Colombia’s Zona Cafetera Highlights

Butterfly House Quindio Jardin Botanico

We loved Colombia’s Zona Cafetera – coffee zone- so much we returned for a longer visit five years after our first. It’s a top tourist spot for many reasons including its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. While there, we visited some of Colombia’s nicest towns and saw amazing nature and wildlife. If you’re considering a visit, read about Colombia’s Zona Cafetera highlights.

Filandia Rainbow
The scenery is beautiful in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera

Getting to the Zona Cafetera

There are many ways to get to Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, and we have done most! By air, domestic flights arrive to three separate airports (it’s a big region): Armenia in the south, Pereira central, and Manizales, north. We flew into the Manizales airport years ago from Bogota, and this time we flew out of Pereira airport back to our boat in Cartagena.

Buses are very frequent and affordable throughout the country, but I get carsick so wasn’t up for that this time. We drove from Medellin, with a stop in Jardin, and went the indirect way, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you’re adventurous, have a lot of time, and/or a four-wheel drive.

Visit the Metropolis of Manizales

A university town in the mountains with a great cable car system and nearby hot springs, we visited 5 years ago and you can read all about our fun times exploring Manizales! This is the furthest north of the Zona Cafetera and one of the three airport hubs of the region.

Stay in Salento

We stayed four nights total in this beautiful town and it was the perfect length stay for us. Salento features a variety of restaurants and accommodations and is an ideal base for touring Colombia’s Zona Cafetera highlights.

Salento town Colombia
Pretty Salento has lots of hills

Salento is charming. With a beautiful town square and well-maintained colorful buildings, it’s a pleasure to stroll the streets, although keep in mind, it’s built into a hill so it gets tiring.

Willy Jeeps

Whenever we walked through the town square, we spotted a local favorite, the Willy Jeep. These jeeps became common in Colombia after WWII, when the U.S. shipped their surplus south. Locals made good use of these vehicles in the mountainous, muddy terrain, and they are often seen carting produce, coffee, and tourists around the Zona Cafetera. They’re also a defining symbol of the region, so you’ll see the image as much as the actual vehicles.

Willy Jeeps Salento Colombia's Zona Cafetera Highlights
Willy Jeeps parked in the Salento square
Willy Jeep Colombias Zona Cafetera Highlights Salento
Mini Willy Jeep in Salento
Will Jeep Salento Colombia Zona Cafetera Highlights
Willy Jeep in the wall

Salento Mirador

Another thing to do in Salento is hiking up to Mirador (viewpoint) de Salento to visit the Salento sign. It’s a short but very steep hike with nice views.

Salento Sign Colombia's Zona Cafetera Highlights
The Salento sign

See the Cocora Valley

The site of one of the largest concentrations of the world’s tallest palm trees, wax palms, and nestled in the Andes, The Cocora Valley is a top destination in the Zona Cafetera. It’s beautiful, and you can hike, bike, or go on a guided drive from Salento. We chose the bike tour option.

Wax Palms of Cocora Valley Colombia
The wax palms of Cocora Valley are a must-see when in Salento

Go Cycling

Salento is also home to one of the best cycling tour companies in Colombia. And, if you’re a serious mountain biker you probably already know about the Salento Bike Park. Cycling in Colombia is excellent and we loved cycling in the Zona Cafetera, mud, mountains, and all!

after cycling in Salento
Post-cycling photo in Salento

Play Tejo

Tejo is a classic Colombian game, created over 500 years ago by the Muiscas. Similar to shuffleboard, it’s been updated to incorporate gunpowder and beer!

Play Tejo in Salento Zona Cafetera
Tejo field in Salento with gunpowder pieces

To play tejo, you throw a disc into a clay field that is scattered with small triangular pieces of gunpowder. When you hit the gunpowder it sparks and makes a loud boom!

Tejo in Salento Colombia
The tejo setup in Salento

We played tejo at Cancha de Tejo los Amigos in Salento and it was a great place to play, drink beer, and watch others play. Who doesn’t want to drink and throw targets at gunpowder on a random weeknight?

Tejo sign Salento
Gunpowder and beer ad at Tejo Los Amigos Salento

Tejo is popular in this region of Colombia. While you don’t hear about it at all in Cartagena, tejo halls or parlors are common in Medellin and in many towns throughout the region. Try a game when you visit as it’s one of Colombia’s Zona Cafetera highlights.

Coffee Tastings

Fincas, or coffee farms, are everywhere! Some of them are also hotels and offer coffee tours and tastings. If you have never stayed at one, this is Colombia, I highly recommend it. We stayed in a finca near Manizales which offered unlimited coffee all day on beautiful grounds.

coffee Colombia Zona Cafeteria highlights
A coffee shop in the Zona Cafetera

You can also stop in at any of the varied coffee shops throughout the region. There are a lot! Some are alongside the road, and others are in towns. Most are independently owned and run and have their own quirks. Each one we visited, big and small, was operated by warm people willing to share their knowledge and delicious wares.

