Now Salento has a very special place in my heart. It is my favourite place in Colombia, and one of my favourite places in the world. All this is due to its stunning natural surroundings, the greenery, the climate, its amazing people, and also its great offer of veg food. This is why this post is very personal and very close to my heart. I first visited Salento some 4 years ago, on my first trip to Colombia. And then I came back in the beginning of this year to spend 5 weeks there to do research for my PhD thesis. Couldn’t have picked a better place. Why do I love Salento so much? Here are 10 reasons why (and I could think of more):
1. The Stunning Stunning Nature
Salento is a small town situated in the so-called coffee triangle, fairly central in Colombia. It is at an elevation of about 1,900 metres above sea level, nestled in the Andes. It’s climate is quite tropical during the day, especially in the summers, but the nights can be cool. All this makes for a very beautiful natural surrounding: high mountains, deep valleys, lush flora, hummingbirds flying around, coffee being planted on the slopes, and some breathtaking views no matter where you go. The most famous area of outstanding beauty is the Cocora Valley, a mere 20 minute jeep-ride away. You can go on excellent day hikes there, or leisurely strolls, taking in the deep-green mountains with its iconic wax palms (the national tree of Colombia). But also other little walks around the town take you along the river, to a waterfall or to the cloud forest (for a guided tour or even a stay in a very cool lodge, check out Kasaguadua Natural Reserve) and always surprise you with stunning nature. For multi-day treks into the nearby Paramo highlands, contact Cristina at Paramo Trek, who is super friendly and also speaks English. For a different, off-the-beaten path day trip, ask for Fernando (and his cute dog Bruno) at Plantation House hostel. He organises trips to the volcano Machín on a semi-regular basis, and the landscape on this trip is absolutely breathtaking.
2. The Town Itself
The town is small, about 7,000 inhabitants, but absolutely lovely. They have preserved the typical architecture of the coffee zone in the centre of town: colourful houses with big wooden doors and little balconies. It is a joy to walk along the main street. The heart of the town is the plaza, as in most Latin American places. It is vast, has the pretty church on one side, the town hall on the other. There are always some handicraft artesanos and fruit juice sellers offering their fare, and on weekends they wheel out food trucks that provide the Colombian tourists that are flocking in with patacones (fried plantain with different toppings), aguardiente (a strong anis-flavoured spirit) and salsa music to dance to.
3. Its People
People are incredibly nice in Salento, I cannot stress it enough. Everybody is super helpful and also up for a chat. Speaking Spanish helps getting in contact with the locals, such as the lovely Fabio who practices playing his cello in the main street almost every day. If it is raining, invite him for some coffee and let him tell you about his former work in whale watching at the Colombian Pacific coast. If Spanish is not your thing, there are also some English-speakers around, be it in hostels or in restaurants. Head for Brunch to chat American and maybe watch a movie on their giant screen, or you might bump into the lovely Sandra and Ted who used to run their supper club Sandra en Salento and chat about backpacking, Colombia and life (Sandra speaks 7 or 8 languages, so pick one to chat to her). I found everybody in the town extremely nice and approachable, so go and find out for yourself.
4. The Coffee
Now while I am not a huge coffee drinker, I love the smell of freshly roasted and ground coffee. Ever wondered how its grown?! This is the place for you. Coffee growing is one of the major income generators in Salento, along with tourism, and the two go hand-in-hand now. You can visit about 4 or 5 coffee farms in the town and its surroundings. I can highly recommend the coffee tour on Don Eduardo’s farm, which belongs to the owner of the Plantation House hostel. Every morning at 9 am he holds a very comprehensive 3-hour long tour in English (COP$ 20,000 p.p. – if you stay at Plantation House, you get a discount). He is quite a character, so the tour will not be boring. He explains everything from kinds of coffee plants, different approaches to growing to roasting, and in the last half hour or so you make and drink your own coffee with one of the guys that work on the farm, enjoying a spectacular view. After that, don’t miss out to take a walk along the farm and check out its bamboo forest, pineapple plantation and other things they grow. If you fancy, you can also stay in quite basic accommodation on the farm itself, I can recommend it (and cooking in their outdoor kitchen). I have also heard good things about the tour with Don Elias, which is a 40 minute walk outside of town. For buying already roasted coffee and a nice place to sit and drink coffee and chat, I can highly recommend Cafe Jesús Martín (near town hall), who makes the wicked Ginger Maracuya infusion.
