Colombia – July ’06 Part 1/2

By Chris Davidson, Zoka's Head Roaster

Visit the Photo Gallery for pictures of this trip!

I must say, that these nine days in Colombia were amongst the most exciting of my life. Never before have I experienced so much adrenaline, education, emotion and general satisfaction from life in a single week. It will be easiest to break down the trip day by day, as so many things occurred each day that it will be difficult for me to string together the trip as a coherent story otherwise. The balance between newfound knowledge, danger, community and fun was so complete, that I will be hard-pressed to find a comparable experience in the future. I hope that the following recollection will relate at least a fraction of the thrill I felt while experiencing the adventure first-hand.

Day One (7/21/2006): Journey to Bogotá

Craig Holt of Atlas Coffee Importers collected me up in his town car around 5:30am. We were off to meet Andrew Daday of Caffe Vita Coffee Roasters for an 8am departure from SeaTac, and it never ceases to amaze me how well an airport kiosk serves coffee at that hour. Our journey from SEA to BOG via HOU was relatively sans-hitch, with the exception of the horrible in-flight movies. Upon our arrival in Bogotá we were met and delivered to the lavish Club El Nogal; an extremely courteous and comfortable residence in the heart of Bogotá with an impressive ability to supply caramelized macadamia nuts and fresh-brewed coffee at the eeriest crack of dawn.

Day Two (7/22/2006): Bogotá to Monserrate and Back Again

Up at 4am (thanks to Club El Nogal room service), we were thankfully able to make it to the airport in time to slug a Café Cortado at one of the several Café Juan Valdéz’s on the premises, then dash to our plane for a half hour puddle-jump westward to the municipality of Neiva, in the famous coffee-producing dpeartment of Huila. We were met at the airport and brought to the puebla of La Plata at the foothills of the western mountain range of Cordillera Occidental. After a hearty breakfast, our swarthy trio maneuvered through the mountains via kidney-stomping 4x4’s to the ridgeline village of Monserrate. Here we were graciously received, and after many formalities were beckoned to cup the majority of the samples offered by the coffee producing families of the region. Not only was the scenic, mountainous personality of the village idyllic, the quaint, small batch approach to harvesting and processing coffee cherries beckoned to each of our small farm oriented sensibilities. After an educational cupping, a satisfying lunch and many pleasantries exchanged, we bumped back down the mountains, through La Plata for a refresco and directly to the Neiva airport for a 7pm flight which put us into Club El Nogal with barely enough time to say arepa before falling asleep.

Day Three (7/23/2006): Día Libre en Bogotá

After a leisurely and luxurious breakfast by the pool at Club El Nogal, Craig, Andrew and I moved downstairs to meet Juan Manuel Villegas; good friend of Craig and our Racafé liaison for the trip. Crazy Craig and Juan were planning on running the Bogotá Half Marathon at the end of the week. While they went on a training run, Andrew and I passed the late morning at Bogotá’s famous Museo del Oro; Latin America’s foremost exhibit of pre-Colombian gold-wrought art. About the time Craig and Juan finished up their run, Andrew and I were finishing our first cocktail of the day: Café Colombiano (Espresso, Aguardiente and Chantilly Cream.) From el Museo del Oro, Andrew and I met up with Juan Manuel and Craig at Club El Nogal, then rendezvous-ed with Juan Manuel’s family for a casual lunch. After lunch we all visited Racafé’s mill in Bogotá, then returned to Club El Nogal to freshen up before a fine Italian dinner with some of Racafé’s managers. For reference, Colombia exports around 11 Million bags of coffee annually, and Racafé is responsible for roughly 1/10th of that export. Needless to say, we were all honored by the attention paid to us by our hosts. Our gringo compadres Ed Leebrick and Eric Andrews from Lighthouse Roasters in Seattle were due to arrive in Bogotá that night to join our crew, but by the time they arrived at Club El Nogal around 11pm, Craig, Andrew and I were fast asleep; dreading the 4am wake-up call we knew would be rousting us the next morning.

Day Four (7/24/2006): Armenia!

Before long the wake-up call came, and we made our way downstairs to the lobby to meet our companions Ed and Eric. From The Club, our cab delivered us to the Bogotá airport where we hopped once again westward, across the mountains to the agricultural department of Armenia. Our first stop was the restaurant of our guide, Don Fernando Tobon, where I wolfed down a steak with eggs and calientado (a savory mélange of beans, rice and spices.) From the restaurant we were shuttled to Racafé’s mill in Armenia, where after a brief tour and cup of coffee we were introduced to our steeds for the next five days; Austrian-made KTM 640 Adventure Dual-Sport enduro bikes. I gravitated fairly quickly to the only black bike in the gang, and though we would have our differences over the next week, I still think of her fondly. After a few spins around the mill yard, we entered the bustling traffic of Armenia and soon learned that navigating the melee of trucks, cars, bicycles, other motorbikes and foot traffic would be an exercise in “sink or swim.” After a few “Required Stops” due to technical difficulties with the bikes, we escaped the city and were unleashed upon the open by-ways of rural Armenia.

