Colombian tidbits and book giveaway

I’m very excited to bring you not only a guest post today, but also a competition!

Cinda C. MacKinnon is a writer who grew up in Colombia and Costa Rica and wrote a novel, A Place in the World, set in Colombia. She fell in love with the people, culture and natural setting. In this post she talks about something many of us love about Colombia: coffee. Don’t forget to read on for details of how to win a digital copy of her book.

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A brief Coffee History:
Colombia is the second largest coffee producer in the world…second only to Brazil. The volcanic soil is ideal for growing coffee. The geography however made it difficult to transport the beans to market, especially in the past, as most of the best regions were the least accessible. It is a boom-bust industry at the mercy of weather, politics and markets. Many growers fought to remain solvent in the last century and Latin American countries were asked to adhere to quotas – to which they bitterly agreed.

20131021-075253.jpg coffee plants mynascence.wp.com.jpg

In 1975 a disaster in Brazil, the Black Frost, ironically aided the Colombian coffee market. When a terrible freeze killed over half of their coffee plants and ruined the crop, demand went way up for Colombian coffee. Brazilians quickly began planting the Coffea robustica species because it grows fastest. The Arabica variety however, which Colombia is known for, is the higher quality coffee; this made Colombia the leader for the most sought after coffee. (I personally think Costa Rica is in the same league.) In more recent years Vietnam has become an equal contender in terms of quantity.

Here is a fictional, but realistic passage (from A Place in the World) that depicts more about coffee cultivation from coffee growers giving a visitor a tour of their finca.

They walked between rows fragrant with coffee flowers. Alicia trailed along, followed silently by the finca’s yellow watchdog.
“The more flowers, the more fruits,” don Felipe said. “We calls them cerezas.”
“Cherries,” interjected Jorge. Felipe nodded, and pointed to a dark green seed. “When they turn red, they are ready for harvest. The bean is inside.”
“Will you pick them soon? Is it harvest season?” Peter asked.
“No season, really,” don Felipe smiled, brushing his salt and pepper mustache in place. “We pick the cerezas several times a year, at least two times between diciembre y abril, and also whenever they seems ready. Usually ’round agosto. But the cherries ripen continually, at the same time they start the new seeds.”…
…“We harvest more in the dry season. They have more ripe fruits then,” Felipe said. “Is not rare to have flowers, green cherries and ripe ones all the same time. Is for ‘dat reason that the coffee is gathered always by hand…for so not to damage the new fruits.”
… Did the first stock come from the jungle?” Peter asked.
“Ah no!” don Felipe beamed, raising an index finger and then lowering it at Peter. “That’s what many peoples think, but the coffee is not native to South America. It comes originalmente from Africa and Arabia. And peoples say…” he paused to ask Jorge how to say “Ethiopia.”

The Panamanian connection:
Everyone knows Colombia is famous for coffee, after all they invented Juan Valdez – but this excerpt tells a story you may not know about its history with Panama and the United States.

20131021-080507.jpg The Panama Canal famous-places.com

“Tell me about your American grandfather,” Alicia said.
Jorge turned out a palm. “His name was Mark Curtis and he was an engineer on the Panama Canal.”
“You know when the building of the canal was inherited from the French, Panama was still part of Colombia, no?” he asked.
“I guess most foreigners don’t know the story, but I went to school here, remember?”
He disregarded her remark and went on. “Theodore Roosevelt and his advisors decided it would be much easier to build the canal if they didn’t have to negotiate with Colombia. A revolution was instigated…it became a tradition of American intervention and orchestration of Latin American politics.”​
Abuelita is from an old Colombian family. They were indignant over American expansionism and the loss of Panama.” Jorge laughed as he told her the next part of the story. “There was a Carvallo family schism when my papi wanted to marry Mami…a Panamanian-American.”
…and now Jorge wanted to bring another gringa into the family.

