EVERYTHING A TRAVELER NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT EXPLORING THE LESSER KNOWN WINE REGION OF COLOMBIA AND THE CAPITAL OF COLOMBIAN WINE, LA UNION.
While aguardiente might be the most popular drink in Colombia - and the alcohol the country is most known for - we instead invite you to learn about a much more off the beaten path area of Colombia: the Colombian wine region, and the cute agricultural town of La Union in particular.
La Union, located in the Valle del Cauca, is a medium-sized town with a surprisingly rich agricultural industry. While they are most famous for producing wine - the majority of wine in Colombia is produced there - they also grow numerous tropical fruits; including, papaya, pineapple and passion fruit.
If you are looking for an exciting, off the beaten path region of Colombia to explore - or you just want to go somewhere where sunshine and cold glasses of wine are readily available - then we highly suggest adding La Union and the great Colombian wine region to your Colombia travel itinerary. Below is everything you need to know to plan the perfect off the beaten path adventure.
EXPLORING LA UNION IN COLOMBIA'S WINE COUNTRY
\\ A Quick History of Wine in Colombia and La Union
While wine might not be the alcohol Colombia is known for, it still has a relatively long history with the grape liquor. In fact, Colombia's wine history is relatively unique. While other countries in the region - Peru and Chile for example - started growing and harvesting grapes for more enjoyable and light-hearted reasons, Colombia's wine production was solely for religious reasons. Similarly, though vineyards and wineries would be privately owned in other countries, almost all of the grapes grown for wine were done and controlled by monasteries.
Finally, and this could be the root cause as to why you likely haven't heard as much about Colombian wine as other places (again, specifically Chile), after the country's independence from Spain the Colombian government actually barred European immigrants into the country. This ended up leading to an overall lack of information on wine making and more importantly, a lack of a wine drinking audience.
Put altogether, this is likely why viticulture is so small in Colombia compared to other South American countries and why the majority of Colombian citizens like to drink beer (cerveza) and aguardiente - the national liquor that is made out of sugar cane (which is grown heavily in the country).
History of La Union, Valle del Cauca
While La Union was founded in 1604 by Juan Jacinto Palomino (and other citizens from the nearby settlement of Toro), in truth, the area had been inhabited for hundreds of years by the Gorrones, an indigenous tribe that lived on the western side of the Cauca River.
In the late 1700s, the town was the scene of the most important social protest against the Spanish authority - who at the time controlled the whole region under the name New Granada. This episode became known as the uprising of Hato de Lemos (which at the time was the name of the town).
In 1890 the settlement was designated as its own municipality and in 1941 its name was officially changed to La Union.
Today, La Union is known as The Wine Capital of Colombia because of its large wine industry, which mostly centers around the high number of vineyards and production plants owned by the Vinícola Casa Grajales (Grajales is the largest wine producer in Colombia). Besides growing and producing wine (which is the town's main economic activity), La Union is also known for growing many types of fruits; including, tomatoes, passion fruit (maracuya), papaya, lemons and blackberries (mora).
Boyacá: The Other Colombian Wine Country
While La Union might be known as the Wine Capital of Colombia it is not alone in wine production. In fact, if you are looking to explore more wineries and vineyards in the country, we suggest heading a bit further east to the Boyacá department and the town of Villa de Leyva in particular.
One of the best spots to start your wine tasting tour of Boyacá is at the Vinedo Ain Karim (Ain Karim Vineyard). While they do import some of their grapes from places like France and California, USA their wine has been internationally recognized. Plus, the town of Villa de Leyva is often cited as one of the prettiest towns in Colombia.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the town of Villa de Leyva is located about 3 hours north of Bogota in the Boyacá department.
LA UNION'S NICKNAME: The Wine Capital of Colombia
\\ Where is La Union, Colombia
La Unión is a medium-sized town in the Valle del Cauca department of Colombia. The Valle del Cauca (or Cauca Valley) is a very large department that spans most of the valley between two of the three mountain ranges - the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Central - that cross all of Colombia. Overall, the Valle del Cauca is very agriculturally rich, especially for the production of sugar cane (it grows 80% of all the sugar cane in Colombia).
The town of La Union itself is located in the northern region of the department along the Cauca River. It is around 150 kilometers or so from the capital of the department, Cali (which is the third-largest city in Colombia) and just under 400 kilometers from the capital of the country, Bogota.
ELEVATION: 975 meters // 3,198 feet
POPULATION: 41,013 people
Weather in La Union
The weather in La Union is characterized by high levels of sunshine, low levels of rain and relatively warm temperatures (on average the temperature is around 23° C or 74° F). In fact, the high levels of sunshine and the fact that the town sits at a relatively high elevation means more sugar in the fruits grown - including the grapes. This higher level of sugar content means better wine.
