Colombia’s coffee-growing region was once a violent no-go zone where all the best beans were exported. But as peace has spread, an influx of coffee fanatics is revolutionising the landscape.

Colombia’s coffee-growing region was once a violent no-go zone where all the best beans were exported. But as peace has spread, an influx of coffee fanatics is revolutionising the landscape.

Juan David Agudelo clings tightly to the back of a jeep bouncing out of Buenavista, a colourful coffee village situated on the edge of Quindio, western Colombia. In front of him, his customers – backpackers from Europe, North America and Bogota, the country’s capital – grow animated as the landscape slowly begins to reveal itself. Cameras in hand, they snap away at rows of coffee trees spreading down into the vast valley: a place where clouds hang low in the morning and distant villages twinkle at night.

Juan David, leading the party on one of his celebrated coffee tours, watches on quietly. Although he’s seen this kind of reaction countless times, he can’t help smiling. It’s a scene that few locals would have thought possible a little over 10 years ago. “Colombia was born out of conflict,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Every episode of conflict is because of what came before – not a racial conflict, but an economic one – and Colombians have deep-seated, low self-esteem because of it.”

For half a century, Colombia was pulled into a complicated cycle of violence as left-wing guerrilla groups (‘the FARC’ and the National Liberation Army), right-wing paramilitaries and state security forces all battled for control of the country. Murders, kidnappings and terrorism became a daily reality, with over 200,000 people killed and an estimated seven million displaced. As that unfolded, Colombia became one of the world’s biggest cocaine producers. The boundaries between cartels, guerrillas and corrupt politicians blurred, with countless bystanders caught in the middle. Over the years, the people of Quindio worked hard to turn the region into an integral part of what is today referred to as Colombia’s Zona Cafetara (or ‘Coffee Zone’) – an area which includes neighbouring Risaralda and Caldas. But there was little they could do as the same deep jungles and high hills where their ancestors first planted coffee trees became corridors for narcos and armed groups.

“Lots of farmers abandoned their farms due to things like kidnappings and pressure for money,” says Juan David. “Guerrillas would come to your farm and say ‘I want that cow to feed my men’ or ‘I want that car’ – and what could you do? Nothing… People lost everything.”

In the present day, however, things are different. Relative peace began to descend across the country when talks between the government and FARC began in 2012 – culminating with the signing of a historic agreement four years later. This led to young guerrillas – some of whom had been taken into FARC as children – coming down from the hills, ready to disarm. With that increased stability also came foreign travellers eager to discover Colombia’s rich landscapes, vibrant cities and – increasingly – its coffee farms. Tourism is now the country’s fastest growing industry, with the sector’s revenues doubling between 2010-2017 to $5.8bn.

Juan David – an intense character who often sees the bigger picture in a way that others can’t – first took an interest in coffee when he became a barista at the age of 15. As a student in Argentina, he started selling Colombian coffee online and, after graduating, came to Buenavista looking for more. That’s when he sensed an opportunity to build something bigger: countercultural tours that connect farmers and consumers, breaking down borders and changing the way people think about coffee.

“Peace was a huge part of why I started Experiencia Cafeteria – I wanted to help move Colombia on,” says Juan David, who also helped to run workshops to re-integrate guerillas into society. “We get people who recognise that our homes and farms are beautiful and amazing, and it gives us an opportunity to see ourselves and our nation differently. We are the agents of this change.”

Looking out through the valley at Buenavista,green hills with trees and a collection of brightly coloured buildings

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Standing on a bank with a lush valley behind him, Don Leo plunges his thick hands into the woven basket around his waist, bringing up scarlet ‘cherries’ – ripe beans, freshly picked. Talking to the crowd of foreign visitors, he explains how they will be shelled, threshed, dried and sorted, before being roasted and eventually bagged, bearing his name.

The 60-year-old farmer understands the transformative power of peace better than anyone. Leo – his face a deep tan, his lilting accent revealing someone not from these parts – got started in coffee aged just 12, back in Cauca (a region or ‘department’ further south). After 30 years of grafting in the fields, he was able to buy his own farm. But the victory was short lived when – like many other Colombian farmers – he became trapped growing coca: the cocaine plant.

