4.3343° N, 75.7036° W
GET TOTALLY OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH IN THIS CUTE, COLORFUL TOWN THAT LIES IN THE HEART OF THE
COLOMBIAN COFFEE REGION.
Situated in the lush mountains of Colombian's Coffee Region (eje cafetero) is the small, colorful town of Pijao. While it might have all the necessary requirements for a popular tourist town (culture, good food, adventure, beauty) somehow it has stayed under the radar for international travelers.
If you are looking to explore a town that has everything more popular coffee towns have (i.e. Salento), but don't want to be surrounded by other travelers, then we definitely suggest adding this off-the-beaten-path Colombian destination to your travel itinerary.
Below is everything you need to know about the exciting town of Pijao.
A TRAVELERS GUIDE TO PIJAO, COLOMBIA
\\ The Basics
Population: 5,700 in the city itself and just over 10,000 in the whole area (this includes all the nearby fincas)
Elevation: 2,612 meters // 8,570 feet (~ 600 meters // 2,000 feet higher than Salento)
What’s In a Name: the town was originally known as San Antonio de Colón until 1930 when it was changed to Pijao. The name comes from the indigenous tribe that lived in the region until the Spanish arrived. Today, a small group of Pijao people still live in the Tolima department (the neighboring department to Quindio).
It is pronounced pee-how.
A Quick Bit of History
The first settlers in the area arrived in the 1890s from nearby Tolima. Many of the earliest settlers were radical Liberal guerrillas who were fleeing prosecution from the governing Conservative regime (as well as the Thousand Day War). Among the first inhabitants were Quintiliano Fernández and his wife Griselda Marín. Some historians tell the story of how the couple's Conservative enemies tracked them down to Pijao and tortured Griselda until she revealed the location of her father - who was also a leading guerrilla fighter.
Years later, more settlers arrived - mostly from the Manizales and Antioquia area. The new inhabitants decided to construct a town in order to have a church, school and other necessary amenities. The town was finally "founded" on May 15, 1902.
GOOD TO KNOW: for the first 36 years of its existence, the town had no road access. Instead, there was a mountain path to nearby Calarcá that took two days by mule and three days if being carried by porters (people). The road that reaches the town today ended up taking ten years to construct. It was finally opened in 1938.
\\ Why Visit Pijao
We decided to pack an overnight bag and head to Pijao on sort of a whim. After spending more than a week straight in Salento during the busiest time of the year, we were starting to be worn a bit thin by the constant cacophony of people - especially at night (you can only take so much reggaetón at 2 AM).
So we started to look at the surrounding area (mostly the Quindio department) for a fun, relaxing weekend adventure.
That is how we stumbled upon the small town of Pijao, situated just south of Armenia and close to a town we had already been recommended to visit (that town was Buenavista, but more on that later).
2 hours and 2 buses later we arrived and instantly got the feeling we had made the right decision. The town was colorful and lively, but not touristy in the least. It just felt like a cool Colombian coffee town. Simply put, it had good vibes.
So why should you also visit Pijao?
First, the overall lack of tourists. After spending the last month in Salento - during the holiday season no less - we were ready to escape the hustle and bustle of other travelers and just get back to quintessential, traditional Colombia. Pijao has that in spades.
Second, it is beautiful. While it doesn’t have the mountain views that Salento does (hello Nevado Tolima), it is still situated in a really pretty area. On all sides are lush green hills, while the clear, fast-moving Rio Lejos runs straight through town. Plus, it is close to some pretty amazing landscapes - including another wax palm forest and the páramo ecosystem.
Finally, it is an awesome place to slow down and get back to nature. Not only is the town close to some awesome and unique landscapes, but just within town you can easily walk out on three different dirt roads and trails and get some amazing views of the mountains as well as the opportunity to see various birds, flowers, and butterflies.
If you want to explore more of the Colombian Coffee Region (eje cafetero), but in a place that still focuses primarily on its roots in growing and processing coffee, then definitely add Pijao to your travel list. Not only does it feel like a quintessential small Colombian coffee village, but it is also just downright beautiful and full of adventure. We honestly didn’t really want to leave!
\\ What to Do in Pijao
For such a small town, there is actually quite a bit to do. Below are a few of the most common adventures and activities in Pijao.
Check out the Architecture
Pijao is sometimes called the “Less-Touristy Salento” thanks to its similar town size and architecture. For example, the main square in Pijao is surrounded by colorful colonial-style buildings, including many with various bird motifs. Really the only modern building in town is the main church, which sits on the corner of the main plaza and can be seen for miles around.
We recommend spending a bit of time simply just walking around town (don’t worry it is quite small and very safe). This will allow you to get a good idea of the town's historic architecture as well as a better feel for the town itself.
