I’ve never been a coffee connoisseur. I tossed coffee back by the 24 oz paper cup for the pick-me-up, not the flavor. Could just as well be siphoned from the office can, pumped at a gas station, or a five-spot cup of hipster brew excreted from the pits of cherries pooped out by feral cats. I was indiscriminate. And by now I could probably have paid for a year of my child’s education at some fancy private high school…all through the purchase of mediocre coffee. But that was then before I traveled to a place proudly distinguished as the Coffee Triangle.
Wedged between the Pacific and the Andes, and straddling just 5˚ North of the equator, sits a small plot of Colombian soil that is acidic, hosts mild temps, and gets steady moisture. So much so that in fact, that the rain comes not once, but twice a year in April and October, dumping upwards of 10 feet of rain each year. The yields of this trifecta? Near-perfect grounds for what some deem to be the very best coffee fruit in the world, Coffea arabica.
The Arabica bean is a delicate berry that only flourishes at specific altitudes under-regulated temperatures, with precise sun, unique soil and buckets of rain. And it’s grown on steep hills … hills too steep to harvest by machine. Colombia is the third largest producer of arabica beans and fills over 11.5 million jute bags packed with ripe, red berries each year … and you guessed it, all of them stuffed with berries picked by hand.
Sure, you can still manage to get a poor cup of coffee in paradise. In fact, much of the Triangle’s beans are exported to North America and across the Atlantic to Europe. But a younger entrepreneurial spirit has caught a whiff of a good thing and great grounds can be found in abundance. Even in the smallest town. Here’s our guide to finding your own fresh coffee experience in Colombia’s coffee triangle.
Most of Colombia’s coffee plantations are small, family-run fincas (or farms). We made an impromptu visit to Finca El Mirador outside of Filandia (which is currently closed to the public while being remodeled). Still, the staff threw opened the doors, handed us a cup of coffee and gave us the nickel tour. We were mesmerized by the rows of arabica and checked out the roaster and the sorting machinery. The estate has plans to reopen in December for tours and will even rent out a room for the night.
If you are planning a visit to Colombia, you will most certainly want to swing through the Cocora Valley, home to the Seussical forest of wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world. Though now somewhat “discovered” by backpackers making their way through South America, Salento is the launching point into the Cocora Valley and hosts a pair of fincas just outside of town.
El Ocaso, a traditional family finca, sitting five klicks outside of Salento and offers 6 daily tours where visitors can walk the fields learn about the planting process tour watch how beans are stripped, dried and processed for delivery.
For a more authentic experience, check out The Plantation House. The 100 year old Plantation house sits in Salento and offers tours in english to its own local farm, Don Eduardo, where you can get schooled on harvesting, drying and roasting the local coffee cherries.
To the north of Salento (and just south of Manizales), Hacienda Venecia has been harvesting and processing coffee beans for over 100 years. The hacienda has a bed and breakfast with a main lodge, lodge, and hostel that can meet any budget. With sustainable cultivation and empowering local farmers, the Hacienda is the perfect blend of eco-lodge and social responsibility and is a fantastic hub to launch an immersive coffee experience in the triangle.
For an immersive experience that brings you from berry to brew, (and is widely hailed as the best coffee tour in Colombia) take time to spend a few hours with Experiencia Cafetera in the vibrant town of Pijao. The working plantation offers a Wakecup tour, where visitors can follow the bean from when its picked in the fields to hitching a ride on a Jeep Willys to the plantation for processing. Oh yeah, and the offer unlimited cups of their specialty coffee. Need we say more.
If coffee is the heart of the triangle, the Jeep Willys is the circulatory system. Sold off to the Colombian Government after WWII, the Willys found a new home on the steep slopes of the Andes. The reliable (and repairable) jeep quickly replaced the mule and has become a staple in the Colombian highlands, hauling coffee (and people) off the verdant slopes. Each year Yipao Jeep Parades celebrate the role of the Willys with stout loads and decorative kitsch. Even if you can’t make a parade, catching a ride in a Jeep Willys is a must do on your visit.
Interested in touring this area by bike? Check out our full bikepacking route and story of this trip on Bikerumor.com!