After a quiet few days in Colombia’s capital of Bogotá (read that blog post here), Andrew and I headed to Colombia’s Coffee region: Quindío. Quindío is a department (like states; there are 32) in Colombia most known for its production of coffee and fruit as well as its beautiful scenery. In Spanish they call this region “Eje Cafetero” and I will use Coffee Region/Eje Cafetero/Quindío interchangeably. I want to preface this post by saying that our time in Quindío was unmatched compared to the rest of Colombia. Don’t get me wrong–Bogotá, Medellín and La Costa (Colombia’s Coast) treated us well (I mean, except for my stomach) but Quindío was paradise.
So if you were planning a trip to Colombia to enjoy metropolitan street art or gorgeous beaches, great for you! But please consider making time to visit the loveliest region of all: Eje Cafetero. Here are just a few reasons why this region MUST be added to your itinerary.
Quindío Botanical Garden
Located outside of the city of Armenia, the Quindío Botanical Garden is an ecological conservation and education center. Tours are given daily in both English and Spanish. The tours last between two and three hours, though I think ours lasted longer than normal because we had some extra inquisitive people in our group. When we arrived, we were told the Spanish tour was about to start and the English tour was in twenty minutes but because I am impatient we went on the Spanish tour and therefore I had to listen intently to be able to understand what our tour guide was saying. (So please note: almost all the photos that were taken were taken by my husband so be gentle lol.) The tour is a walk through the reserve and ends in the Butterfly Garden and the small museum-type places that they have, which mainly cover insect life and the development of a large tunnel that connects Quindío with Bogotá.
The guide shares both information about the animals and plant life at the Botanical Garden and throughout Colombia. They especially stress the amount of palm trees they have. Of the 255 species of palm trees that are native to Colombia, the Botanical Garden has 210 of them. That’s a lot of palm trees! There is an animal viewing point as well where we saw capybaras and lots of birds. The Butterfly Garden has over 1,500 butterflies and quite few tortoises who don’t care if you’re there or not. It was a lot of fun, interesting and an easy walk throughout. Though I do recommend bringing bug spray if you’re a gringa like me because I am not like my bug-resistant husband.
So you’re going to the Coffee Region? Well…I imagine you have plans to do at least one coffee tour. In doing my research, I found lots of blog posts about lots of different fincas to tour. Finca El Ocaso and Finca Recuca came up most frequently but I also read about Finca El Mirador, Finca Caficultur, Finca Momota, Finca Las Acacias, Finca La Divisa and Finca Don Elias. We did…none of these. When we got to our hotel we told them it was our first time in Eje Cafetero so we were given lots of suggestions. One finca that was suggested was Finca Buenos Aires…how coincidental, right? How could we not go to this one in particular? Because we only went on one tour (I feel like once you’ve done one, you’ve done them all but I could be wrong!), I cannot compare our experience with Finca Buenos Aires with another finca but I will say this one was perfect for us! We can’t remember how much we paid exactly but it was around 30,000 COP per person.
Because the previous day we did a 3 hour tour in Spanish, we decided to do the English tour for this one. Which worked out great for us since there was only one other English speaking person waiting for the tour. If you get there early enough before the tour starts, you do get an espresso so try to get there early! Our tour guide started the tour with where coffee trees start their life: the plant nursery. They keep the seedlings in one area and then when they are ready to be planted in a bigger area there are hundreds of tiny pots all lined up next to each other. We got to plant our own coffee seedling!
Like most fincas in the Coffee Region, their main crop is coffee but a lot of others have started growing other things like avocados to be more profitable. So before we swung by some adolescent coffee trees, our guide showed us some of their other crops which includes avocados, pineapples, lettuce, bananas and more! This particular finca lets coffee trees grow until they are 5 years old. After 5 years, they don’t produce as many coffee beans and they also aren’t as good quality. So basically, they rotate the young ones out with the old ones. After they’ve cut down a 5 year old tree, they plant a new one right next to it and the trunk of the new tree will actually grow into the trunk of the old tree which I thought looked very cool. Even though this is how they do things, they did have a few coffee trees that were twenty-six years old. They were giant in comparison. Here’s our tour guide next to an old one and Andrew next to a young one to better illustrate what I mean:
He then showed us when coffee beans should be picked (bright red) and we got to pick some with our little basket. Honestly…I did not pick that many. I would not be a great harvester. After picking the beans, he took us to the area of the finca where they shell and dry them. During the off season, this finca air drys the beans on the roof for two weeks, however, the rest of the year they use a machine that can dry them in 17 hours.
