A Journey to Colombia’s Coffee Belt

During harvest season, Mr. Marín, 40, will haul down several baskets of coffee berries that add up to 500 pounds by the end of the day — this off a ridge so steep I found it somewhat difficult to stand up straight. Other relatives do the same. Last year Mr. Marín’s 62-year-old father picked more than 400 pounds in a day, just after recovering from a broken leg suffered while playing soccer.

Still, the production here pales to the output on corporate coffee plantations. The Marín family emphasizes quality over quantity. Nespresso grades these beans as Triple A, its highest rating for quality and sustainability.

Mr. Marín said three factors favored his coffee: the elevation, which is high enough to keep pestiferous coffee borer bugs at bay; the humidity, which stems from passing clouds that provide a steady stream of moisture; and the red soil.

“Porqué?” I asked: Why is the soil so red? Mr. Hernández told me about Nevado del Ruiz, a volcano in the northern Andes that sprinkled ash across the mountaintops.

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An Andean cock-of-the-rock. Credit Federico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

“A good thing?” I asked Mr. Marín through Mr. Hernández.

“Sí, claro, claro,” Mr. Marín said, nodding his head. The answer came back through my guide that the ash made these soils rich and fertile: “Like a blessing, the land is better up here.”

Back at the farmhouse, I got a tour of the depulping grinder that expunges beans from the fruit (like extracting pits out of cherries), and the drying rack for beans before they go to the co-op. For 15,000 pesos (about $5), I got a bag of his Triple A coffee and thanked Mr. Marín for his hospitality.

On the ride back to Jardín, Mr. Hernández told me I was only his second coffee tourist in seven years of guiding. All of his other clients are birders, but he would like to do more trips like this, as his grandfather settled and started the coffee farm nearby where he grew up. When the coffee crisis hit, his parents divorced and he left college in Medellín to come home and help his mother climb out of debt. It was during this troubled period that Mr. Hernández sought emotional refuge at a Taoist temple and found his calling in a life of guiding, helping others find meaning in this land he loves. His mother is still on the family finca, but coffee, like all farming, is a tough business, and he isn’t sure she can continue. “The stories in these hills,” he told me while we bumped along a dusty road, “they give me hope.”

Mr. Hernández dropped me off at the inn where I was staying outside of town and told me he would take an afternoon siesta, but he would be back in a few hours. I did likewise and stretched out in the rainbow-colored hammock strung up on the balcony of my second-floor room overlooking Jardín. At 6 p.m. Mr. Hernández retrieved me for dinner at another finca, also up in the hills but shrouded in a forest canopy.

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A man rides a horse near the village of Jardín, Colombia. Credit Federico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

At the farmhouse, a family bustled out of the door — father and mother, flanked by a little boy and a toddler girl — to warmly greet me, the first North American to visit their home. (Swiss men from Nespresso had been there before.) The farm owner, Francisco Javier Angel, grinned and waved us to the dining room table on the open-air porch. A single light bulb on the ceiling attracted moths and other insects from the forest, and they occasionally smacked my head in their orbits around the light. But nothing was biting, no mosquitoes, another advantage of the farm’s elevation.

Mr. Angel, 37, seemed young to own a farm, but he was enterprising. He had worked this farm when a local priest owned it, and the priest, impressed by his work ethic, sold him the land. His wife, Mónica, disappeared into the kitchen and came back bearing glasses of fresh-squeezed lemonade sweetened with panela, a form of unrefined sugar. Through Mr. Hernández, Mr. Angel explained that panela can also be used as a sweetener for chaqueta café, “jacket coffee,” served when days turn cold or to give coffee pickers a boost of energy for the fields.

Dinner soon followed, served family-style — beans, plantains and chicharrón, this time accompanied by strips of beef, fresh-off-farm avocado slices and arepas (cornmeal cakes). It was familiar but gratifying, and better than any of the meals I ate at restaurants in town (where the chicharrón can be a chewing marathon). Over dinner, Mr. Angel related through Mr. Hernández how his farm is certified by the Rainforest Alliance and his beans earn specialty grades. The co-op in Jardín has an entire laboratory devoted to cupping and grading beans upon delivery.

As Mrs. Angel collected the plates, I asked whether I could follow her into the kitchen to observe as she prepped the after-dinner coffee. She smiled:Sí.

