Salento: Coffee, Wax Palms, and Calm

My trip to Salento back in mid-April was dreamy. The pueblo in the zona cafetera (coffee region or “coffee triangle”) has become a popular tourist destination in the last five years, and for good reason: it is a charming town lodged in beautiful mountainous surroundings, it is an ideal base from which to hike the stunning Valle de Cocora, and it also offers activities like visits to fincas cafeteras (coffee farms) and horseback riding to waterfalls.  It is easily accessible from Bogotá via a bus or a plane to Pereira or Armenia then an hour-long bus from either city, and it affords a complete escape from the chaos, intensity, and suffocating pollution of the capital.

Valle de Cocora

After a few too many headaches from frustrating bureaucratic processes coupled with the terrible pollution, I researched towns a few hours from Bogotá where I could spend some time outdoors and take in the fresh air. Although my guidebooks (National Geographic and Lonely Planet) didn’t highlight Salento as the best destination to experience the eje cafetero, they did feature striking photos of palma de cera (wax palms) in the Valle de Cocora. And several bloggers I follow who write about living and traveling in Colombia gave strong endorsements for Salento–Sarepa, in particular, had some great posts on activities to do while there as well as tips for the Valle de Cocora hike.

Although I had the weekend free, April and May comprise the first rainy season of the year in the coffee region, and most of what I read recommended going during the drier months. The forecast called for thunderstorms everyday, but I found reasonable flights and a cheap bed at a hostel with fantastic reviews (La Serrana Eco Hostel, $32,000 COP/$10 USD per night in 5-bed female dorm), so I went for it. Lucky for me, it ended up only raining for one afternoon of the 4 days I was there!

Arriving: Messy Transport in Colombia

Typical of my experiences in Bogotá, the trip started with some unpredictability and inconveniences in Bogotá’s El Dorado airport. In the days leading up to the flight, I got multiple emails from Avianca indicating that there had been errors processing my ticket request or payment. After a total of 5 hours of phone calls over several days (including 2 hours the morning of the flight when I got another scary email about errors with my flight), I finally received the confirmation email a mere 3 hours before my scheduled departure time. But this wasn’t the end of things…

On the uber ride to the airport, I tried to check in for the flight on my phone, but I got an error message, indicating I should call the Avianca call center yet again. After 20 minutes on hold and 2 dropped calls, I was finally connected with an attendant who said the error must have been generated because the site isn’t configured for mobile (untrue, this was simply an excuse to give me an explanation for the error message and get me off the phone). He assured me everything was normal with my ticket and that the flight was as scheduled. Finally arriving at the airport exactly an hour before my flight to Pereira, I wasn’t able to check in at the Avianca kiosk. An Avianca employee spent another ten minutes trying everything I had tried (it was now 4:15pm and the flight was scheduled to board at 4:30pm).

Then he realized that the flight had in fact been cancelled and the computer system hadn’t processed the change yet. He sent me to a line where I waited for 45 minutes (now already 5pm, when my original flight was scheduled to depart) to ultimately get to the front and hear from the attendant that she couldn’t put me on a new flight; she said for flights going to Pereira, I have to call the call center to be issued a ticket for a new flight. I told her I had just called and they didn’t know the flight was cancelled. I continued begging in Spanish and explaining how many hours I had already spent on the phone with the call center until I convinced her to help me (I played a bit of the poor foreigner card, claiming I had trouble with Spanish over the phone, as a tactic to persuade her to help me). Eventually, she brought me to another desk where we called the call center together, and she expedited the process. The first flight they could get me on to Pereira wasn’t until Saturday night (original flight for Thursday afternoon…), and the best alternative they could offer for same day departure was to Armenia, a town 2 hours from Pereira, but also only an hour away from Salento. The flight was scheduled to depart at 9pm, so I would be missing the last bus to Salento and “family dinner” at the hostel. It wasn’t ideal, but given the circumstances, it was the only way to get to Salento for my weekend trip experience.

When I finally arrived to Armenia, I immediately found a cab to bring me to the hostel ($90,ooo COP and not negotiable since it is printed on a standardized tabla de precios used by all cabs that do airport pickups). The driver was friendly and told me a bit about the coffee region but the best part of the ride was that the windows were all open and the fresh, clean air was sweeping over me. My vacation had started!

