Our journey from Medellin to Jardin with LandVenture Travel was one of the highlights of our time in Colombia. Here’s what a coffee tour Colombia entails.
Transparency: We were guests of LandVenture Travel during our Coffee Tour in November 2018. As always, all opinions and recommendations are 100% my own.
Lush valleys and cloud forests set against the backdrop of the Andes Mountains. Shaggy coffee trees heavy with juicy berries, arranged in perfect rows that stretch out as far as the eye can see. There’s no mistaking it: This is coffee country.
Most of us, myself included, have romantic notions of the coffee industry. That’s if we ever think about it at all. The sheer scale of a coffee plantation—the indelible mark it leaves on a landscape—and the amount of hard graft and skill that goes into raising a coffee tree is nothing short of remarkable.
If it’s a grassroots education you’re looking for, there’s no better place on Earth to immerse yourself in coffee than Colombia.
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We teamed up with local outfit LandVenture Travel to get a taste for Colombia’s coffee culture. The only company in Medellin authorised to visit certain farms, travelling with LandVenture is a unique experience. With LandVenture, we were able to get off the beaten track and meet many of the characters who make the coffee industry tick. Andres, LandVenture’s founder, and our guide, Juan, are both deeply invested in this part of the country. Their shared passion for coffee and for Colombia really made our tour special.
On the road in Colombia with LandVenture Travel
Departing Medellin bright and early, we weaved our way through the valleys and plateaus of the Central Andes in Juan’s ute. Panoramas of untouched forest greeted us at every turn. Our final destination, Concordia, lay several hairpin bends away, a little under 100km southwest of Medellin at the head of Colombia’s coffee belt.
We weren’t far into the journey when we got our first whiff of coffee country. But it wasn’t coffee beans we smelt: It was coal. Artisanal mines set on the side of the highway feeding a never ending row of pick up trucks with coal. Further down the road, their loads are used to power mechanical coffee dryers.
This was the first in a set of curious parallels we observed during our time in the coffee region. Tradition and common sense dictates that coffee beans be sun dried, spread out thin on wooden racks like the ones pictured below and left to bake, rotated every now and then with the flick of a rake. Now, larger facilities increasingly rely on coal-powered silos to do the job more efficiently—one of many changes that threatens to make coffee production less hands-on.
The perfect cup of Joe
“Good coffee doesn’t need sugar. Bad coffee doesn’t deserve it.”
Single origin, single elevation coffee would be the order of the day. This last part is very important: The qualities of a Colombian coffee bean changes according to the elevation at which it was grown. Since there are more overcast days at higher altitudes, the beans take much longer to ripen, giving them a more intense flavour (sort of like slow cooking). Higher elevations are associated with citric notes, and lower elevations with warmer climates give the beans a smooth, honey-like taste.
It was our destiny on this tour to sample more cups of coffee than we could possibly keep track of. We must have racked up six or seven espressos on the first morning alone. Juan’s sugar mantra and the fact that a quality cup of Colombian coffee contains a maximum of 1.5 percent caffeine meant we had no trouble keeping up.
A crash course in Colombian coffee culture
What wine is to Argentina and tequila is to Mexico, coffee is to Colombia. Coffee isn’t just a hot beverage in these parts, it’s a part of the local culture.
Coffee trees aren’t endemic to Colombia, Juan explained to us, but were introduced by a Jesuit Priest, Father Vasquez, by way of Venezuela. The seeds quickly took to the fertile land and tropical-Andean climate in this part of Colombia, and thus the Zona Cafetera was born.
Antioquia Department, which has Medellin as its capital, isn’t always considered a formal part of the coffee region. But the northern part of the Department around Concordia and as far east as Jerico has perfect conditions and a high enough elevation to support coffee. The first Antioquian export farm started operating more than 200 years ago, and coffee has been a viable industry in Antioquia ever since. Now, with more than 90,000 coffee farms spread across Antioquia, the Department makes an important contribution to Colombia’s status as the world’s biggest exporter of Arabica beans.
Antioquia is home to thousands of smallholder coffee farms, each one with an average 2 hectares of land. Approximately 600,000 families live off the coffee trade. There are two main harvests each year, one in October/November and a second, larger harvest in April/May, which provide temporary employment for many thousands of transient coffee pickers.
As we edged closer and closer to Concordia, this became a more common sight. Every house, it seemed, was fitted with a coffee drying rack out the front amongst the flowers. Most families in this part of Colombia, Juan told us, dabble in coffee at a minimum. If it’s not the family’s main source of income, it’s a side hustle. In Jardín especially, farmers have diversified their offerings considerably and grow plantain and other crops alongside coffee trees.
