Colombia’s famous coffee region occurs near the intersection of three departments: Caldas, Quindio, and Risaralda, along the foothills of the Los Nevados National Park. Here you will find the core production for coffee growing within Colombia, and home to what many consider to be some of the best coffee in the world.
The three departments are home to much more than just coffee though: here you will find inviting cities, quaint little pueblos, spectacular nature areas, and plenty to keep you busy whether it is for a long-weekend trip or somewhere to settle down for months on end.
In this quick introductory guide we will be talking about some of the highlights of Eje Cafetero — the Coffee Axis or Coffee Triangle.
Each of the three departments — Caldas, Quindio, and Risaralda — features a major capital city — Manizales, Armenia, and Pereira, respectfully.
Any of the cities makes for a great home base to explore the region or to visit, but each of them are distinct in their characters and particularly in their climates.
Pereira is the largest of the three, and is the second largest city in the Paisa region right after Medellin. The city sits at a lower elevation than Medellin, however, so you can expect warmer temperatures.
Manizales is the second largest city in Eje Cafetero, sitting high in the mountains — indeed, downtown sits along a prominent ridge and the surrounding neighborhoods fall into the valley below — and features a cooler climate.
Armenia is the smallest of the big three, but it’s still a pretty decent-sized city in its own right. Armenia sits at roughly the same elevation as Medellin and features a similar climate. Much of the city was destroyed by a large earthquake, therefore you will find a number of modern and rebuilt structures that defy the older architecture in similar cities.
Personally, I particularly like Manizales, it’s among my favorite cities in Colombia, with a beauitful mountainous setting, and a number of cool things to see and do, whether it is climbing to the top of the main cathedral or riding the Aereo Cable down into the valley below and taking in the scenery.
Manizales also makes an excellent location if you wish to head into Los Nevados National Park and see the snow in Colombia that sits along the flanks of Nevado del Ruiz or Santa Isabel. Day tours can be arranged from within Manizales which will take you up to the high mountains and then finish off with a dip in the hot springs (bring your jacket and your bathing suit).
Speaking of hot springs, Santa Rosa de Cabal, located outside of Pereira is another destination that you shouldn’t miss. There are two excellent hot springs, one of which is situated below an awesome waterfall, where you can pay for a day pass and soak your worries away.
The hot springs can be quite popular, particularly on long weekends, so try and plan your visit during the weekday if you’d like a respite from the crowds as well.
Outside of Armenia you will find one of my absolute favorite pueblos in Colombia: Salento. The little town is charming and colorful, where you can shop for Wayuu bags, eat fresh trout prepared in a variety of styles, or just drink some of the freshest coffee you’ll ever find.
Salento makes a great place to set out on a coffee farm tour in order to better understand where the product comes from. El Ocaso offers private and public tours on a daily basis and will show you everything but roasting from seed to cup.
The real highlight of Salento though is the Cocora Valley located a short Jeep ride outside of town. In the Valle de Cocora you will find the famous wax palms — Colombia’s national tree — which regularly grow up to a height of 150 feet, or sometimes up to 200 feet.
These palm trees are the tallest in the world, and they are truly something spectacular to see as the rise abruptly above the verdant green fields and soar overhead to neck-cranking heights.
You can take in the spectacle with a brief 30-60 minute walk (or by horseback), but if you’re feeling more adventurous you can hike the full Cocora Valley loop in about 5 hours.
Another popular attraction near Armenia is the Parque del Cafe — a coffee themed amusement park that combines nature and thrill rides into one place. It’s a great place for a family with young kids as the majority of the amusement rides are relatively tame, but there are a few slightly more extreme rides including a decent roller coaster.
While the amusement park might be relatively tame by international standards, it’s still a fun day, and you can also enjoy the natural setting, a horseback ride, viewpoints, and learning about the local culture and coffee.
There is a lot to explore through Colombia’s Coffee Axis, and this is by no means the complete guide, but rather just to give you a taste of all there is to see and do in the area. If Eje Cafetero isn’t on your list of places to visit in Colombia, it absolutely should be. It is usually among the highlights for many visitors to Colombia.
Your turn: What’s your favorite place in Eje Cafetero? What would you recommend to first time visitors?
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