When I finally made it to the hostel La Serrana, located an extra eight minute drive from the center of Salento, a man I later learned was the security guard let me in. As I was settling in, I checked the forecast and learned that the following morning, Friday, was expected to be clear, without rain until 11am. The following days still had a forecast for thunderstorms, so I decided I would do the Valle de Cocora trek the next morning. I asked a girl in the dorm room if she had done the trek, hoping to figure out if I would need to rent rubber rain boots (offered at The Plantation House and Tralala Hostel in town for when the trail is very wet and muddy). It turned out she was planning to do the trek the next morning, so I had found a hiking buddy. We decided to just hike in our own shoes (hiking in rubber boots that aren’t broken in to your feet didn’t appeal to either of us, and we both had heavy duty hiking boots), and settled on taking the 7:30am jeep from the center.

Hiking Valle de Cocora

The next morning we woke up bright and early, I packed some snacks I had brought with me from Bogotá and bought extra water bottles from the hostel ($4,000 COP/$1.30 USD for 1.5L bottle). The security guard at the hostel called a jeep for us, which brought us into the center ($6,000 COP/$2 USD total for the ride). The lighting was great, so we took some quick shots of the main plaza of Salento before gathering around the jeeps at 7:15am to stake out a spot in one of the cars heading to the Valle de Cocora. We had read that only one jeep left at each time (one at 6:10am, one at 7:30am, one at 9:30am), and we were prepared to be the first in line for the jeep, until out of nowhere a few groups materialized and hopped right into the first jeep…But luckily there were enough of us still waiting that another jeep decided to go to Valle in the 7:30am slot ($3,600/ $1 USD per person; no entry fee to Valle de Cocora).We later learned that a jeep actually left at 8:30am as well, presumably because there were enough people in the plaza then who wanted to go to the Valle de Cocora (note: the departure schedules differ on weekdays versus weekends and also aren’t set in stone since the jeeps don’t leave until they are full and additional jeeps may decide to go if there is sufficient demand; get to the plaza as early as you can the day you plan hike.)

By 8am the jeep arrived to Cocora and let us off in a grassy patch next to the commercial gravel road with restaurants and little shops. My hiking partner and I took some time to snap shots, thinking we should capture as much as we could with the clear skies and sunny weather since the forecast indicated storms starting at 11am. Because of these 15-20 mins we spent taking photos and absorbing our first views of the palma de cera trees (wax palms), the other hikers started for the trail. By the time we started for the trailhead, there were no other hikers in sight. Normally this would be nice, staggering start times allowing for more time without crowds on the trail, but we regretted this once we started and didn’t immediately see indications for the trailhead.

We had read and heard from others that the trail starts past two blue gates, so we continued walking along the main road of Cocora in the direction we saw the other hikers go, on the lookout for blue gates. After walking for nearly 30 minutes we got to a fork in a shaded area past a river, and I realized this could not be right. We still had not seen the blue gates that mark the start of the trail. I looked at screen shots of trip reports I had read of others and took out an overly photo-copied “map” and instruction sheet for the hike I had taken from the hostel. The instructions didn’t make any sense in relation to the fork we had found, so we decided to turn around.

After 20 minutes headed back towards where the jeep had dropped us, I saw a man and asked him about the entrance. He pointed behind him to a trail, and indicated that this was the trail we were looking for, but it was what we would find at the end of the 5-6 hour hike. He instructed us to walk back towards the commercial street of Cocora and take a left at the blue gates. Note: you can start the trail backwards, continuing for 10 minutes on the main road until you get to a trail that goes off to the right and into the valley with wax palms. Families with young children often do this route to simply walk a total of an hour (30 mins to get to the heart of the valley and back), but if you want to do the complete hike, going backwards makes for a more strenuous hike with more uphill and passing the the striking views as the first thing you see (better saved as a reward for a morning of moderate hiking!). We had read and heard this from others, so we followed the instructions to go back to the commercial street and find this damn blue gates.

