A Journey to Colombia’s Coffee Belt

In the northern reaches of the Andes — where the coffee bean is as
central to life as corn is to small town Iowa — a welcoming spirit prevails.

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There are more than 20 restaurants and cafes that sell coffee by the cup in the lively pastel-splashed plaza of Jardín, a quaint Colombian pueblo, or village, nestled in the northern reaches of the Andes Mountains.

I chose one and settled in at a streetside table painted bright blue like an Easter egg, and ordered a café tinto — straight black — for 800 pesos, about 25 cents. It was a Monday morning, and the Paisas, as the folks in this region south of Medellín are called, were socializing. Some looked to be friends and family chatting and laughing in the shadow of the double-spired basilica. Some, I was told, were shopkeepers who took the day off after a busy weekend catering to tourists. At the table next to me, a campesino relaxed with his cowboy hat pulled over his face and his chair tilted back against the wall.

Had I been here on a certain day during the harvest season, I might have seen farm owners standing outside the Bancolombia branch with bags of paper cash, surrounded by police officers for security and workers who came to be paid. On Saturday nights, this plaza is a raucous cacophony of pounding discoteca beats and campesinos parading into town astride show horses, but there are still tintos among the cervezas on the trays waitresses carry between tables.

Coffee is at the heart of Jardín, as corn is to small town Iowa: the local economy that forms a cultural identity. When my tinto arrived, it was easy to see why: The flavor, strong and bold, flowed directly from the beans, not a burned layer from roasting. I took another sip from my teacup-size demitasse and noticed that of all the people drinking coffee around me, a travel mug or paper cup was nowhere to be found. No one was taking their coffee to-go. Everyone was sitting, sipping, enjoying.

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