Colombia produces some of the world’s finest coffee. Most of the coffee farms are in a region known as the Eje Cafetero, or Coffee Axis in English. The traveler center of the region is Salento — a colorful small town surrounded by suburban coffee farms that are open to visitors. If you’re a coffee lover like me, you can’t miss a Salento coffee tour during your Colombia trip!
After you take a coffee tour in Salento, you’ll have a much greater appreciation for your morning cup. Plus, this is a great opportunity to support local farmers — many of whom produce at micro-scales and use organic and sustainable practices. And the high-quality and remarkably affordable coffee beans you can buy from the farmers make great gifts for your friends and family back home.
In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to know to plan the perfect trip to a Salento coffee farm.
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What makes Colombian coffee so special?
Coffee can only be grown at very specific altitudes and with very specific climates. So you usually only find it in countries with lots of mountains near the equator. The equatorial temperatures are relatively steady year-round (i.e. no winters), while the mountains provide the elevation needed to keep temperatures cool.
Colombia, of course, has lots of mountains given its location at the tail end of the Andes. Its year-round pleasant climate allows it to be the third largest coffee producer in the world — behind only Brazil and Vietnam.
But it’s not just about the climate. Colombian coffee producers take great care to only produce the finest beans, and only use traditional growing methods. In fact, the vast majority of Colombian coffee is still picked by hand. Coffee is a huge source of employment in the Eje Cafetero, and nearly everyone who lives here does seasonal work on the farms.
Additionally, Colombia produces only Arabica coffee beans. These are the highest-quality beans (as opposed to robusta). They have a sweeter flavor and less caffeine. If you really want to taste the difference, try sampling a cup of coffee sourced from Colombia alongside one from Vietnam — the Vietnamese coffee tastes darker and more chocolate-y, while the Colombian one will be brighter and a bit more acidic.
Unfortunately, Colombia’s coffee industry is also in real trouble as a result of the climate crisis. Farmers have been increasingly struggling with pest invasions, out-of-season storms and droughts, and generally less predictability in the climate. That’s one reason why going on a Salento coffee tour is so important. Many farmers need to supplement their income with tourism today.
Choosing a Salento coffee tour
When you arrive in Salento while backpacking Colombia, you’ll be greeted with plenty of opportunities to visit a coffee farm. These range from all-inclusive packages to DIY visits. The choice can be overwhelming. But most travelers visit one of three farms, which are all clustered together about 5 km from central Salento.
The first, and least-visited, coffee finca is Las Acacias Coffee Farm. It’s a very small-scale hillside coffee farm. The family also produces other crops, and during the tour, you’ll learn a lot about rural Colombian life. Tours cost 10,000 COP (including a coffee tasting) and last an hour. Las Acacias is a great option if you want to be closer to central Salento and if you want to be in a smaller group. The downside is it’s less polished than the other farms’ tours.
Next, you’ll come to El Ocaso. This is the flashiest Salento coffee tour. The farm is larger than others in the area, and it’s the only one that doesn’t use organic practices (but it does use ecological practices — i.e. no plastic, etc.). The tour is extremely well-done and the setting is unbelievable. Tours here cost 20,000 COP and last an hour and a half. English-language guides depart at 9 am, 11 am, noon, 1 pm, 2 pm, and 4 pm. Even if you skip the tour, it’s worth a stop at their incredible hillside cafe to sample the coffee.
The third option is Don Elias’s farm. This is a teeny-tiny family-run operation. They use all organic practices. Almost all of their coffee is sold to shops in Salento — it stays local — while they sell the leftovers to Segafredo. Tours cost 10,000 COP, last about 90 minutes, and leave as soon as there are enough people (you won’t have to wait more than 30 minutes). Don Elias himself runs the Spanish-language tours and his son runs the English ones.
How to get to the coffee farms in Salento
One of the great things about Salento coffee tours is that you can walk to them from the town center. No need to pay for a package tour or for your own taxi!
All three coffee farms I mentioned above are located about an hour’s walk away from the town center. Follow Carrera 5 southwest of the town center until it becomes a dirt path, and then walk all the way to the bottom of the hill. Along the way you’ll pass the three main coffee farms that are open to visitors.
