Sitting on the plane, having made my way from Los Angeles to Miami and now to Santiago de Cali, Colombia, it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually met anyone who’d been to this place. I’ve known a few people that have traveled to Colombia, sure, but had I met anyone who’d been to a secluded, shrouded-in-clouds mountaintop tea estate? Not even Brian Keating, of tea consulting company Sage Group, had been there, and he helped organize the trip. I was an American meeting a contact in Colombia, who would take me into a tropical cloud forest to discuss the growing and manufacturing of a plant treasured by billions across the globe. I felt like a 20th Century novelist, ala Greene or Maugham.
After leaving the Alfonso Bonilla Aragón Airport, I was greeted by a gust of humid air as well as a smiling, earnest man named Juan Guillermo Gonzalez, the International Sales Director for Agrícola Himalaya. We got in his car and jumped into the specifics concerning Colombian culture and the Valle de Cauca (the department where Cali and the tea estate is located). Thankfully, I was not a complete American dolt, and we immediately bonded over one of my favorite writers of all time, Gabriel García Márquez, a proud Colombian, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and author of timeless works such as Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude (and a 20th Century novelist).
Juan initially wanted to show me around Cali, but it was getting late. Being the true-blood food and culture aficionado I am, I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to eat and drink something now that I was here. I mentioned to Juan that a Colombian friend of mine had given me a huge list of unique fruits and foods I had to try while I was here. “The diversity of foods in Colombia is incredible,” Juan said. “I’ll see what I can do.” We decided on a quick stop in a late night bar where they served beer and fried finger-food. It turns out a lot of traditional Colombian food is fried, and the chorizo, fried plantain chips, fried potatoes, fried cheese, and fried fritters rolled in peanuts went perfectly with Club Colombia, the easy-drinking lager of choice in this region of the country.
In the morning, Juan picked me up from my hotel, and the real journey, the story of Bitaco Tea Estate, began.
HINDÚ & AGRÍCOLA HIMALAYA
The air was warm and thick, about what you’d expect only 200 miles from the equator. Juan took me to the outskirts of Santiago de Cali, to the headquarters of Agrícola Himalaya, S.A. This is the company that owns Bitaco Unique Colombian Tea ® (pronounced bi-TA-co, also the name of the farms and the town outside the farms) and Hindú ®, their big sister brand and the largest tea brand in Colombia with a presence in over eight countries.
I was then introduced to two other invaluable figures in this story. First, I met Andres Velasco, the man running Bitaco and Hindú. He’s an old-world character, someone you might have seen in a grainy black and white photo from the 1950s. Always in a simple button-down shirt and jeans, a deep gruff voice, an intense and serious stare, and never allowing an hour to pass without taking a cigarette break (if you read this, Andres, this is my cue to tell you to cut back). Second, I met Santiago Gonzalez, an International Sales Rep for Bitaco who also served as my guide and translator. He’s a tall, thin young man with a casual-cool demeanor. Having spent some time living in Southern California, he’s aware of what is driving a younger culture. Talking with Santiago, you definitely get the sense that he wants to make an impact on the tea world. I got the sense Andres and Santiago had a mentor/student dynamic.
After initial greetings, they eagerly took me on a tour of their packing facility. All the packing and distributing of Hindú tea, an entirely mass-market bagged tea concept, takes place here. They manufacture and brand tea bags to ship across the continent, with two huge storage and shipping warehouses, a large automated packing room, and a blending and flavoring room, etc. It was immaculate, with the strictest standards in place for cleanliness. In fact, I couldn’t even enter the packing facility without first donning a full papery-linen outfit: coat, booties, hair cap, and facemask.
Afterward, in their conference room, I was given the full history of Bitaco, Hindú, and Agrícola Himalaya.
The summation of which was:
Bitaco was established in the 1950s by the Llano family and was first able to produce finished whole leaf tea in the 1960s. Unfortunately, this was also the beginning of increasing violence and insurgencies against the Colombian government. The factory employees went on strike, and the government liquidated the company. The tea grew freely for some years before another initiative was taken in the 1980s by the Llano family to re-establish and modernize the estate. They bought new equipment and decided that they had to start producing what had taken over the Western market at the time: CTC tea (Cut, Tear, Curl tea, or mass market tea for tea bags). They formed Argícola Himalaya S.A. and the Hindú brand and soon established themselves as the leader in tea across Colombia and in neighboring countries. Despite continued unrest, conflict, and personal tragedy, the Llano family worked to grow and give back to their region until the 21st Century, when they again saw a shift in the markets back toward loose leaf and specifically, specialty tea. With the money and resources they had accrued, they once again bought new equipment and refocused their farm to produce the best possible tea they could. From loose specialty tea to tea bags, and back to loose specialty tea. In 2013, “Bitaco Unique Colombian Tea” was born. It continues to be the only place in Colombia that grows tea commercially.
