El Eje Cafetero
By Alberto Beltrán
There is a region in Colombia that provides an ample supply of coffee, picturesque landscapes, small-town charm, and exceptional gastronomy all rolled into one. This region is called the Eje Cafetero, or in English “The Coffee Axis.” It is a land rich in bounty and diversity, and you can enjoy all kinds of activities there. For example, stroll through any street in Salento, and you’ll find yourself in a setting similarly depicted in the novel “Macondo” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian writer famous for his style of magical realism. In the area, there are white houses, generally one story tall, with colored wood that breathes life into the walls. The calm nature of the region, as well as the peaceful demeanor of its locals, melts you into relaxation. You can walk trails either on foot or on horseback in the Cocora Valley, surrounded by green mountains and massive palm trees. You’ll also be able to see a small hut that houses hummingbirds. But above all, one must pay a visit to any of the numerous coffee plantations scattered throughout the region.
The Coffee Axis is a vast region located in Colombian departments known as Caldas, Risaralda, Quindio, Tolima, the southwest of Antioquia, and part of Valle del Cauca. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 2011 for its cultural importance and, above all, for its unparalleled and incredible landscape, also called “Paisaje Cultural Cafetero” (Coffee Cultural Landscape).
Although there are many towns worth visiting, the main ones are Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia. Manizales, for example, maintains a connection with nature that is paramount. It has an Observatory Park where you can watch the sky within its telescope lens or view the ten municipalities of the coffee axis. It is also well known for its art and architecture. And as far as food goes, look for trout or a plate of “vandeja paisa.” It is a traditional dish initially served for the town’s old mining population, who were limited to one meal a day. It is a high-calorie dish that is a staple in Colombia.
Of all the towns, one that particularly stands out is Salento. Although it is small in terms of population, it is the crown jewel considering what it has to provide in coffee, landscapes, and tourism. If you go up to the Mirador Alto de la Cruz, you can enjoy incredible views, with all the valleys and forests around. From there, travel in one of their traditional “Willys.” Willys are antique Jeeps from the early twentieth century used to carry people as public transportation.
In one of those Willys, you can cross the lush forest where you’ll notice a beautiful hacienda, Finca el Ocaso, with white and red colors located on a small hilltop. From there, you can see the green mountains and valleys and take a tour of the coffee plantations. They also offer visitors to participate in the traditional ways of “picking” where they provide you a basket to pick the “cerezas,” or red capsules where you can find the coffee beans.
In the Coffee Axis, as well as many other coffee regions in the world, the coffee plants are planted next to papaya or mango trees. The shade from the fruit trees prolong the process of growing coffee. This is because the longer the tree takes to bear fruit, the more nutrients the coffee can absorb. Additionally, the surrounding fruit trees act as a substratum, or base, for the coffee plant, which affects the coffee quality and creates an extraordinary fruity flavor.
Once harvested, coffee beans can be left inside the cherry capsule and dried directly. Alternatively, the coffee beans can be separated (this is referred to as the “threshing” process) from the “parchment” that is the cover. Each cherry has two beans inside. There the threshing can be completed traditionally, using a manual machine that works with a hand crank. Once separated, coffee producers cover the beans with a gooey layer called “mucilage,” which they wash off afterward. They then transport the beans to a small greenhouse called a “marquee.” There, they spread out the beans for drying. Once dried, they are roasted. In the hacienda, producers use the “parchment” of the coffee, the dry leaves, as fuel for the roaster.
Roasting is key in the whole process and makes a difference in the coffee quality. When we receive coffee that is very roasted and black, it indicates that the coffee is of low quality. People tend to overroast to cover the taste of acidity; however, if the quality is good, it is roasted very little and has a brownish color. A lightly roasted coffee bean, for example, has a line in the center, with a touch of dry leaf and a very characteristic golden color. Hence, “golden” is often used when referring to this type of coffee since it has extraordinary quality.
Once roasted, it is crushed and prepared for consumption. Often, servers use a filter that looks like fine sackcloth. They gradually pour boiling water onto the coffee and through the sackcloth to absorb the nutrients. The cup used to serve is already hot so that there is no thermal contrast. There is also no milk or sugar in the serving process to appreciate the quality. In short, there are few words to explain it. It is probably the best coffee in the world, with an excellent and unsurpassable flavor.