A coffee tour that keeps you pedalling for more

7 November 2014

Words & Photos: Sean Jansen

If you look beyond the history and controversy of Colombia, you will find a country that has not only moved on considerably from their past, when Pablo Escobar was running things, but one that has something for everyone. It has the tropical climes of the Amazon, Caribbean and Pacific coasts, as well as the breathtaking Andes Mountains and super cities. However, if you were to delve deeper into the areas surrounding the Andes, you would find Zona Cafeteria, a region famous for its coffee.

The icing on the cake. After an afternoon of coffee and mountain biking, we took a hike through a valley where we were waiting for a dinosaur to walk by.

In the old days, horses were used to transport the coffee.

The walk into the finca where our coffee tour began. Right around the corner is the hillside where the coffee is grown.

I visited Colombia for the first time many years ago, arriving via a five-day sailboat crossing from Panama. While on this boat trip, the Colombian couple whom were in charge introduced me to the local coffee. Now, I have had Panamanian, Indonesian, Bolivian, and Brazilian coffee, to name only a few, but it is the Colombian coffee that sweeps them all off their feet. It is rich with a thick coffee flavour, but also smooth enough so that you don't need to add cream or sugar to enjoy it.

The region I visited on that first trip is close to the sleepy village of Salento, a paradise suspended in time and place I have since returned to for a third time. While Salento is quite stunning in its own right, most who venture to this small town go there to visit the justifiably famous Valle de Cocora. This nature reserve is home to Colombia's national tree, the beautiful wax palm (palma de cera), which just happens to be the tallest palm in the world. At heights of up to 60 metres, these palms look like they should have featured in the film Jurassic Park.

But what many tourists don’t know about Salento is that it is a coffee hot spot and one of the country’s top export regions.

Not only is the coffee produced here excellent, there are some really cool tours to go on and getting to the plantations and surrounding areas is half the fun.

Exploring the plantations

Salento is about 15 miles from Armenia, a bigger city, but it takes 45 minutes to get there. With that being said, the only way to get to Salento's coffee plantations are via dirt roads, some of which are impossible to drive on. Therefore, you can walk, ride a horse or grab a couple mountain bikes - the latter being the travel mode we chose, and what turned out to be a fantastic way to explore the plantations.

Jumping on our rented bikes, we cruised along the dirt roads, roller coasting up and down the terrain of the Andes and taking in the scenery that had a prehistoric look to it. In fact, we wouldn't have batted an eye if a dinosaur had come sauntering out of the vegetation and crossed the road. While trying to breath at 6,000 feet, we momentarily forgot what the purpose of our trip was because we were so completely mesmerized by the sheer bizarreness yet beauty of this place. A place God clearly intended to remain lost forever. Yet, this was one of the country's top export regions, so it was all quite mind blowing. Continuing along the bumpy dirt road, we passed beautiful farms and plantations that you wouldn’t mind calling your own.

After about 45 minutes of the most jaw-dropping and breathtaking scenery, we arrived at the plantation and were immediately taken to the finca, where we were shown and educated about coffee. Educated on how it comes from a plant and is then transformed into an aromatic liquid that people from the world over have come to love.

All about coffee

While on the tour, we learnt a lot of interesting facts and information about coffee, such as that it is grown between altitudes of 1,800 and 6,000 feet on the side of a mountain. It's planted with plantain and banana trees because they help each other grow and are thus beneficial to each other. We also learnt that Colombia is a special place to grow coffee. This is because other coffee-growing regions around the world only have one real growing and harvesting season due to their location. Since Colombia sits almost on the equator, it is not affected by the seasonal changes that other countries go through. Therefore, it has two growing seasons, not just one, so coffee is produced all year round. The guide went on to explain how to pick the coffee beans, how the colour determines if it is ready to be picked and what taste you would get from a particular colour. He also demonstrated how to peel the bean from the casing it is grown in.

Keen to try this ourselves, we picked a coffee bean from the plant and tried our best to peel back the skin to get to the bean, which was no easy task. It's really quite finicky and time consuming. A task, the guide told us, we would have been paid about 10 cents an hour. Once we finally revealed the bean, it was a light brownish color, ready to go into the caldron for cooking.

