Kate and I arrived in the Colombian Café Zona capital, Manizales, having heard great things (“The most beautiful part of Colombia!” “So much hiking to do in the Los Nevados national park!” “The coffee farms are exceptional!”), so we were excited about having the opportunity to spend some time there during our trip through Colombia.
The bad news is that we found that Los Nevados National Park is for all intents and purposes closed due to volcanic instability so we weren’t able to hike through the National Park and see the three 5000+ meter tall volcanoes, which have the reputation of being spectacular.
On the upside, we were able to stay at a new hostel, The Secret Garden, about 20 minutes outside of town and while we were there got the chance to spend time chatting, walking, sharing stories and swapping music with Diego and Kate, our incredibly gracious Colombian & Kiwi hosts.
The highlight of our time in the Café Zona, was…wait for it…SURPRISE! A coffee tour! This wasn’t just any coffee tour where they show you the coffee trees, show you people picking the beans, show you how they wash and dry the beans and then give you a free cup of coffee and pat you on your butt on your way through the gift store.
Quite the contrary, it was a chance to ride shot gun for a day with Ivanov and Angela, coffee proprietors who spent 14 years living in DC before coming back to their native Colombia to realize their life dream of owning and operating a family coffee farm.
For me, the highlight of the day was getting a chance to visit the Technical College where local kids were able to attend the school for free and learn vocational skills to help them climb out of poverty and avoid violence. We got a chance to spend time with both instructors and students as they showed us around the campus and then got to sample Ivanov’s own farm’s coffee made several different ways by aspiring baristas – cappuccino, espresso, and hand pressed.
Most interesting was how the instructors spoke about supporting their students more through helping to build the student’s non-cognitive aspects (e.g. motivation, time management, communication skills, how to take responsibility for their actions, how to dress appropriately, and building confidence) than anything else. They also spoke passionately about how important it was for students to be “the best employees possible” by the time they graduated. For those of you who are familiar with much of the work I’ve done at Apollo over the past few years, you’ll know that their words hit particularly close to home for me.
After that, Kate and I got a chance to have a personal tour of the coffee farm and spent the afternoon chatting with Ivanov and Angela. Both are incredibly passionate about the coffee farm and have been working hard to create a sustainable, eco-friendly, and successful business. Check out Altos del Tio Conejo here to support their efforts and be rewarded with some delicious coffee!
The Colombian coffee growers have been particularly hard hit over the past 10 years or so and the future of the worlds’ (now) 4th largest coffee producing region is far from certain. From the market crash of 2002 where the price of coffee was driven down to be less than the cost of production - thereby forcing the many small and poorest farmers out of business; to the “rust fungus” that is reducing coffee yields; to the rains of 2008- 2010 which essentially drowned much of the coffee plants; and finally to the recent coffee workers strikes that have stifled production, there seems to be a realization that collectively the Colombian coffee producers must refocus their efforts and continue to differentiate their product from the other regions of the world. Here are two decent articles that explain a bit of the issues facing the coffee growers: This one features Ivanov, while this one speaks to some of the coffee farmers concerns.
It was a long and exhausting day but at the end of it, Kate and I felt incredibly fortunate to have gotten the chance to spend the day with Ivanov, Angela and their family to see and hear firsthand the pride, joy, concerns and considerations that are facing many of Colombia’s coffee growers today.