Colombia’s Zona Cafetera: The lush foothills of Salento

Time to leave Popayan. 0700. Not the greatest of nights’ sleep after the dubious ‘excitement’ of watching the slow-motion car crash which was Donald Trump’s miraculous ascent to the White House. 

I grabbed a cab successfully and made it to the bus station in time to catch my 0800 bus to Armenia. Cabbie successfully maintained my faith in Colombia after handing back a 20,000COP note I’d given him instead of a 2,000 one.

My home for the next few hours was, predictably, an ancient Nissan Diesel minibus. Why the flaming hell can I not manage to EVER. BOOK. A. SODDING NICE BUS HERE?!? There definitely are nice coaches around. Huge Argentine-style beasts plying the main routes. But no, I always plonk myself on an elderly boneshaker. By way of compensation, this one is quite a long journey and it is direct. 6hrs Popayan-Armenia with no need to change buses in Cali as I’d expected to. And also, to be fair, it only cost me 38,000COP (£10, mas o menos) so I must stop whinging. And actually, sat in the lofty perch of the back seat it was pretty comfy. After Cali.

Before then however the journey lived up to type, with a truly rubbish “straight to LatAm pirate DVD” movie featuring lots of shooting. And also the benefit of an intense kidney massage from the man behind’s knees through the seat. Mmmm, kidneys. And the now standard utterly insane driving. But at least on this journey we were going up a valley. A long, wide flat valley, the central one in the county in fact. No winding up hairpins to contend with. Perfect- Although obviously this allowed the driver to further push the fabric of space time.

Cali looked an interesting city, but I wasn’t stopping there. We pulled into the bus station for half an hour and that was the extent of my visit. Other than a tangle with the now standard ripoff toilet attendants obviously. Cali was HOT. Seriously hot and humid. But yeah, I’m kind of OFF South American cities for now. There’s been a bit too much sketchiness for me. I’m not a great city fan anyway.

The bus, again arrived dead on time. Spookily so. It strikes me that they set deliberately pessimistic journey times in order to be able to always meet them, and also to fit in plenty of faffing time before leaving first, and indeed intermediate, stations.

So, we arrived in Armenia. I found a bus to Salento pretty quickly, sadly with a small contingent of dickhead Aussies whom I’d have to lose in Salento. Only last night I was talking with a great Aussie couple over dinner and they admitted that a lot of travelling Aussies are more than a little bogan.

Salento’s a seriously picturesque little town, very much in the mould of Cafayate, Argentina. It has a picture-perfect main street featuring traditional, colourful Paisa architecture and naturally loads of souvenir shops to cater primarily for the locust-like horde of domestic tourists descending every weekend.

I completely landed on my feet in terms of accommodation. Having determined that the dickhead Aussies from the bus were most likely to land in the only hostel mentioned by Lonely Planet, I decided simply to walk up the main street and find a room in the first place that would have me.

This led me to the lovely Casa de Lilli, simply situated above a shop in the centre of town and with several rooms crammed artfully into the tiny but atmospheric upstairs. As luck would have it, they had rooms available. Dorms for 22,000 and a private room for 30,000… That’ll be the latter then!

It was definitely not a large room, someone uncharitable would call it a shoebox, but it suited my needs perfectly. A cosy nest for the next few days. Presided over by the larger than life and almost inexplicably cheerful Lilli.

A woman for whom nothing was too much trouble, and was far more mum than owner, to all of her temporary children. La Casa de Lilli is an absolute gem of a place, thoroughly recommended. The only slight nail in the coffin was the rest of the guests, who were not only dull but also enjoyed wandering around the whole house brushing their teeth pretty often. Why DO people do this? Just stand at the sink and get it done, you creepy European.

So, suitably installed I decided to explore the town for the evening. One of the highlights pointed out by Lonely Planet is the Bar Billar Danubio on the main street. Billiards bars are a fairly common sight around rural Colombia however this one really did take the biscuit in terms of authenticity, filled with men in 10-gallon hats listening to suitably atmospheric old Colombian music and knocking a few balls around.

Covert selfie of the ace Bar Billar Danubio

Suitably inspired, I headed to Donde Mi Apa on the main street, another seriously authentic bar with good music and 18,000 records behind the bar, which in itself was utterly filled with picturesque junk. Perfect, and with a suitably chatty owner too and a constant turnover of rough-looking locals knocking back beers. 

Another covert selfie of Donde Mi Apa, and its decades of junk hanging from the ceiling

Finally, there was just one thing I needed to finish off Salento. A proper curry. Intelligence suggested that it could be found at the Casa de Eliana, on Carrera 6, so there I headed. A few blocks from the main square but absolutely, wholeheartedly, worth it.

Look at that. And less than 30,000COP for a chicken tikka masala, rice, nan and mango lassi. Perfecto. Coupled with this, a super-friendly owner spotted the fact I’m English and insisted upon a chat. An interesting guy from Italy who’s lived all over the world. His parting shot was that he “Loves to spoil English people” as he handed me a humongous slice of chocolate cake from the bar. Which naturally was also delicious.

The next day I awoke (relatively) early after a rubbish night’s sleep thanks to the immense ingestion of curry and cake late last night. Today was time for the Valle Del Cocora, one of the main things to see around Salento. I caught the 9.30 jeep up to the trailhead… Salento is a bit of a hub for well-preserved WW2 Willy’s Jeeps.

Then, upwards. Sidestepping the tourist tat shops and trying to time my departure so I wouldn’t be hiking with dozens of others, I set off up the valley. I had to be a bit tactical and stop/wait for other groups most of the way up in order to preserve the solitude.

