This past January, Jim and I were lucky enough to embark on a the trip of a lifetime - deep into the lush, shaded coffee region of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in COLOMBIA! As the Marketing Manager for Jim's Organic Coffee for the past two years, I had sifted, sorted, cropped and edited hundreds of Jim's pictures from the various coffee areas he had already visited. While the photos were beautiful and a wonderful representation of his trips abroad, I knew that nothing would ever be able to replace the sights, sounds and smells of actually being there. Let's just say, I was right about that part...
After flight hopping from Boston to Orlando, Orlando to Bogota, and Bogota to Santa Marta, we finally arrived at our destination on the Caribbean coast - tired from a long day of travel, but eager to wake up and see firsthand why Colombia is hailed one of the top coffee-growing countries in the world.
Our hosts arrived in the morning - Isabel Ruiz, who works locally in Santa Marta for the Coffee Federation (FNC) and her colleague Alex, Claudia Rodriguez, who flew in from the FNC's Bogota office, and our driver, Jose. We immediately felt so welcomed by this wonderfully kind group of people (a common theme with everyone we met during our short trip). Before heading into the mountains, Isabel treated us to a typical Colombian breakfast of Arepa de Huevo - which I can only describe as fried dough stuffed with egg and a little bit of heaven. SO good! Now that we had some fuel, we were ready to tackle the mountainous climb to our first coffee farm. On our way, we picked up Richard, a coffee farmer in the same Co-op as the farm we were visiting. He was able to answer many of our questions about his co-op, Red Ecolsierra, as well as Colombian coffee growing in general. We were extremely grateful for Claudia, who acted as our translator the entire time. Thank you, Claudia - Jim and I would have been nodding our heads in polite confusion the entire time if it weren't for your bilingual skills!
There wasn't one minute of the three hour trek up the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that I didn't enjoy - each twist and curve of the unpaved dirt road opened up into another surreal view of the mountains, the ocean and the lush flora and fauna. My mouth was open the entire time. I've truly never experienced beauty quite like it. Fun Fact: The Sierra Nevada is actually the tallest mountain in the world that is next to the sea. You can only imagine that this would make everything we were seeing even more magical.
We arrived as close as we could by car to La Finca "Los Amigos" (Los Amigos Farm). From there, Jim and I were offered to ride down to the farm by MULE! Oh why hello bucketlist - don't mind if I check you off! It was then, riding mountainside by mule to a remote organic coffee farm in Colombia, that I had to pinch myself. I can only describe it as the coolest, most beautiful and epic mule ride I've ever taken (kidding, it was my only mule ride - but you catch my drift!) Both Jim and I were in awe. We reached our final destination and hopped off our four-legged taxi to meet Nelson, owner of La Finca Los Amigos. Though he didn't speak English, his smile and warmth said it all. He showed us his breathtaking farm filled with sunlight, drying coffee beans, and his dedicated family. We were enveloped by 360 views of surreal landscape. If organic had a feel, I was feeling it.
With Claudia's help, Jim and Nelson discussed the benefits of growing organically as well as the hardships that come with it. Nelson described that choosing to grow organic coffee means that your costs are higher and your yield is lower. At that moment, I realized that farmers who choose this path MUST be passionate about what they do to be able to make these sacrifices. Nelson, in plain terms, told Jim that he is in constant need of more funds if he wants to keep producing consistently beautiful and high-quality organic coffees. Jim understands that paying top-dollar premiums to our farmers not only ensures that their families and communities are taken care of, but that that is what it takes to yield exceptional coffees.
Nelson then guided us to the coffee fields behind his farm - WOW. The lushness and greenery providing shade for his thousands of coffee bushes were out of this world. Again, Jim's pictures could have never done it justice - you really have to live and breathe it to understand the magnitude of what nature is capable of. Although we were there for the tail end of the coffee harvest, there were still coffee cherries ready to be picked. Nelson taught me how to distinguish between ripe and unripe cherries (never pick the green ones!) and I was able to strap on the bucket and harvest some cherries on my own! So much pressure, but I think I nailed it.
After scoping out his land, we headed back to the farm to see the rest of the process unfold. Cherries pass through a pulping machine to remove the skin and pulp, revealing the pergamino beans ("parchment coffee"). Nelson uses a unique semi-wash process, using water only to transport the beans so they may dry on the large drying patios or tables. After the beans are dried, they are ready to be bagged and exported. Amazingly, the mules can carry up to 500 lbs of coffee up and down the mountainside until they reach vehicle-ready roads where trucks can then transport the coffee to the milling centers. Unbelievable!
The hospitality during our entire visit was incredibly touching. Nelson's wife and daughter-in-law spent almost the entire afternoon in the kitchen preparing coffee and lunch for us. We were served small cups of coffee throughout the day - brewed in different ways (our favorite was a Turkish style boiled on the stove with a very fine grind!) When lunch was served, everyone on the farm sat down to enjoy a traditional Colombian meal. Jim and I marveled over the fact that lunch is the biggest, and most important, meal of the day. What a beautiful thing to take a break in the middle of the day while the sun is shining brightest to enjoy great food, conversation and company. I think we can all attest to it in America that lunch is rushed and often skipped while we go about our hectic work days.
We began to wrap up our extraordinary visit to Los Amigos. We presented Nelson with a bag of our Colombian coffee, and in return he bagged up a fresh sample of his beans for us to try at the milling centers that we'd be visiting the next day. After seeing Nelson and his family work so hard to produce their coffee and learning their story, we were very interested in a possible purchase. We muled up, and headed back to the car. The three hour journey back down to our coastal resort was a perfect time to reflect on what we had just seen and experienced. To be continued... (Click to read Colombia – Part 2! Posted on June 24, 2015
) -Kara Rosenthal, Marketing Manager, Jim's Organic Coffee