I think I am going to like this place – it promises great coffee and great walks amongst picturesque valleys, green forests, coffee plantations and, of course, mountains.
Colombia and coffee are inextricably linked and I am hoping to get my fix of some very good coffee here whilst finding out more about Colombian coffee farming. We have come to the small town of Salento (pop. 7000) nestled in the lush green Andean mountains and in the heart of official UNESCO coffee zone of Colombia (Zona Cafetera). Coffee farms are dotted in the surrounding hills.
Salento is a charming town. Clay tiled roofs of faded terracota compliment the traditional Adobe buildings with their colourful painted doors and balconies. Local working men with their hats, ponchos and rubber boots gravitate toward the plaza at sunset which is home to a mix of food stands and crafts – particularly the multi-pocketed handbags made locally.
The plaza seems to be the parking area for the ubiquitous Willy jeeps which are the preferred mode of transport in and around town. Many of these 4x4s were built for the US military in the 1950s and arrived in Colombia after being sold off as army surplus after the Korean War. Not all are as reliable as they might once have been, but they still operate as work vehicles, hauling goods for farmers as often as they haul bunches of tourists to their destinations. A few newer, “pimped up” versions are parked in the main plaza town generating income from tourists as photograhy props, taxis and even one as a novelty coffee stall. Smaller electric pedal versions take the children on rides around the square.
Alongside international tourists, Colombians flock to Salento from the cities at weekends to visit the striking landscapes of the Valle de Cocora and the Nevados National Park which are very nearby. It does get very busy at weekends but quieten down considerably during the week.
The Valle de Cocora boasts the tallest palm trees in the world, (Ceroxylon quindiuense, aka Wax Palms). These trees can reach as high as an apartment block with 20+ floors, (200ft/60m if you are more mathematically minded), with huge leaves up to 5.4m long. Nearly extinct 30 years ago, the Wax Palm is now an officially legally protected species and is recognized as the national tree of Colombia. Unlike most other palms which grow at sea level, these can only grow at elevation, a minimum of 2000m above sea level. These giant specimens are special not only for their size, but also as the natural habitat of the endangered and rare yellow eared parrot and are a very important subject matter of many a scenic photo of this valley. It’s a lot of responsibility for a palm tree!
To get to the valley it is around 30 minutes ride in a ” Willy” from the plaza in Salento. Once there it’s a 10 minutes short walk into the valley to see the trees or you can even go by horse. We choose to take a trek through the national park first. We did the usual British thing of turning right when arriving (it’s a strange but true phenomenon!). The longer trail loop took us about 4 hours to get to the Palms at the very end of the trek. The pathway for the longer trail starts off in the valley, goes up through the jungle and up high into the mountains before descending and reaching the next beautiful valley.
It’s a popular trek, so we started 2 hours later than recommended in order to miss any crowds (and to eat breakfast!). It is a beautiful walk along some very, very muddy pathways and over several very precarious bridges.
It took some effort in places as we navigated the mud, up through cloud forest, over a salt lick swarming with butterflies and ever upward to a hummingbird sanctuary.
We saw only a few passing horses and enjoyed the peace, tranquility and, of course, the scenery.
The sanctuary marked the halfway point and a change in the tranquility, lots of as we approached the the wooden building the sound of backpackers was unmistakable, if only for the number of times the word awesome was used! . A lady appeared to collect our entrance fee and said it included a drink. A delicious bowl of hot chocolate was my preferred choice, but Coca Cola seemed to be most popular choice with the groups of twentysomethings. There were a handful of hummingbirds, flying with a few meters of the building (and nowhere else in the forest) making me think that perhaps this place is less of a sanctuary and more of a drink shop with semi- tamed birds. Disrupted Eco-systems aside, the birds were quite mesmerising, although a fully charged camera battery would have made Clive happier. (Whoops!).
The views on the return half of the loop were completely different. We were so much higher as we climbed out of the forest canopy. The walking was so much easier as there was less mud. The spectacular views of the mountains were breathtaking. I am pleased we did the route this way (despite almost getting lost at one point), as it would have been no fun at all to go so steeply downwards on the slippery muddy trails that we came up on.
The end of our trek was though the wax palms, then back on a Willy to Salento.
We stayed longer in Salento than most do and were lucky enough to be there for the finishing line of the 10th leg of the national bike race the Vuelto de Colombia. TV crews, celebrities and cyclists crowded into the Plaza for the event. Even without this big event, Salento is nice town and is a pleasure to just wander around. It. Ithe seem sleepy, but there is plenty to do – Climb up the Camino Real for an aerial view of the town, watch the leather craftsmen and play a game of Tejo (throwing things at gunpowder!) are just some of the things we enjoyed in addition to visiting the coffee farms and fincas.
Watch out for our post on Coffee Farms, coming soon.
We met up en route with Mick, who had been on the Willy with us earlier and he kindly emailed some of these photos