When I first set foot on Colombian soil years ago, my itinerary was focused on the sun-kissed beaches of Tyrona, the vibrant city of Santa Marta, and the enchanting colonial streets of Cartagena. Yet, amidst the tropical allure of these coastal destinations, a whisper of doubt crept into my mind. Was I missing out on something extraordinary? A growing chorus of fellow travelers with sparkles in their eyes regaled me with their tales of the Eje Cafetero, the famed "Coffee Axis.” To my surprise, it held the coveted title of "hands-down their favorite Colombian destination," and some dared to proclaim it their overall favorite in South America. A question began to gnaw at me: "Could it truly be as exceptional as they claimed and had I missed out on something spectacular?"
Amid all this effusive praise, Cartagena stood as a shining star, a city that unequivocally lived up to its lofty reputation. I couldn't deny its allure and charm. Yet, as the stories about the Eje Cafetero continued to pour in, I found myself grappling with regret. Why had I not set aside a few precious days to explore this emerald-hued, supposedly unforgettable slice of Colombia?
Since then, the Eje Cafetero has beckoned with the promise of verdant landscapes, untold adventures, and experiences that would etch themselves into my memory forever. It was a call I could no longer ignore, an outstretched hand from a region that held the secrets to a different facet of Colombia's captivating soul.
So here I was, Colombia-bound once again. You can probably imagine that over the years, my expectations had soared to heights that bordered on the unreasonable. Yet, the reality that greeted me surpassed even the wildest fantasies about the coffee I would drink and the landscapes I would behold (I hadn’t even started dreaming about the dessert I would eat, however, it was in Filandia where I had the most delicious, accidentally gluten-free torte, which I’ll tell you about in a minute). What I experienced in the Coffee Region of Colombia was more enchanting than the most vivid dreams I could have ever conjured.
The first surprise was the profound warmth of the Colombians I encountered. Whether in bustling markets, cheery restaurants, or tranquil villages, I was met with greetings that felt like reunions with long-lost friends. The genuine interest in my journey and the desire to share their culture and history opened my heart and left an indelible mark on my soul. Colombian people seem to have an innate ability to transform strangers into confidants, and in the moments where I found myself seated with them around a cup of coffee, a sandwich or bouncing along on a mountain jeep, the famous “Willy”, we bridged the gaps of culture and language with laughter and heartfelt connection.
My next surprise was the vibrancy of the colors all around. Salento revealed itself as a living canvas, each vibrant building a brushstroke in a masterpiece of colonial architecture. As I wandered through the kaleidoscope of colors, I was greeted by the tantalizing scent of arepas being grilled to perfection by street-side vendors. Cobblestone streets extend like spokes from Salento’s central square, leading visitors to explore the town's treasures in every direction. In the middle of the square stands an impressive statue of Simón Bolívar, a towering figure in Colombia's history, surrounded by lush trees, colorful flower beds and emerald, green mountains all around. It was with this view that we indulged in a mouth-watering lunch of juicy burgers on artisanal patties with a Colombian twist. Side note: this region is well-known for its delicious beef and the most tender steak I’ve ever had was a “simple” churrasco in an Argentine restaurant in Pereira. Wow.
From Salento, we made our way to the Cocora Valley, with its towering wax palms that pierce through the mist like ancient sentinels guarding the valley. The sight of tiny hummingbirds and bright orchids added to our sense of overwhelming enchantment. Crossing wooden bridges and hiking the trails, we were enveloped by nature's quiet embrace, the only sound we heard was from the clip-clop of horses’ hooves as a solitary local galloped by laden with supplies. His home - a three-hour ride up the mountain and beyond the fog, where sunshine and snow-capped peaks reign year-round. The entire experience was invigorating, akin to stepping into the Garden of Eden before the fall from grace. It is where Earth defies its boundaries and melds with the heavens, where worldly burdens are lifted, and otherworldly wonder elevates the spirits.
Filandia, the next stop on our journey, unfolded as an unexpected treasure trove of culinary delights and heartfelt warmth. A chance encounter led us to Morash Dulce Sabor del Bremen, a bakery hidden away near the town's entrance, where we were treated to the most exquisite handmade, small-batch goodies, including a cheesecake that defied description. The crème de la crème was the traditional almojabana torte, a gluten-free cake made with yucca and cheese (topped with guava and texture reminiscent of grandma’s bread pudding). Paired with a nocciolatte, it was a dessert dream come true, lovingly prepared by a Bogota (rolo) family whose kindness and passion were evident in every bite and interaction. In Filandia's town square, we savored aromatic coffee accompanied by live music, immersing ourselves in the town's jovial atmosphere. It was here that we indulged in hearty bowls of soup, the regional specialty of rainbow trout, and grilled corn on the cob dripping with butter, each bite resonating with the fertile land's rich flavors. Filandia's charm and culinary magic had us briefly contemplating the notion of making it our permanent home. It’s a place where flavors transcended the ordinary, and the openness of its people invited us to linger a little longer.
And finally, the icing on the cake, our experience visiting one of the Eje Cafetero’s most well-known coffee farms. I watched in awe as our host explained how coffee beans are grown, harvested, and transformed into the beloved brew that fuels our mornings. It was a captivating lesson in the artistry of coffee farming. Eager to get my hands dirty, I had the chance to join the farmers in picking ripe coffee cherries. With careful guidance, we learned the delicate skill of selecting the perfect cherries, ensuring only the finest beans make their way to the cup. It was a hands-on experience that heightened our connection to the craft and cultivated a deep sense of gratitude when we gathered for a coffee tasting session. The rich aroma of freshly brewed Colombian coffee filled the air as we savored each sip. The flavors were complex and vibrant, a testament to the dedication of the farmers and the unique terroir of Filandia. Our conversation with the lovely family who ran the farm revealed their profound connection to the land and their commitment to preserving age-old traditions.
As I reluctantly bade adieu to the captivating Eje Cafetero, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of this journey. It's not merely the stunning landscapes, the flavorful coffee, or the warm-hearted people that made this trip unforgettable. It's the fusion of these elements that created an experience beyond words. Every moment, from strolling through the lush valleys to immersing myself to connecting with gracious locals has etched a lasting memory. Colombia’s Eje Cafetero isn't just a destination; it's an invitation to transcend the limits of culture and nature. Until we cross paths again, this remarkable place will forever resonate in my heart.