Our first stop in Colombia was picturesque Salento, a colonial town in the ‘Zona Cafetera’, or coffee district. The town offers a lot for the independent traveller, including day trips to coffee fincas and the nearby Valle de Cocora – trippy rolling hills of tall wax palm trees that feel like a lucid hallucination. A must for any Colombia itinerary!
Salento is a town that’s easy to love – all laid-back charm, bright colourful houses of painted wood panels, craft shops, weekending families, live music, and a main square that buzzes with a festival vibe, with food stalls set up every evening selling delicious foods like greasy patacones (fried plantain) served with mountains of toppings and big bottles of beer. The town’s surrounded by mountains and valleys so everywhere you look there’s a beautiful view at the end of the road.
When we first arrived in Colombia we had totally the wrong exchange rate (thanks 2012 Lonely Planet!) so we thought all the hostels were mad spenny (they weren’t) and subsequently ended up glamping in a cool tent/treehouse for a bargain fiver a night in a very pretty hostel. After sorting this, we had a pretty chilled first day – lunch of local trout and a hike up the town’s mirador to check out the view and sample our first taste of Colombian camaraderie.
Within the first day, we’d decided that Colombians were the most friendly of all South Americans – from chatty matey guys at the border, to locals advising us on secret swimming holes and wanting to say hello at every opportunity, they’re honestly the best. We saw two 50+ year old bus drivers tickling each other to the ground when we first arrived, and this first impression of fun-loving, light-hearted Colombians was maintained throughout our 6 weeks in the country!
On our first evening we met a fun New York couple whilst stuffing our faces with patacones and beer on the square, and we all went to play ‘Tejo’ together – a mental game where you throw heavy clay discs long distances, with the aim of landing on a metal ring of gunpowder that explodes on impact. Fuelled by beers, we teamed up with a load of other gringos and spent a few hours throwing and exploding, with Sam excelling and even graduating to the local’s lanes where the distances were twice as long!
The next day we did a coffee tour at the excellent Don Eduardo’s coffee finca – an old-school coffee farm that produces high-grade, single-bean coffee. It’s run by a very eccentric British ex -pat, and he told us literally everything there is to know about coffee production, whilst downing several cups of his own-brand rocket fuel. We got the chance to look around the plantation, and see the process from bean-to-cup – from a load of green beans, to grounding, roasting on the stove, and drinking… the smell and taste was unlike anything I’ve experienced before!
On our last day, we caught a collectivo (shared) jeep to Valle de Cocora for an unforgettable day of hiking. The jeep itself was fun – winding through country lanes with Sam and a Colombian dude hanging off the back step (they really fill them to the brim!) and the hike was ace, passing through fields of cows fringed with impossibly tall wax palms, through woodland, up hills, across rivers on dodgy-looking ‘bridges’ (fallen branches), stopping off at a few key points along the way.
The first being a cool hummingbird sanctuary where we saw some mental looking badger-type creatures and then birds themselves, which proved really tricky to photograph! We spent about 10 minutes patiently trying for good shots as they flitted from branch to branch at high speed! We also had our first taste of Colombian treat ‘chocolate santafereno’ – hot chocolate served with a wedge of acidic ‘queso fresca’, or farmers’ cheese. Apparently you’re supposed to drop the cheese in the chocolate then eat it. Crazy old Colombians huh?!
The next stop was at a local finca at the top of a big hill, where we took a break to eat our packed lunch and admire the view. The weather turned pretty spotty in the afternoon, and by the time we reached the most spectacular views of rolling hills dotted with wax palms, the clouds and drizzle had started. But we waited it out and caught some sun towards the end of the afternoon – and seeing the verdant green hills and bright blue sky, offset by the giant, towering palms, was quite something. The hike ended rather eventfully when the only way out of the hills was a skillful jump over a barbed-wire-covered fence (and I was wearing a dress.) Fuuuun! Not.
So all in all, a great introduction to Colombia. Delicious local foods, friendly folks, colourful buildings and blindingly good scenery. Little did we know this would become the blueprint for so much of Colombia, and we were sad to say goodbye to the little town, in search of the bright lights, big city of Medellin…!