In 2011 UNESCO recognised Colombia’s ‘Coffee Cultural Landscape’ as a World Heritage Site, declaring the region – which includes the departments of Quindio, Risaralda, and Caldas, plus a small part of northern Valle del Cauca – an “exceptional example of a sustainable and productive cultural landscape that is unique and representative of a tradition that is a strong symbol for coffee growing areas worldwide.” The region is culturally fascinating, beautiful, and a wonderful place to visit for lovers of coffee, nature, architecture, and much more. It also has some excellent tourist facilities and activities. One of the coolest and most unique of these is taking a flight over the magnificent landscapes of the region in a hot air balloon, which I was fortunate enough to do in June of this year.
My friend and I awoke very early in the morning – around 4 am – to drive from his house in Pijao to the takeoff point for the flight. We were due to arrive by 6 am – no later! – for a prompt dawn takeoff when conditions are best. We were flying with Globos Colombia, who are one of only two balloon operators in the whole of Colombia operating tourist flights – their flights depart from a field near to the National Coffee Park in Montenegro, Quindio (although they can make exceptions for clients who specially request alternate takeoff points, as long as they are basically in the same area). We met up with Armancio and Adriana, the Spanish-Colombian couple who started the company and followed them to a nearby field to prepare for takeoff.
While we waited for the balloon to fill with air we were given some snacks and coffee for breakfast. We were to be joined by a nice couple from Bogota on their honeymoon. Apparently, lots of people propose during private flights – my naturally self-deprecating nature took over upon hearing this information: it sounds like a terrible idea to me, what if he/she said no…you’d be stuck with them for an hour in a tiny wicker basket with no escape! But most people are a little more secure than I am. Anyway…it was chilly and misty, but pretty soon the sun began to burn through the mist and the balloon started to rise up, ready for takeoff. We posed for a few souvenir photos in the basket, jumped aboard, and we were off.
The next 45 minutes (flights are around an hour, but some of that depends on finding a good place to land the balloon) were a truly wondrous experience. Armancio, as well as being an experienced pilot, is also tremendous fun to fly with. The captain of my first ever balloon flight in Kenya was a rather serious man, dressed in a captain’s uniform and affecting a rather solemn demeanour for much of the flight. Armancio was the polar opposite: jovial and garrulous, he added an extra element of fun to an already wonderful experience. But that’s what we were really there for: the flight…
The landscapes are simply spectacular: from our high vantage point, we could see both the jagged peaks of the distant Western range of the Andes, as well as the central range which makes up much of the coffee region. The dawn light illuminated the peaks with a faint orange glow, giving the whole thing a faintly Mordor-esque vibe (yep, I’m a nerd!). As the sun rose and the mist burned away, the damp green fields of plantain and coffee took on an almost fluorescent green colouring, and the silence was total. Rays of early morning light streaked down from gaps in the clouds and shone on the distant streets and buildings of Armenia. It was one of the most beautiful panoramas I have ever seen.
We hung above this incomparable vista for a while, before Armancio took us down in altitude for a closer look. We flew down over the National Coffee Park and spent the next half hour traversing lovely little traditional houses, endless coffee fields and platano plantations, while families came out onto the dirt roads to wave and take photos. Armancio even had some lollipops to throw down – carefully, and away from the people, naturally – for the children who ran out to marvel at the giant green and yellow behemoth passing slowly overhead.
Eventually, our captain spotted a good place to land, on a wide dirt track alongside a coffee plantation. He had been in constant radio contact with the ground team, so when we landed they were already there waiting to assist and pack up the balloon. It was a smooth landing, made more entertaining by the presence of a group of coffee pickers who came out for photos. Armancio kindly made time for all of them to pose for pictures in the basket, before we did the same. We then packed up and headed off for a celebratory beer (yeah, it was early, but we’d been up for hours!), where we were presented with our flight certificates and waved goodbye.
Flying over Quindio in a hot air balloon is certainly not a cheap or budget travel activity (see the italicised section below for price details) – it’s one-off, special experience, perfect for anniversaries, honeymoons, special occasions, or for those travellers with fewer budgetary restrictions. However, if you can spare the $150-or-so that a flight costs per person, then make sure to do it: it was an amazing experience and something practically unique in Colombia. There can’t be many places on earth where you can soar over a World Heritage Site, that’s for sure…
I was generously invited to take this flight by Juan David Agudelo, the owner of Experiencia Cafetera – who run what I have called ‘the best coffee tour in Colombia’ in the town of Pijao – who is strongly dedicated to promoting tourism in Quindio. He arranged the flight through Globos Colombia: the entire flight normally costs 2 million COP and can hold up to four people. You can contact Globos Colombia to arrange a flight through their website or on Facebook.