TIP: Don’t wait until you’re at the airport to buy coffee to bring home. We bought a bunch of locally produced coffee in a supermarket in Salento, and saved a lot! It was 1/4 of the price listed at the Pereira airport.

coffee one of Colombia's Zona Cafetera highlights
Coffee from Colombia’s Zona cafetera

Quindio Botanical Garden

Colombia’s landscapes and wildlife are amazing, and this botanical garden showcases both. With a butterfly-shaped mariposario (butterfly house), jungle trails, and bird-watching lookouts, Quindio’s Botanic Gardens are lush and beautiful. We went on a guided tour, which included a nice hike through the jungle, with an English speaking guide who knew her birds and plants.

Suspension Bridge in Quindio Botanical Garden
Suspension Bridge in Quindio Botanical Garden

The Botanical Gardens are the furthest south we went in the coffee zone, just outside of Armenia. If you do go, just keep an eye out because google maps did not have an accurate read on the entrance to the garden. There are signs, so it’s not difficult to find on your own.

Storefronts in Filandia, Colombia
Storefronts in Filandia, Colombia

Visit Filandia

Filandia is located only 20km from Salento, off a nice winding road with gorgeous views. Filandia is another popular tourist town with lots of hotel choices. We considered moving for a couple of nights, but instead day tripped there.

Eat at Helena Adentro Restaurant

One of the best restaurants in the region is undeniably Filandia’s Helena Adentro. It came up in all the guidebooks, and our cycle tour guide highly recommended it. Since we had planned to drive that way anyway, we stopped for lunch, one of our best meals in the country.

Food at Helena Adentro Filandia Colombia's Zona Cafetera Highlights
The food at Helena Adentro was delicious

The food is delicious, portioned for sharing, and the restaurant sources local ingredients with a lot of options, including vegan and gluten free. We didn’t make a reservation, but stopped by and put our name on the list and walked around town while waiting for their call. The restaurant is located on a cliff’s edge overlooking the stunning valley below, so food with a view was worth the short wait!

Filandia Colombia landscape
Gorgeous pastoral landscape -and rainbow – in Filandia

Walk Up the Mirador, Filandia

Speaking of views, there’s an interesting lookout in Filandia, more impressive than Salento’s. Mirador Colina Illuminado is a structure built on a hill outside of town. It’s an odd looking edifice, and cool to climb and see the views. When we went it was pretty crowded with visitors, but there’s enough space for everyone.

Mirador sightseeing in Filandia Colombia
The mirador imposes from the town of Filandia

Sample Some Bandeja Paisa

On our way back from the Botanic Gardens, we made a detour for Colombian food. Thankfully, Brian’s always up for food detours, and isn’t that the point of having a car?

El Solar restaurant in Armenia Zona Cafetera Colombia Highlights
El Solar in Armenia

We stopped at El Solar Quindio for bandeja paisa, a traditional Colombian lunch. I call it the ploughman’s lunch of rural Colombia, and it was a real Zona Cafeteria highlight! I mean, look at that plate of food! Many types of protein with some avocado and plantains. What Colombian dreams are made of!

Bandeja Paisa
Bandeja Paisa in Zona Cafetera

Final Thoughts: Colombia’s Zona Cafetera Highlights

As you can see from my map, the Zona Cafetera is huge! And it’s mountainous, so the roads are winding. We visited two different areas on two separate trips, and were happy we had a rental car the second time.

Colombia's Zona cafetera highlights map
Our highlights are spread out in the Zona Cafetera

This may be the last of my many Colombia posts. We’re exploring Panama now. If you are even considering a visit to Colombia, go! There is so much to see and do, all varieties of activities and climates, and the price is right. As always, leave your questions or suggestions in the comments.

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Author: Mel

Living aboard a sailboat, blogging about the places we visit and the adventures we have. Love hiking, cycling, scuba, animals and adventure.

16 thoughts on “Colombia’s Zona Cafetera Highlights”

  1. Wow, I love how colorful a lot of Colombia is! I have never heard of that area, but boy does it sound fun. I would definitely want to play a game of Teco and go on a Willy Jeep ride. Thank you for sharing. I hope I can make it there!

    1. Yes, Lita, some of these towns in Colombia are so colorful and pretty! It’s really a pleasure to visit them. Hope you get to go!

  2. As an espresso addict, this trip seems like something I would truly enjoy. And there’s so much to do! I would really enjoy cycling in the region.

  3. I didn’t know there was so much to do in the Zona Cafetera. I don’t drink coffee so I thought it wasn’t for me but your post made me realise it is really not only about coffee. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Love this! Colombia is well & truly on my list & I’m hoping to get there later this year or next. And you have certainly sold me on exploring the Zona Cafetera while I’m there. Looks like a fantastic place to spend a few days.

  5. This looks like such a cool area to explore. I love seeing the Willy jeeps, and that mini one! Great tips on buying coffee before you leave!

  6. I always love colourful place and this seems so beautiful! and quite adventurous, plus I’d love to try real Colombian coffee!

  7. Okay… Teja sounds like the craziest “game” ever created! It’s now on my Must-do list! Great post – thanks for sharing!

    1. Teja is great fun, TJ! If you don’t make it to the Zona Cafetera, do the Bogota Bike tour. They take you to play Teja at the end.

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