I can’t believe we almost missed you, almost ignored you completely. You are so beautiful, so calm, so refreshing. Thank you for all the good times, and all the good coffee. We will never forget you. Thank you for being our favorite.
After some fast-paced adventures in San Gil coupled with illness, we longed for quiet, calm, relaxing days. Salento, nestled in the foothills kind of between Medellin and Bogotá, proved to be just what we needed. We booked a week at a small hotel run by a generous attendant and frequented by a number of friendly cats.
Much of the week involved relaxing at our lovely hotel, working on personal projects, as well as catching up with friends and family. We would wander around town, enjoy a cup of coffee, browse the local shops, or walk up to the mirador which boasts a beautiful view of the city and surrounding valley.
Our first coffee shop of the trip turned out to be a favorite. The owner was incredibly kind and knew everything about Colombian coffee. Their baked goods were all homemade, and absolutely incredible! I don’t even really like carrot cake, but this one forever changed my opinion of this vegetable cake. For more knowledgeable coffee connoisseurs, we indulged in a Chemex of honey-processed, light roasted arabica grown and roasted just an hour’s walk away.
While enjoying our coffee, we saw some familiar faces. Two friends from our tour in Medellin just happened to walk into the shop. Once our brains all processed this chance encountered, we sat swapping stories for the next hour and discussing plans for the next few weeks. We also decided our time in Salento wouldn’t be complete without a round of tejo (the Colombian game of cornhole but with explosions, described in previous post) with our friends, so we arranged to meet the next evening. They brought along another couple who were in there second year of travel, and we all tried our best to chuck the tejos into the bed of clay. Everyone but Lane successfully hit the small paper triangles containing gunpowder, and cheered obnoxiously with ears ringing after each explosion.
The dogs in Salento go straight to the top of our list for cutest and coolest dogs. We would see the same ones throughout the week. Often, they looked like they had places to be and would be walking around town with more purpose than us. We even had a few dogs walk with us over the course of several miles on our way back from tour on a coffee farm. We named the dog who in front of us “Adelante”, and the dog in the rear, “Detras”.
A highlight of our time in Salento proved to be the hike through the Valle de Cocora. Coffee isn’t the only plant giving this region notoriety. This swath of the country is home to the tallest palm trees in the world and Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm. The night before we planned to head out on the hike, we purchased a few snacks for the trail and packed our rain gear, weary of the rainstorms that seemed to happen regularly. We woke early the following day to secure a seat in the first Willy heading to the valley. Surplus 1950s Jeep “Willys” are the primary mode of transportation for tourists and locals alike in the valleys of Salento. Most of the original parts have been swapped out for locally made replacements over the past 60 years, and each one is adorned with bright colors and a unique animal hood ornament representing the owner or their family. Colombians manage to fit about a dozen people inside, with room for 3 to 4 more hanging off the back. It makes for a very cozy—yet surprisingly comfortable—ride on the dirt roads.
We loaded ourselves and our daypacks into the first Willy headed to the valley in the morning. Once inside, we met a friendly Swiss geographer and mountaineer named Alex. He planned to hike much further into the mountains for acclimatization, and intended to scale a few pretty large mountains larger in the month. Arriving at our stop, we all climbed out and waited underneath an awning deciding how long we should wait it out for the onslaught of rain. In this interim, we met two friendly French travelers and we all waited around chatting before finally deciding the rain looked innocent enough and walked towards the trailhead. Lane, Alex, and myself continued on.
The hike begins by winding through field of cattle tucked in the valley below the palm giants. Once reaching the edge of the forest, the trail begins to climb through vast greenery. Alongside the trail runs a pristine river, introducing the opportunity for several beautiful river crossings. The sun cascading through the canopy eventually lessens as the surroundings transform into a cloud forest.
At halfway through the trail loop, there is a small detour which shouldn’t be missed: a hummingbird sanctuary. The detour not only provides a unique opportunity to dazzled at dozens of hummingbirds, but it also serves a place for hikers to grab a cup of coffee or a snack, sit, relax, and chat. I drank my coffee in stages as I was constantly pulled away to try capturing another picture of the hummingbirds. I was up to the challenge, though the hummingbirds put me in my place—photographically speaking. With enough time and patience, I managed to capture a few!
After coffee was consumed, we thanked Alex for his company—and the loan of a helpful hiking pole—before we parted ways. We would continuing along the well worn trail, while Alex would be venturing to a hostel high and deep in the mountains.
We continued to the highest point of the trail, and managed to soak in a view more views of the mountains before the thick fog rolled in completely obscuring views for the rest of the hike. Walking downhill with another dog-friend, we began to see palms rising out of the mist closer and closer to the trail. The fog was both eery and beautiful, providing a unique view of the surrounding forest. I continued snapping pictures of the surroundings until the rain started up again, and we quickly donned our rain gear.
Descending further down the trail, we walked out towards what we thought would be viewpoints for the valley, but instead stumbled onto a grove of those giant wax palms. Despite the cold and rain, I couldn’t stop smiling at the beauty and strangeness of the landscape. I was so enthralled by the views, I carefully took my phone out a few too many times for a photo before securing it back in my waterproof jacket. Turns out the pocket isn’t waterproof if it isn’t completely zipped. Spoiler alert—my phone would not survive the night.
As the rain continued with increasing force, we ran through the palm trees, stopping to look up towards the distant leaves and water droplets clouded our vision. We barreled down lush hills, zigzagging through the palms, delighted to see the fog lifting at the bottom of the valley. Slippery, thick mud soon replace the soft grass beneath my feet. Ever so slowly, I edged my way down the last switchbacks of the trail really hoping the mud wouldn’t lead be sliding face first into a wet pile of horse poop. After a few close calls and hundreds of tediously precise steps later, I joined Lane at the bottom on the hill and we walked towards the Willy stop in town.
We managed to secure a seat in the front of a Willy returning to town, grateful we wouldn’t be hanging on to the back of the Jeep in weather like this. Crowning the stick shift sat a Jesus portrait encased in plastic globe. Adorning the rearview mirror were other religious artifacts and small tokens representing the city of Salento. I talked with our driver José in Spanish, periodically assisting in wiping down the windshield to clear away the fog. As we bounced along the road, he told me the Jeep was from 1954. I complimented the hood ornament, a valiant horse guiding our way.
A few days later we packed our bags, thanked our host, and walked towards the colectivo bus stop, I felt grateful for our time spent here. We we both rested and ready for our next adventure, many bus stops and a few flights away.