The Zona Cafetera, with Kids (or, Touring Colombia’s Coffee Region with People Who Don’t Care about Coffee)Posted: October 24, 2013
We are incapable of planning anything these days, so we found ourselves facing the kids’ 10 day October break (didn’t school just start?) with nothing going on. Colombia’s coffee region is only a few hours from Medellin, and we haven’t sold the car yet, so we decided on an impromptu road trip through the Colombian countryside. The kids were really excited about touring a working coffee farm and learning everything about the many varieties of Colombian coffee. Just kidding. We figured the coffee amusement park and the active volcano would keep them from staging a mutiny.
But first we had to drop off the dog. The boarding place was an hour outside of the city, unfortunately in the wrong direction, and we got really lost. Three hours later, the dog was settled and we were on our way.
Rather than backtrack to Medellin, we decided to take some smaller roads that appeared to meet up with the main highway eventually. The road we took was a one and a half lane mostly paved, twisty mountainous road. There were a few houses along the way and we saw signs advertising the bicentennial of a town called Abejorral. This gave us hope that the road less travelled would continue to exist, despite the fact that large portions of it were sliding away.
A few hours into the trip Sam freaked out when he realized we weren’t going to the airport. He screamed and demanded to be taken to the airport. Aiden begged to have the iPad. We were driving on insane roads, on mountaintops with gorgeous views. We tried to convince Sam that we were basically flying at that point, we were up so high. I reminded him that while this trip did not involve the airport, we would be going to an amusement park with a roller coaster. That stopped the crying, but started the questions.
Sam: When are we at the park? Is this the park? Are we at the park now?
Me: Um, we’ll be at the park in 2 or 3 days. (Nothing calms a child like delayed gratification.) Here’s the iPad, watch your brother play minecraft.
The kids looked down at the iPad for the remainder of the trip.
I had flashbacks to the time I read the Thorn Birds while my dad drove through the Smoky Mountains, down America’s Curviest Road (aka the dragon’s tail) yelling back “I can’t believe you’re not looking at this view!” Andrew recalled feeling pretty lucky he had car bingo on his cross-country trips with his family.
We finally drove into the little town of Abejorral, right into the town’s second annual horse parade. With our red Mini Cooper/gringo clown car, we looked like we belonged in the parade. And there wasn’t any way out, so we went with it.
We finally managed to duck out of the parade and found a place to eat.
Of the 3 roads leading out of Abejorral (according to Google Maps) one was a driveway, one was a donkey trail, and the remaining option was unpaved and not-so-direct. We had an hour and half of daylight left and were really hoping we’d be off the dirt road by then. We asked a man walking down the road if it would be paved at some point, and meet up with the main road eventually. Yes and yes, but it would take a few hours. He said the road was paved near the cement factory at Cairo.
There were a few small houses along the way, each one with a completely unnecessary speed bump out front, made for vehicles with a much higher clearance than ours. We ripped up the bottom of the car, which incidentally we are currently trying to sell. We drove next to creeks and up to the tops of mountains, back and forth and around. It was beautiful, but also really nerve-wracking.
The sun set. The car bottomed out too many times. We drove through a river. We passed towns called Sorrow and Delirium. And finally we made it to Cairo, and pavement. We had been driving most of the day, it was dark and we still had several hours to go before we would reach our destination of Manizales. And… we had only gone 60 miles, all day!
An aside on roads in Colombia: our Colombian friend Ade went to the US for the first time and came back with pictures of highways. She had never seen roads so large and orderly. What we were driving on, the “main road,” was two lanes and way curvier than the dragon’s tail. As we now know, there aren’t many alternatives to the “main road” so every transport vehicle and car passing through the region is on this road and everybody wants to be first. They pass on blind curves in the dark. They pass other people passing people on blind curves. I am not kidding. I can’t begin to explain the terror. And it was way more terrifying at night.
Andrew wanted to push on to Manizales, 3 more hours in the dark with grumpy kids. I insisted we stop at the nearest town for the night and frantically looked for some place to stay in La Pintada. Andrew was not impressed; he is all about reaching his destination. There were a few biker hotels by the side of the road, one called The Mermaid and another called the King. Aiden was not impressed. He asked if we could just stay at a normal hotel. There was no normal hotel, but there was a place right when we came into the town of La Pintada called the Real Dynasty, so we headed there. (Obviously the King and the Mermaid would stay at the RD if they could). It had a pool with a slide, so we were sold. We were charged $25 night per person including breakfast. The rooms were fine. There were 6 beds in ours, which meant 2 of us could pee the bed in the night if we wanted to. The best surprise was the view we woke up to in the morning.