Up into the lush foothills and with the first sight of the incredible wax palms which are symbolic of this area, I continued. Past the livestock and further into the hills. Squelchily, for much of it. Thanks cows/massive rainfall. This did at least give rise to abundant greenery and insect friends.

The trail follows a river with some seriously ‘interesting’ bridges. Sturdy enough but would certainly be entertaining if there was a bit more water to fall into. Wobble factor 10+

The first stop on the trail is Acaime, the “Casa del Colibris”, a nature reserve primarily hosting dozens of hummingbirds, of several sub-species, attracted by sugar water feeders. Time for serious photographic overload. Hummingbirds are incredible little birds, with hearts beating around 450 times a minute, but capturing them still or even moreso in flight is a frustrating art!

Yep, that’s a hummingbird’s tongue…

 

The photograph that almost was…

 

I eventually managed to tear myself away from the hummingbirds (after about 10,000 photographs, mainly of thin air) and continue with the trail. Upwards for kilometres. Seriously uphill, a long way. Is this the right way? Er no, as it turned out. I’d managed to miss the turn for the loop trail back to Cocora and found myself rapidly ascending into the cloud forest of the Parque Nacional Natural Las Nevados. Oops, definitely where I didn’t need to be going at 2pm. Luckily I came across a horse guide who set me right and, by way of good karma, managed to ‘rescue’ a group of other walkers heading up the same way.

Back on track, it was a pretty easy walk. A sharp uphill towards a Finca on the route. Welcome, since I hadn’t eaten anything since a tiny breakfast and was seriously struggling.

Completely revived by a hot chocolate, bread and cheese. Weird-sounding combination but completely hit the spot. It ended up being a lot more expensive than I thought they said, 5500COP but still not a fortune, and I’d have paid a lot more to revive myself at that stage. The beautiful surroundings of the Finca also certainly lent themselves to some wildlife shots.

Flowers at the Finca

From there, it was all downhill. Really plain sailing in fact. A great chance to relax and to observe the incredible 60m+ wax palms that call the Valle Del Cocora home.

And then finally, as dusk started to fall, I arrived back at the carpark just as a jeep was leaving for Salento. I shared the back with a Colombian woman and a half-dead Scottie terrier wrapped up against the cold. She told me he was 14 years old, and that they lived until 20. Er, probably not this one!

Evening came and I met up with my new Aussie friends from Popayan, enjoying cheapo burgers and beer, and hatching plans to do a coffee plantation tour the next day. And of course extending my further thanks for the gift of the hilariously inappropriately large travel novel… which I am gradually plodding through.

The next morning we walked out to Las Acacias coffee farm to have a wander around their operation. The young guy showing us around laughingly enquired why we were out wandering on such a rainy day. Yeah, I’d wondered that too. With the rainfall at the moment though you have to brave it a bit otherwise you’d never do anything.

The lush hills around the farm

Banana plants, an essential ingredient for growing coffee. There was a reason he told us, I forget it now.

“Drying” on the terrace, or not… and our guide

Coffee tours are pretty interesting, but a fleeting joy, generally finished with a good strong tinto. Done and dusted. I left my Aussie friends to their day and decided to check out the neighbouring village of Filandriz in the now monsoon-like rain. Filandriz is definitely a village in the mould of Salento, with similar paisa architecture but a more relaxed atmosphere. Even in the rain.

Filandriz’s lovely main square and church

Sleepy Filandriz life continues

I tend to like to make my own way when travelling in terms of recommendations, I can ‘claim’ Filandriz as an original suggestion from one of my students in Ecuador, but I have to give Lonely Planet credit for their suggestion of dining at Helena Adentro there. A cool bar/restaurant entirely out of place in the fairly traditional village but extremely popular going by the number of people packing it out. They serve “Colombian fusion” dishes which basically means decent nosh without the ubiquitous menestra (beans) and rice.

Colombian river trout, plantain shreds and black rice

Without doubt the best meal I’ve had in ‘North South” America, washed down with an excellent local craft beer. There’s a slowly but surely emerging craft beer scene in Colombia which is great to see. The meal didn’t break the bank either.

As I was walking back from the toilet I heard someone calling ‘hey man!’ so I spoke to the stocky owner of said voice. As it happened it was another Colombian guy who’d previously lived in the US and wanted to keep his English up. So he invited me to join his friend for an after-dinner tinto, which of course I was happy to accept. An interesting guy whose current profession is bodyguard/driver to the local ‘first lady’, or wife of the provincial governor. Sure enough, as I left I saw two serious looking dark Landcruisers parked outside. Another great casual interaction in the friendliest country I’ve visited so far.

Getting between Filandriz and Salento’s actually pretty easy, just take advantage of the triangle of buses running between Pereira, Armenia and the two villages. Get an Armenia-bound bus from Salento onto the highway, cross the road and then catch a Filandriz-bound bus from Armenia. And on the way back, repeat in reverse. Beautifully logical. 

 

 

So, no sooner than I had arrived than it was time to bid a sad farewell to the Zona Cafetera. A nice clear Saturday morning for some shots of the still sleeping Salento from up on the mirador, and then a 10am direct bus to Medellin. It’s definitely somewhere I would come back to again, although I’d definitely suggest avoiding weekends. Complete tourist overload, it seems, going by the volume of tourist tat stalls that were setting up as I left.

Next up: Medellin, the most dangerous city in the world*

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