Salento sits in the part of Colombia known as zona cafetera, the coffee region. The town is nestled in the Andes Mountains, just west of Bogotá. Colombia is known for some of the world’s best coffee, so my daughter and I, both avid coffee drinkers, knew that the coffee region was a must when we began planning our trip to Colombia.
The town oozes charm with its colorful colonial buildings with wooden balconies and painted shutters, friendly locals, and abundant coffee shops. Somehow, even with all the tourists, it’s retained its laid-back feel.
There are several coffee farms located just outside the town’s colorful center, a leisurely walk or a quick Willy (jeep taxi) ride from the center square. We decided to walk so we could get a feel for the town. Just outside the town’s borders, the paved streets give way to dirt roads that wind through green pastures, eventually leading you to the coffee farms.
We watched cows and goats graze on the land and a farmer out working with his horse. The silence interrupted only by the Willys that drove by full of tourists bouncing in the back, while others stood on the back ledge, holding onto the luggage rack.
It started to rain during our walk, and the roads quickly turned to mud. We had umbrellas so we didn’t mind. Ominous dark clouds rolled in, but instead of walking faster to get out of the rain, we slowed down to take pictures. The rain made everything seem greener.
We hadn’t determined which coffee farm we’d visit, but with mud splattered up both our legs and our feet becoming wet, we stopped at the first one we came upon. Las Acacias is a small family farm that gives tours in English and Spanish throughout the day. Because they are smaller, the tour didn’t seem like a formal presentation as some tours do. Our guide led us through the plantation and answered questions as if we were all friends out for an afternoon stroll.
The tour began with a cup of coffee while we waited for the rain to stop. We talked with a young Canadian couple who had traveled to Colombia from Chile where they were living with their two young children. There was a group of college students from Germany and England traveling with an American girl from Miami. We shared travel stories because we found that we were traveling in opposite directions. You quickly learn that there is a definite tourist trail through South America, and everyone seems to take a similar path, so you can gain a lot of information about where you’re headed from fellow travelers.
The rain subsided, and we followed the guide into the fields. He explained the growing process and the farm’s sustainable practices. To grow their organic coffee beans, they rely on local plants for protection and fertilizer. Banana trees shade the coffee plants, yuca helps the roots grow, dropped avocados help with composting the land, and pineapple plants lure bugs away from the coffee bushes with their sweet smell. It was fascinating to learn how all the plants served a role in coffee production.
Our guide explained how the beans are removed from their berry, dried, and checked for quality control. Much like we found in Guatemala last summer, the best beans are sorted out and shipped to the U.S. I’m always sadden when I learn that the best product is exported to the U.S. Colombia exports their coffee without roasting it, so it ships as a seed instead of a food product. This means that roasters in the U.S. actually roast the beans.
Colombia’s coffee production is the third largest in the world, after Brazil and Vietnam, though the country’s beans are known for being the best because of their sweet flavor. The taste is due in part to Colombia’s perfect growing conditions, though warmer temperatures and an increase of rain from global warming have affected coffee production in recent years.
Our tour ended with yet another cup of coffee. I bought several bags of beans because I wanted to support this family’s efforts to produce coffee in a sustainable way. And their coffee is good.