Colombia is a country of beautiful places. Away from the Caribbean beaches, the depths of the Amazon rainforest and the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, lies the coffee triangle, an inland gem. The hills and valleys around Salento are stunning. They are a lively set of hills, where so much seems to happen. Other hills tend to be repetitive: the same trees and colours rolling impressively into the next valley. Their minimalism is aesthetically pleasing, but beyond that there is little substance. Meanwhile, the varied, busy hills of Salento compel the beholder to maintain their gaze. In Salento one becomes an active viewer, as opposed to a passive observer.
The coffee region is a mix of high passes, narrow ridges and steep slopes; of distant mist, invasive cloud and valleys cast in shadow; of sounds, shapes and colours. There are countless shades of green alone: the dark, evergreen of pine trees; the bright green of grassy meadows and the yellowy-green of sun-parched fields; the shiny dark green of coffee leaves and the moss-coloured bushes far in the distance. Browns punctuate the greens in the form of tree trunks, grazing cows and the occasional rooftop.
This is magical realism country. The literary style for which Gabriel Garcia Márquez is most famous requires an ability to find something magical in the ordinary. In Salento, it is easy to see where the inspiration comes from. Just from a brief gaze into the hills, one begins to see stories unfolding. One imagines the lives of those farmers and the hidden dwellings within the trees. It does not take long for the magic to flow.
Aside from providing artistic inspiration, these hills are perfect for growing coffee. The rich soil and an altitude of about 1800 metres combine to produce flavoursome coffee beans and that unique taste. Several farms offer an insight into the whole coffee-growing process, from picking through to drying and roasting. Don Elias Finca is one of these farms. Instead of chemicals, they use a natural pesticide made from garlic, onion and spices to ward away any insects. Pineapples are grown around the coffee plants to distract insects and chickens are free to roam the fields and feed on them. Tall avocado trees provide shade for the whole plantation.
Unlike large farms that sell to large corporations, these smaller farms tend to care more about quality of coffee and their workers’ rights. At Don Elias, pickers are paid a flat day rate and receive more work depending on the quality and amount of beans they pick. Contrast this with a large farm that demands 20 baskets a day. Under pressure workers spend longer working and exercise less quality control, simply striving to meet the weight quota. The small farms distribute their coffee locally, while the mass-produced, low-quality beans are generally exported.
To enjoy the all the delights of Colombia’s coffee, one must really pay a visit to Salento. The region is home to the best coffee, the best hiking, in Valle de Cocora, and quite possibly the best views. In a country with so many beautiful spots, Salento certainly deserves its place on the list.