By Joanna MarracelliWhen most people think of Colombia, they think of coffee. The country is practically synonymous with the bean. Most of the coffee grown here comes from a specific region known as the Zona Cafetera. This area lies about 300 km west of Bogota and 250 km south of Medellin. The elevation, temperature, and rainfall all contribute to helping make it an ideal place for the plants to grow. For tourists who are interested in learning about the production, there are several towns which you can base yourself from. A good place to start is Salento, Colombia.
Salento lies in the Quindío department and is easily accessed from nearby cities of either Armenia or Pereira (to the south and north, respectively). Both serve as good bases to explore this quiet, sleepy town with frequent, inexpensive bus service. The town’s main plaza has many buildings painted in bright, cheerful colors. Founded in 1850, it’s one of the oldest towns in the region. Salento also sits just outside the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados and is one of the most popular places to see the wax palms at Valle de Cocora. During the weekends it gets quite crowded with Colombian families and foreign tourists as well, so best to visit off-season, during the week for a more subdued experience.Salento is an ideal place for strolling along and admiring all the colorful buildings with their stunning woodwork balconies. There are quite a few handicraft shops in town, which makes a nice day for shopping. Panama hats, trinkets and other homemade crafts are for sale. Don’t miss the walk up to the mirador. If you follow Carrera 6 along to the very end, you will see a set of colorful stairs. These stairs stop at several points and is supposed to mirror the stations of the cross. Walk up to the very top for a fantastic view over all of Salento and the entire valley.
Whether you are seeking nature walks, multi-day trekking, horse riding, mountain biking or coffee tours to small, local farms, Salento will satisfy. Tourism has existed here for some time and as a result, there is a decent infrastructure. There are accommodation options both inside the town and out, set amid coffee plants in the lush, green hills nearby. Our favorite was La Serrana, located about 15 minutes by foot outside the town. The views from here can’t be beat, the hostel has two modern buildings with different levels of accommodation from dorms to private rooms ensuite. There is even a restaurant on site if you don’t feel up to walking back into town. See below for more details.
To get even further into the nature, there are several options. The Kasaguada nature reserve is located on the same dirt road as La Serrana (just a few km up). There are several guided hikes to choose from and the reserve is in part of a larger conservation effort and sustainable practices. For a multi-day trekking adventure, you should contact Paramo Trek Salento. The professional guides will take you into the Parque Nacional Los Nevados for treks up to five days, staying on small fincas with local farmers.If you prefer to organize your own hikes, one of the most popular in the area is the one to the Valle de Cocora. Here you will find the tallest wax palms in the world (Palma de Cera) which can live up to a hundred years. Towering at up to 60 m, the trees instantly make you feel as though you have entered the land of the giants. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the valley is that you aren’t at a beach or on the coast. These palm trees are located in a cloud forest, just outside the limits of the Parque Nacional. The wax palms used to be cut down and used for timber and the wax for candle making but all of that changed in 1985, when the park was established in an effort to protect them. The valley is easy to get to, as numerous Jeep Willy’s (old army Jeeps from WW2) are used to transport tourists the short 11 km to the entrance. For a perfect day hike, start at the trail through the blue fence and it loops around through the valley. Don’t miss the sidetrack to Acaime. Up here, you have to pay a small fee but the money goes towards maintaining the trail and bridges. For a mere 5000 COP (US $2.50) you receive your choice of beverage and an opportunity to be up close with hummingbirds. Many different types buzz around here, attracted to the numerous feeders. Try the aguapanela con queso. It’s a hot chocolate served alongside a hunk of cheese. You break up the cheese and add it to your cup. It’s surprisingly tasty. The loop takes up to 5 hours and the Jeep Willy’s will take you back to the plaza (they leave about every hour or so).
Don’t forget that you are in the coffee region. You cannot leave Salento without doing a tour of a coffee farm. One of the simplest and most traditional is the one over at Don Elias. His farm is located on the same road as La Serrana and is very well signed. It will take you about 45 minutes to arrive and once there, you will most likely be greeted by Don Elias himself. The farm has been around for three generations and Don Elias is proud that everything is made in the same way it was back then. There are no machines–everything is done by hand. You can tour the property for a mere 5000 COP (US $2.50) and he will take you from bean to cup. No pesticides are used in the coffee making process, it’s all organic.After touring the farm and working up an appetite, head over to La Eliana for dinner with a view. There is a lovely outdoor part of the restaurant which overlooks the mountains. Pasta, pizza and Indian or Thai curries make up the eclectic menu. Skip the Italian and go straight for the curries, which we found fairly authentic. Vegetarians also have a few options here. For dessert, walk over one block from the main plaza to Café Jesus Martin. Not only can you get a mouth-watering chocolate cake and other sweet goodies but you will also be served one of the best cappuccino’s of your life. Stay tuned for our upcoming video which will feature this Café from farm to cup. Both the baristas and the beans are world-class.
Since Salento is a tiny town, there is not much happening in terms of nightlife. But if you are seeking some fun, don’t miss an evening stop at BetaTown. Here you can eat American-style comfort foods (nachos, hot wings, mozzarella sticks and other usual suspects), play a game of football (soccer for the Americans) or participate in Tejo which is considered a national sport in Colombia. If your idea of fun involves throwing heavy objects, drinking copious amounts of beer and explosives, then you simply have to discover Tejo. BetaTown is also an ideal place to watch any sporting events, boasting a giant HDTV and beer specials during gametime.
Whether you are curious about how the bean gets from plant to your cup or you want to experience a cloud-forest and see the tallest palm trees in the world, Salento is a tourist-friendly town which serves as a good base to engage in these activities. A visit here is worth a few days and the coffee beverages served up in Café Jesus Martin is a destination in itself.
How to arrive: Buses leave Armenia every 20 minutes up until 8 pm. Cost is about 5000 COP (US $2.50). From Bogota, the easiest way is to take a bus to Armenia first. The ride is about 8 hours and costs 55,000 COP (US $29) with highly recommended bus company ‘Bolivariano’. It’s easily the best bus in the country with personal TV’s, cushy seats and safe drivers. Worth the small amount of extra money.
Where to stay: For budget travelers that want to stay in the gorgeous natural surroundings check out La Serrana located about 15 minutes by foot just outside the town. For 90,000 COP (US $47) will get you a double room with breakfast included. Those on a budget and want to stay inside the town can do no better than Ciudad de Segorbe Hostel Salento. For a double room with private bathroom and breakfast included cost is 105,000 COP (US $55) for two. For a splurge: Boutique hotel Salento Real is a steal at 152,000 COP (US $80) per night for a double room, ensuite bathroom & breakfast.
What to eat: La Eliana (Carrera 2 #6-45) has a cozy space and solid meals. Skip the pasta and go for the curries though. Great value priced around 14,000 COP (US $8). This is also a great option for vegetarians with quite a few to choose from. El Rincon de Lucy (located a few blocks from the main square at Calle 4, Carrera 6) is probably the best bang for your buck. 6000 COP (US $3) will get you a soup, fruit, main platter which often includes the local specialty of trout, rice, beans and a drink. If you get a hankering for American style comfort foods, head over to BetaTown (Calle 7 #3-45). Their huge pancakes and waffles will leave any gringo satisfied. And whatever you do, don’t miss the best coffee and cakes at Café Jesus Martin (Carrera 6, one block from main plaza).