Finca Don Elias: Family-Owned, Organic (Delicious) Coffee in Salento

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it's perfectly safe

Follow us into the magical land of coffee farms…

Continuing last week’s Salento lovefest, I want to get a little more into the details of what makes this little coffee town such a wonderful place (if all the talk of colorful houses, snuggly scarves, nine billion different shades of green and fresh-brewed tinto weren’t already convincing enough). It’s a cliche at this point to say that the main asset of Colombia is its people, but it’s a basic fact, and nowhere have I found this to be more true than in the coffee region, especially in smaller towns like this one. People go out of their way to do favors just because. You never feel like a jerk if you ask for extra sugar, and inquiring when the next round of transportation leaves will, just as often as not, lead to an offer to just take you now, if you don’t mind paying a couple pesos more, of course.

In many places, it would be considered rude (or worse) to go stomping into someone’s house and demand that they show you around, yet here it’s essentially the norm, especially if you want to go on a tour of one of the local coffee farms (fincas). I had managed to visit twice before ever actually making it to one of these fincas — the first time around because of lack of time, and the second because my friends and I didn’t bother looking up what time the place actually ran tours before heading out there (in typical Colombian fashion, we figured the tour would start whenever people showed up. For once, this was not accurate). This led to a fairly entertaining “self-guided” tour in which we explored the processing center and tried to figure out what all the different tools were for, but it was not ultimately very enlightening. So on my third visit, I vowed that this would be the time I finally found out how the sausage coffee gets made.

can we drink it yet?

This is where the magic happens

There are quite a few local fincas that offer tours (in both English and Spanish), but our hostel and some of the other folks in town recommended the small, family-owned Don Elias, so that was where we leaded. Located about a 45-minute all-downhill walk from town (depending on your walking speed and how often you stop to take photos of the stumble-inducing scenery), this little independent finca is the definition of classic Colombia coffee country. Visitors enter along a path lined with banana and plátano trees, then suddenly emerge into basically the front yard of the family’s house. When we were there, the porch was occupied by a few small children playing, a smaller dog and an unidentified man washing his car right in the middle of the space. Starbucks it ain’t, but that wasn’t what we came for.

almost there

Just one kilometer to Don Elias!

these look like bananas. ugh

Follow your nose!

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to meet Don Elias himself (although a friend took a tour with him, so we know he really exists), and took the tour instead with his grandson, a charming kid in his late teens who had a lot more patience for visitors asking dumb questions than most other kids his age would. Our tour led through the coffee plants, which ripple down the terraced planting section toward the river below. The plants have a maximum productive lifespan of a bit more than 25 years, our guide explained, after which point they become essentially useless. At this point, he made a joke here about things being more or less expired after 25 years, which allowed us to see some pretty serious blushing when we told him how old we were. Definitely worth it. Aging jokes aside, we learned that this particular finca replaces the plants after 17 years, clearing the way for younger plants with a higher yield, and they rotate the planting so they always have a few different age tiers of plants.

the Colombian ones are yellow, of course

Coffee beans are way more colorful than cafes tell us!

This coffee grows best in shade, so the plants are alternated among banana, plantain, avocado and pineapple trees, which also provide important nutrients that help balance the soil and produce better coffee. Because the farm is strictly organic, they use natural tactics to deter insects and other pests. This is the main reason for planting pineapples, our guide told us, because the sweet taste attracts the insects and draws them away from the coffee plants. Who needs pesticides when you have pineapples?

not so pretty anymore

The beans, after the first round of de-shelling and soaking.

All this talk of snacking was starting to make me hungry, but there was still more to see. After the twice-yearly harvest (done all by hand, by about eight workers over the course of a few weeks), the beans are brought up to the processing plant — an open side of the family house with a few basic tools. The coffee beans are all run through a hand-powered machine, which cracks the outer shell, then fall into a tub where they soak for a full 24 hours. The tub only holds about a kilo of coffee, so the entire process of opening and soaking all of the beans from the harvest takes quite a while. After soaking, the beans are relocated to a makeshift drying house, constructed out of local bamboo-like plants and a clear tarp over the top. They sit here until completely dry, which can take anywhere from a few days to more than a week, depending on how sunny it is during that time.

isn't he just the cutest thing

Still not pretty beans yet. But we’re getting there.

Once the beans are fully dried, it’s time to divide them up. At this point, the beans that are designated for sale (about half the harvest) are sent off to local and international organic and fair trade buyers, which are then responsible for roasting and selling them to their own markets. The family keeps the other half of the beans for personal use and sale at the farm and at a few choice spots in town. Despite all the fancy talk we hear about roasting techniques, the strategy here is as traditional as it gets — the dry beans are placed in a banged-up metal pot, then roast over the fire for about an hour until they get that beautiful deep-brown color we expect from coffee. Then, to the grinder they go! Like every other part of the process at this farm, there’s no machine involved — if you want coffee, you have to grind it by hand. We all tried it, and I can only imagine that a few weeks of running that machine would leave me with better arm muscles than any class at a fancy gym.

they still don't taste good, though

That looks much more like the real thing.

