Salento is a lot of foreigners’ favorite place in Colombia, and yet most Colombians in Bogota have never even heard of it, much less can point to it on a map. Largely popularized by expat investors and small business owners, the town in the cafeteria between Armenia and Pereira is a gorgeous spot where visitors can enjoy an abundance of visual and gustatory delights.
Much of Salento’s development over the past ten years has been credited to Tim Edwards, the owner of Plantation House, a hostel and coffee farm at the edge of the town. A stay at the Plantation House will set you back about 30,000 pesos a person, depending on the room you reserve, and a 10,000 COP tour of the coffee farm is a must. You’ll learn all about the cultivation of coffee from seed to grounds and finish the morning off with a beautiful cup of fresh brew.
Later in the day be sure to pick up some beers or a bottle of wine to enjoy a sunset view from the back of Tim’s property, where he might be around to tell you more about how the Plantation House and the tourism boom in Salento came to be. In a nutshell, his uncertain investment a decade ago led to numerous other foreigners buying the affordable real estate and starting up businesses catering to the traveling crowd.
One of those foreigners is Jesus, a Spaniard who runs La Eliana, a café and restaurant just up the road from Plantation House. I took advantage of the coffee demonstration, where Jesus makes the same coffee four different ways: American drip, French press, percolator, and espresso. Beyond the educational aspects and discovering what kind of coffee drinker you are, Jesus is filled with unfiltered stories and observations on living in Colombia and running a successful restaurant in a town where good bread and cheese is as hard to come by as aji that is actually spicy.
American Geoff Bailey is a more recent addition to the Salento expat scene, opening his breakfast and lunch hotspot Brunch early in 2012. Serving wings, burgers, and waffles, along with homemade peanut butter, Brunch has become a staple stop for Americans in search of a taste of home.
Beyond the coffee and the expat food, the crown jewel of Salento and the surrounding region is the Cocora Valley. Home to the tallest palm trees in the world, the valley is accessible by jeep from the main square of Salento. Jeeps leave 2-3 times every hour and the ride costs 3,000 pesos each way as of August, 2012.
Upon arriving at the entrance to the valley, visitors can either rent a horse or walk through the valley and up the mountain. I chose to walk, a decision that my legs and lungs hated me for after ascending nearly 3,000 meters. The first stop on the trek is the hummingbird reserve Acaime, where visitors pay admission by buying a hot chocolate or aguapanela for 3-5,000 COP. It’s a welcome rest, not to mention the thrill of viewing the dozens of colorful species of hummingbird that inhabit the area.
After the reserve, you can go back down the way you came or you can continue up to the summit, which will reward you with a fantastic view of the surrounding valley and the cloud forest. There is another small restaurant at the top which has some lovely, well-tended hanging planters with vibrant flowers tumbling out.
The walk down from the summit is the true treat. Easy going after the hike up, the views of the wax palms that unveil themselves below the thick fog are unrivaled. The valley is a near-alien landscape and is so striking that you have to wonder how Colombians don’t flock there more regularly.
How to get there: You can take an overnight bus to Armenia from the main bus terminal in Bogota. If you are not terribly bothered about searching for the absolute best bus fare, you can simply book online at Bolivariano. If you don’t have a credit card that works, you can choose the “Efecty” option to pay in cash. There is an Efecty office on Calle 19 near the Las Aguas Transmilenio stop.
Once you arrive in Armenia, go through the bus station to the opposite side where the local buses will be waiting. From there, get on a bus to Salento. The entire ride from Bogota to Salento should take less than 9 hours and cost about 60,000 COP each way.