The process

The coffee we drink and beans we buy at the store are black because they are first cooked so that they are ready to be ground and brewed to our desire. But they don’t look like that when they are first picked from the plant. To make a single cup of coffee, a picker has to pick around 40 to 100 beans. If I was a picker, it would have taken me about an hour to pick and peel the beans; a lot of effort for a cuppa. The beans are then put out in the sun to dry, to help speed up the cooking process. The drying can take up to a couple days, depending on the weather. Once dried, the beans are then placed in what is known as a popper.

A popper is a device that not only heats up to an incredible temperature but also stirs the beans every two to three seconds until they turn a dark brownish, black colour. At this point, they are taken out of the popper and cooled for approximately 12 hours. Then, after the many hours it has taken to pick, peel, dry and cook them, you are finally ready to have your first cup of coffee. Oh, and after grinding them, of course.

Countryside cruising

After a delicious cup of coffee, we got back on our bikes feeling energized and happily continued to cruise around the Andes Mountains and this amazing region, the Zona Cafeteria.

Now, two of my most favorite things in the world are coffee and cycling. To be able to enjoy both of them in a setting as spectacular as anything you may have seen in Avatar, I’m not sure my afternoon cycle could have been any better.

The scenery to get the finca reminded me of the scenery in the movies Jurassic Park and Avatar.

The guide takes us along the hill slope to explain what the coffee plants needed to survive.

There's nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked beans.

The beans are bagged and ready to go to market.

Beauty is everywhere you look.

What one type of coffee looks like in its casing. It took me about one minute to peel back the casing to get to one bean.

Travel tips

When to go

Like I said above, the weather and climate in Colombia don’t change too much, if at all. As it sits not far from the equator, it only really has two seasons; the wet season and dry season. The wet season is roughly from April to November, with a weird dry month in July. And the dry season is from December to March. I was there in September and did get rained on, but it wasn’t anything to keep me from going outside and enjoying nature. But given your own limitations and what you want to do, you can choose when you would like to go.

Getting there

Fly from Bogota, the capital of Colombia, to Armenia, and then go by road to the magic village of Salento. If you travel by road from Bogota, it is 278 kilometres to Armenia (about 7 hours), also using the Coffee Highway, which connects Quindio and Risaralda to Manizales. The remaining 25 km to Salento takes about 45 minutes. There are also buses that run from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and come about every 20 to 30 minutes from Armenia and one every hour to Pereira.

Best way to get around

There are numerous transport options in and around the city. The best way, I found, was to simply walk. The town is not flat by any means, so renting a bike and cycling round the city can be exhausting, but well worth the effort. Many people to explore by horseback with a guide, who takes you around the city and surrounding areas. And finally there are also Willys (a type of Jeep) and Land Rovers with the roofs chopped off. You can cruise around in one of these for a fare of about 3,500 pesos. The preferred methods for me were to ride a bike or walk.

Salento cuisine

Salento has many different restaurants from local eateries to western accommodations. If there is one dish everyone has to try it is the trucha con platanos. It is a dish of trout (the local fish in the rivers of the region) with deep fried plantain chips and rice or beans. Absolutely fabulous.

What to do

• Visit one of the many organic coffee fincas in the area.
• Check out the Mirador, the lookout point, as it is supposed to offer one of the best views in Colombia.
• Hire a mountain bike and go for a full day or an hour's ride. There are a range of trails around the area that provide something for everyone; from relative beginners to those who want something a bit more technical. Some of the trails afford some spectacular views across the area and coffee plantations.
• Take a trip to Kasaguadua Natural Reserve, with its 12 hectares of lush tropical rain forest and a mountainous landscape that protects a natural creek. There is a network of well-maintained looping trails (4 km) that are achievable in 1.5 hours up to 6 hours.
• Hire a guide, saddle up a horse and cruise around the city and some of the areas outside of town in style.
• Depending on the season, go fishing for the elusive trucha and make your own trout dish.
• And sometimes the best thing to do is just sit back in a hammock and enjoy the view of the valley from whichever hostel or living arrangement you decide on, while sipping on some delicious coffee.

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Welcome to the 7 November 2014 issue of DO IT NOW Magazine.