A Motorcyclist’s Travel Guide to the Zona Cafetera (Colombia’s Coffee Region)

The vast, fertile tract of countryside at the foothills of the Cordillera de los Andes is known as Colombia’s Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone). Also referred to as the Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis), and the Coffee Triangle, the area is Colombia’s most important coffee growing region.
Covering the departments of Quindío, Caldas and Risaralda, this once remote backwater has earned a reputation for producing the finest coffee arabica beans in the world.
Mecca for worshippers of the coffee religion, the Eje Cafetero has plenty to offer the unconverted too – lush, mountain landscapes, tiny townships with cute Colonial architecture and some of Colombia’s most magnificent national parks.
For motorcyclists, the Eje Cafetero promises world-class road riding. Take on countless twisties on traffic-free backroads, explore rarely-visited rural villages and visit waterfalls and hot springs, all without leaving the comfort of the tarmac.

GETTING TO COLOMBIA’S COFFEE TRIANGLE

 

With your own set of wheels, getting almost anywhere within the Coffee Triangle is a breeze. Coffee exports have made the Eje Cafetero the most developed region in rural Colombia, and the vast majority of roads here are sealed – no off-road experience necessary!
The regional capital, Armenia is 280km from Bogota, and is an easy, straightforward 2 hours, or roughly 180km from Cali.
Manizales is the closest major city from Medellin. While it’s only 200km south, roadworks, landslides and heavy vehicle traffic mean the journey can sometimes be slow-going. 

WHEN TO VISIT AND WEATHER CONDITIONS

 

Mild temperatures and decent rainfall define the climate year-round, so there’s really no good or bad time to tour the Zona Cafetera.
A typical day will flip flop between warm sunshine and showery patches, plus the occasional heavy downpour. Early in the morning and after rain, beware of low-hanging mist obstructing visibility.
Yes, it does get a little wet here, but the scenery wouldn’t be nearly as vibrant and the coffee not nearly as tasty otherwise.

WHERE TO STAY

MANIZALES

 
 

The capital of Caldas Department, Manizales is one of the three main cities in the Coffee Region, alongside Pereira and Armenia. Overlooked by most tourists who head straight to the villages closest to the plantations, for a taste of ‘big city’ life in coffee country, Manizales is easily the most pleasant of the coffee capitals. Home to around 400,000 residents, Manizales nevertheless enjoys a relaxed and friendly small city vibe and has a handful of handsome Spanish-style Colonial buildings. A university town, Manizales lays claim to the best nightlife in the region.

SALENTO

 
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Firmly entrenched on the ‘Gringo Trail’, once sleepy Salento absorbs the majority of tourists visiting the Coffee Triangle, due, in part to its location, 30 minutes from one of the biggest drawcards in the region, the giant wax palms of the Valle de Cocora.
Still, Salento has more than enough charm to hold its own. With looming mountains in the near-distance and coffee plantations stretching all the way to the edge of town, Salento’s streets are lined with white-walled colonial houses, their doors, window frames and balconies painted in whimsical combinations of rainbow-bright colour.
While tourists can sometimes seem to outnumber locals, Salento is hardly Disneyfied. The businesses are locally owned, the natives friendly and the vendors undemanding.
Meeting other travellers and arranging tours is no problem in Salento. Accommodation is plentiful, with many guesthouses able to accommodate gated parking for your moto.

 

FILANDIA

 
 

20km from Salento. Filandia has almost twice the (permanent) population of the aforesaid town yet feels far quieter, slower, and more like itself – unconcerned by the trappings of the backpacker economy. The cheerily painted facades of Filandia’s residences are vivid and varied as the most colourful Salento street. The tourist crowds of Salento can sometimes feel a world away, and visitors will find quickly find themselves easing into Filandia’s languorous pace of life.
Once you’ve done a coffee plantation tour or two, there’s not much to do in Filandia itself other than wander lazily from café to café, and exchange banter with the friendly locals, which is exactly what gives Filandia its irresistible charm.

