The town of Salento in the Quindio region of Colombia was the perfect place for a mountain lover such as myself . The 5,000-15,000 foot peaks which were covered in multiple vibrant shades of green, some of which had snow peaking out of the clouds on their summits, reminded me of a more peaceful and tropical version of Asheville, NC.
We flew into the city of Pereira- about an hour drive from Salento, at around 2pm and met up with our friend from Massachusetts Brandon at the airport in Pereira. Brandon had gotten in at 8am and was weary-eyed from the long flight from Boston. We excitedly met up with him after long hours of no service and not fully knowing whether he would be in the airport or not. The hour long drive from Pereira to Salento was filled with our first views of the coffee plantations and looming mountains lining the roadways. We stayed at La Serrana hostel about a 10 minute walk from downtown Salento. I recommend staying here because it is a little outside the busy town of Salento and you really get to experience the full effect of the peace that the crisp Sierra Nevada mountains bring to the area. The hostel sits on a hill grassy hill with cows grazing in view adjacent to the main house. Two jovial Spanish women served breakfast every morning at 7 am. Eggs, bacon, vegetables, smoothies, and pancakes filled our plates while they joked around in Spanish- most likely making fun of all of us gringos.
The hostel staff is happy to set up Jeep rides to and from downtown and help you set up any other excursion you want to make in Salento- whether it is a horse ride to a beautiful 30 foot waterfall, a coffee tour at one of the many coffee plantations a few miles from the hostel, or any other excursion in the area. No one speaks English, as is the norm anywhere in Colombia, but somehow we were able to speak well enough in Spanglish to the people working there to figure out how to get from place to place and . We stayed in a deluxe room which was a few hundred yards from the main hostel house. This was a much-appreciated upgrade from the typical hostel bunks. We had a king size bed, our own bathroom, and the sun rose right next to out house every morning. We couldn’t have asked for a better place to enjoy Salento.
Cocora Valley Hike
The mornings in Salento were always very clear- you could see some of the glacier peaks in the distant mountains, and rows of coffee growing on hills below the hostel. Without fail though, the clouds moved in and there was always a light bit of rain in the early afternoon. You could see the clouds materialize in the late morning and finally, like clockwork, they would start letting out some of their rain on the town and mountains below. The rain would last maybe an hour and then everything would be clear and vibrant again. On the second day at La Serrana we got up early and made the 10 minute walk into the main square in Salento to catch a Jeep to the Cocora Valley. The Jeep ride was, if I remember correctly, 7,000 COP total for a ride to and from the Cocora Valley trailhead- this comes out to only about $2.50 American! I started to realize why it was so cheap when I saw how many people were getting in the old Jeeps. Each Jeep had 2 people in the front seat next to the driver, 6-7 people in the back and 3 people holding on to the outside of the vehicle while standing on the back bumper. My friend Brandon and I were the lucky ones who had the joy of standing on the back bumper on the way to the valley. The Jeep wrapped around tight corners, narrowly missing a large tour bus, and with a bit of fear in our stomachs we enjoyed the growing lush beauty as we got closer to the valley.
Cocora Valley is known for it’s Quindio Wax Palm trees which are the tallest palms in the world. They grow upwards of 200 feet in height and are long spindly things that look like they shouldn’t be standing on their own and maybe should be part of a Salvador Dali painting. We took the approximately 6-7 mile hike along a stream, through a rainforest to the top of a 8500 foot mountain. On the way up, there was a 30 minute hike (1 hour there and back) that you could take to a hummingbird garden, but we decided to continue the trek to the top as there were a ton of people going there and it was about 3000 COP each person to get to the viewing area. We asked hikers coming back from the spot if it was worth the extra hike and they gave us an half-hearted “yeah” that wasn’t very convincing.
As we got closer to the summit, the trail got more and more steep. The end of the trail, right before we stopped for a snack was a series of switchbacks there were actually pretty strenuous, and made harder by the altitude. The view from the top was pretty anticlimactic as all we saw was the thick gray clouds surrounding us that has moved in as we had made our way up. On the way down though, we witnessed the full brunt of wax palms straight to the eyeballs. There were a few pull offs where tourists gathered to snap photos of the strange-looking palms as they reached up towards the sky. The trees look like they should be growing on another planet where the gravity is weaker. How do they stand? We finished the hike in about 5 hours and made our way back to the Jeeps, passing fields of cows and horses amongst the palm trees. It was a magical hike that had hints of the Lord of the Rings in its verdant beauty.
We took a couple of coffee tours while in Salento. The first one was called Las Acacias and was the first one we walked up on as we hiked down the hill from La Serrana. It was a family owned plantation and of the younger owners or employees took us through a half hour tour of the plantation. He explained all of the different aspects of growing coffee- how there coffee plants are actually all hybrids of the Arabica plant, which is a very tall thin plant, and another plant that is short and wide. They hybridized these plants because people in Colombia aren’t very tall so they wanted a plant that was easy to harvest but also produced a lot of coffee beans on every plant. November isn’t really the harvest season but we still saw one or two workers harvesting the straggling red berries that they make into roast-ready coffee beans.
The second coffee plantation we visited was called Ocaso. We visited just to sit down at the cafe they had built on the edge of a hill overlooking the surrounding mountains. I got a delicious espresso and we watched as the hummingbirds buzzed around a feeder. We bought a few bags of Salento coffee here and we have been drinking the delicious nectar every day since we’ve gotten back from Colombia.