This article appeared in the February-March 2012 edition of Poder magazine.
By Janelle Conaway
Almost 50 years ago, when Cecilia Peña's father bought the small farm that she and her brother now manage in Colombia's Quindío department, coffee provided a decent , reliable living.
"With this farm, my father educated nine children, all university graduates," she says proudly. " We've managed to hold onto it despite all the difficulties the world economy has created for us."
Like other coffee growers in Quindío—in the heart of what is often called Colombia's Coffee Crossroads or Coffee Triangle—Peña has learned to survive the ups and downs of a global coffee market over the years. Coffee prices are actually healthy at the moment, but just in case, she also sells the coffee experience.
Peña has adapted the family farmhouse, or finca, to handle up to 16 paying guests. The accommodations are basic—unlike some of the larger haciendas in the area, El Horizonte doesn't have a swimming pool—but Peña says they appeal to urbanites from Bogotá looking for a tranquil getaway.
"I'm interested in people who want to get to know the coffee culture, who want to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the finca, who are interested in learning how we manage the crops," she says.
In recent years, this type of agrotourism has helped make the area a major destination. "It's not only Cartagena and Bogotá anymore. Now it's Cartagena, Bogotá, Coffee Crossroads," says Ana María Uribe, who runs El Delirio, one of the more elegant finca hotels.
The area is likely to become even more of a draw. In June 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the "Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia"—a region that includes 47 municipalities in the departments of Quindío, Caldas, Risaralda and Valle del Cauca—to be a World Heritage Site, with a strong traditional culture worthy of special protection.
That culture has revolved around coffee for more than a century. Though the region produces a wide range of crops, including citrus fruits, yucca and plantains, its lush, verdant hillsides continue to yield high-end Coffea arabica varieties, long touted in commercials as "hand-picked by Juan Valdez."
Located in the low Andes west of Bogotá, Quindío belongs to a peaceful region known for its hard-working people and general absence of many of the problems that have plagued Colombia. In a country often stereotyped for its illegal crops, coffee creates a strong social fabric and gives many people "the chance for a decent and lawful way of life," as Luis F. Samper, chief communications and marketing officer for the National Coffee Growers Federation (FNC by its acronym in Spanish) puts it.
But with their small-scale production—95% of producers have less than 12 acres of land—and challenging topography, Colombia's half a million coffee growers can't compete when prices drop too low. They have suffered two major blows in recent history. First came the collapse, in the late 1980s, of a longstanding coffee agreement that had provided international price stability. A few years later, Vietnam flooded the world with inexpensive brews, and Brazil vastly expanded its production.
As prices dropped to record lows, Colombian coffee producers began to get creative. In Quindío, the FNC and the Departmental Committee of Coffee Growers, looking for another way to generate coffee-related income, took a gamble and built a sprawling theme park. The National Coffee Park, which opened in 1995, showcases the area's most famous product and the region's cultural traditions—and has bumper cars and roller coasters for the kids besides.
With the park came other tourism opportunities in the area, which "helped ease the second great coffee crisis," Samper says. The park now draws some 480,000 visitors a year and is self-sustaining, he says.
In the early years of falling coffee prices and rising tourism, hundreds of finca owners in Quindío got into the hospitality business—too many to be able to guarantee quality, says Lina María Mondragón, who owns a company called Linatours. With support from local authorities, a Spanish development agency came in to offer training in how to run small hotels and improve service. Some of the larger operators formed the "Haciendas del Café" Quality Club, becoming certified to meet international standards.
The supply of available accommodations is extensive and varied, Mondragón says. "When people ask me what finca do you recommend? I ask, what type of experience do you want?" Some smaller, more traditional places rent out the whole farmhouse to extended families wanting to spend the Easter or Christmas holidays together; others cater to Europeans or Americans looking for such amenities as a wine cellar or hot tub.
The old-style haciendas are often worthy of architecture magazines, with their wide, welcoming verandas and exotic heliconia flower arrangements. Many of the farmhouses have brightly painted trim, with colors that signal personality and, sometimes, political leanings. (Red equals passion—or the Partido Liberal.)
The owner of El Delirio is an interior designer who has combined antique furniture and old family photographs with the occasional piece of offbeat contemporary art. A wooden, life-sized St. Peter—rescued from a local church ruined in the 1999 earthquake in nearby Armenia—sits on a trunk between two of the rooms.
Like most of the fincas, El Delirio continues to be a working farm. Uribe is contemplating producing a signature brand of coffee beans for guests, as a handful of other places have done. With world coffee prices strong lately, many farmers are investing in new plantings. It's a long-term investment, as a typical coffee shrub has about a seven-year productive cycle.
At Finca Villa Nora, the owners had gotten out of the coffee business altogether to grow plantains, avocados and guavas, but they recently planted some coffee. "The price has improved a lot, so they want to become coffee growers again," says Alejandra María Llano, who has worked at the graceful, century-old hacienda for five years.
Of course, coffee growers have to worry about more than price. They have struggled to stay ahead of pests and diseases that affect the plants, in many cases switching to specially developed dwarf varieties that are more resistant. Heavy rains have also put a damper on Colombia's recent output.
Still, people in Quindío seem hopeful about the future, especially given the World Heritage Site designation. It was the result of a more than 10-year effort, including the development of a detailed management plan, led by the Ministry of Culture, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation and governmental entities from the four departments involved.
Samper sees promising branding possibilities for high-end coffee from the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia, as well as greater potential for international tourism. Mostly he hopes the designation will help give people in the area a renewed appreciation for their surroundings and increase their determination to preserve their way of life.
Ana Beatriz Uribe says the implications of the UNESCO honor are only beginning to sink in: "Quindío is not just ours anymore. It's the world's heritage. People haven't yet understood the value of those words—the commitment! I can't get rid of that crop because it's not mine. It belongs to the world."