For cyclists who love to ride in the mountains, cycling the Zona Cafetera is paradise. The Zona Cafetera is probably the most famous region in Colombia. Not only because of its coffee, but also because of the flora & fauna and culture.
The region was proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage in 2011. Understandably it’s the region where the famous Colombian coffee is produced and shipped mostly to Europe and the United States. Unfortunately for the Colombians it means they are left with the coffee of lesser quality. On top of that, in the nineties and early two thousand rivalling coffee producing countries offered coffee at a lower price which lead to a crisis for the farmers in Colombia. In recent years however, the Colombians are making a comeback. They are specializing in producing high quality coffee beans and it’s paying off. The coffee industry is booming again. Combine that with the upcoming tourist industry and the region is flourishing.
Cycling the Zona Cafetera | Guatapé to Jericó
We started in Guatapé, a nice and very colorful town known for ‘El Penon’ a huge rock standing lonely in the landscape. We took the road to La Ceja, a cycling minded little town. Supposedly, several professional cyclist are born in La Ceja, so they are proud of their cycling heritage. There are even bicycle stands at the town square. The town is also the starting point of a mountain road famous among Colombian cyclists. It leads to Sonson and it’s a long, gradual and lovely climb with a few steep parts. When we left La Ceja, the whole morning we shared the road with people on mountain bikes and road bikes. Somehow, it’s a nice feeling to be among other cyclists. Everyone greets each other and seeing other people enjoying their time on the bike gives a positive vibe. We stopped in La Union and had the first taste of really good coffee.
Colombian backroads – ‘trochas’
From Sonson we followed the unpaved road ‘trocha’ to Aguadas. The numbers promised a really tough day. In total 40 kilometers of which 20 km descent and 20 km ascend with over 2500 altimeters climbing averaging about 10%. We were convinced that if we could survive this day, we would be ready for everything else this trip will throw at us.
Maneuvering between slippery big rocks, potholes and loose gravel, means that even going downhill our pace was slow. But the spectacular views and beautiful surroundings makes all the hard work worth it. Once we reached the river in the valley we had second breakfast. The first kilometer was incredibly steep with all the nice things a ‘trocha’ can offer. It was so steep, Pim had to get of his bike for a bike a hike. The first one this day. Discouraged, we pressed on and luckily the incline lessened and we could start cycling again.
Once out of the valley, the scenery was fantastic! Cloud forest, waterfalls, colorful birds and large blue butterflies the size of your hands lifted our spirits. Happy, tired and proud to reach Aguadas we got another warm welcome by the Colombians. The next day we descended down to La Pintada. It’s amazing to descent through the clouds. The world feels small and even sounds are almost muffled by the clouds. Although the clouds blocked the views for the most part, it was a magical descent.
Jerico, a colourful mountain village
Next town on our cycling zona cafetera route is the colourful town Jericó. Not as known as Jardin for many (non-Colombian) tourists, but Jericó is definitely not less attractive as Jardin. The climb to Jericó is a tough one. It’s another climb of around twenty kilometers and you’ll overcome 1500 altimeters. The start was hot and humid, the finish steep. Once we got up to 1000 meters the temperature was a lot more pleasant and things went smoothly. As is in most of this region in Colombia, the views again were fantastic. Valleys and mountainsides covered in all the colors of green you can imagine. Seeing this kind of beauty cycling up a mountain definitely helps when it gets tough. It’s a morale booster. Jericó proved to be a picturesque colorful little town. The town square was big in relation to the size of the town itself. There was a festive atmosphere and although small the town felt alive and vibrant. The next day the route to Jardin started with another unpaved decline and another 20km climb into Jardin. It becomes a daily routine to go up over the mountain pass and down into a valley.
Cloud forests and endless shades of green | Jardin to Riosucio
From Jardin we planned a cycling route that would bring us to Salento. We took an unpaved road that leads to a 2900 meters high pass followed up by a long way down to Riosucio. Especially the uphill part of the day was absolutely stunning! We had to climb out of the cloud forest into pine tree forest. With the dense forest and the light shining through it definitely was magical at times. Combine that with sheer drop-offs, magnificent views into the valley, waterfalls and beautiful birds we had a fantastic day. Riosucio is beautifully situated and riding towards it provides a panoramic view over the broad valley. The town itself is more a pass through town, but tranquil and relaxed atmosphere.
Riosucio – Filadelfia – Manizales – Pereira – Salento
We were dealt with 2 hours of heavy rain on our ascent to Filadelfia. A few kilometers away from Filadelfia, the rain intensified to an absolute cloud burst, again! We entered the town and at the same time the local school was out. Children were screaming, yelling, laughing, running and jumping in the rain. It looked like those videos of cows who go into the meadow for the first time after the winter period in the stables. We finally arrived at the town square, which Colombians call ‘el parque’, but in fact is just a square with trees, a statue of some important historic figure and shops situated around the square.
Filadelfia is an example of a typical Colombian town which we started to love so much. The atmosphere is that of a working town with a busy town square where you can find cafes, restaurants, and a grocery store. In the middle of the square are often children playing and older people on benches chatting. It’s a functional and multipurpose part of town and intensively used. An example of useful city architecture. The streets are tidy, clean and well organized with houses on both sides of the street often with two or three levels. The people are friendly and always willing to help. Not every town is like this, but we’ve come across many and they are more the rule rather than exception.
Unlike the small towns we’ve come to dislike the bigger towns. Unfortunately, due to our time schedule, there was no other option than to pass through Manizales and Pereira. Both larger cities a day cycling away from each other. We find getting into the cities always stressful. The neighborhoods on the outskirts of a city can feel a bit unsafe. Common sense can get you safely into town of course, but there’s heavy traffic too and this traffic is less respectful to cyclists in comparison to the more rural areas. It feels overwhelming navigating a city where the feeling of being unsafe, the amount of (disrespectful) traffic and the amount of people and so makes it stressful ordeal for us.
From Filadelfia to Salento it took us three days cycling mostly on busy roads and some stretches of highway. Some highlight of these days were seeing lots of coffee plantations, often cycling on smooth asphalt, the viewpoint over Pereira at the top of climb to Pereira.
Cycling Zona Cafetera has been a great experience! We finished our route in the touristic town Salento where we enjoy the relaxed vibes and even more the Colombian coffee. In Salento we took a few rest days and prepared for our next adventure: hiking in Los Nevados.