Okay, everyone knows that Colombia is famous for its coffee. And for good reason. The country produces some of the world’s most sought-after coffee. The Eje Cafetero, Colombia’s coffee region, turned out to be not to far from Medellin, so we made it our next destination.
There are three main cities in the regions: Manizales, Armenia, and Pereira. I’ve heard Manizales is the nicest of the three main cities, but my recommendation would be to skip all of the cities and head to the small town of Salento.
If taking a bus from Medellin, it takes about 6 hours, give or take, to get to Armenia. Depending on your bus, you can actually get dropped off before Armenia town at the junction to Salento (cross the road, and there is a bus stop there). It saves you time backtracking in and out of the city, and you will jump onto the same buses that would be picking you up in the Armenia terminal anyways.
Salento is a beautiful little town, nestled in the hills of Colombia’s coffee heartland. The main square is charming, the artisan shops plentiful, and the surrounding countryside beautiful. There are two main draws to the area: coffee, of course, and probably more spectacularly, Valle del Cocora.
You need not pay much to take advantage of either. Our hostel-recommended coffee tour that we took part on, which I can now recommend personally, is at the small finca of Don Elias. From Salento, it’s about a four-kilometre walk to the small, family-run farm (all downhill, if you were inclined to bike). The farm is part of the Rainforest Alliance, an NGO that works with farmers and forestry operations all around the world to increase sustainability. Products and tourist services with the Rainforest Alliance seal have been certified by the organization and follow the Alliance’s standards. The tour, conducted in Spanish, was easy to follow with even a rudimentary understanding of the language, as our young guide gestured exuberantly and spoke slowly. Built on the slopes of the fertile valley, the rows of coffee plants grow amongst other plants including avocado, yucca, and pineapples. The farm operates organically, and uses their knowledge of the ecosystem to help with pest control. Pineapples are grown amongst the coffee, as insects are more attracted to the sweet fruit than the important coffee plants. Compost is a mix of the coffee fruit shells, plant scraps, and poultry excrement. Horse faeces, as we witnessed first-hand later on, attracts hordes of mosquitos. While they do not harm the plants, they are certainly unpleasant for the workers and spread too many diseases.
The small farm produces only a few hundred kilograms of coffee beans each year. Harvest is twice annually, and the entire family plus a few hired hands harvest from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, for about three weeks. We were told about the lifespan of coffee plants, the planting cycles, and the history of the farm. Growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, where farming means hundreds of flat acres of well-sprayed grain, seeing this humble yet successful hilly and meandering family farm was quite a welcome experience. It brought to the forefront of my mind how so much of our land on this earth is being treated, which is generally at sharp contrast to how it should be treated.
After our tour, we sat and had a cup of the coffee we had just learnt about. Colombian coffee is most commonly drunk as tinto, which is a small amount of coffee with a lot of water. You have to search to find a good espresso or cappuccino in this country. Nevertheless, we could taste the quality of our freshly brewed cup as we enjoyed it Colombian style.
After the coffee tour, we went up to a small, family-run restaurant for lunch. After lunch, the boys took part in a game of tejo, common around Colombia. It is luckily played outdoors, and involves throwing heavy weights long distances (around twenty metres) to a box covered with small targets called mechas. The distinctive characteristic of the game is that the targets are full of gunpowder, and when struck by the heavy weights, explode with the sound of a small gun firing.
After a challenging round, we continued our walk. Our destination was the small town down the hill from Salento, where we intended to catch a bus back up. Our hand drawn map of the area was lacking a little bit of detail, but we managed to follow the river back to the town, with only one death-defying bridge crossing.
Salento, along with being a miniature coffee paradise, acts as a gateway to the stunning Valle del Cocora From the centre of town it is easy to catch a ride in an old-school Jeep to the base of the park. Jeeps leave at 6:10, 7:30, 9:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and cost 3000 pesos.
Once we arrived, we began the walk through the more unremarkable scenery and, much to our surprise and pleasure, managed to finish in the stunning valley. From where the Jeeps dropped us off, we took a path to the right and were soon trotting through rainforest, which was full of almost comically sketchy bridges over river crossings.
At one point, there is a fork in the trail, where you can choose to travel up to Acaime or across to La Montana. Acaime is a reserve that charges an entry of 5000 pesos but this includes a drink upon arrival at the small house. Try the hot chocolate; it’s delicious and comes accompanied by a huge chunk of cheese. The main draw for Acaime are the hummingbirds. At least 20 of the tiny, lightning-fast birds congregate around the building, taking turns darting to and from the handful of feeders scattered around. They’re incredible to watch, particularly in such high numbers, and it’s an excellent pit stop on the hike.
From there, we returned to the crossroads, where we followed the other path to La Montaña. It’s a bit of a climb, but not overly strenuous, and the views from the height of the path are incredible. The scenery was what I imagine I would come across in Peru: dramatic rock faces soaring upwards from lush valleys, all bathed in a thick mist and the promise of rain. From here, it was an easy walk down a dirt road, all of the way back to the beginning. But this was probably the best part.
Here is where we wandered through the awe-inspiring valley, filled with towering wax palms.
It felt a bit bizarre. The lush valleys with neat pastures and grazing cattle were sprinkled with these massive trees, the tallest palms in the world, which can grow up to 50-60 metres in height. The trees seem almost otherworldly, and wandering through the valley it was impossible not to appreciate that we were surrounded by some of the most unique scenery in this part of the world. We will never see another place like it.
We would come to find, travelling around Colombia, that there are many places it would be easy enough to spend a couple of weeks. Salento was one of them, and it was not without some dragging of the feet that we headed out of town. As our route through Colombia was mainly constructed by looking at a map and seeing what of interest we were close to, we continued our journey south. Colombia seemed shockingly big after months meandering our way through Central America, so we knew that it would be impossible to visit every corner of the country we desired to. We were aiming in the general direction of San Agustin, an interesting archaeological site, and chose to stop in Cali for a night en route. Next up, a night of absolutely no dancing in the salsa capital of Colombia.