Most of this history was compiled by Beatriz Llano (referred to as the family historian), one of the six sisters who ran the company along with their mother and helped usher Argícola Himalaya to its current success.
After the full presentation, I chatted with Andres, Juan, and Santiago further. What was the process of converting the farm from producing CTC tea for bags to loose specialty tea, and why did they do it? Andres explained, “It was decision time.”
The company saw the markets changing, ever so slightly. Since they had established a company that was profitable and sustainable, it seemed like a good time to take the next step. They also knew the quality of the tea they had underneath them and, with some urging from tea folk who came to visit the estate, they set out to produce specialty loose tea again, just as the estate had in its foundation.
Unwilling to relinquish the social and environmental responsibility they had built over the years in the form of the Agrícola Himalaya Foundation (more on that later), a compromise had to be made. Hindú had to be maintained since it was the financial arm that enabled them to pursue Bitaco as a finished, high-quality product. To keep up with the demands of Hindú while also utilizing their estate efficiently, they developed their own grading system for finished tea that separated tea for Bitaco from tea for Hindú. This left tea for Hindú short, thus any remaining demand would be supplemented with imported bulk Asian and Latin American teas. Thus, the tea for Hindú still has a Colombian base, but in the pursuit of better tea, it needed help from traditional tea-growing regions. However, as they continually pointed out to me, Bitaco specialty tea would not be possible without the continued success of Hindú. It was not an easy endeavor to transform, and the process took a while to perfect. Santiago chimed in, “You can’t be an artist in one year. Specialty tea is an art.”
We concluded the meeting and arranged for Santiago to drive me up the mountain, to the municipality of La Cumbre, where Bitaco was situated. Andres and Juan would follow us up. But first, as I discovered is very much the standard in Colombia, nothing more could be done without a substantial lunch.
We took lunch at the Restaurante Molino Viejo (Old Mill) and feasted on some of the biggest avocados I’d ever seen, patacones (fried, mashed green plantain), ají picante (spicy salsa), sancocho (traditional soup with yucca), and a whole roasted chicken. They don’t mess around in Colombia. I also learned that every lunch comes with a fruit juice of some kind (due to the staggering plethora of native fruits). Here, we had lulada (lulo juice, lime, sugar) and tomate de árbol juice (also known as tamarillo).
THE WORLD OF BITACO
“What kind of music do you like?” Santiago asked. This was a typical conversation starter in Colombia, a country with a healthy respect and deep love of music. We talked about “Mi Gente” (the recent hit featuring a Colombian musician, J. Balvin, and Beyonce), their government and politics, and the differences between Colombia and America. He drove us up narrow, winding roads, which turned into rocky dirt roads, passing smaller and sparser clusters of houses. The change of scenery was additionally heralded by a change in temperature and light. Specifically, we drove from an elevation of 3,200 feet (1,000 meters) in Cali, a tropical savanna climate, to almost 6700 feet (2050 meters), a subtropical cloud forest.
There was no doubt I was in a special place. Heading up this mountain, which grew lusher and more vibrant in both flora and fauna was like going back in time (cue the Jurassic Park reference). The area we were traveling through is a small part of the expansive Chocó Biogeographic Region (one of the most biodiverse regions in the world) and directly adjacent to the Farallones de Cali (part of the Northern West Andes), much of which has become a protected National Park. The air grew more crisp and cool, you could even hear the changes; almost 300 species of birds are native to this mountainous region. The tenants of the farm aren’t ignorant of the beauty here. The entrance welcomed me, proclaiming, “Bienvenidos al maravilloso mundo de Agrícola Himalaya,” or “Welcome to the wonderful world of Agrícola Himalaya.” We passed another hand-painted sign, casually sticking out of one of the tea hedges, “Descubre la mágica de Bitaco,” or “Discover the magic of Bitaco.”
