Finding An Excuse To Come Back

in Manizales, Colombia

Esperanza Cárdenas appreciated the opportunities in the United States, but she was sick of her nine-to-five job. She and her family moved back to Colombia, bought a property in Manizales, and started producing coffee. With her new life as a farmer, Esperanza finally feels fully satisfied.

My day with Esperanza doesn’t start with breakfast but with a 10 minute wait. Nevertheless, she is on time. We are in Manizales, the lively capital of the Caldas department – in the very heart of Eje Cafetero, Colombia’s famous coffee zone. I anticipated the delay, was 5 minutes late myself and still had enough time to quickly charge my smartphone. After 3 months in the country, I am more than acostumbrado («used») to the local time management. From the beginning, I used to be delayed myself because I continued to plan my day the Swiss way, packing way too many activities in it, desperately struggling with transportation and time management.

After the standard Cómo-vas?-excelente!-y-tú?-exchange, Esperanza instantly starts apologizing in a heavy attack of fast Spanish. Not because of the delay, we are on time, remember. «The car broke down yesterday so John wasn’t able to complete the grocery shopping and he had to leave the groceries at the shop that’s why we won’t head to the coffee plantation directly but go to La Galería instead, lo siento, I hope it is okay with you, but this happens because we are not a touristic finca and don’t have a strict schedule for our guests at the finca and everything is rather spontaneous… but that’s why you contacted us, isn’t it?» Break.Yes, I chose to contact rather unknown Café Tio Conejo because I wanted to get the real experience. The real experience consists of spending a day or two at the finca with Esperanza. Her day thus includes interactions with her visitors, which is why I appear more often within this portrait than I should. So yes, I wanted the real experience, but I was not exactly amazed at first because I desperately wanted to finally get a cup of good export coffee after spending three months in the coffee country and sipping a liquid that had nothing but the color in common with the delicious beverage you are used to in Europe. Then, suddenly, she asks in perfect English which language I prefer. This is when I start to realize that the stereotype of a coffee farmer might not be universally true.

Esperanza moved to the United States with her family in 1999, where she went to college and worked for an international NGO for several years. She achieved what many Colombians pursue: Move to the US and strive for the American dream. Then, two years ago, the family decided to buy a finca in their home country and to start growing coffee without any previous knowledge. It might seem a reasonable choice for a Colombian citizen, but it is as obvious as any Swiss starting a cheese or chocolate production site. «The finca was our reason or, in fact, our excuse to come back.» And then, the worn-out sentence I hear all the time when anyone praises the Latin American way of life: «In Colombia, you work in order to live instead of living in order to work.» Even if Esperanza’s overall workload is higher in the Colombian mountains, she prefers to live in a country where the time of her lunch break isn’t eagerly measured. Despite its challenges, life is más relajada, more relaxed, here in Colombia.

After being stuck in traffic we finally arrive at La Galería, a busy grocery market and also the only place in town you shouldn’t go as a visitor because it is dangerous, according to the owner of my hostel. I already know that this doesn’t mean a thing in Colombia. After having survived the worse barrios of Pablo Escobar’s former hood Medellín (OMG!), Cali as one of the ten most dangerous cities of the world (how dare you!) and night bus rides (no chance!), I couldn’t be more unfazed by this warning.

«In Colombia, you work in order to live instead of living in order to work.»

John, who is driving the pickup, goes grocery shopping once a week. As the manager of the coffee production he is responsible for all the processes and the team that consists exclusively of his family members. Apparently, Esperanza expects me to wait in the car with her but of course I accompany John and explore the busy grocery market crowded with yelling street vendors, colorful fruits and raw meat.

After another stop at a supermarket we finally drive to the finca. On the half-hour drive we pass a small favela, a conglomerate of shabby huts built on a steep hill slope right beneath a modern western shopping center. «It is so dangerous to live there because of the landslides after the rain. The government now is asking the people to leave their houses and to move into the new blocks over there. It seems reasonable. But is it a good project, John? I don’t know.» She then talks about inequality in Colombia, about necessary land reforms and about poverty in general.

At the farm, we are served us the best lunch I’ve ever had in Colombia: Chicken with rice, patacones, yuca fries, and salad. The ingredients are the most common within this continent, but it’s all about preparation. And then Esperanza finally percolates a jug of her locally produced coffee. The technique she chooses to extract the flavour is the simplest one, without 500 dollar equipment: She grinds the roasted coffee beans with a manual mill and then filters the ground coffee. The procedure reminds me of a high school laboratory class rather than a kitchen activity. Esperanza takes her time and is fully concentrated, even though she knows the procedure by heart. She filters the coffee bit by bit and lets every drop absorb the mild taste. The alchemist attentively examines me when I have my first sip. Fortunately, I don’t have to pretend my ecstasy - I would as I’d never have the heart to tell her I don’t like what means so much to her.

As we enjoy our cup, she talks coffee. «We didn’t know how to grow coffee and we are lucky enough to have the support of John and his family who have been growing coffee all their life.» Then an adorable kitten appears and Esperanza is distracted. «We have no idea where Leche («milk) came from. He just appeared and decided to stay. We have several cats, but he is my favorite one. He is so clever.»