Taste Some Delicious Coffee
Just like Salento, Pijao sits in the heart of the Colombian coffee region and it definitely focuses on all things café (even some of the streets have coffee icons painted on them). If you want to try some delicious locally grown coffee, then we suggest stopping in at Café de Origin La Floresta (located just a block from the main square).
This small café came highly recommended (some say it is one of the top three cafés in all of Quindio) so we were definitely curious to see how it compared to other coffee shops we had visited previously. It turns out La Floresta does serve up some darn good coffee. Like really good. Plus, it is obvious that the owner, a friendly, middle-aged Colombian woman, is passionate about her work - not just in the café but the coffee process as a whole.
We recommend ordering the Chemex (which comes with 4-8 small servings depending on your group size) with the honey-roasted coffee (miel).
GOOD TO KNOW: the owner does only speak Spanish, so be prepared with a translator on your phone or to kind of mime your way through her description of the different coffees and roasting processes.
A couple of other coffee shops and fincas worth checking out are Entre Montanas, a super cool modern café located on the main road into town (see more below), and Café Concorde, a large family-run finca located on the main road on the outskirts of town.
Hike Around the Surrounding Mountains
Pijao is very well-located if you are looking to escape the noise of the city and get a bit lost in nature. There are a few hiking options available from downtown Pijao:
| Carrera 2A: this dirt road follows the main river next to town (Rio Lejos) and slowly twists and turns around up the mountain. To reach this road head out of the main square and across the yellow bridge (over the river). At the "T" go left up the paved road (past the cemetery), you will reach a small neighborhood - just keep walking up the road until it turns to dirt. This road is great for birdwatching - especially birds that commonly live near bodies of water.
| Carrera 2/Sendero Ecológico Rincón Santo: this is actually a pretty short walk but it is still quite pretty. Similar to Carrera 2A above, this dirt road follows the river until it reaches a small neighborhood. From there you can walk back down a paved road and back to the center of town. To reach this trail, follow the same road out of town (across the yellow bridge) until you see a large brown sign stating the way to the trail.
| Carrera 5: this is the road we hiked out on during our stay in Pijao and we really enjoyed it. In fact, this road literally goes on for dozens and dozens of kilometers, meaning it depends more on how much you actually want to see and not on how far you can actually go. The road is entirely dirt and quite wide. It twists and turns and gradually climbs up higher into the mountains and out of the valley that Pijao sits in. Along the way, you will be able to see coffee and banana fincas, waterfalls, dense forests and wide-open views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
GOOD TO KNOW: if you are looking for a great mountain bike ride, then this road (Carrera 5) would be perfect for it is quite smooth and, while it does gain elevation, it is never super steep. Plus, if you have the stamina (and perseverance) you can bike all the way up to Chili and a wax palm forest (see more below).
The dirt road is easily accessed by following Carrera 5 all the way from the main plaza until it turns to dirt on the outskirts of town. On Google Maps it shows the road ending a couple of kilometers up, but we promise it keeps going (and going, and going). This is why we always use the apps maps.me or Gaia GPS when out exploring.
Another great way to spend your time in Pijao is to head out and look for birds. While we understand birding is not for everyone, we still think it is just a great reason to head out and explore. Plus, since Colombia has the highest number of bird species in the world - many of which are only found in Colombia - you will surely find some truly crazy-looking birds.
Some of the most common bird species in Pijao are various parrots and parakeets (including the beautiful Blue-headed Parrot), Andean Motmots, Crimson-rumped Toucanets, Lineated Woodpeckers and various white egrets and herons.
The Heron Tree
One of the most unique aspects of Pijao is the famous Heron Tree located on the edge of the main square. For some reason dozens of snowy white herons/egrets (we aren’t entirely sure), choose to roost in the massive leafy tree. We even heard that birds will fly in from places as far away as Salento and Filandia to sleep in the tree at night.
Even if you aren’t the biggest bird lover it is still quite a sight to see a massive tree full to the brim with bright white squawking birds.
You can reach the tree by walking along Calle 12 from the square. The exact location is here.
Explore the Páramo de Chili
For a truly exciting adventure in Pijao, consider heading up the nearby mountains and to explore the Páramo de Chili - one of the most unique biomes in the country.
A páramo is an alpine tundra ecosystem found in the Andes Mountains of South America. The páramo ecosystem is found in the narrow band between the continuous forest tree line and the permanent snowline. One of the most characterizing things in the páramo is the wacky-looking frailejones plants - which are actually giant, super fast-growing rosette plants (though we think they just look like alien spaceships).
