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Into the Mountains
The interior Coffee Triangle region of Colombia mostly attracts domestic tourists, those who are escaping the cities to enjoy the dramatic mountain scenery. Many of the hotels are converted farm homes or large haciendas such as Combia with colorful woven spreads and great views to go with cuisine that makes use of seasonal fruit and vegetables—some grown on the grounds.
Hotel Mirador las Palmas, near Armenia, is typical of the newer hotels. Its rooms are just meant for sleeping, but outside is an infinity pool with a mountain range beyond, plus a restaurant above it all offering views across a whole valley.
Only around two million people live in the three departments (states) making up the triangle, compared to eight million just in Bogotá. So it’s not hard to leave the cities behind and get into the countryside.
One of the most stunning areas is the Cocora Valley, reached by a Jimmy Jeep ride from the town of Salento. Dramatic green mountains rise up beside pastoral fields accented by towering wax palm trees. In a four-wheel-drive with the top down, it’s easy to feel the wide valley narrowing as you climb past 2,000 meters and into the mist.
We arrive at the end of the road to find a welcoming restaurant, horse stables and—of course—a café serving coffee. First we pair our panoramic view with a delicious Andean drink canelazo, a spiced hot toddy sort of drink made with simple syrup from fresh sugar cane, brown sugar, orange juice, passion fruit, cinnamon, and rum.
Before the sleepies have a chance to set in, we take off on a horseback ride through the countryside, into the rainforest and across streams, spotting hardier souls who are trekking further into the mountains, carrying tents for camping.
Dinner is served when we return, with giant plates of fresh trout providing a break from the grilled steaks that are so common elsewhere in the area. For dessert there’s an array of local candies and sweets, plus fresh fruit grown in the fertile valley.
Salento itself is known as a craft village, the kind of place people come for the day and get sucked into staying for a week. It’s got plenty to pull you in: a town square with outdoor restaurants surrounding it, Spanish Colonial buildings painted bright colors, shops with interesting crafts, and surrounding scenery that makes you want to just slow down and take it all in for a while. This is no gentrified tourist town though: the big even the day we come through is a local beauty pageant between rival schools, complete with elaborate floats.
City Tours and Arepas
It’s not all about rural farms and rustic charms in the Coffee Triangle of Colombia though. There are three key cities that serve as regional bases: Armenia, Manizales, and Pereira. Expatriate Russell Coleman of Colombia57 jokes that he left the cold and gray weather of England to move to cold and gray Manizales, but it’s a dramatic city perched on a mountain top at 2,100 meters. There is a snow-capped volcano in view when the weather is clear and a fancy new cable car carrying residents across the main valley. Sculptures line the city streets and are on display at key lookout points.
The countryside is what draws in the visitors, but each city has a central square, complete with requisite Simon Bolivar statue, then everything fans out from there. You can join the bustle of pedestrians strolling the center or pop into restaurants to sample Colombian grilled meat dishes or traditional foods like arepa cornmeal patties and sancocho stew with pork and vegetables.
After spending my whole time in rural areas, I spend the last night at the attractive city spot Hotel Pereira. I hit the town with my travel mates and plow through a few bottles of Ron Viejo de Caldas at a Pereira nightclub, local music and reggaeton taking turns thumping on the sound system until the wee hours. Fortunately, it’s very easy to find a few cups of strong coffee the next morning…
If you go
The best place to stay in Manizales are the business favorite Hotel Carretero in the center.
Hotel de Pereira is the best city hotel in the region, with designer furniture, a fetching restaurant, and contemporary rooms.
See our Hotel Sazagua review for a detailed look at the best luxury hotel in the Coffee Triangle, a boutique hotel with a strong sense of style, an impressive spa, and an ambitious restaurant.
English proficiency is not a strong point in this region, so book through Colombia 57 to have a guide at hand if you don’t speak any Spanish.
Unless you’ve been to Israel, you have never encountered airport security like you’ll see in central Colombia. To be safe, allow three hours to get through the gauntlet.
Review and photos by Timothy Scott.