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In search of the perfect cup of coffee, we trace the process from bean to barista in Salento, Colombia.
A call to adventure comes in many forms and can draw travellers to unforeseen places. As I sat shoulder to shoulder with my partner for our seventh hour of bus travel, I willed my mind to remind me why I was on a windy road to Salento. Instead of a sweaty mini-bus, my nose fabricated the scent of dark roast, my ears replaced the sound of rapid-fire Spanish with the hiss of steam, and my taste buds tingled at the imagined sensation of a freshly brewed espresso pouring into me. Legendary coffee was my lure.
The road to a perfect cup is as much a labyrinth as the mountains we travelled on. Fresh grounds, a level shot, silky crema. It’s a fickle drink and the specific growing conditions of its beans are just as binding. Most coveted beans come from Arabica plants that require a delicate balance of temperature, rainfall and distinct seasons. A large part of Colombia has them all.
We took stock of our rural surrounds on the side of a hill. The jagged horizon shaped by the Cordillera Central was a stark contrast to the rows of trees that run up the land below us. We were at Finca Don Eduardo with the owner, Timothy, whose knowledge and British accent likened him to David Attenborough (albeit for coffee). Colombian coffee is known for its hand-picked harvesting practices and, as we were taken through the rows, we learned how Don Eduardo takes it this practice a step further by harvesting only single sub-varieties of Arabica for purer produce.
It was in front of a device that separated bright red coffee cherries into export and local quality that Timothy delivered an unsavoury truth. “People expect to drink a good cup of coffee in Colombia,” he said, “[but] historically all the good coffee is exported.” We’re told that the low-grade beans are typically ground into instant or used in local cafés. I’m saved from complete heartbreak when he explains that increased international tourism is helping to change the hometown coffee scene.
As a life-long coffee fiend, I know that a bad roast can ruin any bean, and after what we learned at Finca Don Eduardo we were eager to sample the state of the local brew. We started at Café Jesús Martín which is named after its creator, the grandfather of local café culture. Martín’s decision to give equal attention and care to roasting as he did to growing sparked a rise in local cafés serving coffee at a higher standard.
We had another delicious cup on the terrace of Mankala Café-Galeria, one of the many coffee houses on the Calle Real (the main tourist thoroughfare). While its colourful, painted facade was typical of the Quindío region, inside the café was punctuated by local art and shelves stacked with vintage trinkets.
From our windowside vantage point, we watched people on the street. Men that resembled the mythical Juan Valdez (a fictional character created to represent Colombian coffee growers) walked in and out of a billiard hall and visiting families browsed through artisan jewellery and tourist tat. It was the weekend and the majority of visitors were here from Bogotá or Medellin. Ordinarily, a crowd like this would be one that we’d avoid, but this felt different. The scene was an energised mix of excited visitors and locals yet to be jaded by tourism, a combination that would lead to spontaneous outbursts of street salsa after dark.
It felt strange to be positively drawn to a marketing trap, but I was also happy that Colombia had a new tale to push. Ask most people what they know about Colombia and its likely that their response will include decades-long guerrilla warfare, the drug cartels of the 80s or the television series Narcos that perpetuates this narrative today. It’s no surprise that marketers have latched onto the opportunity to make the most of a more palatable tale.
Countless cups left me satiated and ready to explore Colombia’s lesser-known national treasure: the wax palm. Most journey to nearby Cocora Valley to see Colombia’s national tree, but we heeded Timothy’s sage advice and had our first look at the world’s tallest palms with Salento Cycling.
The downhill tour took us to La Carbonera, a small farm only a short drive from Salento. I spotted my first wax palm from the back of the pick-up truck in a pine tree plantation. Our guide Eduardo said: “La Carbonera is going to become an icon in the next five years… I will never forget my first time in that forest.” Neither would I.
At the end of the road, pines cleared to give us a surreal view of thousands of wax palms growing on the mountainside. I would never have imagined myself on a farm beside grazing cows looking out at a high-altitude palm forest shooting into the mist. It was a beautiful bizarre, Seuss-like landscape. Despite being a novice mountain biker, I make it through the rocky downhill back into town alive. It was strange to ride from above the clouds back into a town that now felt like a theme-park in comparison.
We continued our outskirt escape in one of the many eco-lodges found in the area. The very real environmental strain associated with tourism was not lost on me, so witnessing the ardent sustainable effort made at EcoLodge Kasaguadua was a comfort. Tourism has helped people see a safe future for investment in Colombia, which allowed owners William, Nicholas and Carlos to pursue this passion project in their home country.
The lodge is accessible only by walking into Kasaguadua Natural Reserve and requires all guests to follow a set of rules (including only using house soap) designed to help conserve its surrounds. A tour of the property gave us more insight into how this off-the-grid paradise was created and exactly what they were trying to preserve. The owners have figured out a way to cater to tourists without losing sight of their goal. It’s a vision I hope can be replicated across the region.
My final coffee in Salento was at the intercity bus station. The familiar aroma drew me to a single barista serving coffee from a small window. There was no ambience, just an empty dirt bus lot, early morning herders and a street dog. Everything about that final cappuccino delighted my senses. Some say that the taste of coffee can take you around the world without you leaving your home, but my visit to Salento proved that it can do so much more. When a sip takes me back to these moments I know my pilgrimage was worth it.
The main draw of Kasaguadua is sleeping in an eco-friendly geodesic dome in the jungle. It’s serious about sustainability, but well-placed art, cosy reading nooks and attention to detail make it feel more boutique than hippie.
Timothy of Finca Don Eduardo also owns the first backpacker hostel in Salento. The Plantation House has the advantage of being close enough to town if needed, and far enough to make the most the quiet of the countryside.
Brunch serves up hearty burgers and nachos (with delicious vegetarian options) along with homemade sauces and coconut lemonade. Packed lunches are also available for hikers.
This café and restaurant is one of the few in Salento that offers contemporary gourmet meals. It is also a beautiful spot for a well-mixed afternoon cocktail with a view.
Eduardo of Salento Cycling believes Salento has the best roads for mountain biking in Colombia. Inexperienced cyclers won’t find this impossible and are encouraged to ride at their own pace, ideal for taking in the spectacular views.
In most countries, drinking beer while throwing a weight at fireworks would be considered madness. In Colombia, tejo is a popular pastime. It’s just as entertaining to watch experienced players fling weights with precision and newcomers go for the biggest bang.
If you’ve had your fill of regular espresso, try one of the more curious concoctions on offer (such as passionfruit and condensed milk iced lattes) at this historic café.
Getting to Ocaso Coffee House involves a ride in a local jeep ‘Willy’ which carts visitors from the Zocalo to Salento’s surrounds. The café is on a farm which affords you the peace of a coffee with a view.
You know how you have that one incredible friend who knows their city inside out? That’s us. We take the world’s most dynamic destinations, hand-pick the best bits and give them to you in one place. This is the kind of guide that you don’t need to run by a local – it was written by one. Eat your heart out, shop until you drop, drink like a fish, dance your socks off, sleep – then repeat.
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