The blue gates are hard to miss, but it turns out that when we happened to be going by them, there was a dairy truck and a bunch of horses completely blocking the gates! I even stopped to take a few photos of the dairy truck and horses, and looking back I can catch a frustrating glimpse of the blue gates. It was pretty unlucky to have missed the first, conspicuous landmark, but at this point I was energetic and tried to focus on the fact that at least we caught some of the gorgeous views of the valley in beautiful weather.

So at 9am on the dot we started the Valle de Cocora trek in the typical direction. For the first hour or so, you walk by rolling meadows and mountains and pass by many cows grazing. As we paused every so often to snap photos, a lone hiker behind us caught up, and it turned out he and the girl from my hostel had seen each other at a restaurant the day before. He joined us, and my hostel friend and I had a new companion to hear stories from.

After around an hour of walking down the sunny meadow trails, you enter a shaded forest area and begin to see signs for Acaime. This is a hummingbird sanctuary, another hour or so uphill hike from the main circuit trail. At 10:30am we reached a fork that others had warned us can be tricky–if you want to take the detour to visit the hummingbirds, you take the path to the right. If you want to skip the hummingbirds and just do the simple loop (you would reach the valle views in 4 hours rather than the typical 5 to 6), then you take the path to the left. We had been warned that this fork is tricky since there is no signage indicating where the  path to the left leads, so many people end up taking the path that they came on (there is a sign randomly on a tree pointing to this path and referring to it as Cocora). We took several moments to pause at this fork so we would knows (or we hoped we would know…) how to continue on the loop after visiting the hummingbirds. Note: this is not the very first sign to Acaime; there is another larger sign you will see before, right as you enter the shaded forest after the sunny meadows; the tricky fork is still up ahead! It becomes especially confusing because there are many signs for Acaime, but only one is the fork at which you must decide if you want to continue straight on the loop or take the hummingbird side tail (then return to the fork and choose the correct path to continue on the loop trail!).

From this fork it was another hour of hiking, this part with plenty of uphill, rocky parts, and 7 or 8 rickety bridges (go one at a time, watch your footing for gaps in the planks, and carefully slide your hands along the cord rails because the bridges are assembled with sharp wire that could really cause damage if you grabbed it in a bad place). I was still energetic, enjoying the thrill of the bridges, but it took a bit of motivating for my hostel friend to remain positive. We joked about the extra hour detour we’d taken before starting the trail, and I focused on the positive angle that at least we’d gotten great photos of the valley in sunny, clear conditions, since there was no way to know what the weather would be like by the time we reached the valley at the other end of the trail. The uphill became rather strenuous for the last 20 minutes, and at signs for 1km and 0.5km to Acaime we also saw signs for a path labeled Estrella de Agua (we had read that this detour has some uphill and that the views aren’t spectacular so we skipped this). And we eventually reached the entrance to the hummingbird sanctuary. We paid a man the entry fee ($5,000 COP / $1.50 USD) in exchange for access and a pink string which we could trade at the building for a hot drink (coffee, agua panela, or hot chocolate and a slab of cheese). Note: there is no extra food for sale up at the hummingbird sanctuary. My hostel friend expected there would be, so she hadn’t packed snacks or breakfast. I had plenty of snacks to share, but all day when we came across people with packed lunches, I was envious (BetaTown and Brunch offer packed lunches you can pick up early the day of your hike, and they looked delicious!).

At the hummingbird sanctuary, we rested for a bit, dug into snacks we packed, and I avoided the strange animals near the seating area. Called cusumbos, the creatures look like a cross between a raccoon, skunk, and anteater, and needless to say, I was not a fan. When we first arrived they were all right behind a thin fence, and I thought they were ugly but harmless. Once others started to offer them food, they boldly climbed very close to us. I saw some careless hikers hand feeding the nasty things, and watched a few get bit (blood drawn–why would you put your hand so close to such a nasty creature?!), after which point I was not taking any chances. A German family was doing some sort of cusumbo photo shoot, with each family member posing with the animals and feeding them by hand or putting food on sticks and getting the cusumbos to follow them this way. The family spoke neither English nor Spanish and just shrugged and continued the photoshoot after I mimed that the animals had bitten others only moments before…I then went to photograph some hummingbirds. I could have spent hours waiting for the birds to pose perfectly for me; they were beautiful and came right up to the feeders with no fear of humans.

