Nearly everyone is familiar with Juan Valdez, the character created by Colombia’s coffee industry in 1959 to promote bean exports. Fewer people, though, tend to know about the region that inspired the character. The aptly named Coffee Triangle (Cafetero Triangolo) was designated a world heritage sight by UNESCO in June 2011. I had the pleasure of visiting this past August.
Nestled in the Central Andes in the heart of Colombia, the Coffee Triangle gives its visitors something completely different from the colonial Caribbean vibe of Cartagena and the frenetic urban sprawl of Bogotá (the two most popular destinations for North American travelers to Colombia). From 18th century “fincas” to modern boutique hotels with amenities to match, this mountainous area is home to a glorious range of seriously one-of-a-kind accommodations. A standout is the “boutique hacienda” property Sazagua. Reflecting the flora of the region with its bamboo décor, each room is equipped with Wifi and a flatscreen TV. The effect of this is a unique expression of eco-sensitive luxury that perfectly captures the essence of Colombia’s burgeoning inland tourism.
What to do once there? Of course you should tour a plantation and do a coffee tasting (something that is taken as seriously here as wine tasting in a grape-growing region) but the biggest draw for me was nature. There are many well-appointed golf courses; Colombia is known as something of a golfing destination within Latin America. Or you could go hiking in the Los Nevados Natural Parque, whose highest snow-capped peaks stretch some 5,000 meters above sea level. For those in search of adventure, there’s white water rafting and canopy ziplines. I did the Bosque de Saman, a dizzying course that takes you more than 2,000 meters above a lush canopy of coffee plants (full disclosure: I almost chickened out from going at all, but was cajoled into taking the plunge by the guys running the zipline. I’m happy I caved, though, because even for this terrified-of-heights traveler, it was a beautiful experience.) After upping the adrenaline, you may want to take advantage of the region’s famed natural springs. Los Termales de San Vicente and Santa Rosa are home to spas, natural springs and various accommodations for travelers in search of calming, age-old water cures. Another incredibly relaxing excursion is a visit to the botanical gardens and butterfly preserve, which is home to more than 600 species of plants, 200 of birds and many, many fluttering “mariposas.” Horseback rides and four-wheel-drive Jeep excursions are also a popular way to immerse oneself in the region.
Even if you’re a tea drinker, there are culinary takeaways that make this mountainous region a delicious experience. Colombia’s indigenous assortment of fruits – and the concordant ubiquity of fresh squeezed juices and “batidos” (milkshakes made with fruit) – is truly impressive. Guayaba, guanábana, pineapple, chirimoya, curuba, níspero, lulo, maracuyo, tomate de árbol (that last one means “tree tomato” and it looks like a tomato but tastes sweet and tart): the list goes on and it was unlike any place I’ve ever been in terms of taste and variety. Plus, the locals know to capitalize on their natural riches: From decadent and colorful breakfasts to thoughtfully prepared dessert, the jewel-toned regional bounty makes constant appearances. Another must-have meal in the Central Andes is their river trout. A specialty of the “estancias“ and farmhouses of the area, it’s prepared to order and 100 percent representative of the clean flavors of the coffee region.
*Not enough of a java boost? Check out fellow GLR writer David Perry’s review of the Presso Espresso Coffee Maker.