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In the main square, stopping for coffee is always a good idea. Credit Federico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

Brewing coffee is a rustic and ritualistic process on a Colombian farm. First, she heated a liter of water in a pot on the gas stove to just near boiling, when bubbles first formed on the bottom. Then she stirred five spoonfuls of grounds from the house coffee into the pot, turned off the gas and let it sit for five minutes. “Silencio,” she said. In the meantime, she rinsed four cups in hot water so a sudden change in temperature — hot coffee hitting a cold cup — wouldn’t shock the coffee. Finally, she poured coffee through a tiny sieve into each cup. It was a gorgeous midnight-black brew with a light brown foam halo on the edges.

Back at the dinner table, I took a sip and was astounded by a simple cup of coffee for the third time today: such force, so rich, yet no hint of bitterness. I asked what made this coffee unique. Mr. Angel and Mr. Hernández exchanged some Spanish, and the back story was relayed to me.

Mr. Angel’s coffee-farming lineage goes back three generations, and he had the idea to grow the same variety of beans his grandfather grew 100 years ago — a heritage coffee, of sorts. But those seeds were nowhere to be found; the co-op sells only modern coffee varieties. So Mr. Angel went treasure hunting in abandoned farms that had been run out by the commodity-price crash. In one he found the old variety of beans from his grandfather’s generation.

Everyone in town thought Mr. Angel was insane for planting beans he scavenged out of fallow fields, but slowly his heritage coffee is winning converts. He sells it under the name Pajarito, or little bird, because he sees lots of birds among the bushes where this coffee grows.

Continue reading the main story

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A campesino on a high-stepping horse. Credit Federico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

“I see opportunity in coffee,” Mr. Angel told me through Mr. Hernández. That’s a bold statement, given that so many of his fellow coffee farmers throughout Colombia are abandoning farms, jumping off the roller coaster of coffee market prices for jobs in big cities. “It’s the tradition of this family,” Mr. Angel said. “It is what we do.”

Mr. and Mrs. Angel gathered with their children on the porch to wave goodbye as Mr. Hernández and I walked out into the night. The air buzzed with insects whirring a fervent nocturnal chorus. A sea spray of white lights, like twinkling stars, glittered in the dark forest beyond us.

When we had arrived in daylight, the foliage was so thick I couldn’t see beyond the trees. But now I realized those stars were the porch lights of fincas on the next mountain ridge, each light a home like this one.

It was a reminder that coffee here is a family affair. And if you slow down, sip, really savor, you can taste earnest endeavors and lifetimes of devotion.

If You Go

José Castaño Hernández guides all-inclusive trips around Jardín and other regions in Antioquia, including visits and meals with families at coffee farms. Trip fees include everything: transportation, meals, visits, lodging. Coffee farm tours from Jardín start at $180 a person per day; he accepts dollars. Contact him at josefc11@gmail.com.

Where to Stay

La Boira (hospedajerurallaboira.com) is a charming inn on a hillside overlooking Jardín. The owners, Xavier Roca and Soleil Enriquez, are warm and welcoming. Breakfast is included, served with Ms. Enriquez’s herbal coffee (mixed with mint, oregano, lemon seeds, ginger slices and panela). Room rates are just over 200,000 Colombia pesos, about $70, for two.

Finca Hotel Arrayanes (fincahotelarrayanes.com) is a fourth-generation coffee farm and hotel with simple rooms and a swimming pool. Arrayanes is renowned for its specialty coffee. Meals are included, are served family-style and feature local produce. Rates run from around 75,000 Colombia pesos a person per night.

Where to Eat

Las Margaritas is on the downtown plaza in Jardín and serves typical Colombian food and fresh fruit juices. Meals run about 12,500 Colombia pesos.

Pastalatte Gourmet is off the main plaza along Carrera 4. It offers more modern dishes (stir fry, burritos) and specializes in pastries and desserts. Meals run around 12,500 Colombia pesos.

Delos Andes, the local coffee cooperative, operates a coffee house that offers the perfect spot for people-watching on the plaza. It offers specialty coffee drinks, such as mochas and affogatos.

Transportation

Medellín has the closest international airport to Jardín (about a four hours’ drive away). Within Jardín, a motoraton — literally “motor mouse,” a motorized rickshaw on three wheels — zips passengers from hotels to restaurants for about 3,000 Colombia pesos. A taxi to locales within a half-hour of Jardín costs about 30,000 pesos. A driver with a Jeep is about 300,000 pesos per day.

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