It is easy to underestimate Quindio’s Parque Nacional del Café, or National Coffee Park. Located off a small street outside a small town in a small and sparsely populated department, and billed on local signs simply as the ‘Coffee Park,’ it doesn’t seem to promise much.
But pass the modest entrance and it’s sprawling, immensity swiftly becomes apparent. One train and two cable car systems ferry visitors to and fro. Three color coded zones divide up the geography: Lookout-Museums, Coffee and Adventures. Some fifty-one attractions—ranging from a Muleteer’s Bridge to the Ranch of the Guayaba Tree—dot the fold-out map. Both campy and classy, natural and contrived, even the park’s few outright faults are rather charming. A whole day with an early start is recommended.
Before you can get a glimpse of the bounty, however, you have to pay up. Misers can grab the straight up entrance fee for about US$8.50, cultural visitors can see the orchid and coffee shows while getting their thrills on the gondolas and in-park train for US$15, and the truly durable can get an everything goes one-day bracelet for US$22.50. Fickle-minded visitors need not worry: each attraction is also sold separately.
Regardless of your choice, the best way to start is by descending the Sendero Ecológico, or Ecologic Trail, as it is misleadingly titled on the ground. Labeled as the ‘Coffee Trail’ on the map, it zigzags down through, as you would guess, a lot of coffee.
In case a lot of shiny green leaves aren’t your thing, along the way the trail passes most of the free attractions the park has to offer. A mock up of a traditional coffee plantation, an indigenous cemetery (oddly under construction at last visit) and a very well-appointed farmer’s house are the main attractions.
Easily the best free aspect of the park, however, is the three-stop series on how coffee is made. Worked into the second part of the trail, it is a mix of fascinating details about the process (with oodles more should you ask a question) and public relations campaign (try to count how many times they tell you Colombian coffee is among the best in the world). Be warned: besides a bare-bones English pamphlet—seemingly translated by Google—is available, all information is given in Spanish. And on a curious note, there isn’t a single opportunity to buy the stuff—grounds, kernels or steaming brew—along the way.
The next step is up to you. If you’ve got room for a pinch more culture—and a lot more walking—opt for the Sendero Mitos y Leyendas, or Myths and Legends Path. It switchbacks forgivingly back up the hill (meaning you will need to take the gondolas down if you want to test the rides) through tranquil woods dotted with flowers and the occasional bald, bare-breasted, one-footed monster. La Patasola, or Onefoot, unfortunately includes no descriptions about her unique origins, but other stories do intrigue. El Hojarasquin del Monte, for example, hit his mom, dragged her through the coffee fields and killed her with a spur before becoming a devil. Other stories are tamer, but generally supplemented by enormous bare breasts.
If you want to head straight for the rides, descend the hill to the Puente Colgante, or Hanging Bridge. Across it you’ll find a wide plaza planted with palms backed by the gondola station and offering all manner of lunch options. Behind each of these food courts are all manner of ways to lose your lunch, from the Cyclone to the Montaña Rusa (dully translated as Rollercoaster instead of Russian Mountain).
A long walk or a very slow train ride away is another cluster of rides, including Octopus, Free Fall and, for those who can’t get enough choo-choo, Little Train. The eagle-eyed and culturally curious will spot a marker for the Arqueology Museum in the same area. Ascending the all-but-hidden staircase will find a lot of bowls, some small figurines (a couple of which seemed to have fallen over inside their display cases) and one skeleton. You should have time to review the whole thing and eat a leisurely ice cream before the next train leaves. (Incidentally, the museum at the park entrance took this visitor even less time: it was closed during a recent visit).
Whether you choose the trail or the adventure section, be sure to ask when the Show del Café, or Folkloric Coffee Show begins. A feast of wide smiles, high leg kicks, stolen kisses, leaping men, vibrant colors, slapping knives and barelegged women, it is not to be missed. In just minutes, the 23 person crew manages to pull you through love, adultery, anger, into a market place and through the coffee fields. Sure it gets a bit cheesy at times—those smiles must require tape—but that just ups the appeal.
On the other hand, the Show de Orquídeas, or Orchid Show, is likely only pleasurable under a heavy dose of hallucinogens. Something like the Wizard in Oz meets Disneyland’s ‘It’s a Small World After All,’ complete with talking trees, flowers singing in unison, dark lighting and disembodied voices. If you don’t understand it the first time through don’t worry: it could well break down, forcing them to start again from the beginning. Make sure to work out where the exit is—there is no bright sign—before the whole place goes dark.
But the orchid show is just an amusing gaffe in an otherwise fantastic performance. Colombia’s National Coffee Park has something for everyone from coffee fanatics to kids with an adrenaline hook. The newest name it has been tagged with, El Parque de Los Colombianos, or Park of the Colombians, may not be reaching too far.