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Discovering Zona Cafetera, the Coffee Region of Colombia
Coffee is the world’s most-traded commodity after oil and with over half a million growers in the country, Colombia is one of the largest producers. The top-growing coffee region in Colombia, the triangle of the Zona Cafetera has world-class recognition and moreover, it has fincas and coffee plantations offering a range of accommodations for coffee-loving travellers seeking a unique experience.
Because of its turbulent past, not all are tempted to go to Colombia and visit this beautiful part of the world. Based on suppositions and not actual facts, I too also almost skipped going to Colombia. My South American itinerary initially didn’t include driving through this spectacular country, the ghost of Pablo Escobar haunting me with fear-filled preconceptions of a drug-laden country riddled with FARCS guerillas at every corner.
What tipped the scale was the many fellow travellers met along the way, all sharing high praises about Colombians being the friendliest and most welcoming people. Actually many raved particularly about La Serrena Eco Farm, depicted as a gem in the picturesque little town of Salento in the midst of the coffee region of Colombia, the Zona Cafetera, making the destination somewhat irresistible.
The Ultimate Coffee Region – Colombia
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From Ibarra, Ecuador to Cali, Colombia
The route from Ibarra to Cali, which goes right through the Valle del Cauca, is one of the most scenic drives you’ll ever get a chance to experience, but be aware that there’s an almost permanent travel advisory for this region. (Get the latest news here https://travel.gc.ca/destinations/colombia).
Local flights will get you into any of the cities of the Eje Cafetera coffee axis between Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío, such as Manizales, Pereira or Armenia. If coming in from Ecuador, there’s a 10-hour bus ride from Ibarra to Cali, the birthplace of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the country’s salsa dancing capital. From Cali, the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee region is about 4-hours away by bus.
The Hidden Gem of Salento, Colombia
In the valley under the clouds, beautiful Salento presents itself and all of its quaintness. Simply adorable, the village of Salento in Colombia’s coffee region is one of the region earliest settlements and appears as if frozen in time. Original and authentic buildings of the paisa countrymen who settled here in 1842 line the quiet streets surrounding the main plaza. The whole region adjacent to the Valle de Cocora is filled with jaw-dropping beauty and stunning vistas. Driving in, it almost feels like you’ve stumbled into a secret hideaway, tucked away only for the privileged few to indulge upon.
The beauty here is only exceeded by the friendliness of the Colombians, who are genuinely the most welcoming people and are thrilled to share with visitors their local knowledge, history and culture. Don’t be surprised to be interrogated by the children or questioned by the locals, they are most inquisitive and far from the shy types.
Salento is often on the thrifty backpacker’s radar, those searching for off the beaten path hiking routes and relaxed hostels, but the town also offers mid-level lodging options for the more mature or discerning traveler.
La Serrana Eco-Farm & Hostel
With so many great reviews and recommendations, choosing to stay for 3 nights at La Serrana Eco-Farm and Hostel was an obvious choice. The place exceeded expectations, and I can’t stop recommending it to travellers going to Colombia’s coffee region. The serenity of the venue surrounded by manicured gardens is the perfect spot to rest, relax and visit the Salento region. Memories of my stay here linger as my most prized memories of Colombia.
Colonial Style Hacienda Decor and Interior
Vibrant Colours in the Beautiful Garden of La Serrana
La Serrana Eco-Farm, 2 km out of town, offers different accommodations options: private rooms with en-suite, dormitories or camping on the adjacent lot. Camping with our rooftop tent at the very low cost of only 5$ a day, which included a light breakfast of eggs, fruits, toasts and great Colombian coffee, of course. ;-)
The communal kitchen was well equipped and clean. A variety of activities are available to explore the region such as coffee plantation tours and waterfall excursions. You can also go hiking or explore by horseback at a very affordable rate, it’s a spectacular way to visit the surrounding areas.
There’s also a mirador accessible from the Calle Real in town which offers amazing views of the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados on a clear day. Some yoga classes were also being offered during our stay. Good to note, there are a number of common areas and a large, well-stocked kitchen plus an on-site restaurant which serves organic produce from the garden.
Exploring the region on horseback
For lunch, make sure to visit Brunch of Salento and its wonderful American expat owner Geoff Bailey. Not usually seeking to eat North American food while traveling out of country travels but this unpretentious joint was highly recommended and you’ll quickly understand why. The joint is a marker scribbled wall to wall traveler’s diary, where casual dinners await served by a friendly staff that aims to please. They even attempted to reproduce a local staple from Quebec, a poutine, which is a dish made up of french fries, gravy and fresh cheese curds. (I know what you’re thinking, but trust me, it’s really good).
