“There is only one way to ride these jeeps,” said my guide,” and that’s standing up!”
How could I resist an offer like that- and so the journey to the coffee plantation commenced. It was a misty morning as I left Salento in the centre of Colombia’s coffee producing region. The jeep raced up and down the steep streets of the town and then out into another world of lush countryside. A man quietly hand milked cows as we drove past, our hair blown by the wind. Vultures looked down from branches and small houses came into view. The only sound was the jeep engine and our gasps as we hit potholes and missed low hanging foliage covered in raindrops. Up and down steep tracks, we seemed to be going to the middle of nowhere. Colombia is a vast country and one of the most biodiverse in the world- but where were we?
Eventually a beautiful red plantation building came into view. We had arrived, but another journey was about to begin. I walked through the damp garden with its orchids and roses displayed among vintage coffee producing equipment. The views across the valley looked as though the landscape hadn’t changed in years but of course it had. Over 500,000 people work in the coffee industry in Colombia and I was about to discover what goes into that mug of latte we take for granted.
I was handed a basket with strings and told to tie it around my waist. “You are about to experience life as a coffee picker,” announced Hillary the guide. Coffee grows above 1600m and this farm had integrated coffee bushes within the forest. They shared space with luscious banana plants, and oranges to make the most of the land.
In Colombia most of the coffee produced is the Arabica species. The other variety, Robusta, forms 20% of the world’s production and generally not grown in Colombia. Coffee plants take 3 years to produce flowers and Arabica plants are self pollinating. Eight weeks afterwards the fruits form.
Hillary took me through the rain to the coffee bushes. “You need to find coffee beans that are red or brown,” she said, “Not the green ones.” I thought this would be easy but how wrong was I. brushing back wet leaves I looked through the coffee bushes and not a brown or red bean was in sight. The ground was slippery with the rain, and it continually drizzled. It was a sobering thought that coffee pickers are paid 500 pesos a kilo for the beans they find. That’s around 20 US cents. The regular pickers can get between 80-100kg a day by working 12 hours. And no coffee- no pay. I would have starved with no wages here.
Back at the plantation I visited the drying room where coffee is dried before roasting and then sat down to one of the best coffees I ever tasted. Next time I drink a coffee I’ll think of the people who pick the beans on the plantations and how hard it was to find the right bean.
January Journeys link- Go behind the scenes/ Visit Colombia