What a whirlwind this last month has been! A mere two weeks after returning from some holiday relaxation in the US, I left for Colorful Cartagena with San Francisco friends. From there, I met up with a friend from college, Nathan. Nathan is in the midst of four months of worldwide travel, and Colombia made his list of countries to see! Thanks to Nathan, I ventured to several spots that I’m not sure I would have seen otherwise… Riohacha and La Guajira, Tatacoa Desert, Tierradentro, and Popayán, all in the matter of a few weeks… but, more on that later.
First, we flew to Salento, Colombia. I had heard good things about Colombia’s coffee region, but I did not expect to love it as much as I did. It’s difficult to choose a “favorite” place in Colombia; I mean, how can one choose between terrain and people and cultures as distinct as a modern city like Medellin vs a waterfall vs a small coastal town? I’m not sure, but damn if Salento and Valle de Cocora didn’t give all these other spots a run for their money.
So, we landed in Salento after dark and were off to a bit of a rough start. We were hungry, but everything in Salento closes down at night… including the taxis! Fortunately, the eco-hostel we stayed at wasn’t too far from the main square and we were able to get food from a comida rápida spot and walk back.
At the urging of a Fulbright friend, we stayed in a safari “tent” at La Serrana Hostel, and it was the best decision we could have made. Because we got in at night and it is completely dark on this eco-farm by about 8PM, we didn’t know the amazing view that awaited us upon waking up. If I have the chance, I’d love to go back and stay in one of these tents again. It’s the perfect way to glamp– you have electricity and full beds inside the tent, but wake up to cows and sheep right outside. I heard a weird sound outside while I was getting dressed and looked outside to see a ram sharpening its horns on the fence. Classic.
So we had a big breakfast (free with our stay!) and then walked down the road with another girl staying at the hostel to a couple of nearby coffee farms. The closest thing I can relate that area to is going from vineyard to vineyard in Sonoma or Napa, California. Similar to the US wine country, these coffee farms are ready for tourists. For a few mil pesos, you get a guided tour and coffee tasting.
Our first stop was Ocaso Coffee. We were recommended this coffee farm by our hostel, as its a pretty large operation– both in terms of how much coffee they produce, and that they conduct their tours like a well-operated machine. Our tour group witnessed how the coffee is produced from beginning to end. We picked coffee beans, learned the difference in types of beans, saw where the beans dry out, ground them up, and drank the coffee. The staff was super sweet and the coffee was, of course, delicious.
Our second stop was a small coffee farm, Don Elias. It was very different from Ocaso, because it’s coffee production is a fraction of Ocaso’s, and this was family-owned. Our guide literally led us through his family’s kitchen and past their hanging laundry to show us where they dry the coffee beans in their backyard. Still, Don Elias is no novice coffee farm. We heard about how their coffee is shipped to NYC, Jamaica, and the Pacific Islands.
In both farms, however, one aspect remained: we all gained so much respect for Colombian coffee. Yes, of course Colombia has a reputation for good coffee, but seeing how many years it takes to cultivate this product, and how much human hands – not machines – work to bring this to our privileged breakfast tables is eye opening. Depending on the year’s harvest, the day laborers can make a ton of money, or barely any.
That evening, Nathan and I had dinner at the hostel, which ended up being another highlight of the trip. La Serrana’s dining room is a wooden, cozy spot, lined with strands of white Christmas lights and wine bottles. We ate a large meal with new friends from Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Bulgaria. Afterward, we continued the conversation at a nearby hostel, La Luciéranaga. We enjoyed 2-for-1 cocktails while a girl from our hostel and her band sang live music. Eventually, we strapped on our headlamps and made our way down the country roads back to our hostel.
The next morning, we got up early, said hello to the cows outside of our tent, ate too much at breakfast, and joined our hostel friends from The Netherlands and Germany for a hike in Valle de Cocora. One of the cool parts of Salento and its surrounding areas, I should mention, is that the “taxis” are actually retro jeeps. You get around by bumping along in the back or hanging off the side. The driver lets you take your pick.
I had high hopes for this hike, but being there exceeded all of my preconceived ideas. With a few hilly exceptions, the hike wasn’t tooooo challenging. And, it was made better by good weather and gorgeous landscapes. The five of us seemed to be a good pack; we wanted to stop and take in the same spots, hike quickly through the muddy patches, etc.
We ended the hike in the area with tons of Quindío wax palm trees. These gigantic, once-nearly-endangered trees can grow between 150 – 200ft high! We attempted some pictures to show a bit of height perspective, but nothing can replicate the feeling of standing next to something that skinny, and yet that tall.
As we begrudgingly left the Valle, the skies opened up and it began to pour rain. While hanging off the back of our taxi/jeep, Nathan and the couple from The Netherlands got soaked; meanwhile, our German friend and I were crammed in the back of same said-jeep with people from all over Europe… London, Belgium, France, Ireland, Austria.
That evening, I enjoyed a rainy nap in the tent and we all ate again at the hostel. We thought about going back to the other hostel, La Luciérnaga, for more drinks, but ultimately decided to stay at our hostel and talk and drink with the other guests there.
Unfortunately, after breakfast the next morning, we jeep-ed back to the main square, and took two buses to get to the airport and back to Bogotá. But, with a trip to colonial Popayán in the morning, there was no time to be sad about leaving.
Salento, I hope we meet again soon.