The quintessence of Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axes): greenish hills, strong traditions, relaxing rain, the smell of a good coffee, artisanal boutiques, picturesque houses and the immense wax palms of Cocora, the national tree of Colombia and the highest palms in the world, able to make you feel so tiny.
Are you ready to discover one of the most incredible regions in Colombia?
A brief history of coffee in Colombia
Coffee in Colombia is much more than a simple drink, it's about habits, traditions and passion, in other words, coffee it's a way of life!
Coffee was brought here for the first time in the early 1700s, since then, families in different regions of the country started being involved in this activity. Eje Cafetero is the name of the area that produces most of the Colombian coffee and includes three different regions: Quindio, Risalda and Caldas. In this article, we'll focus only on the Quindio department. Eje Cafetero was created in 1995 by La Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia with the objective of preserving a national heritage while promoting its cultural and natural richness.
We can also talk about PCC Paisaje Cultural Cafetero, which is a cultural landscape characterised by the traditional coffee plantations, by techniques and savoir-faire transmitted from generation to generation. For this reason, it is recognised as world heritage by UNESCO. Coffee is definitely part of the Colombian culture and its reputation worldwide is linked to the quality of the Arabic variety. Despite this, the best beans are to be exported, but Colombia is slowly developing an experiential approach to the universe of coffee, similar to the European one, with coffee tours and barista schools starting to be more and more popular.
Let's discover more about Salento, the main city of the Quindio region.
How to reach Salento
The easiest way to reach Salento is by bus. Depending on where you are, you'll probably have to stop in Armenia and from there get a bus to Salento for a 45min ride (around 5 000COP). Same thing if you choose to take a plane, in fact the closest airport is Armenia, so you'll have to take a taxi to the bus station and then head to Salento by. Buses from Armenia to Salento and viceversa run many times par day. If you come from Pereira, the ride by bus will be a bit longer (about 1hour).
What to do in Salento: activities, ideas & tours
Salento is a precious gem surrounded by the incredible landscapes of Eje Cafetero. The small village can be easily visited on foot and delights visitors with a wide range of activities.
Here some highlights that you can't miss:
Stroll in Calle Real and Plaza Bolivar characterised by colourfully painted houses and interesting artisanal shops where to find original souvenirs. Suggestion for bars and restaurants: Café Don Matias & Coco Bowl ;
Reach the Mirador Alto de la Cruz to admire a stunning view of the city. You simply have to reach the end of Calle Real and take the stairs up to the viewpoint ;
Visit a coffee plantation to discover the entire process behind a cup of coffee: from picking up the coffee beans to drink the final result. Such an interesting experience! Various farms in the area offer coffee tours: El Ocaso, The plantation House, Finca Don Elias, Coffee Tour Luger, Las Acacias Coffee Farm. The cost is about 30 000/40 000COP. Along this road with various coffee farms, you can stop for a typical lunch at Rincon de Lucy, a simple family-owned restaurant with an amazing view serving a 'menu del dia' (menu of the day) at 12 000COP ;
For a refreshing break, the waterfall Santa Rita is the perfect spot! You can reach it with a walk of about 1h30 minutes from Plaza Bolivar or take a (moto) taxi instead.
Would you like to try the only national game in Colombia? It's called Tejo: a traditional funny game that involves gunpowder. The aim is to throw a small heavy metal disc towards the target trying to hit the round metal rings. The paper triangles surrounding the rings contain gunpowder and can explode if touched by the disc, this will give you additional points! So make sure to try it at Cancha de tejo Los Amigos !
In Salento there are also many agencies offering other tours: horse riding immersed in the coffee hills, a 2-day expedition to Tolima Volcano, a mountain bike tour, the visit to the biggest and more unspoiled version of Cocora, La Carbonera, and much more!
What to do in Finlandia
Finlandia is the oldest copy of Salento, a quaint village surrounded by greenish hills in contrast with the colourful facades of the colonialism buildings. If you're looking for a out-of-the-beaten tracks charming village in Quindio, Finlandia is the place for you!