At the farm’s landing I was greeted by a welcoming party, Paulo Bedoya, the Director of the Tea Fields, and Lina Gonzalez, who helps with the branding and design of Bitaco. Paulo is tall and quiet, with a clear-eyed gaze. Lina has untamed curly hair and an infectious, raspy laugh that she utilizes freely and often. Once Andres and Juan arrived, I discovered that Juan had actually passed along my list of foods to try to Lina, who’d enthusiastically prepared a small picnic of those items for us right by the tea bushes. We washed it all back with tea, grown mere feet from where we dined.
We took some compulsory photos, smiling and shaking hands. Paulo had worked there for many years and would be my guide to the farm. The more I drank tea and talked with Lina, who was eager to practice her English, the more I noticed the glint of wild energy in her eyes and felt sure the hand-painted signs in the fields were her doing. But before we finished our picnic, I was compelled to get up and see the tea plants. I just couldn’t wait any longer, it was uncontrollable. It was right there, all around me, growing green and lush and more beautiful than I had imagined. I had, you could say, been waiting my whole professional life to touch, taste, and smell fresh tea. And now, being here in a tropical cloud forest on top of a mountain… it was well worth the wait.
Paulo, donning his signature backward hat, led our party up the hill and into one of the nearby tea lots. Santiago translating, Paulo explained the method for managing a 55-hectare farm and hit me with the key figures. They were currently growing 357,000 plants on 22 lots, with new lots being developed all the time. These lots were spread out over the farm which spanned the climatic terraces I’d experienced heading up the mountain. They had tea lots in low, medium, and high elevation areas which experienced hot and humid, warm and temperate, and cool and cloudy climates, respectively. Amongst these lots, they grow Camellia sinensis, sinensis assamica, and a hybrid of the two they call intermedio. All three varieties grow freely, with no separation between them; thus, the finished product is always a blend of the three (they estimate 70% intermedio, 20% assamica, 10% sinensis). This was due to the age of the farm, different periods of plant purchasing, and the span of wild growth from the 70s to the 80s.
We were currently in their high-elevation region, evidenced by the clouds actually rolling in and amongst the plants. As we entered one of the lots, Paulo pulled off a four-foot long blade of citronella grass and wrapped it around his neck. He told me to the do the same. “There are three big challenges to running the Bitaco fields if we want to pursue the best quality tea,” he explained. The farm is entirely organic and each lot is bordered by wild forest, thus incredibly biodiverse. So, they had to use natural methods to help keep the plants healthy, like bordering most of their lots with these huge hedges of citronella, a natural insect repellent (a good reason to wear it around your neck too). But they lose plants all the time to pests and developing enough nitrogen in the soil to feed the plants takes work. They make natural fertilizer and compost from chicken manure, sugarcane, etc. Although they are blessed with rich volcanic soil, managing the challenges of truly organic cultivation and keeping the farm productive is the first big challenge.
We said “hola” to the tea workers who spotted the rows of plants. Whatever image you have of an average tea worker around the world, Bitaco’s workers are substantially different, dressed head to toe in clean khaki suits and hats topped with a signature red scarf. They worked relatively fast, to my eyes, moving systematically up the rows with their metal rulers (to establish the plucking table, or height of the rows, above which new growth sticks out). Check out a video of a tea worker plucking the tea here. Paulo pointed out the second big challenge they have: maintaining a fast and efficient plucking standard that also meets their quality concerns.
Since deciding in 2013 that they wanted Bitaco to produce the best quality product they could, they had to retrain all their workers from shear harvesting for Hindú, to hand plucking, which took time. Every day they get a little better, but maintaining a classic ‘two leaves and a bud’ plucking rhythm while learning which buds and leaves are ripe for plucking without getting too many older leaves in the mix and learning what effect this has on finished product… is something they deal with every single day. To help with this process, they have undertaken a good deal of modernization. Paulo showed me that the harvesting baskets have QR codes that encode the plucker (to benchmark the quality of their work), the lot number, daily weather conditions, relative plant varieties, and more.
We said “gracias” to the tea workers and headed out to the research nursery, situated down the mountain a bit in the medium-elevation regions. Paulo seemed right at home in these gardens, a real salt-of-the-earth type, plucking berries from a thicket of wild flora and tossing me a few to chew on to cleanse my mouth whilst reminding me to watch for snakes in the brush.