The coffee industry hasn’t only influenced the design of homes. Coffee has percolated up through everything, even the local cuisine. Our first meal of the tour—arepas with farm-fresh cheese, eggs, and a fat cup of hot chocolate on the side—is a classic example of a coffee country breakfast. Normally farmers eat a light breakfast, skip lunch, then feast on a high-calorie dinner at the end of the day (no time for midday naps when you’re a coffee farmer). We were lucky enough to stop for breakfast at LandVenture’s own company finca, which is located about an hour into the drive down from Medellin.
Visiting a working coffee farm in Concordia
Turns out we were going to need those calories because Juan was about to put us to work.
After lunch, we hit the road to visit a family-run coffee farm in Concordia. The landscape became infinitely greener and the air fresher as we started to gain altitude. Juan’s ute made light work of the rough off-road terrain, and we eventually found ourselves at the top of a hill looking out over a sea of mist. Just visible in the distance were thousands and thousands of coffee trees.
Concordia municipality is home to approximately 20,000 people. With more than 800 coffee farms, Concordia has the highest concentration of coffee trees anywhere in Colombia. The local coffee co-op boasts more than 2,800 members from Concordia and four other municipalities in the immediate area.
After hearing so much about the history and significance of coffee, this was our first time seeing a Colombian tree up close. At little more than waist height, a single coffee shrub can produce cherries for up to 15 years, moving through cycles of fruitfulness and barrenness. The farm we visited has more than 700,000 individual trees spread across 80 hectares of gently sloping land. Come harvest time, more than 200 pairs of hands are required to comb through the lot.
With a gleeful grin, Juan reported that the farm was a little short on hands that day and ordered us to pitch in. So we donned the pickers’ baskets he’d been carrying in the back of the ute and made our way through a few rows of trees, reaching out for ripe red cherries when we saw them.
A labour of love
We didn’t last long. Coffee picking is tricky work, especially for untrained hands. After about half an hour on top of the hill, we made our way down to a lower field to see how it’s really done.
After our recent visit to Dalat in Vietnam’s coffee region (by the way, Vietnam just pits Colombia to the post as the world’s second-largest exporter of coffee), we weren’t totally unfamiliar with what comes next. But since we visited Dalat in summer, we never got to see the labour-intensive harvest for ourselves. In Vietnam, the process is mechanised but here in Colombia, everything is done by hand.
That’s right—by hand.
Cherry by cherry, bean by bean. Each picker hauling in up to 200kg per day.
When it’s all said and done, those 200kg of raw cherries will produce less than 30kg of roasted coffee.
We met up with a team of pickers just as they were offloading their harvest into a coffee truck. One by one, each worker weighed his sack of cherries on a set of scales before heaving it up a narrow ladder and unloading the ruby red cherries into the truck.
Coffee picking demands a peculiar skill set: One must be so agile and careful when picking the delicate cherries, and yet such a physically grueling job also demands great strength. A bit of sleight of hand out in the field (instead of the one-by-one technique we used, trained pickers can harvest multiple cherries at once), plus some serious muscle power to lug the load.
We watched the workers for a while as Juan chatted to their supervisor. Unperturbed by the mud and dust, I decided to jump up on the bed of the truck for a closer look. Someone from the line protested: ‘Don’t let her up’, they implored, ‘she’ll get dirty’. Juan replied: ‘No, it’s the city that’s dirty—this is earth. This is clean’. I couldn’t agree with him more.
Coffee picking is tough work for what is often little reward. It sounds cheesy, but seeing this small slice of the production process for myself made me realise that we should all be more grateful for our morning cup of coffee.
We ended the day at the facilities of Don Modesto, a local coffee brand. Inside the farmhouse, Juan and Don Modesto’s owner took turns showing us through the sorting, fermenting, cleaning, drying and roasting. First, a series of different processes are used to sort the beans by size, weight and density. The best beans are left to ferment for 16 to 20 hours, either with their mucilage (filmy, honey like coating) rinsed off or left on. This part is all the work of large-scale machinery. But it’s worth remembering that the whole chain of events begins with the single pair of hands that first picked the cherry.
Don Modesto is one of the few farms we visited with its own roasting machine: Essential if you want to sell internationally, as a license for exporting green (raw) beans is more difficult to come by. As we would see the next morning, this is where the role of coffee co-ops becomes so important.
A night in Jardin
Next to the earth-caked boots and cracked hands of the coffee pickers, pretty-as-a-picture Jardin felt like a world away. A short drive south from Concordia, Jardin is one of many old-style towns in Antioquia characterised by a central Spanish square and colourfully painted houses. According to Juan, Jardin is the prettiest of them all.
