Colombia's coffee growers have woken up to smell a new crop: tourists. Ed Ewing gets a taste of plantation life by checking into a finca.
Bean there ... (clockwise from left) Don Elias demonstrates how his coffee is processed; freshly picked arabica and Colombian varieties; Don Patiño's finca. Photographs: James Pagram
Three-year-old Jesús is in his element. Slipping and sliding through the undergrowth, he ducks under tomato plants, orange trees and around pineapple bushes. Where we get whacked by branches or tangled in spiders' webs, he nips through gaps to rescue shiny red tomatoes that have fallen to the floor.
Jesús is leading us on a tour of his coffee finca in Colombia. Or rather, he is helping his grandfather, Don Elias Pulgarin, show the visitors round the farm. Don Elias and his family live in a two-room house on a hillside near Salento, a small town in the foothills of the Cordillera Central. This is coffee country, the centre of Colombia's tropical Zona Cafetera. It is here, between the magical altitudes of 800m and 1800m, that much of the country's annual 66m tonnes of coffee - about 10% of the world's supply - is grown.
And it is here that coffee growers, including Don Elias, first realised the potential of their farms to develop another kind of crop: tourists. Coffee finca tourism, opening up coffee farms to visitors, has been around since the early 1990s. Back then the value of coffee plummeted, and so coffee growers turned to tourists to supplement their income. Much like the Italian idea of "agriturismo", travellers pay to stay on or visit the farms to experience rural life and get an idea of how food, or in this case coffee, is actually produced.
Since those early beginnings, the idea has grown to encompass three coffee-growing regions in the west of the country, Quindío, Caldas and Risaralda. There are 700 fincas listed in the Quindío tourist authority's annual brochure, Haciendas del Café, and down in the valley there is even a coffee theme park. Disney-style rides with a coffee twist - a tren del café (coffee train) and the cabaret-style Show del Café to name just two.
Most of the visitors are Colombians, escaping from the big cities of Cali, Medellín and Bogota for a weekend. International tourism in Colombia is still mainly restricted to cruise passengers visiting Cartagena and backpackers, who can't resist the "Colombia's amazing!" travellers' tales.
Don Elias charges 3,000 pesos, or just under 70p, to take you on a tour. His farm is typical, and there are 300,000 farmers like him in Colombia. The path to his house is dotted with fat chickens and threads away from the road through shaggy, overgrown coffee bushes.
At his house, where with the help of a government grant he is building an extension to accommodate overnight visitors, he greets us a little unsteadily. He must about 60, although it's hard to be sure, and wears a dusty cowboy hat, a muddy white shirt and black welly boots.
He shows us his "orgánico" tomatoes first, growing up strings in a polythene greenhouse, then pineapples, bananas, sugarcane and coffee. He doesn't know how much coffee he produces a year, but working it out on his fingers he reckons it's about 125kg a year. Coffee sells for a dollar per pound - the price is on the television news every night - so Don Elias yields around $275US (£146).
Don Gustavo Patiño, on the other hand, has 50,000 coffee bushes spread across 24 hectares, which produce some 14,000kg of prime organic coffee a year. And whereas Don Elias sells his beans to the local general store to be sold on as generic Quindío coffee, Don Gustavo's coffee ends up in shiny, foil vacuum packs on shelves in Japan and the USA. Or sold to visitors like us.
His house is typical of the larger coffee fincas. It's built of wood and painted white, with red and green window frames, shutters, and broad shady balconies. The views open up across the valley and four labrador pups lie on top of each other against a wall. The building is on the same hillside as Don Elias's house, in fact they are nearly neighbours, but it all seems a world away.
Don Gustavo takes us on a tour of his farm. First the fertiliser shed, housing the product of his 300 pigs kept elsewhere on the finca. Then he introduces us to two types of coffee, arabica and Colombian, with red or green berries. He pulls one off. "Bite," he says, "dulce." Sweet. It is too. Inside the fruit, for that is what it is, are two small seeds, the coffee beans. They are cream-coloured and wet.
In the harvest season, March to June and October to December, workers are paid by the gallon. They'll pick three gallons a day, about 10kg, and get 20,000 pesos (just over £4) a gallon for their trouble.
The fruit is then washed, sorted by hand, soaked for 12 hours and the pulp removed by a machine that looks like a car-sized printing press to leave just the beans. After that the beans, white and shiny, are left in the sun or a greenhouse for five days to dry. Then, dried and flaking with a silver husk, they are shaken clean, packed in 60kg bags, and sent for roasting.
Back on Don Elias's finca Jesús (pronounced Hey-sus) is busy demonstrating how he helps process the dried coffee beans. He rattles them in a washboard-type contraption to get the husks off, and laughs as his grandfather pours a handful in from above. We say our goodbyes and walk the hour or so back to Salento, a pound of organic coffee heavier, 6,000 pesos lighter and two of Jesús's rescued tomatoes richer.
So you want to stay on a coffee finca? It helps to speak, or understand, at least some Spanish. There are no non-local agencies offering coffee finca tours. As Colombia is only now opening up to international tourists, most travel is independent and organised after you have already arrived in the country.
A good first port of call is the Quindío tourism authority website,turismoquindio.com. This site lists dozens of mainly upscale fincas, many with pools, all with balconies and spacious rooms, extensive gardens and the opportunity to see coffee production at first hand. Prices are around 50,000 pesos a night per person (about £11).
A typical example is Finca El Balso (fincaelbalso.com). This 100-year-old farm near Armenia, Quindío's regional capital, is owned by Julián Morales and features antique furniture and a swimming pool. Visitors can stay for 57,000 pesos a night (about £17), including breakfast.
One of the more exclusive places to stay in the Quindío region is Casa Alto del Coronel in Salento. Owned by the mayor of Armenia, there are only two suites available for visitors. Carefully restored and furnished, prices are around 115,000 pesos (£26), including breakfast. Each suite has a master bedroom and two single beds in an adjoining room. No email or website, but call 6-759-3760 when in Colombia to book ahead.
At the other end of the scale, though no less relaxing, is Plantation House, also in Salento. This small, five-room finca is now owned by an Englishman, Tim Harbour. He turned the place into a hostel two years ago and rents rooms for 15,000 pesos a person (£3), including unlimited coffee. Overlooking the valley, Plantation House is becoming a favourite destination for backpackers trying to recover after a weekend of frenetic overindulgence in the nearby party cities of Medellín or Cali (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There are no spas or must-do restaurants in the Zona Cafetera. But fincas offer horse riding, sometimes included in the price, guided tours and relaxation by the yard. If you need to stretch yourself further, there is trekking around the 5,500m snow-capped volcano in the vast Parque Nacional de los Nevados, and nearby there are mud baths, hot springs, and the high Corcora valley with 200ft wax palms to explore.
Safety and security
Is Colombia safe? The Foreign Office advises against travel to certain regions in the north, notably the Cidade Perdida (Lost City), and the west. But Quindío, Salento and the surrounding countryside are considered generally safe. Tourism is on the up in the area, and the Farc, Colombia's most notorious Marxist rebel group, were moved out of the region two years ago. Local information on the current situation is typically sound and will be given freely and honestly from your host or local travel agency.