If there’s one kind of tour you can easily find in Colombia, it’s a coffee tour: from trips to third-wave cafes in cities, to visits to coffee farms in the Colombian coffee region, coffee tourism is a big deal in Colombia these days! I have been on at least 20 different coffee tours to farms and producers in at least half a dozen Colombian departments, and I have enjoyed almost all of them for a variety of different reasons, but on my recent visit to Buenavista in Quindio department (think a more authentic, less touristic version of Salento) I was lucky enough to take the best coffee tour I have ever taken in Colombia – the Wakecup Experience Coffee Tour to Pijao in Quindio. If you’re even a little bit interested in coffee and the processes that take it from a little bean on a Colombian hillside to a $5 cup in a cafe in Europe or the US then I would highly urge you to head to Buenavista (it’s only 45 minutes south of Armenia), stay a few nights at the Panorama Cafe Hostel and take the Wakecup coffee tour with Experiencia Cafetera…
First of all I have to answer the question you’re no doubt asking yourself now: what makes this coffee tour the best one…aren’t they all quite similar?! Well, in this case, the question foreshadows the answer: most coffee tours are quite similar, but the Wakecup Experience is completely unique and different from all the other coffee tours I have taken in Colombia. Why? One word: people. Many coffee tours in Colombia follow a predictable pattern: introductory chat about coffee in Colombia, walk around a coffee plantation, prepare and taste some coffee. Something missing?
The one thing that is rarely engaged with on most tours is the role of the myriad different hard-working people who toil day-in day-out to bring this coffee from a precipitous Andean slope to the cafes and supermarkets of the world. Wakecup Experience breaks the familiar mold and takes the time to introduce the role of people in coffee and expand upon the hard-work, sweat and passion that so many people put into the production of quality Colombian coffee. On the Wakecup tour you will meet and chat with jeep drivers, coffee farmers, employees of the local coffee collectives, retired farm workers and pickers, and anyone of interest who happens to be around Pijao during the trip – you won’t just experience the taste and smell of a cup of coffee (although there’s plenty of delicious coffee to be drunk and beans to be picked, never fear!), you’ll gain a privileged glimpse into the world of coffee, the culture of coffee in Colombia. All of this goes hand-in-hand with the Wakecup motto (and a hashtag they are trying to grow), #coffeeandtravel, and their goal to highlight the ‘cultural’ element of the UNESCO Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia.
But let me backtrack a little and fill in the details: Panorama Cafe Hostel and Wakecup is the brainchild of Juan David Agudelo, a passionate coffee expert, who trained at the National Coffee School and followed his dream of offering tourists a coffee experience that was an alternative to the norm. With this in mind he founded the tour company Experiencia Cafetera and opened his hostel. The hostel is gorgeous: a long terrace unites the dorms and private rooms (it’s an intimate experience, sleeping just 12) and offers commanding views over the valleys of the coffee region, with Armenia and the Western Range of the Andes visible in the distance. Specialty coffee is available all-day, every-day with no extra charge, and the walls are decorated with lovely images of important local coffee folk (many of whom you’ll meet on the tour) with adjacent QR codes allowing you to listen to their story with a simple phone scan! It’s the perfect introduction to the Experiencia Cafetera philosophy to travel and tourism: include local people, tell their stories, and show visitors the reality behind the glossy images (the tour is gratifyingly upfront about the challenges faced by coffee farmers and pickers for instance – the poor wages earned by pickers are dealt with for example, unlike on many tours where points like this are glossed over). But it’s on the Wakecup Experience tour where Juan David’s ideas are most clearly demonstrated…
The tour begins in Buenavista after breakfast: everyone jumps into the comfortable 4×4 vehicle and heads off over the nearby mountain on the 20 minute drive to Pijao. On the way you make stop at a stunning viewpoint and Juan David lays out his concept for the tour and gives an introductory talk on the origins and culture of Colombian coffee. Then it’s off to Pijao, where you take a walk around the town, exploring the key coffee sites, such as the offices of the National Coffee Federation, the warehouse of the local coffee collective, the nearby river (where Juan David uses the crystal clear waters to perfectly explain the importance of water to the industry and the threat it faces from large-scale mining projects), the homes of local jeep drivers, and a lovely local cafe where you meet with Carlos Arturo, a coffee farmer who, thanks to the successful marriage of coffee and tourism, is now able to produce nothing but specialty coffee to be sold in cups or bags in his cafe – this perfectly emphasizes the concept of the tourism Juan David is promoting: tourism as a way to improve local people’s lives and businesses. Carlos Arturo has managed to take himself completely out of the supply chain and can now make genuine profits from his coffee – it’s a really inspiring tale…and the coffee is some of the best I’ve tasted, and I’m a coffee snob!
