A bike ride through Colombia’s coffee country

By Sean Jansen

If you look beyond the violent history of Colombia you will see a country that not only has moved on considerably from its past when Pablo Escobar was running things, but also a country that has something for everyone. It has the tropical climes of the Amazon, the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts. It stretches from massive cities to the Andes Mountains. If you trek deep into the misty hills you’ll find an area, nestled just south of the city of Medellin, that is famous for the country’s other top export. It is known as the Zona Cafetera, and that’s where the coffee is grown.

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I came to Colombia years ago for the first time via the sailboat crossing from Panama and it was on this boat where I tried Colombian coffee for the first time. I have had Panamanian, Indonesian, Bolivian and Brazilian coffee too, but it is really the Colombian coffee that sweeps all of them off of their feet. It is rich and thick with flavor, but also smooth enough that you need not add cream or sugar to enjoy it.

The region where I ventured on my most recent visit is near a town called Salento, close to the Valle de Cocora, a valley that looks straight out of Jurassic Park. Salento is a small town and it isn’t really known to tourists as the coffee hot spot, but it has fantastic coffee and a really cool way of getting to the plantations and surrounding areas.

Salento is only about 15 miles from a much larger city, but because the Andes are so treacherous it takes 45 minutes to get there. The only way to get to the plantations from Salento is on dirt roads, some of which are impossible to drive on. Therefore you can either walk, ride a horse, or get there the way we chose: by grabbing a couple mountain bikes and heading out to the plantations on two wheels.

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We rolled up and down the terrain of the Andes, all the while peering at vegetation that looked like something prehistoric. While trying to breathe the thin air more than a mile above sea level, it was lost to us what our ultimate goal of the trip was. We were completely taken away by the sheer bizarreness and beauty of a place that God clearly intended on being lost and never found. Going up and down on a bumpy dirt road puts into perspective how many little nooks and crannies there are still undiscovered and most likely untouched on this planet. We were seriously contemplating when a dinosaur would come out of the vegetation and cross the road. To think that the country’s famous coffee comes from this zone was something that dumbfounded us.

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After about 45 minutes of jaw dropping, life changing beauty, we arrived at the plantation and were immediately welcomed into the estate and given an introduction to the coffee. We learned about its journey from the plant in the soil to the black liquid in a cup that people all over the world rely on every day.

Coffee is grown between the altitudes of 1,800 and 6,000 feet on mountainsides and often interspersed with plantain and banana trees as the combination of plants help each other grow. Colombia is special because unlike some other coffee growing regions of the world, Colombia sits almost on the equator and has two growing seasons instead of just one.

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The coffee that we drink and the beans that we buy at the store are black because they are cooked and are ready to be ground and brewed to your desire, but they don’t look like that when they are first picked from the plant.

The guide explained to us how to use the colors of the leaves to see if the beans are ready or not and how to pick them. A coffee picker has to pick around 40 to 100 beans to make a single cup of coffee, which, if I were the picker, would take me about an hour.

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We all picked a coffee beans from the plants and tried our best to peel back the skin to get to the light brown inner bean. It is then ready to put into the caldron for cooking. Then the beans are dried in the sun, which could take up to a couple days. Finally once dried, they are placed into what is known as a popper.

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A popper is a device that not only heats up to an incredible temperature, but also stirs the beans every two to three seconds while they are roasting. In the popper they are cooked and stirred until the dark brownish black color comes about. Once achieved, they are taken out and cooled for approximately 12 hours. Then finally, after the hours it took to pick the beans, peel the skin, dry the beans, cook them and grind them, you are ready to have your first cup of coffee.

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And that we did, and that we were happily coaxed with the energy and stained teeth to continue cruising around the Andes mountains and the Zona Cafetera. Two of my favorite things in the world are coffee and cycling, and to have both of them together with such a spectacular setting, I’m not sure my afternoon could have been any better.

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Correction

An early version of this story made several references to “Columbia.” Columbia is the capital of South Carolina. The area was first visited by Hernando de Soto in 1540 and much of the city was destroyed during the Civil War. Today it is the home of the University of South Carolina and balances bustling redevelopment while maintaining its historic architecture. No coffee is grown there.

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Celebrating National Coffee Day

Happy National Coffee Day! Until this morning, I had so far ignored the #coffeeoutside trend, though it is a bandwagon I probably should have chased down long ago. Like many a cyclist, I love coffee, being outside and bicycles, which are the vehicles commonly paired with this Instagram-friendly activity.

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Coffee outside is easy to mock. It’s a social media phenomenon that looks like the exclusive realm of the lumbersexual and the hipster, neither of which I can claim to be. No flannel? No skinny pants? Then you need not apply.

Meanwhile, my 50-something university professor uncle has been riding his multiple vintage bicycles into the Wyoming woods to cook breakfast and brew coffee for himself for at least a decade. He usually takes a radio with him so he can listen to National Public Radio on top of a mountain. I think the breakfast part has something to do with his love of bacon and my aunt being Jewish.

Still, why spend the time and effort packing up a stove, beans, a hand grinder, a mug, a filter, a blanket and then riding a bicycle somewhere away from your house (where the coffee maker lives) before having any caffeine at all? My coffee maker is set the night before so that I may awaken to the sweet smell of bean juice wafting under the sheets (which are invariably pulled over my head in a desperate attempt to delay morning). I don’t have to take five steps after getting out of bed without the black elixir of life getting to work booting up my systems.

But if you’re going to question coffee outside you ought to question cycling, especially for utility. A car is much faster, dryer and more socially acceptable. You don’t smell funny when you arrive at your destination as you might if you pedaled and sweated. So why bother? Like the coffee pot set on auto-brew compared to a slow-drip pour-over system, our infrastructure and our lifestyles are not as favorable to mechanical things, but there’s something lovely about slowing stuff down once in a while.

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In honor of National Coffee Day I decided that this was my morning. I loaded a waterproof blanket and everything I needed for a cup of joe into a couple of panniers and pedaled away on my 1990s Ritchey mountain bike. Not knowing the rules about stoves in the vicinity, I settled on a secluded river bank spot about three miles up a dirt road.

What coffee outside forced me to do was sit and wait, something I’m not particularly used to in this modern world. The paperwork for my alcohol-fuel stove claims it will boil a pot of water in eight minutes, meaning I had eight minutes to watch the way wind moved through leaves yellowing for autumn. I sip beverages slowly so actually drinking the coffee afforded me another 20 minutes to be still and think, unencumbered and unbothered. When was the last time you did that?

The whole experience of sitting on a rock drinking the resulting cup of (very weak) coffee and dangling my feet in the river felt akin to riding a bicycle. It’s not the most efficient way to go about things, but it’s perhaps the most enjoyable. Taking time to move slowly and to leave behind the electronic devices, at least once in awhile, is a nice reprieve from the modern world.

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I left the river feeling refreshed, energized and with a clarity of focus that had me fully ready to face a Tuesday otherwise chained to a desk. The brief ride, wind in my hair, mountain water over my feet and deep gulps of fresh air had been very good for my mind.

Or, it could just be that I’d finally had that first cup of coffee.

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