After seeing all the behind the scenes processes, we had a quick snack (papelón con limón and some Colombian arepas) before the tasting. The tasting consisted of one cup of their most popular coffee and he showed us the “real” way to prepare it. All-in-all, we had an amazing time and learned a lot about coffee in an absolutely beautiful environment. I can’t recommend Finca Buenos Aires enough! It’s off the beaten trail but 100% worth it because the tour was excellent, the coffee was great and the scenery was to die for. The finca itself has been opened for years but they only recently started doing tours. We had a car for our entire time in Quindío (which I recommend for a thousand reasons if your budget allows) but you can get to Finca Buenos Aires in a Jeep Willys from Salento.
Cascada Santa Rita
The Santa Rita Waterfalls were about a 10-15 minute walk from our hotel in Salento. We did this in the morning the day after the coffee tour because…we tried to do it after the coffee tour but by the time we got there, the (literal) kid selling tickets to get in told us that we wouldn’t have enough time to do the entire trail before it got dark. But I am glad we turned around and went back the next day to do the whole thing because it was really nice! It was for sure an interesting hike though. Many of the hikes we went on while in Quindío were on private land, meaning you pay the entrance fee, you walk through the farm land, then you get to the trail in the forest. We encountered lots of cows and got lost many times, despite the kid telling us the trails were heavily marked (they weren’t!). Additionally, trail is such a loosely used term here. Was it a trail? Was it mud? Who knows but I will say it was also nothing compared to our hike in the actual jungle later that day but if you compare this hike to say, a nicely funded state park trail in the US, yeah, it would feel like you’re trailblazing at times.
As you can tell by the map, there are two waterfalls and a natural pool. To be quite honest, I don’t think we saw the Waterfall #2 because…like I said, the trail was pretty confusing at times. I think where we went wrong was finding people on the trail. The entire morning the only people we saw were those working on the farm and herding the cows. As we entered the cavern a Colombian couple emerged and we let them pass because the cavern was tbh…a little scary, really muddy and filled with bats, so we didn’t actually know whether we were supposed to pass through. They did and well if you look at the map you have to go through to see the second waterfall we never found. So we started following them. At one point, the trail was becoming increasingly NOT trail like and I made Andrew turn around because I did not trust them one bit. About 15 minutes after we had turned around we heard them behind us so…see, I’m always right!
I believe you can swim at each of the waterfalls and obviously the natural pool but I will say in late November the water was cold AF so we dipped but did not swim. On a completely unrelated note, this trail was muddy as all get out. And there was a time where, and I won’t say who, someone mistook cow shit for mud. So she, I mean, they stepped in a cow pie about 10 times the size of their foot. It was…great. A great time. But seriously, the hike was great and I would say the difficulty is closer to easy than medium. I believe we paid 6,000 COP each to enter the trail. OH! And you can also explore this area by horseback, like many of the hikes in Quindío, but after having a terrible animal tourism experience in Argentina–I will NEVER AGAIN pay to ride an overworked horse at a tourist attraction. So if you choose or need to go by horseback please just make sure the horses are treated well!
El Palacio de Barbas – MONKEY TOUR!
Okay, so similar to Finca Buenos Aires, I never read anything about a monkey tour in Quindío in my research. Nothing. Not a peep. So when the lady at the hotel tells us about the monkey tour? We go on the monkey tour! El Palacio de Barbas is privately owned landed that is made up of a small farm and hotel that happens to be right next to Barbas Bremen Nature Reserve where all the howler monkeys live. It’s a 4KM tour through the actual jungle. Like I thought Santa Rita was rough? Oh my…nothing compares to hiking in the actual jungle looking up at the sky to find monkeys.
So here’s a quick DL about physical ability. I am not in shape. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most in shape that is naturally possible, I am a 1 or 2. I started going to the gym at least three times a week back in May but had quit for about 2 months before this trip but I still don’t know if my gym workouts would have adequately prepared me for this hike. Like am I so proud of myself for going and not dying even though at times I thought I definitely was going to die? Sure. But would I have went on the hike had I known how difficult it was going to be? Can’t say for sure. All I know now is that I really have to work out harder at the gym, man. Also says a lot about how sad it is that I am 23 and had a rough time on this hike when the older couple (in their 50s or 60s) at our hotel went the day before and the only thing they complained about to us was the mosquitos. OKAY, so now that we’re done with that…on to what the hike consisted of!
In order to schedule a tour with El Palacio del Barbas, I believe you can go through their website but we booked it through the help of the hotel manager. The owner of the company, Alvaro, picked us up in the town square of Filandia because we were told our rental car could not handle the road to get there (#truth). Once we got there, Alvaro gave us a bit of a history lesson about the land and the people who lived there long ago. By the way, we did this tour in Spanish but they do offer tours in English. Additionally, they offer very FEW tours. I think it’s about two per day and tours generally consist of two to four people plus the guide. They do this to ensure conservation of the land, which I think is great! We can’t remember exactly how much we paid since we were told several different prices but what we do know is that we paid less than the couple from our hotel and they went with a group of three. So in this case, it saves some money to not be a gringo (or at least be with someone who is not a gringo…because I am the most gringo gringa.)