Of course, a visit to a family home in Colombian coffee country wouldn’t be complete without a cup of coffee, so the tour finishes with a fresh-brewed cup of Don Elias’ finest. This is obviously a genius marketing strategy, because it’s nearly impossible to taste this coffee without immediately succumbing to the urge to buy some, especially after hearing all about the lengthy, all-manual process that goes into creating it and getting it into that cup. Plus, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get better than buying coffee straight from the source, especially when that source is a family of coffee farmers, devoted to maintaining the organic, traditional practices that have sustained them for generations.

yum yum yum

The finished product, ready for my caffeine-craving taste buds.

Oh, and did I mention that the coffee is delicious, too?

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Salento: My Happy Place in Colombia

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Anyone that has had the misfortune to interact with me since October 2012 has probably heard about Salento — if I haven’t just come back from there, I’m planning my next journey or trying to convince someone to come with me. Including the trip I took two weeks ago, when my college roommate came to visit, I’ve been there a grand total of four times. I have a photo of the nearby valley as my phone background. You could say I’m a little crazy about the place — or at least you might say that if you’ve never been there. Because once you have visited, it’s hard to resist the urge to go back immediately. From the beautiful traditional painted houses to the perfect cups of coffee, Salento is a Colombian slice of heaven. I realize I’m a few decades away, but I’ve never found a place that whispers “retire here!” as much as Salento. I’m a city girl at heart, and I love Bogotá intensely, but something about those rolling green coffee hills almost convinces me to leave bricks and buses behind and trade in my smartphone for some vegetable seeds.

i want to go to there

The view from the lookout at one end of town, looking toward Los Nevados National Park.

Now, I’m certainly not the first person to feel the magical pull of Salento. In the last few years, the tiny town has become a popular spot for backpackers, providing a relaxing layover between Popayán, San Agustín and Cali to the south and Medellín to the north. Still, the place isn’t overrun in the way some other spots are (looking at you, Santa Marta) — despite the strong emphasis on tourism, it’s easy enough to walk out of town and find a quiet place to sit, without encountering a single person trying to sell you feather earrings or a bunch of bros discussing where they partied last night. Yes, there are definitely enough visitors to keep the hostels busy, but it seems to draw less of the party-and-drugs crowd and more of the hikers and introspective types.

salento tiene talento

Ha! Rhymes are the best! [In case you can’t see it, this sign, outside an artisans’ collective, says “Salento Talento.” heehee]

In addition to the quiet, Salento’s main appeal is sensory, mostly for the eyes and the taste buds. The town has historically subsisted on coffee production and trout farming, and those are still the primary economic activities for the rural families living nearby (though running a restaurant or a hostel appears to be an increasingly lucrative option as well). Especially on weekends, when the main plaza fills up with food stands and visitors from the nearby cities of Armenia and Pereira, you can find great local trout slathered in sauce and served with a ton of sides, or massive patacones (plantains) the size of a serving platter. I also bought one of the top five most delicious arepas I’ve ever eaten in Colombia — yes, I obviously keep track of this — in Salento, from a women selling homemade arepas the size of my head off a grill along the road on the way back to my hostel.

paisas love porches

The colorful porch of a traditional paisa house.

Though the comida típica (typical food) is great, there are also a number of non-traditional restaurants in town, including a pizza-and-curry spot run by a wonderful couple and the backpacker favorite Brunch, an American-owned place featuring (you guessed it) brunch food and homemade peanut butter! My personal favorite spot in town offers 5,000 peso breakfast and 6,000 lunch every day — there are only 2-3 options, but they’re all delicious and the people there couldn’t be nicer. Plus the walls of the six-table restaurant are plastered with posters for  events and businesses, everything from horse markets to hostels on the Pacific Coast, which provide a great conversation piece when you haven’t had coffee yet and can barely string two words together.

GIVE ME ALL THE CAFFEINE

This is what coffee looks like when it grows. Not half bad!

And speaking of coffee, did I mention this place grows a lot of coffee? Salento is in the heart of the eje cafetero (coffee region), and it’s one of the best places in the country to get a quality cup of joe. There are a number of fincas (coffee farms) within walking distance, and many offer tours that explain the entire coffee production process, from planting to exporting, and everything in between. Even better, for the other purists out there, is the fact that many of these family-owned farms are all-organic — some even maintain the practice of doing everything by hand! As far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to beat buying a bag of fresh-ground organic coffee straight from the family that grows, harvests and sells it — we’re taking farm-to-table to a whole new level here.

pretty colors!

Outside a gallery in Salento

In addition to its tasty products, Salento is also a haven for artisans. The main street leading out of the plaza is lined with all kinds of shops selling everything from hand-knitted sweaters to chocolate-covered coffee beans. The leather, wool and wood here are especially good quality, and you’ll see many people walking around in ruanas (Colombian wool ponchos). One of the most iconic local products is the sombrero aguadeño (or sombrero antioqueño), a slightly larger version of a fedora favored by most of the local farmers. The hat has grown from its humble beginnings as a rancher’s traditional sun protection and can now be spotted as a fashion statement on the heads of Colombians across the country. If you’re on the hunt, though, this is the place to get it — there are a few stores on the first block close to the plaza that sell a staggering quantity of hats in all sizes. Every time I visit, I debate buying one, but the truth is I’d be afraid to wear it much in Bogotá because of the inevitability of it getting soaked. Still, I’m tempted whenever I’m there — I have visions of wearing it as I gaze out over the small coffee and lulo plants sprouting in the yard behind my finca. Maybe once I finally do buy that finca (is it time to retire yet?), I’ll have a reason to get a hat.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep going back.

trees for days

Can you blame me? LOOK at this place!