Beautiful countryside in Colombia's coffee zone
Coffee terrain near Buenavista in Quindío department

Colombia’s coffee zone is a treasure, especially when explored by car.

We do love a good road trip. There’s nothing better than striking out in our car and following our noses – and there’s no better South American country in which to do it. (Of course we’re a bit biased, since Colombia is our home!) On our latest road trip, we were looking to find the hidden gems in Colombia’s prime coffee growing region, also known as the Eje Cafetero or Coffee Zone.

When most visitors think of Colombia’s coffee zone, the towns of Salento and Filandia come to mind. Both are gorgeous and worth a visit, but they’ve been heavily promoted and tend to be the most touristed at any time of the year. Since we’d spent some time in Salento and Filandia previously, we didnt’ stop there on this trip. Instead, we got a bit off the beaten path and discovered towns that are seldom seen by foreigners.

Informative map from the Colombia Region Administrativa de Plantacion (RAP) for the coffee zone. The Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis) consists of four departments in western Colombia. There’s lots of good info on the RAP website (in Spanish).

Fun facts about Colombian coffee

Enjoying a tinto in a flowered cup (with a pup, our sweet Rosie girl) in the small town of San Rafael, back in 2020

Colombia is the world’s third largest coffee producer (behind Brazil and Vietnam) and the number one producer of Arabica beans. Not so long ago, most of the best coffee was exported to other countries and Colombians had to settle for second-rate beans. That’s changing, and now you don’t have to go far to find boutique growers and independent specialty roasters who source their beans directly from the farmers themselves. The result is a cup that’s out of this world.

Although coffee is not indigenous to Colombia, it’s difficult to image Colombian culture without it. No matter how small or remote the pueblo, you can count on finding a hot cup of “tinto” – a small cup of strong black coffee sweetened with panela, a type of traditional raw sugar.  Most likely your tinto will be served from a shiny, stainless steel “greca” into an old-fashioned, flowery china cup. Colombians drink coffee all day, every day, and it’s common to see friends gathered in the late afternoon or evening enjoying a tinta and “parva” (a small pastry).

Juan Valdez - Wikipedia
The Juan Valdez logo on a bag of coffee guarantees it was grown in Colombia.

The iconic figure of Juan Valdez is to this day the symbol of the Colombian Coffee Growers’ Federation. But did you know that Juan was actually created by a US ad agency way back in 1958? (That would explain why so many of us Norte Americanos remember growing up with TV ads that featured his friendly face and cheerful “Buenos Días!”. ) And if you’ve ever been to Colombia, you’ve probably sat in a Juan Valdez cafe.  The ubiquitous chain is the Starbucks of Colombia (although the coffee’s a lot better). Here’s a lot more about Juan Valdez and his origins.

Our route through Colombia’s coffee zone

From our home in El Retiro just south of Medellín, we followed a gravel track southwest to hook up with Highway 25. We continued southward through Santa Barbara and La Pintada and then turned on to another secondary road to approach the Colombia Heritage town of Aguadas, our first stop.

Two cows crossing a bridge in Colombia's coffee zone
Crossing the Rio Cauca near La Pintada. These bovines were on a mission!

Aguadas, an officially designated Colombian Pueblo Patrimonio (heritage town), is a pretty pueblo and a surprisingly busy market town for local coffee growers. Aguadas is known as the sombrero capital of Colombia, and for good reason. The town is filled with artisan hat makers who craft beautiful toppers from the fibers of the iraca palm, cousin to the toquilla palm used to make Panama hats in Ecuador. Supposedly, only hats made in Ecuador have earned the right to be called Panama hats. But it’s also true that Aguadeños learned the hat-making craft from artisans in Ecuador back in the 19th century and imported them to Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal. In our opinion, this gives the Aguadas hats the same cred!

In Aguadas, visit Sombreros Don Samuel, where the friendly owner will help you pick the perfect hat. Don Samuel also runs an interesting little museum dedicated to Aguadas hat artisans, and he’s happy to walk you through the complete process of hat-making – from sourcing and drying the Iraca fibers to weaving, shaping, and trimming the hats.

After overnighting in Aguadas, we moved on to Salamina, another gorgeous Colombia Heritage town. In Salamina, we made some fantastic discoveries: huevos al vapor (eggs made with an espresso machine!), a fascinating cemetery, and a forest of wax palms that’s relatively unknown. Yes, that’s a teaser – we’ll write a lot more about Salamina in a future blog post!

The other-worldly wax palms of the Valle de Samaria – far off the tourist radar!

After three nights in Salamina, we meandered through hill after rolling hill of coffee country to reach Manizales. The capital of Caldas department, Manizales is known as the epicenter of the Colombian coffee industry. This interesting city has so much to offer that it’s also earned itself a future blog post.

Parque Bolivar in Manizales, with its imposing cathedral and one of the strangest Simon Bolivar monuments we’ve seen. (He’s totally naked and has the head of a condor.)

From Manizales, we had one of the most beautiful drives of the entire trip – on a tiny, sometimes-one-lane road through mile after mile of stunning Andean scenery. After stopping over at one of our favorite pueblos, Marsella, we reached Armenia – the second largest city in the coffee zone. While we didn’t fall in love with Armenia, it turned out to be a perfect base for exploring some of the most picturesque little pueblos we’ve encountered in Colombia so far.

We capped off the trip with a visit to Santa Rosa de Cabal for three relaxing days luxuriating in the hot springs for which the region is known. Yes, we’ll soon do another post about this fantastic place.

Waterfall and hot pool at Termales Santa Rosa de Cabal in Colombia's coffee zone
Cascada Santa Elena is the glorious backdrop for one of the hot pools at Termales Santa Rosa de Cabal.
Our route took us from just south of Medellín (the heart is our hometown, El Retiro) all the way down to Armenia, and then back up.