We spent most of the day by the pool recovering from the previous day’s 90 mile, six-hour drive.
And then on to Manizales. Manizales is a university town, at a higher altitude than Medellin and in the heart of the coffee region. We didn’t spend much time in the city, but headed to a hotel on the outskirts of town with hot springs.
Termales Otoño is one of the ritzier hotels in Manizales and it is beautiful. There are pools all around the property fed from the volcanic hot springs and the setting is gorgeous. It was so promising. Unfortunately, the water did bad things to the kids. A sign outside the pools warned that some people are sensitive to the minerals in the water. The kids enjoyed the pools for about 20 minutes and then both started scratching frantically. Within a few hours they were covered in rashes.
We had a painful night at the Termales Otoño. Beyond the itching and scratching, there were the rock hard Opus Dei mattresses. The kids thrashed around all night, Aiden got bit by a spider and Sam peed the bed, which it deserved. Originally Andrew thought we’d stay 2 nights at this place but we were ready to move on.
We packed up the car and headed to the Nevado del Ruiz, the volcano in Los Nevados National Park. We drove up 45 minutes to a totally different landscape, and a part of Colombia I never thought I’d see. (That is, the part with snow.)
We stopped at the visitor center at 13,000 feet for a mandatory overview of the park and the areas of volcanic activity, and we were given a guide who would accompany us the rest of the way.
We collected volcanic rocks and trudged around in the mist at 15,000 feet. When the mist cleared you could see the glacial snow on the nearby mountains, and the top of the volcano. The eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in 1985 was the worst natural disaster in Colombia. It triggered a landslide that buried the town of Armero and killed 25,000 people. They take the volcano more seriously now and have a color-coded warning system that determines how close you can get to the volcano on any given day.
We drove back to the town of Manizales and had lunch at a cafe that served homemade ice cream and dozens of types of coffee (finally, some actual coffee sampling!). We had planned on driving on to the next destination a few hours away, but needed a break from the car. The waitress gave us the name of a coffee farm just outside of town that rented rooms in their 100-year-old hacienda. The change in the landscape and climate from the volcano to the coffee farm just over an hour away was pretty spectacular, and one of the things I love about Colombia.
We all agreed we could happily stay at the Hacienda for another week, but we only had one day left before we had to get Andrew back to Medellin for a conference. And we couldn’t return without going to the coffee themed amusement park. We drove 2 hours through Pereira and Armenia, the other main cities in the coffee region, to the National Park of Coffee.
We didn’t go to the coffee show or the coffee museum, obviously, and the kids didn’t meet the horse-riding height requirement. But they went on most of the rides multiple times and with little wait. The park is the right size for someone who goes catatonic at the thought of Disney World. We had a great time, and there was only one meltdown (involving roller coaster height requirements), plus an unfortunate incident involving pizza and an oregano shaker full of live bugs (bring your own lunch!). We stayed until the park closed at 6 and then drove to the little town of Salento for the night.
Salento must have a good PR apparatus because it is in all the guidebooks and has attracted quite a lot of tourism for a tiny Colombian farming village. As an American friend here pointed out, the best thing about “touristy” towns in Colombia is that they usually have good food. And for me, that was the highlight of Salento. We went to a restaurant that served more than just tripe and trout. I had a Mediterranean salad! And this amazing passionfruit mojito.
The next morning we walked the few blocks through Salento and headed up to the lookout. Sam wept and yelled “no more mountains!” I promised him this would be the last mountain, he took a few moments to pull himself together, and then he and Aiden raced to the top. There were swings at the top, a nun, and a group of teenagers who practiced their English at us. Then we walked to the town square, with its obligatory Bolivar statue, and befriended a stray dog.
Then we got back in the car, which was now covered in volcanic rocks and peacock poop, and headed back to Medellin. It is hard to believe this trip spanned only four days and a few hundred miles. The coffee region, even with people who have no interest in coffee, is spectacular.