Salento: A tinto too far

By Emma Newbery February 26, 2015
Salento Colombia, Colombian coffee

This scenic landscape is another example of Salento’s contradictions – the forest behind is no longer natural; it is being farmed for paper.

After a visit to Colombia’s famed Zona Cafetera, coffee tourism in Salento leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste for Emma Newbery.

As a traveller, complaining about tourism is like complaining about traffic jams while sitting in a car. Whether you like it or not, you are part of the problem. Salento is no longer the sleepy backwater my friends described to me years ago. The seeds of tourism were planted, the climate was perfect, and what has grown is a veritable jungle of places to stay; places to eat trout cooked in every imaginable way alongside the region’s other speciality, patacones; and places to buy endless identikit ‘handmade’ gifts.

And of course coffee. But I’ll come back to the coffee.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Salento – it is utterly charming, nestled in hills with more greens than exist in my paint box and you can hike to see hummingbirds. What’s not to like? Plus, I was travelling with my parents and it was a relief to be somewhere where things made sense and people spoke English.

But when the influx of visitors is so rampant, it is hard to escape a feeling of unease about being part of the damage that is caused by the level and speed of seemingly uncontrolled tourism – especially in such an area of natural beauty.

And as well as the town’s ‘touristification’, I was also bothered by an undercurrent of protectionism.

At first, I thought the owner of the B&B was helpful as she promised to take us to the “only good trout restaurant in Salento”, and even walked with us to show us “the best” places to go. But as she became more pushy, I became more aware of the subtle sneering at the new businesses whilst steering towards the old.

“Well, you can go there if you want, but they don’t really know anything about coffee and it would be so sad if your parents were disappointed…”

So we followed her advice and went to Don Elias’s organic coffee farm where we were taken on a short tour by the delightful and engaging Carlos. He couldn’t quite speak enough English to answer Dad’s questions, and had only been on the farm for five months, but made up for it with his passion for the coffee and the countryside.

We saw the beans. We learned about how bananas or plantain are planted in amongst the coffee because they provide shade and also retain much needed water for the coffee plants. We learned about the different kinds of beans and how they are harvested.

We saw where they dried them, heard about the roasting process and had a go at grinding the final product.

It was fun – but nowhere near as good as what I had heard about the other, newer coffee tours – and completely marred by the socially awkward boss who followed our progress around his farm with a strange mixture of jealousy and hostility. Clearly, his father, the original Don Elias (present only in pictures) had been the lifeblood of the farm and the son had inherited little of his personality.

I am sure you would learn far more about coffee from the eccentric English owner of the Plantation Hostel Salento who runs tours every day at 9am, or at the more structured Finca Ocaso, which is nearby. And I felt like I had wasted precious time with my parents on something that could have been so much better.

We moved on and I dismissed my misgivings and chided myself for being uncharitable – until I got home and heard the same stories. I also heard of a foreigner who had tried to start a business there but left because the established locals had made things so unpleasant.

I can see that it must be hard for a community to deal with such a dramatic influx of tourists – and a sudden growth in all the things they bring with them. But if you close in on yourselves and promote and protect only the existing establishment, no matter how good or how bad they are, everybody loses. The businesses lose because there is no reason for them to improve. The visitors lose and the recommendations start to dry up.

And, most importantly, the environment suffers because the only way to build sustainable tourism is for everybody in the community to work together.