Perpetually beautiful Salento. Located a windy drive from the Number 29 north of Armenia, it’s apparent from the moment you exit the bus that this hill-side pueblo is relaxation paradise. Known for its coffee and being the starting point for ventures into the famed Valle Del Cocora, we also found ourselves lucky enough to be here during Semana Santa (Easter).
Having booked accommodation at the highly recommended Plantation House, a 100 year old coffee plantation, Matt’s initial disappointment in barely there WiFi, rustic bathroom and minuscule chill-out area is partly subdued by the fantastically hot shower, the perfect indulgence after the overnight bus from Medellin.
Booked for the afternoon coffee plantation tour down the muddy hill at Finca Don Eduardo’s, we received a discounted price which begins to tips the scales in Plantation House’s favour. For now it’s time to head out to discover this highland gem. Finding a hole in the wall for a hunger crunching breakfast, two lovely ladies oblige, stuffing us full of eggs and steak for only a couple of bucks.
Next up we headed down Carrera 4 to climb to the Mirador a top as there’s not a lot else going on at eight o’clock in the morning. New found dog friend in tow, we climbed the colourful staircase to find a sweet restaurant/little swimming pool to the right and a pellet gun shoot your prize guy to the left.
Always up for a bit of fun Sarah’s got the gun in the hand before you can say ‘freeze’. Pumping a few round off she’s come up with a packet of MSG laced, fat fried, crispy somethings. Possibly chips but we’re still not sure.
Vistas of town enjoyed it’s back down the stairs still being escorted by our canine companion who’s befriended us since arrival, Sarah and dogs have a ‘thing’. We’d read about a small pueblo just outside of town going by the name of Aldea Del Artesano which is renowned for its artisan’s skills. Making the trek out we were disappointed to find the place is a virtual ghost town with most of the places closed up.
During Semana Santa, Salento becomes one big chaotic human traffic jam. Families mixed with tourists and locals alike vie for a place the many food stalls erected for the festivities around the main plaza. Finding the one most popular with the Colombians, we take a seat for the local specialty of trucha.
Basically a local trout, it’s prepared in various sauces including an awesome creamy garlic, all of which are mouth wateringly delicious and come served with a huge thin patacone, a typical side dish served with fish of fried green plantain, which is perfect for dipping in your leftover sauce.
The afternoon saw us take the slippery slope down, down to Finca Don Eduardo’s coffee plantation. One of the small in-house operations which does the lot from tree to caffeine delight mostly by hand, we were taken on a walk through the hillside plantations of coffee, pineapple and bamboo, or which they make everything in this part of the world, including parts of the finca itself, sign posts, power poles and fences.
The bamboo needs to be harvested around 4am when the water levels in the wood are lower to ensure it stays dry and strong. Once we’d climbed the overgrown path back to the farmhouse, we were treated to a demonstration of the plant to cup process. After soaking for several days, the coffee cherries (as the fruit is called) are ground by hand to separate the seeds (coffee beans) from the soft fruit.
Once this is done the beans are dried, the thin husk left on the outside is removed (again by hand), and the final product is roasted, ground and enjoyed…there’s a video on their website if that was too blunt for you. Instead here’s some pictures of us enjoying the freshest coffee we’ve ever had.
The buzz of too many cups of fresh strong coffee left us in need of something calming, so we found ourselves at Camino Real Parrilla Bar. Whilst a little overpriced on the drinks side, if you’re trying to impress a date grab a spot out the back around the large fire or under the fairy light wrapped palm tree and you’ll be sure to impress.
The next day we headed out for Salento’s big draw, the Valle de Cocora, home of Colombia’s national tree, the Quindío wax palm. Jumping on the back of the traditional Willy’s jeep along with a group of locals and tourists, we headed for the trail head and into the mud of the surrounding cloud forest.
