If you’re an avid reader of my blog (yes, hello again, mum) you’ll know we’d both been ill – a lot – before arriving in Salento, in the far east of Colombia’s Zona Cafetera. And we were due to be meeting my friend Gabriel in Medellin, quite far away, in just two weeks’ time. A dilemma indeed. After going over all we wanted to do around Salento and working out how long it would all take (which mostly involved staring at elevation profiles and shaking our heads profusely), we decided that the hills had finally beaten us, and we’d have more fun by meandering through the coffee region before getting a bus from Manizales, the Zona’s second city, and not so far away.
Cue two of the most fun weeks we’ve had for ages. We first spent four days hiking in the beautiful and almost completely deserted Los Nevados National Park before setting off on the bikes and, averaging just 20 miles per day, we rode through yet more beautiful scenery, visiting charming colonial towns, family-owned coffee farms and even a coffee-themed theme park(!) as we made our way slowly north. The people down here were as warm as the weather and there was finally some half decent coffee to be had while whiling away the hours on the many pretty town plazas. It was like taking a holiday from a holiday. And that’s the best kind I’ll have you know!
Part 1: Los Nevados National Park
So our first stop after some convalescence in Salento was the Los Nevados (Volcanoes) national park, via the nearby Cocora Valley. Cocora is notable for its huge wax-palm trees (they reach 50 meters in height) and its equally huge numbers of wellington-boot clad backpackers, who come here at the behest of the Lonely Planet to do a two hour climb up to a rather curious hummingbird sanctuary-cum-cafe set deep in the jungle.
We naturally marched on straight past most of the backpackers, and helped most of the remaining few find their way back to the path as they’d got lost. And four more sweaty, muddy hours later we emerged from the jungle path/mudslide into the misty paramo (wetlands), high above the valleys below.
There were incredibly few tourists up here – mostly because the park is officially off-limits to those without a guide – and so we easily found a spot at the first finca (a small, family-run farm) to pitch our tent, in the shadow of the huge Tolima volcano.
From here we walked another day to a natural thermal spring in the heart of the park, before turning back the way we came and getting absolutely drenched on the way by the clouds that always seem to just appear out of nowhere at this altitude.
Part 2: The Zona Cafetera
We came back from Nevados feeling pretty broken after some pretty long days on foot, and it was at this point we decided to take it easy for a while rather than race to Medellin. We started in style, visiting the nearby Ocaso finca for one of their hugely-popular coffee tours, before making the short ride to Filandia, another colonial town, and spent two days drinking a lot of coffee on the beautiful town plaza and visiting another nearby finca, El Mirador.
From here we wound our way down on some incredibly scenic dirt roads to the next pretty colonial town, Montenegro, where we dumped our stuff in a hospedaje (that more resembled a prison – as we were trying to rein in our spending a bit) and jumped back on the bikes to Colombia’s National Coffee Park! This theme park had surprisingly little to do with coffee but it did have two rollercoasters and bumper boats – dodgems on water. Amazing.
The Zona Cafetera is full of fincas-turned-hotels, usually of the Costa del Sol villa type, with pools, bars, jacuzzis and as seemed obligatory, at least one billiards table and tejo court, to cater to Colombia’s two national sports (I swear, football comes a distant third). Anyway, we decided it would be rude not to stay in one, especially as it was so damn hot during the days, so the next day at around midday we decided to cheekily ask one if we could camp in their garden for a discounted price. Yes, we could! And did they also serve brandy by the glass? Yes, they did! And did I beat the owner of the finca at pool? You bet!
After this it was back to a bit more normality as we did a long day to Chinchina, where another Warmshowers host, Hernando, awaited us. Hernando was lovely but his place – which we got to ourselves – turned out to be a shell of an apartment nestled in between about ten nightclubs. Knowing what this meant we decided to get really drunk on the local rum, and did actually get some sleep. Any cyclists out there – try not to stay there on a weekend!
And last up before the big cities was one more night camping in a finca, this time the lovely Hacienda Venezia, where we got to use the pool and have unlimited coffee, which we gladly did, all afternoon.
And just like that we were on the final climb to the forgettable city of Manizales, from where a bus would take us to Medellin – where we would be seeing a friend for the first time in nine months, and also taking a long-overdue month off the bikes!