Colombia: A Varied Landscape
Colombia is now the third largest producer of coffee in the world. They take pride in this heritage as it defines their history and their cultural landscape today. If you picture Colombia, you may first picture Cartagena and the lively Carribean port town with their vibrant nightlife and colorful architecture, but Colombia’s diverse landscapes can set the stage for very different communities with their own adventures. As of writing this, we had been tourists in Colombia for over a month, hitting Carribean Cartagena, northern Parque Tayrona, and down south to the bustling salsa capital of Cali. For variety and to know Colombia better, we headed inland and up into the hills.
The Last-Minute Decision to Go
After hearing from every Colombian friend that we must visit the coffee region, and after reviewing our trusty Lonely Planet guide and Trip Advisor, we hopped on the last bus out of Cali at 5:00 pm Friday afternoon, and arrived in Armenia, the nearest larger town to Salento, at 8:30 pm. The last bus for Salento leaves at 8:00 pm, so we had to pay a taxi driver 56,000 Colombian Pesos and arrived at our location around 9:30 pm. Our host Eddie is a Colombian guy raised in America, about my age (around 28) who owns a plot of land on the edge of town, overlooking a green hillside. He is constructing a large hostel on his property that totals four stories. For now, we stayed in a room adjacent to his house which we rented on Air BnB. It’s a large space with a cement floor, a tall ceiling, and natural wooden beams. His two friendly german shepherds stood watch outside our door.
Our First Day in Scenic Salento: The Valle de Cocora
The next morning, greeted by the crow of roosters, we woke up early and headed out to the main square only a few blocks away. The first “Willy” (An old Jeep from the 60’s or 70’s now used as public transportation) leaves for the Valle de Cocora at 6:15 am. We arrived at 6:25 am and it had already left. We were advised to catch the next one at 7:30 am so we walked back to our humble quarters and rested a bit more until 7:10 am rolled around. We were in the square again by 7:20 am but the Willy was already full of people. Instead of waiting for the next one, we opted for hanging off of the back of it, standing on the bumper and holding on to the luggage rack welded to the top. This made for a more scenic and exciting adventure up to the valley, even if I had to hold my hat on my head and keep my mouth shut to avoid eating bugs.
We hopped off at the main gate leading to the trail, paid our 3,000 pesos to the Willy driver, and stopped to pet some friendly neighborhood dogs. A stubby legged black one ended up being our guide the whole way.
The trail passes by a few “Fincas” or farms before you enter the forest, surrounded by jungle-sized plants, with the sound of tropical birds in the canopies above. We crossed a few bridges of wood suspended by steel cables and came to a fork in the road where you can walk a bit further to view a hummingbird sanctuary. Our dog, for whom we had adopted the name of “Guia,” or guide in Spanish, knew to stop and wait at the bottom of the hill as dogs were not allowed on the property. We paid 5,000 pesos for this but were rewarded with swarms of all different kinds of colorful, lively, and chirping hummingbirds, and even some hot chocolate and homemade cheese. (The local tip: Put pieces of cheese inside the hot chocolate and eat them with a spoon). We even saved a small piece of cheese for Guia.
I somehow pulled myself away from the magical fleeting and floating birds and started back down the way we came. Guia was not to be seen, but after a few hundred feet he came bounding back to us leading a new group of tourists. He was happy to join back up with our group after we rewarded him with his bits of cheese.
Climbing up the hill to then descend into the Valle de Cocora was leaving me short of breath, and my husband reminded me that we were almost at 3,000 meters or about 9,000 feet. After we came to a clearing at the top of the hill, the view of the calm valley with a veil of fog over the towering slender palms was magnificent and unique, and well worth the strain on my lungs. The trees stand tall above cleared pastures below, with only grazing cattle and horses scattered in between, and the effect is something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
Because we had woken up early to get a head start, we were quite hungry when we finished our descent back to our starting point. Before we reached the gate, we stopped at a restaurant serving locally grown trout or “trucha.” This is served with a surprisingly large, crispy, thin, fried plantain. It was moist, delicious and satisfying, but I would recommend the pop-up vendors in the square before the restaurant on the hike as they are more affordable and the turnover of clients is more favorable.
Back at home, we rested a bit in our room and were invited to join Eddie for dinner with his friend Peter (a Belgian also living in Salento.) We went to his friend’s hostel called La Eliana and had some strongly spiced curry with rice and homemade flat bread. This hostel is owned by a spirited Spaniard married to a Colombian, and living in Salento for 7 years now. Eddie gave us great tips on where to rent our mountain bikes for the next day and which route to pursue.
Day Two: The Colombian Coffee Region via Mountain Bike
The next day was reserved for exploring the coffee region. We got a late start enjoying a cappuccino in the square at a jeep-turned-coffee shop called Cafe Willy’s, and then set off to rent the bikes around 1:00 pm. We set off down a fairly steep dirt road and towards the end of it, we came upon El Ocaso Coffee Farm. We jumped right on board with the tour that was starting and proceeded to pick some ripe coffee beans, peel them in the hand-churned machine, view the drying area, hear about the roasting, and finally taste a sample. It was a fun experience and I recommend it for the 10,000 pesos.
We continued on our ride (despite the graying skies) and quickly found ourselves riding through a downpour. We took cover under the big leaves of a tropical tree, but soon this started to pour water on us too, and we decided to push on.
As the mud accumulated on the back of my shirt and I started to worry about the moisture condition of my phone, the rain came to a pause, and we came to a point where you can split off on an uphill trail to see a waterfall or continue on your way back to Salento. After estimating the distance and our availability of daylight, we decided to go for it. Suffice it to say, the daylight was not quite sufficient, and if it hadn’t been for the nice gentleman who provided us with a plastic bag from his home to protect our phones, we may have really regretted it. The rain came back with full force, and we were positively soaked and chilly and found ourselves peddling up the windy, dark road to Salento with cars zipping by within inches of us.
To our surprise, Eddie was one of these cars zooming around the curves, and almost hit my husband Alberto with his 1968 Land Rover. His headlights were out, and his car had already died once that day and he was trying to race home as quickly as he could while the car was moving. Unfortunately, we found his car stalled in the middle of the road some 500 feet ahead. After our last exasperating half mile pushing up the hill, we asked around to the Willy’s in town to see if they could tow him out, but they claimed their vehicles were not strong enough to complete the task. Luckily, by the time we reached our room to change our clothes, Eddie’s worker who was helping him to build the hostel was towing his Land Rover back into the driveway.
We relaxed with some hot showers and found a late meal at a restaurant called Cafe Bernabe, just to the right of the main touristy road leading away from the Plaza. It certainly warmed us from the inside out with perfectly cooked steak medallions and a bolognese pasta. The hot spiced wine cocktail I ordered was pure heaven after our cold bike ride.
The next morning we caught a 10:00 am bus from Salento to Medellin. The road is up and down hills, and quite curvy, and the bus driver was not a fan of applying the breaks. Being a very cautious driver myself, I was digging my nails into my armrest the whole time. Entering the large bus terminal in Medellin with their polluted air and sprawling gray cityscape, I was already longing to be back in the high elevation with the green hills, horses braying and roosters crowing. Salento was a little gem in between the bustling cities of Cali and Medellin, and I would recommend anyone to take a few days of their itinerary to experience its adventure.