Our first full day in Salento started off rainy and misty. Of course, this describes most days in this region due to the altitude and it being the rainy season. We had already decided it would be a good day to visit a family-owned, entirely organic coffee farm nearby. Honestly, it was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip and I was not disappointed!
We got up around 7:30 and had breakfast in the hostel dining room. La Serrana includes breakfast and you can choose between fresh fruit salad with some bread or 2 eggs how you want, fresh bread, and fruit from their trees (oranges that look like limes on the outside). I’m such a breakfast lover that I got the second, along with two cups of good coffee. (There are also some extras that you can put on your tab. The last day I got some amazing French toast with bananas and honey…and coffee.)
We headed down the path walking toward the coffee farm we were told about, called Don Elias. We kept stopping to take pictures, so it turned into maybe a 45 minute walk, but really enjoyable. Luckily there were lots of hand painted signs along the way, traditional houses where people still live in such a simple and rustic manner that I can’t even imagine it, beautiful scenery, plants, and animals. When you arrive, you enter down a path lined with banana and plantain trees before coming upon a house with several people milling about. Again, it was so casual that you felt like you were intruding in someone’s home, with girls hanging out, someone cooking in the kitchen, and so on. It turns out that Don Elias, who has run the farm for 20 years, was in town. So his grandson and another guy met with us. As soon as we met them, we knew this would be no traditional tour. They were immediately joking with us and making us laugh.
The grandson, Carlos, took the two of us down the paths where all the plants were as he started to explain. The best part of this tour was how intimate it was…just the two of us with him, so we got to ask any questions we wanted. Me being me, I had already read a ton of information about this particular tour from other blogs on the internet, and I actually told several things before he even explained them. He was, of course, surprised and wanted to know how I know it all. I couldn’t just say I’m a research nerd, now could I? Haha.
I can’t remember how many hectares they own, but everything is run by the family and just a few workers. It is entirely organic, so they use plenty of natural methods to protect the coffee plants from bugs. One way is by having lots of fruit trees on the property, like oranges and pineapples, so the bugs are attracted to those instead of the coffee. We even got one picked straight from the tree. Also, they plant yuca which has super strong roots in order to prevent landslides, since most of the land is on a hill. Also, they rotate plants like the banana and plantain trees in order to keep the nutrients in the soil rich.
Coffee is harvested two times a year, in November and May(?). The plants have a life span of 25 years, but Don Elias replaces them after every 17 years because the productivity decreases so much. They grow best in shade, except for the new plants which need more sun in the beginning. Coffee actually looks like a bright red berry when ripe. We were able to pop the seed out from a ripe one and taste it…has a sort of coating on it, but it’s hard to describe the flavor.
The next step faster harvesting is to separate the bean from the outer layer of skin. You use a special machine with a hand crank to do so. The skin is then put back into the ground to help restore nutrients. The seeds are soaked and any that float to the top are bad, so they are also put back into the ground. Then they leave them in the water to ferment for like a day or so (can’t remember exactly). Carlos said if you don’t do this step, they will have a bad flavor.
Next step is to dry them, which Don Elias still does in a very traditional manner by spreading them out on the ground underneath a greenhouse type structure. It can take up to a month for them to dry during the rainy season, otherwise, maybe two weeks when it’s sunny.
Then we have to remove the dry shelling on the outside of the bean, which is done by hand and then blowing off the dry flaky part. Next is roasting! They go in a cast iron pot on the fire and roasted continuously for about an hour, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. You can see the beans before roasting and after in the picture below.
Finally we grind them using an actual hand crank! This is quite a workout and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t need to do any weights at the gym, if only I ground coffee all day long. The smell was so fragrant and unbelievable. I just wanted to bottle up the smell. Too bad Yankee Candle doesn’t have a “Freshly Roasted and Ground Colombian Coffee” candle yet.
Last, the lady at the farm brewed the coffee for us and we sat down to enjoy it, black and perfect without any need for milk or sugar. (Although I do love a café con leche as well.) I would highly recommend this tour to anyone wanting to see a family-run, traditional, organic coffee operation in the coffee region of Colombia. And for only 6 mil, it’s a steal! (About $3.50) Even getting bags of coffee were only 11,000 a piece, so naturally we each got a few.
