Colombian Coffee Cupping Tour

 
Shake the hand that feeds you.
— Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

The bright Sunday began on a bus weaving through the luscious green mountains of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero, also known as the coffee region. Coffee farm tours are easy to find in the area, but most focus on the production process, not the roasting, brewing, and sipping. However, there is one tour offering all of the above: Juan Carlos Ortega’s El Placer Coffee Cupping Tour in Santa Rosa (a small town between Manizales and Pereira), Colombia. In his words, Colombians are experts at growing coffee, but they don’t know how to drink it. It’s true - most coffee found here won’t impress connoisseurs. It’s usually full of panela, unrefined whole cane sugar, and sadly, most of the best Colombian coffee is exported, leaving locals with the leftovers. But Juan Carlos is trying to change that one cup of a coffee at a time.

Juan Carlos and Adriana, our interpreter, met my friend and I in El Lembo. As we drove up to Juan Carlos’ farm, El Placer, he pointed out the traditional architecture of the farm houses and explained that the farm had been in his family for generations. Because of this region’s unique climate, the Eje Cafetero is a perfect place to grow not only commercial grade coffee but also specialty coffee. Juan Carlos grows organic and specialty coffee, a growing market in the country. He offers 4-hour informational cupping (or tasting) tours. I couldn’t wait to learn more about the art of growing, roasting, and tasting coffee. I’m one of those people who cannot function without coffee; you can’t tell the difference between me without coffee and the zombies from The Walking Dead. I also love Michael Pollan’s recommendation to always, “shake the hand that feeds you.” The importance of understanding the impact of your own consumption cannot be understated in today’s food industry.  And more than just shake Juan Carlos’ hand...I settled in to listen.

The tour started with a brief explanation of the process of growing the beans and the two different coffee plants - Arabica and Robusta. Only 20% of the world’s coffee is Arabica, and that is what is grown on this farm. Coffee plants take two years to produce which helps explain the “tranquila” and patient pace of life here in the Eje Cafetero. Our guide also explained that his coffee pickers earn around $550,000 COP per kilogram, but it is very demanding work: the steep inclines and high-altitude sun are only two of the challenges, and most commercial pickers are paid a lot less.

We had the chance to pick our own coffee berries and learned that the berry only grows after flowering. We were instructed to chose only the deepest and ripest red berries. Next, we squeezed the beans outside of the berries and tasted the raw beans which have a sweet layer of sugar over them. Usually this layer is washed off, but “honey” coffee beans are dried with this sweet layer on; it was a more complicated process, but Juan Carlos roasts his own honey beans by hand. We then took turns roasting the beans and saw the different levels of roasting. Finally, we waited for the beans to cool while we took a walk around the property.

On the walk, we saw and smelled mandarina and plantain trees, lemongrass, and mint. Everything that grows around the coffee influences its taste, so it was the perfect warm up of our senses for the tasting to come. After the walk, we hurried back to ground our beans. As Juan Carlos ground the beans, there was an explosion of fragrance in the room. It faded within minutes and was a great reminder of why to freshly grind your coffee before enjoying.

He showed us his preferred method of manually brewing using a Hario V60 dripper with passion and precision. He explained to first enjoy the aroma of the coffee, and then to sip and enjoy the  body, sweetness, acidity, flavor, and aftertaste. His cup of coffee was a work of art, and each step was thoughtfully considered and executed.

As we sipped on our coffee together, Juan Carlos shared some insights into the coffee industry in Colombia. He explained that Juan Valdez coffee was all marketing and no substance, and how the Colombia Coffee Growers Federation was more concerned with lining politicians’ pockets than protecting the growers. As we finished our last sips of coffee, we signed his guestbook full of messages of gratitude from visitors from all over the world.

In the end, I warmly shook Juan Carlos’ hand and had a sense of hope that more and more people were asking questions about the origin of their food and drink and seeking these hands-on learning experiences. But more importantly, I also had five bags of his specialty coffee in my backpack to bring home for the many more cups to come.


The El Placer Coffee Cupping Tour can be arranged through Colombia Eco Travel. Interpreters available upon request.

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Cartagena: The History Behind the Walls

 

This post was originally written for Colombia Eco Travel.

Cartagena is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colombia, and a walk through its historic center (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) will easily explain why. The romantic and beautiful colonial architecture makes visitors swoon, and vivid colors and historical sites are around every corner. But as a I wandered through the Old City surrounded by the centuries-old stone walls, I wondered how this city became known as the “jewel of the Caribbean” and at whose expense.

