Salento and Valle de Cocora, Colombia

What better way to meet up with a friend for the first time in six years than to arrive in town in the middle of the night, both of us having taken night buses from different cities and unable to sleep from going up and down twisty mountain roads? It’s in a hostel dormitory in Salento where I reunited with Mathieu, a friend with whom I’ve had a storied travel history since 2012. Always a pleasure… Maybe except when we’re both sleep deprived and incoherent.

We didn’t plan to be in Colombia at the same time, but found some overlap in our itineraries. Mat, having lived and worked in Colombia for a year a while back, is on a greatest-hits nostalgia tour of sorts. Of course, that’s gotta involve one of the most scenic and (especially recently) rightly popular regions in the country: the Zona Cafetera. At least that’s why I’m here.

But first, a nap.

…Which didn’t last quite as long for me, as this packed trip has had me run on constant adrenaline. I couldn’t resist watching the town come to life in the morning, after arriving in the dark. It feels like another era, walking down streets of humble, orderly houses with doors and balconies painted in eye-catching colours and topped with clay shingles.

After waking up a bit more, we headed on the road out of town on foot, a tranquil hour through the cloud forest and on to a coffee finca tour. It’s not something that either of us haven’t done elsewhere before, but it’s nice to know the local details, all part of the family’s choices for their production process and resulting taste. Some things are more common in the region — growing banana trees next to coffee trees to provide shade, and orange trees to attract and draw away insects — but some are more particular, like cutting down each coffee tree after 8 years and outright removing them after 16. After harvesting the beans, their work continues with the fermentation, washing, and drying processes before export. Purchasers then remove the husks and roast the beans.

Until recent years, like other coffee-producing countries (maybe except for Ethiopia), most coffee grown is for export, leaving the locals drinking instant Nescafe. The culture’s changing though, and domestic consumption is rising. We tried some of the finca’s own coffee — a balanced medium roast, not too much of anything, perhaps a Colombian preference!

Post-coffee, we unwound a bit with some drinks at an overlook, waiting out a predictable afternoon thunderstorm and heavy rain. Well, we didn’t expect we’d have to wait till dark, but it sure was pretty hypnotizing, watching the clouds roll in and out, before we eventually caught a ride back into town.

Salento’s quite a touristy spot, with the crowds centered mostly on Calle Real and plenty of foreigner-oriented restaurants and businesses, but to my pleasant surprise, it keeps an idyllic, homely vibe on its side streets, full of regular life and of paisas coming and going, bringing coffee on the old-fashioned jeeps they call “willys” from the fincas surrounding town. There’s the old-fashioned plaza and requisite cathedral in the centre of town, surrounded by traditional restaurants serving up gigantic portions of trucha (river trout), sancocho (soup), and the signature bandeja paisa (rice, beans, plantain, avocado, egg, and a mountain of different meats) – simple, hearty stuff perfect for the mountains.

Do they play up the traditional stuff for the tourists? Sure, all in good fun. The place to be at night is a tejo bar — a national game where people compete to gain the most points by throwing metal pucks at little packets of gunpowder lain on a soft clay surface, over beers of course. It’s a blast. (Sorry not sorry.) It’s not nearly as easy as the bar manager makes it look! Ironically, while all the gringos are out playing tejo, the locals play billiards down the block.  Maybe they’re embarrassed at how terrible we all are at their game.

It’s downright embarrassing how many attempts this took…

The place to be in a day? Well, you take a willy to get there. And rather than transporting coffee, even in the current state of the world, they’re packed full of us tourists. Of course, when they’re full, we imitate the locals — stand and hang on the back of the vehicle. At least it makes tree-spotting easier, which is what we’re here for after all.

Valle de Cocora is world-renowned for its tall, skinny wax palm trees (a famed national symbol, but a newly familiar sight for a segment of Disney movie watchers), sadly endangered due to the introduction of cattle. While they still exist in dense forests, it’s their reduced numbers that weirdly enough makes them so interesting to me: interspersed at random in meadows, they make for a jarring, alien contrast. At the beginning and end of a 5 hour loop hike, we saw them both in blue skies and covered in mist and fog. Personally, I prefer the mystery.

The hike in between, through cloud forest, farmland, jungle, and multiple rickety river crossings, is a beauty in itself even without the wax palms. At a worthwhile uphill detour to a midpoint stop, hummingbirds of all colours zip around from flowers to feeders to flowers, largely unafraid of people.

After a long, muddy day of hiking, we decided to treat ourselves the next morning, catching a bus to Pereira, another to Santa Rosa de Cabal, and a willy to the thermal springs outside of town. I mean… is this place even real?!

Whether or not it’s completely natural or maybe just a little… embellished, I don’t know, but it’s definitely a sight for sore eyes. And a site for sore legs! Between soaks in pools of various temperatures, and cooling off under the waterfall, it was nice to simply relax for half a day, catch up with a friend, and laugh at silly tourist photos under the waterfall while fully participating ourselves.

Too bad the moment couldn’t last — I had more distance to cover, and Mat had more nostalgia waiting in Pereira. With more time, I would have loved to spend a few more days meandering through the mountains between more traditional towns, fincas, and wax palm forests while slowly heading north. There’s so much on the map: Filandia, Salamina, Valle de Samaria, Aguadas, Jardín, Jerico… But alas, I’m more than satisfied with what I did get to see, and grateful for a bonus reunion on top of that. A quick goodbye at the Pereira bus station, and it’s back on the night bus for me.

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