You’ll pass a couple small shops and hotels, but for the most part, the walk is pretty quiet. A couple viewpoints offer great views of the surrounding valleys.
It’s all downhill on the way there. If you want to walk back, it takes about an hour and a couple sections are pretty steep. The biggest safety issue is there are a lot of community dogs, some of which are pretty aggressive. Steer clear.
If you’re not up for walking, you can also take a Willy Jeep to your Salento coffee tour. You may get a seat inside or, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to stand on the back. The price is 27,000 COP per person from Don Ocaso — slightly cheaper from Las Acacias. You could also try your luck at flagging down an already-full public Jeep for around 5,000 COP per person. These pass roughly hourly.
Even if you book a package tour, you’ll still end up on a Willy Jeep, so you might as well save the money and organize everything yourself.
My Salento coffee tour experience at Finca Don Elias
I opted to take the coffee tour at Don Elias’s farm. I’ve visited coffee plantations before in Vietnam and Nicaragua, so I was more interested in the organic methods Don Elias uses than in learning the basics of coffee production.
I arrived around 10 am and waited 15 minutes for a group to assemble. We had seven people in the group plus the guide. While we were waiting, we were able to sit on Don Elias’s shady patio with mountain views and use the restroom.
Walking around the farm
The tour involved a short walk around the coffee finca, with stops at a number of key places. To start out, we learned about how all the plants on the farm interact together — so they grow oranges to use in compost, and bananas for shade and compost, etc. The plants they use for composting impact the flavor of the beans as well, so the farmers must plan very carefully to get the perfect beans.
We walked through a banana grove and talked about how climate change has impacted Don Elias. When I visited, the harvest was at its low point, and earlier in the year severe rains had wiped out half the crop. They would only produce 2 tons of beans that year — not enough to sell to outside producers.
The guide also explained water resources in Salento. A river runs through town, but in the dry season, locals aren’t permitted to use it for anything. No bathing, washing clothes, or using it for irrigation — it must be perfectly preserved. There are also strict regulations around runoff from the hillside farms. This has led to most coffee farmers choosing to go organic.
We got a few different demonstrations of what healthy plants look like vs. sick ones, how to tell the age of the plants, and how to pick the beans by hand. Don Elias employs just four people during the harvest, but otherwise relies on his own family to pick every single bean.
Drying, roasting and grinding the beans
After we’d seen the entire farm, we went into the farmhouse for a demonstration of how the red coffee beans become the delicious cups of liquid gold that we all drink every morning.
First, we saw the room where the beans are dried. Even though Don Elias’s production is small, he puts a strong emphasis on quality. So at this stage his family manually picks through the beans and discards any that aren’t up to snuff.
Then, we got a roasting demonstration. Don Elias uses a medium roast for all of his beans — just enough to bring out the flavor. Our guide pointed out that dark roasts reduce the caffeine.
Finally, after we roasted the beans for our very own personal brews, we had to grind them. Don Elias’s team still uses manual coffee grinders to do this. We put the beans in the top and cranked away until we had enough to brew coffee for the whole tour.
The tour ended with sampling the coffee we had just helped produce. It was delicious and couldn’t have been fresher! We also had the opportunity to buy whole-bean or ground beans to take home, for just 8,000 COP per bag.
Overall impressions of the Salento coffee farm tour: 5/5
If you’re going to be in Salento, I would highly recommend making the time to visit a coffee farm in between hiking the Valle de Cocora and relaxing in the pleasantly cool climate. It was one of the most interesting activities I did in Colombia.
I came away with a tremendous amount of respect for the coffee farmers who work day-in and day-out to produce only the top-quality beans. But my bigger takeaway was how visceral the farmers’ concerns about the climate were. These folks’ generations-old family businesses are in danger as a result of the changing climate, and they’re worried.
In short, if you’re a coffee lover — or even if you just want to see a slice of rural Colombia — don’t miss a Salento coffee tour!
Want to explore the Eje Cafetero even further? Check out Jardin, the most charming town in all of Colombia.
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