Top Things to See and Do in the Zona Cafetera, Colombia

Los Nevados National Park offers a lot of hiking opportunities
Los Nevados National Park offers a lot of hiking opportunities | © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Chris Bell
19 August 2021

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.

Go hiking in the Cocora Valley

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Cow stands by palm trees
© J Tobiason Photo / Getty Images

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.

Take a WakeCup Tour

Architectural Landmark
Coffee picker or cafetero at Hacienda Venecia Coffee Farm, Manizales, Colombia
© dbimages / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Go high in the sky in a hot-air balloon

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Globos Colombia
© Globos Colombia

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.

Explore the beautiful small town of Jardín

Architectural Landmark
A colourful street scene with its preserved and colonial buildings, Jardin, Colombia, South America
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Go birding in Otún Quimbaya Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

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Cauca Guan (Penelope perspicax)  perched on a branch in the mountains of Colombia, South America.
© Minden Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Attend the Yipao Festival

Architectural Landmark
Willy jeeps in the village of Salento next to the valley of Salento Colombia
© Ulf Huebner / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Visit the Coffee Park

Cable car at the National coffee park in Colombia
© William Uzuriaga / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Soak in the Santa Rosa de Cabal Hot Springs

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Long exposure view of the waterfall near the Santa Rosa Thermal Spa in Santa Rosa de Cabal in Colombia.
© danaan andrew / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Explore Los Nevados National Park

Frailejone plants growing near the glacier in Los Nevados National Park, Salento, Colombia, South America
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Los Nevados National Park, just beyond Manizales, the capital city of the department of Caldas, shows that there’s a lot more to the Zona Cafetera than many people think. With several snow-capped volcanos – some of the highest mountain peaks in Colombia – it’s one of the most beautiful national parks. It makes for an exciting day trip full of opportunities – you might ascend to the glacier of the Nevado de Santa Isabel or sigh over the high-altitude ecosystem (páramo) landscapes on a journey to the Black Lagoon and the edge of the Nevado del Ruiz.

Go paragliding

Architectural Landmark
generic image paragliding at outdoors centre of San Gil, Departmento Santander, Colombia, Southamerica
© Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
If a hot-air balloon is beyond your budget – or if it’s not extreme enough for you – you’re in luck. The Unesco World Heritage landscapes of the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia are all yours to enjoy, bird-like, on a paragliding excursion. The best departure point is the small town of Buenavista, home to the hip Hacienda Bambusa – a lodge built of tropical guadua bamboo. Once you’re up among the thermals, you’ll see the distant peaks that form the western range of the Colombian Andes as you glide over coffee farms laid out like patchwork quilts, blanketing the mountains below.

Allegra Zagami contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on August 19, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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