The myth goes that in 1533, a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Heredia traveled with an interpreter named Catalina who was kidnapped as a young girl and raised by the conquistadors. There are rumors that Heredia and Catalina were lovers, but she later married his nephew and testified against him in his trial for thievery and mistreatment of indigenous people, so either it's a rumor or that was one breakup. Regardless, it was Catalina who helped Heredia take the village Calamari by force, the site of the now Cartagena. And now, if you search "Calamari Village Cartagena" on Google the first thing to come up is in fact not this story but a boutique hostel of the same name.

After the city was settled by the conquistadors, it became one of the wealthiest ports in the Americas. One truth left out of the typical narrative for tourists is that this port's biggest business was slave trade. It's estimated that over one million Africans were forcibly taken to Cartagena de Indias and sold, creating the booming economy. It was also a major port for shipping the gold brutally stolen from the Inca Empire back to Spain, as well as the gold of the local indigenous Zenú people of the coast. Therefore the city was often filled with gold and precious stones.The reputation of wealth became dangerous as it quickly became a target for pirates in search of booty, which of course led to Spain building the infamous walls of the "walled city." But despite the walls, the city was attacked several times by pirates, and throughout the attacks, much of the city was destroyed for huge ransoms.

And it wasn’t just pirates either; the British also attacked the city several times in an effort to take it from Spain. Most recently in 2014, Prince Charles visited Cartagena and unveiled a plaque to commemorate the lives of the British sailors who died in the attack of 1741. According to Colombia Reports, “The new plaque has riled up disgust and anger from local residents and historians alike. Colombians argue that the plaque honors yet another dark blot in the country’s painful and bloody history of colonization. Eventually, Cartagena declared its independence from Spain in 1811 and became one of the first cities in Colombia to do so, but it came at a cost. There was a merciless four-month siege, and 6,000 residents died of starvation and disease. It wasn’t until 1821, when Simón Bolivar took the city by sea and named the city, La Heroica, the Heroic City.

San Pedro Claver Square

San Pedro Claver Square

A statue found in the Walled City celebrating Saint Pedro Claver, a Jesuit Missionary who was called, “a slave to the slaves.” He worked for more humane conditions, but most of his work’s focus was on converting Africans to Catholicism.

A statue found in the Walled City celebrating Saint Pedro Claver, a Jesuit Missionary who was called, “a slave to the slaves.” He worked for more humane conditions, but most of his work’s focus was on converting Africans to Catholicism.

During this time, slavery continued, but many slaves escaped to create free villages, called palenques. In these communities, former slaves retained and celebrated their African roots and culture. In 1851, Colombia abolished slavery, 14 years before the United States. The only surviving palenque is right outside Cartagena, San Basilio de Palenque. It was the first free city in America dating its founding to 1713. To this day, the people speak the unique language of Palenquero, a combination of Spanish and languages from West Central Africa.

Today, you can still walk along the walls, tour a castle built by Spain (San Felipe), visit San Basilio de Palenque, and visit the Palace of the Inquisition, now a museum housing the Inquisition’s bloody tools of torture and some pre-Columbian artifacts and artifacts that survived colonization and the battles for independence. It’s still a city of contradicting perspectives and cultures, and remains a city with deep income inequality, one of the starkest in Latin America. It’s a city that will inspire every traveler to contemplate the different sides of history and look beyond the walls at the stories behind them.

History-inspired and socially-conscious tours of Cartagena can be arranged by Colombia Eco Travel.  

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Snorkeling Together: The Coral Islands of Rosario

 

This post was originally written for Colombia Eco Travel

Popular travel blogs often preach about the benefits and advantages of solo travel. And for good reason - traveling alone can be an enriching and eye-opening experience. However, the solo traveler hype can overshadow the joy of traveling with family. Exploring with family gives travelers the chance to make and share precious memories together. Even Christopher McCandless, one of American history’s most beloved solo travelers, wrote in his journal towards the end of his life that happiness is only real when shared.

I spent a year living and traveling in Colombia before my boyfriend’s mom, Charlene, came to visit. There were many joys in sharing what I had learned about Colombia with her. Charlene teaches the 3rd grade in the United States, and I knew when we were planning her trip that she deserved a fun, relaxing, and stress-free two weeks through the most magical experiences in Colombia.

