THE COFFEE LANDS

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DAWN AT HACIENDA GUAYABAL.

Jose Velazques arrives just as the sun dips beyond the hills. He introduces his dog, a brown mongrel called Lucas Alberto Velazquez. Jose is shirtless and fizzing with nervous energy. He’s a campesino, he tells us, and he’s been working all day in the fields that slope down to the Rio Piedras. The hand that shakes mine is stained from the coffee beans he’s been picking.

‘You must come to my house,’ he insists, ‘to meet my mother.’

We are camping at the edge of the municipal football field, opposite the entrance to Finca Nohelia. An ageing mule tugs at the grass. Two boys kick a football. A raptor in a tree edging the field screeches its presence. We follow Jose the one hundred metres down the country lane to his mother’s cottage, where he shows us the vegetable patch, the two shrubs placed strategically to ward off evil spirits, some well-kept chickens in a bamboo enclosure, his banana tree, the bench he sits on in the evening to drink a beer, the rows of flowers lovingly tended by his mother and the contents of his tienda, a small shop, because we must be an hour’s walk from the town. His motorbike is parked in the tienda. He wants us to use it whenever we want.

Jose’s kindly-looking mother welcomes us into her home, standing aside whilst her son leads us from room to room, pointing out a photograph of his sisters, who have flown the family home and now live in Medellin. This openness and hospitality of the Colombian people is so typical that you are often left wondering how the country accommodated, and still does to a lesser degree, such violence and cruelty for so long. It does not seem possible.

Jose is looking for a bride, he says, and would be only too pleased if we sent him one from Europe. He laughs and darts on to another subject, though not through any embarrassment concerning his marital status, it’s just the way he is. As it starts to get dark we bid Jose and his mother goodnight.

‘Don’t forget my wife,’ he calls after us. ‘I have good lungs…and good teeth. And I’m a good worker.’

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THE COFFEE GROWN IN COLOMBIA IS RATED AS SOME OF THE FINEST IN THE WORLD. TRADITIONALLY COLOMBIA WAS SECOND IN GLOBAL COFFEE PRODUCTION, AFTER BRAZIL, BUT HAS SLIPPED TO THIRD PLACE DUE TO VIETNAM’S RISING PROMINENCE. THE BEANS GROWN HERE IN COLOMBIA ARE ARABICA. THERE ARE TWO MAIN HARVESTS, MAY AND DECEMBER, THOUGH THE BEANS MATURE THROUGHOUT THE YEAR, SO PICKING IS AN ONGOING PROCESS AND MUST BE DONE BY HAND, AS THE BEANS ON THE SAME PLANT ARE READY AT DIFFERENT TIMES. THE PICKERS ARE PAID ABOUT A QUARTER OF A DOLLAR FOR EACH KILO.
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THE PICKERS RETURN FROM THE FIELDS, BRINGING THEIR DAY’S LABOUR TO THE FOREMAN FOR WEIGHING. THEY PICK ANYWHERE BETWEEN 50 AND 100 KILOS A DAY PER HEAD.
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AFTER WEIGHING THE BEANS THEY ARE THEN TIPPED INTO THIS BIN. HERE THEY PASS THROUGH A HOLE AND ON TO A RIDDLE BELOW, WHERE THE OUTER SKIN IS REMOVED. THEY ARE THEN DRIED IN A SILO OR BY THE SUN.
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THIS IS A TYPICAL FINCA IN THE HILLS SOUTH OF CHINCHINA. THERE ARE OVER 500,000 FINCAS, MOSTLY SMALLHOLDINGS OF FIVE HECTARES OR LESS. THE OPTIMUM CONDITIONS FOR GROWING COFFEE HERE TENDS TO BE AT AN ALTITUDE OF BETWEEN 1200 METRES AND 1800 METRES, THOUGH THEY ARE ALSO GROWN AT ALTITUDES OF UP TO 2300 METRES. THE COFFEE BEAN IS THOUGHT TO HAVE ARRIVED IN COLOMBIA IN THE LATE 17TH CENTURY, BROUGHT BY A JESUIT PRIEST.
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STREETS LEADING OFF FROM THE MAIN PLAZA IN SALAMINA. IT’S NOT ALWAYS EASY TO FIND SOMEWHERE TO PUT YOURSELF FOR THE NIGHT, SO WE ENQUIRED AT THE HOTEL REAL IF THERE WAS A PLACE WE COULD PARK. THE OWNER SENT US TO HIS FINCA. ‘IT’S ONLY 14 KILOMETRES AWAY’, HE SAYS. ‘IT WILL TAKE TWENTY MINUTES. A VERY SHORT JOURNEY.’ OF COURSE, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SHORT JOURNEY WHERE COLOMBIA’S RURAL ROADS ARE CONCERNED.
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AFTER ONE HOUR’S DRIVING, AND HAVING DESCENDED INTO THE VALLEY AND DRIVEN UP THE NEXT MOUNTAIN, WE ARRIVE HERE, ABOVE 2 THOUSAND METRES, BUT WITH THE PROMISED VIEW OF SALAMINA IN THE BACKGROUND. ‘YOU CAN CAMP RIGHT HERE,’ HE SAYS. AND SO WE DO.
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THE FOLLOWING MORNING WE RETURN TO SALAMINA FOR BREAKFAST AT EL POLO, WHERE THE SPECIALITY IS HUEVOS AL VAPOR (STEAMED EGGS). TWO EGGS AND A KNOB OF BUTTER GO INTO THE COFFEE CUP, WHICH IS THEN INTRODUCED TO THE STEAMER ON THE COFFEE MACHINE. IT TAKES 30 SECONDS TO ACHIEVE A CREAMY SCRAMBLED EGGS. TO ACQUIRE THE FACE TAKES A GOOD DEAL  LONGER!!
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FINCA NOHELIA IS AN 80 HECTARE ESTATE NEAR JERICO. ALONGSIDE THEIR COFFEE PLANTS THEY GROW MANGO, PAPAYA, AVOCADO, ORANGES, LEMONS AND SUGAR CANE. MANY OF THE LARGER FINCAS ACCOMMODATE TOURISTS AS AN ADDITIONAL INCOME.
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THE OWNER OF FINCA NOHELIA AT WORK PICKING COFFEE BEANS.
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A PATCHWORK OF FIELDS AT THE NORTHERN END OF THE ZONA CAFETERA.

TRY: http://www.casarealsalamina.com; http://www.haciendaguayabal.com; http://www.ecotourismolanohelia.com

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