Stuck between paramilitaries and guerrillas breathing down his neck (forces that would even control his sleeping hours), Leo and his wife Ana abandoned everything and fled with their children to the nearby city of Cali. It felt safer for them there… but Ana became ill and yearned for the countryside. That’s when Leo started buying derelict farms, pulling up old coffee trees and planting new ones, then selling on the properties for a small profit.

After that period of back-breaking work, and with the country beginning to experience relative peace, the family finally bought their current farm, situated near the picturesque town of Pijao, 20 minutes from Buenavista. Back then it was just the house and a few useless plants, but Leo and Ana cleared the overgrown vegetation, cutting back the encroaching jungle while replanting 30,000 coffee trees – by hand.

Now the pair host tour groups almost every day and sell their specialist coffee straight to visitors. Last year, Leo was even able to travel outside of Colombia for the first time in his life, when he visited Mexico for a travel trade show. “I believed in [the power of tourism] from the beginning – I knew there was an opportunity. Neighbouring farmers always ask me two questions: ‘What do people see in your farm?’ and ‘Are you really benefiting?’ They don’t always understand or want to invest in themselves.”

Over the past five years, people from 70 different countries have visited Leo’s farm. The walls are adorned with photos of him posing with tourists from all over the world, while his visitor book is scrawled with messages from every continent. According to Leo, they earn more from one tour than they previously did in six months of hard work. “Some people say the peace process is no good – but everything I have now is because of it,” he says, leaning against the orange walls of his farmhouse. “People who are displaced don’t often have this opportunity. For me, it was hard to suffer the violent times, but I want to work and what I have now is bigger than what I lost. I have the farm, the coffee, I meet tourists and other people – and that is the best thing.”

Detail shot of a mural near cafe La Floresta in Pijao depicting a woman in a wide brimmed sun hat

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Travellers’ love of world-class Arabica coffee – and their willingness to pay for it – has been integral to Colombian farmers reclaiming a sense of identity. For years, the best beans were sold to the country’s farmers’ co-operative, which in turn sold these onto the world market. Between the farmer and customer stood numerous middle men – the co-operative, the buyer, the exporter, the wholesaler, the roaster, the shop – each of whom took a slice of the profit. That put Colombia’s half-a-million coffee farmers at the mercy of cripplingly low coffee prices internationally, leaving locals with a bitter coffee made from the left-overs, known colloquially as ‘tinto’.

But post-conflict stability has allowed entrepreneurial farmers to cut out foreign buyers, instead selling their own coffees direct to rising numbers of visitors. As a result, coffee businesses all over the country have begun to flourish. For Maria ‘Orfilia’ Velandia Villamil and her husband Carlos – coffee farmers and owners of La Floresta, a modern café in Pijao – taking things in-house saved them from bankruptcy.

Sitting at a wooden table painted with coffee flowers, Orfilia seems pensive and quiet, as if her head is elsewhere. But whenever guests arrive, she greets them with a warm smile and ushers them over to a sack of beans to sit on. Carlos, wearing a smart black apron and wide-brimmed sombrero, pours hot water over granules in various brewing instruments. Having overseen the bean’s journey from seed to cup, these are the moments he savours. “This is cultural re-appropriation and what Colombian coffee should be about,” says Juan David, who brings travellers to the cafe every day, glowing with admiration as he watches. “Carlos has planted the seed, harvested it, roasted the coffee – and now he’s finishing his work.”

Things looked stark for the couple not so long ago. Carlos lost his job as a technician repairing fridges, and the bank repossessed their home. That forced them to move in with Orfillia’s parents – coffee farmers – which is where they first started working with the crop. But with world coffee prices so low, the challenge proved stark.

Knowing something had to change, Orfillia and Carlos began developing their own artisanal coffee blend, realising that it offered a way to “reach the world” – just as the rest of the world was, in turn, beginning to reach them. After four painstaking years of up-skilling, they opened the shop and Juan David began taking customers there. It helped the business take off to a point where they export coffee to the UK, Australia, the US and Kenya. To emphasise this point, Carlos proudly whips out his phone and pulls up a Colombian cafe (formerly a pub) in Worcester, in England’s West Midlands, which serves their coffee.