Along the way, we stopped by a waterfall leading to a wide stream running under the road. We drank from it, and it was emphasized that the very essence of the subtropical cloud forest is clean water, which trickles down and feeds, like a series of veins, the whole farm. “The plants are fed by nature,” Paulo said. We also passed through a whole lot that had been sheared down to the woody trunks. They rotate pruning all of their lots to maintain health and productivity. At any given time, around 20% of Bitaco’s lots will be in a pruning phase. This, of course, diminishes the quantity of overall production but is a natural way to revitalize the plants and keep them healthy and productive.
I was thankful for the boots they’d given me at the start of this tour as we traversed down an extraordinarily muddy road to the tea nursery. Here, rows and rows of tea in different stages of development grew under tarps, all labeled with the specific methods of growing and harvesting.
There was semillas, tea grown from seed, chapola, tea grown from wild dropped tea seeds, and esquejes, or plant cuttings, all organized by fecha de siembra or transplante, or the date of transplant or seed planting. Paulo showed me the relative differences in these styles of growing.
Bitaco needs to expand quickly to meet demand, which means they need to plant more from esquejes. But these can be less hardy, have a shorter productive life, and be more vulnerable to disease. So they also cultivate chapola y semillas, which take much longer to grow (typically 6-8 years), but develop a strong taproot, are more resistant to pests, and can produce for much longer.
The specific differences between the tea varieties in terms of productivity and natural hardiness in their environment was also something they were beginning to pay much more attention to. They’ve planted new lots and populated them with single variety plants, but these are still a few years off from production. “Everyday we learn more,” Paulo reflected. He mentioned that they’ve learned a bunch from Nigel Melican of Teacraft (a good friend of ours) who’s been visiting since the 1980s and who urged them along their eventual path to full specialty tea production. It seems education was in the air; students from the Universidad del Valle were also there to study the wildlife of the forest.
Finally, we made our way down to the low-elevation regions, where the full majesty of the mountains extending out before us was on display. Here, there was plentiful sunlight and a little humidity. Paulo explained the third challenge they face in Bitaco, one of the reasons the nursery is so important and why there were black tubes running through some lots in this lower, hotter region: climate change has affected the whole world and this region is no exception. They’d never had to water their plants before recent years, but the lower elevations were becoming too dry and too hot for longer periods of time, so they’ve had to figure out a new way forward. As the problem continues, they’ll have to find better ways to keep these low-elevation lots nourished and healthy, without resorting to chemicals, of course.
While talking, we encountered another way they utilize nature to help grow their tea in the roving band of sheep that traverse the lots. Paulo treated them like his errant children, whistling and talking to them, making sure they weren’t getting into trouble. They feed off the other plants that grow amongst the tea and naturally fertilize the soil in the process.
Speaking of feeding, it was time for dinner. Back up at the farm landing, Lina led us to her house, right behind one of the tea lots. As is typical in this region, the clouds had rolled in so densely, it became difficult to see much further than a few yards away. An open fire pit for cooking glowed next to a long outdoor table where we snacked on arepas rellenas de queso (cheese-stuffed corn cakes) and drank Club Colombia lager along with another staple of Colombian nights, aguardiente, an anise-flavored liqueur at 29% ABV. Each region produces a signature aguardiente and, being in the Valle de Cauca, we drank Blanco del Valle.
We feasted on roast pork, morcilla (blood sausage), potatoes, and arepas. In the middle of laughs, banter, and another bottle of Club Colombia, Lina grabbed my hand and, in her enthusiastic staccato English, said, “Follow me!” She led me behind her house and into the forest, through a twisting, almost non-existent path, stopping at a small clearing with a view down the mountain to the sunset. “This is the spot,” she told me, “where I like to meditate on life. I do… do you know what it is? Yoga?” I smiled, I did know what yoga was. But this sentiment struck a chord with me. At the table, I had learned that Lina was actually the widow of Alberto Llano Jr., the last owner of the farm and grandson of the founder. The armed conflicts of the 1990s did not leave Bitaco untouched: Alberto Jr. was shot and killed, after which the Llano family at large took control of the company. Lina had continued to live here after that time.
