Two weekends ago was a long weekend in Colombia because of Columbus Day, and because we had an extra day to travel, we ventured a little further from Medellín, south to Eje Cafetero (Coffee Triangle). In three days of exploring different parts of the region, we encountered at least five distinctly different natural environments, with such a variety of climates, plants, and animals that I still scarcely believe they can all exist in such a small area.

Salento

Our first stop was Salento, a small town in Quindío that is popular for its charm and proximity to Valle de Cocora. We arrived near sunset, tired and starving after nearly six hours of driving without stopping. After dinner at a crepe restaurant near the entrance to the town (crepes are oddly common in Colombia and I have yet to figure out why), we wandered through the main tourist area, several blocks along one street that are full of souvenirs, artisanal shops, and restaurants. At the end of the street is the mirador, an outlook point high above the town that allegedly has an amazing view of the valley. Given that it was dark and we had no desire to climb a bunch of stairs, we opted to leave the mirador for later. We never did actually make it up there, which I suppose is an excuse to go back to Salento!

We stayed that night and the next at a hostel about a mile outside of town called Yambolombia. It’s an open house on a large property, full of hippies, backpackers, and dogs, and I loved it. It was a tranquil, comfortable place to rest after a day of driving, and then after a day of marathon hiking.

Valle de Cocora

The next morning we woke early and drove a few kilometers outside of town to the entrance of Valle de Cocora, one of the last remaining areas where wax palms grow in large numbers. A trail runs through cow pastures along the base of the valley, and this is heavily traveled by visitors on foot and horseback. Although the trail can be crowded, the wax palms along the way are impressive, and the colors of the scenery are absolutely enchanting, especially with the changing light as the clouds move along the valley.

But the real fun began as we continued along the trail past the end of the valley and into the mountains. The first path we took followed a small river through the forest, later parting from the river to climb up to Casa Acaime, an isolated house in the woods where hummingbirds gather. They feed on the flowered bushes and trees that are common in this region and on the feeders that the owners of the house have set up for them. Nearly twenty different species of hummingbird can be found in this area, and these birds are accustomed to visitors, so it is possible to get close enough to take some amazing photos.

The 5 kilometer hike to Casa Acaime took much less time than we had expected, so we ventured onto another trail that began just before the end of the first one.

This took us another 5 kilometers deeper into the mountains to Estrella de Aguas, a campsite at the south end of Parque Nacional de Nevado. It was a grueling two hours of climbing, but totally worth the pain for the amazing change in landscape that we experienced. As the altitude and distance from the river increased, the temperatured dropped and the land dried visibly. When we crossed the ridge from one side of the mountain to the other, there was an obvious and sudden change in vegetation. Although there was never one point with a truly astounding vista, there were so many interesting plants and animals along the way that it didn’t matter.

After covering 20 kilometers of mountainous terrain in 6 hours, we couldn’t do much more that night than stuff our faces at the best restaurant in town and collapse in a heap, feeling like champions.

Parque Nacional Nevado del Ruiz

The next day we wanted more, but there aren’t really any more hiking options close to Salento, so we drove two hours to the north side of Parque Nacional de Nevado, the only place where it’s possible to enter by car. According to the information we had found online, there are walking trails that begin from this point. However, when we got there we found that all the trails were closed to hikers because of volcanic activity at Nevado del Ruiz, one of three peaks in the park. The only option for exploring the park was to drive up a bumpy dirt road, along with a fleet of other visitors, to the highest point accessible by vehicle. Since we had come all that way to see the park, we decided to go for it even though it wasn’t what we had imagined.

The landscape was truly like nothing I have ever seen before. As we climbed, grasslands dotted with purple flowers and strange cacti gave way to a barren desert of volcanic rock and dust. We were so high up that clouds moved along the ground, blocking and revealing rock formations and changing the scene by the second. Although the view was impressive, if we had known that we would not be able to hike, we would not have bothered to drive two hours to see it. This is probably exactly why the park management (a private group with a concession from the government) neglects to publish current information about park conditions online. The entrance fee is astronomical by Colombian standards, and probably no one would come and pay the fee if they knew all the trails were closed.

Hacienda Venecia

After our short jaunt through the park, we decided to look for a coffee farm where we could stay the night, preferably one where we could do some walking the next day. Surprisingly, the first one we found online had a room available, even though it was a holiday weekend, and they told us there were many places to walk along dirt roads through the hills, among the many coffee farms in the area.

We arrived at Hacienda Venecia with just over an hour of sunlight left and immediately went out to explore the property and stretch our legs after a day spent mostly in the car. The difference in temperature between Nevado del Ruiz was a bit of a shock — after shivering in gloves and a hat, I put on shorts for the first time in weeks. We picked up an adorable companion along the way, a friendly little basset hound whom we called, very creatively, Orejas (which means “ears” in Spanish). The farm doesn’t just grow coffee but also processes, roasts, and sells it. We checked out the mill and walked a short way into the coffee fields, but we didn’t get far before the light faded.

The next day we headed out again, this time along a dirt road that climbed from the bottom of the valley all the way to the top of the ridge, connecting a series of coffee farms. In the warmer climate, we saw and heard a huge number of birds and insects, which I tried to capture on camera with only a little success. By midday the heat was up and we were ready to clean up and head back to Medellín.

It was a great weekend, and I would definitely recommend Eje Cafetero to travelers who enjoy the outdoors and like to explore. It would have been a little more difficult to do without a car, but intercity buses are frequent and cheap, and there are many guides and taxis that provide relatively inexpensive transport. If you’re in Medellín, Cali or Bogotá, it’s worth the effort to spend a weekend in Eje Cafetero.