As we begin the journey up into the mountains, a small clearing in the trees opens, revealing the city of Santa Marta behind us and the crystal-blue ocean beyond. Sitting on sideways-facing benches inside of a twenty-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, we rattle up the mountain. Our driver honks at everyone we pass—it seems like he knows every farmer, shopkeeper, and truck driver on the road.
After about an hour in the car, the paved motorway disappears and a bumpy dirt path takes its place. The truck slows to a crawl, and I hold tightly onto the windowsill as it rocks back and forth from the endless ruts in the road. After a further hour and a half ascending the Sierra Nevada mountains, we turn to the right and drive down a small path that leads to a hidden community below.
Trekking through the coffee farms of La Red Ecolsierra; a healthy young coffee tree.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I worked in the Philippines for Endeavor, a company that helps startups in different locations across the globe expand and develop. Through that one-month experience, I obtained an initial understanding of social entrepreneurship. After volunteering with Root Capital, I’m learning how social entrepreneurship works in the dynamic and often volatile context of agriculture.
Earlier this summer, I was lucky enough to join a Root Capital Learning Journey to Colombia led by members of Root Capital’s Colombia- and US-based teams. I was luckier still to get to share this experience with my dad; he and I joined three other parents traveling with their teenage kids. We started our journey to the Sierra Nevada with a visit to one cooperative: La Red Ecolsierra.
Sunrise in the Sierra Nevada.
As the sun rises over the Sierra Nevada, the pungent aroma of Colombian coffee seeps through into the four adjacent rooms. I fill my cup with Café Tima and watch as the night mist clears, revealing the spectacular view of the mountains above and the valley below.
Located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, La Red Ecolsierra is a coffee cooperative that sources from almost 250 small farmers. Its coffee is certified organic and Fair Trade, meaning that its farmers earn more money and use farming techniques that are good for the earth. Today, Alberto and Lillybeth, two young employees of the cooperative, will lead us on a hike through coffee farms, warehouses, and production plants, where we’ll learn about the entire coffee production process.
I’m excited to experience the everyday lives of these coffee farmers. I’m from a small suburb in Massachusetts and went to high school in California; I’ve never visited a country or a culture quite like this. And as an avid coffee drinker, I’m looking forward to learning about the coffee I drink every morning!
Learning more about the coffee production process at farmer Ana Delia’s washing station.
Trekking through the coffee farms that line the steep mountainside, we learn about every stage of coffee production—from how it’s grown to the machinery farmers use to extract the beans from coffee “cherries” and dry the beans until they’re ready for export.
As we return, I take a seat at one of the wood tables overlooking the garden. At the two smaller tables, chairs are made of tree stumps creatively covered with bottle caps; each table is decorated with colorful, intricate designs. Ana Delia, a member of the cooperative and the woman who runs the mountainside hostel where we’re staying, appears with a piping hot Colombian stew called sudado de res, filled with beef, potato, yucca, plantain, and carrots.
Over the past few years, Ana Delia has worked with La Red Ecolsierra to convert her farm into a hostel for local and international tourists, as well as coffee professionals who work with the cooperative or would like to visit a working farm. La Red Ecolsierra began with only coffee as their main export, but as time went on they expanded to honey. A year ago, the cooperative added ecotourism as a source of income and learning. The cooperative’s goal is for each of its several hundred farmer-members to have at least two streams of income between coffee, honey, and tourism.
One last group photo in Bogota before flying home!
My dad’s grandparents grew rice in the Philippines. Specifically, my great grandfather was the Director of Agriculture for Bicol Province and worked closely with the president at the time. My mother’s parents worked in an agricultural business in the United States that primarily focused on coconut oil expellers. My mother learned about produce working in her parents’ restaurant in Houston, Texas. I am an 18-year-old, first generation Filipino-American; through this trip, I also have the opportunity to learn about agriculture and share what I know with my community.
After a filling dinner and a couple of rounds of cards, we all settle into our bunk beds, thinking ahead to the next day’s early start. The only sounds come from the soft chirp of birds and the occasional distant hoots of howler monkeys. In just a single day, I’ve learned about coffee from the people that grow it, and hiked some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. I feel so grateful to have been a part of such a beautiful and unique experience.