The Colombia Coffee Region: Spilling the Beans on the World’s Best

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Kelli and I both love coffee.

One of the few possessions that wasn’t left behind when we set out on our van life adventure was our Bialetti coffee moka pot. We start our day with a couple of pots each morning.

We were excited to visit the Colombia coffee region. A region which is recognized as one of the world’s best.

Colombia’s rich volcanic soils, different elevations found in the Andean foothills and the warm, wet climates found throughout Colombia’s ‘coffee triangle’ provide slight variations on the perfect coffee growing conditions.

Coffee is grown on steep, green mountainside in crops scattered with banana, plantain, piña, guava, avocado and cocoa. The terrain means the coffee must be handpicked which ensures only the ripest beans are reaped.

The drive through the Colombia coffee region is truly spectacular. Green hills, covered with tropical fruits and palm that meet deep blue skies which explode into fluffy white clouds roll on and on and on from Cali all the way through to Medellín.

The towns dotting the area are all similarly laid out. A grid, expands from a central town square facing a church. The unique buildings take their cues from Spanish influenced Paisa architecture. Houses and tiendas are painted in pastels of every colour.

Equally bright, ‘Willys’, military jeeps, mostly from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, are the vehicle of choice for local farmers. They are the perfect vehicle for traversing the steep terrain. The colorful towns, the equally colourful jeeps and the local campasinos astride horses or relaxing outside the bars and cafés that line the plaza, give the distinct sensation of stepping back into an alternate pastel history.  All we had to do was pick which of the many villages dotted around the green countryside we would explore.

We picked three. The lesser known Pijoa and Buena Vista located in the Quindío department, on our way up through Colombia, and the popular Jardín, in the Antioquia region to break up the return journey.

Pijao

The town square of Pijoa Colombia

Our first stop was Pijao. Not yet cemented on Colombia’s coffee belt major stopping points, this tiny town has everything you want and nothing you don’t.

Built either side of a small river it sits nestled in a small valley.

We camped by the river. Within five minutes of arriving, Hugo a friendly local invited us for coffee, a good sign that tourism hadn’t yet made the town people cynical. The following day we were brought more coffee by Hugo and some sweet bread rolls by another local. This welcoming attitude was something we had encountered throughout Colombia, but especially here in the small villages within the Colombia coffee region.

We spent our days in Pijao walking the banks of the river and along dirt roads that wound their up and out of the valley. The mountains provided spectacular views up the river to the next village, Córdoba and back over Pijao.

We sampled locally grown coffee at Café De Origen La Floresta, belonging to Don Carlos, a local coffee farmer.

Authentic Colombian coffee in the Colombian coffee region
Don Carlos takes care to prepare the coffee he grows himself in the Colombia Coffee Region

The preparation of the locally beans take on the significance ad gravity of sacred ritual.

Don Carlos gave us a brief overview of the local region and his finca, or farm. He presented three types of beans and explained the process behind each style and flavor profile. We selected two different varieties for tasting. The beans were ground and then returned to the tabled to be brewed. We savoured the fresh, carefully picked and prepared coffee, along with the ritual.

Cute colombian coffee town

Aside from the coffee and wandering around there wasn’t much else to do in Pijao, which suited us perfectly. A fledgling tourist industry is developing here but there wasn’t anyone at the town’s tourist agency when we stopped by. We entertained ourselves snapping pictures, walking, and taking plenty of coffee breaks.

Buenavista

Town in the coffee region of Colombia

After two days in the sleepy Pijao, we woke early to drive some 30 minutes to Buenavista. Like Pijao the town was centred around an ornate church in a main plaza. Gridded streets of brightly painted houses and shops extend from this central point. Unlike Pijoa, Buenavista was built on top of the hill rather then at the bottom of it. Incredible green views of Colombia’s coffee region stretching out in every direction. Buena Vista!

We spent our day in the town taking a tour of one of the local coffee farms. Finca Alsacia, producers of Hane Coffee.

Our guide Don Leo began the tour in the town centre. We chatted as we walked down the steep hill to his farm.

Rooster in the Colombia coffee region

Between bird spotting and descriptions about the local flora, Don Leo took the opportunity to tell us about Colombia’s coffee region’s history. Specifically he told us of the development of coffee farming and struggle with the Colombian guerillas. He also covered his own colourful history. From a small boy growing up in the area, where the boys as young as 10 were put to work. Where they not only worked, but drank and smoked with the older men too. Later Don Leo was recruited (or rather duped) into farming marijuana. Eventually he worked a stint as a cocaine chemist for the cartel. A daring escape allowed his eventual return to the region. Now he has established his own socially responsible farm, committed to supporting workers rights which are slowly being eroded.

