Besides— alas— a certain powdery white substance, Colombia is synonymous with coffee. Like 11 million bags of it exported each year, synonymous. And while in your average Colombian city, it can be a challenge to find the good stuff (most high quality coffee is exported), SALENTO strikes gold every time. Quaint Salento is the star in Colombia’s Eje Cafetero (coffee region), an area producing the majority of Colombia’s Arabica coffee. The official triangle consists of three departments: Pereira, Manizales, and Armenia, but most skip these lackluster cities and beeline straight for Salento. And for good reason. It’s charming, bursting with color and coffee, and the gateway to one of Colombia’s most coveted treks: Cocora Valley. Fancy a trip here? Here’s what you need to know for your time in Salento:
If you’re like most, you’ll fly into Pereira Airport, hopefully having dodged the hellish bus ride from Bogota (unless you’d like your trip with a side of death). From the airport, you can take a bus straight to Salento if you arrive at a normal daytime hour. They depart once per hour on weekends and much less on weekdays. Otherwise, you can catch a local bus that’s heading toward the city of Armenia, then switch back to get one to Salento. If you’re idiotic– like us– and arrive at night, you’re at the mercy of taxis or Uber which charge about 130,000 pesos for the long haul.
How to get around
When in Salento, hail yourself a Willy’s jeep in and out of town. These jeeps are an endearing relic of World War II (Willy is the former name of Jeep) and rule the gravel roads in the Cafe region, having the ability to cart more than poor donkeys used to. They only cost a few thousand pesos per ride unless you hire you’re own private Willy. Ha. Otherwise, the majority of Salento is walkable.
Where to sleep
There’s a lot of competition in dear Salento in terms of accommodation, but most tourists are content staying town side within reach of life. To this I say: f*$& that. I prefer some drama and adventure with my sleeping experience… thus budget-friendly Ecolodge Kasaguadua. Think acorns. Cozy acorn-shaped tree huts of sorts situated inside a nature reserve. Hell yeah. More than just acorns, the ecolodge also consists of a main lodge complete with hammocks, DirectTV, cooking facilities, and fluffy jungle version of Grumpy Cat. And it’s all, as aptly named, eco-friendly. Think hippie mindset without skimping on the luxury. In the deluge of rain we faced in Salento, nothing beat trekking back to the lodge, hankering down in pajamas, and shooting the shit with owner, Nicolas.
Tip: It’s best to arrive before dusk or else willingly play a hilarious version of “The Amazing Race.” That is, miraculously hire an Uber driver to haul you from Pereira’s airport all the way to Salento. Then, perhaps a bit further down the gravel road toward the coffee farms? After, probe blindly for a key and stumble through the slick rainforest path through spider webs and f*&% you, thorny bushes. For 20 minutes. Still worth this secret haven.
Where to eat
Before setting out on the Cocora trek (see below), pick up a packed lunch at cafe favorite Brunch de Salento. It’s owned and operated by a delightful American— Papa Brunch— whose menu promises to appease nostalgic palates. Blueberry pancakes. Soup curries. PEANUT BUTTER BROWNIES. Anyway, for a mere 13,000 pesos, the staff will pack you a hefty lunch for your upcoming hike: sandwich, chips, fruit, granola, water, and said brownie. The other hikers you’ll end up trotting along with will gaze upon you with envy as you tear through that seasoned chicken. Sucks to be you, other hikers.
There’s many, many a cafe to chose from in Salento. One favorite is Jesus Martin, usually chalk full of tourists seeking caffeine injections. But Bernabé is rather special. After all, it’s one thing to learn about coffee on a coffee tour (see below) but yet another to learn the art of the barista. Chef Felipe will kindly explain his signature coffee or accompanying meal, taking obvious pride in his creations.
Nothing cures post-hike defeat better than SPICE. La Elina serves up hefty portions of spicy Indian or Thai curry, complete with rice and homemade naan. Sets cost about 20,000 and are available to go, for those weary souls who’d rather eat in their comfort of their beds. Be forewarned: their hottest level of spice is not for the light-hearted. We had a comical time of trying to stuff ourselves, needless to say.
Helena Adentro (Filandia)
If you are so inclined to investigate dear Filandia (please do!), your one and only food stop needs to be Helena. In fact, for Colombian tourists, this restaurant is often the reason in itself for visiting the town. Helena is famous for its posh design, glorious tapas, and sublime drink selection. Try their eggplant with goat cheese, yuca croquettes, smoky hummus, all washed down with coffee from Bogota’s own Azahar.
What to do
Cocora Valley hike
Ah, the main event. Pray for overcast skies at best and Willy your way to the start of the Valley of gigantic palm trees. The world’s tallest palm trees, mind you. Most people follow the designated loop trail, which takes about five hours depending on your fitness level. Heading trail right will lead you through the muddy forest first, then vertical, then sloping down into the splendid valley as a beautiful finale. Forewarned that the daily rain clouds tend to dump their load in the afternoons. So if you are short on time or are too much of a bitch to handle the whole trail, then start trail left and achieve premature orgasm.
Anyway, so the trail. Definitely not a technical one, but climbs do exist. Punctuate your half success with a stop at Acaima, a tiny restaurant luring hummingbirds in with multiple feeders. 5,000 pesos gets your admission and an unappetizing cup of hot cocoa with cheese. But damn, those hummingbirds. Watch them squabble then proceed to join in as you realize they won’t sit still for a photo op.
Once you reach the palm trees, try to contain your squeal. I mean, I’ve never been so excited to see trees. And they are quite tall, especially for someone as fun-sized as me. Even if you miss sunshiny moments in the Cocora Valley, there’s still the opportunity to capture palm trees in foggy horror.
Tip: Wear gum boots or high-ankle hiking boots. You’ll be stepping through a lot of horse shit and deep mud. Also, coat yourself in sunscreen. You’re a lot closer to the sun than usual.
One of the advantages of sleeping out in the sticks (if you stay at Kasaduagua), is the access to the… sticks. Or coffee farms. Walk your ass back up the mountain and down to one of the prolific coffee farms. We chose Finca El Ocaso, as advised by the Ecolodge and everyone else it seems. They operate interactive 90-minute tours every hour on the hour for 10,000 pesos, taking you through the entire coffee process. I found the tour incredibly interesting, even in the pouring rain. Did you know that coffee and jasmine are in the same family? Besides obviously tasting the coffee at the end of the tour, our favorite part was actually picking coffee berries.
Not technically in Salento, Filandia makes for a fabulous day trip. Picture Salento before tourism took over. That is, same brightly-hued plaza but without the touts or travelers. It only takes about an hour to get there from Salento, if you catch the right buses. It’s not like there’s much to do in Filandia but we were content just sitting around watching old men in their fancy hats and ponchos. And the horses. And the locals, watching us foreigners with curiosity. I mean, with a name like Filandia, why wouldn’t you want to travel to this magical land? Check out this blog for a lovely description of the town.