(This is a long one, partially because I included some specifics for a couple attractions. So get a bevvy handy.)
With Semana Santa upon us, we decided to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for the tiny Salento, with a population somewhere around 5,000 depending upon who you ask. From Bogota it’s another one of those short hop flights that take longer to board and deplane than actually in the air. You arrive outside Armenia and from there need to cab out to Salento. In our case, after heading down the ladder on to the tarmac we found that the baggage claim wasn’t working… all our luggage was just lined up as the unruly mob descended to claim their baggage. Grabbed our stuff, found a cab and for about 100,000 pesos (about $40) you can sit back and enjoy the view on your ride to Salento. (Side note, you can also buy machetes and all sorts of knives at the Eden airport, about 20 feet from the security point for outgoing flights.)
Town itself Is fairly small and laid out in a 7 x 7 or so grid of Carreras and Calles with a little more “sprawl” heading off. Salento is picturesque and has some fantastic views. Tourism is huge there, both domestic and international… and during Semana Santa (holy week) it gets pretty crazy. But more on that later.
Town itself, as noted, is picturesque. People are mighty friendly. There are a lot of coffee places. I think we tried a good half dozen during our stay, enjoying each. The place is also awash in good restaurants and street food stands. We tried some of the “nicer” ones and some of the more “simple” ones and everything in between. I don’t’ think I walked away from a meal without a smile on my face. Partially due to pricing. Not an expensive place to dine out. Cheapest was the trout at Lucys for lunch. $3, with tip for a plate that included trout, potatoes, rice salad, plantain… For a great steak and eggs with a side of bacon salad (well, bacon, resting on lettuce on a side plate) courtesy of Brunch, the place, not the meal, was like $7. As usual, portions were always pretty filling. Towards the end of our stay we basically had a snack for breakfast, ate a good lunch, and maybe something small for dinner. We were both stuffed.
And one beer place that offered something better than Club Colombia or Poker… though outside the Colombia vs Australia friendly was rather light on patrons. Shame, their Mysterio IPA was easily the best cerveza in town. (If you like good beer, and you read this, go there. On 6th/the main drag, just like two doors past 3rd on the way to the hill, right hand side.)
Things to do…
Beyond the touring the town itself, dining on some trout (trucha) and guzzling an absurd amount of coffee, here are The Big Things to do.
It seems there are several fincas that offer tours, though Ocaso seems to be the popular one. We’d seen other travelers go there (Goats on the Road… their youtube vids are defo worth a watch), and with tours pretty much hourly and mostly in English, with, as I recall, the 10am and 3pm being the Spanish language versions. You can hike a couple KM from town or for a couple bucks hop in (or on) another Salento tradition, a Willy.
Tour was about $8 and well worth it. Jaime was very informative in showing/demonstrating the growing and harvesting processes, types of plants and how everything runs. They do give you a basket and put you to work searching for “cherries” that are fit for use. At the end you get to sample some rather excellent coffee.
Ocaso, in addition to giving you your own cuppa also has various wares for sale. I was able to get a 500g (1.1 pound) bag of their coffee for 21,000 pesos, around $7. They also have a little coffee house on site where you can enjoy more coffee and/or some tasty treats while relaxing and taking in a gorgeous view of the valley.
Rather than rush off to catch the next Willy home after the tour we opted to sample some of their Peaberry coffee we learned about during the tour. Watching them prepare our coffee was eye-opening. They don’t just pour you a cup from a pot sitting on heater. Instead they prep your coffee just for you with an immense attention to detail to ensure your coffee is the best it can be.
Before our host (chef?) measured out exactly the precise amount of grams of coffee to use, she grabbed a peck of the same beans to run through the grinder and ensure any residual flavors from the prior (and possibly different) beans were cleared. She also ran a small amount of piping hot water through the filter and into our coffee pot to remove loose fibers from the filter and slightly heat the glass pot to prevent against the initial temperature shock of hot liquid hitting cold glass. With those steps completed, the beans were weighed and ground, the filter and coffee pot were prepped and ready. There was an initial splash of water to open up the coffee (like letting wine breath or adding a splash of water to your fine Islay Malt Scotch), she paused a few seconds before s-l-o-w-l-y pouring the rest of the water in.