THE PROCESSING FACILITY
The next morning, we headed to their processing facility. This was a brand new, state-of-the-art tea processing plant, outfitted with equipment purchased from India and organized specifically for the purposes of making top quality tea. They still processed some tea in their older Hindú facility, just down the road near our bungalow, but much of it was now herbal tea processing. As a symbol of their history, one of the original rolling tables from 55 years ago is enshrined out in front of the building, dubbed “Little Gem”. They’ve not forgotten their roots.
Here, I met Carlos Astaiza, the Director of Operations, a passionate man with a stern look who talks and moves quickly. They’d just finished the withering stage on a batch of tea, and he wanted to show me their methods in detail. Again, we donned full linen-cloth suits, facemasks, and booties before entering the rooms. They’ve taken every measure to make sure their tea is impeccable, following strict ISO and NOP standards, which allowed them to become certified Organic by EcoCert. We entered.
The aroma was unbelievable… truly, the heady, sweet, rich, perfume of tea processing was mind-blowing. I’d never smelled anything like it except in whisps through an exceptionally good cup of tea. Carlos noted, “My whole job is to pack that aroma into the brewed cup. If people could smell the aroma of the tea process, they’d be instant tea lovers.” In that moment, I fell in love all over again.
The summation of which was:
They’ve built four rooms through which the tea is moved along a path to become black tea. The traditional stages of withering, rolling, oxidizing, firing, and final sorting are performed on brand new machines in flawless condition. They’ve hit upon a nuanced process that works best to process and sort their tea into three different grades. An initial sorting determines the percentage of what they call finos, or “fines”, in the tea. Any tea meant for Bitaco must be at least 60% finos, after which they finish and separate into Leafy, Wiry, and Tippy grades.
Almost all of the tea Bitaco produces is black tea. They only produce green tea to order or to experiment and refine their techniques (they only do steamed green tea, on a large conveyor steam machine). I follow Carlos outside and around the building to see more of the facility. Green tea production is still a learning process for them, at least for the moment, Carlos tells me.
Not that the green they produce is bad, it just isn’t quite there yet. There is an immense amount of trial and error that goes into this whole process and just to get where they are has taken a lot of work. Bitaco’s main advantage is that they start with such great quality product. “We can never improve the quality, only destroy it,” Carlos says. “Everyday the tea is different. But you have to maintain the soul of tea. It’s an art.”
Art was very literally on our minds: A sculpture in the shape of a palm, draped with fluttering chimes stood nearly 30 feet tall right beside the building. This was a shrine devoted to those lost to the turmoil and warfare that claimed their last owner, Alberto Jr. In this new chapter of their story, they remembered how they’ve matured as well.
At one of their conference tables in the processing facility, we were finally able to do a full cupping of all of their teas. Mind you, I don’t find myself in a subtropical cloud forest tea tasting very often, so I was eager to warm up my palate and taste what I had been experiencing this whole trip. They, on the other hand, have to do this every day to test batches they’ve just worked on, benchmarking quality as they go.
Dusk drew near, and, as seems to be standard, that means more tastings of a different kind, mainly the aguardiente kind. Andres took Santiago and I to his cousin’s house, who lived nearby and had a small farm along with some horses. Naturally, I got to meet those horses after a few drinks and was even invited on a riding party the next morning. But we had other plans, ones that would open my eyes to the power tea has for social and environmental responsibility.
Saturday was cloudy and cool. The lush greens and tropical flower hues came alive against the overcast sky. Our heads were sprinkled with drops of rain as Santiago led me outside the farms to a small chapel, Santa Maria del Camino. We passed a school bus and numerous motorcycles along the muddy, rocky roads. Dozens of children packed the open-air building which was built by Marichú de Llano, the mother of the six Llano sisters. Out front was a coffee and snack stand, so we grabbed a cup and more pandebono (cheese bread, the staple of Colombian snacking). We were here to meet Carlota Llano (called Ms. Carlota by everyone), a member of the founding family, one of the six sisters who help usher the company into the present era, and the Manager of the Agrícola Himalaya Foundation.
The A.H. Foundation is a central part of the company’s mission. The day before, partway through the tour of the processing facility, Santiago, Juan, and Andres detailed the main ethos of Agrícola Himalaya, a three-point initiative:
- Value Generation, through Hindú and Bitaco, to support the company and the second two initiatives.
- Social Responsibility, through the A.H. Foundation an through an Employee Fund which provides education, healthcare, and loans.
- Environmental Responsibility, through the A.H. Foundation.