“Friends have left the business because they haven’t had the vision to change,” says Orfillia, watching on as customers mingle. “If we hadn’t opened the shop, we would probably have sold the farm and be in the city now – we would be like other farmers.”

Coffee bushes and a coffee house sign at Hacienda Venecia

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For Colombians in remote areas, coffee tourism is providing much-needed income and employment. But according to Juan Pablo Echeverri, a coffee farmer who sits on the board of Colombia’s hotel and tourism association, it’s only just scratching the surface.

“There was a time when Colombia felt so lonely and no-one would come,” he recalls, referring to the country at the height of its troubles. “But having people come and say that the place is beautiful and the people are nice, it gives pride to us… through the eyes of different visitors we can experience the world. It’s like travelling without leaving home!”

Ten years ago, Juan Pablo and his family were one of the first in the country to open their farming estate, Hacienda Venecia in Caldas, to travellers. At the time, they had been battling with a global coffee crisis that turned many farmers “belly-up”. But he noticed backpackers starting to arrive in the nearby mountain city of Manizales and realised how “the magical world of the tropics” was a draw to travellers coming from Europe. The attraction is obvious: misty hills fading into the distance, peacocks roaming freely in the tropical gardens, walking trails lead over a rushing river and into the coffee plantations. It was a picturesque place to grow up – but now 2,000 travellers visit every year.

“The vision has always been to connect the farm to the world and the world to the farm,” he says. “Now that there’s a world over-production of coffee and prices have fallen even more dramatically, it just highlights the importance of us having diversified into agricultural tourism. It’s helping us get through the coffee crisis.”

While he’s keen to emphasise that Colombia’s political history is far too complicated to be able to say that tourism is a solution to conflict, Juan Pablo believes it’s essential in creating a new Colombia. It’s been difficult, he explains, though it’s a journey the country had to make. “I do trust that we are experimenting with new dimensions of freedom,” he says. “It’s been painful to get a sense of security here. But without that, we would not have been able to grow.

View from the hilltop near the army base in Genova

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Back in Quindío, on a hill overlooking the municipality of Genova, a coffee field a little white cross in the middle stretches out into the distance. Beyond it, through rows of distinctive dark leaves, sits a faded, cream-coloured mausoleum. This old cemetery is where thousands of people from the surrounding area were buried during La Violencia, a 10-year Civil War fought between the Colombian Conservative Party and the Colombian Liberal Party from 1948 to 1958. It proved the catalyst for FARC’s formation and the decades of conflict that ensued.

Over 60 years later, lasting peace is by no means a forgone conclusion. The 2016 agreement proved controversial for handing parliamentary seats to former FARC members. Today, the country is split between those who want perpetrators of violence to meet justice and those who just want the peace to remain. The current president, conservative Iván Duque, has vowed to review the peace agreement, leaving many Colombians anxious about where this will go. “We are in a gap between people who want the old Colombia and those who want to move on,” says Juan David. “When Duque won, I gathered my team and said, ‘We have to prepare ourselves to do something other than tourism… [The government] are playing with fire.”

For now, down in the valley, Genova is peaceful. Its first artisanal coffee shop, Villa Gloria, stands hopeful, painted in a joyful orange. This town, the biggest coffee producer in Quindio, is where the leader of the FARC – Pedro Antonio Marin – was born. But it’s also where a leader of the peace talks grew up, Henry Acosta Patiño. For Juan David, the old cemetery shows how important coffee is to Colombia’s healing process. It’s why he now runs ‘peace tours’ with a local journalist by the name of Fernando Franco.

“That this land can grow coffee – it’s a symbol of peace,” says Juan David, overlooking the plantation and its bright red coffee cherries. This is where coffee and conflict cross. But we don’t fear telling these stories anymore. And people of the world, they don’t fear coming to hear them.”

This article appears in Huck: The Burnout Issue. Get a copy in the Huck shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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