 

After a total of 30 minutes relaxing in the hummingbird sanctuary and drinking our hot chocolate with cheese, we decided it was time to head down. We were hoping to make a 3:30pm jeep back to town, and we expected max another 2.5 hours of hiking (it was 12:20pm when we started down from Acaime). But as you might have guessed from my emphasis on the confusing signage at the fork, we missed the turn the first time. We ended up walking back in the direction we had come for just over an hour when we reached the big sign for Acaime at the entrance to the shaded forest. At this point, our suspicions had been confirmed: we had missed the trail to continue on the loop. It took some coaxing to convince everyone in our group that re-doing the uphill and continuing for the full loop (which we had read had even more uphill) would be worth it.

We hiked for an hour uphill, tracing our footsteps, until we reached the fork. After a short break and some joking about the silly mistakes, we continued on the trail. The terrain changed to feature drier vegetation and pine trees for an hour or so with lots of uphill until we finally reached a clearing. Here there was one final incredibly steep uphill, and at the top of the mountain we reached a lodge where we snapped some photos. From here it took us another hour and a half (including photo breaks) to finish. I called the hostel to sign up for that night’s “family dinner” and asked about the last jeep back to Salento. The person from our hostel told us the last jeep departed at 5, not 5:30, and a bit of panic set in for me. We had been taking our time snapping photos in these last two hours, but as the time was ticking, and I didn’t know how we would get back after the last jeep, I tried to convince our group to hurry down. Once we reached the views in the valley, we left the path entirely and took shortctuts to get back as quickly as possible. We even jogged at parts just to quicken our pace and ensure we wouldn’t miss the last jeep.

Out of breath, we eventually returned to the area where jeeps drop off and pick up people, and snagged spots as quickly as we could. The jeep was nearly full, but two men gave me and my hostel friend seats, and all of the men ended up hanging off the back of the jeep for the ride back to town.

My hostel friend and I in particular, but even the boy who joined us at 9am, ended up hiking considerably more than we had anticipated. In my typical overly-prepared style, I had brought enough snacks and water to last me days in the wilderness, which turned out to really help my companions, one of whom ran out of water midday through our extended hike and also had not packed snacks (expecting there would be places to buy things after we started the hike). I was a bit flustered at times since I figured a loop trail should not have been so complicated, but overall the detours and missed forks simply resulted in more time in the beautiful wilderness. I had a great day.

La Serrana Eco Hostel: Fantastic Place for Salento Escape

After the long day of hiking, I spent a bit of time in the Salento town area then got back to La Serrana at 7pm, just in time for “family dinner,” a themed meal offered on weeknights that anyone in the hostel can sign up for (at additional cost). The idea of the dinner is great, and I met some interesting people at dinner and learned about other must-see places in Colombia. Breakfast is included in the price of the bed, so this is another mealtime opportunity to get to know people in the hostel. The food is delicious, and the add-ons beyond the included options are cheap and delicious (I got eggs with a whole wheat roll and added bacon and a fruit smoothie, for a hearty breakfast that fueled me for my days of physical activity, that was an additional $1 or 2 USD from what was already included with the free breakfast). And each day I went to breakfast, although I brought my notebook or book expecting to entertain myself, I was immediately joined by friendly, interesting hostel companions.

La Serrana’s “family dinner” is one of many activities and features of the hostel that made staying there even better than I could have expected (and I had high expectations after reading raving reviews online). The hostel also has a campfire every night at 8pm, where they sing songs, play board games, roast marshmallows, etc. There also were posters for yoga and other workshops, but when I asked about these, the hostel desk told me that they had a minimum number of participants needed to confirm these activities—if you go with a group or can convince people you meet in the hostel, these activities looked really fun! And it is very likely that you will make friends in the hostel. Besides these activities and meals, the hostel common spaces are comfortable and designed to bring people together. The “lobby” or living room, dining room and kitchen spaces all have ample seating (comfy leather couches, animal fur rugs, etc.), and there are nearly always people hanging around.

