Colombia

A Journey to Colombia’s Coffee Belt

There are more than 20 restaurants and cafes that sell coffee by the cup in the lively pastel-splashed plaza of Jardín, a quaint Colombian pueblo, or village, nestled in the northern reaches of the Andes Mountains.

I chose one and settled in at a streetside table painted bright blue like an Easter egg, and ordered a café tinto — straight black — for 800 pesos, about 25 cents. It was a Monday morning, and the Paisas, as the folks in this region south of Medellín are called, were socializing. Some looked to be friends and family chatting and laughing in the shadow of the double-spired basilica. Some, I was told, were shopkeepers who took the day off after a busy weekend catering to tourists. At the table next to me, a campesino relaxed with his cowboy hat pulled over his face and his chair tilted back against the wall.

Had I been here on a certain day during the harvest season, I might have seen farm owners standing outside the Bancolombia branch with bags of paper cash, surrounded by police officers for security and workers who came to be paid. On Saturday nights, this plaza is a raucous cacophony of pounding discoteca beats and campesinos parading into town astride show horses, but there are still tintos among the cervezas on the trays waitresses carry between tables.

Coffee is at the heart of Jardín, as corn is to small town Iowa: the local economy that forms a cultural identity. When my tinto arrived, it was easy to see why: The flavor, strong and bold, flowed directly from the beans, not a burned layer from roasting. I took another sip from my teacup-size demitasse and noticed that of all the people drinking coffee around me, a travel mug or paper cup was nowhere to be found. No one was taking their coffee to-go. Everyone was sitting, sipping, enjoying.

This was why I had come: to indulge my love of coffee. And Jardín is a perfect place, in the heart of a coffee belt in southwestern Antioquia, the largest-volume coffee producer of Colombia’s 32 departments.

In the 1990s, a collapse in commodity coffee prices hit Colombia hard. Half of its coffee market value vanished, and thousands of families in coffee-growing regions were pushed into poverty. As a strategy for the future, the Colombian government began encouraging and supporting farms to grow higher quality beans that qualify for specialty coffee markets, where prices are higher and more stable.

Jardín embraced the specialty trend with gusto. Most of the beans sold at the town’s coffee cooperative warehouse go straight to Nespresso, the high-end Swiss company selling coffee makers through George Clooney on TV ads. The hills here are bustling with family fincas, or farms, competing with one another to grow the best coffee.

With the help of a hired guide — José Castaño Hernández, himself the son of coffee farmers — I was ready to see where the rich brew in my cup came from, to explore the coffee terroir of the northern Andes.

Tell your relatives that you’re going to Colombia and you may still provoke a shudder and a warning to be careful in a country where there were once rampant drug violence and kidnappings by a rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Last year the government signed a peace deal with FARC to end more than a half-century of bloody conflict. Jardín is in a relatively safe area where the unrest was never as bad, because the many coffee farms grounded the local economy in legitimate commerce.

In the plaza, Mr. Hernández, 41, picked me up in his car and we drove through a military checkpoint just outside of town. After the soldiers waved us through, he told me we would be taking the scenic route to visit a coffee finca above 6,000 feet in elevation. By scenic, he meant a route for equestrians. At the mountain foothills, he parked at the roadside and we met up with another guide who had horses saddled and ready to go. The ride up a cobble-strewed path was a series of pinch-me moments — glorious vistas of the northern Andes, rays of morning sun shooting through fluffy clouds, the occasional ridiculous-beaked toucan flying by.

After a few hours we stopped and tied up the horses, and Mr. Hernández unlocked a gate at a barbed-wire fence. This was the backdoor to the Cueva del Esplendor. The public entrance to this tourist attraction is a parking lot on the other side of the ravine, where people leave their cars and walk a path to the cave. From this side, we rappelled down wire cables into jungle. At the bottom we entered a small cave with a sunlit waterfall shooting through the rock ceiling — another pinch-me moment.

After another hour of scenic equine touring, it was time for lunch at the finca, a simple farmhouse near the mountaintop with white stucco walls and dandy blue trim. That same popping blue accented the pedestal for a shrine to the baby Jesus and also a cross erected at the drop-off to a million-dollar view: more than a dozen Andean peaks rolling out as far as could be seen, with bushy coffee plants climbing up every mountainside.

Three women hustled out to lay the lunch spread on a table on the covered porch: fried eggs with runny yolks, fried plantains two ways — one ripe and sweet and the other not-quite ripe and starchy; red beans; and chicharrón, strips of fried pork rind crunchy on the outside and chewy inside. I piled the beans into a bowl and topped them with an egg and spoonfuls of homemade chunky picante paste. The whole mix was simple and satisfying. Around the corner, the farmworkers and their families sat at another table, a mix of men, women and children all eating beans and eggs and chicharrón. Mr. Hernández had asked for an authentic finca lunch, and so it was.

“Colombians eat a big lunch; it’s their main meal,” he explained when asking what I thought of the food. “It takes a lot of food to work this farm.”

After the empty plates were collected, one woman poured me a cup of the house coffee, served tinto. I smiled and sighed at the pure flavor: so earthy and saturating on my palate, yet exiting cleanly without a trace of aftertaste. Then the farm’s manager, Juan Crisostomo Osorio Marín, beckoned me to follow a dirt path up into the coffee bushes. Mr. Marín runs the farm’s field operations for his father, who is the owner.

We arrived at a spot where bundles of green and bright red coffee berries weighted down seemingly every…

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