Was like watching some cross between a scientific experiment procedure and art.
And yes, the coffee was brilliant.
Home of the Wax Palms, absolutely beautiful. Some hit a towering 60m (200ft) in height.
There are two ways to do this, really. Once one takes a Willy from the town square and enjoys a scenic 30 minute or so ride you arrive at the start point. The valley is on a hiking loop trail of something like 8 to 10km and, depending upon who you ask, is anything from “a piece of cake” to “hell.” (Exact quotes provided to the proprietor of Brunch, where we went early that am to grab box lunches.)
If you feel like a hike, the best option seems to be to take the right branch. You’ll start off in a nice valley before heading into the “jungle” (well, closer to cloud forest) where you will have to cross the Seven Bridges Of Questionable Structural Integrity – though this might be eight, depending upon your full itinerary.
At a certain point the trail splits. You can continue on another kilometer to Acaime, where you can enjoy a hot chocolate with the hummingbirds. We skipped this, partially because we hadn’t yet advanced to the “hell” portion of the trail and I wanted to knock that out while still motoring, partially because we were playing a fun game of “beat the impending rain” (spoilers – it never came, though outside our trip to Ocaso and this, it did rain every other day we were in Salento, if just for a couple hours) and partially because of our trip to the nature reserve outside Quito a couple months prior where we already had hummingbirds buzzbombing our breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So at this point the trail does a hairpin turn back and welcome to the ‘hell’ part of the hike. The trail is something like 8-10km, two more if you do Acaime, and also has an altitude climb of 1km… most of which is in the next 30-40 minutes. Truthfully, it wasn’t too horrible. I was huffing and puffing… but we’ve been living in Bogota, which sits at 2,600+ meters (8,600ft) and I’ve been doing some stairs at a local park the equivalent of a 14 story climb. I’m neither in futbol shape, as fit as a fiddle and ready to run for 90 minutes, nor futbol shape, which is to say looking like I swallowed a futbol. I can see where the young travelers on walkabout in South America for three months hiking all over find it easy… and can see where even folks in decent shape but not ready for the jump from roughly 6,000ft to 9,000ft altitude could find it rough. I went in wanting to do it… and did. Katie didn’t think it difficult at all.
At roughly the peak you’ll be at 2,900m and supposedly there is a stop for lunch around here, as noted by the map I have, courtesy of a wall at Brunch. We missed it and weren’t too hungry at this point anyways.
Your reward for going this route is, provided you leave early enough in the morning, you might see some wildlife in the forest portion (I spotted a quail-like bird cutting the trail in front of us by maybe 15ft) … and the entire second half the hike is a slow, gradual, leisurely downhill stroll. Well, most of it. We did find a nice, flat spot off the trail with a brilliant view and one, lonely palm. I dubbed it One Palm Point.
Further down you’ll find a couple miradors (scenic views) that jut off the trail. We explored these. Lots of pics taken. And as a side note, if following our path, after Mirador 1 , the second you will encounter (they are numbered as if you take the trail the opposite route), GET BACK ON THE TRAIL. We didn’t, so heed my warning. The toughest portion of the hike was NOT ascending the bulk of 1km in a 40 minute span… but rather trying to duckwalk down a hill with treacherous/shifty footing without going ass over teakettle and rolling, rolling, rolling all the way down hoping not to break anything.
Alternately, if you just want to see the palms and don’t want to do the whole loop, or whole loop plus (now with hot cocoa and hummingbirds!), you can just go forward/straight from where you get dropped off… which is the left hand path. Maybe a KM or so on a slow incline you’ll find the valley. You can do both miradors, do a 180 and take the same path out.
From there just find the Willy parking, get yourself a ride back to town and enjoy a fried trout or patacon con todo and a cerveza. You’ve earned it, my friend.
Other things to enjoy
If drinking beer and lobbing rocks at black-powder packed packets of paper hoping for detonation sounds like your thing, read on. If not, skip this bit.