 

SALAMINA

 
 

While Filandia has its fair share of fans, Salamina’s status as a ‘secret gem’ remains safe for now. An isolated pueblo of some 19,000 souls, Salamina is almost 4 hours from Salento and a 70km journey along a scenic secondary road south from Manizales. Salamina shares the same distinctive heritage architecture as other coffee towns – white walls and rainbow-hued timberwork. Its leafy plaza sits overlooked by an all-white church with a looming ivory tower.
Why go out of your way to see yet another Colonial coffee town?
Salamina may well be the single most beautiful village in the entire region, and is recognised as one of the 17 pueblo patrimonios (heritage towns) by Colombia’s official tourism department.
Secret Tip: 25km east of town, giant wax palms (the very same type that make the Valle de Cocora Salento’s most famous attraction) grow prolifically in an undulating valley near the village of San Felix. While it’s not quite as dramatic as Cocora, you have a good chance of having the company of the trees entirely to yourself.

FINCA AND HACIENDA STAYS

 
 

Coffee fincas (farms) are blanketed across huge swathes of the Eje Cafetero, and for those who want to get a bit closer to the source of their morning espresso, many fincas provide lodging in hacienda style accommodation. Some haciendas are incredibly luxurious, befitting the tastes of the wealthiest of plantation owners, while others are more humble, homestay-like affairs. Some fincas offer free food and lodging in return for volunteer work.

 

MOTORCYCLE TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA’S COFFEE TRIANGLE

 
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Conveniently located, extraordinarily scenic and packed with things to do (from leisurely coffee tastings to intense multi-day hiking excursions) the Zona Cafetera is a great addition to any two-wheeled touring itinerary. the mountain scenery is spectacularly lush and evergreen and no matter where you point your tires, the Andean roads deliver curves till the cows come home.
If you’re inexperienced or not a fan of riding off-road, the Zona Cafetera is perfect. You can easily plan a route sticking exclusively to sealed roads without missing any of the major sights and attractions.
A great introduction to motorcycle touring in Colombia, Motolombia run a 3 Day, all-tarmac Coffee Taster Ride from Cali, stopping in at Salento, Filandia Valle de Cocora, a working coffee finca, hot springs, waterfalls and more.

STILL READING? CHECK OUT THIS TOP SECRET BONUS ROAD WARRIOR’S COFFEE COUNTRY DAY TRIP

 
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While nearly every road in coffee country is as curvaceous as it is scenic, we highly recommend putting a half day aside to take the road less travelled and experience one of the absolute best rides in the region. Between La Virginia (60km north of Salento) and Supía is a smooth and winding blast north along a quiet stretch of Highway 25.
Featured in our Top 10 Paved Roads of Colombia list, this 100km one way trip is tonnes of fun without being overly demanding, with lots of swooping curves and some truly stellar scenery.

 

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Introducing Cali, Colombia – Vibrant Salsa Capital of the World and Adventure Motorcycle Riding Heaven

Santiago de Cali (‘Cali’ for short), is the largest city in southwest Colombia, nestled against forested mountains in an eternally warm valley between the Pacific coast and Colombia’s western Andean region.

Not exactly on the ‘Gringo Trail’, the foreign visitors who do make it to Cali are usually doing so for one of three reasons:

➤ They’re stopping over while travelling overland through South America via Ecuador
➤ They’re taking advantage of the city’s reputation as a medical tourism hub (a curious subject, but one best saved for another kind of blog), or most likely;
➤ They’ve come to Cali to DANCE

Cali is known throughout Colombia and by lovers of Latin dance the universe over as the world’s unofficial salsa capital. The passion for salsa is completely ingrained in the city’s identity, culminating in the Feria de Cali, a marathon six-day festival of dance held every December. But come to Cali at any time of year, and the sounds of salsa are inescapable. Its tropical rhythms run in every Caleño’s blood.

A Medellin native once told me, “in Medellin, they dance salsa to try and impress partners. In Cali, they dance salsa for the love of salsa.”

