Image: New Juan Valdez
William Fernando Martinez  /  AP
Members of the Colombian Coffee Federation present Carlos Castaneda as the new Juan Valdez at a Bogota press conference Thursday.
updated 6/29/2006 7:25:04 PM ET 2006-06-29T23:25:04

After a two-year search among more than 300,000 candidates nationwide, Colombia on Thursday unveiled the new Juan Valdez, the country’s iconic coffee ambassador to the world.

His real name is Carlos Castaneda. Like his two predecessors, the 39-year-old sports the leather bag, bushy mustache and straw hat typical of rural Colombia where the world-famous arabica coffee is grown.

But unlike those other Valdezes — who were played by a Cuban-born actor and a silk-screen artisan — Castaneda knows a thing or two about growing coffee. The oldest of 10 children born on a coffee farm, he picked his first bean at the age of 6.

Like most of the nation’s 566,000 coffee growers, Castaneda has lived a modest life, with his family’s 10-acre plot earning $200 a month.

That changed Thursday at a ceremony in the capital of Bogota, when Castaneda literally took over the reins of Conchita the mule from the previous Valdez — Carlos Sanchez, who’s retiring after 37 years.

Dressed in the trademark Juan Valdez poncho, Castaneda said he was nervous about his new job, “but I’m going to put all my heart and will into making sure things go well.”

The Colombian coffee producers’ federation wouldn’t say how much Castaneda will earn in the high-profile gig, other than to say it’ll be considerably more than his current income.

Before he was invited to the capital in May as a finalist, Castaneda had never boarded a plane. Now, he’ll move from his house in the mountains of Antioquia province to live near Bogota’s international airport.

“He’ll spend half the year traveling, sitting in a plane and far away from his family, in order to stand for hours at events posing for photos and signing autographs,” said Gabriel Silva, the general manager of the coffee federation.

He’ll also be asked to help jump-start the country’s slumping coffee industry, the nation’s third-largest legal export.

Colombia exported about $1.4 billion worth of coffee last year, down some $100 million from a decade ago.

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