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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
(extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)