Just a one-hour flight away from the busy city of Bogotá lies the lush green coffee area of Colombia: an absolute must visit on your trip through this South-American country. Salento is often called one of Colombia’s prettiest and most colourful towns and proves to be the perfect hub for visiting one of Colombia’s landmarks in the zona cafetera: the Cocora Valley!
There are several ways to get to this region. By bus – taking around 8 hours, if you’re lucky – to Armenia or Pereira, or by plane. Although we are avid fans of scenic bus rides, a direct flight is usually almost just as cheap and might help you if you’re on a tight schedule. So that’s what we did. We flew to Pereira and took a taxi directly to Salento, which drove us there in 45-60 minutes. One tip: upon leaving the airport, try to find fellow travellers to share the taxi ride with. It will then cost you the same as the (less comfy) collectivo bus from the Pereira bus terminal.
Although Salento isn’t big at all, the town has everything to make a traveller’s heart beat faster. Just a 20-minute drive away lies the famous Cocora valley with its gigantic wax palm trees, one of the (deserved) reasons why this area is so popular. Sports enthusiasts and coffee addicts will want to stay here for a longer time, and those who fancy good food (just like us) are being treated by rather cheap and incredibly tasty restaurants. The amount of backpackers in Salento is (way) higher than average, but until now it hasn’t yet killed the charm of the village. With the right mindset, it’s very easy to steer away from the typical backpack spots. Here are our tips to get the most out of your stay in this lush little paradise!
Discover Salento with the locals on a sunny Sunday
When planning on what day to arrive, we read different opinions about the local crowds that flood the village on Sundays, as Salento is just as well a favorite day excursion for Colombian families. Locals from all over the Zona Cafetera gather in town to enjoy a day out. We were hesitant to arrive on a Sunday afternoon, but we’re glad we did so. Salento is filled with a pleasant and bustling atmosphere, including all kinds of street animation, music installations and food vendors. Kids drive around in little Willy carts, bars are filled with joyful locals and the central square is the place to be. The contrast with the sluggish daily life during the other days of the week couldn’t be any bigger. Make sure you climb the little hill at the end of the main road to enjoy a panoramic view of the town and the surrounding valleys.
Hiking between the palm trees in the Cocora Valley
The Cocora Valley is without any doubt the showpiece of this region. Make sure you get up early and hop in (or on) one of the local Willy Jeeps that are waiting for you on the main square. The traditional Willies used to be the only vehicles to be able to drive through the coffee plantations. Nowadays, they are mainly used for a (slightly monopolistic) tourist transport into the valley. The ride takes around 20 minutes before you’re being dropped off at the start of your day hike. There is one loop with an optional little detour, taking around 6 hours to finish, including some well deserved breaks. We took the loop in counterclockwise direction (starting via the blue gate), which turned out to be quite a bit heftier as you need to climb your way up through the rainforest. Once you’re up, however, you easily forget the sweating and the valley speads out right before your eyes. For us, seeing the palm trees at the end of the hike instead of the beginning, was the perfect reward. Halfway up the hike there’s a little optional detour to Acaime, a hummingbird farm where you can get a drink for a small price (at the time of writing 5.000 COP).
Tip: The earliest jeeps leave around 6:10 AM and continue to do so every hour from 7:30 AM onwards. There are no reservations, so it’s first come, first served and the jeeps leave as soon as they’re full. If you’re not afraid of some wobbling, you can also climb and stand on the back of the Willy, rewarding you with a beautiful view during the ride to or from Cocora. Also keep in mind that the last ride back is at 6:00 PM, so don’t start your walk too late or you’ll be stuck in the valley. Another reason why you should start early is the fog that usually covers the valley in the afternoon. So, an early rise and shine only has advantages in this case.
Downhill mountainbiking with Salento Cycling
An hour of hobbly driving away from Salento lies the hidden Carbonara Valley, where you’ll find (literally) a thousand times more wax palm trees compared to the Cocora. Because this area used to be controlled by the FARC and is way more difficult to reach than the easypeasy Cocora Valley, you will find a deserted place. Except if you go on one of the mountainbiking tours, like with Salento Cycling. After a short downhill bike ride, we get an astonishing panorama of the tens of thousands wax palm trees this valley counts. After a short walk into the valley with profound explanation about the ecologic fragility and not-so-positive future of this natural wonder, it takes a short drive to get you back up the hill. What follows is a 24 km long downhill ride towards Salento. This ride is both accessible for more experienced as beginner-intermediate mountainbikers, since the crew of Salento Cycling takes care of every person’s need. You get to choose your own tempo and when your confidence mounts, the adrenaline runs through your veins. In our case, rain poured down for the final 10 kilometers, but couldn’t spoil the fun.
Tip: The tour is expensive compared to other activities in the area and Colombian standards, so we were hesitant at first to pay the price. But boy, are we glad we did it. The trip towards the Carbonara Valley on itself, and the professional equipment and guidance make it worth every penny. Don’t forget your raincoat because the wheather changes quickly, and keep in mind that there’s a possibility you’ll be covered up in mud from head to toe.
Visit a coffee plantation
We are not coffee addicts. Not even coffee lovers. Au contraire. We never even drink coffee. But visiting a coffee plantation is something we would recommend warmly to anyone. We visited the one at The Plantation House, as it was conveniently located not too far from the bus terminal at the edge of the village. Easy to combine if you’re interested in taking the afternoon bus towards your next destination (in our case Medellin). For two hours, you get a guided tour through their plantation, discover local fruits like the lulo, experience coffee making from A to Z, and get to taste the different variations of coffee beans. Salento has lots of coffee plantations all offering their own tours, and most of them are well worth a visit. We chose The Plantation House because of good reviews and proximity to the bus station, but don’t be afraid to read some reviews of others on Tripadvisor, if you’re interested in one specific coffee plantation.
Our favourite restaurants in Salento
As Salento has a high backpackers vibe, the majority of restaurants tend to cater towards western-minded and cheap taste. It’s not always easy to avoid these places (we got bad luck on the first night), but with a tiny bit of extra effort you’ll be enjoying a truly delicious meal. These were our favorites:
- Restaurant Acaime: if you’ve only got time for one restaurant, let it be this one. This cozy (some might call it eclectic) Colombian restaurant is run by mother and son. It’s a 5-minute walk out of the main road, but don’t let that discourage you. Trucha (trout) is one of the specialty dishes of Salento and Acaime serves you the freshest of the fresh. Other dishes are made with just as much love. For a very, very reasonable price.
- Café Bernabé Gourmet: in the centre of town, you’ll find this restaurant with its quietly situated wooded terrace. They serve delicious food and can be seen as one of the more ‘sophisticated’ restaurants of Salento. One of their specialties is a filet mignon with a sauce based on infused wine and coffee. Recommended!
- Brunch de Salento: 200% targeted at tourists and backpackers, this little café serves you mouthwatering breakfasts and lunches, healthy juices and they even make their own peanut butter. Not surprisingly, their peanut butter brownie is one of their bestsellers.
Salento is filled with hostels and small hotels, so there’s plenty of choice for everyone’s taste. We stayed in a double room in the Coffee Tree Hostel. The building has a big common area overlooking the green surroundings. Our room had a superb view on the tranquil daily local life, including the Sunday soccer match and the local door-to-door food vendors. There are hammocks to enjoy a lazy afternoon, the staff are extremely nice and the hostel is also patrolled by three cute dogs.