clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Illustration by Manu Montoya

Filed under:

From Coca to Cocoa

Two Bogotá cafes owned by farmers who turned away from drug crops and helped transform their communities

For generations, Colombia has been a leading exporter of some of the finest coffee in the world. It’s only in the last decade that a substantial share of the good stuff has been available to Colombian consumers, allowing farmers to build a boutique cafe culture focused on locally sourced coffee — one that’s flourishing from Medellín to Cartagena. In many ways, Café Wuasikamas and Distrito Chocolate, located in Bogotá’s historic La Candelaria neighborhood, are prime examples of the trend: They cater to students, artists, and tourists, and both are operated by small-scale farmers who harvest and roast their own coffee and cocoa beans.

The owners of both cafes once lived in an altogether different world. They grew coca and poppy — the unprocessed ingredients for cocaine and heroin, respectively — and sold them to the network of drug-trafficking cartels, paramilitary groups, and guerrilla armies who control Colombia’s side of the international drug trade. Economic incentives and the threat of violence combined to force rural farmers to grow illicit crops; their towns and villages were dragged into the near-constant crossfire between armed groups vying for control of the drug trade.

The transformations of the last 12 years — replacing coca and poppy crops with high-quality cocoa and coffee — are emblematic of Colombia’s efforts to end the perennial state of conflict between revolutionary militias and the government. For more than half a century, the country was marred by political and drug-related violence, which left a death toll of 220,000 people, as well as 8.7 million officially registered victims of war — one out of every six Colombians. With the 2016 landmark peace agreement between former President Juan Manuel Santos and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country managed to record its lowest homicide rate in 42 years and things seem to be turning around. “Peace is something you consider natural, but it was actually very elusive in the Colombian countryside,” says Juan Antonio Urbano, a 51-year-old coca-turned-cacao farmer who runs Distrito Chocolate. “With the hope the peace process has brought us, we’re working on converting what we grow into real opportunities that we never enjoyed before.”

Distrito Chocolate and the neighboring Café Wuasikamas, smack in the middle of the capital’s tourist district, offer a first-hand glimpse into how rural communities are transforming themselves in post-conflict Colombia.

Hernando Chindoy stands in the entrance to Café Wuasikamas

Pakaripuangui. Good morning,” the manager of Café Wuasikamas, Cristina Chindoy, greets a customer in Inga, the native language in her rugged mountain region near Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador. She runs the cafe with her older brother, Hernando Chindoy, but the business is collectively owned by their community. As she grinds roasted beans, brews a coffee, and serves it in a reddish clay mug, a sweet aroma fills the narrow storefront, located in a 1930s Art Deco building two blocks away from the Botero Museum. The flavor is robust, with a hint of citrus.

“We sell specialty organic coffee here, but there is an entire story behind it,” says the 28-year-old Cristina Chindoy, “a story of how we recovered our land and finally began living in serenity.” The Ingas are descendants of the ancient Inca Empire that flourished in Peru and stretched all the way to Chile and Argentina in the 14th century. When Cristina Chindoy was still a teenager, the Ingas made their living by tending to 5,000 acres of poppy fields. The village children’s nimble hands were particularly useful for trimming the crimson flower’s bud to harvest its latex, which was then sold to criminal groups who used it to produce heroin. Poppy gave the Ingas a dependable source of income in a corner of the country where other opportunities were scarce, but with the drug trade came scores of outsiders and problems.

Cristina Chindoy prepares a cappuccino

This story echoes that of many of the nearly 100 indigenous groups living in remote and war-torn rural areas throughout Colombia. For the Ingas, growing legal crops did not seem like a feasible option, given that their community was located four hours away from the nearest city, and that the dirt roads leading in and out of the area would often be washed away during the rainy season.

The remoteness of their reservation was precisely what made them attractive to armed guerrilla groups like FARC, the National Liberation Army, and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, who fought each other for control of the poppy supply and valuable mountain trade routes to the coastal enclaves where the contraband was smuggled out of Colombia on its way to markets in the United States and Europe. The region became so violent that children stopped going to school, and the only supply trucks that regularly came to town were those selling alcohol to the 4,000 outsiders who had settled there.

