Tall wax palms stretch above the verdant Valle de Cocora in Colombia's coffee region.

Wax palms in the Valle de Cocora. Photo © javarman javarman/123rf.

Travel map of Medellín and the Coffee Region in Colombia

Medellín and the Coffee Region

On the western edge of the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, the pueblo of Salento (pop. 7,000) is one-stop shopping for those seeking a quintessential coffee region experience. The town, an enchanting pueblo, home to coffee growers and cowboys, is adorned with the trademark colorful balconies and facades of Paisa architecture. It was one of the first settlements in the region during the 19th-century Antioquian colonization. In the nearby countryside, coffee farms dominate the landscape. Here you can be a Juan Valdez, the iconic personification of Colombian coffee, during a coffee tour in which you harvest coffee beans, learn about the bean-to-bag process, and sip the freshest coffee you’ve ever tasted.

Within minutes of town is the Valle de Cocora, where you can play tree tag in forests of palma de cera (wax palm, the Colombian national tree), the skyscrapers of the palm family. Some of these can reach up to 60 meters (200 feet) high. For a more challenging hike continue on to the Reserva Acaime, a private nature reserve of tropical forest, babbling brooks, and not a few hummingbirds. From here adventurers can ascend into the páramos (highland moors) and, eventually, the snowcapped mountains of the Parque Natural Nacional Los Nevados.

Salento is easily accessed from between both Armenia and Pereira, and in the town and nearby countryside there are hostels, hotels, and good restaurants. It is a popular tourist destination, so if you’d like to experience Salento without the crowds, go during the week.

Sights

The Plaza de Bolívar or Plaza Principal is the center of town and center of activity. The festive pedestrian Calle Real (between Cl. 1 and Cl. 5) is the most photogenic street in Salento. It is lined with restaurants and souvenir shops painted in a rainbow of colors. It starts at the Plaza Principal and leads up to the Alto de la Cruz Mirador (scenic lookout atop the Calle Real). At the cross you can get a great bird’s-eye view of the Calle Real and Salento. Farther on is another lookout with views over the surrounding jungles and valleys. But it’s really about atmosphere in this Quindío town.

Coffee Tours

In the outskirts of Salento, an excellent place to learn about the coffee process from seed to cup is the Finca El Ocaso (Vía Salento-Vereda Palestina, cell tel. 310/451-7329, cafeelocaso@hotmail.com, 8:30am-4:30pm daily, tour COP$8,000). This family-run farm with some 12 hectares (30 acres) of coffee crops produces coffee that has several international certifications, such as the German UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance. Elevation here is around 1,780 meters, a good altitude to grow coffee. Gregarious Don Elias and his wife, Gloria Luz, run the farm, and they enjoy showing their farm to visitors. It’s a fairly interactive tour, lasting around 40 minutes, in which you plant a coffee seed, strap a basket to your hip to harvest some ripe, red beans, and grind the coffee pulp. Then, of course, you get to try a freshly roasted cup at the end. The finca (farm) also has three cozy rooms (COP$35,000-100,000), decorated with period furniture, available for rent in the traditional coffee plantation house. You can also rent the whole house (COP$420,000). If you’d like a tour in English, it’s best to give the owners some advance notice. It’s about an hour-long walk from town, or you can hire a Jeep Willy.

You can also check out the Finca Don Eduardo coffee tour (Plantation House, Alto de Coronel, Cl. 7 No. 1-04, cell tel. 316/285-2603, COP$20,000). There are two daily, at 9am and 3pm. This organic finca is run by the folks from Plantation House.

Recreation

For the real Paisa experience, horseback riding is a good way to enjoy the countryside around Salento. In the Plaza Principal there are usually horses at the ready, especially on weekends. One popular excursion is to some nearby waterfalls. Don Álvaro (cell tel. 311/375-1534, 3-hr. trip COP$40,000 pp) treats his horses well and is considered the best guide for this activity.

Salento, along with the neighboring countryside, is a nice place for a bike ride. Most hostels can arrange bike rental. Additionally, CicloSalento (near Plantation Hostel, Alto de Coronel, Cl. 7 No. 1-04, cell tel. 318/872-9714, COP$10,000/hr., COP$35,000/day) rents out good quality mountain bikes with helmets. Caution: The winding road leading into town from the Valle de Cocora does not have a shoulder for bikes. Vehicles tend to speed along this road, making this a dangerous stretch for cyclists and pedestrians.

Accommodations in Salento

As Salento has grown in popularity, with Paisa weekenders and international travelers, excellent accommodations options (from backpacker lodges to coffee plantations and camping options) to fit all budget types have similarly grown. Although the number of higher-end hotels in town is growing, it is often the case that small hostels and nearby coffee farms will suit your needs just fine.

Camping

Four kilometers outside of Salento, on the banks of the Río Quindío, is Camping Monteroca (Valle del Río Quindío, cell tel. 315/413-6862, COP$70,000 cabin, COP$15,000 tent), a sprawling campground catering mostly to Colombian weekenders. The camp has 11 cabins, one of which is called the Hippie Hilton, and several of them have awesome waterbeds. There is a lot of space for tents here, as well. Monteroca has a restaurant and two bars. Recreational activities such as horseback riding (COP$12,000 per hour), a three-hour hike to nearby waterfalls (COP$25,000), and yoga classes are on offer as well. To get there from Salento, take a Jeep bound for Las Veredas. They leave every 15 minutes from the Plaza Principal during weekends.

Information and Services

Hostels usually provide the best tourist information, but there is a city-run tourist kiosk, the Punto de Información Turística (10am-5pm Wed.-Mon.), in front of the Alcaldía (city offices) in the Plaza Principal.

Getting There and Around

There is frequent bus service from Pereira, Armenia, and other cities to Salento. The last bus from Armenia leaves at 8pm (under COP$4,000). From Pereira, there are four direct buses each weekday, costing under COP$6,000. There is more frequent service on weekends. As Salento is well established on the tourist route, thieves are known to prey on foreigners on late-evening buses traveling from Pereira to Salento. Keep a vigilant eye on your possessions. Buses to Armenia (every 20 mins., COP$4,000) and Pereira (COP$6,000) depart from the the intersection of Carrera 2 at Calle 5, with the last bus departure at 6pm daily. For Filandia you have to first go to Armenia.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Colombia.