The only minor downside of the hostel is that the bunk beds aren’t the best construction, so I didn’t sleep too well. I stayed in the 5-bed female dorm, and enjoyed the ample locker space and abundance of outlets, but the second night I was there, the room filled up, and each time my bunkmate staying in the bed above me rolled around or moved in her bed, it reverberated to my bed and shook the mattress. I was equipped with high quality ear plugs (silicon!) and earbuds to play the white noise app on my phone if necessary, but the hostel was nearly silent by 11:30pm. It was only the movement of the bunk bed shaking each time the girl above me adjusted even slightly that kept me up. I would still definitely stay here again. And if I come back, I’d try to go with a friend to stay in a glamping tent rather than the dorms, mainly because the glamping tents seems like a 5 star camping experience with incredible views, reasonable privacy, and fancy shared bathroom facilities only 10 m from the tents.

The other thing to note is that the hostel indicates that they always have someone who speaks English at the desk, but the hostel mates I met who did not speak any Spanish found this to not be true. Some had difficulties figuring out checkin / checkout details, payment, activity reservations, etc. when non-English speakers were manning the desks. This wasn’t a problem for me since I speak Spanish, and the majority of people who stay in the hostel speak at least some, so ask for help if the hostel person at the desk cannot understand you!

 

Coffee Farms

Besides the Valle de Cocora trek, I was highly anticipating visiting a finca cafetera or two during my visit to Salento. After some time on Trip Advisor, I decided to try the 3 hour tour done by the owner (Don Eduardo) of The Plantation House. He is from Australia, so he offers a (truly) English tour daily at 9am and his wife or other workers on the farm do the Spanish tour starting at 3pm daily. The price seemed high in comparison to other coffee farm tours I read about ($30.000 COP / $10 USD at The Plantation House vs. $8.000-12.000 COP / $3-4 USD at Ocaso or Don Elias’s farm), and most of the others on my tour were staying at The Plantation House and got discounted tour tickets (25% discounted per night you stay there, so if you stay for 4 or more nights, your tour is free!). But the tour was thorough, clear, and memorable, so well worth the money.

The only thing I would have done differently would have been to wear socks. The morning before the tour, I asked at my hostel what to wear, and they said I could wear whatever on my feet, so I went in Chacos (wanting to let my feet rest from the day in hiking boots the prior day). Once I arrived to The Plantation House and after I paid for the tour, the owners of that hostel commented that I needed socks. They offer rubber boot rentals since the trail is very muddy, but they could not rent them to me since I didn’t have socks with me. Most of the people in my group had rented the rubber boots, and there were definitely parts of the trail where I envied the boots and muddied my feet, but this wasn’t a major distraction.

 

In fact, I enjoyed the tour so much, that I actually decided to do another coffee farm tour on my last day. For others planning trips to Salento, this is completely unnecessary—my 1 hour Spanish tour at El Ocaso was slightly more interactive than the tour at The Plantation House (they have you pick coffee buds from trees and plant a seed or two in bags of soil), but it was overly simplified, after learning the full process and story from Don Eduardo. I mainly enjoyed my visit to El Ocaso because of the walk there and back to my hostel (around 1 hour along a beautiful road with spectacular views), and because the El Ocaso property was impressive and nice to explore. Overall, I left Salento with deeper knowledge about coffee production, both generally and specifically for Colombia.

Other Activities

Besides the Valle de Cocora hike and the coffee farm visits, I also visited some waterfalls on a horseback riding trip and explored some of the town of Salento in my free afternoons. The horseback riding trip was arranged by my hostel ($45.000 COP / $15 USD for a 3-5 hour trip with a group as small as 1 person!), and the guide was fantastic. I did this with my hostel companion who doesn’t speak Spanish, and she was a little disappointing with the level of English of our guide, but his English was definitely passable, and I had no communication problems with Spanish. We had both ridden horses before, though several years prior, so the guide gave us a quick overview of strategies to control the horse and how to position ourselves for going uphill or downhill (essentially lean in the direction such that if your horses loses his/her footing, you won’t fall off, it’s pretty straightforward).

This turned out to be really important, because much of the 5 hour trail was steep, rocky, muddy, wet, and slippery. There also are several river crossings, and the horses sometimes have problems with their footing when the water is moving quickly. Mine stumbled a few times but I was holding on tight and none of the times he tripped felt dangerous at all. My poor hostel companion had a horse who was less cautious, and he tripped a few more times than mine on rocky and muddy parts, but it was still completely safe, even though my hostel friend was concerned at times.