TIPS:

Road-tripping through Colombia’s coffee zone is completely safe. Yes, there’s been a lot of publicity lately about safety in Colombia, not helped by a rather sensational communication by the U.S. Embassy. (In general, over the past five years that we’ve lived in Colombia, we’ve found the Embassy warnings to be overblown.) Because of its importance for tourism, the coffee zone is one of the safest regions in Colombia. Even on the smallest gravel track in the middle of nowhere, we never worried about our safety. This road trip was just one more reminder that Colombians are some of the kindest, most generous folks we’ve ever met.

Getting around. It’s possible to see all of the towns and cities mentioned above by bus if you have a few weeks. If not, it’s easy to fly from Medellín to Manizales, Pereira, or Armenia and rent a car. Our go-to car rental agency is Localiza, where we’ve always been satisfied with both the cars and service.

Road conditions. We made this trip in our own car (a Honda CRV) and found very good roads for the most part. We did encounter unpaved sections on some of the back roads to Aguadas, Salamina, and Marsella, but there was nothing too intense. Colombia is in the midst of a major highway building boom, so you can expect construction and quite a few toll plazas – especially just southwest of Medellín and down around Pereira.

Lady picking coffee in Colombia's coffee zone
Here’s my lovely mom, Mary Lea Baker, picking coffee as part of a finca tour we did in the town of Jardin in 2023.

Coffee tours: Since we’ve done numerous coffee tours in both Panama and Colombia, we didn’t take one on this trip. But if you’ve never toured a coffee finca (plantation), you should include it as part of your visit to the coffee zone. Here’s a good article about the best coffee tours in Colombia. The first one mentioned, WakeCup Coffee Tour, caught our eye because it’s based out of the pretty little town of Pijao, one of our favorite stops on this trip.

* * *

We took our first Colombia road trip back in 2021, soon after we bought our car. That was a month-long journey through the departments of Santander and Boyaca, and it hooked us forever on road tripping. There’s really no better way to appreciate this country’s incredible scenic beauty and diversity, and car travel gives you the flexibility to get off the beaten path and discover out-of-the-way gems. We can’t wait to get out there again!

Have you visited Colombia’s coffee zone? Tell us your stories!

 

 

26 Comments

  1. What a great road trip. We of course visited the tourist town of Salento, but would love to see more of that region. I am a coffee lover but didn’t love Colombian coffee, at least not tinto. We found it too weak and too bitter. But loved going into the old coffee shops mid day to see the old men gathered around their tables every afternoon. And another wax palm forest! I’d love to see it!! Maggie

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We’re with you on the tinto – we haven’t found it particularly weak but it tends to be over-sweetened for our taste. But coffee is coffee. It’s all about how it’s roasted and then prepared. For us, there’s nothing like a good strong cappuccino made by a capable barista – with Colombian coffee, of course! But we’re biased 🙂 Thanks, Maggie.

  2. Colombia is known for their coffee, to the point that it’s exported to the rest of the world. I’ve had some deliciously-sourced Colombian coffee at a few cafés here in LA, and it’s awesome you got to experience first-hand what it’s all about, from the source! Thanks for sharing your adventures in the country’s coffee zone. 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Rebecca! Even after 5 years in Colombia, we learned a lot about the coffee industry on this trip, and doing research for this post 🙂 We feel so blessed to live in this amazing country!

  3. Yes, we’ve visited the coffee zone in Colombia. With a bigger vehicle, some roads and pueblos are trickier, though. 🙂 I’m glad you both had a good time off the beaten track. And, without injuries this time! 🙂 We saw the Juan Valdez chain in La Paz, Bolivia as well.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Right, I can see how some of the places we visited might have been harder with your rig. But we did see some pretty big trucks on those little roads! And you reminded me that we also saw Juan Valdez stores in Brazil, of all places. Hope you guys are having fun in Chile!

  4. Interesting post and great photos, John and Susan. I will think of you as I sip my morning coffee tomorrow! 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Jane! Enjoy that Colombian coffee 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Haha – we were pretty wired for this whole trip!

  5. This sounds like yet another great road trip across Colombia! I’m more of a tea person, but there were times when I really enjoyed the coffee I had. But I must say, the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans really is irresistible. Look forward to your upcoming posts on each of the city/town you visited during this trip.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Bama! Am I mistaken, or is Indonesia also a big coffee producer? I’m sure there’s plenty of tea as well. Maybe we need to make a road trip through Indonesia someday!! Have a lovely day.

      • Yes, you’re right. Indonesia is in fact the fourth largest coffee producer in the world, right behind Colombia. A road trip across Indonesia will surely be epic! Let me know if you’re planning to do this. I can give you recommendations, and we should meet up at some point!

        • John and Susan Pazera Reply

          OK, now you’ve done it 🙂 Indonesia road trip is now on the agenda. And count on it – we will meet up someday!

  6. What an awesome road trip! To see the whole process from the bean to the cup, in such a beautiful place like this, must have been a great experience all around 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It really was! We have a new appreciation for this amazing country.

  7. This sounds like a wonderful meander through beautiful country. I’m travelling vicariously these days and I enjoyed this trip very much!
    Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Alison – hugs to you both. 🙂

  8. Nancy Klein Reply

    You guys are living the good life in Columbia. That’s great that your mom came on a finca tour with you. She looks like you too, Susan!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Aw, thanks! I hear that a lot 😊

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Pam! We love showing it off 😊

  9. Sounds like a fun road trip! For some reason I would have thought Columbia was first for coffee production! I enjoy most coffees so this was a great post to read!

  10. Emma Cohen-Joppa Reply

    Juan Valdez is all the way in Malaysia! Made my day when I saw it 🙂

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