Nominally a slang term to describe anyone from the mountainous region of Antioquia, paisas are alternately the butt of jokes and the object of envy for many Colombians. What makes them stand out is their rugged individualism and reputation for industriousness. Their fame dates back to the early nineteenth century, when they cleared Colombia’s hinterland for farming in exchange for the government’s carrot of free land. Perhaps the biggest paisa contribution to Colombia is its role in the spread of coffee.
The heart of paisa country is the metropolis of Medellín, which has made a remarkable turnaround since its days as Colombia’s murder capital in the early 1990s, and turned into an attractive cosmopolitan city. The picturesque coffee-growing fincas near the modern cities of Manizales and Pereira were almost all established by paisa homesteaders and some growers have opened their estates to tourists, who during harvest time can partake in the picking process. Easily accessible from Pereira, the incredibly photogenic village of Salento is the gateway to some great hiking in the misty Valle de Cócora. The so-called Zona Cafetera, or “Coffee Zone”, is the base for exploring one of Colombia’s most postcard-perfect national parks, Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados.
It’s hard to say which of Colombia’s two cash crops garners more international attention, the white or the black one. One thing is for certain: both are synonymous with quality. The country’s first bumper crop was coffee. Colombia is the second-largest producer of hand-picked mild Arabica coffee after Brazil and the third-largest overall coffee producer in the world (behind Vietnam and Brazil). High temperatures, heavy rainfall and cool evening breezes make Colombia the bean’s ideal habitat, though changes in weather patterns have led to poor crops in recent years: 7.8 million bags were produced in 2011 following torrential downpours, fungus and flooding, well below the average of around 12 million.
Cocaine was perceived as an innocuous stimulant until the twentieth century. Two US presidents, several European monarchs and even a pope were early addicts (and vocal advocates) of Vin Tonique Mariani, a nineteenth-century liqueur made from coca extract. The “real thing” that Coca-Cola initially pushed on its customers was cocaine. For Sigmund Freud, a spoonful of coke each day was the cure for depression. Plan Colombia has seen some decline in coca cultivation, though coca growers have merely moved on to producing hardier coca crops that give four times as much yield and grow far faster than old crops, though the cocaine-related cartel violence that used to plague the cities of Medellín and Cali has recently been “exported” to Mexico, where drug trade-related murders have risen dramatically in the last few years.
A few nearby parks make good if not absolutely essential stops within range of Medellín.
The Parque Ecológico Piedras Blancas, 26km east of the city, serves as the lungs of Medellín. Set at the cool height of 2500m, much of this nature reserve has been reforested with native species, attracting butterflies and birds such as the brilliant blue soledad and the toucanet. Well-preserved pre-Columbian stone trails constructed between 100 BC and 700 AD weave through the park, while there is a butterfly gallery and a slick insect museum close to the official entrance.
Indisputably one of the crown jewels in Colombia’s national parks system, the PARQUE NACIONAL NATURAL LOS NEVADOS (entry COP$57,000, including guide), 40km southeast of Manizales, protects some of the last surviving snowcapped peaks in the tropics. Three of the five volcanoes are now dormant, but Nevado del Ruiz – the tallest at 5321m – remains an active threat, having killed 22,000 people and buried the now extinct town of Armero when it erupted in 1985. Sadly, though, for a park whose name, Nevado, implies perpetual snow, climate change has lifted the snow line to almost 5000m on most peaks. The best months to visit are January and February – clear days make for spectacular views of the volcanic peaks. March, July, August and December can also be ideal, while the rest of the year sees a fair amount of rain.
The park’s northern sector is the more touristy and is easily accessible from Manizales. Though it’s of little compensation, because of the severe melt, it’s now possible for even moderately fit armchair adventurers to reach Nevado del Ruiz’s summit in a long day’s journey from Manizales. Although not technically difficult – with good weather you can climb in regular hiking shoes – a guide (see Tour operator) is required to navigate the confusing path and assist in the event of altitude sickness.
At the time of writing, the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano was showing some activity, so the park was off-limits. Instead, Mountain House offers an alternative: hiking down through stunning mountain scenery, past mountain villages. The hostel arranges for its guests to meet a milkman’s cart at an assigned point at 4.30am; the milkman then drives up the mountain road to the starting point of the hike and picks up the hikers further down the road a couple of hours later, having finished his rounds. The outing costs around COP$50,000. Wear warm clothing as you’ll be going up to a high altitude in the middle of the night.
