Monday, January 24, 2011

Colombian National Coffee Park

A whole park dedicated to coffee? There must be a god and this is probably my heaven.

The Colombian National Coffee Park (Parque Nacional del Cafe) is located in the Zona Cafetera town of Montenegro. It was created by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, which happen to be the same folks who brought you Juan Valdez. I didn't know what to expect of the park before going but I figured that it'd be a great place to learn all about coffee and the coffee-culture of Colombia. Here's what I found:

It turns out that it's a coffee-themed amusement park. It wasn't exactly the cultural and/or educational experience that I expected but it was still fun. When you enter the park one of the first things you encounter is a coffee museum that spreads through two floors of two buildings. They have exhibits on current and past farming and farm life, the growing and processing of coffee, and coffee sales and marketing throughout the world.

They do a pretty good job with the museum but I left wanting even more so I headed to the cable car in search of what I came for. The cable car takes you from the entrance area of the park over some small coffee growing and processing areas:

...on the way to the park's own version of a Plaza Bolivar (note: almost every city, town, and pueblo in Colombia has a central square named for Simon Bolivar, who was a key, if not the key figure in Colombia's independence from Spain.):

The day I was at the park it was really empty of people. It seems that, like in the U.S., once the kids are back in school, attendance at theme parks drops off dramatically. It allowed for moving through the park really quickly but it gave me the feeling that the park isn't very popular. I talked to one of the workers and he told me that this was definitely not the case and that he personally was happy for the break in the crowds. Not having crowds of people was a positive in some ways for sure but it caused the park to have only a couple of employees available for demonstrations at the exhibit areas such as this one demonstrating coffee-processing equipment:

The demonstrations that I did catch were interesting and entertaining. What was a bummer were the demonstration areas like this depulping one where no one was available to explain what was going on:

The park has lots of growing areas to explore. They have a huge bamboo forest that's worth checking out but my favorite growing area hands down was the World Coffee Garden. This small area had coffee trees from all over the world. I know I'm a bit of a coffee geek but I thought it was cool to be able to see the differences in one place. For example, I learned/saw that the coffee trees from Africa tended to have much larger leaves and higher overall foliage density where as the coffee trees that I've seen tend to be somewhat sparse with smaller leaves. This is the World Coffee Garden area:

To further demonstrate my geekiness, one of the other cool things that I saw is how the coffee inventory is tracked from the fields all the way to the final-processing facilities. The growers have adopted a system of RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification), which allows for inventory levels to be monitored and tracked without physical counting or contact. It's a new-ish method for tracking inventory and allows someone with the correct sensing equipment to use radio frequencies to "see" how many of something is in a given area without actually having to count the items one by one. You've probably encountered RFID tags without realizing it. For example, I've seen clothing from Banana Republic with the tags sewn in. The tags tend to be very stiff "stick-like" and it tells you right on the tag that you should cut it out before wearing the item. There are also RFID tags on "expensive" or widely-stolen things like razor blades at drug stores. These tags tend to be stickers that have a circuit pattern on the back of them, which you can see when you peel the sticker off the item.

Okay. Enough geek. You can see the small, green RFID tags on these bags of coffee:

Overall, the park wasn't what I expected but it wasn't all bad. I definitely got something out of the coffee museum, the growing and processing exhibits, and the different gardens. There's also a dinner-theater-style song-and-dance show that was way better than expected and I really enjoyed my Paisa-style lunch. It didn't turn out to be the heaven on earth I hoped it'd be but, still, it was a fun way to spend the day.

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