Salento is a quaint little town deep in the heart of the Cocora Valley. This amazing region of Colombia has drawn a tourism interest as of late due to it being smack bang in the middle of Colombia’s famous coffee industry; and it’s mind-blowing natural landscapes. The town used to be in the middle of a major trade route however travel was diverted in the mid 1800’s and as a result not a lot has changed since then, meaning significant portions of colonial architecture still exist.
We got there via bus to Armenia, a small outlying city an hour or so away from Salento. We were right up front of the bus, comfortably looking over the drivers shoulder at the road ahead. The second driver put ‘The Avengers’ DVD on for us, glanced over and adjusted the subtitles to English so we could follow it. Second to that, when he noticed we were still clutching empty Dunkin Donuts cappuccino cups from an hour ago, he offered ‘basura?’ .. and threw them away on our behalf. Nice man. Once outside Bogota, the road twisted and turned its way up and down one mountain and up the next, down that one and up another. At times interweaving past new construction that would bridge the mountain passes with tunnels and bridges. This slowed us down a bit and a 280 kilometer journey took some 7 hours to complete. Leaving the bathroom at the back of the bus, I somehow managed to dislocate my shoulder whilst walking back to my seat. A combination of sudden jerky movements and the elevation of my arm as I clutched the overhead luggage rail, forced it out. And it stayed out for a bit too, it had been a while since I’d done that. The ache soon subsided and it plopped back in by itself and fortunately I had absolutely stunning scenery to take my mind off the whole episode. Rolling green mountains, absolutely epic in scale and road-side drops that take your breath away. Somewhere near Armenia we turned a corner and Rebecca pointed out the window. ‘Hey look..’ This region is famous for their wax palms that can grow up to some 60 odd meters. A long-thin trunk with a bushy Tina Turner style cluster of palm leaves at the top. They’re stunning by themselves, let alone scattered in their thousands throughout the deep valleys of Colombia.
Armenia is a somewhat forgettable town. I’m sure it has some character if you stayed long enough, but I felt a bit sorry for the two English girls who we met on the bus and were now planning on staying a while to work in a local hostel. I felt even more sorry for them after we’d twisted our way through the crisp and fragrant forest paths and into Salento. We rattled into the town square, again named Plaza de Boliver (what a man that Simon Boliver was..), dominated by the subtle colonial style of the Iglesia de Salento church. All around the square, enclosing it, are colonial buildings. Typically white with pastel painted framing of windows, with huge double doors and big brass locks. Wooden balconies and overhanging eves to keep the rain off. In the center of the square sway palms and small groups of the community gather for whatever it is they do here. Which seems to be enjoy coffee.
There’s a tourist promenade that we’re told is full of artesan tokens made in China. Follow this past the western style taverna’s / coffee house / pool halls and you’ll reach the steps of the Mirador. Basically just a great place to view the surrounding mountains. Once you make the top of the short climb of stairs theirs a dozen or so army officers, fully loaded with machine guns. Throw out a ‘Buen Dia!’ .. and you’ll get one back.
It seemed most of the notable ‘tourist’ cafe’s in town are run by ex-pat’s. We dropped in at Brunch a few times and smashed some seriously delicious burgers but most notably we dropped in a met Hannah and Will and crew who at the very last minute invited us along that morning for their hike to the Cocora Velley, in Los Nevados national park and accessible by jeep to the trail entrance. There’s a gazillion guys with jeeps parked around the square and a jeep allocation manager who assigns you to waiting jeeps. We managed to cram 8 or of us in a jeep built for probably 4 safely. But we got the trail entrance after a fumey, jerky drive through the surrounding forest. We spent the first hour wandering the lowlands of the valley, through what looked like a cattle trail, surrounded by the rising green grass slopes of the surrounding mountains. Peppered along the way, reaching up the sky with their skinny little trunks are the wax palms.
Soon enough the trail becomes jungle, rich jungle. Moist and damp and our path was inter-twined with a raging river that we must have crossed 6 or 7 times on rickety wire and wood bridges. Given it was a sunny day and there was a nice breeze, plus the altitude keeps the humidity low all meaning that there weren’t as many mosquitoes or bugs as you might expect and despite it being a decent hike, climbing some 400 meters in altitude, it was comfortable and enjoyable due to the new company we’d acquired at Brunch.
