed a bunch of cows grazing on tall green grass. Apparently there is a sloth living in the trees and telephone wires at a turn in the road but it seemed like a story the owner had made up to make the walk more exciting. The mountains that could be seen around every turn and bend in the descending dirt road from Salento were enough to make it a pleasant walk. I was going to visit some coffee farms an hour or so from town on foot. At 2,000 meters above sea level, the main urban area of Salento is too high for coffee plants to grow well. A third of the way down a car stopped and the driver offered me a lift which I accepted. In retrospect it would have been better walking because the road was so bumpy and I couldn’t really enjoy the view. The small car I rode in wasn’t built for this type of road. This is why there is only one main road entering and leaving Salento.

“He is more Juan Valdez than Juan Valdez,” Harbour said to me earlier when describing Don Elias, the owner of a small coffee plantation I was visiting. Indeed this was no exaggerated claim. By the way, Juan Valdez is a fictional character representing the Colombian coffee farmer and appears in advertisements for 100%-Colombian coffee. (Note: The coffee served in countries such as America, Europe, and Japan is blended with beans from Colombia and other countries.) As I expected, Don Elias didn’t speak any English. He had owned a much larger plantation in the Valle del Cauca, but moved to this four-hectare farm 15 years ago because it is more relaxing and the air and water are cleaner. He decided he could live without the warmer weather and overall better climate for coffee growing. I think he made a wise decision. As he gave me a tour of his land, his young grandson tagged along, picking ripe coffee beans. On his hillside plot there are 1,500 coffee plants in addition to his various fruit trees (avocado lemon, mandarin, plantain, and others I lost in translation). Everything is organic, though he can’t have a certified organic farm because it costs too much money for the inspection and paperwork. He only charges 4,000 pesos (about $2.25 due to the lousy U.S. economy) for visitors like myself who show up unexpectedly for a tour. His plot was like a mini version of Hacienda Guayabal and his tour was also like a mini version. I didn’t really want another long tour anyway. Afterward, I hung out in his kitchen with his family, who had made a visit to his two-room house because it was Good Friday. Naturally I had a cup of coffee. One of his relatives gave me an arepa she had cooked. Normally I’m not fond of arepas, but this one was good. It was made from yellow corn instead of white corn like those in Bogotá. The family was laid-back and friendly like virtually everyone I met in Salento. With the beautiful scenery and fresh food and coffee, it was hard to be any different.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


“How did it go?” asked Tim Harbour, the hostel owner where I was staying in Salento. He was inquiring about my paragliding trip. I was surprised by his question. Although he had owned The Plantation House for four years, I was the first person he had known who had gone paragliding, or parapente. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I arrived in Armenia this morning my guide asked me how I had found out about paragliding. I told him I asked my hostel owner. The irony of paragliding in Colombia is that it is available almost anywhere in the country not including the amazon. The country’s tall mountain peaks and temperate climate make it ideal for paragliding year-round. However, the adventure sports companies that provide paragliding lessons and trips don’t advertise. The company I used, Quindio Aventurero, has an internet site with nothing on it. So those who go paragliding either are locals in the know, or are like me and ask one of these locals.

I took a bus from Salento to Armenia this morning where I met my guide, Mauricio, at a meeting point. It was just the two of us. It was a two-hour drive to the place where we went paragliding. Mauricio was bilingual, the same age as me, and interesting to talk to. A Bogotá native, he had spent the past two years working on a charter boat in the Caribbean. He seemed to know a lot about everything. He even knew about my Nikon D300 camera. He had once been a scuba instructor and had taken photos for his clients. Mauricio had just returned to Colombia and was living in Armenia, the same town as his mother. Two years on the boat had burned him out, no social life, just work. While assimilating back into normal society, he was learning how to paraglide. He had taken the course, which only takes five or six days, and had made done 10 flights. Thirty flights are necessary to become a certified instructor. Luckily for me, I would be going with an instructor who had been paragliding for seven years. Mauricio was just providing the ride for me, and it was a chance for him to get some more flights under his belt. He was the one who had found this “launch site,” which was near a small town (I forgot the name) near Cartago in the Valle del Cauca, and not far from the Pacific Ocean. The weather in this area is always warm as can be seen by the tan skin of the locals. Rain is also rare. About 95% of the time the conditions are good for paragliding. Before I knew this, I was a bit concerned, having woken up and seen dark clouds in Salento. However, the climate can change from town to town in Colombia, even within the same city. For instance, where I live in Bogotá it often is cloudy and rains for a bit in the afternoon. But in the western and southern regions of Bogotá it rains much less and is a bit warmer. The weather got better and warmer the farther we drove.