Our tour guide came to meet us after we enjoyed some coffee and then we were given hiking sticks and man, that’s exactly when I should have thought—Ruh–roh, Raggy! Btw, the guy was seriously dressed as if he was going to war or was about to fight zombies, machete strapped to his back and everything (come to find out he is a veteran of the Colombian army). But at the same time, the machete was very necessary because it was the LITERAL JUNGLE. IT WAS ACTUALLY THE JUNGLE. I WORE MY BRAND NEW NIKE TENNIS SHOES TO HIKE IN THE JUNGLE LIKE A DUMB DUMB. WEAR HIKING BOOTS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
Anyways, tangent aside, the tour consists of a loop through the jungle where you will stop often if the guide spots monkeys. We saw five monkeys and the couple I mentioned earlier saw seven the day before. My camera is nice but not nice enough to zoom as far as I needed to get amazing pictures of the monkeys but this is my best work. (They are very high in the trees.) The howler monkeys generally live in families and kind of like, have their own neighborhood for each family so I think we ended up seeing two families. Even though we only saw five monkeys, you can hear them quite often. Guess that’s why they call them howler monkeys, ya feel me?
After passing through the area where the most monkeys live, you hike to a waterfall and then hike up…and up…and up…and up some more until you actually think you’ll drop dead until you get to the small farm behind the hotel. There they grow lots of different fruit and the guy actually cut some down for us to eat but maybe it’s because he knew if I didn’t have a break I’d die. I think what pushed me the most the entire time (besides the need to get out of the jungle because I could like, not survive there) were the dogs that hiked with us the entire time. There were about six dogs in total at the hotel and two or three that hiked with us the whole time. One of them was this fat chocolate lab and I just kept thinking, “If this chubby little chocolate lab can hike 4K in the jungle, so can I.”
This adventure really pushed me out of my comfort zone but at the end of the day, I am so glad we did it. I truly believe it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity waiting for you in Quindío!
Valle de Cocora
Valle de Cocora is potentially the most well-known and popular tourist attraction in Quindío and I wish I could say it measured up to the very high expectations I had for it after reading blog post after blog but I just have to say: I was too f*cking tired to enjoy it fully. This was our last full day in Quindío and the day before we had spent about 6-7 hours hiking and this was about a 5 hour hike. I think possibly what annoyed me the most is that the trail loop is all up and then down. Depending on which way you go first, you either see the famous wax palm trees first or last. We were told it’s an easier hike to see the palmas first (and I don’t doubt that) but after you see the (underwhelming amount of) palm trees, it’s a straight incline up the mountain until you start heading back down through the forest. Going up, on the other hand, is not through the forest. It’s a rough, dirt road for trucks and motorbikes and horses…so it was a gravel road, no beautiful scenery and lots of horse shit. All this on top of being incredibly tired and out of shape? It was rough, ladies! Going back down? That was another story. It was fine! There was a creek! Cows! Lots of fun questionable bridges!
So even though I don’t think I enjoyed this as much as I should have, obviously I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world! The only thing I would change was drinking the water on top of the mountain at the small, family-run restaurant / cafe. For some reason, and I don’t know what we were thinking, we asked them to fill up our water bottles instead of just buying the dang water. THIS MOMENT could very well have been the moment I contracted my parasite.* So if I could turn back time, I’d slap that water out of my own hands.
There is also a hummingbird sanctuary that branches off from the trail. We did not do this because we were very tired but some other blogs I’ve read did go and enjoyed it! Finally, because there are two entrances (one that goes up the palm tree side and the other one), you have to pay twice! Two different people own the land where the two entrances are so you will have to pay to enter and leave so don’t spend all your cash up on the mountain, ya hear?
So if you’re planning to do Valle de Cocora, here are just a few suggestions for you: if you can physically do it, take the trail where you get to see the palm trees last because maybe then it will feel like you worked to see the iconic view and earned it. DO NOT DRINK TAP WATER ON TOP OF A MOUNTAIN. That goes for probably any mountain. Especially if you have a stomach that is as sensitive as a 13 year old girl with self-esteem issues (hey, I am talking about past Rachel, okay?).
So, are you convinced?
I know that was a LONG one, but there was so much to cover and share. I hope you can see how truly magical this part of Colombia is. The wildlife, the biodiversity and the epic hikes await you! Stay tuned for a future posts that will cover more information about visiting Eje Cajetero—like where we stayed (the best hotel ever!), how we got around and the famous little towns we visited.
As always, thanks for reading! If you’ve been to the Coffee Region in Colombia or plan on going I’d love to hear about your experience or help answer any questions in the comments! ❤️
*I have no clue if it was an actual parasite because I never saw a doctor but I had diarrhea for almost three weeks straight, several times a day so you tell me what it was, okay?