Exploring Colombia’s Alternative Coffee Region
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Forget the Coffee Triangle – Head for the Coffee Square

Exploring ‘the’ coffee region has become one of Colombia’s hottest destinations. While most people think there is just one coffee region, there are actually many. Coffee is grown all over Colombia. In reality, there are numerous options for learning about coffee and immersion in the country’s rural landscape all over the country.

And while there is more than one coffee region in Colombia, every one of them proudly boasts they grow the best coffee, and have the most beautiful villages, prettiest women and best culture.

But one coffee region, between Medellin and Manizales, is a secret best kept by the locals. And maybe me. This is my favorite coffee region. These villages, for the most part, are not in the guidebooks. Located in remote areas, this region offers some of the most stunning scenery in Colombia. Steep green mountains are planted to coffee, bananas, orange trees and sugar cane. Still being somewhat undiscovered everything is still surprisingly inexpensive.

In the Past – a Visit to the Coffee Region Meant One Place Only

A visit to Colombia’s coffee region in the last 15 years meant a trip to an area known as the ‘coffee triangle’ or the ‘coffee axis’. Located between the cities of Manizales, Armenia and Perieria, this coffee country destination has been a very successful tourism/ marketing campaign. It was launched by several adjoining regions in southwest Colombia.

For more on the coffee triangle see: Colombia’s Coffee Triangle – Best Places to Visit

Foreign tourists, visiting Colombia with limited time constraints, have been flocking to this area in droves. Colombia = Coffee and the coffee triangle was an attractive place learn about it. Here’s how that trip unfolds:

Stay on a coffee farm ~ Visit coffee roasting facilities ~ Tour a handful of villages ~ Go to the National Coffee Park near Montenegro ~ Visit Salento ~ Go to the Valley of Cocora Park to see the wax palm trees ~ Buy some souvenirs ~ Fly home.

Granted, it’s a great trip, the countryside is beautiful and the whole thing sells like mojitos on the beach.

A coffee farm

But foreign visitors have been complaining: the coffee triangle trip has become too touristy and overcrowded. The quaint villages on this route, like Salento and Filandia, are being overrun with tourists in the off-seasons. Mind you it’s nothing like the historical center of Cartagena mid-morning after 2-3 passenger ships have docked. But overtourism is when you visit a remote rural village to find the tourists outnumbering the locals.

The Alternative Coffee Region – A Must See

My favorite coffee area is north of the infamous coffee triangle, containing the quaint, colorful villages of Jardin, Jerico, Aguadas and Salamina. Let’s call it ‘the coffee square’. These villages are all located within a 2-6-hour trip south of Medellin (2-3 hours hours north of Manizales) and could easily be worked around a trip visiting Medellin – maybe Colombia’s most beautiful and entertaining city. These villages are Spanish colonial gems and the countryside between them is absolutely some of the most stunning Colombia has to offer.   

Aguadas – Home of Coffee and Straw Hats

Aguadas it is often covered in morning fog an grows a delicious high-altitude coffee. Nestled in the mountains, just 78 miles north of Manizales, Aguadas, like Jardin, Salamina and Jerico are all one of Colombia’s 14 ‘pueblos patrimonio’ – the country’s most beautiful colonial villages.

Besides coffee, the town is famous for the production of Aguadeno hats. Made with iraca straw fiber, these hats are said to be the best hand-woven straw hats in Colombia. Some say they are better than the Panama hats made in Ecuador. The women in the countryside weave the straw hat using iraca straw fibers peeled from a cactus type plant. They make the rough hats and sell them to the artisans in town who fashion the finished product.

Aguadas a town with a farming culture. The people are closed and stoic – mostly well-to-do farmers.  And every hour the German imported bells atop the church bells in the main square, Plaza Bolivar, play Ave Maria. The square has a fountain forged in New York in 1914. There’s a tourist office on the main square, open afternoons, proving a wealth of information.

This office and hotels will be able to help you make an appointment to visit a coffee farm that give tours and to hat weaving artisans and hat finishing factories in town. A taxi can take you to town’s old historical center in the hills just above town.

Aguadas has many small, nice hotels in the center, like Hotel Colonial, which you won’t find on booking.com, offering big rooms, private baths, hot water and Wi-Fi for only $10 a night with breakfast.  

Jardin – A Beautiful, Colorful Town

This village is three-hour bus ride from Medellin – four hours from Aguadas. Jardin, means garden in Spanish, and it is one of Colombia’s prettiest towns. The colonial houses in the center are all painted in lively colors. The men wear cowboy hats. There are hundreds of tables and chairs begging occupancy in one of the most beautiful and colorful main squares in Colombia. Here people sit around, people watching, at all hours of the day and night, sipping tintos and eating pastries.