While Esperanza and her family manage the farm and market the product, the work on the field and the following processes are done by John’s family. Most of the coffee producers sell their beans to industrial processors without knowing who will consume their coffee in the end. This doesn’t fit the philosophy of Café Tío Conejo. The family decided to go the hard way and has tried to establish an own coffee brand and export it directly. So far, Café Tío Conejo is only available in the United States, but the family is constantly scanning opportunities. «We already have friends in Switzerland. What is your major? Marketing? Perfect, you should get in touch with them once you are back!»

Then Esperanza starts to market her product herself. «We exclusively use one species of coffee, only harvest the beans in their final stage and have a very stringent selection process, all of which contributes to the particular taste of our coffee. If you mix harvests from different coffee farms and species together, you won’t find that taste.» Connoisseurs taste different kinds of fruits and chocolate. Café Tío Conejo exclusively grows Caturra, Borbón, Típica and Castillo, selected subspecies of the Coffea arabica family, one of the two main species, the other being Coffea robusta. Arabica has a milder flavour and prefers higher altitudes and is thus the species cultivated in the Colombian Andes.

After the coffee break Esperanza approaches some of her employees and asks them about their well-being and their work. Everyone seems to be a close friend with her rather than her employee. Esperanza sends out an immense calm and happiness and it is obvious that where she stands right now is where she wants to grow old.

It is already late in the afternoon when we finally grab our hiking sticks and head to the plantation. Esperanza says goodbye to the kitten that would love to join the hike. Instead, Panela, the dark Labrador and not very scary guard of the property, follows us. Café Tío Conejo is a small to mid sized coffee farm with 12 hectares, which is still enough to harvest more than 200 kilograms a day. The plantation extends to a steep slope and is inaccessible for any vehicle. Harvest is solely done manually.

Esperanza suddenly stops at one of the coffee trees. «I want to show you what climate change did to Colombia.» Some decades ago, the farmers used to harvest two times a year. However, times have changed and seasons aren’t as pronounced anymore as they used to be. «Look at this tree. Within one single plant you find all stages from flowering to the ready-to-harvest red bean.» Esperanza seems almost meditating when she talks about coffee and she touches the trees as gently as she would touch her newborn child.

A sudden laughter interrupts her meditation. It comes from part of John’s family. They are having a break behind a small hill right next to the path. When we arrive, they immediately start over with the harvest and teach me how to pick the ripe beans. An easy task for 20 minutes but probably not if you do it all day long at their speed

We continue the ascent and reach a romantic lodge. «It was originally built around one hundred years ago, as the first building on the property. The delightful two-room bungalow is renovated carefully and invites to stay a night. Another smaller lodge next to it is currently under renovation and will be ready soon. «We think about offering it as a honeymoon suite. Sleeping in the middle of a coffee plantation. We would love to receive more guests, but our experiences have been mixed. Two years ago, we accommodated a group of travellers. In the first place we didn’t want to accept them because we'd never had such a big group before. But they insisted and it turned into a disaster. They expected a full-time program with swimming pool and entertainment. They were totally disappointed and since then we select our guests very carefully.»

«I want to show you what climate change did to Colombia.»

Time to descend. Panela, the Labrador, consistently hinders Esperanza descending. «Ahhh that dog! She is overly attached and always wants to stay with me. She fell in love with me when she saw me for the first time, and I have no idea why. I mean, I do like her, but her attention is too much.» Yeah, Esperanza is a cat person: «You know, last week Leche climbed all the way up here to spend the night with our visitors in the lodge. Isn’t he clever? Cat lovers can relate.

We reach the main base just together with the workers. They drag heavy jute bags and unload their harvest after weighing it. John notes the weight and keeps track on the worker’s individual performance. In the meanwhile, Esperanza shows me the following processes. The first steps need to be done immediately. The beans are washed and carefully selected. Any bean floating on the top of the water is examined individually before it is added to the final selection. Finally, the only machine in the whole process peels the beans and separates the red shells from the white cores, which then are spread on beds made of Guadua - Colombian bamboo - to allow coffee sun drying.

When I have a detail question about one of the steps, Esperanza struggles and asks John for help. Esperanza does know a lot about her product but John is the expert. Even though everyone helps each other, roles and tasks are distributed. The final steps, the removal of the second inner shell, and the roasting of the dried beans aren’t done at Café Tío Conejo but in Armenia, another coffee town.

At 6pm, sun sets and the work day is over. Days end early in Colombia, especially on the countryside. As usual, Esperanza only has a light dinner. John steps by. He reports today’s harvest figures and discusses tomorrow’s activities with Esperanza. We end the day with a Michelada, a mixed beverage with beer and juiced lime, served in a salt-rimmed glass. Some more coffee talk, a phone call with her daughter-in-law, another cuddle with the kitten y ya - Esperanza’s day is over.

Want to know more about Esperanza E. Cárdenas? Read her Profile