The 4-5 hour hike takes you into the forest and across several wooden bridges, before you reach a steep muddy hill a few hours later to our lunch stop, the hummingbird sanctuary of Acaime. But we weren’t just here for the hummingbirds, as your entry also gets you a Colombian favourite of a cup of hot chocolate and a lump of salty local cheese. WTF we hear you say, but actually once you put the cheese in the hot chocolate (WTF we hear you say again), it takes away the saltiness and leaves it soft and squeaky, a bit like Greek halloumi.
After some nice chat with a few other hikers we hit the trail up La Montana and down to the main event. The valley is named after princess Cocora, daughter of a local chief, whose name means “star of water”, and for the second time in a week we found ourselves thinking we’d stumbled into a Dr Seuss book, this time amongst truffula trees from The Lorax.
Watching the cloud sweep out of the valley to reveal these prehistoric looking palms is like nothing we’ve ever experienced, and the peace and quiet of the place made it all quite mystical. Once endangered due to overuse for candling making and stripping the palm fronds each year for Palm Sunday decorations, the tree is now recovering thanks to electricity and the locals using banana fronds instead, as we witnessed on actual Palm Sunday. Growing up to 60m tall and found almost nowhere else on earth, it’s no wonder this is Colombia’s national tree. One question we had though, was where were all the baby palm trees??
Sitting down to enjoy one of Salento’s other favourites, a peanut butter brownie from Brunch, we soaked up the magical atmosphere before heading into the valley and back into town, this time scoring a standing spot on the back of the jeep for full adventure points.
Safely back in town we still had a few more traditional boxes to tick before we felt we’d really done Salento justice. First up was the typical post hike celebration over a hot canelazo cocktail, at the small yet happening Arte Cafe, complete with live music. Made from local liquor aguadiente (made from sugar cane), mixed with sugar cane water and, cinammon, and sometimes cloves and fruit, the drink comes with a sugar rim and will warm you up after being in the cloud forest all day, if it doesn’t give you a sugar overdose first.
Despite our first impressions, Plantation House really grows on you, with its peaceful vibe, cool people and back verandah frequented by the awesome brightly coloured Blue-crowned Motmot birds, which we were lucky enough to spot but not lucky enough to get a good photograph of. With no WiFi reception in the kitchen area (yes yes we know we complained originally) people actually talk to each other, sharing stories and drinks, and tonight was no different.
Getting a group together, including a fun English couple, Lucy and Charlie, from South London who’d just been living in Australia and were moving home (the complete opposite to us), we headed to local tejo haunt Los Amigos for bit of England vs Australia. The game involves throwing heavy metal weights onto a tilted board of mud onto which several strategically placed paper parcels are stuck containing gunpowder. The thrill of a mini explosion, smoke and flames when you manage to hit one is not to be underestimated, especially after a few well priced beers.
After we lost out to England (only just!) Sarah tried to score drunk game made of four teams from the hostel, Nigeria, Cape Town, The Pink Dolphins and Pair of C*&ts. She gave up half way through when nobody was able to hit the board let alone the gunpowder, with Nigeria the clear winners.
Some brief advice on a couple of venues we wouldn’t recommend while you’re in town, but by all means give them a shot, you might prove us wrong. Betatown is overpriced for what you get and the tejo on offer seems pretty stale, and whatever you do, do not order the potato wedges and dismiss the word ‘boiled’ on the menu, or like Matt you will be very, very disappointed.
La Eliana restaurant, with it’s homely interior and lovely rear terrace promised great things, especially when we spotted the three cheese pizza with blue cheese. Unfortunately this was about 30 mins after we’d actually arrived when somebody bothered to bring us a menu. And it was a further 45 minutes until we got our food. Plus the whole 25 minutes it took them to bring us the bill. A little unfair of us you may think, but we’d like to point out there were a total of four staff and four people in the restaurant…including us. The pizza was delicious though, if you’ve got time to waste.
For more of our photos of Colombia click here.