I still can’t believe how many activities we crammed into that first afternoon on the bikes. I found myself thankful for the high-protein breakfast I indulged in as lunchtime was pushed further and further back on our agenda. From the city of Armenia, we headed for the hills, winding up after a few hours of leisurely riding in the picturesque colonial town of Salento. Just up from Salento was a visitor’s center featuring a breathtaking view of the Valley of Cocora. As if reading our minds, our guide Fernando led us back down the hillside of Salento and into the mouth of Cocora for some fast-paced twisties, hairy gravel roads and idyllic slow cruises heading up the center of el Valle. We rested at a small restaurant famous for the trout they pull fresh from the river that bisects the valley. Another famous landmark of the area were towering, lone palm trees that dotted the lush hillsides and ridgelines. A brief repose enhanced by Colombia’s national beer “Club Colombia” energized us for the next leg of our journey. From el Valle de Cocora our gang motored towards the nationally known Parque de Café; basically a theme park dedicated to the history and production of coffee. All were impressed as we passed through the turnstiles and beheld the majesty of el Parque de Café. A viewing tower made almost entirely of teakwood offered a view of the entire park. Far below the entrance we espied a long gondola running the length of the park, and to our amazement a Ferris wheel and roller coaster at the bottom of the hill. After walking through the visitor’s center we switch-backed down a hill through a model coffee farm, complete with examples of every variety of coffee commercially available in Colombia. Thankfully at the bottom of the hill, the gondola returned us back to the top, where after a brief beverage break we remounted the bikes and headed back towards Armenia to our base camp: Finca San Francisco.

Day Five (7/25/2006): Armenia to Popayán

Again, looking back on this day I still cannot believe how much we packed into it. We covered amazing distances the first few days of our trip on the bikes. Our ultimate destination after leaving Finca San Francisco early Tuesday morning was the colonial city of Popayán. Our route took us very near the cosmopolitan metropolis of Cáli, where Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters and Tea Blenders in Chicago was rumored to have helped open a café. While entering Cáli our team was motioned to the side of the road at a military checkpoint, the first of several we would have to contend with during our trip. Pleasantries were exchanged and the young soldiers spent more time bumming smokes and admiring our bikes than causing us any trouble. Maneuvering the streets of Cáli left Armenia’s traffic infantile in comparison. No one in our group knew the name of the café we were searching for, but our guide Juan Manuel had a very good lead in the direction of a well-to-do part of the city known for its restaurants and bars. After a few disappointing attempts to locate the café ourselves, and some desperate calls back to The States to find more reliable information, we stumbled upon the very place mere blocks from where we had initially parked the bikes. Although the café was in the process of closing down for the day, the store manager reopened the bar for us and we were served the best espresso of our entire time in Colombia. The store manager graciously gave us a small tour of their café, named “Palo Alto, Café of Origins, which has a small Samiac roaster and tidy cupping lab on site. Grateful for the manager’s hospitality, and wary of keeping her employees too much overtime, our motley crew mounted up and roared out of Cáli, savoring the finish of Palo Alto’s espresso the entire way.

From Cáli, our next stop was a very unique, new coffee farm on the outskirts of Popayán named “El Santuario.” The trees of this farm were laid out in an extraordinarily logical grid fashion. Each square of a thousand or so trees was bordered by stands of plantain trees running from north to south, and eucalyptus trees running from east to west. The only varietals of trees planted on this farm for commercial production were Bourbón and Typica which yield a very sweet and delicate cup but generally produce less fruit and are more vulnerable to disease and harsh environmental conditions than other, more robust varietals; very rare for a country traditionally known for it’s focus on quantity rather than quality. Another feature that made this particular farm unique was a large varietals garden, showcasing living examples of very rare coffee varietals that are not commonly used commercially, but are very interesting to see nonetheless. From El Santuario we biked in the direction of Popayán, stopping briefly at RACAFE’s mill on the fringe of the city for a tour and much-needed snack. We felt very intimidating rolling two abreast into the heart of colonial Popayán. Though the 640 cc’s of our KTM’s aren’t enormous by modern motorbike standards, the single-cylinder and short muffler produced quite a report when the engine was revved enthusiastically. Heads turned and horns honked as we circled the Central Park before parking the bikes in the secure lot of our hotel for the evening, El Monestario.

Continued in Part Two »