Next up: My top photos of Jardin, Colombia.
Communities like Jardin were built on the back of the coffee trade and the hard work of coffee farmers and pickers. Without them, it wouldn’t be possible for tourists like us to enjoy such beautiful towns. We ended the day with an encouraging final word from Juan. As we rolled into Jardin, he told us that one of the best things about Colombia’s coffee industry is the mobility: It’s fully possible to start out as a humble picker—like the men and women we had met earlier in the day—and work your way up. It’s every picker’s dream to save enough cash to buy a patch of land for their own coffee farm.
Visiting a coffee co-op in Jardin
The next morning, after an early morning walk around town we departed the main square to visit a coffee cooperative on the outskirts of Jardin. Just as we arrived at the gates of the Andes Co-op, a farmer on a ride-on tractor approached from the opposite direction. He was loaded up with more bags of coffee than I ever thought possible for one man to carry! Like many others, he was on his way to the co-op to trade in his beans for a paycheck.
The sight of the farmer prompted Juan to reminisce about his childhood in Colombia’s coffee region. Back in those days, he told us, he would often see lines of farmers tracking from the fields into town—coffee bags loaded up on donkeys instead of tractors.
Inside the co-op, we witnessed the final stage of an artisanal coffee bean’s journey. At this stage, beans brought in from the farm gate are called ‘parchment coffee’ because they’re still covered in their papery sheath. Using a spiked metal rod, the co-op manager takes a small sample of beans from each sack. He spreads them out on his desk, eyeing them over and extracting any imperfect beans. Based on this, he gives the sample a grade.
The whole sack is then weighed. The worth of the harvest is calculated based on the volume and grade of the beans, and the farmer is given a cheque to exchange at the cash desk.
Later, the beans are de-husked, sorted using the same process we saw at Don Modesto, and the un-roasted green beans packaged into 70kg coffee sacks bearing the co-op’s export code, the country code and the lot number. In the process, beans from all the different farms are mixed. The sacks then get shipped off to more than 90 countries where they are roasted and turned into coffee.
The day we visited, the co-op office—an oversized tin shed—had a teetering stack of coffee sacks against one wall. Juan told us that at peak harvest time, the warehouse is completely packed to the brim. He turned over a few of the hessian bags from the stack, lovingly examining the texture of the fabric and explaining the meaning behind the codes and symbols. Juan’s love of coffee clearly goes beyond the beans—he even has an appreciation for the artistic quality of the hessian sacks, another local industry that hinges on the coffee trade. In fact, Juan has a collection of his favourite bags framed and hanging in his house!
At the Andes Co-op, the biggest single buyer is Nespresso, who pay top dollar for the best-quality beans. There are many moving parts to the industry and much speculation over availability season to season, so coffee prices fluctuate constantly. At times, the price dips so low farmers can barely recuperate the costs of production.
At the back of the co-op we visited the coffee tasting room. Being a co-op member not only gives a smallholder farmer access to market and new technologies, but it also opens up new opportunities. At the manager’s discretion, samples of the best beans are sequestered off and stored in plastic bags. In competitions organised by the co-op, trained tasters determine the highest quality beans and award the farmer who grew them. The very best of the best can be separated off from the rest of the co-op (i.e. not mixed), and then marketed for sale as premium single-origin beans.
The final stop on our coffee journey was a beautiful farmhouse just outside Jardin where Jaime, a second-generation landowner, and his wife served us one last homemade farmer’s lunch. Over coffee (of course), Jaime told us his success story.
A few years ago, Jaime struck a deal with a Canadian company to sell them his premium coffee beans direct. When it proved unfeasible for Jaime, he decided to sell them his image instead—thus it came to be that hundreds of thousands of bags of ground coffee decorated with Jaime’s mug are currently floating around North America. That’s despite the fact that the beans inside didn’t come from Jaime’s farm.
Quick to don the very same Colombian hat he’s wearing in the branding photo, Jaime seemed proud as punch. A generation ago, his father started the sugar mill down the road and barely made enough to support his family. Now, Jaime’s fortunes have changed. With enough hard work and a bit of good luck, coffee can certainly be a lucrative business.
How to organise a Coffee Tour from Medellin
LandVenture Travel runs regular day tours to Concordia, departing at 7am and returning to Medellin in the late afternoon. If you have more time, a great option is to merge LandVenture’s Concordia and Jardin itineraries. If you do this, you’ll continue on to the town of Jardin and spend the night before taking a tour of the town the next morning.
Inquire about booking your own tour on the LandVenture Travel website.
Would you be interested in taking a coffee tour in Colombia? Perhaps you’ve done a similar tour somewhere else in the world? I’d love to hear about your experience!