The trail ended at a Nature Reserve office which really just looked like a typical Ma & Pa’s shack. We’re were greeted and charged $1.50 or so to come in, but glad to know that it included refreshment, coffee or ‘panaqua con queso’. I didn’t know what it was so I asked and didn’t understand the response. Will asks me ‘did you ask him what it was?’ ‘yeah’ I said.. ‘..I think its some bread with some typical cheese’. ‘great..’ he said and ordered one for himself and Hannah.
Anyway it wasn’t bread and cheese. It was like a sweet honey water with a fat slice of white cheese that was kind of like a cottage cheese mixed with a mild feta. Certainly not to everyones taste. I could only laugh and apologise and order it for myself as well; secretly resolving to bloody learn some better Spanish. I felt burdened by guilt and ate the whole thing, it was okay. Whilst only some of us could enjoy the honey soup water and cheese we could all admire the 8 or so varieties of Hummingbird that could be seen hovering and darting around strategically placed feeders around the balcony. Shimmering greens and yellows, moving so quickly and accurately it’s as if they live in ‘Matrix time’..
We kicked on and got to a junction in the trail. One option was simply to walk back, the other was to climb a mountain, admire the view and take a road trail back. Go back; I said in my mind. I know, lazy. But the thing with groups in Western cultures is that at a certain point you get a democracy; and everyone else wanted to tackle the mountain. So up we trudged, switching back up and along trails, watching the a surrounding monolithic peak become closer, more familiar.. Watching tropics change to pine forest; dense humid rainforest floor change to fresh, alpine scents. We climbed some 800 meters and gained some 600 meters in altitude but by the time we’d reached the refugio at the top of the mountain we were staring across at phenomenal mountain peaks and fast moving clouds plunging down into a green valley just covered with wax palms.. the richness of green and density of jungle as it changes to the grassy valleys of the Cocora. We stood and stared for a while, took the road down further and stopped and stared some more whilst taking in a lovely lunch pack supplied by Brunch in town. It really was engaging scenery made even more special by the mountainous effort expended in getting to that point. Everything was downhill from here and we could simply enjoy conversation and scenery.
From here we wandered through the valley, fed some local shoddy horses and a shy mule before boarding a jeep back to Salento to bathe our weary limbs in beer.
As we were staying at the ‘Plantation House’ we figured it right to take in the houses coffee tour. Tim is a slightly eccentr
ic Australian, who married a Colombian and 6 years ago bought a working coffee farm with a long history of local coffee production. You can learn a lot from Tim, just don’t ask him any questions during his lecture. Both myself and a poor Swiss girl got the same brash reaction and irritated grimace ‘Yes. Yes I’ll get to that’, And somewhere in the background, a Colombian woman dressed only in a t-shirt wanders past the house windows.
We learned the coffee planting, picking and production process. There’s some many nuances to the entire process and I’m sure if you asked someone else they would tell you the real ‘correct’ way. Colombia is known mostly for it’s Arabica modern, there’s very little traditional stuff grown and it’s mostly small farm producers, some 300,000 in the country. But the beans are picked, extracted from their skin and then soaked to remove the natural sugar. They’re then dried and either shipped at that point or roasted. There’s obviously much more details but Tim spoke heaps about money, money, money so I’ve only added the important coffee stuff instead.
After the lecture we were told to walk down a local road to the farm, where an ‘administrator’ would be waiting for us. After a couple of wrong turns we ended up at the farm. A shack on the side of a mountain, surrounded by terracing and massive varieties of fruit trees. Antonio showed us through the process of taking green beans, roasting and grinding them and turning them into own steaming hot cup of Joe. Bit sour actually. Being a bit of a coffee snob, I asked for mine ‘fuerte’. But yeah, bit sour, could be tainted with Tim’s business ethic.
We left Salento to the reputable Medellin. Reputable you ask? Well it was once the most murderous city in the world; home to the Medellin cartel lead by Pablo Escobar. Nowadays it’s was fast gaining a reputation for it’s beautiful landscape, art, blossoming neighborhood cultures and stunning women. We were on a bus to check it out.