Even the most hardened traveler would find it hard not to perk up at the site of the delightful
coffee scented mountains of the Western Colombian Andes. Dotted with outrageously colorful towns, the enchanting landscapes of the country’s main coffee growing area feel straight out of a flower-filled fairy tale.
And the stars of this tale are the paisas, the convivial residents of the region famed for their
industrious attitude and unbridled hospitality. Whether in the fashionable modern city of Medellín, one of South America’s most dynamic urban centers, or one of the many tranquil mountainous villages, the paisas are incredibly proud of their region and love nothing more than to share its charms with visitors.
Located at the heart of a striking valley, Medellín makes an excellent place to begin a journey into these extraordinary lands. Like many parts of the region, the city has a delectable permanent springlike climate which is perfect for soaking up the atmosphere in the city’s parks and outdoor spaces including the immense Parque Arví or the Plaza Botero, which features works from the region’s most loved artist.
Alternatively, visitors can travel to mountainous neighborhoods to learn about the city’s transformation first hand or ride the cable cars above for a birds-eye view of this most inspirational of cities before enjoying one of the best dining and nightlife scenes in the country.
Medellín is famed for the magnificent Feria de las Flores, or Flower Festival, during which silleteros come from the surrounding mountains to walk their intricate flower arrangements through the city.
While the region’s main urban center is certainly remarkable, the countryside of the Western Andes is every bit as special. Like a spectacular canvas that makes use of every color on the palette, the region is a bright wonderland of perfectly groomed hillsides and lush valleys filled with blossoming flowers that attract a myriad of exotically quilled birds. A place where neat two-toned farmhouses with vividly painted window frames overlook the waters of crystal-clear rivers that descend with vigor from the mountains above.
Here agriculture and nature coexist in harmony, a result in part due to the pervasiveness of the evergreen coffee bush, which seems to have been designed specifically for these mountains.
But coffee is more than just a crop here, it’s a way of life. While it’s true that coffee is grown in many regions of the country, nowhere is it so important to the local culture than in the Western Andes. The link between the coffee bean and these lands is so essential that the region has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site - the Coffee Cultural Landscape.
From the skilled harvesters who balance expertly on impossibly steep hillsides to hand pick the beans to colorful jeeps loaded with the crop and the bustling cafes on picturesque town squares, coffee makes the Western Andes tick and visitors can follow the process every step of the way from from the bush to the cup.
The three most southern departments of the Western Andes form the coffee axis - the traditional heartland of coffee production in Colombia. The three departmental capitals of the axis, Manizales, Pereira and Armenia are great jumping off points from which to visit working coffee farms. For an even more immersive experience, visit one of the fabulous country towns of the area where farmers and visitors mix over a hot cup.
The mountains of the coffee axis were first colonized by paisas from Antioquia in search of fertile lands. These first settlers bought with them a love for the outdoors, hearty cuisine and distinctive architecture.
Salento is famed for its colorful houses and traditional coffee-country ambience. It’s also the gateway to the unmissable Cocora Valley with its towering wax palms - the tallest palm tree in the world.
Nearby Filandia boasts some of the best preserved paisa architecture in the region with its elaborately painted two story houses boasting wonderful wooden balconies and is known for its traditional weavers.
The coffee axis is also the main jumping off point for the magnificent Los Nevados National Park which offers high altitude treks among glaciers, moors and lakes. The thermic action of the volcanoes of the park heat half a dozen thermal baths in the foothills below which are an inviting option for relaxation after a strenuous day of action.
As impressive as it is, the park is just one of many exhilarating natural attractions in the Western Andes. With a collaborative climate, fine infrastructure and scenic vistas, the region is one of the best places in the country for cycling tours and outdoor adventure.
The foothills of these mountains house many small nature reserves that are among the best bird-watching destinations on the continent while the Río Claro nature reserve, located on the eastern side of the region, is centered on a wonderfully clear river perfect for bathing that flows through a narrow jungle-clad canyon. Equally clear waters can be amongst the inviting rural landscapes of the La Miel river, where the Western Andes meet the Magdalena River.
Another not-to-be-missed outdoors experience is the expansive Guatapé reservoir which fronts the pretty little town of the same name. Formed by the flooding of a river valley to generate electricity, it’s a maze of endless peninsulas jutting out into the cool mountain waters. For the best views climb to the top of the Piedra del Peñol, one of the world’s largest stone monoliths.
In contrast to the bright paintwork of Guatapé town, the historic colonial town of Santa Fe de Antioquia is all whitewashed walls and stonework. The first major settlement in the region, it retains much of its original splendor and houses fascinating museums as well as the iconic Puente del Occidente over the Cauca River, the most impressive suspension bridge in the country.
But perhaps the title of loveliest town of all belongs to Jardín in southern Antioquia. Nestled in the protective embrace of towering mountains, its wonderfully colorful plaza lies in stark contrast to its oversized grey stone church. The area surrounding the town is home to caves, waterfalls, rivers and coffee farms and is amongst the most spectacular in the region and can also be explored from the nearby towns of Jeríco and Tamesis.
Bringing together pioneering modern cities, welcoming inhabitants, a rich culture and superb mountain scenery, the Western Andes are the ideal destination for all kinds of trips whether relaxing amongst nature, wining and dining or caffeine-infused high altitude adventures.
While the major gateway to the region is the international airport at Medellín, there are also airports at Pereira and Armenia that receive limited international flights while Manizales has air links to Bogotá.
By road, the southern reaches of the region are just three hours from the gateway city of Cali while both Medellín and the coffee axis cities are linked to Bogota in the Eastern Colombian Andes by smooth mountain highways. From Medellín there are also two scenic highways to the Greater Colombian Caribbean.