On the outskirts of town there are cable cars leading up in the hills. There are guides taking people up on horseback to La Cueva del Esplendor – a cave with a waterfall inside, and trout farms in the mountains serve up lunch.

To get there take a bus direct from Medellin about a two-hour trip.  Or one can come from Aguadas. It’s a bit of work making the connections but the scenery makes it all worth . Take a bus to a village called La Pintada ($8,000 cop) and down to a hot little village in the valley called La Bolambola where you catch a bus back up in the mountains to Jerico ($17,000 cop). And in a day or two take a chiva bus to the town of Andes and another bus to Jardin. A crazy trip, but a good one. One can also get there from the south by taking a open air chiva bus from Rio Suscio. It’s a beautiful 4 hour trip through the mountains on a dirt road. But there’s only one bus a day making the trip.

Jerico A Real Cowboy Town

Jerico a colorful, colonial town. It’s a place where visitors can experience authentic, traditional culture. Men ride through the streets on magnificent prancing horses, tie them up outside of the stores and sit in the saddles outside of bars sipping cold bottles of beer. Coffee is grown here but beef seems to be king. The village is also a rich center for leather arts and crafts like the typical anitoqueno purses called carriels. There are also lots of wallets, belts and hand-made saddles.

Their beautiful main town square is lined with fruit and vegetable stands in the morning and festive food carts at night. There’s a lookout over the town one can walk to from the city center. Take the hundred stairs climb from the main square (called Cien Escalas) at the top turn right and stroll through the botanical gardens. In the back of the gardens you’ll find the path leading to the lookout. Used as a back drop to the town, the lookout, called Cristo Redentor or Cerro la Nubes, offers amazing views. There’s also a cable car leaving from the lookout and going up to a higher mountain top nearby.   

Jerico seen from Cerro la Nubes

Take a tuk for a ride around town. Arrange to visit a nearby coffee farm. Also check out the nearby waterfalls.

To get there take a bus directly from Medellin from the north bus terminal. Or for a real experience go first to Jardin. Then catch a bus to a village called Andes. From there catch an open chiva bus over the mountains to Jerico. The chiva buses only leave Andes at 6 a.m. and at 2 p.m. Andes has a nice market and a huge, interesting main square to visit if you are looking to kill time waiting for the chiva. Last I check there were only 2-3 chivas a day going from Andes to Jerico. One can also get there from Manizales to the south. Just take a but to La Pintada. Another bus from La Pintada. They will leave you at a cross road and from there catch another bus up into the hills to Jerico. The trip will take 3-4 hours.

From Aguadas take a chiva bus to the village of La Pintada – a nice ride following La Arma river past incredible scenery – farm lands planted to coffee, banana and sugar cane.  

Salamina – the San Francisco of Colombia

Salamina is a town high in the Andes mountains of the Caldas region. The town’s main street, town square, stores, and church and best real estate all sit on top of a ridge. All the other streets in town run from the ridge down the mountainsides. They call this town the San Francisco of Colombia. The town is a stunning 2-hour bus ride southeast from Aguadas heading to Manizales. Hands down it’s one of most beautiful roads I’ve seen in Colombia. The scenery is mind blowing. And the town doesn’t disappoint. Salamina a gritty agricultural town full of jeeps, markets and vendors. The houses all have elaborate wood carved balconies. A two-hour trip outside of town there are numerous dairy farms. And along the trail one can see Colombia’s national tree, the rare wax palm. There’s a Wax Palm Reserve called Valle de Samaria just a one hour ride out of town. One can rent a jeep at the market for around 150,000 cop for a trip to and from the reserve.

They say the wax palm can only be seen in the Valley of Cocora in the other coffee region.  But the wax palm can be found here too and also near the town of Toche between Salento and Cajamarca.

(See article: Colombian Wax Palms)

Shop girls in Sonson

Sonson It’s a two-hour trip from Medellin to La Ceja, another small town worth checking out, then another 2 hours by bus to Sonson. Go on an empty stomach because the road goes through the mountain and the road is full of hairpin turns. Close to Sonson there are thousands of acres of avocado plantations. With a population of 33,600 people Sonson is a little town with 8 museums. It is called the city of painted balconies. Hire a jeep to go up in the mountains to see the Paramo of Sonson.

Chincina – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Chincina is a large town located between the cities of Manizales and Pereira. It’s part of the UNESCO World Heritage and listed as a Coffee Cultural Landscape. Some of the best coffee in Colombia is known to come from Chincina. There is a large coffee cup in the town square. There are also a lot of shoe and leather stores in town.

Or Combine the Two Coffee Zones into One Visit

The city of Medellin is not farther the a 3-4 hour bus ride from the villages listed above. And the villages in the coffee square are all near the villages of the coffee triangle. Manizales is just a two hour bus ride from Salamina making it logistically feasible to visit both coffee zones, or portions thereof, in one visit.

Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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