Monday, July 23, 2012

Mommy, Where Does Coffee Come From?

Well, curious little one, think back to your last great cup of coffee. Mmm, that’s smooth. Now, think back to what you were doing 5 years ago. *Queue the dream sequence* While you were busy doing that, somewhere far, far away on a magical farm in Quindio, Colombia, a little coffee bean was being planted in hopes that one day it would grow up to be the best pot o’ joe in the world. The coffee making process is a painstaking one, taking 4 to 5 years from seed to brew. So I hope you took a moment to wake up and smell the sweat and tears in that last great cup! It’s ok if you didn’t, how could you have known? Who’d have thought?! Next time…     

Here’s a visual breakdown of the extensive process.

My sister, brother-in-law, and I fly from Bogota to coffee’s heartland, the department of Quindio, Colombia. We put our sleeping masks on, take a deep breath, and prepare for landing. The flight is barely half an hour from Bogota to Pereira, yet the geography and climate is completely different. (Colombia makes up .8% of land in the world, but ranks #3 in biodiversity. From jungles to snowy peaks to beaches, there’s a little bit of everything.) A driver picks us up, which is included in our hotel arrangements- highly recommended. This region is pretty rural and convenient public transportation would be near impossible.

It’s 8 a.m. and reggaeton is bumping on LA f.m. Weaving it & out on the corkscrew roads, we pass beautiful rolling hills of plantains, avocado, corn, guava, orange, sugarcane, tomatoes, pineapple, yucca, and of course the reigning crop of this area - coffee. There’s also a bamboo tree everywhere called Guadua that most of the buildings and bridges are constructed with.     

We arrive at Panaca, a large farming theme park set amidst coffee fields that emphasizes the importance of farming and agriculture. The entrance sign reads “Without the country, there’s no city.” Beef and pork are in almost every Colombian dish. They actually just call it ‘meat’ here. “Do you want chicken or meat?” So it makes sense to educate people on what they're eating. Overall, there are over 4,000 species of animals in Panaca. Live animal shows with a bit of comedy run all day throughout the park: pig races, cattle shows, dog shows (no, they don’t eat dog), and an UNBELIEVABLE horse show to top it all off. Really. Do not miss this. Stunts only seen on TV. Peep some memorable moments in the video below. Feed a goat and milk a cow at the petting zoo. Hold a little, wittle piglet, omgooosh, they’re so cute, soo precious, my baby voice is on, can you tell, ohhh can you?

Panaca is home to the highest zipline in Colombia. It is AMAZING. Ziplines are always exhilarating, but this particular one is a once in a lifetime experience. I hear there are higher in Brazil, to be honest, I can’t even imagine. Flying hundreds of feet over lush jungle and coffee fields while my sister floats by on the line parallel to mine - so surreal. Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed on this one.  You’ll have to experience it for yourself.

Another great attraction nearby is Parque Nacional del Cafe. Another theme park, this time celebrating coffee. Walk through the process of how coffee is grown and produced amongst varieties of coffee plants from all around the world. See the “coffee show” which features outstanding singing and dancing representing all the diverse districts of Colombia. Ride horses around the perimeter of the park or cool off on the water rides and roller coasters. The huge park is nestled on the side of a mountain, so expect lots of walking. Conveniently, there are a lot of coffee beverages available to keep the energy up.

Hire a driver to take you to the nearby town of Filandia to peruse the town square consisting of shops, hole-in-the-wall bars, a picturesque church, and cafes. One would assume that the coffee in the coffee capital of the world would be delicious. And one would be absolutely right. It’s crazy fresh. Drink up.

Keep driving to the Valle de Cocora, a lush tropical valley lined with rail thin wax palms. Due to the altitude and position of the valley, it rains a little everyday creating a humid climate and mysterious fog amongst these towering stalks. Beautiful. To prevent the extinction of the wax palms (mainly due to Palm Sunday Catholic celebrations), the government declared the valley a preserved wildlife sanctuary and the wax palm became the national tree and symbol of Colombia.

Nearby Salento is a busy tourist town full of really unique artisan shops and cafes. Indulge in locally grown macadamia nut ice cream (the nuts, that is, ice cream trees only grow in my dreams.) And all of the buildings are brightly colored, perfect for photographing.

El Tipos and Factos:

1. Colombia produces 10% of the world’s Arabica coffee, second only to Brazil. 90% of it is exported.

2. An all-inclusive hotel with transportation included would definitely be the way to go in the coffee region. Decameron Panaca would be really convenient if you plan on visiting the parks. The resort’s design is pretty modern and there is entertainment nightly. If you’re looking for more rustic, home-y accommodations, I would definitely recommend the hacienda we stayed at, El Bosque Del Saman. It's not very glamorous- no air conditioning or flat screen, but yummy homemade meals are included and the beers are cheap. Though the biggest benefit of all is that it actually sits in the middle of a coffee farm. Walk through the fields with a guide, pick coffee beans, put them in your basket, grind them, roast them, and what comes out is the freshest coffee you will ever have in your whole life. Guaranteed. The resort also has a zipline with 7 tracks running high above the fields with a great view of the mountains and a Survivor-type obstacle course to test your athletic strength. Whoosh.* Danielle came and conquered. Juan Carlos and I drank beers and cheered her on.
Whoosh.-Colombians say this a lot, especially when watching futbol. An entire stadium will say it in unison, usually when something is a close call.

Sunset at El Bosque Del Saman

3. Out of 9,000 bird species in the world, Colombia has around 1,800 of them.

4. Colombian people have nicknames for each other according to what district they live in. People from the coffee region are called Paisa. If you’re from the coast, you’re a Costeno. People from Bogota are called Rolo or Cachaco. Colombians from Huila and Tolima are Opitas. You’re a Llaneros if you’re from the plain region of Llanos. 

5. Trout served with plantain is a very popular dish in this region. It’s really fresh, delicious, and healthy- a welcome break from heavy red meats.

6. Driving around parts of Colombia, you will see military standing along the side of the road giving the thumbs up as you pass. They are just letting you know that everything is all good on the road ahead. The government started doing this when the countryside of Colombia was more abundant with guerillas back in the 90’s. It is customary to give them the thumbs up back to let them know all is good in your hood too.

Some sweaty coffee field workers