Lured by world-renowned dance schools, and an endless array of salsa dedicated nightclubs and bars, salsa fans flock to Cali to immerse themselves in the distinctively athletic Cali style.

But I suck at dancing! Why else should I visit Cali?

 

If you’re not so sure salsa’s your thing, a visit to Cali might just change your mind, given the infectious exuberance and overwhelmingly welcoming attitude of the Cali scene.

But, if you prefer your hips straddling the saddle of a motorcycle rather than grinding against a dance partner, Cali should definitely be on your travel radar.

 

Cali is the best city in Colombia for adventure motorcycle riding

 

It’s no coincidence that Colombia’s best-known motorcycle touring company have based themselves in Cali. Cali’s location is precisely what makes it the perfect springboard to adventure riding heaven.

Consider this.
Cali is one of the few places in the world where you can hit the Pacific Coast within two
hours and then, circling back a little, make your way through the Andes, touch the edge of
the Amazon rainforest and ride right back to your starting point – all in a single week*.

 

This part of Colombia is literally one of the most diverse motorcycling destinations in
Latin America.

 

But it’s not just the rough and tumble rural roads that make southwestern Colombia ideal for two-wheeled escapades. Cali is the closest major city to the Zona Cafetera, the country’s most famous coffee producing region. Three hours north of Cali, this evergreen dominion promises spectacular paved mountain roads, coffee plantation tours and the chance to stay in luxurious haciendas.

Head straight south from Cali and in two hours you’ll reach Popayan, considered one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Colombia. From Popayan, a 136km ride to the World Heritage listed San Agustin Archaeological Park takes you through a scenic stretch of winding gravel through the volcanic landscapes of Purace National Park.

If you’re drawn to remote, off-road adventure riding, departing from Cali, smooth, bitumen highways can quickly become a distant memory. In a few days you can cross the mighty Magdalena River and traverse the majestic Tatacoa Desert. You can even join Motolombia’s guided, all-terrain expedition to the legendary Caño Cristales (the ‘River of the Gods’), the only overland tour of its kind.

From volcanoes and canyons to jungles, deserts, coffee farms and colonial cities, the regions surrounding Cali have it all.

And, being a fairly compact city, it rarely takes long to get out of the traffic and straight to the good bits. Compare this to Bogota, where congestion regularly stretches for hours outside the city. Or Cartagena, whose numblingly straight highways are a far cry from those famously twisty Andean dream roads.

So, if you’re planning on motorcycle touring in Colombia and are keen to ride the best roads the country has to offer, consider beginning your adventure in Cali. Bring your dancing shoes along with your riding boots and you might even end up a hip swivelling salsa convert on the side!

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Colombia – One of the Most Biodiverse Countries on Earth

There’s no doubt about it, Colombia has arrived on the global tourism stage in a big way. It’s not just an improved international perspective on safety that’s led to Colombia’s rise as one of the world’s fastest growing tourism destinations. Back in 2008, the Colombian tourism board ran a series of ads touting the country’s cultural, historical and natural wonders.

While many travellers are familiar with Colombia’s cities – the charmingly colonial Cartagena, the stately metropolis of Bogota and the buzzing urban playground of Medellin, it’s Colombia’s still largely undiscovered natural wonders that are perhaps its most valuable tourism assets.

One Nation – Dozens of Unique Ecosystems

 

Biodiversity refers to the variety of and variability of plants, animals and other lifeforms in a given region.

If you were to guess which country claims the title of ‘Most Biodiverse’, and immediately thought of Brazil (the country whose borders contain the majority of the Amazon Rainforest), well, you’d be right.

What far fewer people realise is the country coming in a close second for biodiversity lies right across the Brazilian border. Neighbouring Colombia is home to a confirmed 1,845 species of bird – more than anywhere else on the planet. Colombia is second in variety of plant species, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish, third in reptiles and fourth globally in biodiversity of mammals. One in every 10 species of living flora and fauna on record can be found in Colombia.

So how is a country around seven times smaller than Brazil almost comparable in terms of biodiversity? A quick glance at a map yields a compelling explanation.