GOOD TO KNOW: many scientists believe that the páramo ecosystem could actually be an "evolutionary hot spot" and one of the fastest evolving regions on Earth. An evolutionary hot spot is a specific place with at least 1,500 endemic plant species that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth, and that has lost 70% of their vegetation - aka a place that is pretty much irreplaceable and also in danger. Today, the most common dangers to the páramo ecosystem are mostly caused by humans. This includes overgrazing of cattle, deforestation and the introduction of exotic plants that have wreaked havoc on the native species.
We unfortunately were not able to reach Páramo de Chili due to lack of time, but we did do a lot of research on the area and found that the only ways to really reach the reserve is either by mountain biking up yourself, hiring a Willy driver for the day or going with a tour.
| LOCATION: the Páramo de Chili is located pretty much in the middle of nowhere. To reach it you need to take Carrera 5 (see above) out of town. Keep going on the road for around 53 kilometers/33 miles until you reach the Páramo de Chili. According to Komoot (another great adventure app) you will gain around 3,261 meters/10,700 feet and lose around 1,242 meters/4,075 feet overall (Chili sits at 3,800 meters or 12,500 feet).
Another option for reaching the Páramo de Chili - though one that cuts Pijao out of the equation entirely - is to instead start in the small town of Anaime, located about 20 minutes from the larger town of Cajamarca. From Anaime, it is 40 kilometers/25 miles up to Chili and only 1,981 meters/6,500 feet of elevation gain.
| TOUR: there was only one tour that we found heading up to Chili: Rural Adventure. The full-day tour includes transportation, lunch and a snack and a guide. The whole tour takes roughly 14 hours, but also includes many stops along the way - including at a wax palm forest and some lagoons. It costs 260000 COP ($64.11 USD// €56.60 Euro) per person. You can learn more about the tour and book it here.
The páramo ecosystem is one of the most unique and wild biomes in the world. We have luckily had a few opportunities to experience it ourselves (mainly in the stunning Los Nevados National Park) and we were totally blown away with how different it is from any other place we have been to. If you have the time, we definitely recommend heading up to the páramo to check it out in person.
Explore Other Colorful Nearby Towns
If you are looking to explore even more off-the-beaten-path Colombian Coffee region towns then we definitely recommend heading to either Cordoba, which is about 30 minutes away on a paved road, Genova, which is about an hour and fifteen minutes away on a dirt road (honestly might be easier to bike there than bus), or Buenavista, which is located about 30 minutes away on a paved road.
The third town, Buenavista, is actually quite a popular weekend destination thanks to it being the home of the San Alberto Estate - one of the most popular coffee fincas in Colombia. The other two towns are similar in size and style to Pijao - small, traditional coffee towns that have very few tourists but lots of character and things to explore.
GOOD TO KNOW: one of the best reasons to visit the town of Cordoba is easy to access Reserva Natural Cascadas del Rio Verde (or Rio Verde Waterfall Nature Reserve), which is located just on the outskirts of town.
To reach the other towns you can either catch a bus directly from Armenia (like you would if heading to Pijao), catch a Willy in town (most park on the main road in Pijao) or simply walk, bike or hitch-hike for all of the towns are quite close together.
\\ How to Get to Pijao
The easiest way to reach the town is by public bus. To do this, first head to the main Armenia bus station (terminal de transportes). Once you get to the main bus station, head down to the first floor - not the one with almost all of the other bus company booths, but the one with the Western Union office. The company you are looking for is COOMOQUIN (they have white, yellow and green buses). Once you find the right booth tell them you are going to Pijao (you might have to show them it on a map) and pay for your ticket(s). They will then direct you to the correct bus outside.
Once you are ready to leave Pijao and make your way back to Armenia you can catch the bus on the corner of the main square by the Batidos Saludables restaurant on Calle 11 or as it is driving out of town on the main road.
GOOD TO KNOW: the buses tend to leave every 30 minutes or so from both the bus terminal in Armenia and from Pijao itself. Also, when we asked the driver in Pijao when the last bus was he said it was around 8 PM.
| COST: 8000 COP per person ($1.97 USD // €1.74 Euro)
| TIME: it takes around 1 hour to get between Armenia and Pijao (or vice-versa)
| RECEIPT: if you pay at the booth in the bus terminal you will be handed a paper receipt. Make sure to keep this with you because the driver will ask for it once you arrive in Pijao.
INSIDER TIP: if you are someone who often gets car/motion sick (like Madalyne) definitely come prepared, for the road up to Pijao from Armenia is very curvy.
If you are feeling adventurous and want to work up a nice sweat, then another option for reaching Pijao is to bike up.
