Colombia is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, offering some of the finest beans you can buy. You can’t say you’ve seen the country without a visit to the Zona Cafetera, or coffee zone, comprising the departments of Caldas, Risaralda, Quindío and a small part of Valle del Cauca. From coffee tours to hot-air balloon flights, there are many amazing activities to enjoy here.
Salento is surely the biggest pull for travelers to the Zona Cafetera – it’s the base for one of the most beautiful, best-loved hikes in Colombia: the Cocora Valley Trail. In this verdant Eden, the tallest palm tree in the world – the endemic, endangered Quindío wax palm – sprouts prolifically and somewhat surreally, towering over visitors as they pass by, necks craned. The hike takes a few hours, with views of the memorably beautiful cloud forest as well as expanses of farmland, although what makes it a once-in-a-lifetime experience is the sight of the mighty giants of Cocora.
An essential appointment to put in your diary is a coffee tour, which will help you understand more about the most important product in the area. The WakeCup Tour by Experiencia Cafetera is one of the best. It goes beyond a regular caffeine ramble, with a fully immersive, detailed experience. You’ll have the unique opportunity to spend time with farmers, pickers, jeep drivers and local people, learning how crucial the bean is to the culture and way of life here.
The landscapes of the Zona Cafetera rank among the most spectacular in Colombia, and the best way to see them is from the basket of a hot-air balloon while it floats at a snail’s pace over the department of Quindío. It’s not exactly budget travel, but the flights – operated by Globos Colombia – are like no other tour you’ll take in the country. It delivers unparalleled views of the distant Andean peaks, fields of coffee, plantain and bamboo, and the lovely little houses and towns that dot the land to the horizons.
Colombia’s coffee region has enjoyed a real visitor upswing of late, but one corner has remained oblivious to change: the tranquil town of Jardín, lying in the middle of this lush region. Travelers love it, but it hasn’t sacrificed a scrap of its character. There’s a hostel for backpackers and a smattering of souvenir stands, but the ambience is vibrantly local. In the central plaza, with its multicolored cafe chairs and tables, regulars in checkered shirts and sombrero vueltiaos (traditional hats) relax and chat over beers while hoof-claps echo through the cobblestone streets. Yes, you can take horseback tours of the town.
Get your binoculars ready, as there are more avian species in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera than anywhere else in the country. And this incredible biodiversity is on full-feathered display at the Otún Quimbaya Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, a major ecotourism destination. Along hiking trails, keep your eyes peeled for the rare turkey-like cauca guan, with its bright-red neck, and the crested ant-tanager, with its scarlet punky quiff. Elsewhere, red howler monkeys screech in the trees, and mountain tapirs emerge to feed in the fresh, early-morning light.
This annual extravaganza is, without a doubt, the most surreal tourist attraction for miles around, turning heads in towns and cities, notably Calarcá and Armenia in Quindío. Part of the National Coffee Festival (late June-early July), it’s a series of rollouts in homage to the iconic local Willys Jeeps. Yipao is the word for a fully loaded Willys Jeep, and the vehicles rumble through the streets stacked high with goods or perform acrobatic stunts on their rear wheels. It’s a noisy, crazy, unique Colombian festival – and the only place you can witness it is in the Zona Cafetera.
An entire theme park dedicated to coffee? You’ll find it here in the Zona Cafetera, in the department of Quindío, 2mi (4km) southwest of the town of Montenegro. Owned and operated by the National Federation of Coffee Growers, the Parque del Café might not top the must-see list for every visitor, but it makes for an unforgettable day out. You’ll get the chance to wander the coffee museum, enjoy interactive displays dedicated to the history of the crop and ride rollercoasters and log flumes. Also, you don’t want to miss a “flight” on the cable car, serenely over the undulating terrain.
The most famous termales (hot springs) are not far from Pereira, in the department of Risaralda, just beyond the little town of Santa Rosa de Cabal. Cascading from the mountain above, the thermal waterfalls are the most impressive of their type in the country, and you can bathe in the pool below them at your leisure after a quick hike up. Even if you can’t face the climb, there’s a nearby hotel where a smaller waterfall feeds several pools at varying temperatures. There are also some lovely hot springs close to Manizales, one of the larger cities in the area.
Allegra Zagami contributed additional reporting to this article.
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