The dramatic southern end, where a dense wax-palm forest slowly metamorphoses into páramo near the cobalt-blue Laguna del Otún (3950m), can only be accessed on foot. Reaching Laguna del Otún from Manizales involves an initial four-hour drive, taking in park highlights such as the extinct Olleta crater, Laguna Verde and Hacienda Potosí, before culminating in a two-hour trek to the trout-stuffed lagoon (fishing permitted). You can also approach from the Valle de Cócora in Salento.
There is no public transport to the park. Many visitors come as part of a day-trip, which doesn’t allow a great deal of time for hiking. To explore the park at your leisure, it’s possible to sign up for a day-trip and then arrange to stay overnight, to be picked up by the same tour company the following day.
Contact a tour operator to see whether Parque Nacional Los Nevados is still off-limits.
Just 56km south of Manizales, PEREIRA makes an equally suitable base for exploring the Zona Cafetera. The region’s largest city, it shares Manizales’ history as a centre for the coffee industry. Its historic centre has been repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes, the most recent striking in 1999. However, it’s closer to many of the region’s coffee fincas and thermal springs.
Pereira’s Plaza de Bolívar is unique among the uniformly named central plazas of Colombia for its modern sculpture of Bolívar Desnudo – the El Libertadór nude on horseback, a controversial pose when it was unveiled in 1963 but now a beloved city symbol. Also on the plaza is the town’s magnificent Catedral, built in 1875. Nondescript from the outside, the Catedral’s single-nave interior is supported by an elaborate latticework of twelve thousand wooden beams forming a canopy like a spider’s web.
Coffee is the planet’s most-traded commodity after oil and Colombia is one of its largest producers, with 500,000-plus growers and the unique benefit of two annual harvests. Recognized for producing world-class coffee, coffee fincas in the Zona Cafetera are now following in the footsteps of the wine industry and opening their doors to curious tourists.
Fincas range from traditional estates still attended by their owner to deceptively modern rural hotels where the only coffee you’ll find comes served with breakfast. Scenically, the farms look out on lush slopes, overgrown with the shiny-leaved coffee shrubs and interspersed with banana plants and bamboo-like guadua forests. Many will also arrange horseriding and walks, and they make an ideal base to explore the region’s many attractions.
To locate the best fincas for your needs, ask other travellers; you can also enquire at the local tourist offices or hostels in Manizales or Pereira.
Hacienda Guayabal Cra 3 No. 15–72 Chinchiná 314 772 4856, www.haciendaguayabal.com. Runs tours, in English, of their postcard-perfect coffee farm (COP$30,000). Guests can stay in the main house, and the price includes a tour, three meals and use of the swimming pool. To get there, take a bus from Manizales or Pereira to Chinchiná (30min) and then travel the last 3km by taxi or catch a bus from in front of the church to the farm. Per person COP$50,000
Hacienda Venecia C 59 No. 24A–18 6 885 0771, haciendavenecia.com. This fourth-generation, family-owned working coffee farm is an essential stop for anyone who wants to learn more about coffee production, roasting techniques, trade and aromas. Proud owner Juan Pablo exports coffee as well as roasting for the domestic market. Tours (COP$30,000 including pick-up from Manizales) of his sprawling plantation allow visitors to observe the production process from start to finish. Spend a night at the guesthouse, swinging in a hammock on the veranda, firefly-spotting and listening to the croaks of happy frogs in the swimming pool. Breakfast included. To get there, catch a taxi (COP$35,000) or take a jeep from the Plaza de Mercado in Manizales (3 daily at 6am, midday and 5pm; COP$3000). Per person COP$30,000
Sitting at the foot of a 25m-high waterfall and surrounded by lush greenery, these attractive hot springs consist of four thermal pools and a visitor centre with cafeteria and massages on offer, and you can also take a dip in the natural pool directly beneath the waterfall. Just a little further down the dirt road are the thermal springs attached to the Hotel Termales, which resembles an alpine chalet, with one large pool and two thimble-sized hot tubs available to non-guests, set against a spectacular backdrop of three tall waterfalls. There’s also a lavish spa on site.