Santiago led me behind the chapel and to the edge of the forest. “Up here in the remote areas, there is nothing to do for children on the weekends, so it’s important for the Foundation to provide activities,” he said. We passed children in the middle of guitar lessons, a drama class, even a taekwondo class. Tucked into the thicket of trees and brush was a large nursery, much like the one Paulo had taken me to two days before. This one was of proximate size, but full of dozens of different kinds of plants. And there amongst the plants was Ms. Carlota herself, her hair a vibrant red-umber. She’s a woman small in stature, but large in passion and personality. She reminds me of your friend’s hip aunt who’s always going on adventures around the world. Without hesitation, she launched into a description of everything around me, of the Foundation, and of her family history on the farm.
“Welcome to the nursery! A real nursery, because this is where the tea was born.” She explained that this is where the original tea plants were tested and grown for populating the entire farm back in the 60s.
“Look around you, these look familiar?” I hadn’t actually noticed, but the numerous large trees lining the perimeter of the chapel and the nursery, some as tall as 20 feet, were actually tea plants left to grow wild. And the nursery wasn’t just for nursing tea, the other plants were foraged as saplings out of the forest in areas where they were unlikely to grow to maturity, grown here to be rewilded back into the forest. Part of their environmental responsibility comes in the form of preserving and helping the natural ecosystem of the forest thrive. They produce 30,000 trees a year, half of which are distributed to other local farms for replanting. I saw rows of Retrophyllum rospigliosii, a threatened evergreen conifer native to South America, and numerous species of subtropical laurels. The biodiversity was staggering. “This is just a small part of the whole!” Ms. Carlota proclaimed, “Let me show you.”
Without hesitation, she led me into the forest (this was becoming a routine). We climbed over fallen logs, around hedges, dodged giant spiderwebs, and finally came to a small clearing. Ms. Carlota moved quickly and nearly as quickly, rattled off the names of every unique plant we passed, describing its function as a part of the whole. She grabbed a branch, shook it, and droplets of water shimmied down her arm and onto our heads. “That is how a cloud forest works. That is how it feeds our tea,” she said. It was magical.
She continued to explain that the water from these mountains was important, and they believe it is their duty to maintain it. It is the origin of water for three different Colombian municipalities and eventually leads to Buenaventura, Colombia’s main port. Although the water is pure up here, and it’s responsible for nourishing their tea plants, along the way down the mountain it merges into a river and becomes polluted. One of the Foundation’s main missions is to decontaminate the river.
Their commitment is strong because they’ve seen what can happen; the enormous Chocó Biogeographic Region they’re a part of has seen more than 66% manmade deforestation. Even when land is presumably reserved as a ‘national park’ such as the land on the neighboring mountain, the Farallones de Cali, some has been deforested by illegal sales of plots of land to developers and farmers and some of the water in that area has tested positive for many toxic minerals, suggesting illegal mining activities. This is why even though Agrícola Himalaya actually owns 213 hectares of land, 98 hectares will always be preserved as natural forest. Agrícola Himalaya also employs a full-time environmental officer to monitor their impact on this forest. Another important factor in this process is linking these parts of the forest, so as to create corridors for wildlife to move freely. I noticed this as we weaved between tea lots, but no section of the forest is isolated from the rest. “This is why we still have puma,” Ms. Carlota tells me. “I want to show you where we saw it!” (Here’s a picture of said puma.)
We hop in the car and drive to the very top of the mountain. Down one side, the port of Buenaventura and the ocean. Down the other, the Valle de Cauca. Grabbing a branch, she lifted herself off the road, into the brush, and started climbing a steep muddy embankment. Santiago and I, just trying to keep up, followed her and came to the place where researchers had set up motion-triggered cameras that captured the image of a puma about a year or two ago. The objective fact that I was being led from a tea farm into the forest in search of a puma was interesting, the subjective experience was exhilarating.
Ms. Carlota wanted to show me the actual town of Bitaco, so we headed back down towards the lower parts of the mountain. The day before, I had been introduced to Palma Garavito, the right hand of Ms. Carlota. She had led us on a trip to two schools that are supported by the Foundation, through the Educational Institution La Libertad, an organization devoted to supporting education in rural communities of the area. We visited an elementary school, one of six schools they support, and their high school. I was eager to talk about what I’d seen.
