We had a lot of expectations about visiting Colombia’s La Zona Cafetera (coffee country). My coffee nerd husband, who spends his mornings carefully weighing and grinding his beans before hand-brewing a single mug of coffee, was especially excited. We assumed, for example, that visiting the premier coffee growing region in a country renowned for its coffee would be similar to a visit to Bordeaux for oenophiles or touring craft breweries on the West Coast — drinking the best of the best at the source.
Not so. Sadly, the best of Colombia’s coffee is exported abroad, leaving Colombians with inferior product or even (gasp!) instant coffee. We’ve been told that Colombians actually prefer the instant stuff because they think this is what people from rich countries drink. I’m skeptical of that claim, but even if it’s true, they’re a decade or so behind the times. At trendy coffee shops in Atlanta, for example, you fork over $5 for a single origin, shade grown, organic, blah blah fancy-pants Colombian coffee. Most of the coffee on offer from all the little corner shops and street vendors here is called tinto, served in tiny shot glasses with lots of sugar out of giant percolator-type machines for around 500 pesos (25 cents). It’s uniformly awful.
Despite the disappointment, we did tour Hacienda Venecia, a coffee farm near Manizales (which saves some of the really good stuff for tourists like us). We walked through their coffee fields and processing facilities, learning about the coffee process from planting to harvesting to roasting to drinking. At the end of the tour we could drink all of the coffee we wanted for free.
We stayed at a wonderful and quiet little guesthouse, The Secret Garden, out in the countryside about 5 kms from a suburb of Manizales. It’s run by a young American couple — Daniel is half Colombian and half Ecuadorian and his wife, Eliesha, cooked wonderful breakfasts and dinners for us every night. It’s the sort of place where you can easily spend an entire day on the porch hammocks, reading, looking at the view, maybe taking a walk down some of the flower-lined country lanes to watch the fireflies come out at dusk.
And even though it was out in the country, getting to the big city of Manizales, as we did one day to catch the local Feria festivities, was really pretty easy. First, you catch the local bus, the chiva. Brightly painted and packed to the gills, we squeezed in next to babies and big piles of bananas for the bouncy ride to town. You can take the chiva straight into Manizales or you can get off at the square in Villa Maria, a suburb, and take the brand new cable car into town. The cable car opened the week we were there and there was constantly a long line of locals who wanted to hop on and have a ride just for fun!
We caught a horse parade in Manizales, bet 50 pesos on a guinea pig (and won!), and on our walk back to the Hostal, participated in the local game, tejo. Tejo is similar to the game of cornhole that we normally play at football tailgates and it works like this. There’s a metal ring in the middle of a board covered in mud. The ring is lined with gunpowder charges. Players drink copious amounts of aguardiente and beer and then throw a large heavy stone at the board, hoping to hit the inside of the ring and make the gunpowder explode. I’m happy to report that at the “mini-tejo” bar we went to (meaning we threw from a distance of 8 meters as opposed to 18 meters as required for regular tejo), Jordan, myself, and our new friends Pat and Karen all got an explosion.
Meandering back after mini-tejo, we came upon where the real tejo players congregate. We could hear the bangs and smell the gunpowder as we walked up. We watched for a while, and then the players noticed us, and pulled us in. One guy (who goes by Gaucho, his tejo “sobre nombre” or nick name), bought us a round of beers, another guy took Pat and Jordan to the back and showed proper tejo technique, and the friendliest one-armed man I’ve ever met bought us a whole bottle of aguardiente. We cheered the guys on (“Go Tamale!” “Nice shot, Caballo!”), giving out high fives and fending off additional drinks. This truly local place — full of heavy drinkers, large projectiles whizzing through the air, and constant explosions — gave us a great insight into Colombian culture and hospitality and was one of the best nights we’d had in a long time.