Marijuana plan in Colombia coffee region
It’s not just coffee that grows well in the Colombia coffee region

We eventually reached his farm. Tropical fruits, piña, avocado, guava, banana, plantain, as well as marijuana grow amongst thousands of coffee plants on a steep sided hill. The trees provided shade and nutrients for the coffee crop and provide a unique flavour profile.

After visiting the crop, coffee production is covered from harvest to table. Beans are sorted into grades and sent to the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros who buy and export the coffee. The coffee is sorted as Supremo or Excelso quality for exportation to the rest of the world. The foremost criteria for these grades is the size of the bean, after which other criteria may be considered.

Coffee tour in the Colombia coffee region

Don Leo explains that selecting beans only on their size is rudimentary and not a true indication of quality. The beans that he and other farmers send to the federations as the highest quality Colombian export coffee are done so after the best beans have already been skimmed for in house coffee production. The finest quality Colombian coffee is only available from small scale farms like this.

After sampling the coffee we purchased a few bags for ourselves and to bring back as souvenirs. We enjoyed the simple lunch that Don Leo also provides his farm workers. It was a fascinating look into the region and the coffee farming industry that this area is so famous for.

Jardín

We wouldn’t be back in the coffee region again until the return leg of our journey, when we turned around at the top of Colombia to make our way back down the South American continent.

From Medellín we drove five hours along gradually deteriorating roads climbing to 1,800 metres.

Bigger than the smaller coffee towns we had visited, Jardín is a staple on the Colombian coffee region’s tourist circuit. The first sign of this was the opportunity to share the derelict roads with huge buses in addition to the normal trucks, cars and livestock.

We arrived at Jardín right on nightfall in heavy rain.  Our first observation was that this high altitude town had used almost every square inch of land reclaimed from the mountain. We headed for the outskirts where other overlanders had parked overnight. The camping hostel was apparently $7 USD per person per night. No one was home. We parked in the driveway and waited for someone to return and knock on our van. We ate cold leftovers in the back while we waited. Eventually fell asleep to the sound of the rain on the car.

 No one had returned to the camp ground/ hostel during the night so we stole away first thing in the morning. The rain had abated to Kelli’s chagrin. We had booked paragliding  that morning and the only thing that would save Kelli and her fear of heights was rain or cloud cover. The sun was just managing to peak through the cloud so we were set.

From the town, we jumped in the back of a neon green jeep. The car couldn’t have been less than 30 years old. Reggaeton blared out the self installed speakers precariously dangling by its own cord from the jeeps roof. Up and up we climbed out of Jardín on what were presumably at one point roads but had now become deep trenches. Damage undoubtedly caused by 2500mm of rainfall down off the mountain annually.

Eventually we reached the top. We were high above Jardín, at least we think. The thick cloud would only clear for seconds at a time to provide glimpses of the town below.

After the world’s shortest briefing which consisted of our tandem paragliding guides telling us, in broken english, we would walk and then run and then sit, we were strapped up to our respective experts and waited for a clearing in the clouds.

Kelli, feeling nervous, elected to go first. After launching off the hillside, we glided within spitting range of the mountain beside us, cruising over dense forest, twisting and turning our way down. Every now and then I would catch a glimpse of Kelli in the distance before one of us was engulfed in thick white cloud again.

Eventually, we turned away from the mountain and soared toward the town. Over the streets and houses and eventually directly over the main town square and Jardín’s impressive cathedral before making our final turn back toward the towns outskirts and down to the “landing strip” where we unceremoniously slid on our behinds through the mud to a stop.

Exhilarating. I wish we had gotten a clearer day, but my first paraglide had been an experience and for about $30 USD, great value.

As the adrenalin wore off, we realized how hungry we were and we stopped off in town for a Bandeje Paise. Thuis breakfast platter is possibly my favourite Colombian dish. Bandeje Paise is Colombia’s answer to the full English breakfast and gives it a real run for its money. On a huge platter you will find rice, frijoles (beans), fried plantain, arepa (Colombian corn bread), fries, chorizo, fried chicharrón (fatty delicious pork), an egg and avocado. At $5 or $6 USD, the Bandeje Paise is more expensive then other options but one platter is definitely enough for two.

Bandeja Paisa in Colombia
Colombia’s Bandeje Paise

After brunch, we headed toward the town centre to take some photos and sample some more of the regions coffee. Perched in the upper story of De Los Andes Café we were able to watch Jardín central plaza hum along through the afternoon.

