I have first heard of Salento from a colleague of mine (Ben) whom I used to work with last year. When I told him about our plans to travel through S. America, he immediately sent me a list of “to do’s” with Colombia and specifically the coffee region of Armenia/Salento as one of the “MUST DO’s”! So, after three weeks in our cozy hotel in Bogota, we decided that it was time to get moving again.
On March 20th, we hopped on a 45 minute flight to Armenia. The beauty of air travel in Colombia is that it is pretty inexpensive and you can book a flight the day before for the same price as if you were booking it two weeks in advance. After the flight to Armenia (there are no flights into Salento), we hopped into a cab which took us to a bus station and then after a one hour bus ride we were in downtown Salento. There is of course an easier way to do this by just grabbing a cab from Armenia directly to Salento for $35.00, but we are backpackers and we have all the time in the world, so the bus travel for $3.00/person won us over.
When you get into the town of Salento (which is adorable with a big church in the middle of the square), one will find Jeep cabs lining up the streets to take tourists to their respective hotels/hostels and tours. These ‘Willys’ Jeeps were originally brought to Colombia from the US army surplus after WWII and are the perfect vehicle to navigate some of the unpaved roads in the region.
Per Ben’s recommendation, I booked us into a private room at the La Serrana Eco Farm and Hostel. Holy moly, how pretty is this place? It is a 7 minute ride uphill (or a 20 minute walk) from the city center into the lush green valley surrounded by coffee and banana farms. And you are welcomed in by a gorgeous black lab!
The rooms and the barely there cold water showers are nothing to write home about, but for $35.00/night you are paying for the views and the delicious breakfast (included in the price) and a chance to hang out with tons of travelers from all walks of life. If you decide to stay in the dormitory, you are paying about $7.00/night with free breakfast or you can even glamp for $5/night. You also get super delicious dinners for $5.50/person which is considered expensive in this town; we are talking organic, home made, ridiculously good food!The next morning, we were up early to have some breakfast with other fellow travelers (not pictured: the pancakes that we would order almost on daily basis for an extra fee of $2.00).
Then, we were off to do the Kasaguadua Natural Reserve tour. A great tour where we learned a ton about plants and animal life in the cloud forest, Colombian history, sustainable living, and the dedicated process of preservation. Beyond observing how various plants and animals interact to thrive in this jungle, we were inspired by the guides’ journey to making this reserve a reality. To add to all of this, the tour is FREE! Yep, tips only!
After the 2.5 hour tour, we decided to walk down to the town center and really explore. Turns out, not much exploring is needed as everything is right in front of you with tons of awesome restaurants and shops lined up. This little town of approximately 7,000 people is HAPPENING and is oh so simple! It’s the kind of town you imagine going back about 30+ years where the squares are filled with kids playing games (NOT ON iPHONES) and the simple joys of being pushed around in a toy jeep for 25 cents (I didn’t fit, so I had to live vicariously through the 5 year old below).
We were in “awe” of how many local Colombian tourists visit this destination, how clean it is and how friendly everyone was to us (no one really speaks English, but that was a non issue as everyone really tries to help you out via some form of interpretive dance). Salento is also known for trout farming, so the streets are filled with vendors cooking trout in every possible delicious way.
Oh, and did I mention my new favorite dessert yet? OBLEAS!!!! It is a wafer sandwich (as many layers as you want) filled with any type of sweet (Arequipe which is dulce de leche, strawberries, cream, etc.). I may have had 2 or 5!
I also have become a huge fan of the local street food called Arepa: a flat bread made out of corn and filled with cheese and whatever else you want!
Oh, and Ajiaco – a delicious Colombian soup with potatoes, corn, chicken, capers and avocado!
After that food coma, the next morning, Kieran somehow convinced me to go on a hike (he must have said “cake” and I didn’t hear the rest)! One of the attractions in Solento, is the Bosques de Cocora which is a national park and home to various types of hummingbirds and humongous wax palms. I am going to be honest about this SIX hour torture which forced me into an early hiking retirement:
- Pretty wet climate, thus, a very muddy hike (not good when you only own one pair of shoes).
- The terrain is rough – super slippery rocks/pebbles and muddy pot holes.
- You are hiking on the same tiny trail as the tourists who opt to go up via a horse; thus, you are walking in mud AND horse poop.
- In my humble opinion, I think this type of terrain is not good for the horses – I felt terrible for them.
- The Humming Bird house at the top is not very exciting and the birds are lured with chicha – a fermented beverage. Can’t image that’s good for the birds, but what do I know?
- Once you get to the Humming Bird house, with the entrance fee (of $2.00) you get a drink. I went for the traditional Colombian snack of hot chocolate with cheese (I wanted to be cool and fit in with the local crowd). NOT a great combination in the middle of the hike which may have caused another round of food poisoning. NOM NOM NOM!
- When you get to the side of the hike with Wax Palms, it is suddenly all worth it, because it is spectacular. But, do yourself a favor, forget the 6 hour hike, and just go to the shortcut which takes you right to the Wax Palms on a nice road (this can take anywhere from 1 hour to 4 hours, depending on how far you want to go).
- Getting to ride on the back of the jeep for 35 minutes was totally a highlight! Wind blowing in your hair, branches hitting you across the face – no really, it was actually SUPER fun!
- Having two 10 year old girls who were on vacation from rural Colombia with their parents ask to take a photo with “the white people” aka Kiearan and I. We were more than happy to “cheese” with them!
- It was a great work out; slightly reminiscent of Machu Picchu – thus causing my early retirement from hiking.
The next morning we decided to allow ourselves to sleep in a bit before heading out for a coffee tour. There are many tours to choose from, but from various suggestions within the hostel, we decided to go with the Don Elias Coffee Tour, because we were told that this was one of the only tours in English.
After a long hike to the tour (I came out of my hiking retirement), we got to a small house with an 80 something year old Don Elias himself giving tours in Spanish as his English speaking grandson wasn’t available that day. Thanks to our ever so growing Español skills and his hand gestures, we were able to understand about 40% of it. Luckily, organic coffee making is a very straight forward job which made it easy for us to understand and a few other backpackers on our tour spoke much better Spanish and thus were able to translate to us the things we missed.
During the tour, a huge storm hit (insane thunder and lightening), so Don Elias invited us into his home for some coffee. Being in his house, watching his wife/daughter make dinner and the sparks flying out of power outlets due to the lightening, was a very authentic experience which we wouldn’t trade for the world. Don is a cool dude – he works hard, drinks 6 cups of organic coffee a day and as sharp as can be.
As we were leaving, one of Don’s dogs jumped into the jeep taxi with us and for the rest of the stay in Solento, Kieran obsessed about how the dog would find its way back. So, we bought the dog a chorizo and made sure he was well fed before making his way back home. We hope he did!
That evening we met another couple from Switzerland – man, Swiss sure do love to travel, (Jeannette and Fredi) who just about blew us away with their travel stories. They are a retired couple and they have been traveling via their camper van which they shipped from Europe for the past 2 years and will probably do at least 2 more (they go back home once a year for Christmas). They have now traveled around the Americas twice! How cool are they?
The next day, it was time to pack up our stuff and head back to Armenia to catch a flight to Cartagena, Colombia. If we knew how relaxing this place was going to be, we would have probably stayed another week – pure green heaven!