The Highlight of the Zona Cafetera

Trip Start Sep 09, 2006
Trip End Aug 18, 2010

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The highlight of the Zona Cafetera was surely the tiny town of Salento, one of the oldest and smallest municipalities in the Quindio Region.   It has long been a favorite destination for Colombian tourists, with its small town feel, lovely architecture, craft shops, tasty cuisine, and proximity to the stunningly beautiful Cocora Valley, home to Colombia's national 'flower', the Wax Palm - which can grow up to 70 meters tall! The town itself looks as if it were still set in the 1500s, with typical 2 storey wooden Paisa houses lining the street, patios with hammocks strewn about lazily, and tiny boutiques selling touristy artwork.

were settlers that originated in the Antioquia dept. during colonial times.  They migrated through the region to set up coffee plantations and cattle farms - without African slave labor...they have a distinctive and strong identity like the Texans of the US - and are characterised by their conservative, and cowboy-like nature, minus the "red neck" attitudes.

Colombian tourists flock to Salento to sample the pink rainbow trout that is famous for the area (definitely sweet and delicious, served baked with fried plantains on the side) and to visit the nearby Valle de Cocora, located in the central Andean mountains. 

The town's setting is what got us smitten; overlooking a vast green valley of coffee shrubs and tall wax palms, with a pretty river drifting below it.  We really lucked out and were able to rent out a beautiful (and dirt cheap) old country house on a hilltop, all to ourselves, complete with kitchen, living room, dining room, fireplace, balcony, and our very own garden overlooking the beauty below...Sure spiders and cockroaches ruled the crevices, but the beauty and the charm of the place won us over.  We haven´t had this much space to ourselves in almost half a year!  We were almost certain we wouldn´t find a house such as this in all of South America, so we took full advantage of it, and stayed almost a week! 

We got used to waking up to a gorgeous view of the rolling hills and mountains, just outside our doorstep, to be enjoyed in complete silence, except for the occasional horse neighing or cow mooing.  Oh, and we can´t leave out Pablo, the kitty cat, who stole our hearts and our money (we got so close to him that we started buying him expensive cans of tuna fish for dinner from the local supermarket).  We´d laze around reading novels, writing journals, playing the guitar and loving the cat all afternoon.  In the evenings, we surprised ourselves and cooked up fabulous gourmet meals, complete with wine from a box (yes, you can buy cheap Chilean wine in a boxed carton) and candlelight.  We had tea and a game of Backgammon for dessert, and had our tiny portable radio to keep us company in the huge house.

We started to wonder why it was that we felt so peaceful and cozy here, and decided that backpacking offers so many amazing opportunities, but QUIET is definitely not one of them.  Having no other travellers, guest house owners, or tour operators to deal with made the house in Salento all the more special.

Part of Salento´s charm is also its proximity to the Valle de Cocora.  Like a lush version of Switzerland, with a broad green valley floor framed by rugged peaks, it's a place that is so unique, it shouldn´t be missed.  Its claim to fame is the national symbol, a tall "palma de cera" or wax palm, that towers prettily above the cloud forests in which they thrive.  The Valle contains the remaining population of many endemic species, such as the Spectacled bear, and the yellow eared parrot.  The parrot makes its nest at the top of the hollowed wax palms. We did a 5-6 hour trek through the Valle, and were astonished at how many times we had to exclaim, "Wow!". 

There are also many tiny hikes around the village of  Salento.  Another day, we walked on a trail a couple of hours downhill to a nearby finca, or coffee plantation.  As we descended from Salento, we reached the altitude where the coffee plant is principal.  Nearly every slope between 1300-1700m is covered with plantations, as the climate and temperature at that altitude is optimal for the famous bean.  Don Raphael, the Paisa owner of the Finca Oraca, showed us around his 26 hectares of land, dotted with hundreds of coffee and banana plants.  He lived in a gorgeous plantation house, that looked like it was taken from a scene of Gone with the Wind, complete with views of the valley and production areas to process the 80 000kg of coffee beans per year.  We saw first hand how a local community sustains itself off the fruits of a bean that we casually drink every single day.

Along each of the hikes, we encountered the characteristic Paisa people, tending to their fields, or strolling along slowly.  Their distinct western look is unique to the Zona Cafetera, with their cowboy hats, plaid shirts, cowboy boots, side strung sachel, and trademark mustache.  They are the embodiment of Juan Valdez himself...the mythical trademark of Colombian coffee who is portrayed by a true Paisa farmer.

Happily, each and every afternoon, we returned to our wonderful little house, and breathed a sigh of relief.  Will it be possible to find this much bliss again along our journey?? 

Due to the exploitation and habitat destruction of the wax palm for the religious ceremony of Palm Sunday, the yellow eared parrot is an endangered species.  It nests all its life in the hollow trunks of wax palms found in this narrow region of the Andean mountains.  Due to this, the goverment of Colombia declared the wax palm, itself, as an endangered speicies.

- Armenia to Salento (1 hour, 3000 pesos) from the bus terminal in Armenia
- Hostel :  The Plantation House, owners, Tim (UK) and Christina (Colombian).  Get off the bus near the fire department, and walk up to the right on the road, curve to the right up a dirt track.  The hostel is on your Left.  Tim is very helpful and loves to provide directions and useful tips.
- The Little House we stayed is a part of the Plantation House and is rented out to groups and couples if it is available (25 000 pesos per person). It sits 50m up the hill from the main Hostel building where dorms and rooms are also available.  The house is also known as Plantation House 3.
- Jeep to the Valle de Cocora (3000 pesos) is easily arranged at the Plantation House.  Last jeep back to Salento is at 5pm.
- Hike through the Valle is 5-6 hours long, passing a house called Casa de Montana, and a spot in the middle of the jungle where you can have cheese and hot chocolate.  Moderate difficulty.  Some of the most amazing scenery you'll ever come across.
- Best and cheapest spot to try the Pink Rainbow Trout is "El Rincon del Lucy", just up the road from the square, past the church, off Calle 6 on the left hand side (almuerzo 5000 pesos)
- Hike to Finca del Ocaso is west of town (1.5 hours downhill).  Tim at the Plantation House will kindly draw you a map, and has coupons offering you a discount for the Finca tour (4000 pesos).  The tour is 40 minutes long, a beautiful walk, and you get to sample their delicious hand grown coffee. The walk past the finca along the river is also rather pleasant.  Continue on downhill and hike to the town of Boqia.  From there you can hitch a short minibus ride back up to Salento to avoid the torturous climb home.

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zak17 on

this is really helpful- going to zona cafeteria next week and will def swing by salento- your blog is really clear and informative- not much else like it out there on zona cafe! thanks!


Really inspiring blog and photos.

There still isn't much information out there about the Zona Cafetera even 3 years after your trip.

I hope the yellow eared parrot is less of an endangered species now.

Does anybody know if the cited hostel is still up and running?


sweeetbea on

Wonderful summary of the region I was born too .. grew in the USA and always proud of my roots.

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