Moving North into the Coffee Region of Colombia
A few days in Salento should be enough to cover the highlights the region has to offer. By pointing about 80 km North, you’ll be in Manizales, at the hearth of the coffee region of Colombia, a coffee lover’s paradise.
You wouldn’t expect a full on river crossing with your vehicle to get to your hotel, right?
Hacienda Venecia Coffee Plantation
A few days in Salento should be enough to cover the highlights the region has to offer. By pointing about 80 km North, you’ll be in deep into the coffee region of Colombia, a coffee lover’s paradise. A few travel blog posts mentioned the Hacienda Venecia which accepts overlanders to park and camp on their property.
Drawn by the romantic notion of sleeping on a coffee plantation, I hurried to reserve our spot. A quick email exchange with the admin, they gladly accepted our request, but in retrospect, eluded to give us clear directions on how to get there. I’m sure the tourist buses and local transport must know the ‘’right way’’ and that hopefully, Google Maps has gotten more precise by now, but the journey provided real challenges.
The Hacienda Venecia has three accommodation options: the Casa Principale (mid-luxury), the Casa de Huespedes (mid-budget) and the Hostel (dormitories). We had access to park and camp on the lot at the Casa de Huespedes. The farm is set in a truly exceptional setting.
Casa de Huespedes’s Pool
Casa de Huespedes Terrace View
The Casa de Huespedes traditional building is soberly but adequately furnished and the cross ventilation from the windows cools off the interior of the house from the hot midday sun, blazing outside. The site has a beautiful covered veranda with lounging hammocks facing a welcoming and refreshing pool.
If you have the opportunity, stock up on provisions and use the communal kitchen to enjoy a home-cooked meal and finish the evening by relaxing on the terrace overlooking the coffee plantation with an espresso in hand! There was only another couple of travellers with us during our stay which added to the whole experience feeling of being very privileged.
Deep in the Zona Cafetera
Coffee Plantation Tour and Tasting
One of the highlights of staying at Hacienda Venecia was the coffee tasting and plantation tour at the main hacienda. The ‘’Coffee Class” was held in a room with walls that open up to the sides, so the venue is quite relaxed and comfortable, as you’re not confined to a room. While sitting around a country-style table, the guide was well-spoken in English, making it easy to learn about Columbia’s love affair with coffee.
You learn the difference between the types of coffee species, like arabica and robusto, the entire roasting process and, of course, you get to taste the coffee – lots of it! After indulging in the over provided sweet nectar, you get to walk into the plantation itself, experiencing row after row of coffee plants as you wander through this red bean heaven.
Columbia’s hot daily sun and cool mountain air nights provide this region with a perfect setting for coffee growing. So good, it generates two harvests per year. A surprising fact, the beans are still hand-picked, which is extraordinary, considering the work involved. The duration of our tour was approximately 2 hours, but new reviews mention a tour option that includes lunch and refreshments, which run longer than the one we experienced.
After a few nights at the coffee plantation, it was time to carry on and further explore Colombia’s rich heritage and culture. Medellin and its neighbouring town of San Jeronimo were next on our itinerary.
Good to Know Before you Go…
Visit during the coffee harvest periods: April to May and October to December.
You can contract typhoid through contaminated food or water in Colombia. CDC recommends this vaccine for most travelers, especially if you are staying with friends or relatives, visiting smaller cities or rural areas, or if you‘re an adventurous eater!
Cali is much closer (only 4 hours by bus from Armenia) to the Zona Cafetera than Bogota. You can actually fly into any of the cities in the Zona Cafetera; Manizales, Pereira or Armenia.
Stock up on provisions to use the communal kitchen and enjoy a home-cooked meal and finish the evening by relaxing on the terrace
Don’t take advice from someone who hasn’t been there……
It’s fair to say that travel to Colombia isn’t for everyone. It requires some extra awareness and preparation, but this involvement rewards you a hundredfold.
Tens of thousands of international citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellín, and Cali. Furthermore, as the FARC and government move towards peace and disarmament, the country is even safer than when we visited.
Have you been in the Zona Cafetera?
Please share your experiences with us, comments or questions below…
Please share your experiences with us, comments or questions below…