The first experience that made the list was snorkeling near the Coral Islands of Rosario off the coast of Cartagena in the Caribbean sea. The Coral Islands of Rosario and San Bernardo, or the Parque Nacional Natural Islas Corales del Rosario y San Bernardo in Spanish, is one of the 46 National Parks in Colombia. The park features one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country, featuring many small islands, peaceful lagoons, fragile reefs, and mangrove swamps. Within the park, it is possible to see the spotted dolphin, West Indian manatee, hawksbill sea turtle, green sea turtle, cat shark, and more than 150 species of fish and 50 species of birds.

The park is one of the best places in Colombia to immerse yourself in the rich, biodiversity the country is known for. I knew Charlene would enjoy seeing the Park by boat, but I also knew it would be really fun to organize an activity she had never done before: snorkeling! What was so special about the experience was that she had never been snorkeling or explored coral reefs before. Sharing this unique travel experience in Colombia multiplied the joy because I was able to see it for the first time through someone else’s eyes.

We arranged a snorkeling tour of some of the best reefs with a local guide. He provided us with snorkels, goggles, fins, and even swim noodles for when we grew tired. Snorkeling is a great activity for the whole family because you don’t have to be an advanced swimmer to enjoy it. Our guide drove us on his boat to some of the best and most accessible snorkeling spots and gave us as a quick tutorial on snorkeling safety and tips. He gave us as much time as we wanted to explore the reefs.

The water was clear, turquoise, and perfectly warm. Charlene beams that the day’s highlight was the schools of blue, lustrous fish we were able to follow around.  After we tired, our guide arranged for a local fisherman to bring us a fresh, hot, and reasonably-priced lobster lunch. After lunch, a local entrepreneur came by our boat to display some locally made jewelry, which Charlene absolutely adored. After the memorable snorkeling, a delicious lunch, and some souvenirs to remember the trip, our guide brought us to one last snorkeling spot to explore a sunken pontoon plane. That night we had dinner at one of the many hotels in the area and toasted our Limonada de Cocos as the sun set over the Caribbean sea.

Overall, it was a privilege to go on an underwater, National Geographic worthy adventure together without the hassle or stress of diving. The experience of snorkeling in the Coral Islands of Rosario was without a doubt...better when shared.

Snorkeling tours of the Coral Islands of Rosario and San Bernardo can be arranged through Colombia Eco Travel.

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

I Peed My Pants in Patagonia

 
Fitz Roy Viewpoint

Fitz Roy Viewpoint

Our view of Laguna Los Tres in July

Our view of Laguna Los Tres in July

Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.
— Stephen Hawking

Earlier that afternoon, we reached the Fitz Roy viewpoint in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares as the clouds parted. The view was clear for only the 30 minutes we spent there that day. It was beautiful serendipity. And yet...

Three hours later,  I was crying. Maybe for 90 seconds. That's how cold it was. And that's how stupid of an idea it was to camp in the middle of winter in Patagonia. But it was my own romanticized idea nonetheless...a plot point in a quest to travel South America on the cheap when traveling in luxury is clearly the way to go. Don't let any of the budget braggers deceive you with their feigned holiness. My boyfriend, Aaron, asked if I was OK as he yet again pondered the mysteries of females.

After my micro-breakdown, I got up and unrolled my - not one - sleeping bag - but two - plus a fleece liner that touted on REI's website to bring your bag's rating down at least a season (as far as I could tell, this was a malicious lie). I braced myself and took my hands out of my gloves long enough to eat (thanks to Aaron for the hot food). It was 4:30 PM, but - there was nothing else to do but go to sleep. I zipped up all three bags and then - and only then - realized, I sort of had to pee. Under any degree of normal circumstance, this wouldn't be a big deal; I usually act older than a three-year-old. But the idea of unzipping all these layers, peeling off my pants and my long, wool underwear and baring my already frozen bum to the winter night...well, it was enough to trigger more tears. I told myself through gritted teeth that I could hold it until morning. When the sun is out. When there is some hope for survival in what I was dramatically considering a life or death situation, so I drifted off...Aaron already sleeping soundly beside me. 

But in my dreams, I was in a luxury hotel with thick, red carpet. I breezed through ornate gold doors to find a glittering porcelain throne. I lifted my layers of tulle to tinkle like a lady. 

Then I woke up.

...and immediately realized my reality. I was in a tent. Sleeping next to my outdoor guru boyfriend. At the base of Fitz Roy. In the Southern Hemisphere's coldest month: July. And like a good wannabe ultralight backpacker - I'm wearing my only pair of pants…and they were definitely warm and damp. I quickly scrambled outside and finished relieving myself. I didn't know what else to do except get back into my sleeping bag(s) and go back to sleep. 

