Story and photos by Timothy Scott
The ballsy Colombian tourism slogan is “The only risk is wanting to stay.” This is definitely true in the beautiful coffee region of central Colombia, where imbibing too much caffeine is the only thing likely to give you the jitters.
People give you funny looks when you say you’re going on vacation in Colombia. Although the tourism press has been touting Cartagena for a while and people keep coming back raving, perceptions take time to turn around. Fair or not, it’s going to take a while before people say of your Colombian travel plans, “That sounds fantastic!” instead of “Um, really?”
For those intrepid travelers who aren’t five years behind on their international news, however, there’s a big advantage to this lag: not many other tourists. I see signs of this before even landing since my plane is filled with people who have family in the region. Our flight to Armenia, Colombia is the very first international flight to the Coffee Triangle area. People are waving to the plane from in front of their houses; a brass band plays as we disembarked, and executives from Spirit Air pose with the mayor and governor for photos. Local TV film crews jostle for position and school group kids sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
It’s safe to say you won’t be sharing the beauty of this mountainous region with hordes of your own countrymen anytime soon. Most of the visitors at this point are from other parts of Colombia and there is only really one tour company with English-speaking guides serving the area: Colombia 57. The guides are anxious to show more foreigners around this gorgeous part of the Americas.
The Land of Abundant Coffee
Apart from another stimulant that starts with “c,” Colombia's best-known export is coffee. Long before Starbucks came along and we got serious about what we put into our French press at home, Colombia cranked out coffee by the ship container load, the more volume the better.
In some ways, that success in the past has also been its curse in the present. The most popular coffee shop in my town calls Colombian “the Bud Light of coffee.” You can’t ask for better soil than they have in this country, but the productivity has been a mixed blessing. High volume, sunny plantations, and a subjugation of the real processing and roasting work have resulted in too much low-grade Colombian coffee in gas stations, not enough quality beans in specialty shops serving complex brews. Some smaller producers are adjusting, embracing concepts like organic, shade-grown, and fair trade, but it takes years to go from planning to fruition.
Thankfully, unlike in many other coffee producing countries, much of the good stuff is available within Colombia itself. As I tour coffee farms and order little tinto cups in restaurants, I drink more good Colombian coffee in a week than I have the whole past year at home. The bag of dark-roasted fuerte beans I bring back from the Juan Valdez store in Manizales is a clear step above what I’ve purchased in the past from this country.
Everywhere you look in the countryside around Manizales, Piedra, and Armenia, there are coffee farms. There’s even a coffee museum with a big amusement park—Parque Nacional del Café—where dancers do a whole show celebrating coffee harvesting.
On one of the farm tours I get the usual stroll among the ripening beans and the drying racks. But then that’s followed by insight into the whole outfit and accessories that farmers and pickers traditionally wore. I enjoy all this while sipping an excellent brew made with care.
And in how many holiday places can you zipline through fields of coffee plants? That’s the set-up at El Bosque del Saman in Montenegro, where we strap on harnesses and whiz past plantain trees and over coffee shrubs to go from platform to platform. The hotel complex folds activities like this, coffee harvesting, and farm animal care into the more standard lodging and meals plan.