When we arrived in this small town at the bottom of a big green mountain, Mauricio had to ask for directions to the top. There was a small group of Colombians standing around when we arrived at the peak. There was a concession stand and bathroom and a few benches, not much else. Though nothing else was needed. The view was spectacular and the weather was partly cloudy and pleasant. I met the instructor who would be taking me. He asked me how much I weighed. Mauricio talked to him as well and told me that the instructor was going to wait until the conditions were best and then he’d take me. The best conditions are usually at midday, when it is hot and there is a slight breeze. Too much wind is no good, and no wind is also not good. The worst part of my day was waiting, and as I did more people arrived. I think I was the only non-Colombian there. I got a little pissed because people who had arrived after me were all going for rides while I sat around.

About four hours later the instructor gave me the green light. He hooked me into a harness and handed me a helmet. “Just keep running,” he said. “Don’t sit down and don’t try and jump. Just keep running.” I wasn’t really nervous at all. Mauricio had told me it is a much safer sport than most people think and considering that we are flying like birds, it is very safe. The instructor was in back of me as I ran toward the edge of the mountain. I began running in air and sat back in the seat that was connected to my harness. It was instant fun, flying like a bird high above the valley and small town below. In fact, my instructor told me to look for birds since they are the best way to find and use the air currents which lift the parachute, or canopy, and extend the flight. It was relaxing and exciting at the same time. Because I was sitting down and the instructor was controlling our flight, I didn’t have to do anything accept enjoy it. I spotted a few birds not far in the distance and we drifted that way. Other than downhill skiing or scuba diving, paragliding is the most pure fun you can have outside of the bedroom.

About 20 minutes later we did a few fast dive-bombs in circles as we ascended closer to the town. I landed on my behind on a small hill near the town. The landing felt like I was in slow motion and wouldn’t have hurt an elderly person. There was a bunch of local kids to greet us and help out with the equipment. Upon landing I felt like I wanted to do it again, and that I was ready for a bigger challenge. I asked my instructor about skydiving, a much less popular sport in Colombia and quite expensive (about $300). I thanked him and chatted with a local man until Mauricio picked me up. If I was going to live in Colombia permanently, I would definitely get my paragliding certificate.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Colombia’s primary coffee-growing region, Eje Cafetero, is comprised of three departments (states): Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda. In the smallest of the three, Quindío, is one of the oldest and smallest towns called Salento. Since arriving here yesterday morning I have felt very relaxed. The surrounding Andean mountains (Cordillera Central) and slow-pace life make this a much-welcomed tourist destination for those from Colombia’s three largest cities – Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín – which are all relatively close-by. Besides people like myself, the tourists that visit Salento usually come from Armenia or the Valle de Cauca, yet it still seems concealed from outsiders. A sign on a hill in town reads: ¡SALENTO ES UN PUEBLO SUSPENDIDO EN EL TIEMPO VÍVELO!

About 4,000 people live in Salento, but it feels like less. As I strolled around town children were playing in the street, and horses were carrying big sacks filled with coffee, fruit, and other goods. I walked in the middle of the roads because there was no traffic. There is also no crime so carrying around my expensive camera was no big deal, even at night. The old colonial paisa buildings can be seen on every street corner but were especially remarkable in the main plaza and on both sides of Calle Real, a long street filled with handicraft shops. Calle Real, or Carrera 6, is the most beautiful street I’ve seen in Colombia, and perhaps anywhere. Its buildings have bright, vibrant colors, and at one end is the main plaza. At the other is a 250-step climb up a steep hill to a spectacular view overlooking Salento and the Valle de Cocora with its seemingly endless supply of trout. Trout is served in virtually every restaurant and is usually baked or fried. Complimenting the beautiful scenery, the people are as about as laid-back as I’ve seen in Colombia. A short walk from town, at a lower altitude, coffee farmers live on the various haciendas.