When I woke, I contemplated whether or not it was entirely necessary to tell Aaron. I mean, as far as humiliation goes...this was up there. Especially considering my adamant belief we should never see each other go to the bathroom. We'd been together just over 3 years, so he's seen me ugly cry. He's seen me hyperventilate. He's heard me throw up all night. He's felt the weight of my baggage that I usually only joke about. His response is usually somewhere between deadpan and detached. On occasion his eyebrows say, "Don't you think you're overreacting a little?" I usually am, but that was besides the point today.

I procrastinated getting up as long as possible, despite the pretty imminent need to cover some serious miles. So I took a deep breath and confessed that yes - in the last 24 hours, I had cried and peed my pants. Aaron didn't laugh or show disgust; he just offered me his snow pants to wear. And so, with a wince, I unzipped my 3-layered pee cocoon and hiked two, icy hours to Laguna Los Tres only to find it covered in fog, hiked five hours back to El Chalten, and then furiously washed my pants in the shower with hand soap. 

Sometimes you cry and pee your pants. Sometimes you want to wonder, "Why me?" Forget all that. Just keep going. And laugh a little. 

P.S. My friends totally get me. 

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Camping at Laguna 69

 
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
— Sarah Williams

The sound of the neglected seat belts clanged like cheap wind chimes, and the shadow of the mountains against the opposite rock face grew taller and taller as the sun said good night. A fellow traveler looks up and snaps a photo with her cracked smartphone as we drive by the turquoise lake at the entrance of the park. After, she continues watching Netflix. 

It's what I'd just seen a hundred hikers do that same day. Organized tours pick you up at 5 AM, drive you to a trailhead, rush you up the steep trails climbing to 15,000 ft. altitude until you reach the most iconic lake in all of Huascarán: Laguna 69. You have 30 minutes to take your photos; then it's a rush back down against the dark. 

How often do I do the same? Glance up, smile slightly, and then turn away? To be in the middle of a beautiful moment, only to break it for the sake of distraction or to avoid a little discomfort. But today, my phone was off. I didn't even bring a book to get lost in. 

It was Aaron's 29th birthday, and we decided to go up slowly, with a tent and sleeping bags. Our packs were heavy, but we stopped to catch our breath from the altitude and beauty more often and even stopped for a lunch along the river.

We arrived at the lake as the tour guides were shepherding people down. Before we could set our packs down...it was just us. Our tent went up. The sun went down. The stars come out. Aaron and I shared our last cocoa packet and kissed under the Milky Way. It was a moment no future cruel plot twist could ever take away and only possible by our decision to stay awhile. 

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all rainbows. I froze my ass off. I laid in my sleeping bag for an hour before I willed myself to crawl out of the tent to pee. Underprepared as always, my sleeping bag was a joke and my snow pants wouldn't fit over my new expat-living-in-Latin-America-hips (but damn if I didn't hike 2,000 meters up in 3.5 hours wearing a massive pack). Thankfully, my boyfriend was sweating in his fluffy, rated to -20 degrees bag and offered his snow pants to me (I said a small prayer of thanks as they slid over my hips).  

But despite the cold, we still woke up to the bright glimmering lake...a brighter blue than the color of that sapphire Rose dropped in the ocean at the end of Titanic. We had breakfast with some climbers who passed by headed to hopefully reach the summit of Pisco later that week. As we packed up to leave, day hikers started pouring in. I cheered them on as I descended, "You're almost there," "Only 15 more minutes, "Right over that ridge!" It was a brutal hike to do in a day...and only to arrive for a moment then return. How often I do the same...struggling to go in circles as fast as I can?

On the bus ride back to Huaraz, I was happy I didn't just glance up this time. I stared out the window the whole time, with my nose metaphorically against the glass. I was happy to have a break from the to-do lists and the cravings for constant comfort and entertainment. The chance to slow down. To enjoy. To notice. To breathe. 

I made a bed out of mountains. If only for a night. I lived among stars and the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. In light and dark. For better or worse. 

The driver says it's only 2 hours back to the hostel, but I have a feeling it'll be 3. 

"Tranquila," as they say. 

P.S. Yep...3 hours. I counted. Change is hard. 

 
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Ashley Peak

Teacher & traveler seeking bright sides and adventures. I recently left my position as a Title 1 middle school teacher in Spokane, WA for a position in Manizales, Colombia teaching English and Geography at a bilingual private school. I'm passionate about education in action, the power of literature, and traveling the world. Optimism Rampage is a place for me to reflect on the adventure. “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that . Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451