Sunday, November 18, 2007

Colombia's Coffee Growers Have Woken Up To Smell A New Crop: Tourists Arrive

A Coffee Finca in Venecia, Antioquia - 2 hours Southwest of Medellin

Three-year-old Jesús is in his element. Slipping and sliding through the undergrowth, he ducks under tomato plants, orange trees and around pineapple bushes. Where we get whacked by branches or tangled in spiders' webs, he nips through gaps to rescue shiny red tomatoes that have fallen to the floor.

Jesús is leading us on a tour of his coffee finca in Colombia. Or rather, he is helping his grandfather, Don Elias Pulgarin, show the visitors round the farm. Don Elias and his family live in a two-room house on a hillside near Salento, a small town in the foothills of the Cordillera Central. This is coffee country, the centre of Colombia's tropical Zona Cafetera. It is here, between the magical altitudes of 800m and 1800m, that much of the country's annual 66m tonnes of coffee - about 10% of the world's supply - is grown.

And it is here that coffee growers, including Don Elias, first realised the potential of their farms to develop another kind of crop: tourists. Coffee finca tourism, opening up coffee farms to visitors, has been around since the early 1990s. Back then the value of coffee plummeted, and so coffee growers turned to tourists to supplement their income. Much like the Italian idea of "agriturismo", travellers pay to stay on or visit the farms to experience rural life and get an idea of how food, or in this case coffee, is actually produced.

Since those early beginnings, the idea has grown to encompass three coffee-growing regions in the west of the country, Quindío, Caldas and Risaralda. There are 700 fincas listed in the Quindío tourist authority's annual brochure, Haciendas del Café, and down in the valley there is even a coffee theme park. Disney-style rides with a coffee twist - a tren del café (coffee train) and the cabaret-style Show del Café to name just two.

Most of the visitors are Colombians, escaping from the big cities of Cali, Medellín and Bogota for a weekend. International tourism in Colombia is still mainly restricted to cruise passengers visiting Cartagena and backpackers, who can't resist the "Colombia's amazing!" travellers' tales.

Don Elias charges 3,000 pesos, or just under 70p, to take you on a tour. His farm is typical, and there are 300,000 farmers like him in Colombia. The path to his house is dotted with fat chickens and threads away from the road through shaggy, overgrown coffee bushes.

At his house, where with the help of a government grant he is building an extension to accommodate overnight visitors, he greets us a little unsteadily. He must about 60, although it's hard to be sure, and wears a dusty cowboy hat, a muddy white shirt and black welly boots. (Full Aricle)

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