As the sun began to set, we walked down and out of the town (2 blocks or so) to the Parque Natural Jardín de Rocas. A tiny bird reserve that was home to 10 Rupicolas commonly known as the ‘Cock-of-the-Rock’.

Kelli is an avid bird watcher. Do not take that to mean she knows about birds or will hike miles into the the wilderness with binoculars and a little book to find birds, but if there is a bird in her vicinity she struggles to focus on anything else. In Amsterdam, this mostly meant chasing around oddly coloured or better yet oddly behaved pigeons.

Somehow, she stumbled upon the Cock-of-the Rock a bright orange bird with a quaff found throughout South America. Nothing would stop us from seeing it. We had already woken up at 4.30am that morning with the intent of seeking out the Cock-of-the-Rock, but thankfully the rain hadn’t stopped at that point and we had been allowed to go back to sleep.

Now just before sundown, we reached the reserve to try our luck. Kelli had already made it clear that should we not see it we would be returning here every morning and night until we did. Thankfully upon our arrival it became clear that the birds were out and about for all to see. We were able to photograph several of the birds.

The impressive Cock-of-the Rock, native to the Colombia Coffee Region
The impressive Cock-of-the Rock, native to the Colombia Coffee Region

After an hour or so, with Kelli deeply satisfied we headed back into town for a couple of beers in the dwindling light.

As the sun finally set completely a funeral procession made its way slowly through the main square with full police guard and hearse. Silence fell over the entire plaza and we rose with the locals to as the procession disappeared into the darkness.

We headed back to our car now located on a quiet street in town. The next day we would press on south for the salsa city of Cali, it would be long drive.

The Nut and Bolts

Colombia’s Coffee region is not to be missed but a love of coffee is not a pre-requisite. The stunning scenery, varied wildlife, unique culture and multitude of activities make this a fantastic area to explore. Some of the world’s best coffee is just a bonus.

How to Get to the Colombia Coffee Region

Pijao and Buena Vista can be reached from the city of Armenia, the capital of the Quindío Department. By bus or car, Armenia is 3 hours north of Cali, 7 hours south of Medellin and 7 hours west of Bogatà. Armenia has an airport so you can fly in from any major city in Colombia or indeed South-America.

Jardín is easily reached from Medellin by car or bus in 3 – 5 hours.

What to Do in the Colombia Coffee Region

  • Pijoa and Buena Vista are perfect places to relax and soak up the true character of the region. Not yet spoiled by over-tourism the farms of the region are authentic and charming.
  • Jardín is a larger town sporting a more developed tourism scene. Take the opportunity to rent a bike and explore this stunning region including caves and waterfalls. Take a cable car or better yet a paragliding experience to get a birds eye of the town and surrounding area. Relax in the colourful town plaza, people watch the campesino’s and towns people from a cafe in this central hub and meeting place.

Where to Eat in the Colombia Coffee Region

  • Equidistant from both Pijao and Buena Vista, Cafe Concorde has great food and an even better view. Pricey by local standards but high quality.
  • With Jardín’s flourishing tourism industry there is a lot of variety and a lot of quality restaurants. Try Consulado Vegetale, this vegetarian restaurant is delicious and reasonably priced.
  • For a more traditional meal in Jardín you can’t go past the regional favourite, Bandeja Paisa, we thoroughly enjoyed the one we got from Restaurante El Mesón Paisa a huge platter (enough for 2) of rice, frijoles, fries, chorizo, egg, avocado, arepa, and plantain for $5 USD.

Where to Drink in the Colombia Coffee Region

  • It’s coffee country so let’s talk coffee. The cafes surrounding the central plazas of these towns are all serving coffee sourced directly from local farmers. Take a cafe crawl to find your perfect one.
  • In Pijao, we highly recomend Café De Origen La Floresta for a coffee drinking experience that shames even Melbourne’s hippest cafés. You won’t find options here just pick one of the three beans on offer and enjoy it ‘neat’ along with explanation about the coffees background and flavour profile, just $2.50 a cup.
  • Chasing something a bit stronger? In all three towns there is only one choice…do how the locals do. After a long day working in the farm (or more likely drinking coffee and taking photos) head to the town plaza and pick a bar. Cheap beers and colourful locals, what else do you need?

Where to Stay in the Colombia Coffee Region

Connectivity in the Colombia Coffee Region

  • All three towns have 4g internet connection, I worked without issues in each town.
  • Wifi connectivity is common and fast in Jardín. Not so much in the smaller towns.

Pro-tip for Van Life in the Colombia Coffee Region

Driving south from Jardín to Cali? Go back on the same road you came in on, the road that heads south out of Jardín is in disastrous condition and much slower than back tracking.

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