It’s dark, not terribly late, only about 8:00pm, but it’s dark and we’re in the back of a taxi that has just taken a turn off the main highway down a dirt road. The road is narrow and both sides are thick with vegetation so that we have that tunnel effect. We’ve just recently arrived in the city of Manizales and have booked ahead to stay at Hacienda Venecia, a coffee estate about 30 minutes outside of the city. It’s one of those situations in which you let your mind wander. What if he’s taking us down this dirt road to some isolated place to dump us out and take off with our belongings? We are in the mountains of central Colombia and who would know? But, Hacienda Venecia has arranged for this taxi. We phoned them from the bus station in Manizales and they told us the name of the taxi driver that would come for us.
Zona Cafetera (photos) refers to a region in the central portion of western Colombia that is responsible for a sizable portion of the Colombian coffee production. This area boasts spectacular natural beauty – there are stunning vistas everywhere. We have taken a 5 hour bus ride from Medellin to reach Manizales, a city of 370,000, and now the taxi is taking us to one of the large coffee estates which also has a hostel on the property. Once we arrive, we are happy to get a shower, have a light meal and go to bed.
Hacienda Venecia is a working coffee plantation. Through the tour of the plantation, we learned that in Colombia, they use a “wet processing” approach that differs from many of the other coffee growing regions. This simply means that they use water to remove the skins and clean the beans. Only the best of the beans are allowed for export, the “rejects” will be used in the country or used to mix with beans from other areas to create blends or used for instant coffee. The exported beans go to roasters who then create their unique flavors through the roasting process. If you want the best Colombian coffee, look on the package for “Café de Colombia” and the Juan Valdez image. Anything else that claims to be “100% Colombian Coffee” will be the lesser quality product.
On many of the large coffee plantations, it works almost like a cooperative within the plantation. There are many families who live adjacent to different parts of the plantation and have been give the responsibility for that part of the total coffee plants. They will look after the plants during the season and will be responsible for getting the beans harvested. In return they will share in the sale of the beans they delivery. Coffee growing is the heritage and the soul of the people in many areas of Colombia and remains a very important part of their economy and culture.
A little further south in the Zona Cafetera is the little town of Salento. To get there, we caught a jeep from Hacienda Venecia to take us up to the main road where we thought we would be able to catch a bus to Pereira. There were 3 other people from Hacienda Venecia also waiting for a bus. We soon learned that we would not be able to catch a bus there and were able to get another jeep to take us all to the bus terminal in Manizales. Once there we got a bus to Pereira, a city of 450,000 people. It’s interesting to note that very few people outside of Colombia would know the names of the cities of Manizales or Pereira but these are large cities. From Pereira, we got another bus that would take us to Salento. Once there, we got a jeep to make the short trip out of town to La Serrana, an “eco farm”.
La Serrana sits in a lovely spot among some of the most dramatic scenery imaginable. Salento is home to many coffee plantations as well as dairy farms. Many people come to Salento to visit Valle de Cocora, a broad green valley framed by sharp peaks just to the east of town. Here you will see the “palma de cera”, wax palm, which is the national tree of Colombia. They can grow to 60 meters tall, about 180 feet. There’s a 4.8km hiking trail that takes you to Reserva Natural Acaime. The first part of the trail leads through pasture land and the wax palms. The second part of the trail is through cloud forest. There is an elevation gain of about 1200 feet, topping out at around 9,000 feet. It offers amazingly beautiful scenery. When you get to Acaime you must pay a small fee which includes a beverage. We had the “aguapanela con queso”, sugar water with cheese. Doesn’t sound too inviting but it’s really good and helps you deal with the altitude.
The area around Salento is very beautiful with a nice mild climate. The people seem very friendly and it’s easy to imagine a somewhat slow paced rural life here among the coffee plantations and cattle farms. Next up for us is a trip to Bogota for our last few days before returning home.