“Everything we do must support the local community,” Ms. Carlota said. Which makes sense, given that 95% of their workforce, about 1,100 people including the families of their workers and other contractors they work with, are from neighboring towns. The first goal of their Foundation is to thoroughly provide a quality education for the youth of the mountain with the hopes that they will reinvest those tools back into their region. How does this take shape?
The first striking example is that every grade, from elementary to high school, takes at least one class on environmentalism. The high school takes it a step further, with a whole division dedicated to learning agriculture. In fact, the high school had a farm out back that we visited which included raising pigs, chickens, and growing and processing coffee, the sale of which comes back to the school. IT classes, music, sports, and special electives from a program called SENA that government certify you to work different jobs… it’s a robust system. “This is why you’re here,” Santiago told me, “because this is real. This isn’t just brochure stuff.”
The second goal of the Foundation is to provide quality resources and encouragement to use those resources. They created the Marichú de Llano Scholarship Fund which provides scholarships to the twelve top-performing students at the school, no matter the subject they want to major in at University. They also provide daycare centers (one of which also had a small garden), playgrounds, and ‘community households’ for working parents. Finally, they provide classes for adults wanting to further their education and seminars on intra-family communication, to keep families together.
The final goal of the Foundation is to provide infrastructure to the local communities. All the schools make compost, manage recycling bins, and are taught about the system from day one. They have supported the growth and modernization of the schools with computers, libraries, and sports courts. But, when it comes to infrastructure, there is still much more to be done though, as Ms. Carlota would show me.
The village of Bitaco is situated below the tea farms and is a small town, population around 2,500, clustered around a river leading out of the mountain. Colombians aren’t shy about using bright colors and here is no exception. There’s a large church and a single main street framed by the old elevated railroad that cut through the forest but hasn’t operated for decades. Ms. Carlota and Santiago know many of the people passing by. I keep my interactions to what I know; “hola” and a quick wave. Ms. Carlota points to the backs of the houses. Many face the river and many have pipes with liquid trickling out of them. This method of waste disposal into the river is the way it’s always been, unfortunately. One of the Foundation’s most immediate goals is to figure out a way to either build a septic reservoir and a water treatment system or relocate the town entirely. They have big plans. And throughout my time with Ms. Carlota, all I could think was, ‘this is how you use tea for social and environmental responsibility.’
Ms. Carlota bid me farewell. I said “chao” to her, to Andres, Juan, and the rest. I learned that “chao”, not “adios”, is more appropriate when simply saying goodbye down here, something my middle school Spanish teacher neglected to tell me. Santiago still had to drive me back to town before my departure. Even though it would take longer, we decided to take another route out of the mountain so that I could see more of the region.
After another series of winding roads, we eventually connected with a freeway. Roadside stands, selling food, sweets, or gifts, are a staple here, and Santiago and I stopped for some sweets at a popular spot that happened to be shaped like a cow. We grabbed some arroz con tres leches (rice pudding made with three kinds of milk) and made our way further down the mountain back toward Cali. Our plan was to visit another local landmark or two and finish the night with some sushi (a fitting end to ease me back into American life).
It being Sunday, the road was packed with people coming up the mountains for a weekend getaway, to visit a local church tucked into the woods, or simply to leave town. As we got closer to the city, we passed through the “poor” region of town. It seemed like I had been in another world for three days… the cultural and emotional dissonance between where we’d been and the crippling poverty I saw here was enormous.
The country has progressed so much after all the strife of previous decades, but there are still major issues that need to be addressed. Those years have left their scars, some small and some much larger, even on the pristine mountainside of Bitaco. But, it seems to me that those hardships have made them stronger and have inspired the forging of a path toward healing, in unison with and inspired by nature. Tea, and the community they’ve built around it, has been their tool for change. The societal issues that their country faces have, at least on a small scale, been addressed by Agrícola Himalaya in so many ways, from preserving and maintaining their ecosystem, to providing a rewarding life for their workers and their families, all the while creating a product that they feel is synonymous with an artistic endeavor.
I came looking for specialty tea in a country very few even knew grow it. I found a place that produces tea of exceptional quality, in an environment more beautiful than I could have imagined. We have many more years of tea to look forward to from Bitaco, now ranked among my favorite tea producing regions of the world. But, that has less to do with just tea, and much more to do with the people, their courtesy, kindness, passion, and the experiences I had with them. I hope to visit again one day.
* All photos by the author.
To read more on Colombian tea, check out the expanded articles: