RAIN BEGINS TO FALL over the market town of Salento. It starts as a gentle drizzle, soon evolving into a fearsome downpour: giant droplets bouncing off the pavements and up trouser legs; drumming on the corrugated-iron roofs and gurgling in the gutters. Lithe shelter of his cafe by the town square, coffee-evangelist Jeshs Bedoya sits by the window looking up at grey clouds, and then into the espresso on the table before him. ‘A good cup of coffee is like a fine wine’, he says contemplatively ‘You can taste the terra: the land where it is created. When I drink coffee I think about the family that grew it – the work, love and pain that has gone into each bean’.
Volcanic soil and high-altitude farmland make much of Colombia prime territory for the cultivation of arabica beans, but nowhere more so than the Zona Cafetera Here, heavy year-round rainfall destroys umbrellas, turns roads into part-time waterfalls and serves as the magic ingredient for the most flavour some cup of coffee in the Americas. Since the 19th century, coffee has been the lifeblood of the Zona Cafetera: served with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and given to children from the age of five upwards (though local parents disagree whether or not this is a good idea).
The son of a coffee farmer, Jeshs Bedoya left his job as a lawyer eight years ago to embark on a messianic mission: to open a cafe selling premium-grade, locally produced coffee in the coffee-farming town of Salento. It may sound like a coals-to-Newcastle business model, but in Colombia almost all locally consumed coffee is low-grade, with all the best beans exported for use in the espresso machines of Europe and North America.
‘We’re one of the biggest coffee producers in the world, but we don’t know what proper coffee is!’ insists Jeshs, ‘When Colombian people try the real thing, it’s like a conversion. They say, “what the hell was I drinking before?'” Just as coffee shapes lives in the Zona Cafetera, it shapes the landscapes, too. Coffee plants cascade down the contours of the hillsides. Snug in the folds of the hills are farmhouses, with canvas sacks full of beans arranged on the verandas. And careering down the single-track roads of the Zona Cafetera are the Willys Jeeps – vehicles exported to Colombian farmers by the US after WWII.
They are beloved for their off-roading skills and also their coffee-carrying abilities (a Willys Jeep fall of coffee is a legitimate unit of measurement for sale). Hopping aboard the back of one such Jeep is the way to reach one of the highest viewpoints in the Zona Cafetera: the Valle de Cocora. Here, tracks wind among Andean peaks, patches of cloud forest clinging to the slopes. Below, plantations appear as a green blur. Rising up above are the Quindlo wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world, growing up to 60 metres high and presiding like antennae over the landscape. The wax palms are so tall that their tree tops can vanish from sight: lost in the rain clouds that brew over the mountains, before pouring their contents over the Zona Cafetera.