A Bottomless Cup of Goodness – Colombia’s Coffee Triangle

Hacienda Venecia, Manizales, in Colombia's Coffee Triangle

A morning cup of coffee, or an espresso after a meal, will never be the same once you travel to Colombia’s Coffee Triangle.

If you like coffee, the region is like stepping into your favourite sweet shop when you were six. Around every bend, there’s goodness. Coffee, cafecito, tinto, cortado, machiatto, cappuccino, latte, mochaccino… Rich, dark, aromatic goodness. Rocket fuel goodness.

The Coffee Triangle is made up of three departmental capitals – Pereira, Manizales and Armenia – wedged into the pleats and folds of Colombia’s western, central cordillera. It’s never flat in this part of the Andes. It’s never monotonous. Straight roads are unheard of. It’s like the topographical opposite of Holland. Distances are deceptive. A town that looks close, a twenty-minute drive away, in fact takes two hours of snaking roads to reach. It’s a crumpled, wrinkled, wizened land. Ranges tumble down from peaks that can soar right up to the snowline above 5,000 metres, like a wizard’s fingers reaching out to grasp the land to his heart.

In the lower valleys, every hill and hillock, hump and bump in the landscape is keenly cultivated. In the upper, the trees have been cleared to make way for pasture, the grass almost fluorescent green after cutting. The region is washed with a lushness, whether man-made or natural. It’s a vibrant glow that one only ever finds in the Tropics.


Juan Pablo Echeverri in tasting mood

Out-house on the estate, with rose garden

Off the Triangle’s eastern side, close to Manizales, tucked into a steep, deep valley whose flanks would give a Welsh sheep farmer vertigo, lies Hacienda Venecia. The dirt road to reach it from the main ‘coffee highway’ bends and kinks and judders its way down some 400 metres in altitude to around 1,500 metres a.s.l. before finally reaching a river bed and climbing a stretch to enter the estate.

A simple white house, surrounded by centenary trees, groves of coffee bushes and the chatter of birds, greets the visitor. The estate has belonged to Juan Pablo Echeverri’s family for over 45 years. Following a pick-me-up cup of the hacienda’s finest, Juan Pablo begins to enlighten us on the history, varieties, processes and products of his coffee world. A map shows the history of the bean’s progress from Africa to Europe to the Americas, fresh beans are examined then roasted in a special toaster, aromas sniffed and dissected from teeny tester bottles, consistency discussed, a brew expertly (or not) sucked in through the mouth to tease the palate, the perfect cup coaxed from an Italian coffee machine.

Tour of the plantation at Hacienda Venecia

The lesson is then taken outside into the fresh, aromatic air, where Juan Pablo wanders through the neatly-planted, rolling groves of shiny-leaved bushes, stopping frequently to explain points of interest in the cultivation process along the way. When we visit in February, the bushes are flowering, their upper branches catching the light with their bright white Jasmine-like flowers, whose perfume washes over the entire plantation. We emerge onto a trail that hugs the left bank of the Rio El Rosario, following it downhill to a bouncy suspension bridge that we ford in giggles as the river continues roiling down the mountains to the Pacific.

In this lower section of the farm, Juan Pablo runs through how the beans are processed and explains all the machinery, certification and care involved in transforming the bush’s fruit into the coffee-connoisseur’s cherished bean.

At the main house

Close to the buildings for processing the beans, the family’s very handsome late 19th-century coffee plantation house, painted white with accents of rich red, perches on a hillside. On its west-facing side, the veranda echoes with the shimmer of the river below, hammocks slung between its wooden posts, sofas and chairs in tropical colours bathed in afternoon light.

This is the hacienda’s main guesthouse. The dark hardwood floorboards of its external verandas are enlivened by dozens of orchids, linking the homely and unpretentious rooms. It’s a B&B style set up, with guests sharing the house with Juan Pablo and his family when they are at the farm and not travelling. A swimming pool occupies the east-side garden, with a barbecue area nearby. A pond patrolled by assorted gaggles of geese and ducks fills a corner of the immaculate garden, hyacinths and heliconia flowering in intense colours between the shade cast by orchid-festooned trees.

On a typical visit to the farm, guests would have lunch here. But we were on a different schedule and it was late afternoon by the time we began the walk back to the white house by the entrance (which serves as another, less expensive guesthouse, also with a small pool). The hillsides bled from gold into inky black. A haze began to veil the lower valleys and the river. The fragrant, tangled forest turned emerald, the leaves of the coffee bushes almost sparkling in their shiny finery.

We reached the house hot from the walk uphill. One last coffee? asked Juan Pablo. It was dusk and we really had to be going. But when you’re in one of the world’s finest coffee plantations, you really can’t say no. It’s like being six in the sweet shop all over again. In the Coffee Triangle, not only is the cup bottomless, it truly runneth over.

For more information on Metropolitan Touring’s itineraries in Colombia’s Coffee Triangle, visit: http://www.metropolitan-touring.com/content.asp?id_page=3051

To see more images of the Hacienda Venecia and Colombia’s Coffee Triangle, see this gallery: http://www.flickr.com/photos/metropolitantouring/sets/72157626176790436/show/

For more information on Hacienda Venecia, see www.haciendavenecia.com

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