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Coffee Keeps You Up at Night

Low-key last day in Salento

overcast 65 °F

On our last full day in Salento, it was time to head deep into coffee country for a plantation tour

Salento is supposed to come alive on the weekends, transforming from a sleepy little town catering to travelers into a weekend festival, packed with Colombians streaming in from the countryside and surrounding towns. And come alive it did! Shops that had been shuttered our first few days were open for business. New kiosks sprouted up in the middle of Calle Real, the main shopping street, selling honey, snacks, and souvenirs. There were throngs more people walking the streets. There were bands playing in the square and Dancing Grandma boogied all day long in front of her donation box. And as we found out that evening, revelers partying late into the morning hours.

Salento welcomes a huge influx of visitors on the weekend and it becomes a fiesta town

Our travel plans were rather light, today. First order of business was to take our filthy hiking clothes (and the other things we’d worn the previous days of travel) to a local laundromat. They charged us about $5 for 4 kilos of clothes, and said it’d be ready at 5pm. Travel in Colombia was turning out to be really affordable! We also scouted out our pickup point for the afternoon’s coffee plantation tour. We had booked an English language “premium” tour, which was said to last 3 hours. The one we selected was one of the highest rated on Trip Advisor, so we figured it should be interesting. The tour wasn’t until the afternoon, so we spent the rest of the morning checking out the various souvenir shops and artisans. We admired the jewelry and other crafts. We mentally marked a few shops to return to that evening, taking a few hours to mull over what we might buy.

On weekends, the normally tranquil streets of Salento throng with weekend visitors

Our boots were still drying from the hosing off and scrubbing we’d given them after the hike, so it was a tennis shoes day. The plantation tour description talked about going out into the fields and actually picking beans. I was hoping that would not mean wading through muck, again. After a tasty lunch at a local cafe, we walked to the town square where another of the Willy’s jeeps would take us to the coffee plantation. It was about a 20-30 minute drive along progressively more narrow roads. Asphalt became stone and earth, and finally dirt roads. We were deep into the rural countryside of the Salento area.

We’d booked our coffee plantation tour with the highly-rated English language tour at Ocaso

The Jeep dropped us off at the turnoff to the plantation, which turned out to be another 10 minute walk away. The staff of the plantation were all very friendly and knowledgeable. It turned out that we would have about nine of us on the tour. Most were a Colombian-American family from California whose kids didn’t seem fluent in Spanish, though mom and grandpa obviously were. They started with an overview of what we’d do during the tour and tested our knowledge of coffee and the coffee-making process.

Coffee beans drying in Ocaso’s greenhouses

We began by strapping on traditional coffee bean picking buckets and Andres our guide explained how coffee plants are intermixed with banana and plantains. The other plants provide shade and protection for the beans allowing them to ripen more slowly. He told us how the plantation is divided into different lots that mature at different times throughout the year. Andres explained Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world partially because their climate allows beans to mature all 12 months of the year. The plantation has a huge number of variants of the arabica coffee plant, and each lot is marked with its type and when it was planted.

The plantation staff explained how the different varieties of coffee beans are produced in Columbia

A fascinating thing was the relatively short life cycle of a coffee plant. It doesn’t start producing beans until it’s third year. He produces beans for fiver years, and then is cut back and given two years to regrow before beans can be harvested, again. It then produces beans for five more years before being cut back a second time. After two years to regrow, it produces beans for four more years then is chopped down and the area replanted with completely new seedlings.

The most fascinating thing for me was how each coffee plant has a prescribed life cycle before it is cut down and a new one planted

We then sent forth to pick beans - only the ripe ones! It was at this point I was mad at myself for not putting on insect repellent. I got bitten more than half a dozen times by mosquitoes. Andres then inspected our haul and admonished anyone whose beans were partially green and not fully red and ripe. We brought our haul back to a vintage machine which separates the red husk from the tan-colored bean. We then were walked through the stages that the plantation put each lot’s haul through - keeping them labeled and separated.

Each lot of plants on the farm is carefully labeled and beans from it are recorded so they can analyze every aspect of growing, drying, and production

It was all very enlightening and was done with the same science and art of winemaking, I felt. Andres explained the varieties of weather and rainfall can affect the coffee’s taste so that two batches from the same lot but harvested and processed at different times may taste completely different. The final hour-plus of the tour was in the tasting lab. The science of smell and taste was a bit over my head, as he passed around vials with different scents in them. After that grounding us in that, he ground out four different types of coffee and had us smell them before hot water was added and afterwards at one minute intervals for four minutes.

It may seem like heresy, but even after the tour I enjoy the smell of coffee more than the taste!

I had to admit this part was way beyond the subtleties of my palate. Finally, it was time to taste each of the four types. We would taste only a spoonful, and Andres demonstrated how we were to slurp it (ensuring we got the maximum amount of air in with each taste). So, to me, this was right up there with the wine aficionados who swish and spit out each taste of a vintage. That’s not the way people drink either wine or coffee, so why were we doing it here? I know, I know. He was trying to train our palates to be able to discern good coffee. And to recognize the “notes” in a coffee’s taste. Honestly, I have never been a coffee drinker. I could tell at least three of the varieties apart at the end, but the experience was a bit much for me. Fascinating, but maybe too much?

Columbia is the third largest producer of coffee in the world behind Brazil and Vietnam

Upon our return to Salento, we picked up our laundry and headed back to our room to relax and unwind a bit. The streets were full of people and we marveled again how much more alive Salento was on a Saturday. Lots of families were out strolling, buying treats and shopping for things that caught their eye. After an hour or two, we headed back out into the throng to hunt down a recommendation we’d been given for dinner. Last night’s recommendation from the same person (our driver from the airport) was spot-on and a magnificent dinner. Tonight’s turned out to be good, as well. So, if you’re ever in Salento, definitely eat at Quindu and Donde Laurita! After dinner, we strolled through the evening drizzle and did a little more shopping for souvenirs.

Another Willy’s Jeep with a load of travelers and then some heads out of town

Then it was off to bed, but we were about to find out the bad side of a town that comes alive on the weekends. First, some guys in our hotel sat outside on the terrace drinking and laughing till 1am. Then, weirdly, at 3am, the music from somewhere in the city began drifting to our hotel. Why whoever was playing it waited till 3am to crank it, I have no idea. It went on till well after the sun was up. So, needless to say, I slept fitfully that night, light sleeper that I am.

Posted by world_wide_mike 00:33 Archived in Colombia

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