After spending 3 nights in Armenia with our host, we took a bus 40 minutes to Salento, known as the jump-off point for Valle de Cocoro and coffee plantation tours. From the center of town we walked 30-40 minutes to a small finca (coffee farm) called Ocaso. For $4 we given an explanation of how coffee beans (actually fruit seeds) are grown, harvested, processed, roasted and eventually turned into drinkable coffee (which we were allowed to sample).
Coffee seeds are generally planted in large beds in shaded nurseries. After sprouting, the seedlings are removed from the seed bed to be planted in individual pots in carefully formulated soils. They will be watered frequently and shaded from bright sunlight until they are hearty enough to be permanently planted. Planting often takes place during the wet season, so that the soil around the young trees remains moist while the roots become firmly established.
Depending on the variety, it will take approximately 3 or 4 years for the newly planted coffee trees to begin to bear fruit. The fruit, called the coffee cherry, turns a bright, deep red when it is ripe and ready to be harvested. In most countries, the coffee crop is picked by hand, a labor-intensive and difficult process (in Colombia it allows the pickers to selectively choose berries and identify problems such as disease), though in places like Brazil, where the landscape is relatively flat and the coffee fields immense, the process has been mechanized.
After our image aided explanation (in Spanish and often translated by our Dutch friends), we were turned loose and tasked to pick as many red coffee berries as we could find–again red berries are ripe, green berries are not. In most coffee-growing countries, there is one major harvest a year; though in countries like Colombia, where there are two flowerings a year, there is a main and secondary crop. A good picker averages approximately 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherry a day, which will produce 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans. At the end of a day of picking, each worker’s harvest is carefully weighed and each picker is paid on the merit of his or her work. The day’s harvest is then combined and transported to the processing plant.
Once the coffee has been picked, processing must begin as quickly as possible to prevent spoilage. Depending on location and local resources, coffee is processed in one of two ways. The dry method, the age-old method of processing coffee used in many countries where water resources are limited, and the wet method (used at the finca we toured), where the pulp is removed from the coffee cherry after harvesting and the bean is dried with only the parchment skin left on. Then the beans are separated by weight as they are conveyed through water channels, the lighter beans floating to the top, while the heavier, ripe beans sink to the bottom. Next they are passed through a series of rotating drums which separate them by size before being dried to prepare them for storage. These beans can be sun dried by spreading them on drying tables, where they are turned regularly. Once dried, these beans, are stored in large bags until they are readied for export. In Colombia, the premier beans are exported, while the lesser quality beans are consumed locally.
While enjoying a cup of some of the finest coffee in Colombia the weather decided to turn on us. The ensueing torrential downpour ensured we had plenty of time to talk with the three college students from the Netherlands we met on the tour. Once the rain subsided we all took a Willy (an open roofed jeep) back into town and found a restaurant for lunch to try the local specialty, Trucha (trout). We enjoyed a bountiful meal, a short hike to a lookout point, and a few beers later that night in the town square where we watched the local track / cross-country team train. We were humbled by the proud track coach and he introduced us to some of his national champions, one of which was a young deaf and mute girl who was truly inspiring.
We decided to grab dinner and headed to a spot for curry Lisa discovered during her research. It turned out to be an amazing decision; the tikka masala and naan were as soul quenching as the owner’s story. He was born in Madrid, had worked in Rome and London developing IT software and mapping applications, before moving to Salento where he and wife have lived for the past three years. They opened a quaint pizza/curry/coffee café, and after flattering their cooking prowess, we exchanged contact information to swap recipes. He further advised us to visit Buga, a small town outside of Cali, to stay at an impressive hostel that makes artisanal beer and bakes their own bread. Salento thoroughly satisfied and further inspired us.