 

Fringed by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, with an inland border cutting through the Amazon Rainforest, Colombia is carved into several distinct regions by the Andean mountain ranges. Within the country are 53 million hectares of forest and 22 million hectares of savannas, arid zones, wetlands and snow-capped mountain peaks. Its coasts are home to tropical coral reefs, lagoons, mangroves and jungle-flanked beaches. Fourteen per cent of the country is comprised of protected national parks, natural parks and sanctuaries.

 

Why Biodiversity is the Key to Colombia’s Tourism Future

 

Many of Colombia’s least developed areas – the Amazon regions, the Pacific Choco region, and the eastern plains – are also among its most biodiverse. Unfortunately, the biodiversity of these regions is under pressure from industry (particularly mining and deforestation), causing the destruction of wild habitats and disrupting the natural balance of sensitive ecosystems.

There’s little doubt the most remote communities in Colombia are in need of infrastructure, funding and employment opportunities. Now, environmental groups in Colombia are pushing for these regions to embrace their biodiversity and support ecotourism initiatives that help protect diversity rather than industries which contribute to its destruction. With ecotourism among the fastest growing tourism sectors in the world, Colombia is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the boom and conserve its precious environmental resources at the same time.

 

Four of Colombia’s Best Ecotourism Adventures

 

Caño Cristales, Serranía de la Macarena National Park

Possibly the most iconic natural wonder in Colombia, Caño Cristales (known as ‘the River of Five Colours’) is the name given to the Guayabero River tributary, which due to a unique phenomenon caused by the brightly coloured blooms of an aquatic plant called macarenia clavigera, becomes a shimmering rainbow of vibrant colours between June and December each year. While bright pink is the most common colour, the river’s shallow, crystalline waters run with a variety of hues including blue, green, yellow and orange. Outside the season, the park is closed to visitors to allow the surrounding environment to recuperate, and eco protection rules are strictly enforced including mandatory guides, a cap of 200 visitors per day, a ban on sun screen and insect repellent when visiting the water and limited areas where swimming is permitted.

Motolombia visits Caño Cristales once a year on the epic River of the Gods guided off-road expedition, giving you an entirely unique perspective of the park’s ruggedness and isolation beyond the standard tourist trail.

Chingaza National Park

Less than half a day’s ride from Bogota, this enormous National Park makes for both an accessible and challenging expedition through a range of unique Andean ecosystems. Ranging in altitude from 800m to 4,000m, the park encompasses vast swathes of silent paramo wetlands, alpine woodlands and snow-capped mountain ranges. Guided multi-day hikes provide you with the chance to observe rare wildlife such as the jaguar, puma, woolly monkey, mountain tapir and spectacled bear.  

El Cocuy National Park

300km north of Bogota, El Cocuy is perhaps the most visually striking national park in the Colombian Andes. Home to Colombia’s largest glacial land mass, Cocuy’s dramatic landscape is alternately lush and desolate, consisting of wind-swept valleys, glacier-gouged lakes, frozen tundra and mist-shrouded forest. The park offers several trails ranging from day-hikes to endurance-testing weeklong expeditions. Experienced climbers can tackle the permanently icy summits of El Concavo (5,200m) and Pan de Azúcar (5,120 m).

Wildlife Expeditions in Los Llanos

Well off the beaten path, Los Llanos is an area of vast tropical grassland spanning north western Colombia and southern Venezuela. For wildlife enthusiasts, Llanos is perhaps the most productive region in the country for up-close encounters with animal inhabitants including anteaters, anacondas, jaguars, capybaras, caiman, armadillos, capuchins, howler monkeys and ocelots. It’s a veritable birder’s paradise, supporting thriving populations of waterfowl, macaws and birds of prey. The immense size and relative inaccessibility of Los Llanos mean guided excursions are the best way to explore this environmentally and cultural unique Colombian region. Just a few eco-conscious operators organise wildlife and birdwatching focused trips out of the regional capital of Yopal, a 40-minute flight from Bogota.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

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