Between Armenia and Pijao it is just over 32 kilometers - but you do gain over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) of elevation. A better idea would be to start your bike ride in the town of Rio Verde and ride up from there. This cuts out part of the elevation gain, plus this stretch of the road is way less busy with cars compared to the section close to Armenia.
From Rio Verde it is just over 13 kilometers up to Pijao. You can easily take a bus from Armenia to Rio Verde. We expect this to cost around 4000-4500 COP ($1.25 USD // €0.95 Euro) per person.
\\ Where to Stay in Pijao
Because Pijao is not a very popular town for tourists there are not a lot of options when it comes to finding a place to stay. Luckily, we found this hostel and absolutely loved it.
The spot is family-owned and operated and our hosts were absolutely amazing (friendly and very helpful). Plus, each room comes with its own massive window, a desk and a cozy bed. The best part though? Their large balcony with seating and a hammock. This is the best place to be during both dawn and dusk.
COST: 110000 COP // $27.39 USD // €24.12 Euro
Other places to check out:
| A Room in Entre Montañas Hotel - 88370 COP // $25 USD // €19.38 Euro
| Cabana Outside of Town - 486030 COP // $121 USD // €106.60 Euro (it does have two bedrooms)
| Eco-Cabana On the Edge of Town - 136570 COP // $34 USD // €29.90 Euro
\\ Where to Eat & Drink in Pijao
Restaurante El Montanero
This is a great spot for a traditional Colombian lunch (almuerzo). We recommend the beans and rice with chicken (unless vegetarian) and their lulo juice (lulo tastes like a mix between kiwi and pineapple). The meal also comes with soup and a small salad.
| Almuerzo: 14000 COP ($3.49 // €3.07 Euro) per plate
This popular restaurant is located in the main plaza of town right next to the large, modern church. Find the exact location of the restaurant here.
Hidden away outside of the main plaza, this cute café is a great place to stop in for a cup of coffee (hot or cold) or for an evening treat (their lemon cake is amazing).
| Americano: 3000 COP ($0.75 // €0.66 Euro)
| Mocha: 6,000 COP ($1.49 USD // €1.32 Euro) this was one of the few places we actually saw this served
| Delicious lemon cake: 9000 COP ($2.24 USD // €1.97 Euro)
| Brownie (with ice cream/helado): 9000 COP ($2.24 USD // €1.97 Euro).
Find the exact location of the café here.
Café de Origin La Floresta
If you want an in-depth coffee drinking experience then make sure to stop in at this small café located less than a block from the main plaza. We recommend ordering the honey coffee (miel) in a Chemex. The owner will give you a rundown on the coffee process and their different varieties sold in the café (in Spanish). The exact location of the café is here.
\\ Extra Pijao Tips
If you can, bring a bicycle.
While it can be a pain to bring a bicycle with you - especially if you are riding the bus - we think having a bike available in Pijao would be absolutely amazing. There are just so many roads available for riding. We already mentioned Carrera 5 up to Chili, but there are also plenty more dirt roads that head out to town towards coffee fincas, other small towns/villages or up to mountain tops.
Honestly, the whole time we were in Pijao we kept thinking how fun it would be to have bikes with us. If we head back we will definitely find a way to bring some with us.
Expect very few tourists - and souvenirs.
From the few articles we read on the town (and we mean feeeew) it sounded like Pijao was totally not on the main tourist map/circuit. Turns out that is pretty much true - at least for international travelers. While we did see a couple of cars from places like Cali, Armenia and Pereira, for the most part a lot of the people in town were locals. So as you would expect there are not a lot of tourist shops, including no souvenir shops and only one guiding outfit.
INSIDER TIP: due to the lack of tourism expect to find no other English (or non-Spanish) speakers. While visiting we had to conduct all transactions and conversations in Spanish. It's challenging - but also rewarding.
Pijao is one of those towns that you seem to stumble upon out of nowhere and ask yourself why no one else has "discovered" it yet. It is colorful, beautiful, exciting and full of adventure - especially of the outdoor variety. Plus, the people are all super friendly and it felt really safe - even at night.
If you are tired of only visiting touristy towns and instead are looking to get a bit more off-the-beaten-path, then we highly recommend adding Piao to your travel itinerary. It is easy enough to reach, it has everything you could need and it is cheap. To us it checked all of the necessary boxes and then some. Even as we were riding out on the bus we turned and told each other we definitely would need to head back (and soon).
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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.
| WayAway: this flight aggregator helps travelers find the best rates on airline tickets to tons of different locations.
| BusBud: explore millions of bus routes and destinations in one easy-to-use search; plus, you can compare prices and book your tickets online (in your language).
| Rentalcars.com: check out the world’s biggest online car rental service that is available in over 150 countries.
| 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.