Colombia is often talked about for it’s ‘magical realism’. A place so beautiful, enchanted and alive it seems surreal.
When I walked through Salento’s colourful streets and trekked the misty hills of the Valle de Cocora that’s certainly how I felt. After four perfect days in and around this little town I can say, with certainty, that this is a part of Colombia not to be missed.
While many foreigners go to Salento purely for Cocora, the town itself is packed with colour, music and plenty of places for tourists to eat, drink and be merry.
As a result of its toy-town charm, stunning surrounds and excellent food and coffee Salento has become the biggest tourist destination in Colombia’s coffee region. Naturally then, prepare for the myriad of gringos, the tourist stores peddling poor-quality ponchos and huge crowds of Colombian tourists who arrive every weekend and fill the streets.
Despite this, especially if you arrive mid-week, it’s definitely a beautiful spot to spend a few days. Salento has plenty of charm to keep you entertained for as long as you’d like but, a few charms in particular made our Salento trip unbeatable.
The Local Trout
Once in Salento, everybody is almost required to taste the local trout and the huge patacones. Trout is the famous local dish of Salento and stars on the menus of almost all the restaurants in town. It’s almost impossible to avoid, and worth giving in to. Most restaurants will charge between 10,000 and 20,000 COP for a serving of fresh fish.
Walks Outside Town
Another great option for Salento is to take a stroll outside town. Many hostels will have a secret track they’ll let you in on if you are looking for a nice walk around town. Our hostel owner guided us in the direction of a great little short walk up the hill where you can sit on the grass and look over the entire town. Instead of taking the steps up to the Mirador at the end of the main street, take the little road to the left and follow that up for as far as you’d like to. An indiscreet gap in the fence along the way will lead you out to a grass patch on the edge of a hill where you can sit and admire the town from above. For those who want to explore the surrounds with their feet off the ground, it’s also possible to hire bikes or horses inside Salento.
Salento’s Coffee Farms
Being that you are in Salento, the number one destination in the coffee region, it’s not a bad idea to visit a coffee farm. If you haven’t already been through one of the farms on your travels and tasted some fresh-off-the-tree coffee, Salento is a good place to do it. There are plenty of farms that are walking distance from the town centre and prices vary depending on how in-depth a tour you decide to take but start at around 8,000 COP. All of the hostels and hotels have great information about the farm and can give you directions on how to get there.
My final recommendation for Salento is a can’t miss: #4 trek the Valle de Cocora!
The Valle de Cocora
Cocora is a pretty well-known track in Colombia. Tourists travel from far and wide, ready to whip out their rain coats and take on the trail, no matter the weather.
While I can’t recommend this walk enough, I also recommend that travellers come prepared. The valley is well-known for almost daily rain, particularly in the afternoon. Bring a rain-coat, an umbrella or even gum boots.
Getting to Cocora
Another trick to avoid being caught in the afternoon rain is to be up and ready to start the walk early in the morning (before 9am). We arrived in Salento’s main square, where the Willy’s (or jeeps) depart, at around 8:30 in the morning. After grabbing some supplies in the local supermarket and waiting for the next jeep to start loading up, we were on the road by 9am.
The jeep drivers charge 3,800 COP per person, and to make sure they aren’t losing out, they don’t leave any extra wriggle room in the car. Prepare for either a very cosy ride inside, or an extremely scenic trip, hanging off the back of the car. When we arrived at the trail, we were pointed to the entrance and off we went.
Wax-Palm Covered Hills
Cocora, is particularly famous for its wax-palm covered hills. Many travellers trek for hours in order walk, take photos and sit amongst the trees. This is what we had expected, a five-hour walk that eventually would lead us to the wonderland of palms. However, from the moment we stepped out of the jeep we were already surrounded by wax-palms and incredible scenery. Right from the beginning, whether you are trudging through the valley, winding around the mountains, or stopped to rest on the side of a hill, you are never without an excellent photo opportunity!
The walk through the valley is, for the first leg, not too strenuous. Although, we found ourselves ankle deep in mud and stumbling across precarious footbridges, it wasn’t until we started to incline toward Acaime that it became a little more difficult.
Stops Along the Trail
The trail has a couple of routes you can take and different points to visit and not a great deal of signage once you pass the entrance. Acaime takes around three hours to walk to. It sits half way up the hill, in a little cottage that draws in hummingbirds with feeders and flowers in order to bring in tourists. Acaime, or Casa del Colibri, charges 5,000 to go in and see the birds, but includes a drink. If you find yourself starving mid-trek, they also serve lunch there. While the hummingbirds are incredible, the café didn’t come with much of a view and was quite crowded. If you are there on a busy day, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.
Just before the entrance to Acaime, there is another trail that will lead you up to Estrella de Agua. This is quite a steep 4km walk which, although is supposed to be beautiful, we opted not to take.
Further back down the hill, before you reach Acaime is the track to La Montaña. This is the first path you will have passed. It will take you up an incredibly steep mountain, where you will find the La Montaña point. When we arrived there, the clouds had already rolled in and we found ourselves in the middle of the mist. Although, we had an obstructed view of the valley, the cloud settling around the pines looked spectacular.
Cocora’s Famous Lookout
From there we followed a path down the hill, winding around the mountain and catching glimpses of palms through the mist. We soon came to the spot we had heard so much about. We climbed up through a gap in the fence, where a few people had gathered and stood amongst the people admiring the misty scene of palms in front of us. It was truly dreamlike. The spell was broken though, when we were struck by promised afternoon rain.
We pulled on our jackets and made our way out through the valley unfazed by the rain that soaked us through. We left the palms behind and crammed into the back of the jeep, tired, soggy and incredibly content.
When following the gringo trail around Colombia, major attractions can be quickly spoiled by tourists. Salento, though, is still incredibly stunning, and tourists can easily be dodged with a stroll outside town. In my experience, there is no better way to duck crowds than the magical walk through the Valle de Cocora!