Coffee adventures on the hills of Colombia


I was so excited that I showed up thirty minutes early. As I waited impatiently at the Plantation House, I had nothing to do but to soak in the bright morning sun. After roughly six months of travels I had finally made it to a coffee farm in Salento, Colombia, and now the tour was about to begin.

Hi, my name is Pernilla and I am a caffeine addict. The addiction snuck into my life seven years ago, as I finished high school and continued to writing school. During the long, creative nights, I needed something to keep me awake, and that’s how I met coffee. I am not exactly sure how I then went from being just fine with instant coffee (perhaps it was because of a students poor budget), to not buying anything but my favorite Arvid Nordquist coffee.

I decided that I was going to Colombia as soon as I heard of a place called The Coffee Triangle. I had no idea exactly what it meant or was, but just the name – The Coffee Triangle – was like a promise of a heaven on earth. I pictured people walking around with cups of amazing espressos, always happy and smiling because they had the best coffee in the world.
“No, no, no”, someone then said. “The coffee sucks in Colombia. They export all the good stuff and drink Nescafé themselves.”

Wait, what?

Photo: Pernilla Runquist
Chipre, the highest point in the city. Photo: Pernilla Runquist

This statement bothered me greatly as I arrived in Manizales, the northernmost city in the Triangle. I knew it made no sense because Colombia is one of the biggest coffee producers in the world, there’s plantations everywhere and they even have a theme park about coffee. At the same time, the proof of the statement was often in front of me in the form of a cup that had the right color, but either the taste wasn’t non-existent, or it was just pure bad. It was worse-than-instant-coffee-bad.

I knew there must have to be some café with awesome coffee in Manizales. But as I was looking beyond the city limit from Chipre, the highest point in the city, I felt the desire to get out there. I wanted to explore the smaller towns and walk in a bamboo forest. I wanted to bathe in the hot springs in Santa Rosa del Cabal or San Vincente. But more than anything – I wanted to drink coffee made from beans that never had left the farm.

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Photo: Pernilla Rundquist
Santa Rosa square. Photo: Pernilla Rundquist

I chose to go to Salento, a small Colombian town famous for it’s coffee. Getting there meant that I first had to take a short bus ride to the city in the middle of the Triangle, Pereira, and change buses there. From Pereira, Salento is a one hour surprisingly unbumpy ride away. As with every bus ride around here, the stunning views will make you lose track of time unless you easily get motion sickness. There are high mountains covered in coffee plants and green forests everywhere. Cows are wandering on the steep slopes and somewhere in the trees with the grey leaves there is supposed to be sloths. And if nice views is not your thing, you could always spend the time admiring how the drivers, miraculously, manages to avoid driving of the cliffs despite their high speed and quick turns.

town of salento
Busy street in Salento. Photo: Pernilla Rundquist

It is not hard to find guided tours around the coffee triangle, but after some research I knew that the one I wanted to do, was the one offered by the Plantation House.

The Plantation House is a hostel and a organic coffee farm and they offer an English speaking tour every day at nine in the morning. As I got there, the owner Tim greeted me and four other tourists who were there for the tour. Tim then turned to his four dogs and asked them if they wanted to walk with us to the farm, and they all got up, eager to go. Together we started down a narrow path into the valley below. In between the trees on our sides we got glimpses of the surrounding mountains and plantations.

View above the farm. Photo: Pernilla Rundquist
View above the farm. Photo: Pernilla Rundquist

During the walk from the hostel to the farm, Tim explained what coffee needs to grow, and I got it in my head like a mantra – volcanic soil, no frost, a slope, lots of shade. He told us about the primary kinds of coffee, which is Arabica, strong in taste but low in caffeine, and Robusta, lots of caffeine but less flavor. He showed us the traditional Arabica plant with it’s lively far-reaching twigs, and the more contained modern Arabica, who stood in perfect form where it had been planted.

I was impressed by Tim’s vast knowledge and how he had an answer to every question that came up. I immediately also started to dream about having my own coffee farm, because even though it seemed like a lot of work, he also made it sound like the best thing I could possibly do with my life. The fact that coffee plants like to have a lot of fruit trees around, and that I could simultaneously grow my own avocados, bananas, mangos and all the other cool fruits, only increased my excitement. Plus, if pineapple plants aren’t the funniest plants ever then I don’t know what is.

Photo: Pernilla Rundqist
Photo: Pernilla Rundqist

When we got to the farm I was very surprised, because it didn’t look like the other plantations that I’d seen. The coffee plants I’d admired from the bus window had been planted in neat rows, like small puffs of green on the hillsides. Here, there were plants and trees of different kinds everywhere, and they all looked pretty spontaneously planted.
“Only me and my neighbour are brave – or stupid – enough to plant traditional Arabica”, Tim explained.

Planting the traditional Arabica instead of the modified modern Arabica, meant more work and a much bigger chance of failure. The traditional coffee plant is very picky, catches diseases easier and definitely needs it’s shade. That’s why, when I looked out over the plantation the first time, I thought I only saw a disarray of various plants. Now, as I looked closer, I saw the coffee plants strategically planted, and all around them were banana trees, avocado trees and various plants I do not know the name of. All of them were a part of the coffee support system, and all of it would add to the flavor of the coffee.

Photo: Pernilla Runquist
Photo: Pernilla Runquist

After having had a look around, we got some farm grown coffee, freshly roasted and brewed. The smell immediately tipped me of and I knew that I was about to experience something awesome. As I took my first sip, the flavor was so vibrant and fresh, I couldn’t help but to stare in wonder at the cup I held. This was exactly what I’d hoped to find.