When we visited the town, the temperatures got up to around 27° C (or roughly 80°F) and the sky was a beautiful clear shade of blue. During the evening, the temperature did start to drop down quite a bit - especially when the wind picked up.
💬 INSIDER TIP: the wind in La Union can be quite intense, so much so that the town (and the great Valle del Cauca region) has become a popular spot for paragliding. We noticed the wind was especially strong during the evening hours.
The Best Time to Visit La Union & Colombia Wine Country
Like most places in Colombia, the weather does not change very much throughout the year. In La Union in particular, you can expect warmer temperatures and sunshine almost every day of the year (though they do have a rainy season just like the rest of Colombia). Therefore there really isn’t a “bad” time to visit La Union, and the Valle del Cauca region in particular.
☀ DRY SEASON: December to February and June to August
☂ RAINY SEASON: March to May and September to November
We visited La Union in early February and found the temperature to be very nice and the popular tourist sites to be relatively empty. If you want to explore the area without a lot of other tourists, February might be a great month to visit.
TOP 6 THINGS TO DO IN LA UNION + WINE COUNTRY
1 | Visit Parque National la Uva and Reserve
We believe one of the first things you should do in La Union is head to Parque National la Uva (National Park of Grapes), which is located right at the beginning of town.
This sizable park explores all aspects of the agricultural region that La Union sits in and is a huge part of. While it is technically a “grape park” you also get to walk around exhibits talking about things like the cultivation of tropical fruits in the area (including papaya, pineapple, bananas and plantains), the process of creating panela from sugar cane and even information on medicinal plants in the area.
While the park is quite agricultural heavy, there are also areas with lots of farm animals (including goats and cows), and a small zoo that is full of rescued animals; including, monkeys, macaws and ostriches.
| COST: 58000 COP ($14.70 USD/€12.90 Euros) per person to enter the park and the wine museum (below).
| LOCATION: the park is located right as you enter La Union; you will see a large sign with funny little grapes on it. The exact location is here. Also, make sure to check out our interactive map of all of the tops things to see in La Union below.
| TIME: expect to spend 2-4 hours in the park
| LANGUAGE: all of the signs and information in the park are in Spanish. While this definitely kept us from learning everything about the park, we still feel like we understood 75% of it. Even if you are not a Spanish speaker we still recommend checking the park out.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: while you do start out with a tour guide, after the first two exhibits the guide actually leaves you and you are then allowed to explore the park on your own at your own speed.
🛍 BUY: at one of the first stations along the tour, you will get to try a couple of the locally made jams and canned products. We highly recommend buying one of the grape jams - it is so, so good - and, if you are feeling a bit adventurous, a jar of the mango ceviche, which tastes kind of like regular fish ceviche but it is totally vegan (it is shredded mango instead of seafood). Also amazing.
2 | Visit the Grape and Wine Museum
If you are looking to explore even more of the history and background of wine in Colombia, then we also recommend taking a tour of the Grape and Wine Museum, located about a 15-minute walk from Grape Park.
The museum is completely dedicated to the overall production and history of wine in Colombia, and more specifically, in the La Union area. The museum is owned and operated by the Grajales Wine Company, the largest wine producer in Colombia.
The tour of the museum - which lasts around an hour - covers the entire process of creating wine, from the planting and cultivation of the vines (which you can walk around in at the Grape Park) to the pressing and fermentation - the latter you get to see and learn about in the actual Grajales processing factory.
The museum has over 200 historic pieces showing the modernization of the wine-making process; including, different types of wine presses and farming equipment. The final bit of the museum tour is all about trying the different types of wine made by the Grajales group. While they are known for their sweet wines (dulce) they also make drier wines and both red and white wine.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: surprisingly, the La Union Grape and Wine Museum is the only museum of its kind in Colombia, and one of the few in all of Latin America.
| COST: 58000 COP ($14.70 USD/€12.90 Euros) per person to enter the park and the wine museum
| TIME: the tour is around 45 minutes long
| LANGUAGE: just like Parque Nacional de la Uva is entirely in Spanish, the wine museum tour is also 100% in Spanish. But again, even though we are not fluent in Spanish, we still understood about 75% of what the guide was saying.
🛍 BUY: after the tour is done, you have the option to purchase bottles of the wine. We believe the most expensive bottle was around 22000 COP ($5.60 USD/€4.90 Euros). Compared to other wine tours, this price for a local bottle was a deal (we ended up getting two).
3 | Try the Wine
This might seem like an obvious one, but it should be clearly said that you cannot visit La Union and Colombian wine country without sampling at least some of the local wine (even if you are not a wine lover).
We were able to sample wine at our hotel, Los Vinedos, as well as at the wine museum. Actually, if you are looking to have a serious go at trying the wine and don’t want to spend a lot of money, definitely do the tour - they are quite heavy-handed with the pours (and the amount of them).