Finlandia is also known for its artisanal savoir-faire, in fact there's an entire road dedicated to local artisans, La ruta de los maestros artisanos, located in the neighbourhood San José. In particular, one of the typical objects characterising Finlandia are beautiful woven baskets and the tradition linked to this fascinating craft.
How to reach Finlandia? It's very simple: you can take a jeep from Plaza Bolivar in Salento that will take about 40 minutes. I recommend you to book your tickets in advance because there are only a few rides back and forth every day!
Spots and activities in the village:
Strolling in the charming streets and its shops, enjoying a good cup of coffee;
Discovering Parque de Bolivar and the beautiful church Iglesia Maria Inmaculada;
Admiring the surrounding landscapes from one of the viewpoints of Finlandia: Mirador Colina Iluminada (10 000COP) and Mirador del Tiempo Detenido (perfect spot at sunset time!);
If you like hiking, there's an amazing pathway to reach the so called Double waterfall. It takes about 2 hours, so I suggest you to do it early in the morning and to bring your lunch with you in order to gain energies for the way back!
Guide to visit Cocora Valley from Salento
Salento is also the entry access to one of the most incredible sites in Colombia: Cocora Valley. If you haven't watched the Disney movie Encanto, I really recommend it to you in order to experience a real immersion in Colombia discovering many references to cultural symbols of the country, Cocora Valley among them.
This incredible landscape is characterised by the presence of the national tree of Colombia, the wax palm. These palms are the highest in the world and they can reach 60 metres.
To reach Cocora, you can take a jeep ride from Plaza Bolivar in Salento. As for Finlandia, I really suggest you to book the earliest ticket in the morning (from 7:00AM) the day before your visit. You also have the option to take a guided tour to Cocora, but the pathway is quite easy and well marked with signs, which makes it totally feasible to explore it on your own and at your rhythm.
There are two main pathways to discover Cocora:
1) 2h/3h-walk to explore Cocora Valley
This path starts right at the main entrance office, just a few metres from the parking where the jeep will drop you off. This walk is perfect to explore the site if you don't like hiking, in fact in only a few hours, you'll pass through Mirador 1 and 2, the main viewpoints where to admire the unique wax palms forest.
There's a ticket point where to pay an entrance of 5 000/10 000COP par person.
You can check the itinerary on the map below: go straight after the jeep parking and start your walk at the main entrance following the red arrow, you'll be able to walk between those giant trees. Once on the top, the blue arrow will bring you down through Mirador 1 and 2. Here you'll be able to take amazing pictures!
2) 5h/6h-walk to explore Cocora Valley
This path starts on the right side of the jeep parking. This panoramic walk offers you an immersive experience in the valley: at the beginning you'll see the wax palms from far away going through various farms, and just at the end of the pathway you'll reach the most famous spots, closer to the national trees.
In the meanwhile, you'll be able to stop at Acaime Colibri Garden to see many colourful species of colibris in a place peacefully immersed into nature. The entrance fee is 15 000COP including a beverage (hot chocolate or aguapanela which is hot water with sugar cane, a very typical drink in Colombia!).
If you choose this longer walk, you'll have to pay twice in two different entrance points: one at the beginning and the other one before arriving at Mirador 1 and 2.
You can check the itinerary on the map below: this pathway follows the river so you'll start at the jeep parking, then visit the Acaime Colibri Garden (if you want), reach Finca la Montana and finish with Mirador 1 and 2.
The site is very crowded during weekends all year long, so try to visit Cocora Valley during the week instead for a better experience!
Wear comfortable shoes
Make sure to bring enough water and snacks, there are no restaurants or bars except for those at the main entrance to Cocora
Don't forget a hat, sun protector and a rain jacket!
It's also possible to do a guided horse tours of the valley
The Colombian coffee region is definitely one of my favourite areas of the country for its peacefulness, rich nature and strong attachment to traditions and human savoir-faire.
These landscapes will remain vivid in my eyes forever!