The pretty little town of Salento, with its colourful traditional houses and proximity to the stunning Cocoa Valley, has become practically an obligatory stop on the Colombia travel trail. However, as lovely as Salento is, it is starting to become a bit overwhelmed with tourists, and many people are looking for an alternative destination in the Colombian Coffee Region, so read on for some excellent alternatives to Salento.
This tiny little town in the south of Quindio department is best described as ‘Salento without the tourists.’ The picturesque main square is surrounded by stunning examples of typical Paisa architecture (the colourful windows and doors that are so popular in Salento), and the atmosphere is peaceful and relaxed. It’s also home to perhaps the Zona Cafetera’s best cafe in La Floresta, and the best coffee tour in Colombia, the WakeCup Experience with Experiencia Cafetera.
Risaralda department’s prettiest small town, Marsella is located just 15 miles (24 km) from the regional capital of Pereira (where a popular and convenient airport is located) and is home to some of the best examples of traditional architecture in the entire Coffee Region. It’s also another undiscovered gem, hardly touched by the effects of tourism, so you will get a really authentic and local experience when you visit.
One of Colombia’s 17 Heritage Towns, Salamina is an undiscovered gem in the north of Caldas department. Perched on a mountain ridge with enviable views over the central and western Colombian Andes, Salamina counts on two of the nicest boutique hotels in the Coffee Region (La Casa de Lola and Casa Carola), as well as some of the most well-preserved architecture. It’s also mercifully free of tourists and retains a real sense of authenticity.
Located about an hour from Salamina by jeep, San Felix is even more remarkably tranquil and tourism-free than the aforementioned Heritage Town. The central plaza is a riot of colourful, traditional buildings, and the surrounding mountains and rivers are fantastic for hiking and enjoying some fresh air.
The Samaria Valley
Just outside San Felix is the best alternative to the Cocora Valley in Colombia: the Samaria Valley. This spectacular area is home to almost three times as many Wax Palms as the iconic Cocora Valley as well as a tiny fraction of the visitors. The forests around Samaria are also far more well-preserved and protected than Cocora, making the Samaria Valley the perfect destination if you’re looking to wander among these giant trees with just the breeze and birdsong for company.
Filandia is fast establishing itself as the alternative destination to Salento in Quindio department. Located close to Salento, the little town has great tourism infrastructure, nice hotels and hostels, and the same delightful architectural beauty that draws people to its more famous neighbour. Filandia is perhaps the best like-for-like alternative to Salento in the Coffee Region. But get there soon, it’s starting to get busier and busier every year!
Another of Colombia’s Heritage Towns (and located only a couple of hours north of Salamina in Caldas department), Aguadas is especially famous for its handcrafted artisan hats, known as Aguadenos (they are similar to the famous panama hats). The town has a charming authenticity, and you can visit the local artisan collective to learn how the hats are made (and even try your hand at making one). The viewpoint above town has one of the best panoramic vistas in Colombia as well.
This small coffee town in the very south of Quindio department is best known as the birthplace of the founder of the FARC (in fact, Experiencia Cafetera offer a unique and interesting tour in Genova charting the history of Colombia’s conflict), but there is so much more to Genova than that. Surrounded by stunning mountains and rivers, and with some fantastic birdwatching opportunities nearby, Genova’s tranquillity and authenticity stand in stark contrast to the more touristy vibes of Salento.
The town whose name translates as ‘good view’ offers precisely that: perched on a mountain ridge in southern Quindio, Buenavista offers perhaps the best panoramic view in the entire Coffee Region. There’s a fantastic coffee-themed hostel, Panorama Cafe Hostel, and the view from the terrace of Cafe San Alberto just outside the town is worth the bus journey alone. You can also enjoy paragliding over the town if you really want to make the views even better!
This boutique coffee farm and hotel just outside the capital of Caldas department, Manizales, is already well-established as one of Colombia’s premier luxury boutique hotels and is perfect for anyone seeking a touch of luxury with their coffee tour. You can stay in the main house or their onsite backpacker hostel, and enjoy the sensation of sleeping in a traditional building in the middle of a working coffee farm.
Hacienda Venecia, Manizales, Caldas, Colombia +57 320 6365719
The towns of southern Antioquia
While not officially classified as part of the Zona Cafetera, the south of Antioquia department borders northern Caldas, and has enough in common with the three departments of the Coffee Region that it warrants a mention here. The delightful little coffee towns of Jardin, Jerico, Tamesis and Valparaiso are all well-worth visiting and are among the most beautiful small towns in Colombia. Jardin, in particular, is a true delight.