💬 INSIDER TIP: we found the wine in La Union to be quite sweet or dulce. They explained during the tour that while they do make drier wines (seco) the majority of their customer base in Colombia (mostly Colombians) instead like the sweet wines. In fact, we read that the majority of wine from Colombia is on the sweeter side (due to the elevation and climate). If you are like us and prefer drier wines, still definitely try the sweet wine - it is quite refreshing and delicious.
4 | Explore Iglesia La Ermita (The Hermitage)
While the history of wine cultivation might be a bit newer to the area, if you are looking to explore La Unions' older history then consider stopping by this beautiful and historic white church set on a hill over town.
Iglesia La Ermita (which translates to The Hermitage Church) was built around 1640 by Juan Jacinto Palomino, one of the early founders of the town of La Union itself. Today, it is a popular place to check out if you are into religious tourism or if you just want to get a 360° view of the surrounding area.
The church is located about a 10-minute walk from the Wine Museum. Find the exact location here.
5 | Go Paragliding
Due to the Valle del Cauca's constant wind levels, as well as a good number of take-off points, La Union has over the years become a popular spot for paragliding. IN fact, while we visited the town, we came across a private 20+ person paragliding tour group. All of them were from the USA and all certified paragliding pilots. We found out later that it was a yearly event to head out to La Union for a week of paragliding (how fun is that?!).
If you are looking to go paragliding yourself, you can book a tour with a couple of local outfitters - most notably Parapente La Union (parapente is paragliding in Spanish), which runs tours regularly in town. The tour costs 150000 COP ($38 USD/€33 Euros). Learn more about Parapente La Union and their paragliding tours here.
6 | Visit the Nearby Mountain Towns
If you have the time and want to explore more of the area around La Union - specifically higher into the Occidental mountains - then we suggest catching a ride up to either Versalles (which actually translates to Versailles - like the famous French castle) or El Dovio. Both towns sit a fair bit higher into the mountains than La Union and therefore have a slightly colder climate.
Versalles is famous for its interesting city layout - which somewhat resembles a manger (hence its nickname Manger and Paradise of Colombia) - as well as being one of the few cities in the country where the rural population is higher than the urban population.
Versalles neighbor, El Dovio, has had a bit of a harder time coming up with a name. In fact, the small town actually went by a couple of other names before the residents finally settled on El Dovio in the mid-1900s. El Dovio actually means “place surrounded by mountains”, which is very fitting seeing as the town is indeed located in a high mountain valley (this has made it a popular spot for outdoor tourism).
To reach both towns, you can catch a bus from downtown La Union - with the main square (Argemiro Escobar Cardona Park) being the best spot.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: while some might think Versalles was named after the famous French castle, instead most historians believe it was named after another town called Versalles in the Antioquia department (just to the north). The settlers of the region (including Versalles and La Union) mostly came from the Antioquia area so this makes a bit more sense.
LA UNION + WINE COUNTRY | THE NITTY-GRITTY
\\ How to Get to La Union, Valle del Cauca
Due to its somewhat central location within Colombia and in the Cauca Valley specifically, La Union is relatively easy to reach from a number of major cities; including, Medellin, Cali and Bogota.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the closest major airport to La Union would be in Pereira (Aeropuerto Internacional Matecaña). Though there is a smaller airport in the nearby town of Cartago, that airport mostly services smaller towns along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
When we decided to check out La Union we were living in Salento, a popular town in the mountains of the Quindio department. During our planning period we figured we could simply take a bus from Salento down to Armenia (the capital of Quindio and the closest big city to Salento) and then from Armenia we could grab another bus to La Union. Turns out that is not really possible.
For some reason (we don’t really know the full story) you cannot go from Armenia to La Union by bus due to it being in another department (Armenia is in Quindio and La Union is in Valle del Cauca). Similarly, you would also have to backtrack just a bit to get to La Union (due to the lack of passable roads between them), which we guess is not optimal/done.
Therefore, if you are planning to head to La Union from the Coffee Region (and Salento specifically) you will have to first take a bus to Pereira and then grab a bus from there to La Union. Luckily, because the city is quite large and well known, it is really easy to reach Pereira from many other major cities; including, Medellin, Bogota and Cali.
Below is the breakdown of taking a bus from PEREIRA, RISARALDA --> LA UNION, VALLE DEL CAUCA:
| COST: it cost around 14000 COP ($3.55 USD/€3.10 Euros) per person for the bus ticket from Pereira to La Union
| TIME: buses leave every 40 minutes for La Union from the Pereira bus terminal; it takes around 2-3 hours to reach La Union from Pereira depending on traffic.
| BUS COMPANY: the best bus company to take to La Union is Trans La Andina; they also head to La Victoria and Obando (both towns are quite close to La Union).