5. Its Traditions
This year I managed to show up just in time for their big town fiesta in the beginning of January (usually between the first and second week). It is a week-long celebration with hundreds and hundreds of Colombians pouring into town. It’s chaos, it’s loud, it’s fantastic. It is the celebration of the towns founding, and it is celebrated every year. There are more food stalls, more artesanos, and more awesome things to watch except for nature. One day, they had a parade with people dressed up as in the old time when the town was founded some 170 years ago. Another day, there were public competitions in wood chipping, and in loading a mule with sacks of sugar the fastest way possible. And it is all done for the people of the region, not staged for tourists. And it also provides a great opportunity to mingle with locals, especially if you ask them to explain the rules of the competition to you. Generally, you can see more of the traditional life still going on in Salento, be it the way the men dress with their cowboy hats and ponchos, or some locals still taking the horse rather than a car. And not to forget their favourite game: tejo. It involves throwing a stone disc over a longer distance into a clay-filled box. In the box there are four aims, which are little packages filled with gunpowder that explode if you hit them with said disc. While playing, you have to consume various bottles of beer to do it like the locals. Play at Los Amigos (Carrera 4a No. 3-32).
6. Its Food
By now, Salento is veggie heaven! It is such a small place, but has so many options. You could pay Sandra en Salento a visit if open (their super popular restaurant/supper club is closed at the moment, but I am sure they will embark on another food-related adventure soon again) for international cuisine made with Colombian ingredients, a lot of them sourced from neighbouring farmers or their own garden. The food is delicious and Sandra has made vegan chocolate cake after my recipe before (and it sold out – strike!). Sandra, Ted and their team are incredibly nice, so go and have a chat! For vegan burgers, there are three locations that all make different ones: Brunch has a black bean burger (the bun and the sauce are not vegan though, even though the menu says vegan burger, so beware!), and a veg burrito which can be made vegan, and it is huge and yummy! Another place is family-run BetaTown, they have a lentil and beetroot burger that is super-tasty, and you can watch European sports there on their huge TV, if you fancy. Lastly, the lovely Camille offers vegan burgers made of amaranth and lentils in a small stall on the main street (next to petrol station), and also falafels and delicious juices. For the local cuisine of rice, beans, plantains and some salad (and a bargain), head to Rincón the Lucy on the main shopping street. I just cannot vouch for the cross-contamination in the kitchen, as it also serves meat and the local trout. Apart from cooked food, you find lots of fruit and veg for often bargain prices in the fruterías (fruit and veg shops), and some soya and almond milk, soya granulate and basics such as pasta, rice and dried legumes in the supermarket SuperCocora on the main square. As a special treat, there is a lovely crazy man selling vegan ice-cream in a passage (El Zaguan de Madiza) on the main shopping street at Buon Fruit Helado (yes, and mixing three languages to make up a name).
7. The Willys
Apart from horses, willys are the preferred mode of transport in Salento. They are old jeeps that are perfect for the terrain of sometimes steep climbs and off-road tracks. They are taxis and busses, so some leave at regular times (such as to get to Cocora Valley at 7:30 am or 9:30 am), other you can just hop into and tell them where you want to go. Their “headquarter” is on the main square. They are a fun ride, not the most comfortable, but an experience that belongs to Salento like the coffee. Plus, you can chat with the driver who is local. Or with you fellow passengers, who usually are a mix of locals and tourists.
8. The Sunsets
They are spectacular! The lush mountains get dipped into soft orange light, everything glows. Best enjoyed from the paths that lead out of town, coffee Finca Don Eduardo or the backyard of Plantation House hostel owner’s Tim and Cristina house.
9. The Animals
Some are wildlife, some are not. Hanging out in the hostel garden (e.g. at Plantation House or at La Serrana) you can watch birds such as different species of hummingbirds or the local motmot (barranco). For a close-up look at hummingbirds, head to Acaime Nature Reserve in the Cocora Valley, where usually 3 to 7 different species are present. Also, walking through Cocora Valley, you will encounter many cows with a bored-look on their faces, and some wild roaming horses. Carlos and Nick at Kasaguadua Nature Reserve have told me about sloths in their reserve, but you might only catch a glimpse of them if you stay for a couple of days in the reserve (which you should do anyway – they are building some awesome accommodation there). In the village there are lots of dogs who go around freely. They usually belong to a finca or house, and are well-kept and friendly. Some hostels have their own dogs (such as at Plantation House), and they are super friendly and even came on walks with me.
10. The Relaxed Atmosphere
As mentioned above, people are more laid back than in Europe (however, they are still hard-working). This is true for the atmosphere of the town, except during the time of the fiesta. Due to this, Salento is a place to calm down, not to rush through. To hang out in a hammock, read a book, plan your further trip, go on little walks, contemplate life, watch birds… I think you get the point. I met quite a few travellers who just got stuck there. And I can assure you, I didn’t really want to leave after 5 weeks…
Short summary if you’re still not convinced:
Best time to go: November to February, or from May to August
How to get there: from Bogotá either take a flight (35 min) or bus (7-8 hours) to Pereira or Armenia, from there regular busses run to Salento (1-2 hours)
Where to stay: lots of hostels, can recommend Plantation House, La Floresta, Casa de Lili, Tralala and La Serrana
Food: +++ (veggie heaven in a rural place)
Nature: +++ (if you love nature and hiking/walking, this is your place)
Money: pay in Colombian pesos (1 € is about 3,000 $COP in 2015); the town is cheaper than the Colombian Caribbean coast, so I say good value for money