As a traveler, one of the most rewarding things you can do is travel somewhere that is unknown to you. We can all agree that Paris is romantic and Italy has good food, whether we have been there or not, but after a while the excitement of fulfilling expectations does not compare with the thrill of discovering an incredible place that you did not even know existed. When I moved to Colombia, I hardly knew a thing about it, even less about the specific region in which I live, but it continues to surprise and excite me with the beauty, drama, and adventure that exists here. If you’ll allow me to tell you a little about this undiscovered gem, the Eje Cafetero or “Coffee Triangle” of Colombia, I hope you’ll be enticed to come see what it is about or to go forth and uncover your own unknown paradise.
If you begin in Medellin, as many travelers do, you will begin your journey a short bus ride south in the city of Manizales, Colombia’s elite university city and home to some of the best coffee and panoramas in the country. From Manizales you have a plethora of activities within reach. Firstly, I personally will not allow you to leave the region without tasting some of the finest coffee in the world and seeing the whole process at its roots. Take a quick day trip away out of the city to one of the nearby coffee plantations, Hacienda Venecia and Hacienda Guayabal. At these farms you can spend the morning roaming the coffee plants and learning about the complex process from seed to cup and end the tour with some sampling of the final product and a lovely lunch on the property. If you’re not ready to leave, spend a night or two in the hostel on Hacienda Venecia’s lush property.
For the adventurous, there are two unforgettable treks you can take from Manizales: Volcan Ruiz or Glacier Santa Isabel. Both can be arranged through hostel Kumandai as day trips or longer several-day treks, all equipment, transportation, and guides included. Both offer almost extraterrestrial scenery and breathtaking views. (Due to the high altitude, sometimes literally breathtaking.) For a different sort of adventure visit Paruqe Yarumos and try out their downhill biking tour of one of beautiful forested mountains that surround the city.
Enjoy your time in the city taking in the youthful university vibe and experiencing a few different neighborhoods. Visit Cable, the vibrant bar area frequented by most of the university students. You can find them all bundled in their denim jackets drinking Club Colombia on the steps of the famous coffee shop, Juan Valdez beneath the glittering Cable Tower, a symbol of the city. Grab a drink and join them on the steps, don’t be surprised if someone strikes up conversation with you. People are eager to practice their English and even more eager to hear your Spanish, so don’t let these opportunities pass by. You’re likely to get some new insight into the city or a new recommendation.
If you want something a little higher class than sitting on some concrete steps drinking a 75-cent beer, which could be understandable, Manizales can provide that as well. Grab a drink or h’ours douvres in one of the beautiful restaurants and bars that litter the tree-lined street of Milan, Manizales’s high-rent neighborhood. Barcelona or Manila are great for a drink, while D.F. and Vino y Pimenton are excellent for a some Mexican food or tapas.
A quick cab or bus ride up to the Chipre neighborhood will bring you to one of the most spectacular sunsets you’ll see in the Andes. Sundays are popular here for families to come by with their children and dogs and take an evening stroll, stopping for ice cream or local delicacy, the oblea.
After a few days in Manizales you can continue your journey down to Pereira, Manizales’s warmer-climate cousin. And easy one hour bus ride south will drop you in the largest city of the Eje Cafetero, from which you can enjoy hot springs, hiking, and drinks and dancing. After spending some time exploring Pereira’s busy streets, catch a bus to the famous Termales of Santa Rosa. These hot springs are watched over by a towering waterfall and accompanied by a lovely restaurant and spa, if you’d like to indulge further into the relaxation.
If you have never before ridden in a chiva, this could be your chance. Chivas are old-school, open air buses that run from the main cities to the nearby pueblos. To explore a pueblo and take a stroll in nature, catch the chiva from Plaza Victoria to La Florida. It can either drop you into town for a look around the slower side of Colombian life or take you to a trailhead, where you can take a meandering hike up a river. You’ll reach a farm and hostel that can warm you up with some coffee before you either continue to see the two waterfalls or begin the journey back home.
If the hot springs and nature hikes have left you craving some excitement, check out Pereira’s nightlife at Circunvalar. This high-end district attracts people from all walks of life to either crawl between the many bars and restaurants or take a few beers in the streets.
The next stop on your agenda will take you away from the big cities to the peaceful life in Salento, Quindio. This small pueblo of only 6,000 people has become famous and well-loved by both locals and foreigners due to its charm and its proximity to the iconic Valle de Cocora. This valley is the only place in the country where you can see Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, coincidentally the tallest palm trees in the world. View their stark height contrasted against the gentle rolling mountains that house them. Catch a repurposed US army jeep, referred to here as a Jeep Willy, from the main square of town to the valley in the morning and do the standard 5-hour hiking loop with an optional detour that will bring you to a hummingbird sanctuary. Be sure and take a moment to relax on your way down on the grassy knolls that offer truly stunning views of the scenery. Usually you can watch the clouds roll in over the mountain peaks and whip around among the trees.
Salento will invite you to stay and relax for a few days. For a truly tranquil experience, stay at hostel and farm La Serrena. This beautiful spot is spoken about all over Colombia and attracts tourists to the pueblo just to enjoy its serenity. Enjoy the local delicacy of river trout on a bed of plantain or feed your foreign tastebuds and peanut butter cravings with the international cuisine of the restaurant “Brunch.” Stroll the streets, explore the lookouts, buy some handcrafts, and enjoy the peace and quiet of the city. You won’t want to return home.
The beauty and variety of this region has stolen my heart, and I think it could do the same to yours as well. Come see the wonder of this place you probably hadn’t heard of until today, and you may not be able to picture your life without it.