Colombia, From City to Coffee Country

We weren’t looking for love. We certainly weren’t in the market for another long-term relationship (Provence is demanding attention while we spend way too much time with South Africa and Argentina).

But there she was.

Colombia. Cultural and colorful, with no shortage of cool hats.

This wasn’t the plan, by the way. We were supposed to be headed to Laos in Southeast Asia in less than 5 days, but Corona-panic took hold—leaving us with a free week and an intense desire to be anywhere but winter.

And there she was, offering coffee in one hand and rum in the other. She was pretty persuasive: Colombia is easy to get to (a short four-hour flight out of Atlanta to both Bogotá and Cartagena). It’s always warm. It’s bordered by both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines and beaches.

Contrary to its history, Colombia is very safe. (No lingering evidence of drug cartels or kidnapping people for ransom.) And the people are incredible, and genuinely excited to show off their majestic country.

As followers of professional road cycling, we knew Colombia had the Andes mountains and altitude (the Colombian climbers are somewhat akin to Energizer bunnies), but we hadn’t realized how biodiverse the entire country truly is.

For first timers, there are distinctly different regions to choose from, and you can’t really go wrong. Now that we’ve been there, we can see ourselves going back many times (sorry, Provence), so don’t go thinking you have to see the entire country in one fell swoop.

Bogota (see our city guide for recommendations):

The capital city, boasting great markets, restaurants, and bars. The city is loaded with street art and history, and its location in the Andes puts Bogotá at a formidable altitude. Think warm days and cool nights. It’s not a singular destination, but certainly worth a few days.

Medellin:

More urban, contemporary and hip with history amidst a somewhat troubled past (thanks, Pablo). Now one of the safer cities in the world with a temperate climate and position within the Andes (though not as high as Bogotá).

The Coffee Triangle:

Sitting high in the Western Andes, with lush mountains and rich culture and agriculture, the Coffee Triangle is made up of the cities of Pereira, Armenia, and Manizales. It’s where a majority of Colombia’s coffee is grown because of the altitude, climate, and fertile land. Spectacular natural beauty; hot days and warm nights.

Cartagena/Caribbean Coast (see our city guide for recommendations):

A beautifully preserved colonial town, colorful and vibrant. Colombian meets Caribbean, with African and Amerindian heritage. This historic old city is in great contrast with its backdrop of Miami-esque Bocagrande. Really hot days and hot nights.

Cali/Pacific Coast:

Salsa dancing, agriculture, and the jumping-off point for the peaceful Pacific Coast.

Barranquilla and Santa Marta/Tayrona National Park:

A complete contrast of the very new moneyed city of Barranquilla (thank you, oil refineries) and the area of Santa Marta, a beautiful coastal city close to the Tayrona National Park, which is spectacular and great for hiking and mountain biking.

For our first date with Colombia, we flew into Bogotá for a few days, followed by a trip to the Coffee Region, ending on the Caribbean in captivating Cartegena. It was a perfect first trip, especially considering it was put together in about 10 hours.

Colombia’s Coffee Triangle

To be honest, most of the coffee you drink while in Colombia… Isn’t great. It’s getting better, but they’ve spent their history exporting the best beans, so they were left with the dregs. Also, most Colombian beans are sent elsewhere to be roasted, and roasting is where you can really screw things by masking the true flavors and adding way too much caffeine (yes, there is such a thing as too much). That’s changing too, so if you go to coffee country, make sure to try some of the best organic beans grown and roasted right there.

The coffee region is a short flight from either Bogotá and Cartagena, flying into either Pereira or Armenia. You definitely don’t want to drive, unless spending over 8 hours in a car on crazy mountain roads is your kind of thing.

If you go to Pereira, the best hotel option (and there aren’t a lot) is Sazagua. It’s only 10 minutes from the airport, and a great location to access everything in under an hour. It’s a cozy, rustic, open-air small hotel, located next to pineapple fields and isolated from everything except the birds and flowers.

If you fly to Armenia, stay at either Hacienda Bambusa or Bio Habitat Hotel. Both have spectacular views and are open-air places, but a little further drive to places like Cocora Valley and Salento. Bio Habitat is a little livelier than the more peaceful Bambusa.

No need for restaurant recommendations. When you get to one of the hotels, you stay and eat their farm-to-table food. Don’t miss the fruit. All of the fruit. It was the freshest and most flavorful we’ve ever had, anywhere in the world.

When you’re there:

Do not miss a trip to the town of Salento, paired with a hike or walk through Cocora Valley to see the endangered wax palms.

Go to one or two coffee plantations. If just one, find one of the handful (like Finca la Mina) that is family-run, small, organic, and shows you the hands-on way coffee is grown, harvested, and roasted. If you have time for two tours, you can walk the expanse of one of the bigger plantations for comparison. Your hotels or the tour guide below will have great recommendations for both.

We also spent a half day mountain biking the Barbas River Canyon through the lush coffee, plantain, and bamboo fields, listening to the howler monkeys and stopping in small coffee towns like Arabia.

There are a lot of great guides and recommendations from the hotels for activities and coffee tours. For one of the organizers in the region, try BetaTown out of Salento and ask for Pedro.

After the relaxation of coffee country, we said goodbye to the plantains and pineapples to head back to city life with a short flight from Pereira to Cartagena.