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Have you ever been on a coffee tour? Where does your favourite coffee come from?

Cinda will give away a free Kindle eBook (or PDF) of her novel to the best question or commentator on this post! So get writing! (Reviewers also eligible for a freebie.)

Set in an emerald cloud forest in the final decades of 1900’s the passionate novel reads like a South American Out of Africa. A Place in the World is the romantic-adventure story of a young biologist and a multicultural cast of characters. When her Colombian husband deserts her on his family’s coffee farm high in the Andes, Alicia struggles to make a life there for herself and her son even as guerrilla uprisings begin to threaten the area, and a nearby volcano rumbles to life.

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Check out Cinda’s Pinterest boards for fabulous photos of Colombia, rainforests and coffee. You can also get to know her better by visiting her website and blog, and liking her Facebook page. You can get a softcover copy here and the e-book version in various formats on http://www.smashwords.com or Amazon.

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El Jiri Ecolodge, Coroico

After nearly five months living at high altitude, I was parched. I needed a bit of tropical air and a weekend in Coroico was the remedy. We stayed at El Jiri Ecolodge, which sits halfway up the side of the valley, across from Coroico town.

20121006-172550.jpgView across the valley from El Jiri

Created and run by Mario Burgoa, El Jiri sits on the site of a former Jewish farmstead (grab a copy of the excellent book Hotel Bolivia, for more info about Jewish migration to Bolivia during World War Two). Mario explained that at the beginning it was tough because they had no electricity, but eight years on and they have ensuite cabins for guests and some very big fridges in the outdoor kitchen.

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Our two-day, one-night stay was full-board and included a program of guided walks and activities (although there was plenty of time for lazing in hammocks too). By far my favourite was the chocolate making.

20121006-170200.jpgRoasting, grinding and making hot chocolate

The agricultural products from El Jiri are all produced on a small-scale by hand. We helped shell and grind the roasted cocoa beans, before making a delicious vat of hot chocolate from the pure cocoa butter.

20121006-172856.jpgUnprocessed coffee beans

The cocoa butter is sold to NamasTe for use in their restaurant and the coffee produced at El Jiri goes to Alexander’s (a Bolivian cafe chain). We saw the pre-roasted beans and learned that most coffee manufacturers don’t bother with removing the outer layer of the bean since it doesn’t impair the flavour and actually bulks out the weight of the product. But the highest quality coffee, sometimes called ‘green gold’, goes through this extra step and thus can be sold for a much higher price.

20121006-170648.jpgFernando leads the way

With the help of a machete, our young guide took us on jungle walks to a waterfall, Incan terraces, agricultural fields and a lovely mirador.

20121006-170524.jpgCoca seedlings and young plants

We learnt about the local flora and traditional agriculture techniques, as well as spotting lots of different kinds of birds (which were impossible to photograph).

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On return, there was always a filling meal waiting for us. The food may not have been the most exciting (this is Bolivia after all), but it was always heartily received and the outdoor setting was a lovely place to dine.

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At night we went to sleep early, listening to buzzing insects and whooping birds. The weather was not too hot at the end of September (although we were dripping with sweat after hiking along the jungle paths). I imagine in the rainy season it would be hard to get through all the mud and vegetation.

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And you do need to walk a bit, no matter what, as El Jiri is only accessible on foot or by quad bike. From the La Paz-Coroico road you should get off the bus at Yolosita and get a taxi to Charobamba village, where it’s a 20 minute walk up hill. Or like us you could get all confused and get a taxi to the Charobamba foot bridge and end up walking all the way up the hillside for an hour and a half. It’s a nice walk either way.

20121006-180210.jpgOnce you see this sign, just follow the path across the river and up the hill.

We booked our trip through Classic Travel Bolivia for 382Bs per person. You can also book direct with El Jiri. A bus to Yolosita from Miraflores in La Paz costs 20Bs, and a taxi from there to Charobamba is about 120Bs return trip.