While I savored every sip of the coffee, we were told about the process of how to make this magic drink. I learned that I could plant them by simply throwing a dried bean onto a patch of sand, wait for it to sprout, and then put it in a pot and let it grow even more. After six months, give or take, the plant should be ready to be put in proper soil. Eventually, there should be coffee flowers, and coffee flowers meant that coffee cherries are coming.

At first, the coffee cherries will be green. At Tims farm I thought I saw them everywhere. Occasionally there was a red or yellow one.
“This is how they look when they’re ripe”, Tim said and showed us a red and a yellow cherry. Usually they would have two harvests a year, a big one and a smaller one, but there would always be a few coffee beans ready to be picked pretty much whenever.

Due to changes in the weather though, the harvests had been acting a bit weird lately. The neighbor who also had planted traditional Arabica, had his big harvest when he was supposed to have the small one, and vice versa. No one quite knows what long term effect this will have on the farms.

When the beans had been handpicked off the branches, it was time to peel them. Tim crushed the shell of the yellow cherry and showed us the transparent, sugary, goo inside that covered the bean. That goo didn’t necessarily have to come off, some dried the beans in that state and got a sweeter coffee, but on this farm the beans was put in lots and lots of water.

The water would then turn brown and be replaced. This process was repeated until the water didn’t change color anymore. Clear water meant that all the goo was gone, and it was time to dry the beans.

While drying, Tim and his colleagues would sort the beans and throw away the discolored ones. Some bad seeds would’ve floated to the surface already during the process of soaking the beans in water, and on this farm they were thrown away. But this is when I found out why I’d had so much bad coffee in Colombia – apparently the locals often make domestic coffee out of the beans that aren’t good enough to export.

Also, during the sorting, Tim told us there would be farms who had people that just looked for one thing – round beans. Most beans was divided in two inside the coffee cherry, just like a peanut, but there was always a few that only had one, round bean. These were believed to have extra taste, and would be sold as Peaberry coffee – a speciality. Whether or not this is true, I have yet to find out.

Photo: Pernilla Rundquist
Roasting coffee beans. Photo: Pernilla Rundquist

When the beans are dry and sorted, farmers sell their harvest. The beans will then be roasted somewhere else. For the finale of the tour we got to put some beans in a pan and roast them ourselves.
“For ten to twelve minutes, more or less”, Tim’s colleague said as he stirred the pan with the beans. Apparently taking the time was useless when roasting, and experience was the most important thing.
“Do you want light, medium or dark roasted?”

We decided on medium and took turns stirring the beans so they would be evenly roasted. It was all about taking the beans off the stove in time since they would keep roasting from the inside out as they cooled down. I watched as the beans slowly went from a creamy white to a dark brown, the smell lingering heavenly in the air. After a few minutes they started crackling like popcorn. A few minutes more and they were done. The taste of the newly roasted beans was as delicious and alive in my mouth as the coffee later was, when we’d grind the still hot beans to brew ourselves a second cup.

The tour went on for three and a half hour, but every second was so interesting that I wished I could’ve stayed there for at least a couple of weeks, roasting coffee and admire the surrounding nature.

View from top of coffee house. Photo: Pernilla Rundquist
View from top of coffee house. Photo: Pernilla Rundquist

Now that I’d had awesome coffee, the coffee adventure was slowly coming to an end. But during the tour Tim had told us about Café Jesus Martín in the center of Salento. The man behind the place, Jesus, was said to be an expert at roasting coffee beans, and so of course I had to try their coffee too.

Stepping into the café later that day, I had no idea what kind of coffee to try until I noticed that they had what some like to call the Holy Grail of coffee – Gesha. Since this coffee usually is ridiculously expensive, I hesitated as I asked about the price. Normally, a good cup of coffee goes for a little less than a dollar in Colombia and now, for the Gesha, the barista wanted four dollars.

Four dollars for a cup of what’s supposed to be one of the best coffees in the world? Taken!

Photo: Pernilla Runquist
Photo: Pernilla Runquist

A minute later, the barista came over with my freshly ground Gesha beans, a small plate covering the top of the bowl as to not let any flavor particles escape. He slightly lifted the plate so I could smell it, and I was already sure that I was going to have a great cup of coffee.

Then there was the process of making it. The barista carefully placed a scale on the table in front of me, and on top of it a cup, a filter and the ground beans. Having a very serious face, he slowly poured water into the filter with such accuracy that I knew that coffee had just become a work of art. As if patience was the key to success, I watched my cup fill, drop by drop.

When the barista was done and left me with the coffee, I was all of a sudden full of doubt. Sure, the coffee still smelled great, but it looked like tea, and I am a sucker for the pitch black coffee.

I was ready to be disappointed by the taste as I took my first sip, but then I was blown away by all the flavors. It was unlike any coffee I’d ever had and probably ever will have. The taste was there. It wasn’t a flavor explosion like I’m used to, but it was undeniably full of taste. The best comparison I can think of would be that my normal cup of coffee is like a person who raises his voice in an argument, in great need to be heard over everybody else, while the Gesha coffee is the one that remains calm yet firm, and with an aura of great authority. Or perhaps it could also be compared to the old man in a fantasy book, who’s actually a bad ass sorcerer, but you don’t find out about his great wisdom and power until there’s a reason for him to reveal it. So I suppose looks can be deceiving, even when it comes to coffee.

Photo: Pernilla Rundquist
Photo: Pernilla Rundquist

Other than that, it’s been days since I had the Gesha and I am still mind blown. Can I call it heaven in a cup, or is that too dorky? It is however undeniable that with these cups of coffee in a small mountain village, I did not only complete my mission about finding good coffee, I went far beyond that. The Coffee Triangle really proved to be a kind of paradise, and I have probably started the transition from being a caffeine addict to becoming a coffee nerd who just can’t get enough of – and know enough about – coffee.