IMG_0201

We also had a bit of bad luck because an hour into our ride, it began to storm. Our guide, however, was in tune and well prepared. Literally two minutes before a massive downpour, he had us pull off to the side where he pulled out heavy duty ponchos and covered us and our bags. They were full body, thick ponchos, but I still got pretty wet and muddied during the next 2 hours in the heavy rain. Particularly when we were going through muddy parts or rivers, the splashing from my horse made my lower half pretty wet, but this honestly wasn’t unpleasant. It felt like playing in the rain, and the views were actually spectacular and more lush-looking in the rain! At one point when it was raining really heavily and we approached a farm, our guide signaled for us to stop for a bit in the farm’s stable. We waited out some of the worst of the rain here, and met a 2 day old cow! The thing was surprisingly large for its age, and it was touching to see the mother come over towards the stable swiftly and start mooing at us each time we got close to the baby.

We eventually resumed the trail and after a total of 3 hours from leaving the hostel, we arrived to the waterfalls, and I ran into some people I had met that morning at The Plantation House coffee farm tour. We changed into swim suits and took a quick dip in a lovely swimming area beside a tall waterfall. It was beautiful, but the water was freezing, be warned. My hostel companion decided to forgo the dip because she was cold from the rainy ride. Then we walked back to where we had tied up the horses and started the return journey. At this point the rain had slowed to a light drizzle, and the fog was lifting, revealing stunning, green surroundings. The rain had slowed us, so our guide encouraged us to get our horses going faster for the last leg, which I found exhilarating (my companion not so much, so be prepared for the possibility of some cantering if you decide to horseback ride—no guarantees it will be a relaxed trot for the whole ride). We got back to the town of Salento right as the sun was doing down, and had a very pleasant ride with no rain from the town back to our hostel at a particularly beautiful time of day. It was surreal racing back along beautiful trails just as the sun was disappearing behind the rolling meadows and mountains.

If you think that horseback riding is just not for you, then you can still access these waterfalls via bus then a hike in deep mud and river crossings. The morning after  my horseback riding afternoon, I had my breakfast with two guy from my hostel who had taken a public bus the day before to the entrance to a comercial area that we had ridden by on our horses (you can take the bus from Salento town that goes to Pereira and ask for it to stop near Hospedajes Exoticos, or the area where you will see an area with restaurants, one adorned with a massive cow design). From there they just walked another 3-4 hours each way to reach the waterfalls, but do expect a lot of mud—if the mud and water in the rivers was reaching midway up the legs of my horses, you can just imagine how high that will go on a human…

Besides these outdoor activities, I did a bit of wandering in the Salento town. One the walk from my hostel to town I kept noticing signs for “Aldea del Artesano.” I read online that it was a residential community for artists of Salento, which sounded intriguing. The hostel had little to no information about the place, and I definitely had the impression it was not often visited. The artist village is a 5-10 minute walk down a marked road from the main road leading to Salento town. There are some very colorful buildings, the housing provided to artists as part of a project sponsored by NGOs after an earthquake devastated much of Salento in the 1990s.

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When I visited (late Sunday morning), there was not much activity, and I only saw 3-4 artists around. I spoke with the first to learn about the community, what kind of artisans live there, and I admired his works for a bit (displayed on the balcony and in the living room/workshop of his housing in the complex). He explained that a group from Japan paid for the construction of the “village” and that the artists could live there for free. He pointed me to the 3-4 other artisans (of the 20-30 that live there) that had displays on their balconies, and he also suggested I take a short walk behind the complex to see the garden and orchard that is maintained by the artisans and used for food. The visit was short, and a little disappointing after what I’d read online about a residential area bringing together artisans for creative exchange (the complex seemed somewhat in decline when I visited, with very few artisans even putting in the effort to display their underwhelming works). But the “village” is very close to the main town, and a nice quick stop. Perhaps on another day of the week more artisans have their works out, but I’m skeptical.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Salento: Coffee, Wax Palms, and Calm

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