\\ How to Get Around La Union, Valle del Cauca
The town is quite small and pretty easy to get around. Unless you are planning to head up to the other towns nearby - like Versalles or El Dovio in the mountains - you can very likely see all of the sites by foot.
In fact, if you are looking to just explore Parque Nacional de La Uva and the Wine Museum (and even the church) you can very easily walk, for between the park and the museum, it is only 800 meters. And even better, the whole walk is on a nice wide, flat sidewalk (super chill).
\\ Where to Stay in La Union, Valle del Cauca
Hotel Los Vinedos
If you want to go all-in on the wine theme then definitely consider staying at Hotel Los Vinedos, a snazzy hotel set on the outskirts of town on a hill overlooking the vineyards (vinedos is vineyard in Spanish).
We came across the hotel by randomly deciding to reach out to see if they had availability on the day we were looking to explore La Union (after doing zero research). Turns out they not only had availability on the night we planned to be there, but they were also doing a promotion that gave you access to all of the hotel's amenities (including a pool, hot tub, restaurant and wine), entry to the Grape Park and the Wine Museum all for $75 USD total (for two people).
This was by far the closest we have ever come to staying in an all-inclusive resort. And honestly, it was kind of fun.
If you want to go all fancy for a night (or a couple) and are looking to stay somewhere with a pool in La Union (remember the town is pretty hot) then definitely check out Hotel Los Vinedos. Plus, the views from their balconies and their array of wines is the perfect way to watch the sun set behind the mountains and the town below.
Find all of the information on their website (including availability).
💸 COST: 295000 COP ($75 USD/€63.40 Euros) per night for two people; includes two meals, access to the Grape Park and Wine Museum
\\ Where to Eat and Drink in La Union, Valle del Cauca
Besides doing a healthy bit of wine tasting in the park, and more importantly in the wine museum, we recommend heading into the heart of La Union for some local Colombian food. We unfortunately didn’t get to do too much exploring in La Union due to timing, but we did see a good number of fresh juice stands along all of the roads in and around town.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you choose to stay the night at Hotel Los Vinedos and you purchase the full package (like we did), then dinner and breakfast are included.
\\ Is La Union, Valle del Cauca Safe
While we did stick to the more “touristy” areas of La Union, when we did choose to walk around close to town we felt quite safe. As with any other place in Colombia and elsewhere, your safety usually comes down to just making smart decisions: watch your bags and don’t walk around by yourself at night.
For adventurous digital nomads, we recommend signing up and using SafetyWing for all your travel medical insurance needs (including COVID-19 coverage). Don’t worry, policies can be purchased while already abroad.
While aguardiente might be the alcohol Colombia is known for - and the one you will most likely come across the most while traveling around the country - we instead hope you take the time to maybe consider exploring one of Colombia's lesser known alcoholic drinks: wine.
Even if you are not a wine drinker, a visit to Colombian wine country is sure to be a good time since the weather is almost always pleasant (sunny and warm) and the landscape is usually full of beautiful fields of all kinds of plants. La Union itself is set in a beautiful valley with tall mountains rising behind it. While wine is definitely the most important thing in the town, it has more to offer than just wine tastings (though those are great).
If you are looking to explore a more off the beaten path area of Colombia - or you just want to escape the cloudy skies of the Coffee Region - then we highly suggest spending a couple of days in the Colombian wine region and La Union in particular.
While we hope this La Union Travel Guide helps you plan the perfect adventure, we are always here to help answer any questions you might have - about the town or Colombia in general. You can leave a comment below or reach out to us directly here.
EXPLORE OUR INTERACTIVE MAP OF LA UNION, VALLE DEL CAUCA
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PACKING ESSENTIALS FOR COLOMBIA
| Reusable water bottle: we cannot imagine traveling without our LARQ water bottles thanks to their fancy rechargeable filter that eliminate up to 99% of bio-contaminants.
| Eco-friendly sunscreen: we love MadHippie sunscreen because it’s cruelty-free, vegan, broad spectrum, and reef safe. And even better, they donate $1 for every purchase to conservation efforts.
| Allbirds shoes: comfortable shoes can make or break an adventure or travel day, these eco-conscious and cozy shoes from Allbirds have been our faves for years.
► Find our full sustainable travel packing list here.
STAYING SAFE & PLANNING AHEAD
| SafetyWing: make sure you are staying safe with this easy-to-sign-up health insurance that is specifically meant for digital nomads. You can even sign up once you are already abroad.
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| iVisa: this site helps make sure you have all of the necessary documents and entry requirements while traveling.
| Wise: this app makes it super easy to transfer money between currencies while abroad, keeping you from worrying about whether you are getting the right exchange rate or not.