The Ingas began reconsidering their partnership with the armed factions in 2003, when they took an informal census and determined that at least 60 Ingas had been murdered by armed groups, in a community numbering only 951 families. “We were kidnapped within our own ancestral lands by people we didn’t know,” recalls Hernando Chindoy, who became governor of their reservation when he was just 26 years old. “We were hungry, because even though we sowed the earth, we had to buy all of our food outside. We were disappearing.”

After the head count in 2003, Hernando Chindoy called a community meeting. They voted to sever their ties to the drug trade, which had brought them so much misery, then informed the armed groups that they would no longer harvest poppy buds. Hernando Chindoy and other leaders were threatened, but they held firm, and work brigades were organized to clear their land of the plant.

After gathering the 16 elders who remembered Inga traditions, the community began relearning its own largely forgotten culture. Inga is now taught in local schools; most local youth finish high school, and many go on to study at the university level. Cristina Chindoy, for instance, studied ethno-education at the Technological University of Pereira, 15 hours away. Since breaking free from the drug trade, the Ingas have composed a “life plan” detailing the community’s vision for the future, and they gather annually for a ceremony called the hatun puncha, during which they ask Mother Earth for forgiveness — including for having sown poppy in her soil.

With little government support, the community filled the heavily eroded slopes around the town of Aponte with coffee shrubs. USAID funded a coffee-processing mill where the Ingas now roast selected beans of the prized Caturra and Colombia varieties to produce a soft, acidic blend that has garnered great reviews. In the process, they began preserving vast swathes of Andean forests at the foot of the Doña Juana-Cascabel Volcanic Complex National Natural Park, populated by spectacled bears, condors, and tapirs. It’s why the community chose to name their brand Wuasikamas, which translates as “guardians of the earth.”

Tired of selling coffee to intermediaries who offered low prices, the Ingas secured a bank loan and opened a cafe in Bogotá last December. If they could run their own business successfully, they reasoned, they could guarantee fair prices for the 500 families in their association, secure funding for their indigenous reservation, and donate 40 percent of the proceeds to an emergency fund set up to rebuild their village, which has suffered severe damages from a 4,000-foot crack in the earth that first opened three years ago.

Members of the community drive the coffee to Bogotá from their land in El Tablón de Gómez, over 22 hours away. They also bring their own panela (raw cane sugar) to sweeten the coffee — and to sell — and bake the flaxseed-and-oatmeal cookies that are served alongside the freshly brewed coffee.

“Being able to give an added value to our products — not merely harvest them — and bring them to the city allows us to form bonds of brotherhood with urban dwellers,” Hernando Chindoy says. “By buying from us, you’re helping us safeguard water sources and ecosystems that we all need.” In 2015, the Ingas were awarded the United Nations’ Equator Prize for local sustainable development efforts. He adds: “Our products carry life.”

Juan Antonio Urbano, right, opening a fresh cacao fruit next to chocolatier Felipe Trujillo

If coffee is helping replace poppy in the mountains, cocoa is emerging as a substitute for coca in the hot and humid lowlands. “We didn’t just eradicate [poppy] from our land, but from our minds and our hearts,” says Juan Antonio Urbano, who spearheaded the first association of cocoa growers in his hometown of Pauna, 105 miles north of Bogotá, in the center of the country. “We underwent a complete cultural transformation.”

For decades, his region was one of the most violent in Colombia, scarred by wars between factions vying for control over the emerald mines and coca fields of western Boyacá. The region was considered a no man’s land, where people could be killed for reasons as trivial as coming from a rival town.

Like the Ingas, the people of Pauna eventually decided enough was enough. In 2007, with help from the Catholic Church and a government program that provided free cocoa seedlings and expert help to teach farmers to grow the new crop, the community began to uproot their coca bushes. After three years of hard work, they were the first region in the country to be declared 100 percent coca-free by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

After forming a national network representing 25,000 small farmers and building a domestic market for chocolate, Urbano’s group decided to create their own brand and open a store. Some bad business advice led them to unveil Distrito Chocolate inside a glitzy Bogotá shopping mall, where wealthy patrons showed little interest in visiting Urbano’s cafe amid luxury-brand storefronts. In 2016, almost broke, the cocoa growers’ association sought a second chance by opening a cafe in La Candelaria, an artsy and laid-back pedestrian neighborhood home to seven universities, dozens of government offices, and scores of foreign tourists. Since then, Distrito has thrived.