It is no wonder that former British businessman, Tim Harbour, moved here four years ago in his desire to “escape the rat race.” At the time he bought a house that was more than a hundred years old and had been used as a coffee farmhouse. He converted this house and another building across the road into a hostel and named it The Plantation House. This is where I am staying in Salento, and sleeping on a bunk-bed in a dormitory for 15,000 pesos per night is a great deal. The old plantation building has various fruit trees surrounding it and is as charming as the city itself. Tim is very helpful and loves drawing maps for directions and telling visitors about the area’s attractions, such as horseback riding in Valle de Cocora or visiting some coffee farms. Soon after he bought the house he married a Colombian woman and seems very content in his surroundings. When speaking Spanish his British accent is quite comical, yet I have to give him credit for learning the language. He owns a couple of cats and three friendly collies that remind me of Lassie. At this hostel I have met people from all over the Americas and Europe. They are your typical backpacker type, easy-going and well-traveled. I feel fortunate having found this hostel as well as the Mountain House in Manizales.

Although I enjoyed walking around town, I had to go to Armenia today to exchange some of my American Express travelers checks. There is only one bank in Salento and it doesn’t exchange foreign currency or travelers checks. There is one road entering and leaving Salento (wait for a bus at the corner in front of the fire station), and the half-hour bus ride I took to Armenia provided me with lots of great views of the valley its towering green mountains. While in Armenia, I made reservations to go paragliding tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Valle de Cocora

I stayed in the cheapest hotel I could find in Armenia last night because it is the closest city to Salento. There are no hostels in Armenia that I know of, and my hotel room in Armenia didn’t have a shower. I guess that’s the price you pay living on a budget. The scenic half-hour bus ride to Salento this morning made me forget that I was tired and dirty.

So why had I left Manizales to come to the small town of Salento? First of all, Salento alone is a must-see, but I will talk about it later. Today I wanted to visit Valle de Cocora, and Salento was the closest place without camping out. Because the Valle de Cocora is a popular tourist destination, I wanted to hike through it before the holiday weekend.

In Salento’s main plaza there are jeeps parked in front of the police station. Five Colombians were standing near one of the jeeps. I asked one of the girls sitting down when the next jeep leaves. She asked me if I was alone. I said yes, and she jumped up and introduced herself to me. She and her friends had been waiting for another person since the driver would only leave with six people. The five Colombians were from Armenia and very friendly and excited to be on their way. They looked like hikers. The 45-minute ride was slow since most of the way we rode across a bumpy dirt road.

Encouraged by the girl I met, I bought snacks and water at a concession stand before we began our hike. Near the snack stand horses stood in a line for those eager to go horse-riding. I was not one of those people. I still remembered my sore rear-end after riding a horse in Cuba (Viñales Valley). We began our hike down a dirt path and past a trout farm (fresh trout is the dish of choice here and in Salento). Walking along the valley floor was my favorite part of the hike. Because it often rains, there were bright green pastures for cows to graze, and various shades of green along the surrounding, steep mountains. The valley’s main river is the Río Quindío with its various streams and tributaries branching off the higher one hikes. Tourists and guides passed us every so often on horseback. The primary reason Valle de Cocora is so special and recognized as a wildlife sanctuary is because of a unique palm tree that is only found here, called palma de cera, or wax palm tree. It is the tallest palm (about 50 meters) in the world and can live up to a hundred years. The wax on its trunk was used to make candles. Because the wax palms were being cut down, primarily for Palm Sunday, the government declared the Valle de Cocora a national park in 1985. In addition, at this time the wax palm was named Colombia’s national tree, and a law forbidding anyone from chopping it down was implemented to protect this endangered species. The wax palms are a site to see. Because they are so tall and they are scattered so far apart along the mountainsides, they seemed out place, like they don’t belong. Maybe this is why I was the slowest one in our group, stopping to gaze at these magnificent trees. The Colombians I was with had done this hike many times so it didn’t quite have the same effect for them.

Following the trail to the edge of the valley, we entered a tropical forest that made it difficult to see where or how high we were. We walked across hanging bridges, brooks, and slippery muddy spots. The girl who had been so eager to go hiking began falling behind with the other girl and one guy. I carried her backpack so she could make it to the top. Apparently they had drunk too much aguardiente the night before. Even though I could see big, thick clouds next to me, I started sweating profusely. The air was thin and I had to take deep breaths. We took some breaks, but not for too long because we had to make it to one of the lookout peaks and back in time to catch the jeep to Salento.

