From Alabama to Colombia: Caffeine Nation

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From Alabama to Colombia: Caffeine Nation

I mumble a prayer and launch out from a six-story steel tower. The earth falls away below my feet, and soon I dangle 100 yards above the earth.

The zip line stretches ahead for nearly half a mile … and it’s just the first of four incredibly long, fast zip lines required to traverse the park under me the way birds do.

Far beneath my shoes sway the green tops of guadua, or timber bamboo. Like corn and the stuff you mow on the front lawn, bamboo is a kind of grass. But what a grass! Some guadua plants grow thick as a man’s thigh and soar to 50 feet high.

From my screaming zip line perch, those giant grasses look like toys now. The contraption I sit in carries me at a blur, but I keep calm enough to study the bamboo that fills a deep gorge below. I can make out the snaky outline of a river. It trickles through, doing its best to escape the trillion straws of the thirsty forest around it.

The river looks like coffee.

That’s only right here in Panaca, a natural park in Eje Cafetero, the Coffee Country of Colombia. From my perch, shrieking along steel cable, I survey miles of hillsides dotted with dark green coffee plants. I see much else below too. Horses. Ostriches. Mule-drawn wagons. Lulo trees, with ripe fruit used in a table juice served all over Colombia. Banana trees in sprawling plantations. Distant brawny mountains.

Every passing week, I love this country that has adopted me more than the week before. Colombia has caffeinated me.

Directly west of Bogotá, 40 minutes by air and a high hop over a massive central range of the Andes, stretches the Triángulo del Café, the Coffee Triangle. Among many wonders here—green fields and bamboo forests and close to 2,000 species of birds—visitors can discover the percolating heart of Colombia, this Coffee Country.

The Colombian states of Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda produce much of this nation’s most famous crop. Sure, cocaine may be a more notorious export (if barely more addictive), but Colombian coffee makes the world hum for tens of millions of consumers.

For the record, I’ve never had a bad cup of coffee here.

A century ago, shrubby, glossy-leafed arábica plants sprouted their little beans (first green, then red when ripe) mostly on vast haciendas, or ranches. When international prices fell, so did the hacienda culture. The business model gradually changed to one of a half-million small farmers, many of them families, working a few acres with mules and small plots.

You’ve seen an archetype.

It turns out the most famous Colombian in the world isn’t the writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez. It’s not Shakira. Or Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug cartel gangster. Juan Valdez and his faithful mule, Conchita, smile down from 132-pound bags of raw coffee beans and from the shelves of supermarkets all over the world. Valdez’s bushy black mustache and Conchita’s abundant load of harvested coffee beans signify the excellence of Colombian coffee, unmixed with other kinds of beans … and unmatched for flavor, many coffee gourmands insist.

But, it turns out Juan Valdez is as real as Santa Claus—or maybe, more appropriately, the GEICO lizard and the Aflac duck. Juan Valdez only exists in advertising. Ten thousand Juan Valdez avatars may climb the steep hills of Coffee Country. Yet the mythical figure that symbolizes Colombia’s most addictive product and that identifies Colombia’s finest to the watching world strolled out of the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency for the first time in 1958 onto black-and-white TV sets.

The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia commissioned the Juan Valdez ads. It made a taste of Colombian fiction more real than … well, reality. Like a refugee from the pages of Garcia Márquez, Juan Valdez is the face of Colombia for many millions of people.

The coffee bean, like the human being, likely first appeared in Africa, probably Ethiopia. Legends of its use in the Middle East go back to the 10th century, and documented reports made it out of Sufi monasteries in Yemen in the 1400s. In the next two centuries, beans and plants spread into Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and Europe. By 1790, coffee plants grew in north-central Colombia.

A Jesuit priest with great foresight—and probably a caffeine monkey on his back—contributed much to Colombia’s culture. After hearing confessions from parishioners in his church in northeastern Colombia, he demanded penance not with a rosary and 10 Hail Marys, but by asking the sinners to plant coffee trees. Colombians have drunk coffee, black, to clear their heads … and maybe their consciences … ever since.

In the 1800s, the bean migrated with traveling traders from Antioquia, around Medellin, into Coffee Country. These paisas, as they’re known, fiercely clung to a cultural identity apart from the rest of the nation. The paisas speak a distinct dialect, remain somewhat insular from new arrivals, and generally consider their part of the country something wholly separate, much the way Texans think of their state in the USA.

Texans benefit from black gold, or oil. The black gold of the paisas grew on bushes. Where they settled, thriving cities sprang up based on coffee trade—Pereira, Armenia, and Manizales can all be seen at once in an extraordinary panoramic view from a roadside lookout atop the hill of Santa Rosa. Five years ago, in 2011, UNESCO declared Colombia’s Coffee Country a World Heritage site. That designation brewed up new tourism, bracing the area economy. But the shrewd paisas have long been cashing in on the bean … and the area’s natural beauty.

A vast theme park opened in Quindío in 1995. My Colombian family visited there the first week of January … along with what may have been every other family in Colombia. We stayed at the park an entire day. We made our way onto exactly two attractions: a hellacious roller coaster and a gentle train that circled the park and its overheated, sometimes rude crowds.

My personal experience in Coffee Country left memorable impressions.

In the little house where we stayed, a flock of green parakeets swarmed down from the trees onto the roof one morning. It looked like a jail break at a dime store.

Little rodents I’d never seen hopped everywhere. These guatines resembled a rabbit and a cat, tamer than the former, less finicky than the latter. Park pets, they enjoyed watching people splash in swimming pools.

Driving through the countryside revealed less coffee than advertised. Instead, the land offered other bounty. We whisked past big banana and plantain groves, the leaves of the bananas darker, I was told, than plantain, though I couldn’t honestly tell any difference. Orange trees held ripe fruit, tempting from high branches like something forbidden in Eden. Fields of sugar cane whispered in breezes funneled down from the mountains. We passed a pineapple field—pineapples!—then another. And another.

Colombia sometimes feels like a zip line. I go faster and faster into my new life. There’s no turning back. Thank goodness there’s good coffee to calm me down.

Photo: CIAT, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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