My highlights of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero – Part I – Salento and hiking Valle de Cocora

After four mostly rainy and jetlagged days, I decided to leave the capital for what it is and make my way to the very photogenic – at least, according to the tons and tons of pictures I saw on pinterest – coffee region. Salento apparently being AND in the middle of El Eje Cafetero AND startpoint to the magical Valle de Cocora – the Cocora valley, known for its wax palms, growing more than 60 meters tall – AND again, hyper-photogenetic according to all the pictures popping up during my research online, I decided to go for Salento. With the night bus.

Now, I’m a person who can sleep everywhere. I slept several times in the tiny Charleroi Airport in Belgium on the floor. – you know, budget travel and early flights and no late trains – I managed once to fall asleep on a plane before take off, to wake up when its wheels touched ground again in my destination. Usually it takes me five minutes in a bus before my head starts nodding up and down, almost drooling on myself while driving to my next destinations. Not on the bus Bogotá – Armenia. What was supposed to be an 8-hour drive from 10 pm until 6 am the next morning, became a race against the clock and our driver definitely broke the speeding record. While I installed myself with a blanket and the warmest sweater I own – Yes, you better put on a layer or five if you want to spend a night on the bus in Latin America. I learned my lesson the first time I travelled through Central America. Overall temperature outside the bus: 35° C. Inside: -10° C. Be prepared! -, nothing special happened. Until we reached the mountains and the driver decided it was time to show us his Formula-1 skills. Sitting in one of the front seats, I had perfect view on the road. Or at least, a view on the houses and trees buzzing past us, one big blur due to our high speed. The bus started swaying dangerously from left to right when cutting the corners and at one point I guess we went from 100km/hour to a full stop. Did I already say we were in the middle of the mountains, on a well-used road, in the dark?

Nevertheless, I reached my destination in one piece, two hours earlier than expected. Of course, the local buses to Salento only started their services at 5 am. Somehow the hour passed quicker than expected and once on the road, I didn’t even want to close my eyes anymore. The sun started to show itself, throwing a golden-pink glow over the green hills rolled out in front of us. Driving an hour past the most beautiful green landscapes made me think that crazy bus driver did a good job after all, bringing me early enough to enjoy the rising of the sun over the Eje Cafetero.

View of Salento - stairs to the Mirador

SALENTO

At 6 am, I still had the whole day in front of me, aching to wander through the colorful streets of Salento. While making the climb up to my hostel, I could already admire a part of the city and from what I saw, I knew it was a good idea to leave Bogotá: I felt much more at ease and full of energy to visit my surroundings. But first, getting rid of my big backpack at the hostel.

Hostal Casa de Lili was definitely one of the best choices I could’ve made, being welcomed by Lili herself, straight out of bed, who offered me a cup of coffee and a chat in the kitchen. – Something she did with everybody that decides to stay in the hostel, being curious about what brings them to Colombia and helping out wherever she can. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll learn it fast with Lili. – Being very very early, she urged me to visit the Mirador now, before all the Colombians on a holiday would climb out of bed and go en masse to the viewpoint. And my bed/room wasn’t ready yet anyway. After another cup of coffee I took off to climb the steps at the end of the street, all the way up to the Mirador. My body clearly wasn’t ready for that. After little to no sleep, only 5 days in the country and still not yet adapted to the heights, climbing the stairs like a mountain goat was a big no-no. Luckily, I’m good at stopping somewhere to take pictures of random flowers, while I’m actually faking a photo-opportunity in order to catch my breath again. Or just to pretend I’m not stopping THAT much only because I can’t breathe. Actually, it was not that bad. Just a little reminder I’m not as good with heights as I thought I was. The view was amazing though, the mountains stretch all the way to the Valle de Cocora and if you’ve got good eyesight – ugh, clearly not me – you can see the first wax palms in the distance.

Sweaty and a tiny little bit tired after a night-bus-without-sleep and my early exercise, I decided to go for breakfast and take a shower, just to freshen up before I would continue my sightseeing. It was there, at the hostel, that I would meet Julieta – bonding over the wifi-password – and after saying our nice-to-meet-you’s, we went each our separate ways, just to bump into each other again a mere 20 minutes later on the street. So she did what any other backpacker-who-already-made-friends would do – or at least, I hope they would do –: she invited this solo-traveler to have a cup of coffee with her and her friends, which was the beginning of a long day sightseeing in Salento. Starting with another climb to the Mirador – sigh, this time luckily in good company – to take pictures and going down to a part of the village I hadn’t seen yet. Besides the fact that it’s the main gateway to the Valle de Cocora, Salento is known for its colorful colonial houses and artisan shops. Picture perfect streets, with a big town square or Plaza in the middle acting as the number one meeting point and views upon lush green hills, the heart of the Colombian coffee region. Since it was a Saturday and a holiday, the streets and shops were alive with people, eating, drinking, dancing, music in the background. So I found out the best way to discover – as it always is – is just to go and see, go wherever your feet take you and be curious. Get lost. Take pictures. Watch people.