By the time I reached the top I had eaten all my snacks. The girl’s backpack I had carried was filled with sandwiches and she gave me one. Everyone seemed in better spirit having eaten. From a log-cabin porch we couldn’t see much around us because it was so cloudy. I did, however, see a couple of hummingbirds feeding on some pink flowers. This was just one of many peaks along this enchanting national park. Some people hire guides to travel for several days as the Valle de Cocora is not only a wildlife sanctuary but part of a larger national park known as Parque Nacional Los Nevados, which includes the snow-capped volcano Nevado del Ruiz.

For us it was a great day hike. Everyone hiked much faster on the descent. I, on the other hand, did not. The Colombians waited for me and we eventually arrived at our starting point. The valley was even more beautiful with the setting sun and mixture of white and gray clouds. The jeep ride back wasn’t so great because the jeep only fit four people. So the driver lowered the rear door flap and two of the guys sat on it as dust from the road blew in their faces. Things could have been worse. As the jeep bounced along the dirt road, I saw a girl who had stayed at the same hostel as me in Manizales. She was lying on the ground next to a horse with people huddled around her. I later found out that she had fallen from the horse. I didn’t see any blood so I assume she was ok. I arrived back to Salento, tired and dirty. One of the Colombian’s aunts lived in Salento. We stopped by her house and drank aguardiente straight from the bottle as a pair of horses watched us from the yard next door.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Manizales and Ecoparque Los Yarumos

Manizales is a city with beautiful architecture. Because it sits atop a hill, each passing street and alleyway provides a scenic view of the surrounding mountains where some of the best Colombian coffee is grown. Though I had visited Nevado del Ruiz and a classic coffee farm, I wanted to explore Manizales today.

I wanted to enter the Río Blanco reserve close to where I was staying, but I couldn’t find the entrance point. Everyone I asked didn’t seem to know much about it. It was another warm sunny day so I walked along the outskirts of the city and to the top of a hill which provided a good panoramic view. The city seemed a lot bigger from the outside looking in than vice versa. I had my DSLR camera around my neck and some locals warned me to be careful because there are thieves. I’ve heard this everywhere I’ve traveled so I didn’t pay it much attention. I wanted to take a walk downtown, but decided to go to Ecoparque Los Yarumos since I couldn’t find the first ecological reserve I was looking for. Although Manizales has a population of about 400,000, it is very clean and has exotic plants and wildlife.

Ecoparque Los Yarumos is a short walk from the main city streets. It is a nature center, museum, and adventure sports haven all mixed in one. It even has an ice-skating rink. When I first entered the eco-park, it looked deserted. Even the main building, which had a museum of the area’s insects and animals in addition to concession shops, was empty. I walked down a path that led me into a tiny jungle, or eco-park. I finally met someone, a local guide, who told me I could hang out or go for a walk while he finished with a group he was taking canopying (zooming across jungle ravines on steel cables). I trekked around the park for about three kilometers, but I was disappointed because I didn’t see any birds or animals so I reached into my backpack and grabbed an apple. As soon as I took my first bite I looked up and saw a big bird perched on a wooden railing in front of me with a florescent blue head and tail. I managed to get a few shots of this beautiful bird before it flew away. I later learned it is difficult to spot and lives in a mud tunnel in which it digs into the side of the hill. I saw some of these tunnel holes along the path but watching a bird leave it takes a lot of patience and time, at least more than I had. I was fortunate to see the one I did.

I walked back to the concession shop and ran into three Germans eating lunch. They had been staying in the same hostel as me and had just arrived. Every hostel where I stayed in Eje Cafetero had lots of Germans. In fact, I have run into them wherever I have traveled. They seem to be all over the globe and like these guys, usually speak English. I was a bit jealous because they spoke fluent Spanish as well. Anyhow, I joined them for lunch and canopying across the jungle ravine. Each of the six cables was longer or faster than the previous one. Because we were strapped into harnesses, we could let go with our hands and soar upside down and do crazy things like that. From the middle of the ravine I could see downtown Manizales. The landing was fun, smashing into a big padded wall that was connected to poles with springs so that it cushioned your impact. It sounded worse than it felt. By the time we finished a big group of local high school kids were canopying as well, but they generally stuck to one spot while the Germans and I used the whole park.

Then it began raining so we had some ice cream before we headed back into town. We stopped at a small army supply shop. Two of the Germans bought a tent and climbing gear for their multiple-night trek in Nevado del Ruiz. They asked me if I wanted to join them, but I had to pass. The one-day trek I had done was good enough for me. I wanted to visit a small town called Salento before the holiday weekend since many local tourists also enjoy this charming mountain town.

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.”