Indeed, the beauty of this place belies its status as an intensive hive of production. This is Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, the beating heart of one of the country’s most important exports and, though it covers less than one percent of Colombia’s total surface area, the region alone accounts for more than half the country’s coffee exports.
A trio of cities, Manizlaes, Pereira and Armenia, form the centres of the region. Manizales and Pereira have a lot to offer: the former is a vibrant and pretty university town, while Pereira makes a good jumping off point for visiting local coffee fincas. Armenia on the other hand provides little but bleak provincial urbanity, though chances are you’ll have to pass through to get into the surrounding countryside.
Less than an hour’s bus ride from Armenia, Salento was one of the region’s earliest modern settlements. Its diminutive central square plays host to a local market, while the surrounding low-rise streets provide a wonderful setting for whiling away a few quiet days. Happily, though tourism is on the march here, the town manages to retain a workaday feel, with rural labourers still a more common sight than backpackers.
Once in Salento, it’s difficult to resist the opportunity to explore the stunning Valle de Cócora, a protected region of cloud forest crisscrossed by trails that can easily be walked on a daytrip. In Salento, jeeps stationed in the main plaza provide a cheap lift to the village of Cócora at the trailhead. After a fairly easy tramp through the local trout farms, the entrance to the forest looms ahead. It’s well worth hanging around here at the forest edge for a while where the region’s amazing range of birdlife likes to sit, feed and preen. Toucanets, trogons, motmots and Inca jays are just a few of those whose appearance lives up to their colourful name.
Once in the forest, the trail snakes around streams and across a few sturdy rope bridges, around which are the remains of several pre-Colombian tombs. It’s well worth a quick diversion to reach the Reserva Acaime, a small section of forest where you can get close to some of the eight species of hummingbird in the region. You might also receive one of the area’s stranger revivers: a mug of hot chocolate with a block of white cheese dumped in it.
Following the trail onwards, there’s a fairly mammoth climb up to a mountain-top mirador. It’s an exhausting slog, but the views on offer make the one hour ascent every bit worthwhile. The enormous local wax palms which dot the way back down to Cócora are virtually endemic to this area and are now specially protected.
Coming from the madness of Bogotá or the searing heat of the north coast, this tiny pocket of Colombia offers a peaceful respite. It can be a bit of a journey to get here, but for those looking for peace and quiet with a bit of adventure thrown in, it’s well worth the effort.