After a couple of hours enjoying the town and learning about the role it’s inhabitants play in the coffee process, you hop into a traditional Willys Jeep (driven by ‘El Mocho,’ another key character on the tour, whose picture graces the wall of the hostel) and take an enjoyable drive up the valley away from the town, taking in the green, lush scenery of the Colombian coffee region in the most traditional way possible…clinging to the back of an open jeep! The destination? A beautiful coffee finca about half an hour away, run by Leo, where you’ll have a hearty lunch, take a tour of a coffee plantation, and learn the story of coffee firsthand from a coffee farmer. Leo’s story is a sadly Colombian one: displaced by the conflict twice from his home department of Cauca, and then Narino, Leo came to Quindio to farm coffee about 5 years ago. However, the story then takes an inspiring turn: since then, again by working alongside Juan David, Leo has started to grow, harvest, roast, package, brand and sell his own specialty coffee insuring him a far higher share of any profits than he would have had by simply harvesting the beans.
Leo’s farm was my highlight of the tour: the finca is beautiful, full of animals, flowers, and birds, and Leo is a warm and gracious host, brimming with passion and knowledge about coffee. He takes visitors through the entire process, from a walk through his plantation explaining the growing and harvesting of beans, to a demonstration of the traditional methods he uses to select, dry, and roast his final products – novices will learn a lot, and even experts will discover something in Leo’s encyclopedic knowledge and evident passion. Juan David acts as a translator for Leo, but otherwise allows a real coffee farmer to speak for himself – this was a truly welcome change from many coffee tours, where the guide can often be a slick tour guide with a branded company t-shirt but no hands-on coffee experience. Leo’s story, like many on this tour, is a genuinely inspiring one, and his calm welcoming manner had even the non-Spanish speakers on my tour flushed with admiration for his struggle and hard-work. It acts as a microcosm for the entire philosophy behind this tour: take coffee as a starting point to explore the reality, hard-work, and devotion that go into it’s production. In short, the human story of coffee, not just the biological one.
As if to sum up my enjoyment of this tour, and confirm my feelings as to why it’s superior to many others, that evening I was uploading photos of the day to this blog’s Instagram account, and I tagged one of the images with the account of a popular coffee blogger from New York. Out of curiosity I scrolled through her account: among the myriad photos of artistic looking cups, and expertly coiffed baristas, I was unable to find (after looking at over 100 photos) a single image of a farmer, or a coffee plant, or a farm. Too much of popular modern coffee culture covers the science of coffee, the tastes and smells of a perfect cup, or the hipness of a popular cafe, and neglects the human stories behind this magical little bean: the Wakecup Experience is, for me, the best coffee tour in Colombia for that exact reason: it doesn’t ignore people and their essential contribution to coffee but rather offers them center-stage and gives them the platform to tell their story, which is, after all, the story of coffee itself. So when you next find yourself travelling in Colombia’s coffee region, by all means visit Salento and hike the Cocora Valley, but take the time to visit Buenavista and Pijao, explore some truly off-the-beaten-track and authentic Colombian coffee town, and, of course, take the best coffee tour in Colombia…
Practical Details – The Wakecup Experience Coffee tour is a full-day tour, lasting from 9:30am until 4/5pm. It costs 120.000 COP for the day (but only 90.000 COP for guests at the Panorama Cafe Hostel) – this includes transport to and from Pijao, a bilingual guide, transport in a Willys Jeep to the coffee farm, lunch, and plenty of fresh coffee. Non-guests at the hostel can be picked up and dropped off in Armenia within this price. The Panorama Cafe Hostel costs 35.000 COP including breakfast for a dorm bed, and 80.000 COP for a private room. You can contact Experiencia Cafetera through their website for more details.