You have no doubt heard of Cartagena, Bogotá, and possibly Medellín, but I want to talk about my favourite corner of Colombia: Salento and the Cocora Valley, located within the Zona Cafetera. This region produces a sizeable portion of the country’s coffee crop.
The effort required to get to Salento from Medellín (the closest large city both geographically and culturally) probably explains why the little town is not completely overrun with tourists. It’s seven to eight hours by bus around twisty roads, although you could fly into nearby Armenia airport.
The magic of Salento
Everybody who’s been to Salento smiles dreamily when you mention the small coffee town. Located 24 kilometres (15 miles) northeast of Armenia, at an altitude of 1900 meters (6234 feet), Salento is surrounded by truly gorgeous mountain scenery. White buildings with brightly painted doors and balconies line the narrow main street and the central plaza, housing shops and cafés.
After a few days in this town of 3500 inhabitants, you start noticing the same faces. A young local guy started talking to me on the street one evening, in both English and French no less, lamenting the fact that foreigners are afraid of his country. Salento, he said, is very safe because everybody knows everybody else!
Salento’s main industries are coffee production, trout farming, and increasingly, tourism, although a large proportion of the visitors are Colombian.
Not surprisingly, coffee shops where you can indulge in a great cup of the dark stuff, are everywhere in Salento. The one I found myself returning to every day is Café Jesús Martín. Not only would this upscale café not feel out of place in the US or Canada, but the owner roasts his beans in his own factory.
Once you’ve had your fill of drinking espresso and browsing handicraft shops, two viewpoints deserve your attention. First, ascend the stairs at the end of the main street to get a view of the town and surrounding countryside. For even more stunning vistas, climb up to the Portal de Cocora restaurant where you can have a drink or a meal while surveying an emerald storybook landscape of forested hills and meadows.
Dusk is a special time in Salento. Streetlights slowly come on, as the surrounding mountains turn purple. Residents walk down the main street, stopping to chat with friends and neighbours. The central plaza springs to life as food stalls are set up and music fills the square. The entire town seems to gather here: young couples holding hands, children on bicycles, parents, visitors, even the odd man in a suit.
If you want to eat at a sit-down restaurant, I recommend Rincón del Lucy, which serves tasty set lunches for a few dollars, and affordable dinners (until 8 PM).
Visiting coffee plantations
Some coffee farms welcome visitors on their plantation to learn about the coffee-growing process from plant to cup. If you don’t speak Spanish, enquire whether tours are offered in English before making your way there.
At the time of my visit, the options were limited. I picked Don Elias (Spanish only) because it was located within walking distance from town. As I walked along the rural road, I caught glimpses of rolling fields carpeted in coffee bushes. The houses grew further apart and became less elaborate. Foreign tourists on foot are still rare in those parts, and a family came out of their house to observe the gringo passing by!
It is especially interesting to visit coffee plantations during harvest time (April to May, and October to December) when the farms are abuzz with activity. Recommended tours in English include Don Eduardo and El Ocaso. Of course, they’ll let you taste the coffee at the end.
Coffee farmers and their horses are a common sight around town. At night they all gather in pool halls with different musical tastes. One of them played tango, which made me laugh, as it seemed a rather incongruous choice for these tough hard-working men.
Hiking the Cocora Valley
Besides coffee, the other reason travelers visit Salento is to hike in the Cocora Valley, which offers some of the best scenery in all of Colombia.
Most people ride to the Cocora Valley in jeeps that leave the main square a few times a day. The ride takes slightly over half an hour, and despite the jeeps having sitting space for six people, they often carry up to 12! Get to the pick-up point early if you don’t want to be the ones hanging off the back or sitting on the roof!
The most popular trail is to Acaime, a 2.5-hour hike. You spend the first hour walking through green meadows surrounded by mountains and wax palms. Growing up to 60 meters tall (197 feet), wax palms are the largest palms in the world. Their straight slender trunks topped by a few fronds make them look rather striking. They’re also Colombia’s national trees, and can live for up to 120 years.
The second part of the hike is through cloud forest. This mostly uphill trail can get quite muddy and slippery. You also need to cross a small river several times, with crossing “aids” that vary from a few stones, to tree trunks thrown across the water, to a rickety bridge made of planks.
If you’re not particularly fit, you’ll be (happily) exhausted by the time you arrive in Acaime. You have to pay a small fee to access the finca (farm estate), which offers a bathroom, something to drink (hot chocolate is a favourite), and a look at their hummingbirds and flowers.
You can return to Cocora the way you came, or undertake the arduous climb up to La Montaña viewpoint at 2860 meters (9383 feet), then continue to Cocora via a different route. Expect even more stunning views from the latter option, and probably some mist, as you climb into the clouds!
So there you have it: spectacular scenery, comfortable temperatures, coffee, and great hiking. That’s my kind of place.
Colombia is a beautiful and varied country where tourism is still in its infancy. It has been growing steadily though, so if you like your destinations authentic and off the beaten path, plan to visit soon.
Experience the wonderful coffee (and more!) in Colombia on a Peregrine small group tour.
Images all c/o Marie France-Roy.