There are a couple places to play Tejo in town, we opted for Los Amigos Tejo.
Los Amigos has three full tejo alleys(?), which effectively doubles to six for tourists as rather than the full 20 meters away, they park us noobs around 7 meters or so from the mound, which makes it an explosive form of cornhole, almost, as opposed to the games locals play. Grab your tejo (the game is named for the rock you throw, various sizes, smaller are easier to throw, the larger/heavier ones more likely to go boom!) and lob at the target, a circle ringed with six explosive packets of paper. Scoring is simple. Land inside the circle AND cause an explosion, that’s 9 points. 6 for landing in the ring sans detonation, 3 for just getting a piece of paper to go boom and if all players fail the above (90% of tosses, probably) whoever lands in the mud ramp closest to the rings gets a point. First to 21 wins. Hooray. Don’t forget to re-pack your mud after each round.
After my first couple tosses were either on target or a Maxwell Smart “missed it by *that much*” off target I moved myself back to about half way. Felt proud until a couple locals came in and started arcing their tejos the full 20 meters of the court. I tried once from full distance, downgrading to a smaller tejo, and hit the backstop… not bad, but went back to my closer distance before the mix of cerveza, lack of skill and a mud covered rock resulted in a wild pitch accidentally drilling another gamer the next lane over in the cabeza.
Games are cheap, I think we paid a little over 50 mil for 3 games and 3 beers each, about $18 … so $3 each per round of tejo coupled with a fresh bottle of aiming fluid.
Had a lot of fun, but as a head’s up, you and your clothes will smell like gunpowder when done.
Kasaguadua Nature Reserve
Maybe 30 minutes on foot outside town along the dirt road that leads to the coffee fincas/plantations is Kasaguadua Nature Reserve. It’s a carefully run reserve that has a limited number of tours per day – as determined by the maximum number of people that can be allowed into the reserve on any day without interfering or negatively impacting the environment. Additionally, you can actually stay here as well, limited to something like six guests total. The tour takes about two hours, isn’t particularly physically taxing, particularly after Cocora, and is extremely informative and interesting. You get to learn all about the microclimates of the cloud forest, the differences between that and your “typical” forest in, say, Europe or the US/Canada. It is truly fascinating how everything develops with everything else in the little areas in a symbiosis. Great tour. Cost is 25mil ($8 US), well worth it knowing what your donation/price of admission goes to help preserve.
Book in advance. And well in advance, I imagine, if you want to stay there.
All in all really enjoyed our time in Salento. Seven days might have been pushing it a little bit, perhaps could have trimmed a day or two off, or planned better and included a daytrip by bus to another of the towns in the coffee region, but every day was fun.
Also of note, maybe avoid during Semana Santa (the week leading to Easter) … while it wasn’t bad the first couple nights in town, the crowds grew. And grew. And grew. By the end of the week the quiet calles and carreras were a lot of hustle and bustle. And stopping short and suddenly or lots of swerving for people who thought nothing of coming to a dead halt to take selfies or group pics. We left around 1pm on Good Friday. We had negotiated with our cabbie who dropped us off in Salento at the start of our week… rather he volunteered and we agreed to schedule the pickup. One less thing to worry about. He arrived in town rather early to make sure he’d be on time to take us out, and we saw why first hand as we begin the super-extended dance remix drive back through Armenia and to the airport. So the tiny little town that almost entirely centers around a 7 x 7 grid of streets had a line of traffic extending no less than 3km out of town, all trying to get in. Our cabbie said it took him two hours earlier that morning, and the line was longer as we left. He was lucky, got in early enough to enjoy a lunch. Needless to say, his tip covered his lunch cost and more for his time and patience.
And there was a certain irony to it all as the quiet little town to escape the hubbub and furor of Bogota life was jam packed with throngs of people and upon our return to Bogota (including in-cab movie, Guardians of the Galaxy on the long ride across town) we found our Chapinero neighborhood virtually deserted. Ah, the peace and quiet of a city of around 10,000,000 people.