Hot chocolate, a chocolate milkshake, and chocolate candies at Distrito

Inside a brightly stenciled house, they prepare hot cocoa the old-fashioned way: Urbano energetically stirs a wooden whisk back and forth inside a pot for five minutes until the smell of chocolate fills the shop. He then pours the hot cocoa into a cup — it’s topped with a rich layer of foam, spiced with a tinge of clove and cinnamon, and completely milk-free.

That’s the traditional version, but they also serve creamy choco-chais, milkshakes, and chocolate-flavored stout beers with a bittersweet punch. There’s even a multigrain drink called chucula, popular with the early-rising farmers back home in Boyacá; it combines cocoa, corn, peanuts, soy, wheat, barley, and fava beans into a syrupy concoction meant to fortify the body for a hard day’s work in the fields. All of these can be accompanied with sweet arepas and fluffy almojábanas, typical Colombian corn-flour breads baked with queso fresco.

“There’s a whole country out there that we were never able to explore because we were too busy fighting amongst ourselves,” Urbano says. “Chocolate is helping us discover it.” He points to an assortment of gourmet chocolate bars produced by members of the cocoa farmers’ association. They read like an atlas of Colombia: a 70 percent bar filled with golden berries from Arauca, on the Venezuelan border; a bar with slices of dried oranges from Santander in north-central Colombia; another one with almonds from Nariño in the southwest. These regions were rife with violence before the peace deal with FARC helped lower the national homicide rate to a 40-year low in 2017.

“We want war to be something our children ask about in the past tense, not the reality they live in,” Urbano says. He is a good example — even though he never got past sixth grade, his eldest son, Nicolás Urbano, graduated last month from the prestigious National University with a degree in agricultural-industrial engineering. Now, he’s working on Distrito Chocolate’s business plan.

Cristina Chindoy at work in Café Wuasikamas

Although the Urbanos’ and the Chindoys’ stories stand out as examples of how Colombians have found small-scale solutions to the drug conundrum, the country remains burdened by 437,000 acres of illicit crops. More than four decades after Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs,” Colombia still has plans to control supply through the U.S.-funded aerial spraying of herbicides on coca plantations and eradication raids conducted by Colombian authorities. Unfortunately, these methods have failed to significantly reduce the drug trade, and the brunt of this punishment unfairly targets peasants who are trying to eke out a living.

Ending the international drug trade is probably impossible, but Juan Antonio Urbano believes that more far-flung communities would choose to grow legal crops if they felt certain that doing so wouldn’t threaten their livelihood. “More than forced eradication or money, people need to be able to see real opportunities to lead a different life,” Urbano says. “These give us a sense of why being legal is worthwhile, and what we are leaving our children. The tranquility that the peace process has brought is the first opportunity. We have to make the most out of it.”

While many small producers like Urbano and the Chindoys have successfully made the transition from illegal to legal crops, others who try to make the switch still struggle to find buyers for their harvests. This is a significant challenge in a country where three-quarters of rural roads remain in terrible shape, 2 million rural inhabitants don’t have permanent electricity, and less than 10 percent of small farmers have regular access to veterinarians or agronomists.

“I am the son of a peace process, and this is what has really made it possible for us to have different opportunities,” says Nicolás Urbano. “We now need these opportunities to be available to everyone in the entire Colombian countryside.”

Juan Antonio Urbano speaking inside Distrito Chocolate

Café Wuasikamas: Carrera 4 # 12B – 27, La Candelaria, Bogotá

Distrito Chocolate: Carrera 2A # 17 – 60, La Candelaria, Bogotá

Correction: October 19, 2018, 10:22 a.m.: A previous version of this article conflated the death toll of the Colombian conflict with the overall number of registered victims of war. The error has been corrected.

Eater Travel

The 33 Essential Bogotá Restaurants

The Eater Guide to Bogotá

A Cheat Sheet to Colombian Food

The Eater Guide to Bogotá

What Better Place to Drink Colombian Coffee Than Bogotá?

View all stories in The Eater Guide to Bogotá