VALLE DE COCORA

Number one reason why most people go to Salento in the first place – no, not for the many beautifully colored houses, the many restaurants and bars or the nice Mirador – is because it’s the gateway to Valle de Cocora. A green blanket of sloping hills, dotted with the national tree of Colombia, the Quindío wax palm, growing up to 60m high. Background for some pretty spectacular pictures – as seen on the internet before I left – I definitely wanted to see this mysterious Valley. More, I read about a hike, taking about 5 to 6 hours to complete, crossing rivers and watching colibris until you’ve reached the heart of the Valle de Cocora and find yourself surrounded by the tallest palms in the whole wide world. Sounds pretty good, no?

My newly made friends and I decided that the day after our little trip in Salento City would be perfect to discover the Cocora Valley. We jumped out of bed and ran to the main square to catch a Willy to the valle. Well, not necessarily ‘jump’ and ‘run’, rather drag ourselves out our very comfy beds – King size, booked a dorm and got a private room upgrade for the same price. Happy Anke – at the unholy hour of 5.30 in the morning to frantically look for a breakfast before catching the Willy to the valley. I scored an almost black banana and a very crumbled cupcake, which I lost somewhere in my backpack earlier. For your information, Willy is not a guy, it’s a jeep from the WWII era, sold by the American army. When the locals saw you could drive up and down a flight of stairs, they were sold and those Willy’s as well. Now the ideal vehicle to ride on unpaved roads, preferably with whole swimming pools of mud, in the mountains. And to the Valle de Cocora, of course. In the Willy – I really like to use that word – we met with Annaëlle, a French girl obviously also going to conquer that Cocora hike. Before we knew it, we were dropped off at the entrance and ready to start the day, upcoming sun already illuminating the mountains surrounding us. While Julieta & co preferred to visit the Valle de Cocora first, we split up in two groups: Annaëlle and me doing the long hike, the rest doing the shorter version. Basically, go to the left at the blue gate for the short one and to the right for the longer hike. Apparently we didn’t need to pay for the entrance to the National park, since it was not yet 7 o’clock – we left Salento at 6.15 – and nobody was sitting at the entrance. Lucky us.

First part of the hike slowly leads you to higher grounds, walking besides grasslands dotted with cows waking up from their sleep. Sun starting to shine, illuminating the valley in front of us. Clouds and mist surrounding the Valle de Cocora on the mountaintop. The further we walked, the more we were surrounded by forest, crossing bridges and going higher and higher up. Well….do you remember Bogotá and me having a cold? The Mirador and my not so coincidental photo stops? If I thought I was prepared for this hike, I was mistaken big time. Annaëlle was very fit, already having travelled for a while – probably not living off of potato chips and having a sedentary lifestyle like me when not on the road – and I was catching my breath after every steep climb. Somehow, I managed to wrestle myself to the colibri reserve AND to enjoy the sights along the way. Colibri reserve meant a place to rest and have a hot drink before heading for the hardest part of the hike: the Mirador at a height of 2860m above sea level. Sigh. After stopping every two steep curves, I told Annaëlle to leave me behind and wait at the top. Struggling with legs that wouldn’t walk more than 50m at the time – a result of less oxygen in the air I guess – I still managed to reach the top, maybe half an hour later than my hiking partner. Sweaty, red and still breathing for air, I felt king of the world. The view was simply stunning.

What followed was walking down into the Valle de Cocora, by far the easiest part of the day: from one moment into the other being surrounded by the tallest palms in the world is an incredible feeling. I’ll just let the picture speak for themselves this time.

HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?

Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in the Coffee Region, I wrote down how much I spent while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.

Transport

Nightbus Bogotá – Armenia: 8 hours normal / 6 hours with a speedy driver – 53.000 COP / 15,04€

Bus Armenia – Salento: 40 minutes – 4200 COP / 1,2€

Willy to Valle de Cocora: one way – 3800 COP / 1,08€

Accommodation

3 nights in Casa Lili: dorm – 22.000 COP per night / 6,6€ per night (with the luck of having a private room for 2 nights, while the dorm was full)

Activities

Entrance colibri reserve: one hot drink included – 5000 COP / 1,43€

NEXT: My highlights of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero – Part II – Coffee tasting and Pereira’s surprise

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