After spending the day exploring the Hacienda Venecia finca and sampling some Colombian coffee, pretending to know whether the aromas were spicy, earthy, or chocolaty, we left Manizales and made our way to Salento. Salento is a tranquil little town in the Quindío department, at the heart of the coffee triangle, and is the gateway to the stunning Cocora Valley.
The bus dropped us off in the town square as the sky was turning dusky, so we didn’t spend much time looking around before jumping in a jeep and heading to our hostel. We drove about four blocks to the edge of town (Salento is tiny), and travelled ten minutes down a dirt road before arriving at La Serrana eco-farm in time to watch the sun sink below the horizon. Best accommodation of the two-week trip!
Surrounded by rolling hills and green pastures dotted with cows and horses, La Serrana offers amazing views of the Quindío countryside. We spent three nights there, basking in the beautiful sunsets and watching fireflies materialise in the long grass; playing with the resident dogs, Pablo and Lucas, and sitting by the campfire. We also met a lot of great people at this hostel, dining by candlelight in a restaurant that felt like someone’s dining room. In fact, the entire hostel had a very homey feel, equipped with comfy couches, board games and DVDs. It was the perfect place to relax after days spent exploring the town and countryside.
In the mornings, gravel crunched underfoot and a fresh breeze tickled our faces as we wandered along the shady road into town. The mild weather and absolute peace and quiet was invigorating, and we tried not to think about our imminent return to Barranquilla. We listened to birds singing and cicadas chirping, and made friends with a horse who walked up to the fence as we passed, winning him over with an apple I’d packed for myself.
We spent most of our first day strolling through the streets of Salento, where traditional colonial architecture is splashed with bursts of colour. It’s a charming village – “quaint” was the word that came to mind – with one central square, one main road, and a handful of streets branching off from there. “Salento es un pueblo suspendido en el tiempo”, it’s a town suspended in time. But it has become popular with local and international tourists, so there were lots of people bustling between the craft stalls, coffee shops and restaurants that lined the main road. We were a bit disappointed with the “artisanal” merchandise, as most of the stalls offered the same generic products that I doubt were made locally. I mean, if you can’t find anything adorned with a wax palm – the famous tree of the region and the main reason Salento is a popular destination – then the products are hardly representative of the town… Anyway, we bought some coffee from two of the surrounding fincas, before climbing up to the look out point and later heading home.
The next morning, it was time to hike the Cocora Valley, or Valle de Cocora. As we were bundled into another jeep (or “willy” as they seemed to be calling them…), we realised we were sitting across from another volunteer from the Volunteers Colombia programme. It was pretty interesting catching up with Sarah and finding out that her centre in Medellín is just as disorganised as mine! After a bumpy half hour ride, Sarah and her family went in search of horses, and we set off on the five hour hike.
The landscape was truly amazing, and most of the hike was very enjoyable. I loved clambering over rocks and tree trunks, skidding along muddy trails and swanning across rickety swing bridges. We watched huge swarms of butterflies flitter and float above the mud, while hummingbirds darted among the flowers.
We hiked through pastures, fields, jungle and pine forest, and there were several unrelenting uphill sections that my despicable fitness level made unbearable, but it was definitely worth it upon arriving in the midst of the striking palm valley.
The Cocora Valley, home to the tallest palms in the world, is magnificent. The rare Quindío wax palm is the national symbol of Colombia, and the slender trees tower above you as you walk among them. The valley is a natural cloud forest, but we were lucky that the sky was mostly blue and clear when we visited. The palm forest felt like a scene out of Jurassic Park, primeval and surreal.
We were on such a high after the breathtaking hike (beautiful, but also literally breathtaking), that we didn’t even mind waiting for half an hour to return to Salento. Although our “willy” was full, (there were fourteen people squashed into/hanging onto the jeep), apparently we had to wait until exactly 3 pm before the driver would pull himself away from his coffee and conversation. Still, he couldn’t spoil my mood.
This is one adventure that will stay with me long after my return from Colombia.