Few morning routines are complete without a vitalizing cup of coffee. If you’re a fan of mild, well-balanced beans, there’s a good chance the cup you’re drinking is Colombian coffee, produced in the country’s Coffee Triangle, also known as the Coffee Zone or Coffee Belt.
Tucked at the western end of the Ande Mountains, Colombia’s Coffee Triangle is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site.
The region produces the most arabica beans in the world and has the third-highest coffee production in the world after Brazil and Vietnam. Historically, most of the country’s coffee has been exported, but a growing appreciation among Colombia’s millennial population as well as an increase in domestic coffee tourism has led to more coffee shops and plantation tours being offered throughout the region.
Colombia’s Coffee Triangle is also home to some of the country’s most magnificent interior landscapes, minus the crowds one might find in big cities like Medellin or Cartagena. The region is made up of three departments, Quindio, Risaralda, and Caldas, where the majority of the country’s coffee is produced.
Nestled within these departments are small towns where, despite the added dose of caffeine, life moves at a slower pace. There’s even a National Coffee theme park, complete with amusement rides, a coffee garden, coffee-themed food and drink, a museum that details the history of coffee production in the region, and two gondola lifts that provide views of coffee plantations below.
If you’re planning a trip to Colombia, it’s worth it to depart from the popular tourist track and put these coffee capitals on your itinerary.
Tucked behind verdant mountains less than an hour drive from Quindio's capital, Armenia, is Salento, the most popular stop along Colombia’s coffee corridor. As one of the oldest towns in Quindio, Salento flaunts colorful Spanish architecture and a cobblestone central plaza where jeeps arrive every twenty minutes or so to take adventurous travelers to the nearby Cocora Valley.
The palms in Cocora Valley are the tallest in the world and one of the reasons why Salento has emerged as a favorite coffee capital in the South American country. Coffee plantation tours, horseback rides, and local hikes also draw tourists to this destination. Plan your trip during the week if you want to avoid crowds.
Located at the northern edge of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero, or coffee axis, is Manizales, the mid-sized capital of the Caldas department. Bordered by mountains on all sides, Manizales promotes plenty of nature activities and a growing nightlife scene. Travelers can book accommodations on coffee farms, go bird-watching in nearby cloud forests, or take in the picturesque valley on a cable car ride.
In the first week of January, the town hosts their annual Feria de Manizales, which is inspired by both Spanish and Colombian traditions. Celebrations include parades, live music, traditional dances, food, as well as the controversial sport of bullfighting.
Often bypassed by travelers is the humble town of Pijao tucked within the Quindio department. Only 19km outside of Armenia, Pijao has a unique culture that takes inspiration from the slow travel movement. Slow travel favors an unhurried approach to sight-seeing, encouraging travelers to stop and savor local cultures.
Pijao is often described as a smaller, calmer Salento, but that doesn’t mean that the town doesn’t have its own attractions to impress visitors. In addition to coffee farm tours, outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate hiking local waterfalls and rafting on the nearby Rio de la Vieja. Head to Pijao in September and sample local flavors at their Coffee, Food, and Cultural Festival.
Located just outside of Armenia is the charming town of Calarcá, a growing hotspot for ecotourism. Local cliffs offer opportunities for rock climbing and rappelling and stunning waterfall hikes. Visit the nearby botanical garden and butterfly farm which is home to 1,200 species of butterflies native to Colombia.
Every year the town hosts a National Coffee Festival where tourists can taste test different beans and take part in a Yipao parade, which celebrates the Jeeps (or Willys as they’re known locally) that farmers rely on for transporting cargo. ‘Yipao’ refers to a fully-loaded Willy and during the parade locals pile on their possessions before driving them down the main streets. The festival usually takes place in June or July.
If neighboring Salento proves too packed for you, head to Fillandia to enjoy similar amenities without the crowds. The town’s lookout provides pictorial scenery of the Cauca River Valley and on a clear day it’s possible to see the cities of Pereira and Armenia in the distance. The sleepy village is home to Helena Adentro, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the Coffee Triangle which boasts a changing menu with seasonal ingredients.
Jeep rides to the Cocora Valley are a popular excursion from Fillandia, or you can rent a bike for a self-guided tour of the local coffee plantations that stretch for miles. Ask locals about the rumored double waterfall; the natural wonder sits on private land, but the owners are happy to share it with passing tourists.