These lavishly landscaped hot springs, 35km northeast of Pereira via the town of Santa Rosa de Cabal, feature a selection of steaming medicinal thermal pools scattered across some five square kilometres of cloudforest, river, waterfalls and luxuriant countryside. At 2330m, it gets pretty chilly up here, so it helps that the average pool temperature is 38°C. A variety of spa treatments is offered, including massage (COP$40,000) and mud therapy (COP$20,000). If you want to spend the night at the springs, the most cost-effective option is camping (COP$85,000 including entrance fee and breakfast). Further up the accommodation ladder are cabañas (COP$180,000).
In the heart of coffee country, the adorable village of SALENTO is one of the region’s earliest settlements, and its slow development means the original lifestyle and buildings of the paisa journeymen who settled here in 1842 have barely been altered since. Rural workers clad in cowboy hats and ruanas (Colombian ponchos) are a common sight. The colourful, wonderfully photogenic one-storey homes of thick adobe and clay-tile roofs that surround the plaza are as authentic as it gets.
Salento is a popular destination for weary backpackers who linger here to soak up the town’s unpretentious charms and hike in the spectacular Valle de Cócora or to use the town as a base to explore the rest of the Zona Cafetera. Salento is also the second most popular weekend destination in the country for Colombians, and on Saturdays and Sundays the main plaza hosts a food and handicrafts fair. Salento’s annual fiesta falls in the first week of January, when the town kicks up its heels for a week of horse processions, mock bullfighting and folk dancing.
From the top of Calle Real, steps lead to Alto de la Cruz, a hilltop mirador offering unbeatable vistas of the Valle de Cócora and, on a clear day, the peaks of snow-clad volcanoes in Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados.
Salento sits atop the VALLE DE CÓCORA, which contains a thick forest of the skyscraper wax palm, Colombia’s national plant, which grows up to 60m high. The valley, which offers picturesque hikes, is easily explored in a day-trip from Salento. The hamlet of Cócora, with a handful of restaurants, small shops and hotels, lies 11km east of Salento. From Cócora a well-trodden path leads into misty, pristine cloudforest, scattered with the remains of pre-Columbian tombs and dwellings. Orchids, bromeliads and heliconias are just some of the plant species that thrive here, and the fauna includes spectacled bear, native deer and puma, along with hundreds of bird species such as toucans, eagles and motmots.
A five- to six-hour loop walk starts from the blue gate in Cócora; the muddy track passes a trout farm and runs through farmland for around 45 minutes before reaching the park entrance, after which you’re following an uneven, slippery trail through cloudforest. The trail eventually branches, with one track leading up to the extremely worthwhile Reserva Acaime (entrance COP$3000), home to eighteen species of hummingbirds that flock to its bird feeders. The price includes a large mug of revitalizing hot chocolate and a chunk of locally produced cheese. You then retrace your steps to the main trail that crosses nine rickety wooden Indiana Jones-style bridges over the Río Quindío before the Finca La Montaña branch culminates at a mountain-top viewing platform with exhilarating valley views. The way down along a wide gravel road takes you past a cluster of wax palms – Colombia’s national tree.
Bearing a freakish resemblance to Rio de Janeiro’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, Piedra del Peñol, or simply “the rock”, rises spectacularly from the edge of Embalse del Peñol, an artificial lake some 70km east of Medellín, studded with islands. Locals may tell you that the 200m granite and quartz monolith is a meteorite. Whatever geological or intergalactic anomaly brought it here, it’s well worth climbing the 649 stone steps to the rock’s peak for phenomenal 360-degree views of emerald green peninsulas jutting into the azure Embalse del Peñol – a hydroelectric dam that submerged the original town of El Peñol in the 1970s.
There is a handful of restaurants and tourist stalls at the base of the rock, but it’s better to walk or take a jeep to the delightful lakeside village of Guatapé, 3km away, which is full of restaurants serving trout fresh from the lake. The palm-lined main square, Plaza Simón Bolívar, is well preserved, with its crowning glory the Iglesia La Inmaculada Concepción; throughout the town you’ll find colourful colonial houses adorned with intricate artistic motifs.