Salento, Colombia – A glimpse into Juan Valdez’s coffee country
In Colombia, about a hundred miles west of Bogota and just over one hundred miles south of Medellin, is the small mountain town of Salento. Located in Colombia’s central mountain range at an elevation of approximately 6,200 feet (≈1,900 meters), the town of just over seven thousand residents has become a destination for Colombians and internationals alike to visit coffee farms. I went to Salento to learn more about how Colombian coffee is grown.
The town of Salento, with its Spanish colonial square, is quite welcoming. It feels like a small urban oasis in the middle of the mountains. There are places to stay, places to eat, and there’s transportation for hire. Visitors can easily find a jeep to transport them to the coffee plantations and the surrounding mountain landscape. The bus from Pereira (the nearest city), drops everyone off in the middle of town after an hour-long drive.
Upon arrival in Salento, a group of Colombians from the bus kindly extends me an invite to join them for the afternoon in the green mountains of the Corcora Valley, about a half hour from drive the main square by jeep. It’s a bit of a bonus attraction for me, and definitely worth the trip. The Corcora Valley is know for its towering quindio wax palm trees, which can grow nearly two hundred feet tall (60 meters). After sunset, we find the same jeep to take us back to town, where my Colombian friends just barely make it on the 8:00 bus back to Pereira. Given Salento’s small size, the streets have a surprising amount of nightlife; but it’s best to get some sleep for an early hike towards the coffee farms.
Early in the morning, Fernando, the owner of the bed and breakfast, explains the route to the three main coffee fincas (plantations). It’s about an hour hike from town, about two miles down a dirt road with green vegetation on either side. Only a few cars pass by on the way to the fincas, as well as a few dogs who run back and forth between the town and the fincas at their leisure.
Reaching the fincas shortly before 9:00 after about an hour of walking, the neighborhood is very quiet, employees are just starting to arrive for the day. Albany, the young woman at the outdoor coffee bar, welcomes me to Las Acacias Coffee Farm and makes me a fresh espresso. She asks if I’m interested in touring the finca, and tells me it will cost 12,000 Colombian Pesos (about $3.50 in US Dollars). She tells me the guide will be arriving shortly.
One can see that Las Acacias is a legitimate coffee farm, it’s not just a hospitality gimmick. The family that owns the finca lives in the house next to the coffee tasting patio. Their cows, chickens, and goats live between the house and the surrounding coffee parcels. There’s a man milking one of the cows, so I ask Albany if I can have fresh milk for my cup of coffee. It’s wishful thinking on my part, she tells me the milk they serve to customers is from a supplier.
As I’m sipping my coffee, Cristian, the finca tour guide, arrives wearing the same blue “Las Acacias Coffee Farm” polo shirt that Albany is wearing. Soon thereafter, two women arrive by horseback, a local woman who gives Cristian a friendly greeting, and Christie, who is visiting Colombia from Barcelona. Cristian, Christie, and I introduce ourselves while we drink our coffee, and we confirm that we all speak Spanish before starting the tour.
Cristian starts by telling us about the coffee industry in Salento and about Las Acacias Coffee Farm. The Salento fincas are located at the upper edge of the maximum elevation at which coffee can grow, so while the beans are good quality, these are not heavy production plantations compared to the plantations in other parts of Colombia. This is the main reason for the supplemental activities including the livestock, the bananas growing alongside the coffee, and the tours themselves. In aggregate, these different business activities create a diversified revenue stream that is sufficient to support the small family operation.
Moving to a large planter box, Cristian shows us how coffee seeds (unprocessed coffee beans) are planted. Under Cristian’s guidance, we squeeze a few red coffee cherries to extract the fresh beans. We poke holes in the soil with a metal stake the size of a turkey baster to plant the seeds. Further to the right in the planter box are some sprouted seedlings, Cristian explains that the best seedlings are carefully removed and transplanted to small bags of soil, and later the best plants are transplanted to the “lotes,” the different parcels within the finca. It’s a selective process to become a production quality coffee plant (“cafeto”). Cristian mentions that coffee plants are in a bit of a gray area between being a bush or a tree. It’s true, they are an awkward size that makes classifying them a challenge, even for descriptive purposes.
Walking alongside the coffee plants, Cristian tells us that it takes a few years for a coffee plant to mature enough to bear fruit (usually three years). The plants then produce for about twenty years, though their production life can be extended five years by cutting the trunk and allowing the plant to regenerate from its root-base. The schedules of each parcel are carefully managed, and since there are essentially no seasons in this region (as multiple Colombians have told me), the harvest for each parcel is done in rotation throughout the year. Alongside the coffee plants are banana trees with the large palm leaves, the two plants complement each other in a variety of ways, although more so for the benefit of the coffee plants. The large banana palms provide shade from the hot sun both for the coffee plants and for the coffee workers. We see some coffee harvesters walking down the hill with large sacks of coffee cherries, but they’re busy working, so we don’t get a chance to meet them.
Cristian then shows us the different stages of processing for the coffee beans, as well as the machinery and equipment that is used for each process. Once the coffee cherries are picked, the coffee beans go through the following steps:
Removing the coffee beans from the soft red coffee cherries
Fermenting the coffee beans (one to two days) to remove the pulp surrounding the beans
Drying the coffee beans on drying tables (stretched canvas shelves)
Milling the beans to remove the thin outer layer (similar to the thin dry parchment that surrounds peanuts)
The result of the above steps is the finished “green” coffee beans that are ready for roast or for export. Roasting is generally done by coffee roasteries, each using their own techniques. The different roasts are determined more by duration rather than temperature, although since coffee roasting is both an art and science, there’s various roasting methods. Generally roasting occurs at 375°F±25° (≈190°C±10°) for eight to twelve minutes. We were not given a live demonstration, but Cristian and Albany give us some roasted beans to crank through the large grinder that is mounted on the center post in the patio.
Now that we’ve walked through the entire process, Albany uses the fresh grounds to prepare each of us a cup of coffee, and it’s delicious! It’s not really a surprise, since we already had a cup earlier when we arrived, but the coffee is even more enjoyable after having seen where it comes from. We relax for a bit on the patio as we finish our coffee, it’s a great way to end the tour of Las Acacias Coffee Farm.
Outside the coffee bar, Christie’s horse is acting weird. They tell us it was bitten by a caterpillar, so her guide sends for a different horse from town for the return journey. I leave Las Acacias and walk past the other fincas towards the river, which I’m told will lead me back to town. The path is hard to find, so I eventually end up in the front seat of a jeep that passes by, which is soon carrying ten people, including three standing on the back bumper. The jeep drops me off near the Salento bus station, where I reserve a seat to Pereira before going to retrieve my large backpack from Fernando. It’s pretty hot outside, so I stop for an iced coffee.
Twenty-four hours after leaving the airport in Bogota, I’m off to Medellin by bus, having seen far more than expected during my short stay in Salento. It was a surprisingly efficient travel excursion between two of Colombia’s largest cities, and despite the quick speed of the visit, Salento was relaxing change of pace.