Colombia is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, second only to Brazil. The quality of the coffee beans is excellent – after all, the climate and altitude are perfect for growing coffee. I thus expected coffee boutiques everywhere, millions of ways to prepare coffee, coffee shops and tastings. But this was not necessarily the case: more often than not, I had to make do with Juan Valdez, which is pretty much like the Starbucks of Colombia, or with the “taza sucia” (literally, dirty cup) that I could have at the many stands in the street.
The best coffee beans are exported and what is left to the locals is a lower quality coffee, which incredibly is imported from Ecuador. Thus, interestingly, when I travelled to Colombia I wasn’t be able to really have anything more than just decent coffee and often had to make do with tinto (a small cup of weak black coffee) or other coffee based drinks. I am a coffee puritan, I like my coffee with no milk and most importantly with no sugar, so to me the most horrifying coffee I tried was the one made with agua de panela, unrefined sugar melted in hot water – which gives coffee a tremendously sweet taste. One may like it if having a seriously sweet tooth though.
Things to do in Colombia
Having this in mind, one of the things to do in Colombia is visiting the Eje Cafetero. This is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Colombia and will allow visitors to see at least one of the many coffee fincas in the country, where they will be able to experience the full process of coffee production, from picking to toasting and sipping.
The best starting point for a visit of the Eje Cafetero is Salento, located at 1800 meters above sea level and one of Colombia tourist attractions in itself. This is a picturesque village, where colonial architecture meets the paisà style. It is a lovely, small and colourful colonial town surrounded by hills and forest, with a main street full of artesania shops, many relaxing bars, a chilled atmosphere, making it one of the places to visit in Colombia. From here, it is possible to visit a number of fincas.
Salento is also very close to the gorgeous Valle de Cocora, perhaps the very best of Colombia attractions. One of the top things to do in Colombia is hiking the Valle de Cocora. This is a lush, tropical valley surrounded by high peaks and cloud forest. Jeeps leave several times a day from the main square of Salento to take intrepid travelers to the valley. Arriving well early before departure, may ensure getting a seat. I leave things last minute so my I had to stand: getting to the valley thus turned into yet another adventure.
Once in Cocora, most people rent wellies. I surely did and I highly recommend it, along with carrying a good rain jacket as it does rain a lot there! Visitors then embark on a difficult, muddy hike that offers gorgeous views of the spectacular palma de cera (wax palms), some of which are as tall as 70 meters.
What I loved the most about it was that it really looked like a tropical kind of Switzerland – weird and amazing at the same time. Everything is green – many different shades of green. There are cows happily chewing grass everywhere. And there is a thick fog that covers the palm trees and the mountains, giving it a mysterious aura. It just is magical. A tiring hike (imagine getting deep in the mud!), but definitely one of the most amazing things to do in Colombia.
There is one main path that takes hikers to the beautiful hummingbird reserve (there is an admission fee of about 2 dollars which includes a drink), where it is possible to spot thousands of hummingbirds zipping by. On the way back, it is possible to also take an alternative path that takes visitors closer to the palm trees and to the Finca de la Montaña, where Don Luis Alberto and his family will give them a warm welcome and a good cup of coffee and from where the entire valley can be admired.
How to get to Salento
From Bogota, it is possible to take a bus to Pereira or Armenia. It takes about 9 hours to drive the 350 km, as the road cuts through the mountains and thus it is curvy; there is also lot of traffic. However the views are spectacular. It is best to carry some motion sickness tablets. I definitely needed them. Once in Armenia or Pereira, a local bus will take about an hour to reach Salento.
Where to sleep, eat and drink
There are many hostels in town, some better than others. I enjoyed my stay at Hotel Las Palmas, a family run guesthouse whose owner is a lovely, caring lady. Breakfast is included in the price and all rooms have a private bathroom with good hot showers. There are also two lovely cats in the house, which to me is always a bonus.
During the weekend, I ate in one of the many stalls in the main square. Otherwise, a good option is La Funda de los Arreiros. The local specialty is trout, which can be prepared in many ways and is usually served with a huge patacon (fried plantain, which here is pressed to make it thin and crispy). The local trout gave me a good break from the otherwise slightly monotonous food I ended up having while traveling.
For a drink, I went to Billar Danubio Hall. It really can’t be missed: located on the main shopping street, this is a huge bar with many pool tables, and is packed with locals playing pool, sipping beer or aguardiente and singing famous Colombian traditional songs. At some point while there I was the only woman in the entire bar. But everybody was so friendly that it never was a problem.
Click for a more detailed Colombia Travel Guide.