We were quite hungry by this point, so one of the guys from the finca took us down the path to a “restaurant”. It was more of a shack, but the lady there made us some delicious trucha (the local river trout that is the specialty in the area), with rice (as always), plantain, mini salad, cream of fish soup, and natural juice from the tomate de arbol.
While waiting for our food, we had a beer and played a bit of Tejo….a traditional Colombian game I had been wanting to play. Basically, you have metal disks that are quite heavy and you throw them at a board covered with mud and clay. In the middle of the clay is a metal ring, on which you place little triangles of paper filled with gun powder. There’s a system of points, but your main goal is to hit the ring and gunpowder papers with your metal disk, in order to make an explosion! It’s really fun, unless you never make the explosions….which I only was able to do once. I think our Midwest corn hole experience helped prepare us for the game, though, because we weren’t too awful!
Juan, the guy from the finca, told us about a different walking path we could take back to Salento, and he even was kind enough to draw us a map. It took us down some slippery muddy paths, but eventually down to the river and a bridge. Unfortunately, it started to pour by that point, so we walked for the next 45 minutes in a complete downpour. My rain jacket apparently isn’t too waterproof because I got soaked underneath and our hiking boots still haven’t dried from that day (4 days later as I write this). It was a beautiful walk, though, and it takes you to a stop in Boquia, where you wait for a bus to take you back to Salento for 1,000 pesos. The first bus that passed was too full, though, so we had to wait another 20 minutes for the next, which was also full. We joined the people standing in the front and later, one lady got on that Nichole had to basically put her arm around so she didn’t fall out, since naturally, they just drive on these winding mountain roads with the door open. 🙂
Salento was nice and calm with the rain having scared people away, so we explored the town and shops. At the end of the main street, there is a giant set of painted stairs taking you up to the Mirador, or look out point over the town and area. It’s beautiful. By this point, I really had to use the bathroom, so I found a house along the street that let you use their bathroom for 500 pesos (about 25 cents). Going into this home made me appreciate the comforts that I’ve grown up with. It had a floor that was falling through, some dirt walls, dark, and dingy, although it was completely open to their garden and where they hung their clothes. Some boys were running around playing in the house, while the older sister passed out some toilet paper to people using the bathroom and scolded the boys for having bad manners when they almost ran into me. The next time, the boy asked for permission to pass. I laughed and told him much better!
Salento is like a town suspended in time, but it’s clear that there is a lot of tourism there, evidenced by an entire street of artesian shop after shop. There were some amazing handmade art pieces and jewelry that I saw…if only I had the money and space to get it all! After wandering through some of the cute town, we headed back to our hostel to shower and clean up.
The guys from the coffee farm had invited us to join them in town that evening to watch the Colombia vs. El Salvador soccer match. They stopped by the hostel to grab us and we started the dark walk back into town….at one point, Nichole stopped because she saw what ℗ appeared to be a long stick in front of her. Then it moved. Yep, it was a big snake that she had almost stepped on. Juan, the guy we were with, knows all the snakes and creatures because he used to be a guide to the Ciudad Perdida. He grabbed a stick and the snake wrapped itself around it…he got a better look and told us it was a cabeza de candado (lockhead snake). Turns out it’s one of the most poisonous they have in the area. If she had stepped on it, it could have been much much worse! Needless to say, we watched out for snakes on the path the whole rest of our time there. We did see another, but it was already dead and much smaller.
In town, we got some food from one of the street stands and watched the game, which Colombia won 3-0, so it was super exciting. Then we headed over to a bar with more Tejo and played a game of 4 on 4. By this point, we had met some other people including Colombians, 2 girls from Switzerland, and a guy from Holland. We had a lot of fun and my team won, so the other team bought a bottle of aguardiente, but it was a yellow one from manzanilla or something. It was better than the traditional guaro, but still bad! I did learn something new though…apparently because Mother Earth is so important to the Colombians, that when they open a new bottle of something, they always pour some back onto the earth to give back. It’s not something I’ve seen done in Bucaramanga, but maybe I just haven’t noticed.
To end the night, we went dancing and had a lot of fun with salsa, merengue, NAND bachata. I’m still so amazed at how good all the guys are at dancing here! The Swiss girls were also staying at La Serrana, so we walked back together and spent some more time bonding. They were awesome. Definitely my favorite part of traveling is meeting people from all over and with incredible stories. Inspires me to do more cool things and travel more!