Day 146: Lost in the Coffee Triangle

Overland miles: 6550 Bus hours: 210.5 Empanadar: 12

After a week in Bogota chugging chicha (fermented fruit-beer), sipping sopa de ajaico (potato and avacado-based soup) and tasting tinto (sweetened instant coffee), the next stage of our journey through Colombia was to prove more rewarding in terms of Latin American libations. South of the country’s second biggest city, Medellin, the bustling metropolises of Manizales, Armenia and Pereira form the axes of the Zona Cafetera – aka Colombia’s Coffee Triangle. It’s a region of 40 metre high wax palms that pepper the Andean valleys as if in a scene from Day of The Triffids, amidst lush green tobacco and coffee plantations. The Triangle is blessed by a temperate climate perfect for growing the coffee crops that lure travellers from far and wide into the region. And after getting a daily soaking in the rainy capital we were dearly in need of a reprieve from the torrential weather as much as a cup of the dark stuff.

As we’ve moaned more than once, life is hard for caffeine fiends like us out here. Tea is generally of the Lipton Yellow Label variety, and coffee – well, let’s just say that tinto just doesn’t give you the hit of the whole bean. It’s generally a weak Nescafé derivative, and because Colombians have a giant sweet tooth (as evidenced by the wide range of fortified wines and sweet liquors in supermarkets, not to mention the endless array of creamy cakes on display in every bakery window), it’s also loaded with sugar. After a while we found ourselves actively searching out Tinto sellers – roaming Bogota’s rain-slicked streets with trolleys of brightly coloured thermoses – and then we knew it was the sugar we were addicted to, not the coffee.

Thermoses of Tinto

So when we arrived in Pereira, we knew the best way of getting a decent cuppa was to get as close to the source as possible, and sign up for a tour of a local finca (coffee farm), before they could get it out of the Triangle, and flog it to foreign markets.  We chose a local, small-scale producer by the name of Don Manolo, as we’d read rave reviews of his warm and generous hospitality. In that, the Don didn’t disappoint. From the moment we arrived on his beautiful estate high in the hillside overlooking the city, he treated us like family members, courteously escorting us around the plantation and charmingly breaking down the process for us to a point where (with our hesitant grasp of Spanish coffee-growing terminology) it just abut made sense.

Don Manolo arabica coffee and preserved pods (left)

Our host showed us the ripening pods on the coffee plants – once red, they’re ready to be picked – and explained that picked arabica beans need about ten days’ drying time in the fierce Colombian sun, before they’re ready to be winnowed and roasted. He poured a bucket of beans through a winnowing machine (separating the bean from the husk) and showed us how he painstakingly sorts through each winnowed batch to remove deformed or spoiled beans before they are roasted. Finally he fired up the roasting oven, which needs to reach exactly 120 degrees centigrade before the coffee beans can be added. After twenty minutes the beans had turned from an olive green colour to chocolate brown, and they were ready to be cooled in a giant tumbler and poured back into a vacuum-storage bucket.

Once the beans had cooled, Don Manolo’s son appeared on the scene armed with slices of cake and a coffee filter and – as if engaged in a scientific experiment – started to measure out exact quantities of boiling water needed to let us taste the goods. After a punishingly long wait for the jet black liquid to drip into the beaker, it was time to taste the results of this labour of love. The Don offered us a cup and a slice, explaining that his beans made a ‘greener’ blend; that is, a lighter one with more citrus notes, rather than the fuller, nuttier flavour for which exported Colombian coffee is known.

I would be lying if I said that it was our preferred style of coffee; it had a subtle flavour and was not as smooth as we had anticipated. But it packed a punch, and partnered the cake very well. I was more impressed by the by-product of the preserved bean pods. Once the beans are harvested, the pods are turned into a sweet snack that tastes vaguely fig-like, ensuring no part of the crop goes to waste. However the tour was definitely a rewarding experience, allowing us to experience the whole process, “from bean to cup”, as they say in the coffee business.

The Don makes us a coffee we can’t refuse

And that, as they say, is that. We thanked the Don for his informative tour and excellent hospitality. He was kind enough to offer to drive us in his jeep down to the main road, to catch a bus out to some thermal springs in a nearby town. He asked us to sign his visitors’ book, and whilst we were finding the appropriate Spanish words of appreciation, whipped out his iPad to show us pictures of previous tours in which his guests had, um, dressed up as coffee pickers from a bygone age, and posed for him in his garden. Oh, we had a good chuckle about that! What’s that, Don Monolo? You have the costumes right here and say you’d like us to wear them now? Oh, that’s very kind of you, but we really need to head to the springs now…no, really. What do you want of us, Don Manolo? Tell us anything!

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